MIND MELD: Publishing Lessons From 2014 Debut Authors (Part 1)
There were so many wonderful debut authors in 2013, and the last post was so much fun, I thought it might be high time we give 2014 debut authors their turn:
Here’s what they had to say…
When I was asked to write this post on the most fun/unusual/interesting thing I’ve learned since being published, no answer came immediately to mind. There haven’t been a whole lot of surprises, although it was kind of weird and fun to be recognized by people I had never met when I went into a bookstore for a reading. (I thought I’d be really scared to do readings, but it turns out that law school trained that out of me – a friendly bookstore crowd is nothing like a judge.) After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve decided to write about two things: what has been most surprising to me about Moth And Spark’s reception, and what I have learned about myself as a writer.
I’m a language junkie, so the biggest surprise to me has been how few people actually have commented on the style of the book. They mostly discuss characters and plot and worldbuilding, and the prose itself doesn’t get much of a mention. The same thing goes for reviews of other books. I am nearly incapable of reading a book that is poorly written at the sentence level; conversely, if the sentences are superb, I will put up with a weak plot or somewhat flat characters. If the prose is just adequate or pedestrian, I may like a book, but I won’t love it. The best book I read last year was Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, which is magically creepy and has prose so intense I had to read in small portions. It was like hearing a spell being chanted. When I get stuck writing, I sometimes read poetry to try to kick something loose, and I spend a lot of time working on the rhythm and finding the right word for my sentences. It’s been a bit of an eye-opener to see how many people just don’t seem to be interested in the quality of a book’s prose.
What I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I have a lot to learn. Not that I ever thought I was perfect, but in some ways I feel like I need to go back to taking baby steps. The whole process of making revisions with my agent and then my editor was extremely helpful in teaching me how to minimize my weaknesses. I still can’t get away from them, but I can see when I’m headed down a dead-end a lot sooner than I could a couple of years ago. I’m also more attentive to my writing habits and can work harder to not rely on them. In the book I’ve been working on since Moth And Spark was done, I’ve tried one major new thing, which is to write some chapters from the point of view of the villain. It has been a lot of fun and sometimes pretty intense. In Book No. 3, I’m going to experiment more with structure and with pacing. I hope that this sense of having a lot to learn never changes, because if I’m not challenged as a writer, I shouldn’t be doing it.
On a larger level, writing fiction with a book out there already is a different experience from writing fiction in the hope that someday it would be published. There’s a new confidence that gets me through the hard parts – someone published my book! – counterweighted by humility – OMG, all my inadequacies are on public display! I have always tried really hard not to think about an audience, but it turns out it’s much easier to be distracted by a real audience than by a hypothetical one. Writing takes a different level of discipline than it used to. This is a good thing and will only make me a better writer.
Before my first book was published I had no idea how much work writers put into selling books. I knew intellectually that promotion was part of the job — I once worked in the promotions department at a small publishing house and spent time arranging signings and media appearances — but I had no idea how much time and energy it would consume.
I also had no idea how much fun it would be. It’s kind of de rigueur for authors to bitch about book promotion and how much they’d rather be sitting alone at home writing, but I personally found it very enjoyable. At signings or readings one gets a huge dose of attention and nearly unqualified praise. It’s like a pep rally. Pure validation.
Yes, bookstore and convention visits can take up a huge amount of time, especially during the busy period right around the book’s release. There’s the Event, which is typically a couple of hours; there’s getting to the Event, which is going to be at least a couple of hours unless the store is right in one’s own town. There may be an overnight stay, and probably some road food along the way. (As an unapologetic food snob I made sure to search for restaurants near the bookstore signings to minimize the number of stops at McDonald’s. I found a lovely tapas restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that way.) It’s very hard to find any time or energy to write during promotional trips.
I had to learn how to manage and budget my time better. I basically decided to treat promotional trips and events as mini-vacations. After all, on vacation one travels, meets new people, dines out, and (one hopes) returns home energized and ready to get back to work.
Now, I’m still new at this, and you could probably put all my fans aboard one streetcar with some seats left over. I’m not at the Neil Gaiman or Orson Scott Card level, where the poor author has to ice his hand for a couple of hours after signings. If I ever get to that point we’ll see if my opinion changes.
As a veteran of the college creative writing workshop, I thought I’d developed a fairly thick skin. After all, those college workshops are (at least mine were) fishbowls of people who thought that they and they alone were the most interesting and talented people in the room. It was a bit like The Hunger Games, but with more direct criticism and artisanal notebooks. But what I learned after my book came out was that nothing had prepared me for the experience of the world at large reading and reacting to my book. Teens, reviewers, bloggers–for the first time, I had to absorb the fact that my book was a bookbook, the kind that existed on bookshelves and in libraries–not only in my mind and on my agent’s iPad.
At the same time as the trade reviews and early Goodreads posts start trickling in comes the daunting realization that this book, this story, is not just your art any longer, it’s a commodity. A product. And publishing is a business. And unless you’ve written the latest bestseller about sexy billionaires/determined detectives/being a politician about to run for office, you’re probably going to feel like your product could do better. That feeling–like you and your art aren’t worth enough economic units–added to the reviews (which, let’s face it, if they’re anything less than glowing, feel damning) creates a storm of interference. A noisy, noisy storm.
There is so much that is fantastic about being in the storm, and I wouldn’t trade my vocation for the world. Hearing from readers, getting to meet them in person and online, and also getting to meet other authors–it’s the best feeling. But it took me a good two or three months to learn how to shut off the noise and to forgive myself for not being the bestselling author, to forgive myself for making mistakes in my writing. In short, to create a space around myself that resembles the silence I had before. And the transition only took some drinking and some procrasti-napping, so I’m calling my debut year overall a success.
“Published author.” Oh, the headiness of that phrase. To this writer, it promised all the romance of “I love you,” and twice the magic of “Open Sesame.” I have learned, though, since becoming a published author, that becoming a published author really changes nothing, at least not for me, at least not on the inside. I’m still the same blithering bundle of insecurities I’ve always been.
Don’t get me wrong. I am so incredibly grateful for the adventure the last eight months have been. The experience of seeing not only one, but two books come out has been everything I’d hoped for and more. Still as I contemplate the words “published author,” I find myself focusing not on the words I’m typing, but on the face of the middle-aged guy reflected in the computer screen. Even when I see the phrase “published author” emblazoned across my forehead, it still doesn’t seem to fit. All I can think about is that my author photo is now over two years old. The reflection holds more wrinkles than the face in that picture. My hair is a lot grayer, and I’ve put on weight since my ankle has prevented me from running like I used to. Alas, no glamour has been cast.
I think, deep down, a part of me expected magic and really believed that becoming a published author would somehow make me feel cooler, more secure, less like the kid who’d rather spend recess reading than playing baseball. But I’m still just me. The real magic that has come about is that the stories I made up, the characters I created, love them or hate them, they’re living now in the minds and dreams of others.
So I have to say the most interesting thing I have learned, since becoming a published author, is that it isn’t about me at all. It’s about the story.
This year has been so crazy and so beautiful. I never expected Dorothy Must Die to have the response that it did. I loved this book but I wondered if a new generation of kids loved Oz the way that I did. And would readers be okay with an even darker Oz? And was it okay to build a plot around assassinating one of the most beloved characters of all time? Luckily for me the answer was yes to all those questions.
What I learned that surprised me most came from meeting, munchkins, er readers! I am a pretty extroverted person, and I absolutely love meeting new people especially after being cooped up in my writing cave all year. But promoting Dorothy meant putting myself out there in a new way. And getting to meet readers, which I loved even more than I expected. I never in a million years imagined myself paneling at Comic Con (and now I’ve done both NY and LA!) There was actually a girl dressed like Dorothy at the first tour stop and a girl with pink hair like my protagonist on the last! Touring also meant answering questions that I really hadn’t thought about, about writing and about me. Readers had these really brilliant questions about process and about the books. I have been a writer for a long time, I got my start in soaps and other television, but I’ve never had a relationship with those who consumed what I wrote. I think it’s actually informed my writing and hopefully made the writing better. And on personal level, all the Dorothy love has felt like this huge, unexpected hug!
I also learned some tips from my fellow tour mates (Kiera Cass, Kelley Armstrong & Kimberly Derting) and my publicist. The best…watch the local news wherever you are. New York doesn’t necessarily take the time for human interest stories because of the market. But there was a serial pooper in Kansas, a 9-year reporter in full super-hero costume in San Diego, etc. Hilarious stuff!
I think one of the most fun, unusual and interesting things I’ve learned is that fan mail is awesome. Just knowing someone took the time to read the world I created and loved it and became intrigued by it is one of the best things.
Going on tour. I didn’t think I’d be attending the San Diego Comic Con, let alone as a panelist.
Seeing my book in a bookstore, on the shelf. I’m one of the lucky ones.
I didn’t expect promoting the book to be fun: talking about it, writing extra pieces for it, running contests, answering emails, and trying not to get distracted by the glittery stuff.
For years, as I’d toiled in my DC equivalent of a Parisian garret, I had looked forward to the publication of my first novel, even when I thoroughly doubted it would ever happen. When I got a book deal from Tor in 2012, the release day in 2014 became a big candy-red colored beacon on the calendar. I eagerly anticipated the celebrations, vindications, and shared joy. But mostly, I awaited publication as the moment that my existence would irrevocably rise to the celestial plane enjoyed by true novelists. My life would change.
So, when release day finally came and went, I was a bit surprised at how little anything changed at all. Sure, I celebrated, but my post-publication life didn’t feel like the comfortable clubhouse I’d hoped for. Instead, it felt like more of the same workaday world I’d gotten used to. I still went upstairs every morning to the third floor of my creepy, old turreted house to face the blank screen of my desktop computer and gin out some interesting prose.
Yeah, I was a bit thick. The obvious thing I hadn’t realized was that, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, mortals become what they pretend to be. I had been pretending to be a novelist for a very long time by doing all the things a would-be novelist should: writing, reading, and participating in the community. My day-to-day life had become a novelist’s routine. Publication did nothing to alter the equations of creative productivity–the tough scenes still weren’t composing themselves.
I might’ve been justified in thinking that publication would at least be an additional spur to my writing, a refreshing pat on the back to renew my energy and drive. But I’m afraid my long-practiced routine means that I still respond better to the stick than the carrot, and the deadline muse with a gun to my head still gets more word count out of me than any friendly notice of my work.
The slight disappointments above are small parts of the larger good news: my chosen career has become a normal day job. But these reflections may offer a small caution to anyone who wants to be an author for any reason that isn’t “to write.” No abstract future payoff is going to fundamentally change how one feels about the work.
Thus, 2014 confirmed a crucial lesson for me. Publication in itself isn’t the reward. Writing is like the pie-eating contest where the prize is “more pie.” Success means I get to keep doing this for an audience. The writing itself has to be the means and ends of joy, or the whole endeavor doesn’t make any sense.
Fortunately, even here in my drafty gothic third-floor turret, I enjoy the pie a lot.
- People will follow you on Twitter for no particularly good reason.
- If you go to New York and visit your agent in person, there is some chance she will buy you creampuffs.
- If you tweet about “creampuffs”, people will follow you on Twitter (see fact #1).
Unusual Things That Have Happened Since Being Published
- People will do weird shit for you. Case in point: fellow author and con-organizer Derek Kunsken drove miles out of his way so we could verbally abuse FedEx and retrieve copies of Deadroads in time for the book launch.
There were cupcakes involved.
- You will read one-star reviews and you will not rock back and forth in the fetal position under your desk.
- You will read glowing reviews and you will not become bulletproof, or grotesquely over-confident in your mad writing skillz. Because of, you know, point #5.
Interesting Aspects of Being a Published Author
- You can casually say, “my agent,” or “my latest novel,” or “my publisher” in conversation. But, yes, you will still feel like a complete fraud and sound like an asshole when you do.
- OMG, you’ll have to do readings. Like, stand up and read your own words out loud in front of sentient beings. You will either really love this, or hate it. If people video your performance, you can send a link to all your relations.
- Your relations will probably not completely understand that you’ve published a book. They may still refer to writing as “your hobby”. Try not to take it personally or, at the very least, file it away for the therapist.
- Surprisingly, the cats will continue to not clean out their own litter box. Your children will still refuse to eat what you put in their lunch bags. The clerk at the bookstore will feign total ignorance as to your published status.
In short, life goes on, better than being an un-published author, but still not like you’re a rock star or anything.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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