Writers share a lot of personal stuff online. Which books are lining their “to be read” shelves, what they had for brunch, the fact that they had brunch, how many thousands of words they’re in to their new projects. But with few exceptions, even the most socially active writers shy away from sharing the darker moments of their debut book experiences.
This silence comes from a place of professional, grown-up restraint: For most writers, publishing a book is the achievement of a lifetime dream and only the most tasteless of people would talk negatively about it. But having been a debut novelist myself, I’ve come to feel like we need more transparency around this rite of passage. The necessary gleefulness embedded in publication-related social media posts can make the first-time author thing look like a carnival of successful signings and carpal tunnel massages to the uninitiated. The reality, I’m afraid, is more like you’re sitting alone, post-carnival, on a cigarette-butt encrusted patch of grass typing your own name into Bing, but other than that you’re feeling super-duper lucky. Everything is great!
The trip from struggling writer to published author is a vision quest that takes place in a protected area bordered on all sides by strip malls. It is like sitting at a dinner table in haute couture with a dirty diaper on. For a lot of writers, it will prove to be the most emotionally unsteady period of their lives. It is a privilege and a gift and an honor to be a debut author, but it is, above all things, an existential test.
Let’s start out with the pre-publication period, or, as I like to call it, When You Lose Your Friends. If you’re anything like I was before I had a book deal, there was nothing I liked more than getting together over a basket of pre-frozen French fries to groan about the writing life with my writing friends. Tallying up rejections from different magazines, discussing which publications did and didn’t pay, bitching about the undeserved advance that just fell down from the heavens on some undeserving writer’s head.
Now, the elephant in the beer garden during such discussions was that all of us secretly wanted to possess that lucky head. Or rather, we felt secretly bolstered by the knowledge that we already had that head, it was just a matter of time until the publishing industry awakened to our genius and slapped a book advance on it.
But let me tell you what it’s like when the unthinkable happens, and that book advance arrives. All of a sudden, you’re not a struggling writer any more, you’re the recipient of a golden one-way ticket to The Other Side. No matter that your new employer offers no health insurance or job security whatsoever, your ship has come in and if other authors’ Instagram feeds are any evidence, it’s carrying paid speaking engagements and loads of free white wine.
This is really exciting, though! Look, you’ve actually made it! It is time to be proud! You want to celebrate with your writer buddies, but since you got your book deal, they no longer share their pre-frozen fries with you. In fact, they’ve started adjusting their postures when you’re near them. They stop conversations short. Having been swept up by Editor Charming, you’re not one of the underdogs any more. You’re not one of them.
You have a book coming out though, so you’re feeling benevolent. You understand their hostility — well, heck! So you stay out of the way of your former writing pals. You hope this is a situation that time and their own future book deals (fingers crossed!) will mend. Except of course for Jeffrey, who’s working on a collection of experimental short fiction. You’ll never talk to him again!
But gosh, you have a lot of fears and questions about this first-timer thing. It sure would be nice to have some folks to talk to. And then the light goes off above your little writer head. What you need is the company of people like yourself, other debut authors who are going through the exact same thing as you! Why haven’t you thought of this before? You will form a band of nice people where fears and grudges can be exchanged in a completely safe place. You bet you’ll drink nice wine together — you have a headshot now. You might even get hors d’oeuvres!
This plan of yours couldn’t have come at a better time. Your book has been out for two weeks now and you have a lot of questions. For example, did everyone else get the memo that from this point forward every time you read from your hardcover, you’re also trying to sell it? Hey! Selling a hardcover is tough! Twenty-six dollars is a lot of money. Hell, you haven’t ever spent that much on a dry-aged steak! But wait, what’s that? One of your new debut author friends sold all the books at her last reading? In a town she doesn’t even live in? Eighty copies total? Wow, that is so great!
Indeed, what no one tells the debut author is that the debut author colleagues from whom they could potentially draw solace are, in fact, their competition now. The performance of a first-time author’s book is so unpredictable, the market forces that make or break it so haphazard, that confiding in another first-time author is dangerous terrain. You could very well be on the receiving end of a conversation in which an author’s telling you how truly disappointed she is by the lack of media coverage her book’s getting only to see a Facebook status from her that afternoon that omg she can’t believe it but she’s going to be on Fresh Air With Terry Gross!!!!!!
Because it now feels perilous to express vulnerability to people you might be jealous of tomorrow, you start to pull away from the very writers who could offer you perspective. This is how a lot of debut author experiences kick off, and it’s a nasty, lonely, seedy place to be. The beer is flat, the glasses are unwashed, and the counter’s really sticky. It’s not anywhere you want to spend a lot of time.
Luckily, you don’t have time to spend there anyway, because you have a book out in the world! It’s in the first month of its life and you’re doing things like driving places to read out loud from it and waiting for an email from the big Hollywood director who just had to contact you personally to ask if he could please pay an obscene amount of money for your movie rights. It’s weird that the email hasn’t come through yet, but it’s probably because it was so ebullient in nature, your inbox filtered it as spam.
Anyway, this moment really is exciting because human beings are saying nice things about your work! People — not all people, of course, but some of the people who other people have decided are the ones who count — are reading what you’ve written and are taking time to share their thoughts. Some of these people are actually paid for their thoughts and even they’re saying nice things! You might not have a lot of friends left, but you sure are feeling loved!
About four weeks into the debut publishing experience, all the people who were talking online about your book have moved on to something else. You call your agent to check in and are told she’s on another call. This is weird, because the person she’s on the other line with isn’t you. This is one of the first signs of The Great Big First Book Comedown, the reminder that your literary agent has other clients. Ugh, is how your nervous system receives this information. Gross.
Five weeks in, your editor sends you an email and you notice that the signature line where your own book cover used to be promoted has been switched out for the book cover of somebody else. It’s a book about someone who dedicated their life to rescuing golden retrievers. Ugh! Your nervous system registers. Golden retrievers are dumb!
By this point, regardless of how your book is doing, you’re starting to feel bereft. You know that people are entitled to read books you haven’t written because you’ve been reading those other books your entire life. It is absolutely insane to feel like your book needs to remain upfront in the daily conversation. You’re aware of this. You’re just not sure why your friend’s mommy blog post about perfect gift ideas for 2-year-olds didn’t include a link to your first novel is all. You want to call your new debut author friend from Michigan to ask if he’s feeling snubbed at this point too, but his book was just featured in a viral video with Jon Stewart and you can’t actually stomach talking to him anymore so instead you share the news on Facebook that your book’s large-print rights just sold in Ontario and you are #CanadaProud!
Six weeks in is when you really start to lose it. You have no sense of scope. A stranger at a reading tells you she can’t wait to get your book from her local library and it takes every shred of humanity you have left not to ask her why the eff she doesn’t just buy the damn thing since there are 19 of them right there on the shelf. You can’t even visit the internet any longer because it is a minefield of good news. Debut author so-and-so got picked as one of the top 10 writers to watch in southeast Brooklyn? Oh, and look at that! That’s an awful lot of prize money for a first book. Boom! Wait, that guy you read with in a basement is the keynote speaker at AWP? That memoirist who has no sense of appropriate karaoke song lengths just hit the New York Times Best-seller List?! And wait, so did that girl you spilled ketchup on one time? Eight weeks on the best-seller list?! New York Times Most Noteable?! Barnes and Noble Discovery?! Boom boom boom boom boom.
Yes, at six weeks, debut writer, you are nipple deep in a mudpit of despair. And the hardest thing, the thing that will clarify whether you have the stamina to go through with this whole getting-published thing again is that when you’re at your most desperate, you must exude an aura of fathomless poise and grace. You don’t want to come off as vulnerable, you don’t want to look ungrateful for your first big chance, and you absolutely don’t want to upload any wack-ass honest status updates that you’ll instantly regret, so you march on behind the mask of the controlled debut novelist, a perma-smile on your avatar and a social media feed proclaiming that you’re feeling #superblessed.
Enough of this, I say. There can be long-term emotional damage from prolonging such a ruse. I, for one, think we could all stand to show off our calluses and our pimples, the indent in the plaster where we banged our heads against the wall. Being a debut author has got to be one of the most surreal and volatile experiences in the working world, and I bet it would reassure a lot of people to hear that it’s not all hotel soaps and open bars. Having my debut novel published made me really proud of my hard work, but pride can turn into egotism quicker than you think.
I’ve been an icky, self-despising writer envious of other people’s accomplishments and I’ve been an altruistic one genuinely glad of their good news, and I can say that it’s impossible to get any good work done when you’re being a little shit.
There is a comedown period for the debut author, but then there is a plateau, followed by a reunion with your formerly sane self. That person will be able to read books again, even by her contemporaries, without wanting to yank out her own teeth. That person will be more cautious in the future before saying someone’s advance is undeserved. That person had to be confronted with the most shameful parts of her own psyche before shoving all that bullshit in a self-storage container and becoming a better version of herself.
The good news minefield will always be out there but the number one lesson hasn’t changed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a struggling writer or if your first book’s in its ninth printing. The only thing that’s going to make you feel like a halfway decent human is if you stop comparing yourself to other people and write what you need to write.
Courtney Maum is the author of the novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,” out in paperback from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, a contributor to the New York Times bestselling essay collection, Worn Stories, and the book reviewer for Electric Literature’s satirical “Celebrity Book Review.” Follow her on Twitter: @cmaum.
To learn more about I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, click here.
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