(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
“Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly evil men I have known were all writers who’d had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published … Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won’t, it can’t. But writing can. So can singing.” -Anne Lamott
Getting your first book deal with a major publisher is like capturing a dragon. You’ve worked very hard to get it, you may have patiently (or not so patiently, as in my case) waited to ensnare it, but when that day finally comes you’re over-the-moon elated about your triumph yet unsure what to do with it. What do you do with a goddamn dragon? How do you take care of it? Where can you put it? How much is this magical beast going to change your life and how are you going to manage not to get roasted alive by its fiery breath?
I was sitting in my old apartment on St. Clair Avenue in St. Paul one spring day in 2007 when my phone rang. I’d been reading by an open window and enjoying the fresh spring air blowing in through the window. I answered the phone.
“Hey, Dave. It’s Jonathan.”
My radar instantly begins beeping. Agents don’t call to just have a chat.
“Are you sitting down?”
My radar goes crazy. Somehow, despite the fact we’ve been shopping The Suicide Collectors for over a year, I already know the gist of what he’s going to say.
“I can be,” I say, and then I actually sit down, like he’s in the room watching me.
St. Martin Press is interested in the book, Jonathan tells me. They’re considering making it a two-book deal. Can I send him a one-page summary of what my next book might be?
Here we go.
I don’t mean to speak for every traditionally published writer out there but I’m guessing one of the greatest benefits of a book deal isn’t the money (there’s rarely much money to speak of, especially early in a career) or the fame (ha!) but the sense of validation you feel at finally being “published”. Especially in America, where everything is tied in to commerce. If you can’t sell your product then, the unspoken reasoning goes, your product must not be worth anything or probably isn’t even a true product at all. Okay, you write novels, but what do you do for a living? Your little short stories are a nice hobby and all but WHERE’S THE FUCKING MONEY, LEBOWSKI?
Which of course is just an absolutely toxic and idiotic way to think about any kind of art—art which springs from a deep well of torment and joy—but there you have it, folks, that’s the world we live in. You can write four novels and dozens of short stories and keep at it for a decade and attain an MFA degree but most of your relatives will think your labors are the equivalent of collecting baseball cards or rock skipping until you can put an actual book in their hands and say here, some heavies in New York liked my work well enough they were willing to throw some money behind it.
Wow, they’ll say. I guess you’re real writer now.
You’ll clench your jaw at this point. You’ve been a writer all along—the vagaries of the marketplace and the taste of editors and the timidity of marketing teams can all go fuck themselves, fuck themselves right back to the Stone Age.
You’ll be right to feel this way, very right, but you’ll still be relieved have this new stamp of approval, despite whatever your rational mind tells you. What can I say? We’re human. We all have hungry hearts. As soon as we get book deals we already start thinking about the next book deal. An urge to be accepted is wired into all of us and we’ve fed at the trough of traditional publishing acceptance for a long, long time. Champions of self-publishing and micro-publishing claim we can throw off these chains and soon be free of traditional publishing for once and for all but I don’t see it happening any time soon. The masses like brands they know. They like their quality control filters, even if those filters are often out of whack.
So you’ve got a book deal! Whoop whoop! Good for you, big time author! Now you can tell everybody about it! You can drink into the wee hours of the night celebrating it! You can sit around counting the minutes and days before the publication date like a kid waiting for Christmas and start wearing turtleneck sweaters and smoking a pipe. A tobacco pipe, silly! Not a crack pipe! A crack pipe isn’t distinguished (or really authorial, though I imagine smoking crack makes you feel authorial). Yes, you’ve got a book deal and when at long last the book comes out you can allow yourself to get obsessed with how the book does in the marketplace, how well it’s reviewed and how many shiny gold stars it garners on Amazon. You can allow it to affect your sleep and well-being and overall sense of self. You can become the book, in a manner of speaking, in the same way many first time parents replace pictures of themselves on Facebook with pictures of their wrinkly newborn baby.
Sound like a great idea!
Or maybe not.
No, not really. Speaking from experience, I suggest going with this all-in approach only if you predict the future and know the book will absolutely be a smash hit, loved by Oprah and everyone else. Then you will have one tremendous joyride on your hands. Oh yeah. It’ll be like you’re a bookish version of young Elvis and all darkness will fall before you. It’ll be great. It’ll be all your dreams come true. But if you go this route and the book is not a smash hit, even if it is critically well-received but doesn’t sell so hot, you’re going to endure some painful heartbreak. Getting published for all the world to read is basically the ultimate workshop, the true master class in disassociating yourself from the work you’ve created. Once that book is out there you can no longer protect it from the wolves at the gate and not everyone will be a huge fan. Worse yet, the vast majority of the world will be indifferent to your book, indifferent to your hopes and dreams and all the sweat you spilled to bring your book to the world.
Another route, the one I’m going to recommend, is viewing getting your work published as one big lark. Somebody loved your writing enough to help you edit it and package it and maybe they even paid you a little cash for it. You’re playing with house money now, so why not just enjoy the ride? Why not let go of obsessively checking your Amazon ranking and just go for a walk, or lose yourself in somebody else’s book? Let go of that urge to self-promote yet again on that social media site and instead step right up into the warm light of not giving a fuck! I mean, it’s so nice and toasty warm in this light! Like you’re a hamster in a sock!
But this second not-giving-a-fuck route is a hard one to trod, I know. So hard. So goddamn hard. You wouldn’t have written the book and gone to the trouble of finding an agent to represent it if you didn’t give a fuck about your story and telling it to the world. Didn’t really, really, really give a fuck.
So here we all, standing on the world’s doorstep in our underwear, holding out our arms and hoping for its warm loving embrace. Just remember to keep writing come what may—good, bad or general indifference—and if you do manage to thread the eye of the publishing needle don’t give in to your own delusions of grandeur (you’ll have plenty) or think you’ve got life totally solved now.
That’s what alcohol is for.
 Classic Jonathan phone call opener.