A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
I really hate making everything all about me. On my social media sites, my friends and followers must be grinding their teeth in boredom right now, sick to death of hearing about my new book only two weeks after its release. But what’s an author to do? The number of books published annually in the U.S. has grown exponentially in recent years — from 10,000 a year in 2004 to nearly 300,000 today, thanks mostly to self-publishing, I presume. This explosion of books might level the playing field for writers (whether that’s good or bad depends on your perspective), but for those of us who’ve worked all our lives honing our skills so we could become one of those lucky few published authors, it’s not such a welcome increase. The fact is, many, many self-published books (they used to call them “vanity” books, for a good reason) are mediocre at best, dumbing down the people who read them and, as a result, our culture as a whole. But don’t get me started.
Now that I’ve offended all my self-published-writer friends, I’ll move on to the topic at hand: promoting ourselves. Competing with 9,999 other vetted, presumably-decent-quality books must have been daunting a decade ago, but pitting my novel against 299,000, mostly poorly-written and on sale for 99 cents, feels overwhelming. It feels like my book is a tree that fell in the forest but, whether anyone is around to hear it or not, they probably can’t amid the collective crash of 33 other trees falling in the same hour.
Garbage in, garbage out
When I start work on a novel, I read only the best writing I can find. I have a garbage-in, garbage-out mentality (and you should too). I read “Wolf Hall” while I wrote “Four Sisters, All Queens,” which may be the reason I wrote it in third person, present tense, irking some readers to no end. I read “The Dovekeepers” before I started “The Sharp Hook of Love,” which may account for its serious tone. (I know it influenced the original prologue, which got removed during editing but which, liking it as I do, I plan to offer for free on my Swag page soon.) As I write my forthcoming novel about the African-American-turned-Parisian dancer and chanteuse Josephine Baker, I’m re-reading Joyce Carol Oates’s “Blonde,” about Marilyn Monroe. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, with the kind of writing I adore: filled not with plot twists but with writing surprises, with aha! moments in which you see a thing in a new light or, better yet, in a way you’d always seen it but never before put into words. This is how I want my next book to be, so interesting and stimulating that even I, who never re-read my books, will want to read it again and again.
As I read, I wonder: does Joyce Carol Oates blog? Does she send out letters on Goodreads to all her friends announcing each new book? Does she bore her Facebook friends with post after post, photo after photo, event invitations ad nauseous about her appearances? Does she check her Amazon rankings, or make videos of herself talking or reading, or tweet the latest reviews, or pay someone to organize blog tours? Does she hustle her book at events, or stand on her feet, behind a table stacked with her books, for hours at book fairs or trade shows?
I’ve done all these things in the interest of drumming up attention, and sales, for my books. I’m not alone, either. Read Tinney Sue Heath’s hilarious post about the lengths she’s gone to to promote her new novel. If you’re an author, your laughter may contain more than a tinge of unease, as you recognize yourself.
The rumor about Ms. Oates
My good friend Debra Magpie Earling, author of the wonderful Perma Red and creative-writing professor at the University of Montana, told me she’d heard that Ms. Oates writes continuously, even while she’s speaking publicly. She’d never believed this tale, she said, until she witnessed it herself. Standing in the wings during one of Ms. Oates’s speeches, she spied Joyce’s hands on a keyboard under the lectern, typing away as she spoke. Somehow, with more than 40 novels plus novellas, non-fiction books, and short-story and poetry collections to her credit — in addition to teaching — I doubt she was writing her next blog post.
Where do I stop? With “Four Sisters, All Queens,” I decided not to spend my precious time writing blog posts except when invited by others to do so. That decision worked out just fine; this book is still selling fairly well, more than two years after its May 2012 debut. Maybe, like Ms. Oates, I ought to save my writing for the work that pays: my freelance work and my books. I’m 53, after all, and I’ve published only four novels and one novella. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do if I’m to compete with Joyce Carol Oates — quality-wise or quantity-wise. Forty novels! “Blonde”! Now here are reasons to compete.