Your First Publication: Don’t Forget to Enjoy It

In the last week I met two people who had just published their first book. I congratulated them, but I could see the look in their eyes. One I knew all too well.

Days after I published my first novel, Monster Island, I was on the floor of my apartment, so wracked with anxiety and self-doubt that I didn’t want to stand up. I reached for the phone and called the features editor of a magazine that was supposed to run an article about my book. It was going to be a huge coup, a great opportunity to get the word out and hopefully drive book sales.

“I just saw the magazine,” I said. “I couldn’t find the piece about my book anywhere.” I had torn the thing apart, cover to cover.

It wasn’t there. I knew it wasn’t. I called this person on the off chance that I had just lost my mind.

“Oh, yeah, the thing about that,” the features editor said. “We decided to bump it for something else.”

“…are you going to run it next week?”

They didn’t. They never ran it.

I spent weeks tearing my hair out about that. Angry and sad and convinced my book would fail, would be a flop, because the piece didn’t run. There were lots of other things to obsess over, lots of numbers to crunch, lots of fingernails to chew and brows to furrow. By the time I managed to get over it, to reach some level of calm again, the book had been out for a month.

It did fine–it did great, actually, one of the biggest successes of my career. But I wasted all that time worrying about it, and in the process I forgot something:

I had just published my first book.

The thing I’d been dreaming of, working towards, for thirty years. The thing that was supposed to define me, to let the world see who I am, see my talent. The thing I had wanted more than anything else in my life. After a bad breakup with my college girlfriend, I had gone to my favorite professor (I am a nerd, yes) and talked to him about it. As part of that conversation, he asked me “If you could have a stable relationship or a book deal, which would you choose?” He was quite shocked when I said, with zero hesitation, “book deal.”

Now I had one of those. But I couldn’t enjoy it.

If you’re in the same position–don’t make the same mistake. Yes, reviews are nerve-wracking and sales numbers are never what you want them to be. There’s the next book to worry about, and the possibility that your first effort was a fluke. There are angry readers to fend off and bills to pay.

Take an hour a day, after your book comes out. Sit somewhere quiet with a beverage of your choice and a copy of your brand new book, and just look at the cover. Riffle through the pages. For God’s sake don’t actually read it–you’ll only find typos and errors–but smell the paper and the ink. If it’s an ebook, tap wildly through the pages and look at all those words.

Your words.

Glory in it. Take comfort in it. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. You did this thing. And it is good.

An hour a day. Minimum. You’ll be glad later that you did.

Politics in Genre Writing

Short answer? Go for it.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

You’ve probably heard someone tell you this by now. That they don’t want “politics” in science fiction, or horror, or Disney Princess fanfic. Of course we all know what they really mean. They don’t want you to write anything that disagrees with their personal politics.

It is in fact possible that if you include a strong political stance in your writing, you’ll lose a few readers. You might also gain a few more–who agree with you. Who want to support your message.

You may have been told that if you take a strong political stance in your writing, you’ll get harassed online. I’ve got news for you–you will get harassed online as soon as you put your name in the public eye. It’s something you learn to deal with as a writer. There will be angry words, and name-calling, and maybe even threats, regardless of what you say.

Politics is part of our daily life, maybe more now than at any time in the past (certainly more than any point in my lifetime). If your characters don’t have political views, they’ll feel less realistic.

And if you write in the most non-objectionable, most middle-of-the-road way, how will your story stand out?

I was told early on in my career to shy away from “controversial” subject matter. Like, for instance, having characters who weren’t straight, white, and predominantly male. I was given a very long lecture on this by someone I trust, someone with a lot of experience in the industry.

All I can tell you is–my two most successful characters were a lesbian state trooper and a Muslim schoolgirl from Somalia.

Whoever tells you to keep the politics out of writing is trying to stop you from using your voice. Don’t let them.

Working with Editors

So you’ve sold your book to a publisher. Maybe your agent went toe-to-toe with a greedy editor and convinced them to give you your damn money. Maybe you had to do the negotiations yourself–either way, you’ve experienced the horror of professional writing now. You’ve come face to face with the most existentially terrifying fact of the writer’s life:

Publishers want to make money off books. If they don’t think your book can make money, you’re dead to them.

Does it matter if your book is a brilliant masterpiece? Not if they can’t sell a thousand copies. Does it matter you put years of your life and your entire soul into it? They literally don’t care.

Maybe they want you to make massive changes to your book, changes you don’t agree with. Maybe their idea of how to market the book is repugnant to you–how dare they put out a press release saying your real life alien experience is a work of science fiction?

But somehow, you convinced them to publish something you wrote. You would be forgiven for thinking you’re marching into the lion’s den. But here’s the secret to being professional as a professional writer: starting today, you need to completely flip your attitude.

Your editor is your friend.

You’re on the same team.

That’s the only way this relationship is going to work. And I guarantee you, it’s what your editor wants.

You have good reason to trust them and to treat them like a coworker. They’ve already decided they like your book. They think you have potential.

How many people in your writing life feel that way? You can’t afford to push them away.

Similarly, they think your book can be a success. Maybe they’re not thinking “best-seller”. Maybe they’re thinking mid-list. But you know what? It’s their job to figure that out, along with a lot of other things. If they’re competent, they’ll know what the market is looking for, much better than you do. If they’re driven, they’ll want your book to reach its full potential, and for you to see the success your talent deserves.

They want to make money from your book. Absolutely. So do you, right? I’m not going to assume, here, that you wrote your book just to get rich. You’re not that dumb. But a little extra money in your pocket makes it that much easier to write your next book. And the editor knows that if your book makes money, the publisher will be interested in a sequel or a follow-up.

The editor is on your side. Regardless of how nasty the negotiations on your advance got. Do they want you to make major changes to the book? It may need those changes. Those changes may make it stronger. It’s always valuable to have a second pair of eyes look at a book, and see where it succeeds, and where it fails. Please, please do yourself a favor. Set aside your hurt feelings and your passionate defenses of your book. Listen to what the editor says with a clear mind and an open heart. They’re too busy to listen to your explanations, your defense mechanisms, your evasions. Criticism is not contempt, and you need to get ready to hear the harsh truth. You need to be ready to accept it at face value.

The editor is your friend.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re always right.

Editors are people, and therefore fallible. It’s possible you have a degree in marketing. Most likely your editor has a degree in English. If they want to market your book to the wrong demographic or with ad copy that is literally offensive to you, you can tell them that. You can discuss it with them, and if you have a strong argument, they’ll probably agree with you.

You are not legally required to make the changes to your book that they’ve requested, either. If there’s something they want to cut, but you think the book needs it, by all means fight for it. Although… maybe use a light hand, here. If the editor asks you to cut a third of your book, consider the fact that maybe you overwrote. It happens. But if they want to cut a character who you think is the secret heart of the story? Be ready to defend your decision. But stick to your guns.

It’s possible to completely wreck your own book deal by being too antagonistic toward your editor. It takes some work–most editors have pretty thick skin. But if you refuse to even listen to what they have to say, if you demand more money after you’ve already signed a contract, if you insult them in the press, well… say you worked in an office. I don’t know, selling insurance or something. Say you had a co-worker who did all those things to you. Say you just had a co-worker who spent all day telling you how awful the insurance industry is, or how everyone in your office is talentless and you can’t figure out how they got hired. How long would you keep that job? Would you get promoted?

I have heard stories of some authors who were moderately successful, but were such a pain to work with that they didn’t get a second book deal. It’s pretty rare, but it happens. Now, if you just wrote the next Harry Potter and you’re selling a million copies a year, well, feel free to be a diva. (Don’t, actually. Success doesn’t justify your being a jerk. It just means other people can’t call you on it). But if you see a long climb ahead, if you imagine a career spanning decades, with each book a slow burn toward royalties, well…

You’ll need all the friends you can get. The second the ink is dry on your contract, do yourself a favor and call your editor. Tell them how excited you are to be working with them. Say you really want to hear their ideas about how your book can be made stronger and a better fit for the market.

In the long run, you will be very glad you did.