It Only Gets Harder Once You’re Published

I get this sometimes from new writers:

“Well, at least you’re published.”

Or, “Well, you’ve had a lot of books published.”

Kind of a must be nice comment.

And it’s not entirely false, either.

I admit — there’s a big privilege to being, y’know, a published author. (I hesitate to say a “successful” author, in that success is a bullseye duct-taped to the back of a coke-addled hop-frog. I consider it a success just to finish a book. That right there is an Epic Eat-A-Motherfucking-Cupcake-Messily Grade-A Bonafide Success. Remember, most people finish a novel Once Every Never.) It’s amazing having a book out there. On shelves. In people’s hands. I’m privileged that anyone would want to read whatever cuckoo shit I’ve dumped out of my own head onto the paper. I get to play in a sandbox for a living, and people pay me to do it so they can watch.

It is, in fact, weird and wonderful.

It isn’t, however, without its own kind of stress.

I liken it to this metaphor: in a RPG, you start out as some dick-nosed schlub hunting rats with like, a sharpened spoon. You’re the worst warrior ever, basically, or the crappiest mage who knows all the worst spells (“I cast UNTIE SHOES on the ogre!” “Sorry, he’s more than ten feet away, and your spell has a limited range.” “Oh, goddamnit”). So, you think, I just need to level up, and then I’ll get to do cooler stuff. And you will. Them’s tru-fax. You’ll get to leave the spoon behind and pick up a proper sword. You’ll eventually be able to, I dunno, conjure flaming birds that you can summon to attack your foes.

But your foes also upgrade at the same time. It’s not like you become RANTHAGAR, VAGABOND PRINCE OF THE HISSING WASTES but you still hunt mice with your legendary blade. Now you fight dragons. You get better, but the world gets harder to match your skill. The pressures of the narrative increase: before, the townsfolk just asked that you get rid of those rats out of stables and cellars. But suddenly they’re pleading for you to save them from stompy orc armies or big smelly naked giants who keep stepping on all the houses. The quests increase in difficulty. The monsters get bigger even as your sword gets sharper and starts to sing showtunes.

The real world analog is like this:

You get a book deal, yay.

Then the book approaches release. You start getting reviews and pre-orders and buzz. Or bad reviews and no pre-orders. Or good reviews and no pre-orders. Or no buzz. Or some buzz but not enough buzz. Then the book comes out and: nervousness and excitement! Magic and madness! It lands on shelves. Into people’s hands. You have no idea how many gets sold. Even if you’re self-published and you can see the metrics unfolding before you — you still don’t know how the book is really doing. Are they digging it? Quitting before it’s done? How far in do they get before they abandon it? (The wizards at Amazon probably know all of this. They probably can say, if pressed, “The moment they gave up on your book is when you used the word ‘widdershins’ on page 47. That is the moment you plunged your book into ruination and ignominy.”)

A book release is a bright flash: a supernova of heat and light. And then it kinda collapses back in on itself and there’s this vacuum in its place that is akin to the feeling of summer being over, or of a vacation ending, or of the pit of shame you feel after successfully masturbating. And then you do it all again: you try to generate more heat and light. You write another book. Or a third book because the second one is maybe already in the pipeline. And those books come out and –

Listen, it’s the same thing. It’s the same thing now for me (ZER0ES is my 13th novel) as it was when my first book came out. I still feel nervous and excited. I still feel full of magic and madness. I still feel hungry and bewildered and scared. The pressure is, in fact, worse. Because every book that lands has to do well, or the next book after it is suddenly in question. And every book requires some kind of extra effort beyond just writing it — you gotta do the marketing honeybee butt-dance, you gotta write blogs and be on your game and go do stuff amongst ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS (remember that many writers are just introverts playing at extroversion; all failed actors afraid of the stage). Every time feels like the first time. Every book feels like the first book.

Maybe that changes. Maybe it’s different for other writers — of course, it must be, given that we’re all different people and not cloned clippings from the Author Tree.

Still — for me, at least, it’s still the same.

It’s wonderful and horrible and scary and amazing all in equal measure.

And right now it’s even harder than it was when I started. I know more. I’m better at this. I’ve done well enough with my past books. And that only amps the pressure. It doesn’t reduce it.

I wouldn’t change any of it for the world, and I wouldn’t give it up for any other work. I adore it. This is the kind of pressure on which I thrive — but I think it’s worth noting that it’s the same all the way down. Unpublished writers, newly-published writers, legacy authors — I think we’re all just putting ourselves out there. Every book is a chance to make readers or lose them. Every story is one soaked with our blood and our tears and every story is our weirdo book-baby stumbling into the world. We all want the best for it. We all fear the worst for it.

But we keep on keeping on.

Because this is who we are. Isn’t it?

56 comments

  • August 19, 2015 at 12:07 AM // Reply

    Oh man. Some posts come into writers’ lives just at the exact precise moment in which they need to hear them.
    Thank you.

  • I just hit my super-nova on the self-publishing front – my book was number one in my category today – but I already know that by tomorrow it probably won’t be because that is the nature of Amazon – now I just feel tired lol. That was my fifteenth book and I love the writing side of things and the support from my readers is awesome, but now I want to hide in a cave and write my next book because the story is the thing – everything else is just…waffle. I just wish the people in my life would understand that…I need some alone time lol.

  • I should be writing – but you distracted me by landing in my inbox, Chuck. I love writing and I don’t want to do anything else either, no matter how big the boogie monster is :-)

    At least there’s only two comments to read… now I have to go back to the page.

  • Haha, that was literally a spot-on description of what the first few quests are like in all the Elder Scrolls games. Also, writing. (Graphic novels too). It’s all a hilarious, exhilarating, and terrifying game we authors play.

    *proceeds to torture myself mercilessly with my uncertainty about my own books… But it’s the best kind of torture* XD

  • So true. My second book, Crossways, came out on 4th August. It’s published in the USA and I’m in the UK, so I don’t even get to see (in person) that it’s on bookstore shelves. I have to hope a few kind people will send me shelfies.

  • Hah. I’ve always compared writing to competing at horse shows. In the beginning you’re happy to bounce around over two foot fences but once you’ve won all the ribbons, you move up to the next level and discover you’re at the bottom of the heap again. Now you have to master the skills at this new level, as the fences get bigger and scarier. Someday you might be galloping along at 40 miles per hour taking a hogsback into a drop-down in water–but not until you have the skills to ride that course–and that horse–safely. So I love the game-playing analogy here.

    The other part of this analogy is that if you only ride that horse once a week, it’s going to take you a helluva long time to reach pre-lim level on the cross-country course. Something I think many of us tend to forget. For some reason, we seem to prize raw talent over polished accomplishment when it comes to artistic endeavors, but that’s another topic altogether…

    Congrats on the release of Zeroes–I’m looking forward to it!

  • Amen! I’ve had 10 published, just finished a contract for 3 more with an agent sniffing around for another deal and I’m still terrified that someone will point at me and scream “Fraud! Fraud! She’s not an author!”

    Being an old-school gamer makes this so much easier to explain to others…. amen!

    ;)

  • Unpublished, you have to get published to prove yourself. Then you prove yourself, and you have to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Then it’s a career, with all the associated angst that comes with earning a living.

  • I love the RPG analogy! It’s pretty spot on.

    I’ve only published one book and zero novels. But while reading your post I could feel the familiar upgrades in stress and expectation when I went from telling my family I wanted to be a writer to writing my first screenplay. And then when I went from writing fancy Facebook updates to blog posts to articles.

    I think what I especially love about your RPG example is that while I was reading it and nodding and crying out, “Sing it, brother!” I was also well aware that killing rats with a spoon is a completely valuable skill. Leveling up and gaining fancy weapons and handsome hair and saving villages from dragons is valuable. Leveling up again and training dragons to light our fires and grow shade grown organic coffee beans while we write books about street urchins who save the world from a zombie apocalypse by killing rats with nothing but a spoon is valuable.

    In other words, I love remembering that success is loving the ride and taking chances. Saying, “Yes, thank you.” to a podcast interview about your book because, even though it scares you, you love your stories and want to tell people. You know that the feelings and fears of being interviewed will help you become a better advocate for this story and all the new ones you know you’re going to write, and that the feelings and fears will enhance one of those next stories.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m killing rats with a spoon and other times I feel like I’m sipping shade grown organic coffee grown by my dragon friend. Most days, though, as long as I keep writing and trying and stepping outside of my comfort zone, I’m getting better at feeling successful.

  • This is definitely who we are. Whether the books hit big or small, sell or don’t sell, it doesn’t matter. We can’t not write. I’m walking proof of that. The lack of sleep is killing me, the money is pathetically not worth it, and my books get swallowed by a giant digital sea. But I keep writing. I have to.

  • I read the title of this post and a crack of misery-laced, slightly manic laughter erupted from my throat. YES. “We’re all just putting ourselves out there. … Every story is one soaked with our blood and our tears and every story is our weirdo book-baby stumbling into the world. We all want the best for it. We all fear the worst for it.” YES.

  • Yeah, this is who we are. But I don’t have the knack for promotion that works like many indie authors and even books published by publishers are from small contract publishers who don’t really have any advertising klout so I am coming to the sore conclusion that unless you get an imprint from the big five, the promotion you need is just not there to reach readers at a larger scale than internet blog tours and the insular community of internet writers. Tell me I’m wrong.

  • What you need to do is publish on Wattpad. It is the most rewarding experience you will ever have. I watch as i get notifications of people reading my book chapter by chapter. Sometimes they gobble the whole thing up in a matter of hours. And even bettee is when they comment on every chapter. Have you ever seen your fans reading your book in real time? Shouting at the characters not to trust the bad man! In all caps even. Its the most amazing thing ever. I havent made a dime off my story yet and i alreeady feel like a success. And yeah you give away your story for free on wattpad but i will be posting the more polished version of my story, with a few additions to Amazon soon and i will leave the other one up. IMO there is room for both.

    And Wattpad likes already published authors. They give them major boosts. So make sure u email em and ask for featuring and whatever other goodies they offer authors of your stature.

      • First you treat it like a social media. Don’t be spammy and be generous. Add friends who are members of the club for your genre, make friends with people who are reading books similar to yours and especially who are commenting on those similar books. Read and comment on the stories of some of those people (you will put a bit more work in up front, but once your rolling it will require less time). If someone comments on your book reply, and show your appreciation. Post a chapter 2-3 times a week (this is the most important, he Wattpad algorithm puts a ton of weight on how frequenyour posts are). Then when your book is a few weeks away from posted completely email Wattpad and ask them to consider it for featuring. As long as its decent and your spelling and grammar aren’t atrocious they usually do. Then you will see your reads rocket upwards and be where I am, with 180000 reads on my story Little Lacey, before you know it. I have a book on Wattpad called Wattpad Wonderful which is a how too :)

        • For me, the big question would be how much of those Wattpad figures translate into sales. It’s all well and good to get a kick out of people enjoying your work, but if I’m going to write as many books as I want to, I need to be able to do it as my full-time job.

          • It’s a concern for me, too. The whole reason I do the Wattpad thing is as a marketing exercise but it doesn’t seem too effective. I think I may be doing it wrong. I’ll try Amanda’s tips and then decide if it’s worth the time spent. I do LOVE the feedback, though, whether they lead to sales or not.

          • So for me as a beginning author, who isn’t relying on book sales for a living, its about building audience. I have die hard fans, I have fans shouting at characters telling them what to do chapter by chapter, I have fans begging for a sequel, I have fans thrilled with the idea of me letting them write a fan fic of my work, I have readers. That’s what’s important to me right now, and I will always be generous and loyal to my Wattpad fans for giving this to me. And aside from fan attention my fans also drive me to write more. Which is a valuable thing to me as well.

            And on Wattpad nobody expects perfection. An ARC is good enough. Plus the freebie nature of it makes the opportunity for high quality freebie covers abundant. Which means your pre official for sale publication is easier and doesn’t have to have a crappy cover.

          • I’m in a bit of an unusual situation, perhaps. I’ve got five novels out so far, and am trying to build my audience. But, we’re on a single income at home, because childcare costs in Ireland are insane, so I’m limited in how I can divide my time. I’ve got my day job, freelance work for some extra income, and my writing. So every choice I make has to factor in the potential reward for taking time away from something else.

          • Oh now I figured out how to reply. Yeah,like I said on Facebook, post 2-3 chapters a week, tell people at the end of each chapter to buy it on Amazon if they can’t wait for the next chappie. Only post 1 book on Wattpad then tell your fans they can find the sequels for sale on Amazon. And remember, just because you give it away on Wattpad doesn’t mean you can’t sell it at the same time.

            Because of health problems I can’t have a real job. My husband manages, for now, but we live in a hovel, share a car, operate totally on cash right now because the medical debt people could levy our bank account at any time. I know what it’s like to feel like you need to earn money, but when you are running a business sometimes it is not as simple as dollars for hours.

  • I don’t believe you are privileged anymore for being a successful author, than you are for being white. You worked for this spot, you earned, and you continue to earn it. You’re not some lazy, hand-out-addict, you actually put your words where your mouth is, you show how it is done. And to some degree, I can relate.

    I work fast food, I have since 1999.l I hate it. I am a writer, I want to be where you are at, even with the super stress level. That’s my career choice, and I am stubborn. That being said, after 15 years of saying no to management, I took it. Because it is slightly better pay and will look good on a resume. But mainly for the pay. I can put back more money for editing and covers. I refuse to settle for anything less than pro on my books, and my partner in ink feels the same way. Now, with management, there’s even more pressure. Not only for my own neck at my job, but for my crew. Even if I am saved for another day at McHell, what about my crew? Am I leading correctly? Am I doing my best to be the manager they need or am I being the jackass I can’t stand to work for? The pressure is huge on knowing balance like I am just suppose to know it because I have been in this crap for so long. I was a manager for one year in 2000-20001. Since then, crew.

    Climbing the ladder means I am higher than before, as in when fall, er if I fall, It will hurt a heck of a lot worse. I am living from paycheck to paycheck. I never had any kind of privilege. I am not the smartest, I am not the cutest (although I wouldn’t kick me outta bed for eating crackers, just wonder why I am eating crackers in my bed), I am not a superhero.

    Truth is you’re brilliant. No, you are not Superman, you are a hard-working author who always improves upon his craft. And you’re a role model kinda for the rest of us. I respect you, and I am thankful you take time to talk about the industry. You’re one of my favorite writers. And regardless of where I am in my life, I plan on being where you are by working hard. We earn our careers. We are not rich yuppies who were given everything on a silver platter, we’re tanks who fight our way to victory come hell or high water. A battle where all is invited to fight side-by-side. Men, women, trans, gay, straight, bi, leprechaun; we’re fellow soldiers of all shade and pigment. And when we make our careers, we do it by the blood, sweat and ink that pours fourth.

    I know as I level up, I will deal with greater difficulty. And it scares the living ink out of me. But it’s a fear I am destined to face over and over and over. And one I am happy to face, because I want to write books for a living. No more fast-food-hell, my pressure will come from the industry of publishing. And at least, that is my horse to ride. My cross to bear, and one that I carry joyfully.

    This business is not for the entitled, it is for those who are responsible and willing to work for it. Plain and simple. And real writers need to understand that, the rest, well, maybe they are not mature enough to appreciate the fact that you are hard working writer who still deals with the stress of continuous success, and yes, that stress is greater! Although, now you are more equipt to handle it than you were back in the day when you didn’t outline. Now you are able to fight the dragons, and I look forward to fighting my own dragons. My breath is just as bad in the morning, bring it!

    • I read your post this morning over breakfast, Dale (I live in the Antipodes – we’re on upside-down-time) and you’ve inspired me.
      Don’t ever give up. I’ve been lucky enough just this year to be able to leave the daily grind of my legal (high pressure, emotionally draining) job. My husband has encouraged me to work harder and follow my dream. We cut our expenses to hell. Sold our house and moved way out of town so I can do this. Will I ‘make it’? Who knows, but I’m a happier word monkey and I look forward to getting out of bed every morning to face the blank page.
      Hang onto your dreams. The door only has to open a crack, just make sure you’re ready to get your foot in there before it closes again :)

  • Thank you, Chuck. Just . . . thank you. I’m published. I’m an introvert. I usually like being alone. But it’s not fun to feel alone in this regard. Nice to know that you and other published authors feel the same anxiety. I never saw this part coming. So again, thanks. Love your blog. Keep it coming.

  • I can see the truth in what you say. I suppose even Stephen King feels this way, after all, as successful as he is, there’s got to be somebody out there waiting for him to fall. And isn’t that a shame? We should all celebrate each other’s success. After all, the only real competition for us is ourselves. Great post!!

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