Dear Novel Nineteens,

First of all, congratulations on your debuts! I wish your books well. I was initially part of the 2017 Debut Group, but then my publication date got bumped and I joined the Electric Eighteens. So I’ve been a fly on the debut wall for one year and lived it for another. While everyone’s experience is naturally different (mine is a chapter book series that I also illustrate, so already not typical), I know I always appreciated hearing from those who came before me. Mostly I just wanted tips about what to look forward to (or to dread). And since I have a Snow Day today (I’m a teacher when not writing) as well as a Non-Writing Day (for no other reason than laziness), I thought it could be a reflective time to add a few insights to the mix.

Time: About a year before my release, I was talking to author-illustrator Henry Cole, who said something like, “Enjoy this time. It’s the best part!” And I was like, “What does he know, I want my books out now!” Time during a debut year can be maddingly slow, yet it also can speed so fast I often found myself scrambling to hit pause or rewind.

As I said, I was bumped (as many are). To wait an extra six-months initially felt like the cruelest fate in the world. But it turned out to benefit me in two ways: first, I didn’t have to rush through edits and illustrations, and it not only improved the quality of the work it helped me keep my sanity (though they’re short, I was working on four books total, and I teach full time). Even better, I got to join the 18s, and I found having two debut groups is literally twice as good as one!

Rejection: One reason it felt so great to get a book deal was that I could now rejoice in the fact that rejection was now squarely and finally in the rear-view mirror! Silly me. While it’s true that this was a life-changing yes after years of no, I had no idea how much rejection still lay ahead.

I don’t just mean rejection of future books and projects (that’s happened). I mean the rejection of not getting starred reviews, or of not getting reviewed in some journals at all; rejection from conferences and other speaking events; the rejection of not seeing your book on lists; and rejections from all kinds of things you never even knew existed!

Another word for rejection at this point is ‘comparison’. Others are going to get things you don’t (often people in your group). At the same time, you’re getting lots of things others aren’t. But it’s often harder to feel thankful than stung. So what to do? One way to feel grateful is to be grateful. Try to look with fresh eyes at your own accomplishments and celebrate those of others. Also, I haven’t tried this, but some pair up with buddies who check GoodReads, Amazon and other review and ranking sites for them. Some days will be good, some hard. Luckily your readers won’t know or care, and they’re really the ones this is all about. (here’s a cartoon I made about this topic that I shared with the 18s): 
Control: If you’re like me, the main thing you’re probably wondering as a debut is “how can I move the needle?” Sadly, the most eye-opening insight from my debut year is: I have absolutely no control over anything. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. As much as I’d like to, there’s nothing I can do to make my publisher suddenly make me their big publicity priority. I can’t force anyone to review my books or to leave good reviews if they do. I can’t contact traditional media and make them give me the press I want nor can I use social media to make anyone order anything. I can’t even force my own students to buy or read or like my books (d’oh!) though it turns out many of them are my most dedicated fans (home court advantage).

So can the needle not be moved? Of course it can. In fact it will be moved, all over the place, even if you do nothing at all. The good news is that this absolute lack of control, when looked at it the right way, is absolutely freeing. If I could give just one tip, it would be “play to your strengths”. If your strength is posting of Twitter, and you really enjoy it, that may be where you move the needle most meaningfully. Personally, my mind seizes up on Twitter, so I go on sparingly. On the other hand, I love doing school visits; I’m good at it, kids enjoy it, so it really works for me. If you’re the type who would rather pull your own teeth out than speak to a gym-full of noisy kids, then that’s probably not going to work for you. But that’s okay, play to your own strengths. No one can do everything. And the only one who can really enjoy your own author life is you.

Hope something here was helpful. If your debut and writing communities are half as good as mine, you’re already in a great place. Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. And have an amazing year!




One Response to “Hey Nineteens!”

  1. Gail Shepherd

    Jonathan, thank you so much for this sane and sage advice. I’m at the stage of my debut year where I am feeling completely overwhelmed and confused–anxiety and brain fog rather than joy, with a to-do list that looks like a morass. It’s a great reminder to slow down and smell the roses. One’s first book only publishes once, right? What a shame to waste this time in needless panic! thanks again.


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