It's been a little over a year since Ash was published (I can't believe it! It went so fast!), and over the past few days I've been thinking about what I've learned in my first year as a published novelist. This post, then, is my long, navel-gazey account of those lessons. I did a lot of publicity and promotion around the publication of Ash. I went to ALA, NCTE, the World Fantasy Convention, did a number of bookstore appearances in the Bay Area, and several school/library visits on the East Coast. This was in addition to all the online promotion I did: a ton of book blog Q&As, many guest blog posts, a few contest giveaways, and general daily existence in social media. Some of these events were organized by my publisher, and some were organized by me or other authors I know. After all that, here's what I learned:
1. In bookstore appearances, less can be more. Last year, I said yes to every bookstore invitation I got, which was great because I got to meet a lot of booksellers. But let's be honest: I was a debut author without a lot of readers (yet!). That meant that sometimes I did events where only one or two readers came. It was nice to meet them, but that's not an ideal event for an author or a bookstore. In the future, I'll probably only do one or two book events in any geographic area.
2. Connect with my community. I absolutely adored meeting queer teens at the high schools/community centers I visited. I would love to do more of that in the future. These events were so inspiring and affirming that they didn't feel like promotion at all; they felt like connecting with my community.
3. Join forces with other authors. I did a number of group events with other debut authors last year and really enjoyed them. They gave us a chance to hang out together and support each other, even if not that many people came to our table in the bookstore. I'm definitely planning to do more group stuff in the future.
4. Be more selective overall. On the down side, travel and online publicity really eats into my writing time, and I'm getting to a point where I'm having to be more selective about what I say yes to. This is actually torturous for me! I want to say yes to all book events/invitations! Unfortunately, if I did, that would mean I'd never write another book, and since the definition of "author" is pretty much "one who writes (and finishes) books," it looks like I'll have to suck it up and say no sometimes.
The internet can be a blessing ...
One of my biggest sources of support in the past year (other than my partner, Amy) has been the online writing community, especially the 2009 Debutantes.
When I quit my day job in September 2008 to write full-time, I purposely went online to find an internet community for YA writers. I knew there must be one (I didn't know there were so many), and what a fantastic community I've discovered. I joined the 2009 Debutantes in January 2009 knowing none of them, and now, over a year and a half later, I've met at least a dozen in person, and some I email or tweet every day.
I'm aware that there's a perception of YA authors as being cliquish, and I can see why that perception exists, but really, I don't think it's accurate. I think the internet has been an incredible way for previously isolated writers to connect with each other. Finally we have our own water cooler! I often think of these other authors as my coworkers. I know some better than others, but that's always the case in any workplace.
If there's one thing I wish, it's that I had more opportunities to connect with more experienced authors, because I would love to learn from them. It was great to have a group of authors to go through my debut year with (the Debs), but as I move further into my career, I'm realizing there are so many things I don't know. I wish there was an author mentor program or something! The good thing is, I think that as we move past our debut year, meeting more experienced writers occurs naturally.
If you are entering your debut year, I recommend that you find a debut community and join it — and then become an active participant in it. I firmly believe that you'll get out what you put in. I also recommend that you read Ally Carter's post on The Crazies, which should really be required reading for every person who signs a book contract for the first time.
... but the internet can also be a curse.
I started off my debut year swearing off reading blog reviews, and I'm happy to say that I've mostly succeeded. I still think blog reviews are valuable for readers, but not necessarily for writers. Sometimes I accidentally stumble on a review that basically tries to tear me a new one, and let me tell you, I thought I had a thick skin, but sometimes it's just impossible to not feel slapped in the face.
That said, the vast majority of reviews I've read or been sent have been positive, or at least constructive in their criticism. Every time I read something negative about my book or me (yes, some of these things are bizarrely personal, even if they don't know me personally!), I remind myself of this cartoon:
And then I force myself to leave the computer until I've calmed down. Because I think it never serves the author to respond heatedly to negative criticism of her work. The work is out there. It stands or falls on its own. I tell myself this repeatedly. I figure eventually I'll totally believe it. :)
I've also asked Amy to subscribe to my Google alerts (I haven't read them in a long, long time), so that I lessen my chances of accidentally stumbling on a one-star homophobic review on Amazon. (Although, honestly, I find those more hilarious than hurtful.) Every once in a while I discuss the Google alerts with Amy, and she tells me about general trends in the internet chatter about me or my book.
She also forwards me links to pirated copies of Ash, which I forward to my publisher. I have to admit I did not expect that my book would be pirated — I mean, it's available for free at the library! But as e-books become more popular, I think book piracy will rise, and we need to figure out ways to raise awareness about how it is illegal.
One thing I do allow myself to do is check my Amazon rank. Why? Because I have no idea what it means, and I find it kind of like staring at tea leaves. It immediately reminds me that I have no control over so much about the publishing business, which is actually kind of liberating. The only thing I have control over is:
A year after Ash was published in hardcover, I've written and revised another novel (Huntress, coming in April 2011), my first short story in 15 years, and I've started a secret project (aka Blue Book) that so far has been one of the easiest things I've ever written! I fully expect it to grow legs soon and start running away from me, but for now, I'm enjoying it.
Every once in a while, I look up from what I'm doing and think: Oh my God, I am actually a full-time novelist. Whoa!
This is the job I've wanted to have since I learned how to write. I have dreamed of this career my entire life, and recently it's seemed particularly bizarre and amazing that I'm doing it. On some days, the writing flows so smoothly I could practically get high on it. On other days it feels like pulling my hair out. But any day when I get to write is worth it.
All that promotion, publicity, Google-avoiding and Amazon-gazing — all of that is in service of the days when I can get up, sit down at my desk, and make up more stuff. It is the strangest, most ridiculous, most amazing job I've ever had. My goal, for the rest of however long I get to have this career, is to enjoy the writing. Period.