Wow! It’s been a while since that image was front and center. While mainstream news is all about the weather, I have an anniversary to celebrate today. Seven years ago, Beautiful Disaster, my first novel, made its debut. It was an exciting time filled with great anticipation. I’d only taken up novel writing five years earlier, so I was pretty pleased: Penguin publishing my little work of Southern romantic fiction.
I was, and still am, absolutely crazy about the cover, created by cover artist extraordinaire, Richard Tuschman. There’s a lot of green in that cover—evocative of the setting, beautiful, and telling… so very telling. The green also perfectly depicted my working knowledge of being a published author. The highs, where you just sort of blink and pretend to know what you are doing, and the lows, which I was extremely unprepared to manage.
Publishers Weekly didn’t love my novel. It’s taken me about seven years to say that out loud, never mind type the words. It wasn’t scathing, but it was stunning—like an arrow between the eyes stunning. I had a new threshold for a “deer in headlights” effect. In that moment, I realized the book I’d nurtured, wrote and rewrote, was wide open to public opinion.
Admittedly, my naiveté remains a bit dumbfounding. It seems this possibility should occur to one before they publish a book. But it didn’t; I never imagined critical words. I never considered how badly they would sting. From there things actually got worse. A review not as high profile, but far more straight to the heart.
I’d sent a copy of Beautiful Disaster to my alma mater, the University of Georgia (the novel takes place in Athens and includes mentions of the UGA atmosphere). The university was quite lovely about the book and offered to host a signing at the campus bookstore. This was back in the day when bookstore signings were a thing for debut authors, and Penguin went to the trouble of setting up a nice little tour through the South.
In the meantime, the campus newspaper ran their review of Beautiful Disaster. And just like that, the word scathing now applied to my book. Apparently, the assigned staffer had a hardcore dislike for romantic fiction, and took great exception to the book’s Athens setting. In fact, he hated it so much, I think there was something about the the book being cause for the author to be blinded or have her fingers lanced for writing it. At this point, all book dreams felt shattered, and I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. More to the point, if I’d never taken up the notion of book writing… well, it certainly seemed I’d brought all this upon myself.
Despite this newfound ring of hell, I persevered. While I imagined the throwing of rotten tomatoes, perhaps picketing, none of this came to fruition. Lesson two for debut authors—nobody cares as much as you will.
This is good and bad news. With an abrupt wakeup call, I slowly realized the fostering of a novel hardly stops with a final round of edits. An author has to care for their book much the same way one cares for a child. It’s an ongoing effort where bumps are to be anticipated, sometimes deep divots. You can’t control everything and, to a point, you will get out of it what you put into it.
After these two baptism-by-fire events a miraculous thing occurred. Readers did not agree with that dry PW review, nor did they see Beautiful Disaster through the eyes of one very sure of himself college newspaper reporter. As all this happened, I received my first email from a reader. Prepared for a tongue-lashing—too much sex, unfleshed out characters, high drama—I was amazed when she gushed, saying she’d found a “new favorite author.” A few people who came to book signings seemed to be fans of Mia and Flynn’s story as well. Of course, these aren’t the things writers dwell on; we’re far more susceptible to the negatives—at least this proved true for me.
Nearly seven books later, I still don’t read reviews, good or bad, unless absolutely necessary. Okay, I admit to wanting to frame the starred PW review for Unstrung, but I think it only demonstrates the subjectivity of writing and reviewing. Unstrung, in my opinion, is a far greater writing risk than Beautiful Disaster ever was. I suppose that also shows I’ve grown a little thicker skin in the past seven years—the willingness to write the story to which I’m drawn.
So whatever became of that debut novel about the enigmatic Flynn and the tenderhearted college girl, Mia—the book that seemed so terribly doomed? It went on to win multiple awards for Best First Book, and was a RITA finalist the next year. Of course, in January of 2011 I couldn’t have known any of this, and I had such a long way to go. Most days I still do. Happy Anniversary Beautiful Disaster, you lived up to your title, delivering a good dose of both.