08 July 2022
Femi Kayode describes how her learned to embrace the fear and push on with the follow-up to his highly acclaimed novel Lightseekers
I am waiting for my visa to be approved, weeks after I am supposed to have travelled to the UK for the paperback launch of my debut novel, Lightseekers. According to the Home Office, the Ukranian war has made processing refugees priority over visa approvals for visitors. Again, a global crisis which I have no control over has upended what should be a momentous occasion in any writer’s life.
There is a thrill that comes with being a debut author that my dear friend, Oyinkan Braithwaite (My sister, the serial killer) says should be bottled and sold in exclusive stores. It would be an instant bestseller. It is a heady feeling. You hold an advance copy in your hand, smell the pages, flip through the text, and for the longest time, you are convinced this is not your creation. You’re not holding years of sweat and blood in your hands; this is literally a miracle in print. I have spoken with writers who cried on receiving advance copies of their debut books. Some have plunged into depression as they search for their next. I know of writers who collapsed from exhaustion on seeing their work in print. Others have been so motivated by the entire process that they start the next book hours after holding their published first.
For me, it was a combination of all the above and more. Talk to writers who had their books published during the pandemic and most will confess that it was a surreal experience. No tours, no signings, no interaction with readers. None of the excitement that align with your dreams of hobnobbing with the literary glitterati. Interviews, launches and festival panels were all virtual, so it’s no wonder I felt disoriented. As if all these was happening to someone else and I was playing to a script written by a dystopian writer with a perverse sense of humour. Don’t get me wrong. It was a hell of a ride, and I applaud everyone who refused to be daunted by the challenges of the pandemic. The show went on, and with quite a number of successes too. Living in Namibia, I was always realistic about the chances of my being in the different countries where Lightseekers was supposed to be published. But I never anticipated how disconnected I would be from the whole process due to the Covid crisis.
It robbed us of a lot, this Covid. Lives, careers, businesses, human connections and more. As a debut author, it robbed me of the total experience of appreciating all the hard work my agent, publisher and publicist put in place for a successful book launch. The emails of reviews, pdf-ed or screenshot, or sent as a link were not the same as holding the newspaper in your hands or actually engaging an interviewer in a conversation rather than an exchange punctuated by the muting and unmuting microphones! Three months into this, I was all zoomed out. But the thrill of holding those advance copies had not waned. The feeling pushes you to keep going on these virtual tours, while yearning for a stronger connection with your readers. I craved the readers’ validation like a toddler who just drew their first stickman. Mum! Daddy! Look what I drawed!
I needed feedback and a conversation about my work, so I turned to Goodreads.
Let me tell you; be strong. Be very strong when you venture on to this platform. I was warned by other writers who didn’t heed this warning at their emotional peril. There is a special kind of trauma awaiting the insecure writer who is naïve enough to think they can handle all kinds of feedback; negative, positive or lukewarm and recklessly venture into the abyss that is Goodreads.
I thought I was strong. I was wrong.
It all started innocently enough. The early reviews were not bad save for a few rather caustic ones. You can tell the ones who didn’t give the book more than a cursory chance, or the ones who didn’t appreciate the subject matter or the setting, or the ones I can bet my Macbook on who did not read the book. At all. At least not the version I wrote. But Lawd, the misinterpretations, the assumptions and the rain of abuse on my main character was unexpected. All of these would have been okay if the readers refrained from assuming something I never expected: That every character’s choice in the novel was mine, the author. That freaked me out. I recall one reader calling me misogynistic because a male character expressed his helplessness about understanding women.
It was then I made my next grave mistake. I started engaging with the readers. I would click ‘like’ on their comments (I cannot call them ‘reviews’, sorry). I would answer questions about certain aspects of the book, and invite dialogue about misconceptions. I thought I was in a safe place. After all, these were people that loved reading. Boy, was I wrong! Lightseekers made 9 Book of the Month lists and yet, I was reduced to a pathetic, babbling idiot on Goodreads. My need for connecting with the reader became toxic. I clicked on the app with trepidation. Fear was now my overriding emotion when I read the readers’ comments.
I deleted the Goodreads app on my phone. Peace at last.
When I started working on my second novel it was the jeers, criticisms and negativity towards Lightseekers that stayed with me. I was an actor whose pants ripped on stage, with my bottom bared to the world. According to Goodreads’ stats; 93% of readers liked my book, but it was the 6% who didn’t that bothered me, holding me back from moving forward with the sequel. I couldn’t stand it. So, I did the only thing any self-respecting masochist would do. I reinstalled the Goodreads app.
I re-read every comment/feedback. I cross-referenced a detail in the positive comments with the same detail in the negative ones. I made notes about issues of cultural sensitivity that I was hitherto unaware of. I acknowledged certain judgments some readers had about my main character’s well intentioned actions. I linked interpretations of cultural nuances to some of the readers’ background, age and gender. I was on fire. Gone was the fear. I was now cold and calculating about dissecting the mind of the reader. Know thy enemy raised to the nth degree.
Of course, many (of the comments) still made my hackles rise, but by and large, I was stronger now. I put on my big boy pants and dug in. I ignored the more personal ones that attacked me as a person and a trained psychologist. I wasn’t interested in what the reader thought of me as a person or their assumptions about my professionalism or even my background. I wanted to know what they thought about the book; the characters and the story. I did this for about a week until I was properly immune against the worst of the feedbacks. I made notes, walked away for a bit and then went back to the keyboard.
The second book flowed better. My inner critic was alive and well, but its ego was not battered by the negativity. I was more in control. I reaffirmed basic facts; I am a writer, I have an agent, a publishing deal, brilliant editors and a team of professionals rooting for me. I am not a one-trick pony. I know I am a good writer because more critics confirmed I am than the ones that said I wasn’t. Most of all, I know there is a story on my heart that needed to be told and I intended to tell it. By all means necessary.
I have delivered the first draft to my editors. They didn’t hate it. The notes are copious, but guess what? They are notes on over 100,000 words that wouldn’t have been written if I gave in to my fear. I had to learn to write my second book with the same ‘beginner spirit’ with which I wrote the first one. I had no fear then. Just faith in the story I wanted to tell.
So, what have I learnt since Lightseekers was published? Embrace your fear. It is the fuel that keeps you grounded as an artist. It is the vulnerability that will humanize your characters. Release yourself from the burden of being perfect and settle for ‘better’. Take feedback like a champ. Yes, you will be bruised and battered, but put your gloves on and get back in the ring. And fight. Fight for your story and your characters. Hard. You see, when you let fear hold you back, it’s not you that loses. It’s that beautiful story that was unravelling in your head. It’s that phenomenal world you were creating. That character you were giving voice. Fight for them and I promise you, the words will come. Not perfectly, but enough to have the semblance of a story that you can have the privilege of rewriting as if you always knew what you were doing.
Meanwhile, I am still here, waiting for my visa. Hoping it comes just in time for me to get on a plane, land at Heathrow, walk straight into a Waterstones and catch that one special reader. They would walk towards me, clutching my book in that reverential way only true book lovers do. They would hand me a pen and the book, smiling. I would write something meaningful and profound and scribble my name with flourish. Then, I would hand the book back to a very pleased reader. I might even ask for a hug. Yeah, I am needy like that. Besides, after what the world has been through, we all need hugs, don’t we?
Lightseekers by Femi Kayode is published in paperback by Raven Books.
Get insider advice for your crime fiction by reading this piece by novelist and former police commander Graham Bartlett.