Monday, 10 December 2012

Five Things I Didn't Know Until I Was Published

Thoughts after a year's adventures as a debut author, presented as a warning to other authors approaching publication.

1. Be careful what you write about your book. Long before publication, I had written a few short descriptions of my book - on this blog, in emails to my publisher, as a starting point for publicity materials, that sort of thing. I then spent a year watching those phrases getting spliced together, chopped apart and endlessly repeated. Stray bits of your phrasing end up on press releases, on the Amazon description of your book and elsewhere, and then get repeated back to you by bloggers and reviewers. That's the way of the world. But there was one turn of phrase I had used - it was my words describing my book - that I found trite and in-apt, and I kept seeing it everywhere, rebuking me for my own laziness for just tossing it off when I should have been more careful. So when writing a sentence describing your book, even in an ostensibly private email, consider how you'd feel having it read back to you as part of your introduction on stage at a literary festival.

2. Write your acknowledgments as late as possible. I wrote and filed mine really early, with the text of the book, and consequently neglected to include all sorts of people who should have been there. I later revised them but by then it was obvious what I was doing. Leave the acknowledgement to the last possible moment to minimise the risk of leaving people out.

3. Make yourself available. I have had nothing but good experiences with publicists. But all these lovely people seem to be haunted by previous bad experiences with authors. When I was asked to come and talk to a room full of booksellers about why they might be interested in reading and then prominently displaying my book, my answer was of course: "Why yes, naturally, what an amazing opportunity, thank you for setting it up, refusing would be tantamount to self-harm, I accept the invitation with frank gratitude!" However the invitation was proffered with a degree of trepidation, as if the answer is often: "What a monstrous waste of my time! Away with you!" And apparently there are authors who refuse all such opportunities. Which, as I say, strikes me as being tantamount to self-harm, and also a bit of a bum deal for the publisher who has taken you on. So I say, agree to whatever you can.

4. Appearances are harder than they look. I've been to see a lot of authors sitting on a stage in twos and threes, and I've often thought "that looks pretty easy". You sit there, a kindly moderator asks you helpful questions, everyone has a lovely time. I have a fairly pronounced fear of public speaking (although it has ebbed this year), so a chitchat panel or friendly interview always looked pretty good as a format. Well, I was wrong. First, they involve homework. If you're next to another author, it's only polite to read their books, for the audience's sake as much as for social nicety. So, depending on the number of authors you're appearing with and how many books they have written, you can have quite a large reading list and not very much time to cover it. It never occurred to me that literary festivals would involve so much reading. I thought they were what authors did instead of reading. Not that this is a bad thing, at all - it has exposed me to several good books I might never have otherwise picked up, for instance Francesca Kay's The Translation of the Bones and Iosi Havilio's Open Door. It was simply surprising, and I'm unused to having my fiction reading decided for me. Second - bloody hell, it's improvised. It might not be Paxman but you're still expected to come up with something reasonably cogent and, with any luck, interesting or entertaining to an audience at very short notice. Sometimes the mind just goes blank on the most basic things. This happened in the first radio interview I gave, and it was horrible. I was asked to explain how the narrator in Care of Wooden Floors gets from situation A to situation B and I just couldn't. I had forgotten the plot of my own book.

5. People have designs on your reading time. You get asked to read a lot of books, for comment or blurbing. And of course you can hardly say no, because only months before it was you or your editor out there tugging on the sleeve of other writers, who generously gave of their time. And now the wheel has turned, the bill is due. Free books, how awful, I know. Don't get me wrong - as with the literary festivals, this doesn't even qualify as work, especially when whatever you've been asked to read is incredibly good, as is the case with the novel I'm reading at present. However it does mean that your leisure reading time rapidly gets programmed - an injection of a modicum of duty into a private and intimate realm that can feel like quite a violation.

There are, of course, a lot more than five things I know now that I didn't know this time last year, but that's all for now. If I think of another five I'll post them.