About a year ago, my debut novel – The Far Empty—hit shelves… It was the moment I’d waited for, imagined, dreamed about, almost my entire life.
And it was here, and then gone again, in the blink of an eye.
I can remember the day The Far Empty came out. I took the day off work (yep, I’m an author with a day job), got up early, sat anxiously by computer and waited for…what, exactly? I didn’t know then and probably still don’t know now. Days later I joked with a friend that maybe I thought trumpets would blow, or fireworks would go off; even a parade. But the morning itself was decidedly anti-climactic. The momentous event I’d day-dreamed about forever arrived with surprisingly little fanfare; after all, I’d already experienced the highs and lows of trade reviews, the moment of first holding my book in hardback, and the excitement of the planned book tour. My release day was simply just another Tuesday in June for almost everyone else on the planet, and I learned the first of many professional lessons: launching a debut book is really, really hard. As hard as throwing the real book itself skyward and believing it will actually stay aloft. Now, nearly a year later as I’ve watched – with the practiced eye of a “veteran” – hundreds of other books roll out on their chosen Tuesdays, there seems to be little rhyme or reason why one book succeeds or another fails, why one book gets “buzz” and another doesn’t. Beyond the baseline of a certain craft competence, or the lightning strike of current events mirroring your plot, it’s really damn hard to predict which books will fly and which ones will fall.
This post really isn’t about professional sales, though, and The Far Empty has done fair enough there, I think. It’s about all the other little things I’ve learned over the past year, as well as a thank-you to everyone who helped me navigate these months. I’m fortunate that I have a fantastic publisher (G. P Putnam’s Sons) and a wonderful editor who seem to like my work. And everything about the publication and roll-out of The Far Empty was professional and top-notch. All year the folks at Putnam have made me feel like a “big time” author, even with absolutely zero objective evidence to support that. Writing is art, but publishing is a business – a very, very difficult one – and Putnam continues to do everything in their power to make my little book (and the other ones on the way) successful.
So, here are a few of those things I learned…
Writers are almost as good as beer and whiskey: When I started writing, I didn’t know any other writers. None, zero, zilch. I simply sat at my desk alone each morning and tossed words at a page (well, yeah, I still do that). As The Far Empty became a reality, I had the opportunity to get to know so many other writers who warmly shared their time and wisdom and experiences. They also generously mentioned The Far Empty along the way, and gave the book some great exposure, as well as me plenty of professional and creative advice. As I noted in the book’s acknowledgements, writing a book is often a solitary experience, but publishing one is not. A writing career doesn’t have to be lonely, either.
Booksellers do just that: Before I went out on my book tour, I had zero appreciation for just how important and vital independent book stores are. These are the places that hand-sell your books, review them, drop your name to customers (Hey, if you like that, you’ll like this…). They are the friendly faces in the unfamiliar cities, and I learned that nearly every person sitting in a seat during my debut tour was there because someone at the store hosting me had put them there by excitedly talking up the book. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are all great and necessary, but those independent books stores are vital. In keeping with that, I have to give a special shout-out to my local indie bookstore, the Poisoned Pen, which has been fantastic to me.
Let it out, let it go: I nearly drove myself crazy struggling against all the things I had absolutely no control over. When The Far Empty came out, I’d done my part – I’d written the best book I could. And after that, most everything else was out of my hands – good reviews, bad reviews, whether someone would choose to review it or not. I have a fair amount of authority and responsibility in my day job – the ability to just get things done – and I felt a certain amount of helplessness when my first book was out there all alone in the world without me that I wasn’t doing something. Or doing more. Maybe this lesson doesn’t apply to every author in every situation, or for every book, but for me, it was important to get a quick handle on what I could control, and the thousands of things I couldn’t.
Don’t quit your day job: Here’s one I got right, and this actually isn’t even the lesson you think it is – this is more about just writing the next book and the one after that. Once I realized that publishing one novel wasn’t my real dream, but being a consistently published novelist was, I continued to treat my writing like the career I wanted it to be. I’ve since tackled the second and third (and now fourth) book with the same daily dedication I gave to The Far Empty. I have a very specific process for getting these books done in a timely fashion, and since I actually didn’t quit my day job, I have to stay on point with that process or I’ll never get any book finished. Conversely, I have the luxury of not stressing about keeping the lights on, either. For me, writing is a business…it is my job, albeit my second one. Still, I hit my deadlines, try to send in the best book I can the first time around, edit and revise diligently and on time, and try not to drive my copy editors too crazy. I guess that doesn’t romanticize the “writing life,” but it doesn’t fetishize it, either. I’m being paid to write a book, so I just write the damn thing.
Ignore the noise: Because of my career, I was late to the whole social media party – in fact, as federal agent I’ve spent the better part of my life not getting invited to fun parties at all. But with the publication of The Far Empty, I did all the things the agents and publicists tell you to do – set up the website, joined all the things, got on the Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest, etc., etc. However, I’ve said it in other contexts, and I’ll say it again here: I have only a love/hate relationship with this stuff (duly noted the hypocrisy of proclaiming this via a blog post). Although I learned early on that I didn’t want to be true blogger or internet “personality” – I’m not pithy or witty enough for that – I also came to understand that a certain amount of self-promotion and access is expected and can be invaluable. Some writers have turned it into an art-form all its own, and I admire them for that. For me, though, I’ve decided that too much swimming in the deep-end of the social media pool is dangerous – here there be monsters, after all. At best, it can be distracting, and at worst it can be demoralizing, since most social media focuses on the business itself, and when I’m creating a book, the last thing I want do is think too much about that. Again, this is my lesson. YMMV, and there are hundreds of other counter-examples. I just know that for me, the less time I spend on that/this stuff, the better.
However, if you’re having a real-life party, please invite me. I’m fun in person, I promise.
Always be humble and kind (just like the song): I’m not going to lie, it’s cool to be a published author. It’s frankly amazing. However, I’m wise enough to know that there are lots of writers who are more talented and more deserving (however that’s measured), and the fact that I “broke through” is as much a testament to luck and timing as anything having to do with whatever we want to call talent. I’m thrilled when people ask me about my writing process or how I got an agent or a book deal, but the truth is I’m making this up as I go long. I like telling stories. I write about things that interest or trouble me. I enjoy fitting words together and pulling them part again, looking for the perfect sound or rhythm. I have fun creating interesting, flawed characters and putting them in horrible situations. I can tell you what and why I do it, I just can’t tell you how I do it. I’m not sure any writer can.
I think every writer needs to be credible and honest and real. I think we have to put ourselves out there on our pages, and then let those pages speak for themselves. I’m not pretending that I’m saving the world, or creating timeless, life-altering art. I’m just creating my own little worlds to help answer and explore my life’s questions. And if you want to join me, I’d love to have you along.
Enjoy the ride: This one took me the longest to learn, but the one that’s the most important. I wish I’d spent a little more time just enjoying the small moments: seeing my book in a bookstore, seeing it on Amazon. Reading the emails from those people who found my story and liked it. Holding it open and flipping through it, marveling that it actually existed (even now I still treat copies of my own book like a live snake, like something I can’t touch. I’m too afraid to read the sentences I still don’t like, the things I wish I could still change. I’ll always worry it’s not good enough and could be better). I was so consumed with the idea of The Far Empty being a success, I didn’t realize it was already a success – I had written a book after all, and it lived in the world.
And that’s been my debut year. For an author, I don’t think there’s anything like it. There will be more books (still no parades or fireworks), but never one exactly like that first.
Speaking of other books, it looks like High White Sun, the next book in the Big Bend series or cycle or trilogy or whatever it is, is set for March 2018 – one month after The Far Empty comes out in paperback.