Mini debut author lesson: So much paper in a contract

This entry is part 16 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

One of the things that I didn’t know going into this was how long a book contract was. It’s a small detail, but it’s good to know.

My book contract is 30 pages. <–This is why I have an agent, so I don’t have to negotiate all of that, because yuck.

We are not doing joint accounting, which means that each book is a separate contract. So the three-book deal we have, is actually three book deals, and three contracts. If we had done joint accounting then that would mean that all three books would be counted as one contract and I’d have to earn out the total advance for all three books. This way, I earn out on each book individually. Since the three are unconnected to each other, it made more sense to not link them financially. Make sense?

So that’s 90 pages of contract to read. And I do read all of them, even though they are, in theory, identical except for the titles of the books. Typos and find/replace errors happen to everyone and you don’t want to discover that you’ve accidentally included rights you didn’t mean to.

Each of these contracts needs five signed and printed copies, for a total of 450 pages.

It still surprises me how much paper that is. By this point, I’ve learned that it’s actually about the same cost to have it printed at a copyshop than to print it at home. By the time you factor in the cost of the printer cartridge, the paper, and most of all, the time it takes to babysit the printer to add paper, clear jams and collate, it makes sense to use an online print service. I usually use Fedex Office, just because they are close and then I can ship the contract directly from there.

Debut Author Lesson: Covers

This entry is part 17 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

Before the whole writing thing, I spent some time as an art director for magazines such as Shimmer and Weird Tales. Despite that, I stay largely out of cover design discussions for my novel. Why? Because the people who are designing the covers know their jobs.

With my first novel, I had no input at all and I was fine with that.

As we’ve gotten deeper into the series, I’ve been invited to participate a little more. I thought I would share with you things that you can do to make the cover design process smoother, easier for everyone, and improve the chances of the cover reflecting the novel.

The first thing to understand is the purpose of the cover. It’s purpose is to get people to pick up your book and open it. The words inside will convince them to buy the book, but in order for anyone to see the words, they must first pick the book up. So you need a visually arresting cover.

It also needs to reflect what is happening in the book so that people don’t feel betrayed by that initial impression. The best way to think of the cover is like a movie poster. It should give the feel of the film but doesn’t need to represent a particular scene.

An example of the process.

Here’s a dirty secret. Most of the time, the cover artists and the designer don’t have time to read the book. They are relying on your editor’s description of the book. A lot of times, they need that description a year before the book comes out, which means that your editor might not have read it yet. Here, with permission, is the email exchange that my editor and I had about Valour and Vanity‘s cover.

January 17, 2013

Hey, lady,

 I’m only a wee bit into Valour since I got a bunch of manuscripts all at once, but Irene’s already asking about cover concepts. I’m sure there’s a ton of great possibilities in this one, but is there anything in particular that’s jumped out at you as a good cover direction? (Scene, characters involved, &c)


Note that we’re talking about this more than a year before the novel’s release date of April 29, 2014. My reply to Liz.

January 18, 2013

Hi Liz,

It is so exciting Every Single Time when we get to the point where cover art is being discussed. Cool visuals in this book.

Gondola chase
Pirate attack by Barbary Corsairs
Lord Byron
Nuns — Augustinian, I think. Although I just hit a source that suggests perhaps Cistercian at this point. Will try to clarify.
Puppet show in Venice
Glass blowing

The magic that gets used:
Sphere Obscurcie again
Vincent makes a dragon
Doves flying through a Catholic church
A sort of oil slick/rainbow in the air that’s glamour breaking
A tableau vivant of Cupid and Psyche
A glamural of a orangery

Really though, I will be surprised if it’s not some form of Venice/gondola on the cover.

I can give character descriptions of people if you want them. It was nice to see Melody on the cover of Without a Summer.



And here’s the character description of Vincent that Larry Rostant was working from.

VincentCan you get a description of Vincent. — “Tall, and very broad of chest. His hair was chestnut and curled about his head like Bacon’s portrait of Jean- Baptiste Isabey.” and “His brown curls were tousled in the fashionable wind- swept look which so many men struggled to attain, but which came naturally to him.He swept his hands through his hair so much, knotting them in place while he thought, that it was permanently dishevelled.”

His eyes are brown. He does the dark brooding thing a lot.

I’m attaching a picture of him, which I composited from a couple of different ones. Basically though, if Nathan Fillion had curly hair and were British.

Then on May 16, 2013, Liz sent me the mockups of the cover. Paying attention to the timeline there? It takes that long to put everything together and we’re still nearly a year prior to release.

First glimpses at Valour and Fire Dragon, aka, Valour and Vanity.

Yes, I’m aware the title is wrong. The missing U is purely a typo, but this makes me realize that we actually have “in” instead of “and” in our title management system—which is really weird, because I thought I sent a correction memo somewhere along the way, but it seems it may have misfired. Eeep. Anyway, we’ll fix that ASAP.



You will note that neither of those have a gondola in them and that’s good. Why? In hindsight, a gondola just says that “This happens in Venice” while the fire dragon says, “MAGIC! Exciting, exciting magic.” Does Vincent actually make a dragon out of fire? No. He does create a dragon using glamour, but the fiery thing is just an artistic construct to suggest magic, because a dragon made of glamour looks like a dragon. This is a good example of why, even with an informed author, it’s probably not a good plan to try to design the cover yourself. The things that excite me about the book are all plot/context related. I know that the gondola is being used in a gondola chase and it’s a dramatic scene. To the average person who knows nothing about the book, gondolas are restful vacations. This is a heist novel. It needs more excitement on the cover.
So, here’s my reply.
OMG Those are goooooorgeous. Again. God. Larry Rostant blows it out of the park every time.
Of the two, I prefer the compositional movement in v.3. I like the way Vincent is looking toward Jane and her gaze directs the viewer back into the book. But– the dragon in v3 looks a little like it is threatening her. I’m not sure how I feel about that ambiguity.
Also, I just noticed that this is the first time I’ve looked at the models and felt like I had my main characters on the cover. Granted, Carmen is prettier than Jane, but she’s right in the Hollywood sort of way.
Which one do you prefer?
Liz’s response:

My answer is a bit wishy washy, though I also like some elements of each. I said, “Oh, interesting. I think I like the direction of the second one a bit more, but like seeing buildings in the first.” I’ll pass your comments more and see if maybe there’s any way we could get a melding of the two.



And this is the final cover.

Valour and Vanity


Again, you’ll note that this is not the cover I preferred, but I think it’s the right one. It shows more of Venice and that is important. Having them facing away from each other implies tension, which the other one didn’t have as much.

The colors have been deepened and the layout was adjusted a fraction to show off more of Venice.

What’s also interesting is that Larry Rosant used a dress I described in the book, but with a different sash color. Because we were so far out, I went back in and adjusted the description of the dress to match the one on the cover.

She had borrowed a day dress of sturdy muslin. The dress itself was a simple round gown, but the fabric was sprigged throughout with small flowers. The peach sash seemed exactly calculated to please her.

So, what can you do to help your design team?

  • Make a list of the visually interesting scenes in your book.
  • Compile a list of character descriptions, quoted from the book.
  • Put together a Pinterest board of your visual references (costumes, locations)
  • Answer any questions promptly.

What if the cover is all wrong?

Okay, this happens. What you need to ask yourself is if the thing that is wrong will misrepresent the book. For instance, the woman on the cover of Glamour in Glass is waaaaay too pretty to be my main character. However, she expresses Regency, romance, and moodiness. Who is she? She’s the woman who will sell my novel.

If my main character were a woman of colour, that would be different because it will create the wrong impression in my reader’s heads. A hoopskirt. A machine gun. Anything that is going to lead to readers thinking it is a different book is a problem. Those you fight for.

How do you discuss problematic elements of a cover?

Remembering that the primary purpose of the cover is as a marketing tool to sell the book, you explain your problems with the cover in terms of how it will affect sales. Lay out the problems with the perception that the book will create, and how it will alienate your readership. Use your agent to deliver the message so that you can retain a clean artistic relationship with your editor.

This will require research. Try to do it without going public about the problem.

Yes, you can drop the internet on your publisher’s head, but that is not your first step. When you see that happen, you may be certain that backstage efforts have happened prior to the public expression of concern.

The cover reveal

It is tempting to show off the cover the moment you have it. Wait. Check with your publisher before displaying it publically. Why? Because sometimes the art is not the final. You don’t want that being the art people grab when they are talking about your book. Or sometimes your publisher has promised an exclusive peek to a website as part of a publicity push. You don’t want to blow that for the sake of enthusiasm.

Any questions?

Debut Author Lesson: The Launch Party

This entry is part 18 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

So, your book is coming out and you are trying to decide if you should have a launch party. They cost money but everyone seems to do them. So the question you keep asking is: Are they worth it?

The thing to understand about an event like this is that it serves multiple functions. Here are the things that a launch party does, in order of importance.

It is a way for you, the author, to mark something important in your life.  Think of it as a reward to the people who put the thing together, your significant other, your parents, your best friend, but mostly it is a party, for you. So it should be a party you want to do.

It is publicity and should get people talking about your book.   This is a long-term investment that will make people predisposed to speak kindly of your book and talk about it to others. This is the start of your word-of-mouth campaign.

The goal is for people to have a good time and to go out and talk about it. It’s the same concept as an opening night party at a theater. You are trying to jumpstart positive discussions. This means that the party needs to be memorable and unmistakably related to your book, without making it seem like you are expecting people to buy books.

Last, least, it sells books at the event. Make no mistake, if you go into the event thinking that it you will see a beautiful return on the investment, you will be sad. People will buy books, but not enough to cover the cost of party.

Knowing these things allows you to make decisions about priorities when making your plans. Speaking of plans, here are some things you will probably want to think about.

I do want to be clear that this next bit isn’t a how-to but a list of things you’ll need to think about when deciding if you want to have a party.


This should be something that is easily accessible, and has enough space for people to move around in. Ideally, you want people to spend time at the party because a) more fun, b) more likely to talk about it afterwards, and c) chances of buying the book increase over time.

If you are at a convention, your choices are to rent a space or do a room party. The choice depends entirely upon who you want for an audience and your budget. A party will feel more like an event if you rent a suite, but the costs go up.  A room on the party floor is more likely to have casual drop-ins.

Control costs

  1. Hire a bartender — Yes, rather than asking a friend, go with a pro. Give her instructions to do small pours and to cut people off who’ve had too much. People will take that better from a professional, and it also makes the event look classier. You will save money on the cost of alcohol in the long run.
  2. Limit your menu — Decide your budget per person, first. Then, figure out what foods reflect the theme of your book and aim for the broadest selection possible within your budget. An array of choices will look more bountiful than having a lot of a single item.
  3. Small plates. It’s such a simple thing, but people judge the quantities in proportion to the space. A small plate will make them take smaller portions. Likewise, having a wide selection of small dishes available means that they will take fewer of any one thing.
  4. Cool swag that people will keep, is going to do more for you than novelty cocktails. Yes, novelty cocktails will get people in the door, but there’s no takeaway value afterwards. Swag should be useful, related to your book, and have — at minimum — the name of your book and the url of your book’s site. You want it to be something that people will use because that increases the likelihood that they will talk about your book to other people.  Check out wedding favors for cheap neat things. Again…figure out your budget first.

Before the party. Here are some rough things to think about.

  1. Work out your budget. DO NOT VARY from it. You will be tempted.
  2. Contact a really reliable friend and ask them to be the stage manager at the event. You, you need to be responsible for nothing except greeting people and signing books at the party.
  3. Reserve the space. Plan for an hour and a half pre-party for setup and an hour post-party for cleanup.
  4. Contact a bookstore and ask them to sell books at the event. Why? Because that counts as a bookstore sale toward your total numbers, which is good. They will also be more likely to hand-sell your book later. Some stores will order the books and let you sell them. Alternatively, contact Author, Author and purchase books through them.
  5. Issue invitations and ask people to RSVP early so you can get a headcount. Use Facebook, G+, evite, email, and/or your website.  (Note: Target your invitations to people who are likely and available to attend. Do not send it to your entire Facebook list, because that will annoy people.) As a general rule, 80% of the people invited, in a targetted invitation, will actually show up. At a convention like Worldcon, for a large publicized event, you can expect 5-10% of the population to drop through.
  6. Contact catering — if using — and give them a number that is 80% below your RSVPs. People flake also, people will rarely eat full portions at events like this.
  7. Order party favors/swag
  8. Plan decorations with your stage manager.
  9. No later than a week before the event, confirm everything.

At the party

  1. Your primary goal is to meet every single person who comes to the party. They all want to feel like they got to share a moment with you.
  2. You need a signing table, at which you can sign books. Be aware that once you sit down to sign, you will be there until the party ends. Plan to spend the first hour socializing.
  3. You should not have anyother responsibility at the party. Those two things will eat your brain. Have your stage manager assigned to handle everything else.
  4. Make sure that you have someone assigned to bring you food and beverage once you are trapped at the signing table.

So after all that…. is it worth it? That is entirely up to you. At least now, hopefully, you have some tools to use in making the decision.

Debut Author Lessons: Mini lesson on leveling up

This entry is part 19 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

Sometimes I think it’s useful for early career writers to see the things that might  happen to your brain later. I just got an email from my editor that Shades of Milk and Honey is going into its 7th printing.


Between all the US editions so far, we’ve netted 23,793 copies. That’s not counting the UK or foreign language editions.

Now… to me, that seems like a staggering amount of people to have read my book. But, to put that in perspective: Wise Man’s Fear sold more in the first week. At the same time, other writers will look at my 23k and be jealous because they haven’t sold as many copies. This is the tricky thing about being an author. You are constantly measuring yourself against other writers, which isn’t useful. Books are very, very different beasts and you can rarely do direct comparisons.

So on the one hand, I’m looking at seventh edition and feeling like OMG! I’m a real writer now, and also knowing exactly how that stacks up compared to a NY Times best seller.

The point of all of this is that, as you go forward you have to define your own sense of success.

For me? Seven printings is a very nice place to be.

But so was selling a single book.

And so was selling a single story.

And so was just finishing a story.

Those success points are going to change over time, and they should. That’s how you level up as a writer. It’s why imposter syndrome happens, because you attain success and immediately set another goal. When you stop having imposter syndrome. When you stop thinking of ways in which you can improve, that’s when you need to worry.

Meanwhile, enjoy the highs of attaining a goal and then set the next one.

Debut Author Lessons: Should you be a full-time writer?

This entry is part 20 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

A lot of writers have a goal of being a full time writer. I think there’s this image of your life continuing exactly as it is, except that now your job is writing. Sure, you know you won’t go into an office, but it will be so nice to have no demands on your time, except writing.

Yeah… so, about that.

Writers are freelancers.

As someone who has spent most of her adult life as a freelancer, let me speak to those of you who have conventional day jobs. How comfortable are you with not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, or even how big it will be?

Being a freelancer means that you have to constantly be hustling to get work. You get big checks when you turn in projects and nothing in between. Royalties? Twice a year and unpredictable in size.

When you are not writing, you are unemployed.

If this idea makes you uncomfortable, think very carefully before quitting your day job.

Your quality of life will change

You no longer need to leave the house. You won’t see people unless you make the effort to do so. Ah…. solitude. At first, yes. It’s glorious. But if you are even a minimally social creature… it can get really isolating really fast.

If you are a midlist writer (likely), you will have less money for indulgences. You might have to move to somewhere less expensive. Or travel less. Or you might have to travel more to promote the book. The only thing that is certain is that your life will not look the same as it does with the regularity of a dayjob.

There is no guarantee you will sell the next book.

This is the depressing thing that terrifies every writer. There comes a point in a writer’s career when they try to sell a book and can’t. Yes. Even New York Times Bestsellers. Even people who have won multiple awards. Don’t assume that you will sell books at the rate at which you can write them. I’ve sold seven novels, but I have three novels sitting in the trunk that we can’t sell. The only book you can count on income from is the one that you have already sold.

Diversify your income stream

One of the things a freelancer learns is that they must diversify their income stream in order to survive. This means having multiple clients and, often, having multiple types of work. For instance, as a puppeteer, I could sell my services as a performer, a designer, and a builder. I also did art direction, and occasionally gardening.

As a writer, my income stream comes from fiction, audiobook narration, puppet building, and teaching.

I could also have opted to do non-fiction, or editing, but the key is that I have money coming in from more than one source so that if one of them goes away, I have another way to pay the bills.

The side-effect of the multiple income streams is that you have multiple competing deadlines. Don’t like having more than one boss? Welcome to your new life. You now have a bajillion of them making demands on your time.

You don’t have to go full time.

It is totally okay to have writing as a second career. Anyone who sneers at you for keeping your dayjob for security is a judgemental prat. All a dayjob is doing is diversifying your income stream and giving you the ability to turn down work you don’t want to do. Believe me, there’s nothing as unpleasant as having to craft your way through a story you aren’t interested in just because you need the paycheck. Have I done that? Yes. Will I tell you which story? No.

But– is that part of why I record audiobooks? Yep. Sure, I enjoy it, but it also means that I don’t have to write things I don’t want to write.

How do I decide if I should quit?

Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Do I consistently have more paid writing work that I want to do than I have time for?
  2. Am I comfortable with a freelancer’s lifestyle?
  3. Are the changes in quality of life acceptable?

If the answer to ALL of those is “Yes” then by all means, take the leap.

But if you answer no, or hesitate… then I would really, really think twice before quitting the dayjob.

But my dayjob is soul sucking!

The answer might be to find a different day job that gives you more flexibility. If your job is eating up your energy, that’s a problem. But here’s the trick, you don’t have to have upward ambition in two different careers. If you want to be a writer and that’s where you want to focus your energy, then find a job that doesn’t require all of your attention. Be open about the fact that you are a writer when you are applying for a job that you’re over-qualified for so they understand why and that they won’t lose you to a better job.

During of the two periods in which I had a day job, I was a receptionist. As long as I got my work done, my boss not only didn’t mind the fact that I was writing a novel, he actively encouraged it.

Did that mean I was a part-time writer? Yep.

And being a part-time writer is totally okay. It’s fine to write one book every ten years. When people tell you that you won’t have a career that way, what they mean is that you can’t support yourself. But if that’s all the writing you want to do, then writing one book every ten years does not invalidate you as a writer.

So, should you go full time? I don’t know. That depends on you and what will make you happy.

(If you’ve made the jump from part-time writer to full-time writer, I’d love to hear about how and why you did. And if you ever regretted it.)

Debut Author lessons: Sensitivity readers and why I pulled a project.

This entry is part 21 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

There are some things you need to understand about yourself and about how community works, before you approach a reader and truly, before you even start the project in which you plan to represent a marginalized community. It’s good, and important, to want to represent people who are outside your experience, but it’s hard work.

  1. You have to be willing to kill the project. If you aren’t, then you’re just asking for a stamp of approval or someone to blame. It is neither easy, nor pleasant to kill a project. I’ve done it. I’m still upset about it, but that means only one person is upset. Being willing to kill the project doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it.  But… if you are going to prioritize your own feelings on a subject, as someone outside a community, over the feelings of people inside the community, then maybe that’s not something you should be writing in the first place.
  2. Culture is not a monolith. You need a variety of people from within that community. One person alone won’t do it. This is like asking me to be a sensitivity reader for white culture. If it’s set in the South, sure. But a book that is set in North Dakota? Not a chance. I’ve driven through the state.
  3. Internalized oppression is very real. People in positions of privilege tend to not understand how someone who is demographically part of a group, might have views that are consistent with the dominant group. Let me give you an example that is not emotionally loaded. England used to be a colony of the Roman Empire. There’s Latin on our money. Greco-Roman inspired architecture is still highly valued. Roman numerals are still taught in school. The classics. And you don’t notice any of it because it is such an ingrained part of society now. That’s the lingering touch of colonialism. That’s how firmly embedded internalized oppression can be that it can last for generations. So when you’re asking your sensitivity readers to look at your work, it’s important to choose people who are conversant with controversies in their community.
  4. Kindness is deadly. If you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to enjoy something, right? So friends who like you might give you a pass for something, that they’d call out someone else on. Try to get readers who don’t know you, in addition to ones who do.
  5. It is exhausting. If I’m asking someone to just beta-read, that’s one thing. But if I’m asking them to work with me to understand a culture that I don’t belong to, what I’m asking for is tutoring. I pay $3 per page when I hire someone. So if someone turns me down, that’s because $3 a page isn’t worth it the headache that I’m going to bring. That’s on me, not on them. I may not like it, but it’s still not their responsibility. ETA: I use a ton of beta-readers before I sell it. After it’s sold, part of my advance goes to hiring someone to do a deep-focus read.
  6. You are in a position of power. I know it doesn’t feel like that, but see line item 7 again. Everyone exists on multiple axes of power. On the race axis, I’m white and at the dominant end. On the gender axis, I’m on the feminine end, which is towards the subordinate end, but not as far along the axis as if I were a trans woman. As a writer, you shape the world. This is a position of power. For your reader to tell you that you’ve screwed up, is not easy, particularly if they occupy the subordinate end of multiple axes. A single voice that is telling you “no” probably represents a larger number of voices who just weren’t didn’t have the energy to spend reading in the first place.
  7. Own your mistakes. When you screw up, and you will, you have to own the mistake. It’s on you. It’s no one else’s fault for not catching it, or not having the energy to educate you. Apologize. Correct. Make amends.
  8. The controversy won’t hit just you. This was the one that was hardest for me to grasp. It’s easy to worry about “What if I get it wrong?!?!” and “What if people get angry at me!?!” What is harder goes back to bullet point #2. Culture is not a monolith. If you are writing about something that is outside your community and controversial, that controversy and the conversation surrounding it will hit all the people in that community. Worse than that, the things you got wrong are probably things that you inherited from a systemic system of oppression, which means that you are reinforcing that oppression in the public consciousness. And that doesn’t hit you. That hits only the community you’re writing about.
  9. It’s not fair. No. It’s not. That’s what systemic oppression is. The tiny little piece that you have to deal with, by putting in extra work, or money? Compare that to living in a marginalized community for your entire life. It’s not fair, but you aren’t the one being marginalized or oppressed.
  10. You have to be willing to kill the project. You’ve done all that. You’ve done everything “right” and then you still get someone who says that the project is a problem. I’ve had this happen. I had 20+ readers on a project and one of the last four, in the final pass, said that the project was problematic. I pulled it. I was not, by any measure, happy about this. I was angry and bitter and grieving. Truly, I still am. But I still pulled it, because ultimately it’s not my community and any damage that occurs is going to hurt more people than just me.

All of this is hard. It is work. It is tempting to look at that giant list and think that it’s not worth it to even try. If you take that lesson from this, you’ve learned the wrong thing. It is better to try, to fail, and to pull the project, than to continue on in ignorance. I learned a ton writing the project that I pulled and that, honestly, is worth it. I may be upset, but the time and money was not wasted. What you need to know about yourself is if you can handle it. Can you handle the work? Can you handle deciding not to publish something? And if you’re willing to do the research for spaceships, why not for people? If you’re willing to not publish something because there’s a structural flaw, why not for people?

It’s hard. It’s worth it. Regardless of the outcome. You’re a writer. Writers have power. Use your power for good.


Commenting ground rules.

  • I will not discuss the project, so don’t ask or speculate.
  • If you have resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

Debut Author Lessons: Status and Hierarchy shifts

This entry is part 22 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

One of the unexpected side effects of publishing a book or a story is a shift in your status. Now, I know you’re thinking, “but I’ve only published one thing, I’m not a REAL author.”  I’ve talked elsewhere about imposter syndrome, so I want to talk about the unintentional side effects of ignoring the fact that you no longer occupy the same place in the hierarchy

You and Ursula K Le Guin are the same. Bear with me on this one… Occasionally, I talk to an SFF fan who has never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin. Sometimes, they’ve never even heard of her.

We’ll pause for a moment to experience shock.

Also to sorrow for that reader’s upbringing.

Okay. So, here’s the thing. To that reader, picking up a book by this new author they’ve discovered named Ursula K. Le Guin carries with it exactly the same weight and expectation as picking up a book by you. Which means that to a new reader, you have the same social power as Ursula K. Le Guin.

In fact, if they’ve read and loved your book, and not read anything by her, you have more social power.

What is social power? Have you ever been talking to someone and then suddenly realized Who They Were. Then frantically reviewed everything you’d just said in case it was something was stupid?

Here’s me, experiencing that moment:

I’m standing in the cafeteria line at a puppetry festival. The older woman behind me points to one of the innumerable orange dishes behind the glass. “Do you have any idea what that is?”

“Macaroni and cheese?” I mean, it’s orange and lumpy in that sort of way. I point to a different vat of orange. “Do you have guesses about that one?”

“Scalloped potatoes, I think…” She points at another. “That?”

“Sweet potatoes, maybe. It has marshmallows.” I point to more orange. “Thoughts on that one?”

“Cauliflower with cheese.” She points to something virulently orange. “What about that?”

I’m stumped. I turn to face her more fully, enjoying this game and I see her name badge for the first time. Jane Henson.




My brain is now filled with don’t lose your cool. don’t lose your cool don’t lose your cool. What comes out of my mouth is, “Um… orange?”

Up until the moment when I realized who she was, she was just a pleasant older woman and fellow puppeteer. After that moment, she was Jane F*cking Henson and I’d been talking to her about orange food. Strangely, she is exactly the same person before and after that moment. Her internal status doesn’t shift. Her external status does.

And that is what happens with you, when someone realizes that you wrote a book that they liked. Everything you say suddenly carries more weight to them.

This is a sudden hierarchy shift. When you publish a book, or heavens, win an award, you don’t just jump one level, you jump a couple in terms of people’s view of your external status. Inside, you’re still exactly the same person but people respond to you differently and it is weird. It is tricky to navigate the change, because it literally happens overnight.

Beware of accidental abuse. Let’s take it as given that you are a good person and would never knowingly hurt someone. When you’ve had a hierarchy shift, by publishing a book, or winning an award, you take up more space than you’re used to but you feel the same.

So imagine if your idol is coming into town and says, “Want to have lunch?”

You drop everything, try not to hyperventilate, and say, “Yes.”

A random stranger comes to town, you say, “No.”

So, when you publish a book, you feel like a random stranger, but you are someone’s idol. It’s very easy to do something that would be innocuous if you were talking to an old friend, but in this new context your words and actions carry more weight. It’s not fair, on multiple levels, but that’s the way it is.

It means that people will have a harder time telling you “no.” It means that your opinion will carry more weight. It is easy to take advantage of people without realizing it.

Treat people like third graders. Wait– let me explain. I used to tour to elementary schools with puppet theater. I met a ton of third graders. They are great. They are hyper-intelligent people and everything is still new. They are excited to meet you.

At the schools, they wanted my autograph because I was The Puppet Lady. Now the thing is, I cleaned out my childhood room with that collection of show posters from community theater. I know exactly how much those pieces of paper are worth. Monetarily, nothing.

What they represent is a day that was out of the ordinary. These kids are excited because they had a day that was out of the ordinary. To me, it was just another day. I did puppet shows every day, literally. It took conscious thought to remember that this was the first time that they had seen a show.

Now, it’s easy to confuse out-of-the-ordinary with extraordinary. I can’t live up to extraordinary — I’m just doing my job — but I can be out of the ordinary.

With third graders, it takes so little effort to tip an out of the ordinary day into a fantastic one or a terrible one. It’s the difference between saying, “Sure! I’ll sign your poster. Did you have a favorite part of the show?” and “Kid, I don’t have time for this.”

I’ve realized that it is the same thing with readers. Autographs are proof of an out-of-the ordinary day, a memory that you can show to people.

Have boundaries. Just because you’re trying to be a good person and remember the size of your new footprint doesn’t mean that you can’t also take care of yourself. Don’t want to hang out with someone? Don’t. Need down time? Take it. Someone makes you feel gross? They’re an asshole and it’s okay to treat them accordingly.

Act with intention. All of this can sound terrifying, which… okay, is a little bit my goal. But only in the same way that fire can be terrifying. It is beautiful and keeps us warm, but if we aren’t aware and use it without conscious intention, it can burn everything down.

So you’ve published a book. Maybe most people have no idea who you are, but to the person who read it and loved it?

You’re out-of-the-ordinary.

You are Jane Henson and Ursula K. Le Guin wrapped up in one.

You’re on fire.

Enjoy the warmth and try not to burn anything down.