This is the best part. The part where I get to say, “My new novel, The Albuquerque Turkey, is available in bookstores now.” This is the part where I get to sit on the Jay Leno set of my mind (as opposed to the Jay Leno set of real life, for I’m neither a starlet nor Charlie Sheen) and say, “Yep, I did it. That’s all me. That whole book, from cover to cover. Me.”
This is the best part. It comes at the end of a long string of not-the-best-parts, the seemingly endless struggle to find the right words, voice, characterization, plot, scene description, line of dialogue, even font. The struggle of facing the wave (the place where the words end and the blank page begins) day in and day out for a year. Then came the tedium of rewriting, the humbling act of taking notes, the million pencil proofs and niggling discussions about cover art and back matter. But now it’s here. Launch day. The best day of a writer’s life.
Unless it’s, you know, not.
Years ago, I was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and I happened to find myself at a book launch party for a local author. He’d drawn a nice crowd; he was obviously well liked and well respected by his peers, and was rightfully enjoying the limelight. As anyone who’s ever had one can tell you (or as you know from your own experience) a book launch party is like a birthday party, only ten times better, because everyone has birthdays, but not everyone has books. When you’re the star of that show, you’re aware that you’re there on merit. So it’s a wonderful moment.
If you can stay in it.
That night in Newfoundland, the author’s publisher did him what I thought was a huge disservice. Raising her glass in toast, she voiced the earnest hope that in six months’ time, they’d all be congratulating one another on a big, fat, hairy bestseller. I happened to glance at the author just then, and saw his face fall. I thought I knew why. There he was, just trying to have a good time at his own party, when suddenly he was reminded of the massive expectations that he and others had inevitably heaped upon the book, expectations that might or might not be met, due to forces almost entirely outside his control. I saw his brows furrow in worry: What if it’s not a best seller? What if it crashes and burns? He accepted the toast for the well-intentioned well-wish it was, and gamely strove to put himself back in the party mood, but I could see that the damage had been done.
Not to put too fine a point on it, thinking about tomorrow can utterly ruin today.
And as we all know, this happens not just on book launch day but on any day of a writer’s life. When we look at the words we’ve written, we can’t help but wonder what impact they’ll have. Will this move people? At least make them laugh? Will they think I’m a nut? Or worse, an egotist? Will this damn burdensome beast ever even see light of day? Will I ever get to the Leno Show of my mind? As a practical matter, such thoughts, whether positive or negative, can only hurt the writing process because they take us off the page and put us in the realm of speculation. It’s fun to speculate. Or it’s excruciatingly painful. But in neither case does it put more words on the page – the very words that need to get to the page in order for any of the speculations, good or bad, to ever come true.
It’s hard to stay focused. Every writer knows this. When I find myself losing focus (as I do about every five minutes), I have a simple system for dealing with it. I indulge myself briefly; I let myself visit the Leno Show of my mind and exchange a few bon mot with its fictive host. Then I gently whisper my mantra, Words on the page, JV. It all comes back to words on the page. Then I reread what I just wrote and try to puzzle out what comes next.
Writing is not a pure process, this we know. Minds wander; it’s what minds do, and writers’ minds more than most. We need to be accepting of this phenomenon – not berate ourselves for being lazy or “undisciplined” – but also we need to know how to get back to the task at hand. We need, in other words, the knack for being patient and impatient at the same time: patient in the sense that we can let the wandering mind wander where it will (even if it wanders to solitaire or email); impatient in the sense that we then insist on bringing it back to the one thing that controls everything: Words on the page.
The one thing we truly control.
Everything else is out of our hands, and that’s something else we have to accept. The book could be a big, fat, hairy bestseller, or it could sink like a stone. If we’re diligent about such things, we try to support our writing efforts with marketing efforts (through which diligence I have already amassed literally tens of followers on Twitter). But even that is no guarantee of success. Of course there is no guarantee of success.
Hits have a mind of their own.
That’s why when it’s book launch time at my house, I try to see the moment as the satisfying culmination of much hard work, and not get too hung up on what happens next. The book will sell or it won’t sell (autographed copies will sell directly from johnvorhaus.com – go, marketing!) The movie rights will sell or they won’t. The publishers will want another book or they won’t. The important thing for me right now is to detach from outcome, because these book launch days come around rarely, and take so much work to get to, that I’m damned if I’m going to squander the pleasure of taking a well-deserved win.
If you’re “pre-published” (have yet to host your first book launch), you may regard this as something of a luxury crisis, the pity party of a man who should count himself lucky to have published a novel at all. Oh, believe me, I do. But I’m also aware that there’s really no difference between a writer who has published and one who hasn’t. We’re all just at different places on the same path. My experience of the path tells me that nothing hastens me down it faster than concentrating on the moment I’m in. That way lies both productivity and tranquility, at least for me.
So the next time you’re stuck in a bad place in your writer’s mind, just whisper to yourself what I whisper to me: Words on the page, [INSERT NAME HERE]. It all comes back to words on the page. Type one, then another, then the one after that, and before you know it, you’ll be hosting your next book launch, too.