Darkhaven came out at the beginning of July. It’s now the beginning of October. In publishing terms, that means it’s no longer a ‘new release’ but an established book – so this is the perfect time to take stock. Here are just a few of the many things I’ve learned about being a writer.
1. There is never a good time to be a debut author.
I submitted Darkhaven to Voyager when my first child was a few months old. It came out when my second child was a few months old. I’m pretty sure being the mother of two under-fives is not the optimum condition in which to start a career as a writer.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for everything I have. I’m grateful for my children. I’m grateful for my publisher. I’m well aware I have many things that other people would love to have. But sometimes, I feel like I’m not doing any of it properly. Sometimes, I feel like I’m a half-assed mother and a half-assed writer, borrowing time from writing and promoting to give to my kids, and vice versa, and ending up in debt all round.
If the universe was any good at scheduling – if it possessed the kind of spreadsheets I’ve spent the majority of this year working from – it would have brought out my debut novel five years ago, when I was childless and fancy free. Or it would have shortened Mr Smith’s and my Very Long Engagement and encouraged us to get to the stage where our children didn’t wake up several times a night before I thought about submitting any of my books anywhere. Instead, it gave me everything at once and said, There. Now deal with it.
But the thing is, life happens. Opportunities happen. And if you wait for the chance to come around again, maybe it never will. Better to weather a perfect storm than to sit still forever on a calm and lifeless sea. No matter who you are and what stage of your life you’re at, you will always have multiple conflicting demands on your time; so if you’re offered something you’ve always dreamed about, you’d be foolish not to take it.
Releasing a book, it turns out, is much like having a baby. No matter when you do it, it will change your life, so you might as well just get on with it.
2. I will never be validated.
When I was first offered my publishing contract by Voyager, I thought that was it. I never needed to doubt my abilities as a writer again, because a big publisher believed in me and therefore I must be good.
As it turned out, being published was just opening the door to a whole new level of self-doubt. I estimate that, overall, I’ve had approximately 30 positive reviews and 6 negative reviews. So 5 out of every 6 reviewers have liked the book. That’s good, right?
Because for every good review I read, my brain makes excuses. I know that person online … she’s just being nice … he isn’t a professional book reviewer. Whereas every time I read a bad review, that same ol’ brain is all out of excuses. Instead, it just sits there going, Yep. Uh-huh. You know, she’s absolutely right. You DO suck.
Sometimes I hate my brain.
But the outcome of it all is that although positive reviews may outnumber the negatives 5 to 1, in my heart it feels like the other way round. There have been moments in the months since my book release when I’ve genuinely wished that it had never happened, because I’m clearly a shitty author with a shitty book that should never have seen the light of day. There have been moments when I’ve decided to give up writing for good, and the fact that I still owe Voyager another book has filled me with deep, relentless dread, because I can’t. I just can’t.
I had better add here that I’m not trying to be a diva about this. I stand by my belief that reviewers should say exactly how they feel about a book, good or bad. And they shouldn’t have to adjust their words for fear of the impact on me, either. If I’m so deeply affected by a matter of opinion … well, that’s my problem, not theirs.
All the same, it is a problem, and one I need to find a way around. One solution, of course, is not to read the reviews. But then I’d miss the nice ones, the ones that say how much the reviewer enjoyed reading the book; and although those slide off me now, it would be nice if one day I could take them to heart. They are, after all, the reason I write: to provide people with a few hours of entertainment and escape. It would be a shame to cut myself off from the readers who are my audience because I can’t handle hearing from those who aren’t. So what do I do?
I don’t know.
But the lesson I’ve learned from this is that I will never gain the validation I’m looking for. Even if I were to become a bestseller and have a book made into a blockbuster movie and turn into a household name … I’d still read the negative reviews, and feel all the rest of it crumble away beneath me. I suspect the only validation that will ever stick with me is the validation I give myself: when I convince myself that whether I get bad reviews or not – and everyone does – I am still a good writer. I’ve had enough positive feedback by now to realise that this kind of self-belief can’t be conferred on me from without; it can only come from within.
Yeah … I’m working on it.
3. Marketing is a tough nut.
I thought I was doing everything right. I built up my mailing list. I ran giveaways. I organised a blog tour – myself, because I didn’t have the budget to pay for someone else to do it – and found reviewers to read advance copies. I organised a two-day release party with around thirty other authors giving away prizes. I worked relentlessly, and my initial sales were … negligible. Not enough to make back the limited amount of money I’d spent, let alone the time.
Now, at this point, I imagine all my already published friends – trad and self – cracking up. Oh, really? they’re saying, rather sarcastically. You mean you didn’t just do a few promotions and become an instant bestseller? Geez, AFE, if it were that simple we’d all be famous by now.
And yes, I knew marketing was hard. I knew my writer friends all toil away at it relentlessly with variable success. But all the same, I couldn’t help hoping I’d do just a little bit better than I actually did. I mean, being with a big-name publisher has to count for something, right? Spending hours and hours scheduling and running a massive multi-giveaway event has to count for something, right? Getting in touch with countless reviewers who might be interested in my book … has to count for something. Right?
I don’t know, because I can’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t done all that stuff. I certainly got some great reviews out of it, though I’ve yet to see them translate into actual sales. But nevertheless, I’m going to have to cut back next time. It was worth a shot – I’d have felt like I’d wasted my chance if I hadn’t put everything I had into it – but in the end, I simply can’t afford to do it again. I don’t have the time or the money to spare.
As usual, I’m half convinced this means I did something wrong and I’m a useless failure as an author, but the reality is probably that marketing is hard and requires either a huge budget or an equally huge social media presence … neither of which I have.
4. Achieving a dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I might as well end by admitting something that I’m probably not supposed to: I haven’t enjoyed any of this nearly as much as I expected to. Being published has been my dream since I was a little girl, so I should be singing and dancing round about now. Yet the excitement I was expecting to feel hasn’t materialised. At all. I was excited a year and a half ago, when I was first offered my contract. But the actual book release and its aftermath have been, well … exhausting. And a little depressing.
See points 2 and 3.
But again, this is my own fault. My expectations were too high. The very nature of a long-held dream is that it becomes so central to your life that any deviation from it feels wrong. And, of course, the thing about dreams is that they are perfect. Everything goes right. The stars align in your favour. Because what’s the point of dreaming small, realistic dreams when you can dream giant, improbable ones?
Which I guess brings us to point 5 …
5. I’m not done.
Those giant, improbable dreams? I still have them. I still dream about fan art, and people talking about how my books changed their lives, and being a household name, and having my books made into a movie or a TV series or (my favourite) a graphic novel. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe this book and its sequels aren’t the ones to make it happen. But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. This is the first step on a long climb, and I can choose whether to turn back or keep aiming for the summit. And, really, turning back … wouldn’t that be a waste? I mean, the first step was pretty difficult in itself. It may not feel like it, but if I stop and think about it, I’ve actually achieved quite a lot. Which means I owe it to myself to keep trying.
So, yeah. Onwards and upwards. I hope you’re all coming with me.