Three and a half years ago, I sold the proposal for my first book. The same month, my wife and I found out she was pregnant with our first kid.
Yesterday, I opened my local paper, The Oregonian, to find a very kind and fair review of said book, The Renegade Sportsman, which officially hits the market today from Riverhead Books. I showed the newspaper to my son, who is almost three. (I like to expose him to these antiquarian customs, which he will one day attempt to explain to my baffled great-grandchildren.) The kid pointed at the color reproduction of the book jacket and said “Daddy’s book!” Then he narrowed his eyes and asked, “Why is that skateboard boy on fire?”
This is what I’ve learned in my inaugural foray into the book writing world: plan as one might, it is impossible to predict a single thing about how a book will turn out or the kind of world it will greet on publication. This might be particularly true when your book takes three and a half years to produce, but I think it’s true of every book—maybe every large-scale creative endeavor.
When you start work on a book, you don’t know who will be president when it appears. You don’t know if the global economy is going to collapse while you’re working on it. (On my second re-write, I had to excise all my clever comments about the Bush Administration and shoe-horn in some half-sensible reactions to the Great Recession.) You don’t even know who will be living in your own house when the thing is finished, or whether the Gulf of Mexico will still be there, or if Israel and Turkey will be trying to start World War III the day of your debut book signing.
These days, you can guess that you might publish your books in formats legible on devices that did not exist the day you started work. You will promote the thing on media you had never heard of when you first conceived of the project. You will publish into a world no author has ever published into before.
As I sit here, six hours before I read the book in public for the first of several times, none of this looks like a disincentive. Rather, all this uncertainty is integral to the wildness of the enterprise. It calls to mind Winston Churchill, ever trusty:
Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.