Six months, six lessons

Hey, guess what? Today is the Six Month Anniversary — bookiversary, as we word-wrangling types often say — of the publication of “The Beginning of After.” Although I’ve been crushingly busy with my new book, because Harper wants to put it out in Summer 2013 which is great but also terrifying because that means we’re already behind schedule and holy crap will the story ever be what I imagine it to be, I can’t help but take a few moments today to Reflect. I actually see this leg of the trip starting not six months but a full year ago, when the HarperCollins Children’s Fall 2011 catalog came out and people actually became aware of my book.

I’ve learned a lot since my first email from a blogger telling me how excited she was to read TBOA. “Freshman year” is a little different for every debut author, but here are the six lessons (six months, six lessons…symmetry good) I’m taking away from mine:

1) Let go of your book. This has been said before by much more experienced authors, but it’s the kind of thing everyone has to learn first-hand. Yes, you have a deep, intimate relationship with your work. But once you drop-kick it into the world, that relationship ends. Seal it up in a velvet-lined box inside your heart, safe from the elements to come. Because now your book belongs to each person who reads it, and that relationship will be unique each time…love or hate, passionate or mixed or meh. Of course it hurts to think that anyone could dislike something I’ve created, but I’ve come to respect and embrace that part of the process. That’s the nature of art, and the beauty of it.

2) Separate the music from the noise. Time was, in the seemingly endless months before TBOA was released when I was hungry for feedback, that I eagerly awaited the morning Google Alert I’d set up for the book. Then time was, the alert wasn’t even enough and I’d Google the damn thing myself a few more times each day, the same way you impatiently punch an elevator button that’s already lit up. Great feedback = euphoria. Not-so-great feedback = pit of endless sorrow and self-doubt. Lather, rinse, repeat several times in a single day. Um, totally not conducive to functioning as a writer and general human being. (I’m ridiculously sensitive. When I invite someone to go for coffee, for instance, and they can’t, I’m, like, devastated.) Also, I learned lesson #1 from above. So I never Google my book or visit the TBOA Goodreads page. I don’t read reviews anywhere, unless they’ve been called to my attention by the author or my editor or publicist. That’s not to say I don’t want to hear anything negative; I’ve found it really helpful to see the patterns of criticism, and have been applying what I’ve learned to my current work. But after a certain point, it’s just a distracting and destructive ringing in your ears. So, know when and where to tune out.

3) Every author is on her or his own path. Publishing is a business, and business is competitive. I’ve felt that lurch in my gut when I see another author’s book getting more press, more promotion, an actual event tour. A movie deal, more foreign sales, a spot on the bestseller list. I could go on, because the ways the publishing world can make you feel bad about yourself are myriad and sneaky-vast. But I hit a moment somewhere along the line, when I remembered a conversation I once had with a friend who was struggling with infertility. She was upset about a co-worker who had just become pregnant, and how was she ever going to face her every day feeling that jealousy and resentment? Together we came up with the strategy of thinking, “That’s her path. Not mine,” about other people and their childbearing processes. Life paths are personal. Don’t compare them. They start in different places and take different turns, different high points and low points, sometimes over a long distance, but eventually they lead you to a place you were meant to be. I like to think of an author’s career the same way now. My path is my path. It has some wonderful views and features of its own, and more to come I’m sure. I’m following it forward, and that’s all that matters. Which sort of leads me to this next lesson about…

4) It’s trite but true: You have to be yourself. In the beginning, there was much panic. Should I be blogging and Tweeting more often? Should I be on Tumblr and Instagram and Pinterest, if I can figure out what the hell they are? I have kids and a husband and a PBS Kids website to manage, so how will I ever have the time to do all these things and still, you know, write? But even when I did scavenge the time, I found myself uncomfortable with putting something out there just to be heard, just to be part of the conversation somehow. I realized I wanted to engage readers in a way that feels organic to who I am and what I write. So I wait for something meaningful to come to me, something I’m bursting to say or share. For many authors, that happens a lot and I am wowed by that, but for me, not so much. Hence, many weeks in between blog posts. Erratic Tweet patterns. Facebook radio silence and then, boom, several posts at once. I advise aspiring writers to “trust your voice” and that applies here. I can only speak in that voice, and I think in the context of my public author “platform,” I do trust it. At the moment.

5) There are many different measures of “success.” Way, way more than sales reports, or awards, or average user ratings. It’s so much simpler than that. There’s the one where you finally get to hold your finished book in your hand, and the one where you first see it on a bookstore shelf. There’s having someone tell you in person how much they loved the read, and the bookseller placing the thing front and center because they believe in it so passionately. Then, of course, there are the e-mails from readers telling you your book helped them deal with something tough in their lives, and then the other ones simply thanking you for writing it. (And now here I go choking up again.) When it all shakes down, the ultimate measure of success, I’ve learned, is that I’m able to continue doing what I love most. It feeds my soul and keeps my fingers on the keyboard.

6) In the end, it’s still about the writing. Yeah, as an author there’s a whole lot of other stuff I need to do, and it’s all fun and good and scary-addictive. But then I have to remind myself that no amount of Twitter followers or networking or promotional brilliance is going to matter if I write crappy books. When all of the above has been lived through and learned from, it comes down to the place where I started: the work itself. This is the single most important thing I can give…and I plan to give good.

So the education continues now, as I hope it always will. Thanks for being part of it so far.