Monday, September 7, 2015

One Year Out: On Fame, Fear, and the End of Debut-dom

So about a month ago, I had a real Twilight Zone moment. See, my mom tagged me in one of those time-hop things on Facebook -

- and my first thought was, "holy mackerel - has it been a year already?"

My second thought was, "oh my cheese - has it only been a YEAR?"

But lo, it was so: Sixes launched in the US on July 24th 2014, which means I've officially been doing the published-author thing for over a year now.

Now, a whole belated month-and-a-half after the fact, I'm sitting at home in my clean, quiet little me-space, and I finally have time to think about what that means. Or rather, what's appropriate to say about it.

Y'know, I was having an email conversation with my great buddy Merlin a few months back (a terrific writer you haven't heard of yet, because he is almost-literally working in the salt mines while he composes his magnum opus.) We were discussing how the ups and downs get harder to talk about once you start formally putting yourself out there - because you need to cultivate a professional image, and also because nobody wants to hear a bunch of first-world problems (especially from somebody who's achieved something most of the rest of us would give our eyeteeth for). But he added something I hadn't thought about before, with a phrase I will probably remember for the rest of forever. He said,
I think people have a romanticized idea of what it is to write a book, to tell a story that needs telling.  And that idea gets sold again and again because that's the only way to keep people doing this difficult thing, right?  So, if folks published a book and then told everyone they knew 'It was just the hardest, saddest, most wonderful but exhausting thing I've ever done' then someone else that had a story to tell might think twice.  
And man, that's it. That right there. I'm overjoyed to have had the opportunity to put my work out into the world this way. I'm so, so grateful to everyone who's invested in me. I am also frequently sad, ruinously tired, and absolutely terrified of failure. Actually, it's fair to say that I spend most of my time feeling like I'm failing.

But the thing is, when you accomplish something, that accomplishment is defined just as much by what it isn't.  We see every newborn baby as a potential president or cancer-curing scientist - but that's because they're literally 8 pounds of raw human potential. They haven't had the chance to TRY, much less fail. We fill graduates' heads with grand sweeping commencement speeches about infinite possibility and unlimited opportunities - but that's because the little darlings haven't gotten out into the world and DONE anything yet. And whatever they do, no matter how valid and important and fulfilling it is, they have to give up a hundred thousand other possible futures to do it. Every decision narrows the field of future decisions. Every choice is limiting.

And that's a hard, scary thing. That's why we have the quarter-life crisis. That's why so many of us spend our freshman adult years in angst and insecurity. I felt it then, and I'm feeling it all over again now. My first book didn't set the world on fire. It didn't win any awards. I didn't generate a whole bunch of buzz or get featured on NPR or score a blurb from Stephen King. Those possibilities are gone.  I've mourned them more than I probably should.

Most of that is probably just the inevitable death of an immature dream. Hell, I can remember finishing my first novel at 17, and fantasizing about what it was going to be like to be a published author too young to drink champagne at her own launch party.  As the kids say, "LOL."

But here's what I've noticed. The other authors in my cohort, the ones who just seem to be busting out all over the place? They might be putting out their first novels, but they have been pillars of their communities for YEARS. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a short-story juggernaut, not to mention a hell of an editor in her own right. Beth Cato is the most prolific human being I've ever met - the adult version of that one kid who was in every extracurricular activity known to man and still found time to volunteer at the homeless shelter and earn a perfect 4.3 GPA. Julie Murphy basically runs her own e-church - preaching the gospel of body acceptance and self-love, giving and taking heartfelt and frequently hilarious confessions, making time to have passionate, relevant conversations with everybody who darkens her door.  You might not have heard of these people, but their posters are plastered all over my bedroom walls. They are my rival-frenemy-secret-crush-golden-shining-idols - and as badly as I want what they have, I simply haven't matched what they've done. I haven't even come close.

I haven't put out a whole passel of short stories. Hell, I haven't put out one. I haven't edited anything or taken any freelance writing gigs, and my online presence is the digital equivalent of me sitting in my living room with the lights off and the shades drawn and then wondering why I'm not getting invited to parties. And the one place where I basically am Celebrity Rockstar Author Jesus? Is DFWcon - where I've been pouring in volunteer hours and workshop face-time for three straight years. Is anyone else sensing a pattern here?

So... I guess what I'm saying is, this is the year I found out that the magical buzz-fairy is not going to sweep down and bless me with a box of instant-fame potato flakes. I am not writing accessible fiction for a well-established audience. I am not (yet!) a well-known person. I do not have the marketing heft of a Big-5 publisher throwing hella dollars to promote me. Those three things together mean that if there is an easy elevator to the top, I can't count on it. I am going to need to join 99.9% of the entire rest of the world in taking the stairs.

I'm up for it. I still feel like I'm failing. I'm absolutely terrified of going out of print, of being a confirmed dud that nobody will want to do business with. (Seriously, y'all: if you've read my stuff, please please please help me out with an Amazon / Goodreads review. It doesn't need to be Shakespeare. It doesn't need to glow. Short of buying 50,000 copies of my books and lobbing them through people's windows, this is the single best thing you can do to help me not sail my failboat all the way to remainder-land.) But I can do more than I've done so far, and the game isn't over yet. 

And speaking of which... you guys.

Thank you for this.

I may not have shown up on the New York Times, but my man Merlin put me front-and-center on the company shipping newsletter. Don't tell him it made me cry.
And for this.

Yes, that is one very well-loved spine.
Yes, those are marker tabs and page notes.
Yes, this is ego-pornography for authors - and my Uncle Sanford is Hugh Hefner.
And this.

Look at you. Look at you, you goddamn beautiful disasters!
And this.
FAN ART, people. Actual, honest-to-god fan art. This is not a drill!
And this, and this, and this, and this. (I print these out and love them until they're kleenex. You know that, right?)

Oh my god, and THIS.
Because you haven't truly made it as a writer until Frank has named MapleStory characters after your fictional friends.
Seriously, guys. Thank you so much for everything you've done to help launch me out into the world. I have no idea whether I can actually fly or whether I'm just 'falling with style', but you are absolutely the reason I haven't already splatted on the pavement. And let me tell you: even when it feels like the ground is rushing up to meet you, the view from up here is still pretty damn glorious.

...but if I go cold, I won't get sold

I'll get put in the back, in the discount rack
Like another can of beans


  1. There are so many options for authors right now your career won't magically end until YOU say it's over. Of course that explosion of options does mean there are a bunch of people on those stairs. Try not to elbow anyone over the railing on the way up (though I'm not gonna judge if it happens...) And yep, this is a soul-crushing joyride of a career only an unstable person would persist at (facing down constant rejection is way too close to the definition of insanity...) Even if all those people keeping you aloft drop you on your face you've got to get up, spit your teeth out and keep going. So go bleed on a page some more and make it happen.

    1. Hell yeah, dude. HELL yeah.

      You're absolutely right, of course: there is no Game Over screen in this career - only "Do you wish to continue?" But I also feel like this profession (trad-pub or indie or whatever) rewards a versatility that I'm not sure I have. I don't have a million ideas. I have a few good ones, most of which are related somehow. Having the eggs all in one basket like that feels dangerous and weird, but right now it's all I got.

      But to smash together two metaphors: even if I fall down and all my teeth get knocked out, I'll be all right. You don't need teeth to suck eggs...!

    2. I don't know, I feel the opposite. I think many of the most successful authors (in books sold) aren't really all that versatile. What you're doing though is being brave enough to try something unique and yeah, the profession, the market doesn't reward that all the time (despite all their cries for SOMETHING NEW!). They want safe bets. You don't make those. That's worth a little dental work IMO.

    3. Hey, sorry - did some protracted extraction this week, and maybe you won't see this, but just in case: I think versatility is a virtue right up until you hit the big time. Then, yes, you ride that wagon until the wheels fall off.

      And like... man, way to make me feel like a stone-cold badass. I may need to hire you to teach me to roll over car-hoods, just so I can maintain this level of hardcore tooth-spitting mojo!

  2. Do you need me to push someone down some stairs? I will totally do it if it will help you.

    1. No, dudette - never! (I may need to hire you to coach me through a Stairmaster workout, though - not even two months in, and already you are putting Jane Fonda to shame!)

  3. "Actually, it's fair to say that I spend most of my time feeling like I'm failing."

    I feel ya, dearie. It's weird how some authors lean one way or another. I'm in the constanty thinking it isn't enough camp...

    1. Dudette, I have taken more solace than you know in the fact that even you - with your Big-5 contract and your marketing degree and your Golden City books that I just want to rub my face in and love forever - feel totally lost sometimes. (And now you're coming to Texas, so we can be lost together!)

  4. Sweet friend. Sometimes it seems like all we're doing is throwing rocks at a wall, but you are special and marvelous and have touched more people than you know. Success is rarely overnight. We hear those stories because they're exciting and fun to dream about, but most successful authors build fans over many years and many books and only eventually gain enough momentum to "burst onto the scene." So keep on chugging. I believe you'll get there.

    1. Aw, thanks, Annie. I've been thinking about the way we read people's biographies, and how there'll be a whole paragraph that just spews out their accomplishments, bam-bam-bam, as if everything followed automatically from one thing to the next. It's easy not to notice the gaps between those things. Nobody ever seems to write about all the little setbacks, the sleepless nights they spent wondering if they were doing the right thing, the false starts and the projects that didn't pan out. I guess we better learn to enjoy living in the space between greatnesses!

  5. I'm just getting to this post because I was at Disney with the family (which is a pocket dimension of pixie dust and love and I want to go back right now with it's sweaty, hot, exhausting fun) but I digress. Anyway, your writing is phenomenal. I'm seriously jellin' over here. Regardless of what traditional business brings, or indie, or self pub, or small press, or what have you, you're far from done. You're just getting started. Fall with style just like Buzz himself, and you'll soon be making Toy Story 4 some twenty years after the premiere.

    1. Man, Laura - did you dress up as the Blue Fairy? Cuz you are flat-out magical.

      Seriously, thanks so much for the love and sparkles and rock-solid confidence - it's a big scary world out there, but venturing out with other people whose wings, skirts, and/or jowls are flapping in the wind just as hard as mine is such a comfort. You and me, dudette - you and me and the ground coming up to meet us!