07/23/2013 05:21 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

How to Debut on Your Own Terms

Writers work in the medium of time. It's one of our essential tools, as we order and organize the events and information that make up a novel. Musicians say that music is sound organized in time. For writers, I think narrative is time organized in words.

But time eludes and fools us writers when it comes to a novel's publication. I don't mean the publication process itself -- which can be a bewildering process of hurry up and wait. I mean the experience of the debut, the launch, the on-sale date. For those of us arriving at this point for the first time, we expect to experience some sort of demarcation in our lives: Before Publication and After Publication. And what we find instead is that, on-sale date notwithstanding, there is no fixed moment for the start. One novel's beginnings tend to rove freely around the calendar.

As a competitive rower, I usually spend a few weekend mornings in the spring, summer, and fall sitting in my racing shell at a starting line, waiting for the marshal's command "Ready, row!" As I anticipated the date of my book launch for The Clover House, I was mindful that the day wouldn't offer me that kind of clarity. Book publishing isn't a race; I knew no one was going to declare me On Tour. But I hoped to have some sign that my life had changed and that my book was now out in the world. Surely the launch date would provide that sign.

The world didn't respond to my beginning the way I expected it to. I'd underestimated the power of advance reviews, Facebook blurbs, and blog posts to spread the debut out over several days. By the time of the on-sale date, some of my friends had already finished reading the copies they had pre-ordered from their local indies, while others were waiting for their turn with a library copy. What I realized was that a book's birthday is a day that matters most of all to its writer, and matters very differently -- or not at all -- for the reading public.

We place so much emphasis as writers on the debut -- with good reason. We want to celebrate our friends' book birthdays. We want to congratulate them and take the opportunity to make their solitary efforts public in the best way. But we might be setting ourselves up for disappointment or confusion unless we embrace the fact that, when it comes to publication, time works differently. Or rather, it can work just the way it does in a novel: we writers can control it.

A friend's launch date happened to coincide with the Boston Marathon bombings. How could he celebrate during a time of such tragedy? Though they very much wanted to, how could his friends cheer for him in the face of so much sadness? Looking at my own experience, my launch overlapped with other parts of my life that were stressful in various ways. There were days when I might have wanted to shift the book calendar so that the joy would be undimmed.

The thing is that we can shift the calendar. We can impose and create and manipulate time and events in the real world just as we do in our fiction. For my friend with the April 15 launch day, I suggested he make a different, new day his launch day for himself and whoever he chose to include in the celebration. As for me, I had made sure to create a ritual for myself by literally launching a copy of my book in the bottom of my racing shell on April 2 when the book officially came out. No matter what day I had chosen, I would be able to look back on the moment I shoved off the dock as the time I changed from Before Publication to After Publication.

So here are three things you can do to make sure you debut on your own terms.
1. Pick a launch day that fits your life and/or has meaning for you.
2. Create a ritual to celebrate the launch.
3. If something goes wrong, start again.

As writers and readers, we care about beginnings and endings. We remember by heart certain opening and closing lines. "They endured," from Faulkner. Or Tolstoy's wisdom about the uniqueness of unhappy families. So if we know how to be the masters of time in the novels and stories we create, why not be masters of our career chronology as well? And why not create for ourselves beginnings that bring us the meaning and joy that we're looking for?