Sunday, January 5, 2014

"So how's your book doing?"

I read a blog post this past week in which the author complained about people who ask how your book is doing. The author of the post called out those people as incredibly rude, and the question as akin to asking a doctor or, hey, anybody else how much money they make.
Well, sure, it's rude. But people ask all sorts of rude questions in the name of "making small talk": "So when are you two getting married?...When are you going to have a baby?...Have you found a job yet?...Haven't you put on a little weight?" This is no different.

And too, the questioner might not be asking for sales numbers. They probably have another agenda entirely. Maybe they've thought about publishing their own work, and want to know whether they could make succeed -- or whether it's possible for anybody to succeed. Maybe they think you're dreaming too big and want to take you down a peg or two. And, hey, maybe they just want to know how you're doing in general. A simple, "It's doing well, thanks," with a quick change of subject, ought to be enough to put these boors off the scent. And if they continue to push for an answer, you can turn the tables and ask them how much they make. Muahaha.

But there's a better answer, and it relates to the other point the author of that blog post made about the way she felt, now that she had a book out in the public eye. Before publication of her first novel, she says, she could write three or four books a year (although she wouldn't necessarily release all of them). Last year, she wrote two -- and she second-guessed herself all the way, because she kept thinking about how people would react to what she was writing.

My flippant response is that the quickest and best cure for second-guessing yourself about your second published novel is to publish it, already. Because then when someone asks you, "How's your book doing?" you can respond the way I always do: "Which one?" Then I tell them I have eight novels out, and they should look me up on Amazon.

That usually shuts them up. Because that's when it dawns on them that I'm serious about writing. I'm not just a one-book wonder; I'm in it for the long haul. That's worth some respect.

But the blogger's observation about her own changed perception might go a long way toward explaining why second books -- and second songs, and second just-about-anything-else creative -- sometimes don't measure up to the first one. Sure, there's the time factor. First-time novelists (or songwriters or whatever) have years and years to perfect their work. They have nothing but time to nurture the novel -- putting it through multiple drafts, tweaking it here and there -- until it satisfies their vision. The second book is often, in comparison, rushed. The secret about the author's talent is out, and somebody -- the agent, the editor, fans -- is pestering her for the next book. That puts pressure on the author to turn out something new, and to do it faster, perhaps, than she is comfortable with. Sure, the author cares just as much that the work is as perfect as it can be. But it's not going to be exactly like the first book that everyone loved so much, because why would anybody write the same book twice? So inevitably, someone will be disappointed.

But that's from the point of view of the fans, really. This blog post was interesting to me because it's from the point of view of the author. And the key word from my preceding paragraph is "secret." Up until the moment of publication -- or the moment the ARCs go out to reviewers -- the author has been writing only to please herself. The writer makes changes to the book based on her own feelings about the work -- about what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. Now, she knows there's a wider audience out there. Other people are going to judge her work. With Book 2, she's no longer writing to please herself; she's writing to please others.

Which is why my flippant response is also the correct one: just publish the damned thing already. And that requires turning off your internal worrywart even when you're writing the first draft. Ignore the editor and agent (if you have one); ignore the reviews (even the good ones); ignore the fans who want more. Yes, you will have to feed the beast. But the only way to feed the beast the good stuff is to keep writing to please yourself.

Donna Tartt's newest book, The Goldfinch, was released to rave reviews a few months ago. It's her first new work in eleven years, and only the third novel she's had published in her whole 30-year career. She's obviously a slow writer, but I suspect the real reason it takes her ten years to get a new book out is that she won't publish 'til she's satisfied. She's writing to please herself, and it seems to be working pretty well for her.

In the Brave New World of Indie Publishing, you're responsible for your own career. Don't feel like you have to release X novels in X months to stay in the public eye, and don't feel like you have to please everybody with Book 2 or 3 or 4. Stay true to your own vision. Keep writing to please yourself.

I'm on tour with Crosswind starting Wednesday. The tour dates are up on the "Tour Dates" tab. See you there!

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