Just over a year ago I was on the brink of achieving a lifetime’s ambition (and let me assure you, it’s been a long life), ready to celebrate the publication of my debut novel yet aware that what was a huge leap for Anne was a miniscule step for womankind. I was brimming with gratitude for the support I had already, while bracing myself for the inevitable disappointments that lay ahead. As I mark my novel’s first birthday, it seems a good time to reflect on what I’ve learnt in the last twelve months.
Clichéd it might be, but getting a novel published is very much like having a baby, especially in the age of infertility treatment. The parallels are many: the false dawns, setbacks, and let downs on the journey to conceive; the nine months or so of gestation as the novel grows (in quality, if not in size) until ready to emerge as a viable book; the countdown to the launch date and the sense that this book/baby has got to come out whether the mother/author is ready or not; and finally the pride in this new entity as friends and family gather round to admire.
The parallels continue once the baby/book is out in the world: the parents have to grow into the role their baby bestows on them, just as the writer becomes an author by virtue of her book and, no matter how much we might have imbibed from the experience of others, it’s very much a process of learning on the job. I’d thought about this, as well as about how having novels at different stages of development is like parenting a family, but I didn’t notice for a while that the analogy also applies to that stage where you look up from your own creation and realise that there are billions of books and babies and most people are indifferent to yours.
Parents must learn that, while they might lay down their life for their child, they’ll make a lot of enemies if they trample on other people’s children in the process. Parents must also learn that other people’s children might have genuine virtues that their darlings don’t possess. So when Junior gets only a non-speaking part as a lamb in the school nativity play, his parents still turn up to cheer him on and congratulate the infant Mary and Joseph on their performance on stage.
Similarly, I’ve learnt that I’ll fight for my own book with an energy and shamelessness I never knew I possessed. Despite being an introvert and shrinking violet, I’ve said yes to every offer of publicity (including an anxiety-inducing appearance on a local TV network) and been hyper-vigilant to opportunities to push my novel without being pushy. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to review others’ novels on my blog (Annecdotal), and to celebrate the success of those I’ve particularly enjoyed.
Having published a number of short stories, I had some experience of reader feedback on my words. But a few sentences in the comments section of an e-zine, albeit much appreciated, is small beer relative to the response to a novel. Although I maintain that reviews are for readers not writers, I can’t help revelling in my novel’s reviews. While readers forge strong connections with fictional characters, relating to them as they relate to people in real life, writers also value affirmations as evidence that we are not writing into a void.
Of the myriad special moments, I’ll highlight just a few: the reviewer who suggested a song for my playlist; the woman who walked into one of my library events frantically trying to finish the last chapter; the review from Spain; the woman, who had had a similar life experience to my character, Diana, who mentioned on Twitter that if she ever decided to share her secret past with her friend she’d give her a copy of Sugar and Snails. For any writer published by a small press, whose voice is often drowned out in a noisy marketplace, reader endorsement of any kind counts for a great deal.
I took a big risk last year publishing a novel on a challenging topic in a way that resonates for me personally with a publisher I’d never heard of. I didn’t know that Inspired Quill would make such a good job of it, nor did I know that readers would be so readily engaged. Additionally, as I said at my launch party, I worried that those who did read my novel would discover that I was even more weird than they’d thought. But, like my protagonist Diana, I had to learn to trust the key players in the process: the publishers; potential readers; my characters; myself. I’m taking that trust into my next publishing adventure, when my second novel, Underneath, comes out in May next year. Steve isn’t as heroic as Diana; in fact, keeping a woman imprisoned in a cellar, he’s a fairly disturbed and disturbing man. You’d certainly be advised to steer away from him in real life, but I trust we’ve done enough on the writing, rewriting and editing for readers to take a risk on his story.