By Katie Singer
Published by Riverhead Books / Penguin Putnam

What to Expect When You're Expecting Your First Novel
By Katie Singer
copyright © 2005

After the sale, everyone will want to know if the story's autobiographical. Quickly, you'll learn to say, "No-no. It's fiction." They'll ask, "Will you be on Oprah?"

If you call an experienced author, she'll suggest you get a domain name, a therapist and an accountant. Also, work on your mailing list. Another writer with an advance twice as large as yours will tell you she wasn't reviewed in the New York Times, her publicity department forgot to tell her about a TV appearance, and when she attended a gathering with 40 book reviewers, her publisher wouldn't send along copies of her novel. You'll see how unhappy she is. She's under fifty and she needs a pacemaker. You'll be certain your experience will be different. You'll be positive.

Conversations with your agent will skyrocket your dreamlife with words like Spielberg. You'll wonder if you could agree to having your novel made into a movie, because you've rarely seen movies made from novels that you admire. Don't worry so much! Except for the rate of your blood pressure, none of this will amount to anything.

For sanity, you should start your second book.

It'll take three months for a contract to arrive, and a month after that for a check. Parents will voice skepticism. If you've sold your book, why do you still need to borrow money?

Once you've got actual cash in the bank, get yourself out of debt. Relish this. Next, write checks to a photographer and a makeup artist who can make you a glamorous headshot. Then, your fourteen year old car will need new struts and a muffler. Notice the metaphors. That'll be $600.

Your editor's assistant will phone. She's the one who found your novel in the haystack. You're crazy about her, and grateful that she knows so much about publishing. She's twenty-two. She'll say, "I've over-nighted your book cover." You'll wonder if the designer read your novel. Was there some kind of meeting that didn't include you? When you open the envelope, you will hate your cover: it will not relate to your novel at all.

Your agent and your editor will already have gone home for the day. But in your zone, it's time to shop for dinner. Fume and whiz around the store with your cart. Strategize for the next morning, so you can tell those New Yorkers, tactfully, that you can not live with this image. With a cover like this one, you'd rather not publish the book. Run into a former beau. "I heard about your novel!" he'll beam. "You must be flying!"

The next morning, call your agent. She'll love the cover. She'll say, "Let me handle this." Good! This is what agents are for. She'll quickly phone back to say your editor wants to talk with you. Pace while you wait for the call. Or, lie down. When you lie down, you'll get a revelation and a good sob. You'll understand the designer's beautiful interpretation. "Sure," your editor will say when you reach each other. "Everyone hates their cover when they first see it."

You'll be very excited about the new book you started. You'll want to run a few pages by your editor. Your agent will explain you can't do this until you have three chapters and an outline (or whatever your contract says). If your editor buys your proposal, you'll have to deliver a completed manuscript within a year--18 or 24 months if you're very lucky. Be honest. Can you work with a dead line (should that be a compound) hanging around?

If three days pass and nobody at the p.o. or the grocery store offers congratulations, lean against a wall to recover from the pangs of withdrawl.

Start building your website. To tolerate accruing piles of paper and your blooming ego, you'll need a saint.

Some days, you'll feel sick of yourself.


Once you read your editor's comments, you'll be perfectly clear that this book is going to be published. The manuscript will be due back in New York in four weeks, so there isn't enough time to write a new one. Maybe you could start a 12-step program for people who write autobiographically.

Meanwhile, relish your editor's single-spaced, seven page letter about what you can do to strengthen your novel. You'll be in Writer Heaven, to have your work so intelligently considered. The day before the manuscript is due back, your computer will only type the letter 'n,' or it will confuse the upper and lower cases. Giggle a little. These are also metaphors!

Next comes copyediting. Like dirty housekeeping, your misspelled words, poor grammar, mismatched names and dates will acumulate along your manuscript's sidelines. This copyeditor will notice you've got a character sauteeing her broccoli in one paragraph, then eating it steamed in the next. She'll know everything you missed when you weren't paying attention in grades K-12: a spider is an arachnid, not an insect. In 1917, American soldiers would be returning from war, not heading to it. You'll be buried in your dictionary, trying to find out if coat rack is two words or a compound. You'll realize that with all these mistakes, your final copy is bound to be riddled with errors.

Take out your checkbook again. Pay everyone you quote in your novel. And take comfort. All this, plus postage and long distance calls, are tax deductible. Pay your Yiddish spellchecker, your website designer, the makeup artist (this time for a lesson in how to apply your own makeup on tour). Put something into an IRA--a nearly forty-year-old writer should have some savings.

You'll need yoga. If you go for acupuncture, therapy, or tax help, like everyone else, those folks will mainly want to talk about how you got an agent.

At a cocktail party, you'll meet a bookstore manager from a nearby city, and offer to give a reading in his store. He'll nod, and tell you that when Barbara Kingsolver read at his store when her first novel appeared, one person showed up. He'll say, "and it was a great reading."

Your agent will report that an editor from a big publisher's audio division wants to put your novel on tape. This is great: you need health insurance. But while your manuscript is sent around for committee approval, Rupert Murdoch will buy this whole company. In two weeks, the audio editor who loves your novel will be fired.

Remember your saint? One morning, he'll reach for your hand and gently squeeze each of your fingers. He'll whisper, "Neither of us has to be anywhere this morning." Ohmygod. You'll remember editing your novel's sex scenes, but you won't remember the last time you had sex. It's a month before your pub date. You'll wonder if your body can handle it. Your yoga teacher will be traveling in India.

You'll run into a poet whose work you admire. "Congratulations," she'll say. Smile, feebly, and say you're overwhelmed. Hear yourself say that what you're going through is nothing like what poets go through. It's a whole different scale. Oh dear. Swallow your spit. Wonder if there'll ever be grace for you to explain yourself and apologize. Doubt it.

When you first see your novel in final form, it may be anti-climatic. You're just tired. It'll take a few weeks for your ten complementary copies to arrive; you'll pay for the rest. Every friend you ever had will expect that you give them away for free.


Imagine you're photogenic and you've served on your city council for eight years (the time it took to write your novel). So, you decide to run for president of the U.S. The election will be held in a few months. This'll give you an idea of what it's like to publicize your first novel. The difference is that presidential candidates vying for media attention number about three; novelists compete each year with 100,000 other authors.

You'll need a snappy, six-word reply to the question, "What's your book about?"

There'll be the Kirkus review. Everyone knows that the people there write from chairs studded with nails. Build your character! Give the review a good laugh.

Now, a few months before your book sold, your publisher's parent company merged with another big company. Just as you begin your tour, the parents will merge their warehouses. This means you will need to appreciate your publicist at moments when you are, shall we say, not at your best.

Two weeks before your pub date, your publicist will quit.

Try a meditation class.

A friend across the country will read you a review of a novel that sounds similar to yours. Look up the writer's name in the Poets & Writers Directory, and call her. Sing halleyluyah! Now you can complain to someone who understands. The writer's name will be Jane. She'll have just returned from a panel with two other writers at a conference attended by 600 booksellers. Each seller got a little bag containing the authors' books. She'd bought a darling outfit for the occasion. A few hours before the panel, she learned that her books had not arrived. Moan and sigh while she tells you how she tried in vain to work a FedEx miracle without an overnight. Do not ask what happened to her outfit.

When you complain to Jane that your contract said you were supposed to get three months to edit your novel, but that you only got five weeks, she will tell you she had only one week.

Drop to your knees.

Two days before your home town reading, your books will not have arrived at the bookstore that is hosting it. Call your (new) publicist. She's got a direct line to the warehouse. Keep your voice at a level she can understand. Politeness is helpful.

A word about readings. Don't read for more than six minutes. This way, when it's time to buy your book, you'll still have people's attention. Two weeks after reading in your hometown, the independent bookstore that hosted it will go out of business. Put a call to God about this one.

Fly to a big city and find yourself warmly greeted by the manager of a lovely independent bookstore. He's the one who hosted Barbara Kingsolver years ago. Fifty chairs will be assembled for your reading. The manager's wife, another bookseller, and one customer will sit in the front row while he reads a brilliant introduction to your novel. Go ahead and blush. And, given what he told you about Barbara Kingsolver, the size of this audience will be a good omen.

You should get comfortable with small audiences. Or, if you have a large crowd (5+), don't expect your books to be delivered. If your books do arrive in time, you will have no more than four people in the audience. If you have a large audience and books, the store's credit card machine won't work. If this type of stuff doesn't happen to you at least 50% of the time while you're on tour, I will assume your name is Stephen King, or that you pray to a god the members of the Authors Guild do not yet know.

Back at the airport by 7am the morning after your reading, you'll learn your flight's been canceled. You're confirmed on another plane at 8pm. A little voice will whisper, "This is not a health hazard. This is a privilege." Plus, now you've got time to go to the bathroom.

Your partner's mother will have sent a huge bouquet of flowers for your reading at the independent bookstore. When she hears how few people attended your event, she'll be upset that it wasn't publicized. She knows how wonderful your novel is. You'll try to explain how things are in publishing, but she won't get it--nor will most people. "If not Oprah," they'll say, "then how's about an audio? Or Book of the Month Club?"

People will assume that you've become rich. What do they mean? That you've got a comfortable bed? (You do.) New shoes? (You splurged there.) A washer/dryer in your apartment compound? (Nada.) If being really rich means having a whole morning to write without interruption, dream back to the days before your book sold.

Like most coordinators, the one from your next event won't have read your novel. During dinner, before your reading, she'll rave about another book. She'll tell you she's invited twenty-three women to her house next week to discuss this book, in fact.

At a gift-selling holiday bazaar, you'll be assigned to share a table with beanie babies. You'll take a Local Author sticker, sometimes posted on your book, and plant it above your breast. The attention you receive, compared to that of the beanie babies, will illuminate your understanding of publishing, Y2K+. Officially now, you are in the winter of your success.

A writer whose novel came out a year before yours will mention that all of her reviews were published within six weeks of her pub date. Six weeks after your pub date, you still haven't had one review in a big-city daily, no tv show, no radio interview (you will be offered one on a fabulous show in a big city, but the host will be out of town the week you're there, and she only does face-to-face interviews.)

A reviewer who panned your book in a nationally distributed publication will say that one of your main characters was traumatized when her boyfriend ended their relationship. If you call this person to inform her that the boyfriend ended the relationship by committing suicide, (and to ask how she gets the nerve to review books she doesn't read), you'll be arguing with the first law of advertising: there's no such thing as bad publicity. Be grateful for the attention.

Notice that other writers with first books have longer tours, and theirs are advertised in The New Yorker. Relatives will clip favorable reviews of other recent novels and mail them to you. Jane's book will go into second and third printings. But at your grocery store, people will say they're jealous of you. Just nod. Do not open your mouth. Trust me.

Remind yourself that feeling self-absorbed, depleted and miserable is not a permanent condition. Open a fan letter from a man who found your book on his library's new shelf, and feel a little boost. Nice.


By now you know that publishing can leave a person woefully disappointed, and bring her weakest traits into plain view. A famous writer with 40 years in the biz will tell you, "It's like the Middle East."

What's to be done? Expectations run celestial. Delivery is on a human scale.

Your partner will leave for a week with his parents so you can enjoy a bit of solitude. Make soup, scour your tub, clear your desk, maybe take out a blank notebook. There's a ring. It's your agent. Her husband just got a job offer on the west coast. She'll be going with him. She'll be leaving publishing. This is the woman who loved your novel (after twelve other agents turned it down), and negotiated its sale with brass ovaries. She's the one who calmly explained your contract, answered your panicked calls, and never asked about your second book until you brought up the matter. Genuinely, you'll be happy for her. In California, she'll have her own washer and dryer. (In New York, she went to the laundromat, just like you.)

Your mother will send you one of Martin Arnold's columns from the New York Times. It will say your second novel needs to be more daring than your first. It will say, "A novelist's career depends on showing that the first promising book was not a fluke."

Don't bother with what this guy thinks. I mean, The Times didn't even review your novel. As for your mom, remember she's had to deal with people asking if your story's autobiographical, too. Try my next tip.

You've still got a few blank checks. Buy arty cards and more stamps, and thank each person who helped bring your book to life. Thank your editor and her assistant, your agent and her mentor, your book's jacket designer and copyeditor, your web designer, the authors who wrote blurbs for your jacket, your publicists, all the booksellers you met, the folks who reviewed your novel, each writer who ever gave you advice, the folks at your public library, and everyone who wrote to say your book made a difference in their lives. Don't forget your mom. Thanking people's a great pleasure. It can help you realize you're glad you published your book.

You'll still get asked if you've heard from Oprah; if you're sure the novel isn't autobiographical. Just say, "I have imagination." Or, explain that the reader brings much more to a book than the book gives to the reader. Also, literary questions about your novel (for reading groups) can be found on your website. When they ask, "How's the book doing?" respond simply. Say, "It's doing well."

Actually, of course, the answer's complicated. Three months after your pub date, the two cities where your novel takes place will have sold out of your book, but not restocked it. The unsold copies from other parts of the country will be returned to your publisher's warehouse. If you're lucky, they'll be remaindered; shredded if you're not. "Just like high school," Jane will say. "It (your book) doesn't exist anymore."

A friend who's worked on her first novel for four years will call. With unbounded glee, she'll say, "I just typed 'The End!'"

Oh dear. Simply being on a phone with you could kill her enthusiasm for all things literary. Tell her you're concerned, and she might ask, "Well, what are your favorite things about publishing?"

The question will stop you in your tracks.

Remember the teenagers who read your book and asked intelligent questions. Remember the note from your editor that said how thrilled she was to publish it. Talk about Jane, your editor's assistant, the other writers you've gotten to know, and the booksellers who've become your friends. Count four reviews by people who actually understood your book, and seven heartwarming fan letters. One reader in Rhode Island loved your book so much she probably sold six or seven copies herself. Realize you're proud of your novel, your partner still loves you, and one relative even put it in writing that she enjoyed your book.

Soon enough, you'll wake up to a line in your head. Pay attention--it might be the beginning of an essay. You'll be nervous, because more fiction is expected from you now, not essays. Fax what you've got to Jane. Listen to her laugh hilariously. "Oh," she'll sigh. "There really is no such thing as bad experience for a writer. It's all material." And you'll say, "Just a minute. I need to write that down."

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