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?