5 things being a published author has taught me
March 7, 2019 § 7 Comments
Trans Like Me, my first book, was published nearly two years ago, at the end of May 2017. 2018 brought the international tour, audiobook recording, and North American/Canadian release. Today marks the publication of the mass market paperback edition from Virago Press – cheaper, brighter, and easier to stuff in a pocket.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things that have changed during this time. When TLM was first released I made a post about what I’d learned during the process of levelling up from a blogger to a published author, as advice to anyone hoping to make the same leap, and as a way of clarifying my own experiences. Looking back now, it feels like I’ve learned just as much during these two years of ongoing book work – speaking, lecturing, recording, marketing – as I did in that initial upgrade process.
It helped me to take the time to figure it out and wrestle it in words. Here’s hoping it helps you too.
Lesson One: Your career is your career, and your demons are your demons…
…and the former cannot fix the latter.
For a great many of us, myself included, writing (and art in general) can function as a form of therapy. It’s where we go to explore the hardest, most challenging parts of life. But more than that – it can also be a place where we go to pin our hopes of being validated, of proving ourselves worthy, of finally feeling ‘enough’. And I’m sorry to say this, but that just doesn’t work.
That feeling ‘am I good enough?’? You will never be enough, because nothing can ever be enough to placate that feeling. That’s simply not how that feeling works – it isn’t logical, and it can’t be solved by logical means.
The more reasonable, compassionate part of me is deeply soothed by the way my career has grown over the last two years. More than that: delighted, humbled, scared, and excited. It has made a signifiant material difference to be recognised for my work, to be paid for my work, to be given additional chances to work, and for those chances to be challenging and provide ongoing development.
But I still have those ravenous demons: feed me, feed me, feed me. The ones who can’t acknowledge a good review, or a great audience, or an amazing opportunity, because for some reason it ‘doesn’t count’, ‘it’s not enough’, ‘it doesn’t matter’. They are never satisfied. It isn’t a question of trying harder, because they will undermine every last exhausting effort. They are always chasing after some unknowable, unachievable, imaginary success that will make everything right. You cannot win the game on their terms.
I’m sorry (not sorry) to say that the only thing I’ve found that genuinely helps with those demons is therapy. And writing, while frequently therapeutic, is no substitute for the real thing.
Lesson Two: Your life will change, but only by degrees
Obviously, discard this point if you’re JK Rowling. Also, if you’re JK Rowling…no, I don’t have the energy to go there.
Anyway – for the majority of published authors what you’re doing pre-publication is going to be very similar to what you’re doing post-publication. For me that was public speaking, broadcast and print media, lectures, and arts events. I’m still doing all of those things – what’s changed is not the kind of work I’m doing, but the scale of it, and the fact that I’m no longer (always) going it alone. Those changes have built on the foundation I had in place before I even had an agent. And, even with the help of my publishers, I wouldn’t be doing half of what I do now if I’d allowed myself to become complacent.
It is not an easy world out there for most writers. There’s a myth that once you have a publisher you can just sit back and wait for the money to roll in. But the truth is that you have to make the most of every opportunity: make your own events, tap every network, apply for jobs/residencies/placements, sell tickets to shows, promote the hell out of your book. It may not seem fair – it may not match the image of ‘the writer’ that many of us carry around in our heads – but it’s the reality of the industry.
Being published isn’t a Cinderella story – it’s more like slowly building a house from the foundations up.
Lesson Three: A great many people who review your book will not, in fact, be reviewing your book
They will, however, be using it as a hook to write about whatever else it is they want to say. Sadly, this applies to professional journalists just as much as to GoodReads reviewers.
It is immediately, and painfully, apparent which reviewers have read the book, and which ones have just read the press release and then skimmed the first and last chapter. These reviewers are happy to ascribe their own views to you, and then go off in whatever direction they please. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about this – and the best advice I can give is to learn how to shrug it off, because it will happen more frequently than it should.
When it comes to reviews, I know that some authors recommend avoiding them altogether. I prefer to take the opposite viewpoint, and look for trends. When it’s clear that the reviewer hasn’t actually read it, then feel free to discard. Of the rest, look for the common denominators, the points that come up again and again, and see how those insights can improve your writing. But don’t let someone take up space in your head when they haven’t even done you the decency of letting you into theirs.
Lesson Four: It is impossible to please everyone
Here are some of the things people have said about my Trans Like Me: that it is far too complicated and academic, and that it’s too simple and straightforward. That it placates cis people, and that it’s too angry for cis people to want to read. That only trans people will want to read it, and that trans people have nothing to gain by reading it. That I’m both too didactic and too vague, too extreme and too conservative.
More than any other experience, writing a book has taught me the truth of the fact that the reader is the co-creator of the work. And, in a few select cases, the sole creator.
It’s difficult when the most negative people (and the ones most likely to make up their own version of events) are the loudest, whether that’s through negative articles in the press or bullying on social media. But what really helps me is to remember my original aims with my work, and who it was I actually wrote the book for.
At the end of the day, why would I want to be praised by people I don’t respect? A trans positive book, from a trans feminist perspective, was never going to be popular with the right wing press or online trolls – whether of the TERF or the MRA variety. If it had been popular with them, then something would have gone horribly wrong. Thank god they hated it – it proved I was on the right track.
We – myself, my agent, my editors, my publishers – set out to create an accurate, compassionate book which would break out of the two most popular genres of trans literature to date – the memoir and the academic tome. I wanted to write something which was impeccably researched, and still easy enough to read on the bus or the train. I wanted to write it for the teenager I was – someone desperate to find their place in the world – and for the adults I know now, who want a genuine, open-minded and open-ended discussion about who we are and where we’re going. On every measure we set for ourselves, we have succeeded. What bigots want to say about that is irrelevant.
Lesson Five: The work goes on
You will never say all that you want to say in one book. Even that one book will never quite be over – there’s always more to add, always another edit it could have had and, sadly, always another typo to find.
But beyond that book – the work goes on to other books. Other projects. Other ways of engaging. And it’s okay for that to take a while to come into focus. It’s okay for one project – particularly a debut – to be all consuming while it’s happening. It’s normal not to be able to see beyond it, particularly when it hits the stage of writing where it feels like your brain has forgotten that it ever knew any language at all, and your fingers refuse to type.
But that stage does come to a close, and while that is a process of loss and ending as well as celebration and success, it also propels you to the next step.
I don’t know all of what that is for me. I have another book I’m aiming to finish this year. I can’t say yet whether it will be good enough to show anyone, although I’m hoping it will be. What I will say is that publishing a book has allowed me to live its full life cycle in a way that writing books without publication (as I have done before) has not – and that is a tremendous gift.
I hope it’s one you get to experience for yourself.
Recommended by The New York Times, Times Literary Supplement, and Publishers Weekly, Trans Like Me is available worldwide in all good bookshops and online, in paperback, audiobook, and e-book.