My first year published
Remember how much you longed to be a teenager? When I was unpublished, the published state looked just as glorious as the magic year 13 does to an 11-year-old girl. I had no problem visualizing myself signing my name with a flourish and meeting my editor at fancy New York lunches. But First Years are often not exactly as one visualizes. Take the First Year of Marriage, for example. Magazines and movies portray it as a blur of romantic dinners and surprise gifts from one’s dearly beloved. Yet even as my husband and I wander through our second decade together, I shudder to think of our first 12 months. I am not just complaining about the state of the bathroom, either. Why doesn’t anyone tell you that supposedly intelligent men turn out not to have balanced their checkbook for years?
And what about that long-awaited First Year as a Teenager? I expected something marvelous to happen. OK, breasts might have been a long shot, but secretly I hoped to transform into a graceful, slender girl with blond hair. Needless to say, my hair remained obstinately red, my clumsiness was unmatched by anyone else trying out for the cheerleading squad, and my waistline was a matter for tears and French fries. The year is summed up, in my mind, by one day at lunchtime when the boys (who generally stuck to their side of the room), were acting like rampaging animals, tossing about a garment of clothing. I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were so excited about. And it wasn’t until the said white scrap of cloth shot over to the girls’ side of the room and draped itself on my head (rather like the homecoming crown I longed for), that I discovered the existence of the jock strap.
I guess my real point is that First Years are often painful. My first year as a published author was no exception. The shock was all the greater because I so enjoyed the unpublished life. I don’t happen to be someone who was wise enough to attend creative writing classes, or join the Romance Writers of America, or learn how to ride before jumping in the saddle. Nope, I hopped right on and started writing. And because I loved it, I kept going. The year I spent writing my first book, Potent Pleasures, will always remain, in my memory, one of the most charmed experiences of my life. I was juggling my job, my three-year-old son, and our household (my husband never did learn to balance a checkbook), but at four o’clock every day I would sink into the story of Alex and Charlotte.
And I loved it. Writing was something I felt I could really do well. I don’t know about you, but I have to work hard at mothering. It’s the toughest job I’ve done, and if I ever meet someone who says out loud that they do it very, very well, I will likely consider a citizen arrest on the grounds of criminal insanity. As for being a wife, I was never much good at math. And as for my job (I’m a professor)? It’s a job. Hard one day, excruciating the next, kind of fun one week, stressful for a month. But writing Potent Pleasures was pure pleasure.
So my first year as a published author should have been bliss, right? Everyone who picked up the book would say, “Hey! This is great!” and write me a letter saying so. What’s more, the publication of Potent Pleasures was not the only wonderful thing that happened to me that year. My second child, Anna, was also born. Oh bliss! Oh glory! Oh desperation!
Why had I not realized that juggling a job, a household, a second book, a four-year-old son, and a new baby added up to insanity? At the same time that Potent Pleasures was hitting the bookstores, I was struggling to finish my second novel. The contracted due date for Midnight Pleasures came and passed. It wasn’t that the book wasn’t done. It was, sort of. Sophie and Patrick were a gloriously funny couple. I adored them and their jokes, their love for each other, and their grief. The problem was their sex life. They didn’t have one. Well, I hardly had one, so why should they? Anna was born at a low birth weight, and woke up every two hours for a feeding, every night for months. And if she didn’t wake up, I was under strict instructions to wake her up. Who needs sex? Sleep is the ultimate pleasure.
The second problem was my readers. About half of them loved Potent Pleasures. USA Today loved it, Booklist loved it, and Publishers Weekly loved it. Half of my readers fell into Charlotte and Alex’s story just as I had hoped when writing it: with pleasure and affection. But the other half of my readers wrote me blistering letters. Charlotte and Alex dance a quadrille in 1803, and there were no quadrilles in England until 1815. Even worse, Alex wears pajamas, and there were no pajamas worn until the 1930s! Here’s where my mortification came in. You see, in my day-to-day job, I am a scholar. Facts are my business. I spend most of my days teaching undergraduates how to write footnotes and how to do research. The mortification of being crowned by a jock strap was easily surpassed when I became the queen of the anachronism.
In my defense, I had no idea that some readers treasure historical accuracy. Back in my blissful pre-publication state, my husband pointed out that men didn’t wear pajamas in the old days. I dismissed that suggestion out of hand. My Alex couldn’t wear a nightshirt! Yuck! My husband also thought that prostitutes were not known as hookers back then. But I liked the sound of a Hookers’ Ball.
Now that Potent Pleasures was actually on the stands, more letters went up on Amazon.com every day. Outraged letters battled supportive letters. My editor described my Amazon site as a war zone. My husband described it as forbidden. After visiting the site, I invariably spent the whole day in tears (mind you, lack of sleep doesn’t make criticism any easier to handle).
Fortunately, there was a good nine months before Potent Pleasures was to be published in paperback. I turned in the revised draft of Potent Pleasures in a state of complete exhaustion.
In my first year as a published author, I learned that the art of writing is just as difficult as all the other good things in life, such as parenting or staying in a marriage. But like those other things, the pleasure of writing well is far keener than the pleasure of writing easily. By talking back to me, irate readers helped me become a better writer, in a way I may never have learned on my own.
My baby, Anna, is no baby—she’s now madly in love with Justin Bieber (unrequited, alas). My husband may not balance our checkbook, but he cooks a great pot of pasta, and he does all the laundry, and he even sorts the colors sometimes. But the most important thing I learned in my first year was to trust my readers not only to support me, but to help me grow as a writer; what was most difficult about my First Year as a Published Author has become a crucial source of help and inspiration.
Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University in New York City and New York Times bestselling author of historical romance novels. Find out more about Eloisa James.