My debut novel released in November, and while I was nervous about trade reviews and Goodreads reviews and sales numbers, the thing that made me most nervous was knowing my friends and family were going to be reading my book.
I’m proud of my writing, and what friends and family won’t override what I think is best for a story. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt. When people who are close to us disapprove, or object, or think less of us, it’s usually going to hurt. And they usually want to participate in what’s going on in our lives. While that can take a toll on us, it can also be encouraging and a positive experience. There are a few survival tips we can use to deal with it when it comes up.
1. Realize their reaction might have very little to do with your book. Especially with a debut, when friends and family pick up an author’s book, it’s usually because they have a connection to the author—not because they thought the story sounded interesting or because it was a genre they enjoyed. Most of my family that read How We Fall don’t read YA or don’t enjoy romance. Many of them weren’t familiar with the conventions and devices of the category or the genre, and that can make a big difference in the reader’s experience.
2. Recognize that friends and family aren’t your audience. This has never been so clear to me as when some of my grandparents read my debut. They just aren’t the readers I’m speaking to, and so the language I’m using isn’t going to communicate nearly so well to them. It’s not because of a flaw in me or my books. They’re simply not receiving what I’m sending, and that’s okay.
3. Don’t let them affect what you write in the next book, or regret the choices you made in the previous one. Don’t allow fear of disapproval to affect what you write. Be true to the story, or it won’t be a story you love. And without that, we lose a huge part of the reason that we write.
4. When someone says, “I read your book!” don’t say “what did you think of it?” That almost never turns out well. If they loved it, they will most likely tell you without you having to ask, and if they didn’t love it, you probably don’t want to know. Instead, say “thank you so much for reading!” and divert the discussion.
Great follow-ups can be asking them if they’ve read anything else lately, mentioning something you’ve read and loved, or talking about the publishing journey instead of the book. Friends and family are often curious about it, and talking about the story you wrote is just one way they might try to connect with you over that topic. If you’re getting the feeling they want to talk not just about books in general but about your writing, turn the discussion toward how exciting it was to get your author copies, or how long it’s been a dream of yours to be published, or any detail like that. And when you can, change the topic. Short and sweet is generally less likely to be awkward.
5. Avoid discussions of your choices—most of the time. The more common advice is just to not discuss them, but that can also mean you miss out. The best and worst moments involving friends and family dealing with my book were discussing those hot-button topics. For example, since I write YA, the things that people close to me were bringing up were questions and comments like “I didn’t think the swearing was necessary.” “There are some pretty high heat make-out scenes for a teen book. Do you think that’s appropriate?” or “I just can’t see why you would write a romance since it has all that angst.” “So you let them drink under age?”
Every one of those issues are things I’m passionate about, and they’re areas where I want the people close to me to understand what I’m doing and not think less of me for making choices I strongly believe are positive ones. And that makes any discussion of those things risky. I don’t want to always divert the conversation, because engaging in conversation about why swearing can belong in YA is a great topic and I want to share my beliefs with people who are close to me.
Some of the discussions I’ve had with family over those topics directly concerning my books have been wonderful. Some were incredibly frustrating and discouraging. If it’s not for you, then by all means avoid it, but if you want to bring your family in a little more, the best way I’ve found to deal with it is to be intentional about picking the place, the time, and the people. The family dinner table with a mixed group is likely not the time. A crowded room where people can mishear and others can jump in without having heard the context is likely not the best place. A special event like a signing or launch party is not the time. And there are some people who are more interested in hearing what you have to say in order to respond, not necessarily in order to understand—and that’s where I usually don’t want to discuss the issue. It won’t be productive. Some of my relatives have different beliefs and no matter what explanation I have, it won’t be a productive conversation there, either. If you have family and friends who are up for a genuine discussion, I think it can be great to go for it, in small pieces. It also may help to discuss those issues in general, and not as they relate to your particular book. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with some of my relatives came from that, and I’m closer to them and more open with them now because of it.
6. Keep in mind friends and family can be a fun and positive part of your career. Some of them dislike my book and disapprove of the content, but some of them love it, and have become wonderful fans. My uncle’s parents, even though I’ve only met them twice and they are definitely not the people I expected to enjoy the story, went out of their way to tell me how much they loved it and that they’re eagerly waiting for the next one—and they’re in their seventies. My brother, not at all the guy to read YA romance, not only read it but bought copies for all of his wife’s family for Christmas. Seeing the people close to me enjoy and participate in the process is encouraging and fulfilling and fun.
Especially with a debut, but also with an author’s following books, friends and family may want to be involved and share their opinions. Authors usually dread it. I still dread it. It’s nerve-wracking and stressful, because we care. Since discouragement from family can take a heavy toll on our creativity and energy, boundaries are important. Ultimately, it’s your career, and giving yourself the space to create freely is necessary. Limits, diverting the discussions when it’s not a good time for you, and taking them a small piece at a time can help manage participation from friends and family.
KATE BRAUNING is an editor at Entangled Publishing and the author of How We Fall, a YA contemporary about a girl who falls in love with her cousin. She grew up in rural Missouri, lives in Iowa, and pursues her lifelong dream of telling stories she’d want to read. Visit her online at www.katebrauning.com or on Twitter at @KateBrauning.