Yesterday I was in the North York Passport Office explaining what I claim to do for a living.
“So you’re a novelist,” said the passport examiner.
“Yes,” I said, blushing modestly. “And a freelance writer.”
“So you’re self-employed.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“Um…Over in the UK? Five years.”
I used to BE a Canadian passport examiner, and I don’t remember grilling anyone on their job. On where they were born, yes. On where they lived, sure. But not on what they did for a living.
Writers are plagued with enough self-doubt as it is. I have written six novels, and one has been published. Was it incorrect to claim to be a novelist? Three of the six could be called novellas, to be honest. Am I really a novella-ist?
“Do you have an office, or do you work from home…?”
“From home,” I confessed and came clean, “Really, I’m a housewife who writes.”
Actually, I’m a writer who housewifes, as my beleaguered husband might tell you, were he not so loyal. But I would not have all the time I have to write (with occasional bursts of housewifery) if my husband were not slaving away at a 9 to 5. I suppose, though, that I could apply for grants.
(“Apply for grants,” I hear my husband hiss from over the ocean. “Apply for grants!”)
When I was a child, I imagined that authors could live and write in complete seclusion, needing only to finish their manuscripts to earn vast amounts of money. In reality, writers have to write a lot of self-promoting letters and flog our own wares in the marketplace. And although it’s true that it’s “who you know”, it’s also “how many you know.”
I have two events to promote my thriller Ceremony of Innocence in the next six days, one public and one a semi-private party. The public one is a reading sponsored by Crux Books at the University of Toronto on Monday, February 24 at 4:30 PM. This Saturday’s semi-private party is in Toronto’s most northern borough, North York, thrown by a professional publicist who, some years ago, took me to the prom.
My parents (and my prom date-publicist) have called North York home since the mid-1970s, and my Toronto Catholic Register column has appeared on North York’s Catholic coffee tables for six years. If I can’t make it there, I can’t make it anywhere. It’s up to you, North York, North York.
Seriously, though, if you want to fill a room with book-buying people, you cannot leave all the heavy lifting to your publisher’s sales team, if your publisher actually has a sales team. You have to go out and get the people yourself.
I know many Toronto poets, and for twenty years these poets have been attending poetry nights, organizing poetry nights, supporting each other’s poetry nights and promoting each other’s work. In this community, a book launch is a communal celebration, with poets and poetry fans crowding dark rooms to hear a well-known-to-them poet read and, crucially, to buy their books.
Selling as few as two hundred copies is considered a wonderful success in the Toronto poetry world. And the work of selling those books begins long before the books are written. It takes networking, supporting others and showing up in person to other people’s literary events. There is no such thing as overnight success.
Catholic writers are fortunate in that our lives as Catholics necessitate leaving the house on Sundays: we have to go to Mass within a Catholic community. Although we may not have thought about this, we have been developing ties in the Catholic community from the day we were baptized or began making inquiries into the faith. Many of these people enjoy reading books.
As a Mass-attending Catholic who lived in Toronto for most of her life, went to a Catholic elementary school, high school, college and theologate, I have dozens of ties in the Archdiocese of Toronto. As a graduate of the Toronto School of Theology, of which my Catholic theologate is a part, I have ties to other Christian communities. The wonderful Crux Books, for example, is attached to TST’s Evangelical Anglican Wycliffe College. And not only does Crux sell theological books at a discounted rate, it supports the Christian theological community with book launches and readings.
Meanwhile, I owe my wider visibility in the Archdiocese to my writing in the Toronto Catholic Register. Catholic newspapers are often looking for new voices, especially new young voices, and thus I recommend to all Catholic writers to submit ideas for articles or book reviews to their diocesan papers. Don’t demand a column or expect big cheques; just prove that you are a good and reliable writer who knows how to turn a phrase, use spell-check and meet deadlines. If you are consistent, readers will begin to recognize your name and editors may consider you for additional work.
Meanwhile, go to literary events–not to promote yourself, not (heaven help us!) to ask busy literary strangers to read your manuscript, but to show support for other writers and to ask them insightful questions about their work. When you have become part of a literary community as a well-read supporter, the time will be ripe for you to present your own efforts.