It’s been one year since my debut novel, Of Scars and Stardust, fought its way into the world. It’s hard to believe that this time last year I was sick to my stomach with anxiety over sending my little story into the hands of readers, while at the same time prouder than I’ve ever been.
I wrote all about how Of Scars and Stardust came to be over here, but the short version is this: It took over a year on submission and a LOT of rounds of revision to get it there. At the time, I was disheartened and frustrated that entire year, but looking back, I know now that there are very few books that get into the world without both a high level of commitment and a ton of patience. Here are five other things I’ve learned about both publishing and creativity over the past year since going from writer to author.
You do you.
Look, publishing a novel is a huge deal, and it’s something you should definitely spend some time squeeing over. But the thing is, just because you’ve sold once, there is no guarantee that you’ll sell again. Which means you’ve got to have irons in the fire, people. Lots of them. But they need to actually matter.
What I used to think that meant was that I needed to capitalize on whatever was selling big in YA, especially now since my name was already out there and numerous editors that had rejected SCARS had also asked my agent to send along whatever my next project became. The pressure to perform was intense, so I wanted to make sure what I wrote counted. I wrote a lot of stuff that I thought other people would like. It didn’t work out so well.
The writing was great, they said. The story structure was intact and it was interesting enough, but it didn’t have the spark to push it over the edge. You know what gives a story life? Not trends, or statistics, or numbers, or wish lists.
There’s a reason why the quote “No one else can write your story” is a cliche, and it’s because it’s the absolute truth. No one can write what you love so much, you can’t want to see it on the page. No one can can write what you love, or what you want to explore, like you can. So, yeah, you need to still be writing. You can even still have the goal of selling whatever you’re writing, but you need to go all in on who you actually are and what you want to create.
It doesn’t have to be painful
If there’s anything that I’ll never understand, it’s how writers have come to this place of associating their work with pain. If I had to guess, it’s probably because of the messages we hear about artists in the media, the way some of our writing heroes have talked about their tribulations in the past, and we naturally emulate what we hear and say. I think some of it has to do with the fact that we’re just really freaking sensitive people, and feeling so much all the time can be painful.
Your work doesn’t have to be painful.
You do not need to use pain to fuel your creativity.
You are allowed to love what you’re writing, even if it’s about the hard stuff.
Give yourself permission to love your work, and to let it love you back.
Trust me, it’s the only way to stay sane when everything else about publishing is so very far out of your control. Which brings me to my next point:
Literally nothing is in your control. Nothing.
The rights to my book did end up selling overseas. By all standards of debut success, it did well enough. I had a lot of opportunities to speak and teach and be on panels, I got interviewed for a few newspapers, and it’s all been a lot of fun. And none of that had anything to do with me and my willpower.
If you want to be a creative person, that means that you need to be creating. You don’t always have to be writing, but you’re a maker and you need to be making stuff. Paintings. Letters. Cupcakes. Dinner, whatever. Keep making stuff. It fuels your heart and your life and your happiness.
You know what doesn’t? Obsessively checking your reviews on Goodreads, or your sales ranking on Amazon, or googling your own name. That shit will drain you, and it’ll do it without you even knowing it. And besides, what is even the point? It’s not like you can telepathically convince people to buy your book, and pretty much everyone in publishing agrees that they aren’t completely sure which marketing strategies sell the most books. So the question is: Why aren’t we just making more stuff instead of hovering over our old stuff like a helicopter parent?
Make a commitment. And then let it go.
That’s not to say that I don’t believe in giving it your all. I do, and I always will. And I did. I ran giveaways. I put together some really sweet prize packages, if I do say so myself. I ran up my social media accounts with images and reviews and graphics until I told one of my author friends, “I honestly don’t want to talk about my book ever again.”
Which is right about the time I let it go.
Because here’s the thing: somewhere in this post-debut year (probably around the time my second sale didn’t go through), I made a commitment to books, and it was this:
I will listen to you. I will do what needs to be done to put you out in the world, to tell people about your presence, and when the time comes, I will let you go.
For me, that time came quickly for SCARS. Last winter, when I was asked to speak about my writing process for a class, I almost blanked out on my characters’ names mid-sentence. It’s almost like I had totally forgotten that I was its creator, and that it had ever been a part of me. I think that’s because it wasn’t really mine anymore—it was yours. And I think that’s okay, to not be as in love with something you used to be. We outgrow situations and people and even our own creations, and I think that’s a good sign. It means we’re changing.
So, what’s the point?
What’s the point of even writing then? If nothing is in your control and you have to let your creation float away into the unknown in order to stay sane, then why are we doing all this work?
Well, that’s up to you.
I used to do this work because I wanted to be published. Badly. And when I dug a little deeper into that longing, I opened up a shitstorm of stuff about myself that I hadn’t been willing to look at. I’ve probably spent a good 2.5 decades addicted to accomplishment, to striving and achieving. I realized that a lot of my self-worth hinged upon how fast I run, how high I climbed, how many trophies or contests or spelling bees I won. And publishing was just another one of those challenges to conquer.
I’ve since shifted my focus, but not without a lot of effort and patience toward my own inclinations to overwork and overachieve.
I now do this work because I love it. I do it because I am much like a border collie in that if I’m not actively burning off mental and physical energy, I am probably destroying something of value, including but not limited to: my friendships, my marriage, my self-esteem, my reputation, my inner peace, and my generally positive outlook. (Elizabeth Gilbert mentions a similar sentiment in her new book, Big Magic, and when I read that I was like, “YES. Preach, sister.”)
I do this because creativity is my direct line of communication with something bigger than me, and writing has become something nourishing and stabilizing, not something to be “won.” Everything in my life is more whole because of this commitment: I work hard to stay healthy and work out so that I have the energy to sit down with my writing after a long day. I’m organized and efficient at most tasks so that I can clear the way to get to my true work. I (try) to keep my relationships stable and peaceful, not only because they matter so much to me, but because I am a much better writer when I’m happy.
This has been both a really enlightening and difficult year, with both publishing and in my personal life. But when I look back at all the opportunities I’ve had and made, the direction I finally decided to take with my writing, and how much healthier I am in all aspects of my life, I’m grateful for the accomplishments and the rocky patches. I’ve got to tell you, publishing is one of the rockiest seas I’ve ever navigated, and taking it off my plate as “something else to achieve” has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.