I’m delighted, of course. My publisher has done a fantastic job of getting it into the shops, I’ve been really lucky with publicity and I’ve annoyed and (hopefully!) amused people the length and breadth of the country. I’m over moon. Really I am. I’m tremendously grateful to everyone who has made it possible. But I’m also (and here I’m letting you into one of the lesser known secrets of the writing life) pretty much distraught.
I’m aware that I seem to moan a lot on these blogs so let me emphasise again that a big part of me (the better part!) is happy. There are many good – great – things about getting a book published. But even so, I haven’t met many writers who haven’t also found the process frightful. In order to explain why, I’m going to have to in another daft sporting metaphor, so I hope you’ll indulge me:
Writing a book is nothing at all like competing in the Olympics. It’s a largely sedentary process that requires no physical training and no drug-taking (unless you want to create a very particular kind of novel). Even so, I imagine that the final moment of getting a book published must at least feel a bit like finishing a race. Years of toil, effort and heartache has narrowed into one sharp point. You have been giving your absolute all for one particular struggle for almost long as you can remember – and suddenly it’s gone. You look around, hands on hips, exhausted and you realise you’re alone, if not in a vast all roaring stadium, at least among the cacophony of twitter, facebook and all the other noise of the media. You wonder – crucially – what you’re going to do next. And if you can go through the same thing all over again.
While I’m slapping down the metaphors, let me suggest another. Bringing a book into the world is a bit like having a new baby and then watching it toddle off to university all within the space of a few hours. You pour your heart and your soul and good bit of love into it. When it arrives, you have the wonderful first moment of holding it in your hands and realising that it is solid and carries weight in the world. But then, instead of having 18-years sheltering it from the cruelties of the world, you immediately have to watch it go out and make its own way. The day your book is born is also the day it is left alone. There are a few things you can do to help and to maintain that connection. You can write articles like this one, for instance. But essentially, your book is out there alone, and at the mercy of readers. Even worse it is at the mercy of fate, of all the other books that want to squeeze it off the shelf, of all the newspaper editors who don’t have time to read it, of all the people who may or not feel inclined to put their hands into their wallets and may or may not buy a copy…
Oh yes. Buying copies. The other awful thing about publishing a book is the way it makes you obsess over amazon rankings, shop sales, twitter mentions, and all the other little signifers of whether you may or may not be able to feed your family when the first six-month statement comes in. Since I’ve started writing this small article I’ve had to resist the temptation to look at my amazon ranking three times. (Four now.) I’ve had to exercise similarly iron resolve at least a thousand more times today. Yesterday, I gave in and took a scan and saw that I’d dropped by more than 2,000 agonising places. Waves of agony and self-remorse washed over me. Why did people hate me? Why did I hate myself so much that I’d given in and looked at the ranking when I knew that to do so was the act of a madman? The first step on the path of obsession and mental disintegration.
There’s a wonderful novel called Pocket Kings by Ted Heller in which a writer has a special programme installed on his computer so he gets an automatic update on his ranking every 15-minutes. I made the mistake of reading this book just as my own was coming out. I couldn’t decide whether the protagonist was insane or a genius. Even as his wife left him, his friends abandoned him and he was reduced to drunkenly stalking his (former) agent, I had considerable sympathy. Yes, he was behaving appallingly. But he had books to sell! Yes, he was mad. But so are most other writers in the days immediately following publication. They find themselves with too much time on their hands, too much to worry about and not enough distractions. It’s a pretty privileged hell, given how lucky we are to be in print. But it’s still hell.
It’s also a sickness: a malady for which there is only one effective cure. To write another book. The only way to stop worrying about the last one is to start thinking about the next one. I’m wracking my brain even as I type these last few words. And you might think that a little odd, given what I’ve told you about my ridiculous self-obsession over the past few weeks and the absurd pain I’ve caused myself. But here’s the other little secret of the writing life: we wouldn’t have it any other way.
To improve your chances of getting published, thus furthering your own journey into madness, do book your place for our Getting Published Day next year. More details here. Alternatively, just read up on what you need to do – then do it!