Learning Curves & Spinning Plates: The Debut Year Experience
By Lorraine Wilson
This last year has been wild. Exactly one year ago my debut novel, This Is Our Undoing, opened for pre-orders. I had done a couple of blog interviews and was almost, almost, a published author. My book was coming out with a small press so I was unagented and had no further book deals, and I was terrified that this one book might be my only chance to make enough of an impression to move my career forward. Would this book that I loved sink without trace, taking my aspirations with it? I didn’t know. I didn’t know much of anything.
Fast forward a year and the landscape of my hopes is looking somewhat different. This Is Our Undoing has been long/short listed for three awards. My second book, The Way The Light Bends, is coming out in August, and my third, which gained me an agent, is coming out next year. I have a fourth with my agent and a fifth, plus a novella, in progress. I have been commissioned to write articles, invited to appear on panels and run workshops, and launched my own mentoring scheme for under-represented writers. It is as if, surreal though that feels, I am a “proper author” now.
If I were to go back a year and sit myself down with a cup of tea, what would I tell myself?
First, and perhaps most importantly, don’t stress about reviews. It’s impossible to avoid them entirely, especially when you are expected to help promote things like blog tours, but remember this: You’ll get some great ones, you’ll get some stinkers; hang in there and trust your book to find its readership. There are people out there who are simply not your target audience and will never see in your book what others do, but there are also people who will love it wholeheartedly. Focus on the latter, those are the readers you are writing for.
Second, time management becomes way more challenging than you expect. Having written to self-imposed timetables for years, suddenly you have contracted editorial/copyedit/proof deadlines for future books, interviews and events for published and upcoming books, editorial rounds with your agent, and in between all of those you are meant to be writing new things as well. Your creative energy and your available time both suddenly look far sparser than they used to, and you’ll feel like you are spinning plates trying to balance each project. That’s okay. Everyone feels like that. Be realistic with yourself about how long you need to do each project, add some extra to cover the short-notice things that materialise out of the blue, and if that means you need an extension on a deadline then ask for one. It turns out everyone in publishing is overworked; they will understand that you, too, might be struggling and they would rather know as soon as possible so that timetables can be adjusted.
If you, like me, are balancing writing with something else, whether that is children, work, health issues, or carer responsibilities then those spinning plates become all the more challenging. One of the important realisations of the last year though was that I can now justify prioritising my writing. It’s my job, I’m allowed to “ring-fence” time and energy for it, and ask others to respect that. The flip side of that is I’m also allowed to take time off from writing. Now more than ever, as the external pressures increase, it is essential to step away sometimes. If you are in this for the long haul then you need to create a sustainable, flexible working practice that isn’t going to lead to burnout in a year’s time. Any increase in stress impacts my health quite severely so this balance is something I am still learning to manage, but I’m closer now than I was even just a few months ago.
Third, the book blogger/podcasting community is amazing. They are genuinely the cheerleaders of the publishing world and are a joy to work with. However, marketing will remain a mystery. You will never know whether any of the dozens of podcasts, speaker events, blog posts or interviews actually result in sales. And your publisher doesn’t know either. Because of the different accounting speeds of different outlets, it is impossible to track book purchases against publicity. Amazon sales rankings are the closest you’ll get but they are only one outlet, and their rankings are heavily driven by paid-for placings, kindle deals and the vagaries of the algorithm, so while they can be fun to watch, don’t read too much into them.
Likewise social media is another data black hole. People will say you must have a newsletter, or you must do TikTok, or Instagram or a book review blog or whatever the newest cool thing is. It’s not true. No-one knows how much any of these actually influence sales, so do what you feel comfortable doing on the platforms you enjoy, and ignore proclamations of “This Is The Only Way.” Social media matters for two things – 1. Finding a community of writers to share all the highs and lows with (this is so valuable), and 2. Getting your book cover on people’s timelines so that when they go into a bookshop they say, “Oh I recognise that!” and pick it up. That’s it. The rest is wishful thinking and displacement activity.
At around this point in my gentle chat with my year-younger self, we are probably both feeling a little bleak. So, I’ll add this fourth point: You know far more than you think you do. I always intended to find ways to support other marginalised writers as soon as I was a published author, but around this time last year imposter syndrome began whispering “What could you, newbie author with no real credentials, offer other writers?” The answer is: A lot. You don’t realise how many skills you have developed, or how familiar you have become with the machinations of publishing, until you start working with people who are a few steps behind you on the road. So yes, you are qualified to offer help. By the same token, you are still learning and the day you stop learning is the day your writing stagnates. So, tip to my earlier self – believe in your own skills, but keep challenging yourself too. And sadly, the publishing scene is unequal enough that people truly need your mentorship scheme, so stop procrastinating and launch it.
Another wonderful surprise has been that I enjoy, and suspect am passably good at, author events. I didn’t expect either if I’m honest. Like most writers, I am a hermit by preference so the prospect of sitting in front of an audience to read my work, or talk coherently about books was rather daunting. But it turns out that being in a room (digital or real) with other writers, talking about the thing you love to people who also love it is … not scary at all. In fact, it’s rather a buzz. It is however, worth being prepared. Practice your readings, and don’t be afraid to edit for clarity. Practice the answer to the dreaded “Tell me about your book,” and decide ahead of time which potentially sensitive issues you are happy discussing, and which you aren’t. You owe no-one an explanation of your own traumas, and you owe yourself healthy boundaries between your private and your authorial selves.
Which is perhaps the most important point. Your debut year is an exciting, empowering, joyous time. It is also sometimes exhausting, bewildering, and dispiriting. Be kind to yourself. Look at how far you’ve come and remind yourself that this is a long road, and the horizons are wide open. You’re doing great.
Review of The Way the Light Bends by Elizabeth Oladoyin
Set in the small, quiet seaside town of St Andrews, an unassuming family already struck by the loss of their brother and son, Rob, and struggling under the weight of their grief, are thrust into the chilling mystery surrounding the disappearance of his twin sister Tamsin. Their sister Freya reluctantly heads the investigation into Tamsin’s disappearance, at first believing it to be a selfish act of negligence on the part of her sister; a case of Tamsin simply running away without informing the rest of her family during a time when they were all grieving and needed to support their parents.
“‘You’d better have an absolutely stunning reason’, she muttered to herself… ‘Kidnapped. Tied up by some gimp boyfriend and abandoned.’ She liked that last one. The shock and foulness of it, the humiliation. If she were honest there was something viscerally satisfying about the weight of justice behind her anger, as if she’d accumulated years of petty resentments and could only now let them loose with all the authority of her mother’s hurt.” (page thirteen)
However, Freya’s investigation continues to lead her down numerous dead ends, into unnatural phenomena and the lingering doubt that something altogether not of this world may have led a vulnerable, grieving Tamsin somewhere she can no longer be reached. Armed with little more than her sister’s diary and her sister’s friends who seem far more knowledgeable about the complexities behind Tamsin’s personality and the intricacies that make up her personhood, Freya is faced with a long journey into worlds unknown.
The two main characters, Tamsin and Freya, act as directly opposing perspectives for many of the themes discussed throughout the book. Whilst both are engulfed by their grief after having lost their brother Rob, Freya does not allow herself to wallow in said grief, instead choosing to side line it to provide support for her parents, diminishing its importance in comparison to the doctorial work of her husband and ultimately attempting to put up a confident front in any social situation she finds herself in, believing this to be the most responsible course of action. Yet, despite this outward appearance of healthy coping, Freya is prone to sudden, sharp bouts of internalised anger that are only apparent in her inner monologue.
Meanwhile, Tamsin, who describes her twin brother as being her second half, struggles with the weight of her grief. Her viewpoint, provided through her diary entries, shows her frequently engulfed by depression after losing Rob and the deterioration of her relationship with her family which was already strenuous at best as evidenced by her nickname, “Sheepy,” given to her by her brother to signify her “black sheep” status among her family. With nowhere to turn to, save her close friends, a hodgepodge collection of unique characters whom she sometimes feels guilt for troubling, she perfectly signifies the dangers of allowing oneself to self-isolate and drown in sorrow.
The narrators successfully conveyed the impactful nature losing Rob had on their family and it left me craving more information on who Rob was and how he fit into the family dynamic as a peacekeeper. Overall, we are gifted a very emotive read with fascinating symbolism.