Brilliant Advice, Untaken

I have to admit that one of my struggles as a new author was parsing the various and abundant recommendations, comments, suggestions and plans that other authors shared with me. Suggestions came from people within the industry (agents, editors) too, and of course from well-meaning family and friends who really had no idea what a publishing career entails. Plus, prior to getting my contract, I’d already spent a lot of time attending conferences, listening and absorbing information, so I already had my own thoughts and assumptions to contend with.

But when it came time to actually DO something with my own debut book, I was really at a loss. Should I blog? Should I pepper the universe with postcards and swag? Should I go door to door to bookstores? Should I trust completely in the publicist I was assigned by the house? Should I hire a publicist of my own? Does the Goodyear blimp offer timeshares?

The sheer volume of possibilities made me want to tear my hair out. But at least I resisted the urge to curl into the fetal position, call my mom and whine. (Oh, who am I kidding? I have her on speed dial for a reason.)

My mom is a maternal health nurse and parenting expert, and one of the first pieces of advice she gives new parents is: “Regardless of the conventional wisdom, in the end you have to do what’s best for you, your baby, and your family.” (Thanks, Mom.) I offer the same advice to brand new authors: You have to do what’s best for you and your book. Every published author has a wealth of joyful stories, tales of epic struggle, and brilliant theories of success based on what worked for them.

Newsflash: What worked for them may not work for you. In context here, that may sound really obvious, but when you’re out in the world and all the advice is flying at you and people you desperately admire start saying things like “Here’s what you should do…” and “If I were you, I would…” and “The year before I won my Newbery Honor, I…”…it becomes harder to remember that the ubiquitous THEY are not YOU.

The point I’m trying to make is, I’m blogging not because I have all the answers, but because I have struggled through all the questions. Some of my most meaningful experiences as a debut author involved meeting other debut authors, huddling in a corner together and quietly crying to one another about our stresses and our fears. Not literally crying (usually) but simply saying our worries out loud and knowing we weren’t alone: “Is anyone going to like my book?” “I think my editor secretly hates me.” “I’m afraid I’ll bomb my first school visit and get fruit snacks hurled at me by disgruntled seventh graders.”

Nothing compares to the anxiety of waiting for your first book to come out. Except, perhaps, the subsequent anxiety of knowing it’s out there and people are reading it and inevitably judging you. Now that I have a few books under my belt, I take this anxiety in stride. I no longer feel like a debut novelist, but I can’t ever forget how it felt at the time. The constant flux of emotions, from glittering excitement to soul-shaking terror. The semi-permanent nausea. The feeling of always holding your breath. Waiting. Waiting… There’s so much waiting, across a thousand tiny steps, and it feels like you’ll never get there. You will.

It does get better. Really. When I was new to authorhood, I would have loved it if someone had taken my hand and lovingly told me that. I’m not sure I would have believed, but I think it might have allowed me to breathe.

There’s no perfect way to be an author. There’s no formula you have to follow. You can just be yourself. All the advice in the world is not going to make you better—unless you figure out how to extract what you need and let the rest fall aside. It takes time. Listen closely to all the people who tell you what to do. Try what sounds good to you. Let go of what doesn’t.

As for me, to the best of my ability I plan to be one of those advice-givers. I will answer your questions. I will tell you everything I can about what I have been through, including what I’d do differently, what I’d do more of, and what I am proud of having done well. Do with my words what you will.

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