Something Bigger, my first novel, came out in July of this year, and it’s a Writepace baby, all the way through. It grew up in the Granary library and during lockdown Zoom sessions, always under the warm incubating light of encouraging Writepacers. Now it’s out in the world, and many things have been changed by that process, perhaps including me! Other things I thought would change have remained stubbornly untransformed. It’s been quite a journey, this first publication, so here are eight things I learned, which you might find useful when your first book comes out.
You’ve written a novel. It probably says fiction right there in the disclaimer, but some people, maybe the ones who’ve known you the longest, just won’t believe that. There’s a character called Tommy in Something Bigger who is entirely made up, and some people I love dearly are convinced he is real, and want to know who he “really is.” “I made him up”, I say, “out of my head” and they look at me, completely unfazed and say “yeah, but it was your head, wasn’t it? So who is he?” You could make it worse, as I did, by writing a novel like Something Bigger that’s based on a real story, or by whimsically throwing in the name of a childhood pet here and there, but honestly, it probably happens even if you write wildly imaginative science fiction. “Ah go on, who was the dinosaur really.” I have no advice about how to deal with this, except maybe to name a character in your next book after these seekers of truth, so there’s something there for them to find.
When you publish your first novel, there’s no single blinding flash when the whole world goes and(?) snaps from black & white to colour, like the start of The Wizard of Oz. Instead you get a blur of joyful moments: the publisher sends you a mock-up of the final cover design. A box of proofs arrives to your house, and there it is, looking for all the world like a real book. Kind people read advance copies and say lovely things. A friend asks you to sign their book. A stranger emails to say how it made them feel. One day you see it on the shelves of an actual bookshop. Eventually, it soaks in – you’re an author now. So don’t wait for that one big realisation. At every step, take photographs, real and mental. Open that bottle you’ve been saving. Burn the good candles and lay down good memories, and don’t let those sweet moments pass you by. However, a health warning follows ….
All this fun and festivity is lovely, especially the formal celebrations. You have a launch. You do some readings, maybe if you’re very lucky a festival. You are cheered on by the warmth of the Irish writing community. People make a fuss and it’s just lovely. If you’re not very disciplined, the sheer novelty and joy of this will distract you from the core business of being a writer, which is not, it turns out, drinking prosecco and reading lovely reviews, but – work with me here – writing! So don’t lose the habit if you can help it.
There’s an oddly-unexpected letting go when the book is published. Readers buy your book and read it inside their own heads, which is different to your head, so the story plays out differently for them. They infer motive, imagine connections that you didn’t put in there, at least not consciously. Sometimes they read deeper than you seemed to write. Sometimes the reverse. At that point, you could respond by explaining all your characters’ unwritten backstories and unarticulated relationships, ad nauseam if needed. Or you could just let it go. The story is theirs now, and their interpretation is just as valid as yours. You don’t own it any more. That’s bittersweet, but mostly sweet.
It’s hard to explain, this one, but even months after the novel is finished and making its own way, some characters, not necessarily the expected ones, come back and hang around the margin of your vision, waiting for you to give them something to do. The story that the novel tells is well and truly over, but these people seem to have something more to do or say. Maybe they’re waiting for another book. Maybe they’ll settle for a short story. But they’re not finished, even if you are, so that’s worth exploring.
Hopefully publishing your first book gave you confidence. You wrote it. You found a publisher willing to take the leap with you, and together you pushed the work out there into the light. There may be no graduation ceremony, but you did it, start to finish, which means you can do it again. Hold on to that confidence. And as a visual reminder …
Sound advice from Writepace’s own Cat Hogan was to buy something enduring for every book you publish: a piece of art, a little jewellery, something that lasts. After Something Bigger came out, I bought a silver infinity ring on the side of the street in Scotland for fifteen pounds and it’s the best money I’ve spent this year. It sits on my finger, reminding me. Makes me happy every day.
Finally, and remarkably, despite the fact of Novel #1 strutting around in the world, it turns out that: (a) Novel #2 is still not finished;
(b) finishing it is not made easier by the nice things people are saying about your writing;
(c) you are the only one who can write this book. And you’ll do it alone, just like before. Full of doubt about the plot and the characters and the setting, just like before, putting one sentence after another, driving in the dark as far as your headlights will reach, full of trust, just like before. This one is a different book. A brand new thing, as unwritten as the first one ever was. So you need to sit down, just like before, and write yourself into the mystery of it. And that, perhaps, is the best thing of all.
Sheila Killian’s first novel, Something Bigger, was published by Caritas Press on July 20, 2021. You can read all about it at www.sheilakillian.com