What to Expect When You're Expecting Part 1
Creating a Narrative for Yourself
I’m heading out on vacation. If you’re in Paris on May 16, I’ll be in conversation with the great Lauren Collins at the American Library in Paris. If you’re in Italy for the last two weeks of May, I’ll be the one blissfully eating pasta and drinking wine. Please do not interrupt me, unless you are bringing me more pasta.
When I return I’ll start serious preparation for #1000wordsofsummer, which starts June 17. Have you started thinking about what you’re going to write yet? I think I’m going to spend the summer writing two different projects to see which one I like more, but for #1000wordsofsummer I’m going to try doing flash fiction for one of the projects, and basically write in the voice of a different character every day to see if I can get to know them, watch them move in the world. It’s the most kind of fun you can have, these purely generative sessions, where you can do absolutely no wrong. I’m really looking forward to it.
It’s snowball season!
A few weeks ago, I had coffee with a writer here in town. Her first book is coming out next year and she wanted to talk about what to expect and how to prepare for it. What she could do to set herself up for success, but also which things were worth worrying about and which things could just be ignored. Honestly where do we start?
I get asked about this topic quite a bit. My first book came out in 2006 and it was a much different playing field then and I have seen the industry evolve tremendously, and also you never fucking know anymore, if you know what I mean. But I have seen some things hold true over the years, so I thought I could help.
I will start this off by saying I think a lot of writers I know are overachievers in one way or another. Just to engage in the audacious act of sitting down and putting together a book, then sending it out to an agent, and doing what it takes to make sure it sells, all the while managing the rest of our often-complicated lives — to me that is the work of an achiever, if not an overachiever. And then to be the kind of person who doesn’t just sell a book but then wants even more information about the process? I mean, extra credit for after-school assignments, you know?
So that came up a little bit in the conversation. The idea that once you put everything into getting this book published, now you just have to sit and wait for a year (or whatever) for it to come out, how frustrating that can feel. The information I gave her was not necessarily anything that was guaranteed to make anyone a bestseller, because I have no idea how to do that! But it will make you feel a little more engaged and active while you wait. Overachievers like to feel like they’re doing everything they can.
And I would argue that this information is helpful to put in the back of your mind even if you’re just in the process of writing a book. Obviously what I want everyone to do while they’re writing is just to purely write, not stress out about the future that hasn’t happened yet. You should be thinking about making your art — that is your priority! But I think you’ll see how this information can translate in positive ways to your work.
(Also there is so much other information out there about this topic. Books and articles and newsletters and social media posts. These are just the parts I think are most important. But you could deep dive forever on how to publish your book.)
(Also also: I’m talking about traditional big publishing here, not self- or small publishing. I don’t know anything about doing that anymore — I haven’t put out my own work or a small press book in twenty plus years. But I support you and maybe this can help anyway!)
I’m breaking these into two separate newsletters because there’s so much information. I’ll start today on the subject of Creating a Narrative for Yourself.
One of your publisher’s jobs is to figure out the narrative of your book. There’s a marketing department and a sales department. And you’ll get a publicist assigned to you. They will all figure out how to tell the story of your book, and, depending on how much time/interest they have, the story of you.
Often these departments are over-worked. Also, they often prioritize books/authors based on how much money they’ve spent on your book, or how much buzz your book seems to have. These are just the facts, folks. It does not mean your book is not special, or that you are not special. This is what happens when you transform art into commerce. You sold your book, you made your deal. I’ll let you decide how precious you want to be about it all.
So, either they’re going to give you attention or they won’t. But that does not mean you can’t do a little narrative building on your own. After my book is in the final stages of edits with my editor, and we’ve had enough conversations about what the book is about, I can usually start to form some ideas about how I might tell the story of the book. I always write down a list of topics I think my book is about, what I think different angles are, just to help me collect my thoughts about it. I also make a list of different essay topics I could possibly write about a book, either about my process while I was writing my book, or my connection to the subject matter, or what was going on in my life while I was writing the book — if I’m willing to share it. (For as much as I write about my process in this newsletter, I promise you I keep plenty of what’s going on in my life to myself.) I think of all of these things as access points for the potential reader of my book. Ways into me and my work.
If you don’t quite know how to tell the story of your book, I would study how other authors have done it. Look at the bestseller lists, then look at what kind of press the top authors have done. (I would argue that the indie bookstore bestseller lists are a better place to look then the NYT bestseller list, which usually has like, five slots devoted to Colleen Hoover, and lots of other big names who aren’t out there hustling in the same way an emerging author might.) And I would look at places like Lit Hub and Electric Lit and Poets & Writers, for starters. (Not to mention op-ed, books, art, and style sections of newspapers and print magazines.) If not to write for them, but at least to get an idea about how to be more out there in the world about your work. I’d also recommend Maris’s podcast as an incredible resource for listening to authors talk about their work with one of the sharpest interviewers in the business.
I personally think it’s pretty empowering to figure out what your narrative is and how you would like to present it to the world, not to mention then you can control it to a certain extent. But also, there are plenty of writers who just want to hide entirely behind their words, and I totally get that, too. Additionally you might think: Why is this my job? I wrote the damn book, isn’t that enough? If you want that to be enough, it can be enough.
I’ve been teaching her how to pose lately
But if you think you can handle it and you’re interested, I would spend the time considering how you would like to present your story to the world. And then I would be armed with those ideas when you talk to your publicist for the first time. Because they might be able to help you place them somewhere. Their job is to know who is looking for what kind of story. And you only get a little bit of their time and attention, so I always think it’s a great idea to be prepared.
There are also lots of little interviews you might get asked to do by your publisher, either online or in print or on a podcast. And lists you might get asked to write for different publications. All these things that feel like extra work…and they are. And you might say to me, “Do these things even help?” To which I would say, “Dude, I don’t know!” Because I really do not. I found this list I did in 2010 and it is really exactly what I'm talking about. Like, how would that even sell a book? Definitely not now but even then. I laughed when I read it because whoever interviewed me hadn’t even read my book! But also I stand by these recommendations to this day, so maybe it was not a complete waste of time.
And I understand the idea behind doing all of these things. Your publisher wants you to be everywhere at once, all at once, when your book comes out, so as to surface above all the noise of the other books publishing that week/month. They’ll have you do as much press as they can find for you. As time goes on, if you keep publishing, in theory, it becomes more tailored. I’ve had some books where I’ve written between six and ten personal essays in a year surrounding a launch, plus writing more than a few of those “five favorite books/songs/snacks” lists. For my last book I wrote three essays because I have been doing this for a long time and have done quite a bit of supporting work along the way.
Look, does it sell books? Sometimes. Does it take too much of your personal time? Yes. I’ll tell you what really sucks though: when they don’t want you to do anything at all. And boy have I had that, too. But that’s when we take matters into our own hands as best we can.
I’m not going to get too much into social media here because that is beyond me to translate and frankly, as I’m not on tiktok, I don’t even know if I should be allowed to speak on the matter. I will say I think it’s a good idea, at the very least, to get on instagram, because it is a good and easy way to connect with people. (I search for people all the time on it if I’m interested in their work.) I have found writing this newsletter tremendously helpful in terms of interacting with new people, but I’ve been doing it for a few years now, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect to have an instant audience. The most important idea to return to is this: figuring out what story you’re willing to tell about your book or yourself as a writer. There is usually a way to translate it to the social media realm.
What does any of this mean to the person reading this who hasn’t sold a book yet but is interested in doing it? Eventually you’ll have to pitch yourself to an agent, for starters and this way of thinking will be helpful. And you may want to sell an essay or two (or five) along the way to help build a presence for yourself. But I think sitting down and thinking about what the access points are for your book is actually pretty helpful after you finish a first or second draft. After you get it all down on the page at some point, if you want to publish it, you need to have a conversation with yourself about it being read by someone else — a stranger, even. How can they find their way into your story?
After so many years of doing this, I’ve learned that the ways I communicate about my book and myself are really just an invitation to someone else to join me in the conversation I have already started. That’s what my books are about, a conversation, and that’s what all my surrounding media output is, too. How could I make my output more helpful or entertaining or engaging? How could I have a good time with it? How could I make it feel like it wasn’t a waste of my time or anyone else’s? Once I understood how that worked — how it could be meaningful for me and everyone else — it got a lot easier after that.
I’m leaving the comments open today, and in my dream world, some of you published authors out there might share their tips and advice for people who are debuts or are in the early stage of their careers.
Hope you’re all writing well.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to Ogden Museum Summer Camp.