It’s that time of the year. We’re taking stock of what we’ve done, of what we’ve accomplished. There are lists and lists of the best books of the year, the best movies, the best of everything and then some.
I am, by the way, not against any of this.
2018 has been a wild ride for me— my debut released! I turned in book two! I sold book three! What is air!— but I’d also like to take a moment, to pause and to say this: even in those years where you cannot list things out beautifully and perfectly, you have not wasted your time or your efforts.
There is no such thing as a waste.
There are no wasted words.
There are no wasted years.
Perhaps you wrote eighty thousand words and had to delete sixty five thousand of them. Perhaps you barely got four thousand words drafted this year. Perhaps you wrote your book, but it didn’t sell. Perhaps you switched tacks, switched genres, changed agents, lost your editor. I don’t know, I’m not you. But we all have these moments. Where the setbacks feel larger than life. Where they feel insurmountable.
Where we want to potentially give up. Where everyone around is us on another list, on another track, living a better creative life.
I’m here to tell you that these years, these moments of unclarity (I know that’s not a word, but go with me), these phases where everything feels like a haze are just as important as the obvious accomplishments. These years and these times are not wastes of your life. They are not wastes of your talents.
I’ve thought a lot about this. I started the first part of my working life thinking I wanted to work in museums and the arts. I graduated in the worst recession since the Great Depression. There weren’t a lot of jobs in the arts available. And even when I snagged one, the work wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Then I thought I would go to graduate school and be a professor. I loved the work and I hated the living environment of academia. I’ve worked in retail, I’ve worked in galleries. In curatorial departments. At teaching.
I did not end up in any of the longterm places you get to with those jobs, but working them and learning the ropes was not a waste. Writing academically, even though I now write fiction, was not a waste. Understanding how art becomes a commercial endeavor was not a waste. Learning to deal with customers and clients was not a waste.
I learned to research efficiently and to be rigorous with my reading from graduate school. Retail taught me to understand when I was showing up for work, when I was “on” and had to really be able to be professional while dealing with strangers (aka customers). Teaching taught me how to break down any kind of lesson, so that everything was in digestible pieces. Taught me how to get out of my way of understanding the world and be able to communicate what I see to someone who understands the world entirely differently.
None of that was a waste. All of that is applicable to my work now. Not always directly. But I carried the lessons I learned from these spans of time of my life that— for years— I believed was a waste.
The business end of writing will always be important. I am not going to lie to you and say that I don’t understand the value in selling a book. Being mindful of your work and the audience of your work doesn’t go away as a professional artist.
But remember that your art is allowed to exist outside of the business side as well. That sometimes you must write a book that does not sell, that does not perform as you wish, in order to write the next thing that maybe does.
So as you take stock of your year, think about everything you’ve accomplished, not just as it fits on a neat list. Think of what you’ve lived through, what you’ve come out the other side of. Think about what you’ve learned from what didn’t work out. Think about the ways that those false starts taught you about yourself, about your art, about the ways in which you create.
And most of all, remember you’re more than any list. More than any one book. You always bring your whole life and whole self to the page, no matter what you’re writing.
Happy New Year, and I’ll catch y’all on the flip side.
I’m sure everyone who has seen Mean Girls remembers Damian’s famous line about Regina George, the Queen Bee: “That’s why her hair is so big. It’s full of secrets!”
Taken out of context, the line could totally work for anyone involved in publishing! Whether you’re a literary agent, an editor, or an author, you will most likely have to keep a secret at one point in time, for one reason or another.
I’ve had author friends with offers of representation, book deals, and/or movie deals that they weren’t allowed to announce publicly until much later. I’ve had agent friends who signed on amazing writers and editor friends who won heated, multi-house book auctions, but couldn’t share widely just yet.
I myself had to keep my three-book deal with Penguin for FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS a secret for almost five months before we announced. The reason? My editor was hoping to time the announcement just right to increase our chances of getting interest from foreign publishers. It was torturous not to share the happy news, but I told myself that keeping it quiet would make the announcement a much bigger surprise when it did come out. And it did!
Secret-keeping in a business like ours is HARD, particularly if – like many of us – you’ve had to struggle along before you saw any validation in your line of work. Out of curiosity, a couple of months ago, I started this poll on Twitter to gauge how other people deal with keeping secrets:
I kept seeing, among my acquaintance, publishing folks either:
Telling everyone and sundry. I’ve seen posts on Facebook that began with: “I shouldn’t be telling anyone this, but I have a five-book deal!” Or “I’m not allowed to share this cover for six more months, but here it is! Please keep private!”
Vague-tweeting. This is usually in the form of a sly “I have news that I can’t talk about” or “Something interesting just hit my inbox and WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO KNOW WHAT IT IS.”
Telling their most trusted friends. I’m part of some close-knit writer groups where people feel free to share good news before it goes public!
Remaining silent, thenannouncing. This is the technique I used with FOTL, going so far as to straight-up lie to friends who asked me what was going on with the book. I wanted it to be a gigantic surprise!
800 people responded to the poll and results were overwhelmingly in favor of telling your inner circle. This makes sense to me: it’s a way to vent your excitement among a small, trusted group of people without announcing at large.
What is very, very important when sharing, however, is to make sure that the people you’re telling can be trusted. You don’t want to get in trouble for releasing news that isn’t supposed to be out yet, because there’s generally a good reason why it must be secret!
What surprised me most was how few people (only 14%) selected vague-tweet, because that’s the method of secret-sharing I see the most on Twitter, Instagram, AND Facebook. Do a cursory scroll of the feed on any of these sites and you’ll most likely see someone hinting slyly about something gorgeous in their inbox, or a title reveal, or movie news, or signing with an agent, etc.
I included that poll in a thread and asked people to share their reasons for vague-tweeting. To me, it’s a fascinating practice because it’s so deeply unsatisfying. Like you have a mosquito bite on your leg and instead of scratching it or putting calamine lotion on it, you’re patting it lightly and making it even more itchy. (Okay, that was a weird analogy, but YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.)
Vague-tweeters responded by saying that 1) they wanted to drum up anticipation for upcoming news, 2) they wanted to vent their excitement a bit, or 3) they wanted attention and people to know that they had good things going on. All of which are fair and valid reasons, and I’ve actually dipped my toe into the vague-tweet pool a couple of times this fall. I still find it unsatisfying, though, and it makes the actual announcement a lot less of a bombshell because people are already expecting you to share something.
What about you? Have you had to keep a publishing secret and how did you do it? What is your preferred way to deal with holding on to an announcement?
Earlier this year, I weighed all my commitments and realized that I needed to let some things go. Unfortunately, Pub(lishing) Crawl made that list, and while I am sad about it, I’ve been posting (almost) monthly for six years. My departure will make a space for someone new, with fresh thoughts and enthusiasm.
With my final post, I wanted to leave you with some encouragement:
1. Finish your book.
You can, and it matters. Whether it’s your first or your fiftieth, finishing a manuscript is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated. There is nothing like that feeling of working for weeks or months or years, giving so much time and energy, and finally typing END. Give yourself that gift.
2. Protect your booklove.
Regardless whether you’re published or trying to get published, this business is really difficult. It can make you question yourself, your skills, your worthiness — everything. I know it’s easier said than done, but protect your love for your book. You got into this writing thing because you have stories to tell. Don’t let outside voices and worries become a poison.
3. Do your best.
Be open to learning and improving your craft. Your story deserves to be the best you can make it, so read widely, study craft books, and welcome thoughtful criticism. There’s always more to learn, and ultimately, it’s up to you to get your book into its best shape possible. After all, it’s your name on the cover.
4. Find your balance.
It can be so easy to dive face-first into the bookworld and forget everything else. But make sure you take the time to visit with friends and family. Go places. Develop hobbies that aren’t about books. When booklife gets overwhelming, it’s important to have somewhere else to go.
5. Remember your readers.
In young adult, we have a lot of adult readers, but our target audience is teens. As we write and promote and engage online, remember who we’re hoping to reach.
Generally speaking, I’m a very introverted person. I don’t love parties. Meeting new people can be more stressful than fun. My ideal weekend consists of me, my couch, some snacks, and a great book or manuscript. So all through the pre-publication process, leading up to EVERLESS’s release, I was sure of one thing: events were going to be a challenge. Faced with talking about my book to actual readers, I’d surely freeze up or shut down. I’d have to brace myself to appear in front of a crowd, and I’d be an awkward robot while signing. Before EVERLESS’s launch party, I was so nervous that I chugged a cocktail beforehand (as the wonderful Zoraida Cordova, who was moderating, can attest).
And that pre-event nervousness hasn’t gone away. I’ve been similarly nervous before every trip and every event, especially when there’s some sort of complicating factor—a tight layover, a schedule in flux, a language barrier. I’m always sure that no one will show up, that I’ll say something stupid, that I’ll sell no books and disappoint my team.
And yet—you know where this is going, right?—all my events have been absolutely wonderful. Every single time, once the event actually starts, it goes fantastically. Even when there are hiccups, I’ve never failed to have a great time, and (I hope) the people who attended did too. Recently, I was wondering why that is. Why do my standard struggles for human interaction seem not to apply to book events?
First of all, it’s a massive privilege to see people engaging with my work. To have people take time out of their busy days to come to a bookstore to hear me read and speak. I’m humbled by every event. But more than anything else, I think, it’s the power of story overcoming my personal awkwardness. It’s crazy awesome that a book—a story—can transcend distance, geography, even language. That a reader anywhere in the world can pick up a book and be plugged directly into the mind of the person who wrote it. I think it’s one of the closest things we have to real magic.
So while it’s okay to be nervous before events, trust in the power of books and their unique power to get a bunch of introverted nerds out the door and get them excited about it. And a bit of preparation can ease the stress, too, so here are some tips for making your event the best it can be:
Figure out what color Sharpies work best for your book and buy them in bulk. Carry them with you always, and especially to events—never assume the venue will have enough!
Also in the category of things the venue will probably have but you should bring just in case: a bottle of water, a granola bar, and a copy of your book. If you plan to read an excerpt, find and bookmark the page beforehand.
When signing books, try to make a connection with each person you meet. Most people have something to say, even if it needs a little drawing out! You can ask people where they’re from, what their favorite part of the book was, or even just how their day is going. And remember that readers are like wild animals: probably more scared of you than you are of them. To ease that fear, try to be a person first, and an author second.
Figure out some stock phrases or doodles to write when signing books (unless you are one of those authors who can compose long, beautiful messages on the spot, in which case: I envy you). I usually think of a couple references/inside jokes from the book for people who have read it already, and another for people who haven’t yet. You’ll usually be able to tell from talking to the people in line who’s who, and hopefully your charm will convert the non-readers into fans!
Have something small to give away for people who aren’t ready to purchase a book that day. While sales are super important—especially for the bookstore, where booksellers often put significant time and resources toward making events happen—there will likely be a few people in line who can’t buy that day, but would still like to meet you. If you have bookmarks or postcards you can sign and give out, that will make them feel welcome (and give them something to remember you by)!
BONUS TIP: I’ve seen more and more authors bring an object—a book, a journal, a poster, a tote bag—to signings for readers to sign, and I can’t tell you how much I love this idea. It makes readers into participants, gives them a chance to tell you how much they loved your book, and makes a fabulous, heartwarming souvenir for you!
A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of hearing Naomi Novik, author of UPROOTED and SPINNING SILVER, speak about fantasy and folklore at a local bookstore. She likened fairy tales to desire lines: those eroded paths in grass or woodland that form when many people seek out the same things—a shortcut, a nice view, a way around an obstacle. They can endure for centuries. Fairy tale characters are full of desires: they want fortune, they want companionship, they want power, they want justice. And fairy tales endure because we share those desires; to be human is to want things—things abstract and tangible, essential and frivolous, reasonable and dangerous.
So for me, the single biggest factor in whether I find a story emotionally compelling is desire: how badly does the protagonist want whatever it is that they want? Is their desire fuzzy and nebulous, or specific, personal, and urgent? Does their desire appear on page one and propel them throughout the story? If a character wants anything desperately and they’re doing something about it, I’m likely to sit up and pay attention. What can I say? Obsessed people are interesting to read about.
When brainstorming examples of characters who really, really want things, the first stories that came to mind were actually musicals. Musicals are fantastic case studies for characterization, because the format removes the need for realism that exists in other mediums—and therefore allows audiences a clearer view into character’s psyches. People don’t typically go around declaring out loud who they are and what they want, but musical characters do exactly that. Usually in the second or third song, after they’ve set the stage.
I am reaching, but I fall, and the night is closing in, as I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin…I’ll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is nothing now; another story must begin!
Not Barker. That man is dead. It’s Todd now, Sweeney Todd, and he will have his revenge!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country; I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot!
Sadly, breaking out into song at emotionally charged moments isn’t an option for most characters. But even so, you as the writer should know: if your protagonist’s life was a musical, how would their introductory song go? What desire would they declare?
Of course, what we want most can shift and change over time—because we’ve achieved a long-held goal, or realized we wanted something else more, or found that the thing we wanted is no longer an option. I’m always fascinated by stories where the protagonist’s greatest, deepest, most foundational desire… shifts. The desire path takes a turn.
But such shifts in characters’ desires have to be skillfully executed, or you risk leaving your reader feeling confused, underwhelmed, or like the first half of the story didn’t matter. I was excited to watch Netflix’s new show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but ended up stopping after a few episodes. At first, Sabrina desired freedom to learn about her powers while still staying connected to the human world, rather than sign her soul over to the Dark Lord. After four episodes’ worth of butting heads with the witchy authorities, a compromise is reached and Sabrina is allowed to retain her soul while attending witch school. So that’s her desire checked off, but afterward, no new desire really rises to replace it—there are some vague declarations about taking down the Dark Lord, but nothing that feels urgent and personal to Sabrina. So without the propulsive current of desire, the show felt deflated. If what your character wants most changes over the course of their story, the new desire needs to be even stronger than the old one.
Done right, though, a desire shift can be an amazing tentpole moment, an emotionally resonant turning point. For example, let’s turn back to Sondheim’s delightfully dark and gory musical Sweeney Todd. For the first half of the show, Sweeney has had only one desire: to avenge himself on the evil Judge Turpin, who sent him to prison on false charges so he could lay claim to Sweeney’s wife Lucy. Finally, Turpin shows up at Sweeney’s barbershop, where his razors are ready… but something goes wrong, and Turpin storms from the shop, vowing never to return. Sweeney’s lost his chance, and with the one thing he wanted most evaporating in front of his eyes, he cracks. Killing Turpin won’t be enough to salve his grief anymore: he needs to avenge himself on the whole wicked world. In a song simply titled “Epiphany,” you can hear the desire that has driven him morphing into something newer and darker.
And my Lucy lies in ashes, and I’ll never see my girl again—but the work waits!
The work, in this case, is cutting people up and cooking them into pies, but the magic of desire in storytelling is such that I’m almost on board. Sweeney wants this so badly that even as I’m horrified, I’m pulled into the story by the strength of his want. If you give your character a powerful current of desire and shape the plot around that desire—no matter what it is they want—you’re on your way to an unforgettable story!