31
Jul
10

Stranger in a strange land

If there’s one thing in life I hate, it’s feeling like a tourist. Before traveling anywhere, I will go to great lengths to research my destination, making myself a detailed folder containing transportation schedules, step-by-step directions to meeting locations, the hours of operation of each and every sight I wish to see. There’s more to this behavior than simple garden variety control-freakism. Namely, I don’t want to be seen as a tourist because being a tourist is dangerous. Being a tourist makes you vulnerable.

With the launch of my debut novel exactly a month away, I am feeling very vulnerable these days. Like one itty-bitty slipup, one small failure of planning, one saunter down the wrong dark alley, and everything could go horribly, horribly wrong. I’m aware that these emotions are not unusual for a debut author. And I’m also aware (painfully so) that my ability to control for a desired outcome is largely illusory. Sure, active author participation in a book’s promotion is hugely helpful. But lots of books with it have failed—and lots of books without it have succeeded. Fine.

But still, there’s still that nagging feeling of danger. Like a stranger in a strange land, a debut novelist suffers from one major disadvantage: you don’t know what you don’t know. Or, rather: you don’t know what the most important thing you don’t know is. Consider those two concepts side by side. You’ll see that there’s a big difference. Not knowing what you don’t know means showing up at a museum and finding it closed. Not knowing what the most important thing you don’t know is finding the museum closed AND that it’s shutting down for good and you’ll never be able to visit it again. Two pieces of information you didn’t have—and yet one has way more weight, more gravity, more consequence.

And that’s exactly what you have no way of judging when you’re fumbling your way through your first book promotion. The relative importance of specific unknowns. It’s easy enough to busy your feverish little brain with questions like: Have I contacted enough reviewers? Have I scheduled enough appearances? Have I come up with enough goodies? But the really scary, hard questions that will keep you awake at night are: What have I missed? What are the things that I didn’t even think to consider? What were the unknown unknowns, and how important was it that I know them?

This way, as you can see, lies madness.

To feel my way through this sometimes-terrifying virtual jungle, I find myself relying on the same tactics that tourists have for time immemorial. I watch the locals and ape them as respectfully as possible. I watch the other tourists, stealing their clever tricks and noting their trip-ups. I ask questions—but with the full knowledge that most of the answers are going to be contradictory, unhelpful, or downright wrong 99% of the time.

(In fact, it’s the answers from the people who sound most sure that are the ones that are most likely to be wrong. On a recent trip to NYC, I was trying to find a PATH station. One woman I asked told me with absolute, hand-on-the-bible certainty that I had to get into a cab and head directly to Penn Station. I did exactly as she was told, but was set straight by the cab driver, who got me to where I needed to be. So maybe the moral of this story is, only trust the cab drivers.)

Finally, when I’m really, really lost—I head for the U.S. Embassy. Unfortunately, I can’t quite figure out what the metaphorical equivalent of the U.S. Embassy is to a debut novelist. I know for a fact there ain’t no Marines coming with a helicopter to airlift me out. So here’s hoping I don’t get any more lost than I already am.

So, what do you think? What are your best hints for this starry-eyed tourist on her first trip to Debutville? What are the unknown unknowns that are most important to know? And don’t tell me “a prescription for lithium,” my husband has been trying that on me for weeks with no success.

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4 Responses to “Stranger in a strange land”


  1. 1 Glenna Fairbanks
    August 1, 2010 at 10:29 am

    There must be a writers group in your area – or you are probably a member of some national writers’ organization. Example, I belong to MWA (Mystery Writers of America), SinC (Sisters in Crime) and PSWA (Public Safety Writers Association) because I write police procedurals, a sub-set of Mystery novels. If you belong to such an organization, I am sure you can contact their headquarters for help. They want you to succeed. They know what you don’t and they probably can give you detailed lists of what to do and how to plan each one of the events – maybe even projected costs. BTW, what does your agent suggest?

  2. 2 mkhobson
    August 1, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Oh, don’t get me wrong — I’ve gotten great advice from my experienced writer friends, editor and agent. I guess what I was trying to get at in this post is that when it comes to promoting your first book, *every* writer is a tourist. You can’t help but be. There’s no way to thoroughly prepare for the trip because while there are common elements, so many of the factors that will contribute to a book’s success — the state of the market, the books that have gone before it, and particularly, the book itself — are not just unquantifiable, they’re ineffable. You don’t even know what they are!

    As a writer, I’m used to controlling everything. Confronting a a situation where all the usual tactics for control avail me naught is … well, let’s just say it’s a learning experience. ;-)

  3. August 2, 2010 at 6:48 am

    This is so easy. Think about it – how difficult is it to fry an egg, make some toast, pour some orange juice? First, don’t listen to cooks, they’ll screw up your breakfast every damned time. You know, the types that tell you only “real” butter will do, and to make sure that those eggs come from free-range chickens, the juice from certain types of oranges. And so on. It’s mostly hogwash.

    This is your debut novel, and really, let’s be honest, how many people ever get to say, that? Say it with me, “This is my debut novel.”

    Bet that felt good :)

    My point is this: HAVE FUN! You write because you love it. Then, have a debut because you love it. Just love it, embrace it, there is no secret formula. By all means, enjoy yourself, stop with the doubting and the worrying, everything will be just fine. Honest.


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