This week author and MFAC alum Rebecca Grabill shares some sage advice on what publishing your first book will do for you – and what it won’t.
In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott describes publishing as the golden eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar, and she writes, “Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy.”
I agree. If anyone thinks that a magical first contract will … pay off their mortgage, repair their marriage, get their kids to obey, fill them with endless joy, make writing easy, well, it won’t. I don’t feel much different today than I did six months ago. My house is still messy, my kids still draw all over themselves with Sharpie during nap, writing is still hard. Really, really hard.
In some ways writing is harder. My agent expects things from me. Like books. Good books! Finished books! I give myself arbitrary and unyielding deadlines because the pressure is on, baby. I question every word I put to the page because, ach, I only studied picture books one semester, how can I be a picture book author? I have the unshakable and very rational fear that the editors who bought my books were just playin’ and any day now will notify me that they changed their minds and could they have the advance money back please. Security? Confidence? My pen scribbling off one blissfully perfect story after another? Nope, publishing did none of that.
But these first contracts did do something. Something surprising. A few weeks ago I took the kids to our local megachain bookstore for Dr. Who Fan Night. I escaped with the babies to the children’s section, and I expected to feel my usual mix of hopelessness and futility. There are Sooooo many books published out of the sooooooooooo many I know editors receive. How would one of my silly goofy scary weird stories ever make it past the Publishing Powers and onto the shelves? Hello, meet Eeyore.
But as I paged through new releases I realized … there’s a chance my own book could be on the Halloween Table in some upcoming seasonal display. My own book, showcased alongside Max and Ruby and Curious George!
I realized I love the bookstore. I wanted to stay forever, to read every title, stroke every spine, inhale the fresh glue, lay my cheek against the silky smooth pages, lick the–uh never mind. I hadn’t enjoyed a visit to a bookstore, truly enjoyed it unfettered by the whispering “you’ll never be good enough” specters in, well, since I got in my head that I wanted to be a writer. I was free. I visited three more times that week alone.
I’ve noticed a few more changes as well. For example, when I see friends asking for advice on writing query letters I thank All That is Good that I no longer have to write them, and when I’m faced with the option: sweep up or write? I’m far more likely to let the ants take care of the crumbs.
I’d never compare publishing to something as dismal as the fake eagle on fake money that makes you feel good for a second but leaves you in debt. But then again, I don’t expect a book contract to fix all my problems and make me happy (maybe ten contracts). I haven’t though of an appropriate analogy yet, but perhaps by the end of the process, I will.
Thanks for the great advice Rebecca, we wish you luck on the next 10 contracts! On Thursday we’ll have a special letter from Polly McCann on the importance of having a writers group.
Rebecca Grabill is author of the picture books Halloween Goodnight (Atheneum 2017) and Violet and the Woof (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins 2018). She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University (2011). If you want to learn more you can visit her author website or read her blog.