2013 has been a Learning Year.
I saw Rachel Hawkins tweet earlier today about how 2012 was a Learning Year for her, but 2013 has been awesome, and I decided to adopt the term. It sounds better than saying that even though some good stuff happened and some really hard stuff happened to me and The Playwright in 2013, in my heart of hearts, this year feels like it sucked and I can’t wait for it to be over.
But then I thought – if I’m calling it a Learning Year, what exactly did I learn? What am I taking away from this?
For the last three years I have been able to write for a living, to support my family with my words. That’s not what I set out to do. When BORN WICKED went out on submission, after my first manuscript had to be shelved, I just wanted someone to buy it. I wanted to see it on bookstore shelves, all book-shaped. I hoped that, maybe, after a few books, I’d be able to work part-time at my admin assistant job at the university where I’d been working for almost 10 years.
Then it sold in less than a week, in a pre-empt, in a major deal. I got to quit my day job entirely. There were a bunch of foreign sales and Penguin rushed bound galleys for reps at BEA and sent out a fancy ARC mailing. It got published 11 months after it sold. There was a pre-publication bookseller dinner tour and a 12-day Breathless Reads tour. It was in Walmart and grocery stores and airports. I’ve blogged a little about the weight of all that expectation. I haven’t written about what happens when the expectations come crashing down.
What happens when you get all those things for a first book….and then the book doesn’t perform to expectations, and that stuff stops? I suspect this happens more often than I think, because publishing is often a total gamble, and people understandably don’t talk about their failures as much as their successes. Possibly I shouldn’t, either. But I’m tired of feeling sad and embarrassed about it, so here we go…
What happens when you get a big book deal, and then your sales are good – really good for a debut, totally solid, with a starred review and good reviews overall – but they are not good enough? They are not bestseller numbers? Maybe you get a new paperback cover and another tour and another chance. But maybe the numbers still aren’t good enough. And then things change.
You begin the hard work of adjusting your expectations, which got wildly inflated by all that lovely optimistic talk at the beginning. But once you get certain things – even if they aren’t even things you wanted at first! – you want to keep having them. It hurts your feelings when they stop happening, even though you tell yourself that this is a business and feelings should not matter. There isn’t really anyone to be angry with – you do not feel entitled to these things, exactly – but it is hard not to conflate your books’ sales with your own self worth. It’s easy to go from your sales are not good enough (What would be good enough? You do not actually know) to your writing is not good enough to you are not good enough. Like, as a person. Even though you have no control over these numbers. This is what you’ve always wanted to do, after all, and the thought that you are not good enough at your dream is like all your worst fears crawling out from under your bed and chewing on you in the dark.
When you don’t get reviewed, or get the marketing that you took for granted on the first book, or sent anywhere, or end up on end-of-year lists – you feel like a disappointment. A failure. Your family and non-writing friends only know about publishing from your experience, and they ask you all the time when you’re going on tour for your next book and where you are doing events and how are your sales and why the new book isn’t in Walmart. You try to explain that most authors don’t do that and most books don’t get that and you were really lucky that first time. You try to adjust their expectations. They mean very well. But you feel like a disappointment again. And you can’t complain about being sad or hurt, because it’s true – most books don’t get that in the first place.
That is where I’ve been for most of 2013. Feeling like a failure. Like a disappointment. Like people bet big on me and I let them down.
Maybe a week or two ago, something changed. I was trying to work on the synopsis for my new book, which is hard enough without my brain telling me that there was no point because I was a failure. (For what it’s worth, my agent and my critique partners are really excited about the new book, and so am I, when I’m in the right headspace.) I got an email from a reader who said that my Cahill Witch books helped her through some rough times lately. And I remembered another email from earlier this summer, from a reader who said that my books made her love reading. I recalled several more emails from people who cried, or screamed so loud their parents or spouses were alarmed, or threw the book across the room at the end of STAR CURSED because they felt so invested in my characters.
That’s not failure.
That is the scale that matters.
I want to write books that give readers an escape when life feels hard. That make readers cry or cheer or reread a swoony passage or throw the book across the room. I forgot for a little while – and probably I will again. Social media makes it so easy to see what everyone else is doing or getting and to compare. I’ll try to remind myself.
Still – I can’t control how readers will react to a book. That can’t be what I think of when I start to write. So, what is it I’m chasing? I want to feel I am challenging myself. I want to try things I see other writers doing well and think I could learn to do better. I want to wake up thinking about my characters in the middle of the night, as I’m falling asleep for an afternoon nap, in the shower, in the middle of sentence in the middle of lunch with a friend. I want that feeling that I’m pushing a boulder slowly and painstakingly up a mountain and then chasing it down. I want to be in the zone, when I lose time because I’m so caught up in the words. I want to lose myself in the process.
The craft – the writing itself – is the only part that is still all mine. The finished product belongs to my readers. The business worries belong to my publisher. But when you’re happy with the writing, no one can take that away from you. When I was eight or ten or twelve, writing stories about horses at the barn where I took riding lessons, or later writing stories about girls who rode horses and bantered and kissed boys, I didn’t think about being a published author. I didn’t know any real live published authors. I wrote because I couldn’t not write, because my brain gets restless and dissatisfied when I don’t. I am saner and happier and more me when I write. In my heart of hearts, it might be as selfish as that.
That’s what I’ve learned during my Learning Year.