I have, in my inbox right now, emails from three different, unrelated authors. All of them are friends and colleagues who debuted around the same time. All of them are fiercely talented. All of them are in various stages of distress.
A few years ago, I sat on the reading side of the publishing world. I saw all of those pretty books on the shelves, and it was all about what I liked and what I didn’t like to read. It was about having discussions about the characters and the plots with my fellow readers. It was about enjoying literature. I also swooned over the glamorous life each of those authors must be living. I didn’t know how much money they made; I didn’t know if these authors were friends, or enemies, or what they tweeted about. I held to my romantic visions of grandeur.
And so, in 2009, when my agent called me to say that Simon & Schuster had made an offer for my debut, I had NO idea what the next year of my life would be. That night, full of Rice-A-Roni and newly-realized dreams, I had the best sleep of my life. I wasn’t stressing. When I tried to imagine my life as a published author, all I saw was a blank white page. I couldn’t even come up with a suitable daydream.
I also made the common mistake of assuming that all of my problems in life would now be solved. I was going to be published. I had been validated. How could I ever have doubts again? I could go skydiving if I wanted to. I could carry myself with swagger. My hair would now be voluminous and glossy, because I WAS GETTING PUBLISHED and the world was now mine.
To that I now look back and say: Ha. (I mean, I was right about my hair, but couldn’t have been more wrong about those other things).
I spent 2010 behind the curtain in my authorial costume, waiting for the show to start, sweating under the heat of the spotlight and hoping I didn’t fart on stage or something. I learned about ARC distribution, and line edits versus copyedits. I learned how to work with an editor. And my agent learned that I can cry about as much as a toddler watching as the bus speeds away with her favorite toy left on one of its seats.
I had a blast. I truly did. But even having gone into it with no expectations, it was still not what I had expected. All my life, writing had been my happy place. It was something I did out of love and desperation. It was what I did to get AWAY from my work, and now suddenly it WAS my work. I still loved it, but now it was intermingled with all of these numbers and tour dates and expectations. I was trying to learn how to interact with my readers. I once received a phone call from my agent, in which she said, “Er, you can’t tweet that.” (It was a spoiler, whoops).
Getting published had not been my lifelong dream. It was merely the most logical career for me to pursue. But writing was a personality trait, and, coincidentally, the only thing resembling a skill that I had. The week that Wither launched, I was a kitten in the headlights. I was startled and terrified and COMPLETELY out of my element. It was like I’d been living all my years under a rock, writing my little stories, and suddenly someone lifted up that rock and now I was exposed to the world (or the dozen or so people who came to my first signing). The world expected me to be ready, and here I was feeling like I’d just been spun around a bunch of times and then thrown before a crowd. My agent had to give me one hell of a pep talk as we stood outside of the bookstore. And I knew it was serious when she started the conversation with, “Hey, you look really skinny and pretty! =D”
Now it’s 2012, and I have two books under my belt. I adore this life and I’m so glad that I pursued publication. I love to find emails from my agent or my publisher. I think I finally have this twitter thing down. I love interacting with readers and am surprised by the support and the questions they send me. And, not gonna lie, I feel pretty damn legit when I get on a train to NY to have lunch with someone on my publishing team. Oh, Thursday? Just lunch with my agent. We’re going to discuss all the things, maybe get manicures, maybe smash a few champagne glasses. No biggie. (This is where I lower my sunglasses over my eyes and rifle aimlessly through my clutch).
Now, back to those three authors in my inbox. A few years ago, I would have thought the holy light was shining upon me if my inbox could be graced with the words of real, published authors. But what I’ve learned is that yes, they are talented. Yes, they are incredible. But they are also people. I am just as much a person today as I was before I knew what a print run was. The doubts and the worries never go away. I promise, I’m not a big deal.
Once we’re published, the rock is pulled up from over us, and we are no longer writing for ourselves. We’re there for anyone in the world to come and find us. There’s a lot of talk about ARCs and print runs. There’s a lot of longing and vying for the New York Times bestseller list, and the USA Today bestseller list, and film options, and end caps, and blurbs, and corrugated displays. And yes, any of these things are an honor for an author to have and something to be excited about.
But here’s the thing: They are good things, but they’re not EVERYTHING. These things are only a moment in time. A book is on the bestseller list, or it isn’t, and then it’s not anymore. A book gets a film option, or it doesn’t, and in all likelihood the rights expire without a film ever being made. A book is displayed on an end cap, or it isn’t, and then it’s not there anymore. And so on. These are all just moments in time. These are all in the here and now. And they are all COMPLETELY out of the author’s hands. No amount of hard work can make an author hit a bestseller list or earn a film deal. Every author works very hard. Every author loves what he or she creates. And once that lovingly-crafted book is put out into the world, what happens next is not up to them at all. There are many factors behind what makes a bestseller or a film option happen, but I can assure you that the author’s hard work, love, long hours, and tears are not factored in. (There should really be a “Yay, you finished a G.D. book” award).
So it hurts my heart to see three talented authors—whom I deeply admire—stressing over things that are but a mere moment in time. The book will still be out there in sixty years, when most of us are probably dead or eating through straws. Nobody will be talking about where it was placed on the bookshelf or whether it had a film option or how many weeks it spent on the Times list. All that will matter will be the words on the page.
Words on the page. That’s what was important to us before we were striving to be published. I knew this when I was seven years old, writing on a yellow legal pad I found in my mom’s purse. Surely I can retain this knowledge as an adult.
Eventually, all of the glamour and the shine will fade away. The quarter that was dropped into the hype machine will expire, and the machine will go still and cold. But the story will remain. New readers will still find it, even if it’s only available in garage sales. And today’s readers will still remember it. It’s our job as writers to create a story we’ll still be proud of then. I will only put my name on things that, when I’m on a liquid diet and grumbling for kids to get off my lawn, I will still be proud to call mine. Because, if we can do that, really, who the hell cares about the rest?