We sell a lot of first-time authors at my literary agency. Writers like Karen Marie Moning, Gena Showalter, Beverly Brandt, Cara Lockwood, Jacquelin Thomas, Jennifer St. Giles, to name a few, were all authors whose very first books we placed with a publisher.
With that thought in mind, one of my clients and I were recently discussing how the sale of a first book can potentially impact a writer’s psyche, often for the negative. You know, the nattering voices of performance anxiety or impostor syndrome—the sorts of problems that agents tend to “occasionally” see in their new authors.
I weighed in from my own current experience as a new author, as well as my longstanding philosophy as an agent of new writers. Here’s the advice I often give, and have, of late, given to myself. The truth is that even though my own books are now under contract, I am the same writer I was two days before the sale, or the day before, or the year before. Whatever. There is the sense when you head back to work “the day after” the sale that the stakes are higher, that now the work MUST be the very very very very best ever. But then it’s like you release a sigh, you unclench your hands… and just go back to what you’ve always been doing.
If you’re lucky. For me, I calculate that in the past four years or so I have written more than a million words on a variety of novels. I suppose that kind of work habit forms a nicely worn groove on my creative carpet, which does make it easier to employ the mantra that I’m *doing what I was doing the day before I sold.* Because I AM doing what I was doing the day before I sold—I’m writing. Grin.
Now, on the other hand, I have a client who has been publishing a long time (at least in my mind—five years is a long time in this business.) She tells me that with every book it gets harder; you’re more aware of the potential for bad “fallout” and the self-pressure becomes more and more intense. I see this scenario play out with some of my clients too.
But all of this brings me to my morning’s epiphany (or late last night’s epiphany.) I was thinking that now that I’ve sold my first books, I find I’m delving into my writing craft with less frenzied emotion. (Oh, and by the way, the oasis is just fine—thank you. No worries about me and my creative drought!) There’s not that feeling of, “What if THIS one won’t sell? What if it’s wrong for the market?” Those doubts that tend to haunt you while you work on a novel for, oh, sixteen or seventeen months as I did my first women’s fiction/literary novel. The One That’s Yet To Sell. But I’m okay with the fact that it hasn’t because as an agent AND author, I’m a firm believer in taking risks. We have to target the market, and we can’t be foolish or Pollyanna, but at the same time I think that when a writer follows the story that’s whispering to them, even if it doesn’t sell immediately, it’s a worthwhile investment of their skill and time—despite those haranguing doubts in the sixteen month writing breach.
Which explains my recent answers about online writing while on the RWC list. Several of the authors on that loop seemed surprised that I had such a positive outlook on online publishers—what’s more surprising to me, however, is that other agents are dubious about the medium. Apparently some agents look at it as a lazy format for learning craft, but I have to say I feel pretty impassioned on this topic. I view online writing as a unique way to allow a writer to push the boundaries. To learn that it’s okay to write the risky books, and that if they do, a readership may very well follow. Today’s print publishing market is nothing if not rigid in what it will “tolerate”, i.e. editors tell me, “We want paranormals, but ONLY if they’re really, really, really sexy. They HAVE to be sexy, okay?” (Actual tidbit of conversation with a publisher in NYC.) What about the sensual, wildly romantic beta hero, who may not think from his ‘nether regions” every time, but might actually use his other head.
And, by the way, I’m sure that Karen Marie Moning wouldn’t mind me sharing that when I first shopped out BEYOND THE HIGHLAND MIST, many editors told me: “Nobody reads time travel.” Not.
Online writers find a wealth of possibility right now, and I’m betting that in years to come the medium will come to be regarded as the place where certain cutting edge writing forms gained a foothold. Don’t quote me on that or anything, but I believe that freedom in creative pursuit is a powerful thing. Which brings me back to my opening thought here: when an author lands their first book contract, there’s the potential for anxiety and pressure, but there’s also an exhilarating freedom that comes in knowing your work has found a home. That inner place of questioning is silenced, and for the first time in your life you can go about the business of writing without the handmaiden of doubt—that doubt about whether the work will sell, or if it speaks to the market. Later, new choking doubts will appear, concerns about sell-throughs, and reviews, and packaging, and option books, and cruel bloggers, and the like. But for this glorious sliver of time, your newly contracted job is heartbreakingly simple. You are a writer. Just what you always wanted to be.