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Author! Author!

Clay by Melissa Harrison

In this article, Clay author Melissa Harrison explores how much more there is to the business of writing, aside from the writing process itself. Here, she looks at the ways in which writers are now expected to promote themselves and their books, even after they've secured the all-important publishing deal.

Like becoming a parent, having a book published is something that’s impossible to imagine until it happens to you. Sure, there are things every aspiring writer tends to picture – holding the printed copy for the first time, reading the first review – but like cradling a newborn baby or seeing your child’s first school report these Kodak moments relate only tangentially to the real, day-to-day business of being a writer.

By which I mean being a writer, not writing books. It turns out that the actual putting-words-on-the-page part (and I include the endless prevarication, the missing-your-stop-on-the-bus daydreaming, the social media time-wastage and the barely suppressed fits of self-pity and frustration) – the actual words part is only half of the bargain. The rest of it is rarely imagined or discussed before that magical day on which forces known or unknown make of you An Author.

On that day it becomes official: you can write! Let joy be unconfined. Now, can you also perform? For that is the other part of the Faustian pact, at least for novelists – and just like how you’d cope in a plane crash or whether you could eat next door’s dog if push came to shove, you have no idea how you’ll do until it happens. Unless you have been employed as a professional toastmaster or cruise ship compere, you’ll turn up at your first reading, down a glass of wine, take to the mic, your book in hand – and either you’ll sink or you’ll swim.

Which is not to say it’s not possible to get better. It is. Over time, frequent exposure to public events renders them manageable for all but the most mic-shy or constitutionally querulous. It’s just that the two parts of the profession are so different, so at odds: on the one hand, sitting by yourself in a room and just… thinking; on the other, holding the attention of a crowd, often by resorting to gags, sophisticated rhetorical devices such as unexpected swearing (works well with the right crowd) and white-knuckle improv – and that’s on top of the actual ‘reading from your book’ part, which has its own challenges (tip – mark on the page where to breathe) and is often only a small section of what you’re called upon to do at an event. My point is, one set of skills requires deep introversion (for the most part); the other asks that you be an extrovert – or at least give a convincing impression of one.

It’s not even possible to prepare – or not completely, because each reading, each event, is so different. Things like the type of location, time of day and room size make a difference, as do whether people have paid for tickets or not, whether a mic and stand are provided, who’ll introduce you (if anyone), which other authors are on the bill (same or different genres?) and who the main draw is – are people there to hear you, or are they actually just tolerating you until the more famous writer appears? It’s good to know in advance whether the crowd are likely to have they read your book – as, for instance, reading groups usually have – or whether it’s new to them (in which case, try to avoid spoilers when picking the extract to read). Ask yourself (or your publicist): will the punters have been drinking, and if so, for how long? And finally, is there (dread words) an ‘imaginative format’? Since my novel Clay came out, in January 2013, I have been fired at while on stage with foam Nerf gun pellets, honked at by car horns, cheered, wept at, ignored, heckled (in German) – and, once or twice, I have held a room rapt. 

And don’t think that you can shirk all this. Not these days; not unless your novel is so obscure or so utterly world-beating that your assistance to drive sales is not required – and frankly, you won’t know the latter until you’ve been on the circuit anyway; even world-beaters can only request privacy after they’ve proved themselves with Book One. The days of authors simply penning the stuff and slinking back to their garrets is well and truly over. Even Samuel Beckett would have to do a library tour if he were around today.

But please don’t misunderstand me. It’s an enormous privilege to read your work aloud, no matter what kind of event, and an even greater one to meet readers afterwards – people who have connected with your book, or are about to. And for every ‘What’s your favourite book?’ question, or ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ (and yes, you’ll get plenty of those) there’ll be someone who loiters near you as you sign books, trying and then not trying to catch your eye, and then, after approaching you cautiously as though you’re something other than nervous and hopeful and twice as self-conscious as them, tells you something so personal, so devastating and so wonderful about what your words have meant to them that you feel, for an instant, as though you could cheerfully stop the whole mad shebang right there, could call a halt to the soul-searching and circular thinking and sheer eye-watering difficulty of it all, because your work – the work of connecting, of speaking your own self out loud, of being heard – is actually done.

So if you’re dreaming of publication, of ‘becoming a writer’, think too about the public part of the role. But remember, there’s no way of knowing, in advance, how you’ll do. It may come easily or it may need practice, but it’s a huge amount of fun – and unlike, say, the audience at a stand-up comedy gig, readers do understand that this isn’t the main part of your job, and because of that they are kind. When you stand on that stage, adjusting the mic and looking out at the upturned faces, remember: everyone there just wants you do to well.

For me, it’s been a chance to learn a new skill, and to put to bed some old fears and insecurities, too. And if you’re a writer, you’ll know that experiences that push you out of your comfort zone, that make you know yourself better or give you a chance to see a side of life you hadn’t seen before, are invaluable. They are the grist to our mills, the fish in our nets; the clay, in fact, with which we sculpt. Because, when push comes to shove, all that sitting and thinking in your garret can only get you so far.

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Author image on homepage by Anthony Young.