Twelve months ago my debut novel, The Dead Wife's Handbook, was published. It's been a year of gratifying highs and occasional lows. But what the past year has mostly consisted of is surprises: unexpected lessons on what life as a published author is really like. So I thought I'd share a few of them.
In The Beginning...
When you get a book deal you feel like you've won the literary lottery. Before too long you realise that the book deal wasn't even the beginning. The Beginning, you conclude, will be Publication Day because then your book will be Out In The World. But then publication day comes and you understand that's not the beginning either. Because now there are sales figures, Amazon rankings and reviews - both good and bad - to deal with (see next point). A year later and I'm still not sure that the beginning is quite over yet.
Developing A Thick Skin (aka Reading Reviews)
Writers are a funny bunch. Generally prone to being quite sensitive creatures, we spend months or years pouring our heart and soul into a novel before releasing it into the world to see whether people will judge it kindly. Some might call this masochistic. Most writers would say it's compulsion rather than deliberate self-harm, but the reviews come in all the same. You quickly learn that your first Amazon 1-star review is not to be wept over but rather to be shared on social media as a necessary rite of passage. Mine arrived six months after publication by which time the book had garnered enough lovely reviews to counteract the person who ended theirs with the words "Just kill me now." Like I said, it's all about developing a thick skin.
The Sociable Side of an Author's Life
Before I started writing, I assumed that most published authors followed the Harper Lee line of sociability. An hour on Twitter any day of the week (pretty much any time of the day) is proof that most authors need social interaction, even if only virtually. Give them the opportunity to meet one another in real life and most authors will jump at the chance. It's why green rooms at literary festivals are full-to-bursting, publishing parties never seem to last long enough and why I never say no to a book launch invite. Even writers need to spend time in the real world, now and again.
Paying it Forward
And this brings me on to my next surprise. Authors really are a very generous bunch. I was genuinely bowled over when 'grown-up' authors (by which I mean novelists on their fifth or tenth or - in one case, twenty-sixth - book) took the time to read mine, to offer up nice quotes, to shout loudly on social media about it. You imagine that all authors are vying for readers' attention. But as one writer said to me: "Most people don't only buy one book a year." She's right. And the more passionately vocal we are about one another's books, hopefully the more people will read. So for me the big lesson of this past year is about paying it forward: about showing the same generosity to other writers. It's why I'm reading more debut novels this year than I've ever come close to before and why I intend banging the drum very loudly indeed for those who deserve it.
The (Harsh) Reality of Book Publishing (or Why Authors Are Necessary Fantasists)
I suspect most authors, before they publish a book, engage in the fantasy - however fleeting - that some magic spark might catch the collective imagination and help propel their novel onto the bestseller list. You hope and pray that your publisher will put you forward for the all-important book clubs - Richard and Judy, Waterstones, Simon Mayo's Radio 2 show. And when that doesn't happen, you hope some stroke of serendipity will place the book in the hands of the people who run those initiatives and they'll bypass your publisher and pick you anyway. And when that doesn't happen either, you allow yourself the fantasy that maybe - just maybe - someone uber famous might be papped reading your book and it'll instantly top the bestseller lists. (FYI my top two celebrities in that particular fantasy were always Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton. Don't ask my why. They just were). It's all bonkers, of course. But maybe writers need those fantasies about the last book they wrote to sustain them during the writing of the next one. Which brings me on to Novel Number Two.
Second Novel Syndrome
Ah, the infamous second novel. It's not until you're writing your second book that you realise what a delightful luxury your first was: no expectation, no time pressure, no-one asking you when the hell you're bringing out another book. If you're like me (crazily superstitious and secretive) you never even told anyone beyond your partner that you were writing your first. Don't get me wrong: it's hugely gratifying that readers want another novel from you. It's just that suddenly there's a whole bunch of people you'll let down if you get it wrong: readers, bloggers, your agent, your family. And, of course, yourself. The best advice I had on this came from an Editor a few weeks ago: "What's the rush? Novels take time. Take the time to get it right."
Because, as I said at the outset, I hope that this past year is just the beginning.