Lessons From a Year as a Debut Writer
23rd Mar 2015 in Writing
It’s been quite a year. I sold my second book, wrote my third book, and finally became a full-time writer.
My wee Rental Heart has done surprisingly well. It’s sold over 1,000 copies in print, won or been shortlisted for four prizes, and had some incredibly generous reviews. I’ve read from it at two launch events (both sold out and standing room only!) at Waterstones Argyle Street and Looking Glass Books, and at festivals all over Scotland from Aberdeen to Wigtown to Kingussie to Dundee. I’ve been invited to panels discussing feminism in Alien, queer literature, and setting up a literary magazine. I’ve been interviewed for radio and podcasts broadcast all over the world. It’s been amazing, and I’m so grateful for all of it.
Most of all, I’m grateful to every single person who bought this book, read this book, talked or wrote about this book. I wish I could bake each of you a cake, but I can’t because my oven is broken. So instead, I will share the biggest lessons I learned from my year as a debut writer.
Keep a ‘Nice Things People Have Said’ file.
You will get bad reviews. You will get mediocre reviews. You will get needlessly personal reviews. I’d say don’t read any of your reviews, but I know you will (because people told me not to read reviews, and I agreed, but then did it anyway). So instead, start NOW by collecting up all the nice things people have said about your writing and saving them in a file.
These can be big things (“Your story changed my life forever”) to smaller things (“I love your use of place in that poem”). Then, any time you lose heart – because, at times, you will – just have a peek at the file. Focus on those people whose day was improved by something you wrote. Let it remind you that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can still have an impact.
Start working on the next book.
It’s important to remember that you are not your work. If someone criticises your book, they are not criticising you as a person, because they don’t know you as a person.
I found that it helped to already be thinking about my next book, so that no review or comment could ever sum up my entire output – how could it, when this person had no idea what I was currently producing? It also helped me to distance myself a little from the book. I could still be proud of it, but I could also see it as something that past-me wrote.
Remember the ‘social’ in social media.
Social media is useful to writers for so many reasons: to build a community and make connections, to hear about opportunities, to learn from others’ work and experiences, and to let people know about your work. But if you’re focussing mainly on that last thing, STOP. You wouldn’t walk into a room and shout ‘BUY MY BOOK!’, which is basically what you’re doing if you repeatedly tweet a link to your book’s Amazon page.
As with all social interactions, social media requires give and take. Before you post, think: Is this providing something valuable to the person who reads it? If you’re just telling them that you have a book, that’s not valuable, as they already know that (it’s in your bio – and if it’s not in your bio, bloody well put it there). But if you’re posting to an article you wrote, or recommending another writer’s book, or even sharing a cute photo of your puppy, that’s more than just self-promotion. Post about things that aren’t your book at least three times as often as you post about your book.
Get cards printed.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – a simple business card with your book’s cover on one side, and your email/social media info on the other (I don’t recommend including your phone number or postal address, though). I used MOO, but there are plenty of good printing companies.
Always carry a few cards with you. If you’re in a new town and see a bookshop, pop in and (very briefly and politely) tell the bookseller about your book. They probably won’t want to make a decision on the spot, and you certainly don’t want to make them feel awkward – which is why you have the cards. Hand one over, ask them to have a think about it, and say you’ll email in a few weeks just to check in. Then do exactly that.
I did this at the gorgeous Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh, and not only did they stock The Rental Heart, they also made it their book club pick and then invited me to read at a queer fiction salon event.
Be bold, be bold – but not too bold.
To be a debut writer, you have to be brave. No one really likes to self-promote. But sometimes, it has to be done. Depending on the size of your publisher and activity of your publicist, you may have to do a lot of your book’s promotion yourself.
Don’t be scared to approach booksellers, literary editors, reviewers, and journalists. They need books to cover, after all. Remember to always be polite and friendly. Also, know when to back down – if a bookseller doesn’t want to stock your book, or a venue manager doesn’t want to arrange an event for you, or a literary editor doesn’t want to review your book, don’t argue. Accept it gracefully and try again next time.
Remember the 1/10 rule
I’ve found that around 1 in 10 of the things I tried actually worked – meaning I landed a festival reading, or a newspaper interview, or a book blogger review.That might sound good, but remember that means nine knock-backs or silences for every one success. Those knock-backs can sting if it’s been a while since a success.
Don’t take it personally – just send out your emails and try to forget about them until you get a reply.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
It can seem like a big bad world out there, and from the outside the writing commenting can look cliquey. But I’ve found that almost every writer I’ve spoken to is kind, honest, supportive and genuine. Particular thanks go to ridiculously talented and sweet writers Camille DeAngelis, Suzanne Egerton, Helen Fitzgerald, Hannah Kent, J.O. Morgan, Lucy Ribchester and Simon Sylvester for their support in the past year, ranging from a simple tweet to long email exchanges. It’s made all the difference.
If you’re not sure about something, or feel lost, or just don’t have the first idea of how to deal with being a debut writer, reach out. Ask for help – but remember to respect other writers’ time. If they’ve never met you before, they won’t want to travel to a different city and have a long lunch with you while telling you everything they know. But they may be willing to send you some advice over email or Twitter. Again, always be polite, and know how to take no for an answer (a lack of reply, by the way, also means no – so don’t pester).
So that other debut writer won a prize, or landed a festival appearance, or got their face on the front of the Sunday supplement – and you didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Be happy for them. You don’t know their story, so there’s no use comparing it to your own.
I know it’s easy to say this, but of course I get envious too! It’s all about using it productively. Envy can be a useful emotion, as it can show us what we want. So use it. If you feel envy, let that help you to structure your goals. But don’t let it consume you. Be happy for other writers’ successes rather than comparing them to your own.
Remember that life goes on.
Publishing your first book is a new world of weirdness. It’s scary, and it’s exciting, and every day your ego will get a few boosts and then a few knocks. But no matter how successful it is, your life won’t change overnight. Tomorrow you’ll still need to get up and walk the dog, or feed the baby, or wash the dishes, or get on the bus and go to work (or all of the above).
Be proud of your achievement, and remember that your book’s success or failure doesn’t define your entire life.
Enjoy every moment, both the good and the bad. You only get one chance at a first book, and believe me – you’ll look back and wish you’d paid more attention.