New Neuroses

I remember years ago, when I was desperately hoping to sell a novel, I opined that if I could just sell a book, I would be satisfied, my life’s ambition achieved. One of the people in my writing group — an established writer who’d been publishing novels for years — told me, “Selling a novel doesn’t make your anxieties go away. You just trade up to a different set of neuroses.”

And, yes, after the initial euphoric thrill — Holy crap I sold a book! For money even! I can afford to get married somewhere other than my back yard now, and we can even have a honeymoon! — reality does rear its ugly head. Many elements of the path from “finished” novel to “published” novel are kinda tedious. I eventually learned to love reading copyedits, because they can teach you a lot, but when confronted with the first mass of paper festooned with sticky notes, I felt only despair. Reading page proofs can be brutal, too — it’s the last chance to fix things, so you want to be attentive, but you’ve read the book so many times, it’s hard to slog through it again.

Then, once the book actually comes out, you have to contend with bad reviews (or, either worse or better depending on your viewpoint, no reviews). You’ll be on tenterhooks for ages waiting to find out if it’s selling well, or at all, or embarrassingly badly. Then, if you manage to sell more books, you learn real terror, because you’re only as good as the sales on your last book, and if you have three or four books with disappointing figures you can become trapped in the midlist death spiral, with bookstores ordering fewer and fewer copies and publishers deciding you’re poison.

But if you’re still a good writer, you can reboot your career by selling new books under a pseudonym — the magical erasure of bad sales figures! — though that can bring along a whole new bunch of anxieties. (I started as Tim Pratt and became T.A. Pratt and, as I hope to have a long career, I very well may have other names before it’s all over with.)

Or maybe your first novel is a huge success. (Didn’t happen to me, but I know people it did happen to.) The pressure regarding your next book becomes enormous, expectations and stakes high on all sides, with a lot of people to potentially disappoint, and it can lock you up creatively.

There’s also the annoying misery of having self-employment income and thus being forced to pay quarterly estimated taxes, which involves the dreaded necessity of doing math.

So what I’m saying is: selling a book isn’t all rosebuds and candycanes.

But it’s important to remember: it’s also rosebuds and candycanes. Because after the reviews have come and gone, after the royalty statements have rolled in for a few years with their good or bad news, after your middle-of-the-night worries about your talent or lack thereof, your fans or lack thereof, your successes or failures or both, it all fades away, and what you’re left with is The Shelf. You know, that shelf with your books on it, lined up, all the different editions. I think it was Jonathan Carroll, in some introduction or another, who described the idea of writing for The Shelf (which implies its rhyme: writing for yourself). The bullshit fades. The books remain. You pour your best work into it, and if you’re very, very lucky, you see that work bound up between covers with a pretty picture on the front and your name, your own name, right there on the spine.

So becoming a novelist does indeed involve trading up to a whole new set of neuroses. But it also involves trading up to a whole new set of pleasures. When in doubt, remember the shelf.

3 Responses to “New Neuroses”

  1. March 17, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Thanks, Tim. I needed this reminder.

  2. March 18, 2009 at 3:44 am

    I eventually learned to love reading copyedits, because they can teach you a lot, but when confronted with the first mass of paper festooned with sticky notes, I felt only despair.

    ::waha:: I just received my first copyedited manuscript today. I panicked — what the heck were all those squiggly marks, and what the heck did they mean? I felt like I was back in college and had just gotten a term paper back, covered in red marks. My writing group met tonight and talked me down from Red Alert, pointing out that I seem to have a really good copyeditor, which will make my job easier. But that despair you mention? Yeah, I got that. =)

    Hopefully I’ll someday have my own Shelf to look at and, if I’ve done my job right, feel pleased about.

  3. 3 mlronald
    March 18, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Thanks for this post, and especially for the reminder that it can be rosebuds and candycanes. I’ve been finding it so easy to concentrate on the smaller matters and the things I can’t control that I sometimes forget about the book right there with words that I wrote.

    And Nora, I agree about the copyedits. I always feel kind of embarrassed after reading through them — it’s like someone doing a last-minute check before I go on stage, telling me that I have spinach in my teeth and my underwear’s showing. Yes, it’s important to fix those things, and yes, I’ll do a lot better if I go out looking my best….but I still have this nagging, defensive feeling of “but I can too dress myself!”

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