In September, 43 years after writing my first short story (in second grade, about brother-and-sister detective team Tommy and Lisa Sue Vooleran, a surname that my mother criticized for being too unrealistic), a novel of mine finally made it into print.
When I was a kid dreaming of being a published author, I was sure that once my name was on the spine of a novel, my life would dramatically improve. I’d be the toast of the town! Hollywood would come rushing to make a film out of it! I’d be rich!
Of course, none of the above happened. I haven’t been invited to read in Brooklyn alongside John Wray or Gary Schteyngart. No producer has clamored to option Beyond Billicombe (though I can totally see James McAvoy as Richard, the male lead—James, call me sometime.) And I still haven’t even earned enough in royalties to cover the cost of having my friend Tim produce the fabulous cover for me.
But I have learned a few things:
1) Having people I know read the book is highly nerve-wracking. It’s akin to showing up for work in a low-cut, thigh-high, figure-hugging dress when you usually wear nothing but bulky sweaters and loose jeans. Although Beyond Billicombe is autobiographical only in its setting, any piece of fiction, I believe, exposes aspects of the writer. It’s in the choice of words, the choice of themes, the choice of details. Reading Wuthering Heights, for instance, makes it clear that Emily Brontë was probably pretty damn sarcastic when shooting the breeze with her sisters up in Haworth.
Then there’s the whole what-if-my-writing-sucks aspect. Being a writer is a huge part of my identity. Hell, I write for a living, albeit product copy and marketing articles. But by publishing a book, I’m allowing others to judge a massive aspect of how I define myself. What if they don’t see me in the same way? What if, after reading the book, they no longer have the same respect for me? I don’t care if people who read Beyond Billicombe now wonder just how much of my knowledge of junkies and 12-step meetings was first-hand, but I do care if they think I can’t put create a realistic character or set a vivid scene.
Fortunately all of the feedback has been positive so far. Then again, would someone tell me if he or she didn’t like the book?
And once people have seen you in a skin-tight dress cut up to there, when you show up for work the following day in your usual baggy clothes, they still have the image of your cleavage in their mind.
2) Negative feedback isn’t as tough to take as I’d feared. Granted, most of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have been positive so far. But two readers gave Beyond Billicombe only three stars. At first those reviews hit me in the chest like a baseball thrown by a Cy Young winner. But upon rereading (and rerereading), I understood the criticism, even agreed with some of it. And it spurred me to review 100 Days, the novel I'm working on now, with a keener eye.
Of course, if I receive a few scathing reviews down the line, the feedback may be harder to take in stride.
3) My instincts about my writing were correct. As I said, for the most part I agreed with the criticism I’ve received; it coincides with what I’d perceived as the book's shortcomings myself. But overall I was fairly certain that the writing itself was strong, the descriptions evocative, the emotions recognizable. From what I’ve been told, I’m correct. I’m a decent—dare I say, good—writer. And that’s encouraged me to finish whipping 100 Days into shape so that I can start submitting it to agents after New Year’s.
4) Writing about marketing is much easier than actually marketing one’s own product. I’ve covered various aspects of marketing, promotion, and sales for trade magazines for decades. I won awards for my coverage. I spoke at conferences and webinars. But I haven’t done a good job of marketing my book. I know what I should do, but I haven’t done much of it.
Partly it’s been down to a lack of time—I have a living to earn, and a family that likes me to cook dinner for them and even spend the occasional evening or weekend with them.
But a lot of it is also due to my shyness: I haven’t been able to bring myself to pop in at the local bookshops to see if they’d be interested in hosting a reading, for instance. I haven’t sought out blogs for the express purpose of touting my wares. Which brings me to…
5) I’d much rather write than sell. Beyond Billicombe is published, and I really do want people to read it, because I’m proud of it, and I think the characters are worth knowing. I want to introduce people to the protagonists, Suzanne and Richard, and to the North Devon town of Billicombe, just as some people like to introduce their single friends to one another in hopes of setting them up in a long-term relationship.
But right now I’m more engrossed with Steve and Cat, the narrators of 100 Days. Any free time I have, I’d rather spend with them. Steve and Cat still need me; Suzanne and Richard don’t.
This blog post is my way of writing and selling—or at least, trying to sell. So check out Beyond Billicombe. I don’t think you’ll regret it, and if you do, let me know. (Of course, you can also let me know if you love it.)
In the meantime, it’s a sunny day out here at the park bench where I write my fiction. The weather’s warm enough that my fingers aren’t stiff and mottled. So I’m going to return to 100 Days, all the while hoping you’re reading Beyond Billicombe and maybe even looking forward to what I’m preparing for you next.
(Thanks to my friend Tina for the photo. See, Beyond Billicombe makes a great beach read!)