After The First Sale
Whether or not you've hit that point yet, you know all about the expectations. We're not talking about the practicalities here?the questions of how (or whether) to deal with your publisher, agent, deadline and contract terms. What we're talking about here is the other part of what happens after the first sale.
The emotional part.
Good and bad.
Ask any published author to tell you about her first sale, and you'll see her eyes light up. It's like asking a bride to tell you about how she got her engagement ring?it's the story of a validation, of having attained a coveted status, of being able to tell the world "I made it!"
And it's a great feeling. No question. But in a world where we all know that an engagement ring doesn't guarantee a hundred-percent happy future, it's good to remember what Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird,or rather what she quoted a coach as saying about victory: "If you're not enough before the gold medal, you won't be enough with it."
Try replacing "gold medal" with "book sale," and the author's conclusion makes sense: "Being enough was going to have to be an inside job."
So okay. I know that. I know perfectly well that selling my first book (or any book) isn't going to make the difference between my feeling like a worthwhile person and a worthless piece of protoplasm.
But it's amazingly easy to forget that when all the congratulations are pouring in, the electronic cards are glittering with fireworks, the roses are being presented amidst thunderous applause and the clerk at the champagne counter is repeating in tones of awe, "You actually sold a book?"
(Take a minute to enjoy anticipating or remembering the feeling, okay? As writers, we can put ourselves in any scene we want, and we might as well take advantage of that gift!)
Okay, now that we're all tingling from that warm, happy glow...
There is nothing?repeat, nothing?wrong with enjoying the glorious hubbub of a first sale. It's wonderful. That sense of validation is nothing more than what we deserve after having worked so hard, for so long, with so little acknowledgment. We're entitled to bask in all the glory we can get, for as long as we can get it. We've earned it, and we darned well deserve to enjoy it!
The only danger is in thinking that it's the beginning of a whole new life of fireworks and roses and champagne and (because we're realistic) maybe even a few problems, sure, like how to make the next book even better and which publisher to cozy up with and how to combine the demands of a family with those of an adoring editor...we're rational adults; we understand there are always going to be problems.
We know that. And we're ready for it.
So it's all the more devastating when the problems that arise aren't the problems we expected.
What are they?
For me, the problem was that my editor didn't want the next manuscript I sent her. Or the next one. Or the one after that. I was stunned?everyone else I'd seen sell a first book had kept right on selling. What was the matter with me?
For a friend, the problem was that she didn't sell to the line she'd hoped for...it was a sale, yes, but not the one she'd dreamed of. "A bittersweet victory," she called it.
For another writer, the problem was that the publisher who bought her manuscript folded before the book could hit the shelves. For another, it was the realization that she didn't feel the same dazzling sense of competence and control attributed to those renowned authors in all the glowing articles. Another found that some of her fellow writers looked down on her publishing house, which meant she didn't get quite the same sense of status other first-sellers got.
Still another discovered that getting her book published didn't yield the kind of money she'd been expecting. Another, that the editor didn't call her for input on cover art, publicity and so on. Another... Shoot, this is getting depressing. Let's switch from the problems to the solutions.
Actually, there are only two solutions. But they cover a lot of ground.
The first solution is forget your expectations.
That's a hard one. We all have expectations. We live with them. We expect that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, that the friends who liked us yesterday will still like us next week, that nobody's gonna come racing down the wrong side of the road and crash into us head-on...and almost always, we're right.
But anytime we're disappointed, it's because an expectation has not been met. There is no disappointment which isn't preceded by an un-met expectation.
And in fact, the people who stay the happiest, the longest, about their first (or any) sale are those who either see all their great expectations come true...or those who didn't have any unrealistic expectations in the first place.
A writer who expects to sell her first book and then open a bottle of champagne is not likely to be disappointed (always assuming the liquor stores are open when she sells!) because that expectation is something she can control...even if it means stocking up on champagne the day she puts her manuscript in the mail.
A writer who expects to sell her first book and never get another rejection letter is far more likely to be disappointed, because?right, you got it. (Even 40- and 50-book authors still suffer rejections...which I wouldn't have believed if I hadn't heard it directly from them!)
Okay, so "forgetting expectations" is the first solution. The second one is..."enjoy the process."
The writing process is really the only thing you can control. (And if it's causing you more grief than pleasure, maybe it's time to think about finding some other pursuit.) But the joy of writing that first got you started, the fun of making up characters who live out scenes only you can create...regardless of what happens with the rest of the business, that endures.
Regardless of expectations...regardless of disappointments...the writing process itself is all you can really control.
And if you total up the thrills that accompany a first sale, then weigh that against the total of thrills that accompany writing story after story, scene after scene, book after book...it's no contest. Enjoying the process lasts far, far longer than any first-sale fireworks.
Good thing it's as close as the keyboard.