Monday, July 17, 2017

Obvious in retrospect: Some things to know before writing a book

As with most life advice, this batch of highly subjective suggestions could readily be condensed to: we all care about our own stuff more than anyone else does. This (yes, clichéd) realization can be disappointing, or liberating, as in other arenas.

Below, a mix of what I wish I'd known, and what I had known but isn't self-evident. It's all in one way or another variants of the meta-advice above:

-If you're fortunate enough to have anyone other than yourself interested in your book, and for your book not to completely disappear into an abyss upon publication, you will be asked two questions most often: Why that title? Why that subtitle? Those are likely to be the two aspects of a book that had the most editorial and marketing input, meaning that the literal answer is a behind-the-scenes conversation of no interest to anyone outside publishing.

While it's certainly important to be able to explain (and to like) your title and subtitle, what you need to do find a way to turn the title question into a book question. Which is, after all, what it is.

-Writing a book doesn't change everything. You don't suddenly emerge in a black turtleneck, with a coterie of acolytes. No one is awestruck - or, if you've already been writing professionally for years, terribly surprised - that you're now an author. Unless you're 22, one of the main questions you'll get will be, "Is this your first book?" And this will be a reasonable question, not a prompt to dissolve into a puddle of self-criticism for having not published one while still in your 20s. But it is cool to see your book in a bookstore, and to have, you know, written a book. (Did I go visit mine at the Eaton Centre - again - over the weekend? Yes.)

-Here's one I was aware of (largely thanks to Emily Gould's essay on the topic), but that falls very much into the not-self-evident category: You will still need to work during and after your book's publication. Google your favorite (famous, even!) writers and note that they too have jobs, at the very least teaching writing at colleges. If your aim is to support yourself solely from writing, a book (or ten) won't hurt, but writing is unlikely to be your job.

-In addition to whichever paid work you're doing, you'll wind up engaging in mostly-unpaid work to promote the book. The more professional promotional help you have, through a publishing house - and I've been tremendously lucky in that department - or otherwise, the more such work you may wind up with. The work can be anything from radio and video/television appearances (which I've done, and which are terrifying at first but a lot of fun) to a self-funded book tour (which I did not have the self-funds for, but which could well be useful.) The part that is (generally) paid is if you do freelance writing related to the book. And on that note...

-Having a book out does not automatically equal leverage in the writing world. If you want a higher fee for a freelance piece than was your rate previously - if you want any fee for one - you still have to ask. If anything, unless you're super-famous, having a new book out might be that much harder on the freelancing front, with editors assuming book publicity is payment enough. (You know how everything costs more once the word "wedding" is uttered? It's kind of like that.) Be advised: Book publicity is not payment enough. 

-Criticism will be more memorable than praise. If someone writes on Goodreads that your writing style is awful (can you tell that I'm writing this item shortly after seeing that comment?) you will never be more convinced of the accuracy of anyone's assessment of anything, ever. Deal with it privately however you see fit, but take Goodreads's advice and don't, like, engage. It's for readers to decide what they think of your book! Probably best not to engage on Twitter at all, but I confess to not having always been able to restrain myself when it's along the lines of 'I haven't read this book, have no plans to, but it says X which is awful' and you - having written it - know it doesn't say X and... yeah. Best to just leave it, I think, even in a case like that.

-Whatever you imagined it would be like to have written a book, it won't be exactly that. My two big book-related fears - that the book would vanish unnoticed, and that it would be read as an Ann Coulter-esque right-wing tract rather than the intra-left critique it is - have, thankfully, not happened. Nor, I suppose, have any of the fantasy versions. One involved everyone with the means to do so buying ten copies and my retiring, at age 33, to a villa in Santa Barbara. Another, a reception that - I realize now but hadn't always - is reserved for the sort of non-fiction books where mere proximity to the tome makes a person seem cooler, more glamorous, more with-it in some informed but not too controversial way.

The other... is trickier to explain. It came from seeing how it goes for fiction-writers, where chances are, those around you will react positively or not at all. And yes, I'm going mainly by some anecdata-affirming advice given by Mallory Ortberg aka Dear Prudence: "Generally, if someone has written a bad novel/short story/fan fiction, they will not be told 'You have written something bad.' They will be met with silence, and politeness, and unreturned emails." If you write a novel - or, for that matter, a dissertation - you'll at the very least get responses along the lines of, 'that's nice.' If you write a non-fiction, opinion-driven book called "The Perils of 'Privilege,'" maybe you don't get quite that response. Which is a longwinded way of saying, I don't really know what it's like to have written A Book. Just to have written that one.

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