On… a New Author Survival Guide

I was emailing with a newish author (well, newer than me, and I’ve only been a little teeny tiny author for about three years, so whatevs, as people born in the 90s say) the other day and she said how there’s very little on the internet for new authors. Loads of support for would-be authors, forums and tips galore, apparently, but nothing for published authors.

So I thought I’d write my own little New Author Survival Guide.

(The ubiquitous Gemma Burgess caveat: I don’t know what it’s like for anyone else, I only know what it’s like for me. Maybe all other new authors disagree, and I’m just dancing to my own little song in the corner of the party. That’s okay. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.)

Let’s get down to it, shall we?

1. Don’t Google yourself or read any reviews. Ever.

The vast majority will be great, but if you see even one negative one, it’ll upset you more than you can imagine.  About two months ago, I was looking for something I wrote on my blog last year, and couldn’t remember where it was. So I googled myself plus some keyword from the blog post. Up came a review that I stupidly clicked on – it was positive, but referenced something a negative review said about the characters all being alike. Cue; immediate misery, unable to write all day, lots of dejected sighing and staring out the window.

You can’t really learn anything from reviews, because other people’s opinions are just that – opinions. They’re valid, of course, but they’re really only valid for the person whose opinion it is. I have oh, so many valid and important opinions, and will argue at length about why [insert acclaimed book title HERE] was a badly edited / self-indulgent / overly verbose / derivative piece of shit, etc, but it’s just my opinion. Not fact. Someone else might adore what I hate. (Some of my best friends read stuff I think is weird and/or rubbish. Fox likes to read sci-fantasy called shit like Dragonsword: Dogs Of War and Darkthunder: The Throne Rises. I wish I was kidding.) So as an author, you can’t pander to everyone else’s opinion. You have to write what you want to write or you won’t be passionate about it (and it won’t be good). If all books took into account all critics then there would only be one book in the entire world, and it would be about Kim Kardashian’s ass.

Now, of course you need to take into account some opinions, but that’s pre-publishing. You’ll have a few readers that you really trust, including your agents and editors. Their job is to help a manuscript become the best it can possibly be, and they do. They see things from a different angle, they offer a highly intelligent gut reaction, they’re smart and sensible and generally goddamn awesome. But like I say, that’s pre-publishing. Once your book is cooked, let people eat it, and don’t ask them about their digestion. You can’t cook it again.

(An aside: the worst thing about someone saying something mean about my writing is that I will immediately agree with that person and can explain why. Of course all my characters are fun-loving urban professional yuppie-hipster hybrids. That’s what I am. Duh. I’m not going to write books about a one-legged war hero spy who becomes a butcher, it’s just not going to fucking happen. And of course my characters drink and swear (apparently this is the other frequent criticism of my books) that’s what professional women in big cities do, that’s how we talk. I’m not going to pretend that the average 20-something in New York or London goes to salsa lessons and then hangs out in a cupcake shop talking about cats and poetry because they fucking don’t. They go to work and then they go to bars and they worry about guys and money and their career, and in between time they read magazines on the elliptical trainer at the gym and fuck up their fake tan and spend way too long crafting a text to that dude they met last week. But I digress. As usual. The point is, never Google yourself.)

2. Don’t watch your sales figures

Ask your agent to tell you if it’s amazing, otherwise, just ask for a general update when 12 months have passed. Until then, it’s too upsetting – you’ll never sell as much as you think you should, and you’ll start worrying about being out of print before the ink is dry. You’ll walk into a bookstore or a library, realise there are a million books that people might choose to read before yours, fall to the floor and start hyperventilating.

The whole sales figures thing is especially agonising when you realise you make about 5 per cent of the book price. My first two books have sold pretty well, but I haven’t even made as much from them as I did in my first year salary as a junior copywriter in advertising. Taste my flavour? The odds of becoming JK Rowling are somewhere between ‘zero’ and ‘fuck all’.

Oh, and keep your old job, or get another, ideally one that’s flexible and involves words. I was a copywriter before I was an author (I never particularly wanted to be an author; I wrote the opening chapters to The Dating Detox on a whim, got an agent and then had to finish the darn thing, and realised I LOVED writing books), and continued to be a copywriter while writing the first two books. When I got the book series deal with St Martins Press and found out I was knocked up (in the same week! Good timing, GemGem) I moved to Zurich where Fox was living, scaled back on the copywriting, just writing for a few favorite clients and magazines, and I’ve started screenwriting. (More about that another time.)

3.Take responsibility for your own publicity, but don’t worry about it too much.

I got some publicity for The Dating Detox via the publisher, but between you and me, reviews in those weekly magazines are basically bought. If no one will buy one for you, just do your own thing. I made a trailer for The Dating Detox with a gang of friends the weekend before I got married (about four months after The Dating Detox was published). The publisher Harper Collins wasn’t involved at all, I just did it because I thought it would be fun. I created postcards, I did a silly Name That Bastard campaign online. I started writing for Tatler, and got a gig writing a column for a London magazine called The Grove. All this stuff was good publicity, I hope, but more importantly it was fun, so if it didn’t pay off I didn’t really mind.

It’s easy to get a bit obsessed with publicity (or blogging, or Twitter, or Facebook, or any other book-related activity that can suck up all your time). But focusing on your next book, or your next article, or your next screenplay, or whatever you’re passionate about writing next is much more important – and more satisfying.

Final word on publicity: the best publicity for books is word of mouth, and we can’t control that. I remember hearing about Eat Pray Love, Shopaholic and Bridget Jones Diary from friends, don’t you? They took about 18 months to become bestsellers, mostly through word of mouth. So you just need to hope that people will talk about your books. (And tell their friends to buy it, not borrow it. Ha.)

Here’s The Dating Detox trailer. In case you feel like watching it. The strapline for the trailer is ‘Finally, a book trailer that doesn’t suck’.

I didn’t make a trailer for A Girl Like You. I was going to – it was going to be a mash-up of two dozen girls doing different walks of shame.  You know, because it’s funny, and because of the whole one night stand chapter, and to represent that it’s a novel about every girl, ie, A Girl Like You, blahdiblah. But it was just too hard to film in Jan/Feb last year, as it was winter and dark and freezing - I made about five clips but I needed many more. And I was really goddamn sick with pregnancy and had so much writing to do for the new series, and, excuses excuses excuses. Hey ho. Strangely enough, Harvey Nichols ended up using the EXACT idea – but at the end of 2011. Someone is clearly stealing from my brain.

So if you want to see what the A Girl Like You would have been like, it would have been something like this. But with better music. And classier girls.

4. Your friends will all react differently.

I know from experience that it’s profoundly strange to read your friend’s work, as you can only hear your friend’s voice talking to you through the manuscript. There is no suspension of disbelief, and it’s kind of tiring. So I don’t expect my best friends to read my books, in fact, I’m almost happier when I think they haven’t. I have made a lot of new friends in the past year, and I don’t expect them to read my books, either. When they say things like ‘I should read your books!’ I get all awkward and ‘ah, yeah, no, don’t, seriously, don’t worry about it, I suck,’ etc.

Some friends will pretend to have read your books, but you can always tell when they haven’t. Some really will love it, and you can always tell that too, and that’s lovely. Some will be convinced you were writing about them. (I promise, I wasn’t. Ever. Trust me, you guys aren’t that interesting.) (Kidding.) (Mostly.)

I think the best way is that no one feels obliged, so I never ask anyone to read it, or give them copies.

Every now and again someone will be a real bitch about your books, which is also kind of fun. A friend of a friend said ‘I read your book! I can’t BELIEVE you got published!’ with a huge shit-eating smile on her face. Someone else flippantly referred to them as ‘fluffy’, which to me is basically a synonym for ‘stupid and trivial’. I actually flinched, and called Fox and cried on my way home (lame!), as I thought everything I write and stand for is the antithesis of fluffy. (Remember kids, just because a story is about a woman figuring out what she wants in life and love doesn’t make it trivial – in fact, what could be more important? And if something is easy to read, and trippytrips along at a page-turning pace, it doesn’t mean it’s stupid. Nathanial Hawthorne said easy reading is damn hard writing. And so on. Sorry, would you help me down from my soapbox? Thank you.)

5. You’ll probably stop telling new people you’re an author.

Or you’ll put off telling them till the second or third meeting or until you’re sure you’re going to be friends, as the reaction can be so agonising. They form opinions about you right in front of your eyes. Oh, and taxi drivers all have six novels in their glove compartment and will ask you to help them get published. Actually, a lot of people will want you to help them get published. Some will ask you to edit their novels for them. Idiots will say ‘they say everyone’s got a novel in them,’ and expect you to agree. The worst is people who say ‘Are you a bestseller? No? Why not? I’ve never heard of you. What kind of novel? Romantic comedy? Oh, chicklit. I don’t read that sort of thing. I have a degree in English Literature, you see, it’s terribly hard for me to read lowbrow.’ Suck my lowbrow. (Where the fuck is my soapbox?)

6. Nothing changes.

This is SO strange. One day, you’re not published, the next day, you walk into a bookstore and boom, there’s your book. With your name on it. Right there. On the shelf. (Next to Candace Bushnell, in my case, which makes it extra surreal.) But in every other way, life is exactly the same. You are a normal person doing normal things with a normal past. You’re the same person that spent most of her 25thyear crying in the bathrooms at work. The same person who is genuinely unable to remember a number longer than two digits, that hasn’t driven since she was 21 and doesn’t really see the point, and still, really, can’t work out what to do with her goddamn eyebrows. You wear the same clothes and go to the same restaurants and have the same friends, you worry about the same things and feel the same about everything. You’re still you.

7. Everything changes.

Life becomes richer and better and more interesting in a lot of tiny unexpected ways, simply because somewhere out there, in the world, at any moment, someone might be reading your book. The same book you wrote, all alone, tapping away feverishly into the darkness, agonising over plot twists and characters and dialogue, hoping it felt real and might make someone laugh one day.

Sometimes those people will email you. This is the absolute best part about being an author. I got my first email from a reader a week after The Dating Detox was published, and I nearly fell off the sofa in delighted shock. Every single email that I have received since then has had, more or less, the same reaction. Sometimes people email you that you’re just like them (which I love), that you cheered them up after a bad breakup or tough period, or made them think differently about life. Sometimes you’ll make friends with readers, and meet up in person, and realise that there are more kindred spirits (with a nod to Anne of Green Gables) out there than you thought possible.

Sometimes people will read more into your novels than you ever consciously thought about. A woman is doing a PhD on new feminist chicklit with a focus on my books, which is amazing and strange and wonderful.

8. Don’t worry too much about any of it.

The pressure of finally being published – after writing, and getting an agent, and getting a publisher, and editing, and copyediting – is insane. And most of it is pressure that you put on yourself – the expectation of being a bestseller, the expectation of your existence suddenly changing, when really, it won’t. So just enjoy what you can, and ignore what you can’t. (That’s pretty much my life philosophy.)

Whenever you’re really stressed out, take a deep breath, and remember: you’ve written something that your great-great-grandchildren will be able to read. They’ll never meet you, but they’ll know you through that little book.

And that’s kind of amazing, isn’t it?

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3 thoughts on “On… a New Author Survival Guide

  1. Roy

    Love the post Gemma. Sums up the mixed feelings us tiny new authors have. Are you ever tempted to stand in Waterstones pretending to browse a book while secretly watching to see if someone picks up yours? :-)

  2. Kim

    Hi Gemma,

    Loved your survival guide! This is great advice for both newbie authors and wannabe newbie authors a.k.a. moi.

    I'm sure you've been asked this a billion times but do you have any advice to share on how to get that darn first draft written whilst juggling a full-time job? I would love a few tips on how to keep going when work/life seems to constantly get in the way of writing. Gotta love that bastard Mr Procrastination, huh?



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