What to Expect When You’re Expecting…Your First Book
Four Debut Authors on the Ups and Down of the Publication Process
As writers we tend to spend a lot of time . . . writing, but also hoping that doing so persistently will eventually mean that our work finds readers. When it comes to first books, we imagine publication will be the most exciting thing that ever happens to us. Often, it is! But the path from book deal to book launch can also entail unanticipated emotional ups and downs. To better understand why this is, and to help other writers prepare for it, the four of us—Allie Rowbottom (Jell-O Girls), Thea Lim (An Ocean of Minutes), Aja Gabel (The Ensemble), and Chelsea Hodson (Tonight I’m Someone Else)—have gathered to discuss our experiences preparing to launch debut books in 2018. It is our hope that the resultant conversation can serve as an emotionally focused What to Expect When You’re Expecting for writers curious about first time publication, or for writers in the thick of the experience, searching for a tribe of friendly voices to assure them their neuroses are normal.
What kinds of things kept you motivated throughout the process of writing your first book?
Allie Rowbottom: Certainly, knowing other writers had been rejected by the boatful long before I ever picked up a pen kept me going, as did a pressing inner imperative to write about women’s experiences, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few more practical things that kept me generating pages: First of all, I wrote the majority of Jell-O Girls in a PhD program, impelled by the knowledge that I needed a dissertation of a certain length, and that upon graduation, I’d need some semblance of a book in order to get a job. I also had the support of that program: workshops, mentorship, tuition remission.
Thea Lim: It helped that everybody I’d ever met knew I was writing a book. The fear everyone would think me a failure was a hearty motivator. Kidding. Sort of?
I started my novel inside the loving bubble of an MFA, but it was a good four years past graduation before I had a draft fit for human consumption. It was tough to keep going, because there’d be no impact on the world, were I to quit. Plus writing is hard. (The nickname for my Duotrope tracker is “the spreadsheet of failure.”) But I’d made too many sacrifices to stop: I took on low-paying academic work so I’d have to time to write, and my spouse had to take on most of the financial burden of rent and food. Oh wait, I’m talking about shame again.
In the interest of not being a downer, the flip of shame is pride. I wanted to finish because I knew that even if no one ever read it, at least I’d know I’d tried.
Aja Gabel: I think what we’re all talking about here is creating structures to work within, a world with rules and notches, whether that’s a program, a group of peers, or internal checkpoints for accountability. Because with something as nebulous as an entire book, which happens for so many people in so many different ways, it can be hard to know if you’re doing it right or getting anywhere. What I did as I was finishing my first draft was obsessively read the debut novelists I wanted to be like, follow their publicity trajectories, and listen to all their interviews to hear how they talked about getting there. I listened to the Otherppl podcast by Brad Listi a lot. Things like that helped me understand that there were so many different paths to publication.“What we’re all talking about here is creating structures to work within, a world with rules and notches, whether that’s a program, a group of peers, or internal checkpoints for accountability.”
Chelsea Hodson: Yeah, I think that was key for me as well—a pretty simple and pure desire to participate in the tradition of literature that I valued so highly. It seemed both impossible and inevitable, somehow—when I began taking writing seriously, I didn’t have any idea how someone went from manuscript to publishing a book, but I was audacious enough to just set sail in that direction and see what happened. The uncertainty of everything kept me hungry, and kept me working. At first I was very eager to have a book right away, and then, once I realized what a disparity there was between the books I loved and the writing I was doing, I began to accept it as a glacial process. When I began my MFA, I started writing faster, simply because I had to, and that became a great source of motivation in the final stretch of writing my book.
The Tin House Writer’s Workshop, which I attended in the very early phases of writing my book, was a crucial experience for me as well—it helped break down the myth that you had to come from money to have enough time to write. Here were all these talented people working full-time jobs that usually had nothing to do with writing, but they somehow managed both.
AR: The conversations about business and publication on Otherppl are so helpful—I only discovered that podcast after my book had sold, but I wish I’d started listening years ago. I’d never before sought out practical publishing advice, which that podcast is full of, but I think it’s a great thing to do once you have a solid draft of a book you’d like to publish. Aja’s tactic of looking carefully at the PR trajectories of books you admire is also something I wish I’d done. Which goes to say, it’s probably good to start thinking about the business side of things earlier than I did (which was actually after my book sold), so you have a practical idea of what to expect and what to shoot for.
TL: Agreed! I was always warned off the business side, for fear the lewd demands of the market would corrupt me. I understand this: jumping in too early can muddle your vision. But taking a look once you’re a few years into a book is likely safe. I didn’t, and it would have helped me figure out where I fit in the market. Or a nicer way of saying this (which means the same thing): which school of authors I belong to. Writers are always in conversation with each other; it helps if you can say who you’re talking to.
CH: I think knowing certain things about the business side of writing is good, but I think some writers become over-invested long before it makes sense to be. It’s America, so of course “the market” seems super important, but it’s not, really, if you all you care about is making an artful book. I think reading as much as possible is good, and knowing which authors are working in a similar vein as you, but I think market research beyond that is never the artist’s job. That’s what agents are for.
TL: That’s interesting Chelsea. That’s exactly how I felt before I sold the book; it’s only since, especially during pre-publication, that I’ve started to wish I had more of a grasp on the market.
AR: I should also say that, all advice about gathering information aside, I think I’m happier the less I know.
Did any of your writing habits or styles change throughout the process of writing your first book?
AR: It was during the final stages of this first book that my writing habits really changed in a big and meaningful way. Which is basically to say that for the first time, I put my ass in a chair and stayed there, working, for hours on end. I developed a regular schedule and I began to prioritize it over all else. This had never been my writing style before. In fact, I’d often looked for excuses not to work. But in the home stretch of Jell-O Girls, focus and dedication became essential to finishing. This shift in work habits also felt somehow related to age; as I aged out of my twenties, sitting still for prolonged periods of time without getting out of the house and chasing new experiences, felt easier.
CH: I’m always so fascinated by the writer who doesn’t want to do anything else! I’m the kind of writer that often aches to do anything but write—what errands can I run? What email could I send? I simultaneously want to always write and never write. Somewhere in the middle of those feelings, I’m able to work. I am often very afraid of what I’ll find in the process of writing an essay, because I never know where I am going to end up—I’m often presenting questions I don’t have the answers to. But free-writing in the early stages of certain essays helped me tremendously—simply forcing myself to write without stopping. Then, at least I’d have somewhere to begin. I worked on the book for six years total, so I think my writing process did change a lot by the end. By the time I wrote the last essays in the book, I was writing much more efficiently and cutting much less than I did in the beginning stages.“I’m the kind of writer that often aches to do anything but write—what errands can I run? What email could I send?”
AG: This is a good question, because I thought writing a novel would be like writing a story but longer. Spoiler: it’s not. With stories, I outline loosely, and then sit down to color in those lines. There’s often an image, a person, a conflict. Go. With the novel, though, those lines I was coloring in always changed. And then the colors had to change. And then I had to invent new colors because I was getting bored of the same colors. And then sometimes the colors I created were those ugly gray brown masses kids make when watercoloring. So at times it was a huge mess, and while my discipline didn’t change, my organization had to. I had to be more clear with what I was going to accomplish that day, and use a bunch of confusing and dumb charts about what other parts of the manuscript that writing would affect.
Here’s a dirty secret: in terms of the rhythm of working, with this long project, I found the breaks provided by the internet useful. To go for the long haul, my brain needed those small breaks every hour where I watched a YouTube video or read a Reddit thread or a GQ profile.
TL: My writing habits were probably the same throughout, and had to be, because that’s how I sustained work on a project that no one was anticipating. (I say that in a descriptive way, not a crying-into-my-soup way.) I wrote for several hours every morning, and as much as possible treated it like a job. Now I have a toddler, and I’m not sure how starting a new project will go, but that’s a lament for another time.
My style definitely changed. I think I rewrote the book 23 times, so hopefully I was better at it by the end. One thing I learned to do was to think about each element of the novel via its other elements. When I started out writing, I really didn’t think of a novel as a machine, where every cog effects every wheel. Realizing that was maddening, because even small changes could make the whole thing fall apart, but it was also comforting, because whenever I didn’t know where to go, I could stop and look at what I did know; I could solve for x.
How did you find your agent, and how did the process of working with an agent differ from what you expected?
AR: I met my agent at the Tin House summer workshop about six months before she wound up selling my book. Like many conferences/workshops, there was a sort of agent-writer speed dating set up, and everyone could have a five minute meeting if they wanted. I thought it was probably pointless and a bit demoralizing, so I almost didn’t put my name on the list. But at the last minute, I signed up and that’s how I met my now agent, Marya Spence.
In terms of what I did or didn’t expect, I guess I’d heard that agents do a lot of editorial work pre-submission, but I was blown away by how attentive and helpful Marya was at clarifying the elements of the book in a way that made them accessible to a wider range of readers.
TL: Cold-calling! (Cold-emailing?) I combed through the websites of authors I admired to find agent names. Then I wrote query letters that I tried to personalize as much as possible. (There are lots of good articles about how to write a query letter, like this Reddit AMA with Seth Fishman.) I got trusted friends to read my queries—both ones who’d read my manuscript and not. And to add to the madness, I was very careful about when I sent the queries: only Tuesdays, Wednesdays and maaaybe Thursdays, a little after 10 a.m., and I avoided holiday weeks. For the first six months, I got some encouraging replies, but no bites. This felt like an eternity, and I felt very sorry for myself. Then suddenly, all at once, I got a bunch of offers.
What’s surprised me most is how much an agent takes the wheel. Once I sent the finished draft to my agents—Karolina Sutton, Lucy Morris, and Alexandra Machinist—they ran off with it to a secret cave and completed arcane rituals and blood sacrifice, until it sold. Well, not really. But the process was very mysterious, and to this day, I don’t know what was in the pitch. At first I was a little miffed. With typical noob arrogance, I didn’t understand that writing a book in no way trains you to sell a book. Then I realized it wasn’t that things were being hidden, but that I was being shielded. You know how, in ER, they’re always sending family members out the door when things get real in the OR? It was like that.“With typical noob arrogance, I didn’t understand that writing a book in no way trains you to sell a book.”
AG: I got my first agent at Sewanee, on one of those speed-dating setups that Allie mentioned, but I was never fully comfortable with her, and she never responded to my novel drafts in a way I found helpful. It was a tough choice, but I decided to end that relationship. I found an email from Andrea Morrison at Writers House, who’d sent me a note a year earlier. From the first conversation with Andrea, I knew she was the kind of woman I wanted to work with. She was early in her career, eager to sell, really smart, and she got what I was trying to do. Andrea gave me one round of notes, and I took a month to address them. After that, we’d sold the book within a month. She’s since guided me in every step of the process. To this day, I am so grateful to work with her.
I think the important thing I learned in that (admittedly difficult) situation of switching agents, was that every agent-writer relationship is different, and you can choose the kind of agent and relationship you want. If I could go back and tell myself one thing in the agent process, it would be that there’s a right kind of agent for you, but not one right kind of agent.
CH: I received an email from an agent after she read my blog and a short essay I’d published on a small online art journal that I assumed no one would read. I had just moved back to New York, and she asked me out for drinks—I felt like, “Oh my god, it’s all happening.” But I also knew I wasn’t ready for an agent—my work just wasn’t refined enough yet. But I sent her the manuscript I had without acknowledging that, and then when we met, she essentially said, “I like you, but the work feels a little young.” I don’t think I would have trusted her if she wanted to sign me right away, so I actually liked her more after she echoed my own thoughts. We stayed in touch for a year, and then I published my chapbook, “Pity the Animal,” on a small press, and she was impressed by that and signed me.
She was a great source of encouragement over the next couple years, and then, two months before I finished my book, she quit her job and left New York! I was devastated. She recommended I sign with another agent at the agency, so I met with her (we had already met at a reading months prior) and it felt totally right from the very beginning. Before I knew what an agent really was, I think I perceived them as being artless and greedy, but both agents I’ve had have been the opposite of that.
How do you deal with feeling competitive, or talking to other writer friends about success or failure (yours or theirs)? Is there a constructive way to talk about it in your friendships and relationships?
CH: I’ve learned a lot from talking with successful writers I’ve crossed paths with over the years. Hearing that they have difficulties, even at their level, reminds me that like, “Oh, right, we might have different problems, but everyone has their own issues.” I try to be as supportive as I can be of other writers I like, whether they’re my friends or not. Garnering enthusiasm for writing can be difficult, so I like the idea of contributing my own enthusiasm without expecting it be returned to me, whether that’s promoting someone’s book on social media or writing to them directly to tell them I liked it. I think that’s part of a fight against my competitive urges, which are maybe motivating in some sense, but ultimately pointless and petty.
AR: I grew up in a really competitive environment, so the idea that only ONE person will make it to the “winner’s circle” is sort of baked in to my psyche. I’ve had to really step back over the past few years and dismantle that knee-jerk, and unconscious, belief. This is especially true when it comes to other women writers, because I’ve HAD IT with patriarchy’s insistence on pitting women against each other. It’s sort of insane that supporting each other, loving and promoting and reading each other, is a radical act; but it is. It is also intensely grounding, healing and affirming of so much of what I think is behind the impulse to write in the first place: a yearning for connection. One person’s good news in no way negates yours—it simply paves the way for it, a truth I’ve seen in action a lot lately.“It’s sort of insane that supporting each other, loving and promoting and reading each other, is a radical act; but it is.”
AG: Allie, like you I grew up in a competitive environment, whether it was music competitions (which my book is about) or just having five siblings to fight with for attention or whatever. The idea that there are not enough wins to go around was this belief I attached my ambition to very early on. It’s taken me decades to unlearn that.
But also there’s this: oftentimes, there is only one person who can win something. There is one first place, or one award. That is just truth. But what I’ve had to unlearn is that any of that means anything about my own fabric. In large part, my book is about this—how that sense of competition and ambition can stand in for actual humanity for as long as you let it. And, again, the cure to that is community. As Chelsea said, community breeds empathy. Which isn’t to say I haven’t both steeped in my own disappointment at not winning a thing a friend has won, and sincerely congratulated that friend on their win. Both feelings can exist honestly at the same time, and it’s okay if they do. I’m gonna try to remember that for the next, uh, well, rest of my career.
TL: Most of my life I’ve tried to avoid competition; I don’t even like playing cards. Losing is obviously unpleasant, but even winning can be awkward or wrenching, when you understand how much someone else wanted to win. So writing has been a good career for me, because when you’re writing, you’re only in competition with who you were yesterday: how much better can you make this draft than the last?
Actually pushing a work into the world has turned this upside down. We live and write within a wildly capitalist market, and as Aja says, sometimes there’s only one award and one #1, and after pouring so much of yourself into a piece of work, the fear it may not be as widely read as you want is overwhelming. Especially if other things hinge on it—your career, your ability to control the kind of life you have. I think being truthful with your friends about the sorrow at the heart of it all helps—of having to work and friendship within a market that can be antithetical to what it means to create art and love others—but doing that, saying the words, can feel impossible too sometimes. I find it to be an unsolvable problem.
Is there any way in which you see gender, or the gendered implications of your work, helping or hindering you in the pre-publication process? Is there anything you think you’ll have to be prepared for on the gender front going forward in the publication process? In what ways do you anticipate having to “perform” or “explain” identity when talking about your books?
CH: My book is very interested in the body, and the female body in particular, so gender is impossible to ignore in some ways. In other ways, I don’t care. I’m aware that I’m known as a “female writer” instead of a “writer,” but what am I going to do with that? I understand that I live in a culture that wants to categorize me, but it’s not the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. All I care about is making good work. My gender may have hindered me years ago in the pre-publication process, but I actually felt many editors seemed highly interested in my explicitly female essays by the time I was done with them.
I certainly feel pressure in regards to my appearance (self-imposed pressure to look “pretty enough” but “not too pretty” in my author photo, for instance), but I think men must certainly feel a similar pressure as well, in a time when our author photos accompany every review and event listing and so on.
AR: Since selling my book I have several times been reminded (by men) that we’re having a “special moment” for diversity in publishing, as if my gender, and the feminist lens I assume in my book, is the only reason my book sold and theirs did not. As if I have “lucked out” at their expense. I have also been told by a peer that the acquisition and editorial teams who showed interest “must have done a google image search before deciding to bid on your book.” I’ve then been asked ever so politely by members of those teams to re-take my author photo because it might give some shitty readers leeway to take me less seriously (Chelsea, I had that top-button buttoned!) which was mortifying, especially when I looked at the image and understood what they meant.
I’m sure I’ll have to be prepared for a lot more annoying stuff like this going forward, but I’m trying not to think too much about it. If my book sold simply because I’m a woman telling women’s stories at a specific point in time, then the work of many of the white male writers who came before me sold simply because they were men telling men’s stories.
AG: The author photo struggle is real as a woman, isn’t it? That was a hurdle for me, but once I adopted a Chelsea-style attitude of not giving a goddamn fuck, no one said anything about it. I think 50% of it was my obsession over appearing a certain way (which certainly came from, er, a lifetime of external forces), but the only thing I could do was decide it only mattered if I liked my photo, and it felt like me.
I think the only other gendered pre-publication anxiety I have is trying to figure out how to express gratitude or do self-promotion without apologizing. I’ve actively tried to resist saying “Sorry for book promo” when talking about my book in written form. I’ve also tried to thank people for posting about my book without feeling bad about the attention. Maybe it’s not a gendered thing, but god, it’s sometimes just exhausting to find an “authentic” way to do all of this.
TL: That’s truly awful to hear that people have spoken to you that way, Allie. I’ll put sugar in their gas tanks and fish in their heating vents.
I actually want to be seen as a woman, and a woman of color. That whole thing about having to work extra hard to prove yourself if you’re not part of the master race has been true in my life, so I want people to notice who I am, in a that’s right brotherpuckers kind of way. If someone wants me to perform or explain my identity, I’m all in. I’m like, let’s do this, let’s ride this weird awkward shit-train to deconstruction town.
My novel deals with how gender and race mediate our access to power and how we’re seen, so when anything’s come up in the pre-publication process that concerned me, I could talk it through by discussing what was appropriate for the work itself. And maybe always making visible in my writing how identity mediates the world is my way of trying to get out in front of the narrative around my body.
Though whenever I feel passed over or slighted, there’s always a moment when I worry that I’ve been overlooked because it’s easy or comfortable to do so, because of who I am.“If someone wants me to perform or explain my identity, I’m all in. I’m like, let’s do this, let’s ride this weird awkward shit-train to deconstruction town.”
How has the pre-publication process been for you practically and emotionally so far? Any surprises? Any tips for writers expecting to publish their first book in the future?
AR: So far the pre-publication process has been full of ups and downs for me. But those fluctuations have taken place primarily in my own psyche. Which is to say that nothing super dramatic has happened in the production process of my book, but my angst and anxiety swells and subsides on any given week or month.
The Internet and social media brouhaha around books coming out, or being anticipated, can be truly difficult to weather. In response, I’ve tried to check myself by simply working harder: in the past few months I’ve finished a revision of a second book MS, churned out essays, sent all my personal galleys to influencers, and pushed my team to do things they maybe weren’t planning to do until closer to publication. I’m honestly not sure if this has helped, but it has occupied me, which feels like a small victory.
That said, one of my primary sources of angst so far in this process has been the sense that I’m asking too much of my team. A process as emotional as putting your first book out into the world is bound to pull forward your own latent fears and insecurities about yourself and your needs. I think these feelings of wanting too much, pushing too hard, bothering people with emails, and so on, are inherently tied to gender, the anxiety of being an “ambitious” woman and the impulse to apologize for or minimalize that ambition by being as easy to work with as possible.
AG: Oh my god, Allie’s sentiment about the pre-publication process bringing out any latent insecurities you have (whether or not they’re actually represented in the reality of the situation) is so. so. right. I thought I was immune to it, but just the other night I was feeling frisky and went on Goodreads and read a 3-star review that burned itself into my brain. It wasn’t even that bad! The reviewer just casually mentioned a part of the book that I have my own insecurity about, and so I spiraled.
I have two pieces of advice, both for me and other writers. First, I say stop comparing yourself to anyone else’s book journey. I’ve realized that being on anticipated lists and having a big book tour don’t necessarily correlate to how good a book is, but rather how much publicity strength is behind it. Books find audiences in all kinds of ways, and just as many are slow burns as fast fires.
The second piece of advice, after you digest “stop comparing yourself,” is to get yourself a community of other first-time authors. Like this one! Communities have been one of the most important resources for me. Just knowing that I’m not the only one thinking, “No one will ever read my book, and if they do, they’ll hate it, and they’ll post about how much they hate it on the internet, and then my literary heroes will read it, and think about how awful my book is,” is very, very helpful. Because those people, those peers, never make me feel bad for thinking those things. They just make me feel less alone. It’s also hugely helpful to be happy for other debut authors. To exercise that muscle of empathy and joy, it makes me feel human and less like a navel-gazing robot.“Books find audiences in all kinds of ways, and just as many are slow burns as fast fires.”
TL: Just listening to you to talk about this is therapeutic. I too have been sucked into the Goodreads death spiral. And yes to everything else, especially that gendered fear of being too demanding.
Years ago I opted to go off social media, and it improved my mental health and artistic output x 100. But now I feel like I owe it to my little baby to get out there and get on the horn. I’ve reconnected with old associates; I’ve made contact with new, amazing writers I wouldn’t have otherwise found. But every day I read another list I’m not on, or there’s a great yawning silence in response to something I post. And slowly that Smeagol voice inside my head is like: the book, they’ll be indifferent, this moment is all you’ll ever get . . . I even start to regret that I jettisoned whatever precarious presence I had years ago, when I wrote online regularly, which is something I never thought I’d feel.
A few things help. Of course some people aren’t going to like my book. No one writes for everyone. I try to focus on what the whole enterprise is really for: the fact that, at this very moment, someone might be reading something I wrote, and feeling touched by it. ISN’T THAT MAGICAL?
CH: Allie, I like what you said about diving headfirst into making yourself busy with other writing projects. That has been key for me in tuning out self-doubt, not to mention super helpful in terms of writing new work! When my book went out on submission, I enrolled in an online fiction class (having never written fiction) just to get out of my own head. And when my book edits were done, I started working a novel. I think this has to do with one of the most surprising outcomes of this whole process: suddenly, things seem possible. I wrote one book, so of course I can write another, right? On my best days, I think I can. On my worst days, I just step away from my desk and do something like run on a treadmill until I feel powerful in a physical way, which then helps me feel powerful in a mental way, and then I’m ready to work again.
And not to be pretentious, but reading stoic philosophy has also helped me immensely, especially Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. They have a lot to say in regards to the uselessness of comparing yourself to others, and that has honestly helped me a lot.
AR: Chelsea, that bit about focusing on physical strength and then, exhaustion, is so true. For a long time I’ve been a dedicated yoga person, but after my book sold, I started weight lifting with dedication, and it’s now my favorite way to blow off steam. Nothing helps me feel strong and powerful and mentally cleansed the way wielding heavy objects does.
AG: It’s definitely no coincidence that this spring is when I took up boxing. I won’t tell anyone who I imagine is the bag sometimes. I also love that at the boxing gym, no one really cares about my book or being on an anticipated list or pre-publication publicity. They’re just like: your left hook is weak.
Header image: photos by Elisa Lim, Willy Busfield, Ryan Lowry, and Darcie Burrell.