A long time ago, I was standing in my kitchen with my friend, Michael. Michael a big Guyanese guy with an easy smile and a laugh to fit his size, asked me if I had a piece of gum. I said I did and handed him one, but forgot to mention it was a new sort of gum, and with a liquid center. Before I could warn him, he bit down. The expression on his face was of instant horror and disgust, as though he’d just bitten into a nice juicy cockroach. When my laughter subsided, I explained, and happily he found the event funny as well.
It’s not that the gum was disgusting, it’s just when you’re not expecting a liquid center, well, it can be a bit discombobulating.
Publishing can be like that. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just rarely what we expect.
All of us, I think, harbor a fantasy about what we think happens to writers once they publish. I know I did. Here are ten things I wish I’d known about life-after-publishing. I’ll add more in future blogs:
- Publishing will not cure your insecurity. After publishing you will be no less insecure, and possibly even more so, since you’re not hiding your work in a drawer any longer. You have, in fact, opened the top of your head and flashed the world its contents, some of which you might not even know existed.
- Your publicist, if you’re lucky enough to have one, will be overworked, underpaid, and will spend three weeks or less publicizing your book, unless you hit a best-seller list. Then you get a couple more weeks, maybe. Saying “your” publicist, by the way, is misleading. S/he might be working on your book, but s/he’s probably working on six other books at the same time. Be grateful for her help, but roll up your sleeves and get to work yourself. You have more of an investment in its success than does anyone else.
- You might think you’ve written a book so clear and precise no one could possibly misinterpret it. You’re wrong. People will come up with all sorts of crack-pot ideas concerning your book’s meaning. Example? I once had a television commentator insist one of the characters in my book was Jesus and the book was an allegory for the wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John. Really? Snort. Another example? A woman once showed up at my door, furious at how I’d ended a particular novel. I asked her how she understood the ending. I was stunned. None of her conclusions were on the page, but she insisted she was right and I was wrong.
Okay. Fair enough.
Read two or three reviews of any book, often you’ll find it hard to believe they’re about the same book. Readers bring to every book their own perceptions. You can’t do a darn thing about that. You just need to accept that readers are in co-creation with you, as an author. It can be wonderful, magical, and enlightening.
- People who aren’t in your book will insist they are. People who are in your book won’t recognize themselves (which can be a blessing), or they will (which can be a nightmare). Accept this odd truth, but keep it in mind when you’re writing about your mother, if you know what I mean.
- Nothing is more nerve wracking than waiting for reviews, because a) you might not get any, or b) you might. Alert your friends to your impending state of psychosis and ask them to be gentle with you. Invest in a 10-gallon drum in which to infuse chamomile tea, which is said to be calming.
- Further to this point, the pleasure of a great review is intense, but brief. Conversely, the pain of a bad review is intense, and corrosive. It can eat through your soul for years. I advise not reading reviews, but if you must, at least have them vetted by someone you trust. No one ever heeds this advice, of course, including me.
- To offset some of the pain of those bad reviews, if you’re lucky enough to get a good review, have it laminated and hang it on your wall. My Best Beloved did this for me, and at first I thought it was horribly egotistical, to be surrounded by good reviews, but as the years went on, I realized I was NEVER going to overcome my insecurities; turning to that wall now and again and being reminded some folks understand and appreciate what I’m trying to do is comforting. It gives me the encouragement, on really bad days, to go on.
- Some friends will expect you to give them a book for free. Maybe lots of your friends will expect this. It’s odd, but you’ll hear things like, “Give me a copy of your book and I’ll be happy to read it.” People will say this, even though they would never think of walking into, say, a bakery, and telling the baker to give them a loaf of bread, which they will be happy to eat without paying for. Some folks just don’t understand that although it is a privilege to have readers, what really makes a friend stand out is their willingness to actually BUY THE BOOK.
- Inevitably, someone you know — maybe someone you know very well — will take the time to tell you he doesn’t like your book, even though you haven’t asked his opinion. This same person would probably be offended if you walked up to his child and insisted (because you’re SUCH good friends) on mentioning those elephantine ears, and that regrettable turnip-like nose, and that unfortunate low-wattage intellect. He would be highly offended in fact, and would probably end your friendship as a result, but he won’t see the correlation. He also won’t understand why you’re hurt by his comments.
- I wish someone had told me that once you’re published, writing doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it sometimes gets harder, because now you KNOW what a rocky road publishing can be and you know not everyone will be supportive and kind. You KNOW what an enormous investment of time, effort, tears, fears and hope writing a book is and now here you are, faced yet again with the blank page.
The good news is you’ve done something almost no one else has (by which I mean published with a traditional press, I’m not talking about self-publishing here, which it seems anyone can do, regardless of actual talent). You’ve seen a long difficult project through from first imagining to finished product, and it’s been good enough that people like your agent and your editor believed in you. You’ve learned where some of the dangerous spots are on the trail, and you might be able to avoid them in the future. Even if it’s been a hellishly hard road (and the reviews were bad! Ouch!) you’ve survived it. You can do so again. And if, by some miracle, none of the bad things have happened to you, you can count your lucky stars (and consider yourself forewarned for next time).