Three years ago today, we got a new car, all shiny and factory fresh. My husband went along to collect it without me as I had far more exciting things to do. It was publication day for my debut novel and I was basking in the early reviews and congratulatory tweets.
My husband was a little embarrassed to arrive at the dealership to be greeted with a large sign welcoming us both. And although you can’t giftwrap a car, they’d done the next best thing and perched a huge bow on the roof. I think the sales staff were disappointed when he declined their offer to take his photograph to commemorate the occasion.
As the car goes for its first MOT, I’ve been wondering about parallels with my three-year-old book. Now I’ve published a second novel, with a short story collection coming out later this year, I’m wondering if, like a car, a new book is both special and ordinary. After all, it’s nothing unusual. Like cars on our roads, bookshops, libraries and online retailers are crammed with books.
If that seems pessimistic, it’s not meant to be. Our own first book will always be special. Likewise a first car, even if, as is often the case, it’s an old banger. But for the long haul, to avoid losing our license, drivers must recognise ours isn’t the only car on the road. Similarly, to sustain a career as an author, it helps to be mindful that it’s not so special to have published a book.
But we don’t know that right at the beginning. Or, if we do, we know it intellectually but not in our hearts. Rather like parenting, each stage of our careers feels fresh and new, something we fully figure out only in retrospect. From putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard to finding a publisher we look back on a point when we didn’t have a clue.
You might be wondering if I’ve abandoned the new-car analogy. Tricky as it might be to learn to drive, once you’ve passed your test, what’s new? Not a lot, except that, when my husband parked the car outside our house, neither of us could work out how to get it going again. It should have been obvious – it is obvious now – but for this super-sensitive electronic dictator it took a phone call to the dealership to discover it wouldn’t budge until our seatbelts were engaged.
Of course cars come with instruction manuals, but I prefer to read novels. While I’ll check the basics, I’d rather defer the fine detail until I need to know. Likewise, there’s lots of information available to writers on both publishing and writing itself. But although we can learn a lot from the experiences of others, our journeys will follow different routes.
One way in which this now-not-so-new car is special is that it’s the first time I’ve had an automatic. Plagued with repetitive strain injury, no longer having to manually change gear or pull on the handbrake makes for a much more comfortable drive. But I still have to steer, and brake, and watch the road. Which is rather like having a publisher: many things, often the most difficult, are taken care of, but there’s still a lot we must do ourselves. From writing a decent book in the first place, to promoting it as best we can, the author’s in the driving seat for much of the way.
Even then, no matter how prepared we are, or how supportive the publisher, there’ll still be surprises, things not working as we expect they should. With my car, I was puzzled when using the demister that the part right in front of the driver’s eyes was the last bit of the windscreen to clear. Until someone suggested that, although the steering wheel is on the right, the overall design is for European roads where you drive on the right.
Just as I didn’t pass my driving test until my twenties, I began my writing career later than some. I hope to keep driving, and writing, for many years to come. While it shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain my short story publication count ahead of my age, I have still to achieve my ambition of publishing enough novels to match my shoe size.