This is, indirectly, the answer to the question I was asked several years ago. That question wasn’t about how to write that first novel, or the rest of the questions that we all had as new writers; it was about how, after the shine of that first novel dulled, the dust had settled, and one was not Rowling or Rothfuss, one continued.
Oddly enough, it is also a post about Anxiety and processing. Or not oddly.
ANXIETY PART II
I want to recap slightly, but also to be a bit more granular.
So, let me go back to my 3 points, because they’re not actually 3 points.
This is Michelle at peak efficiency:
1. Cast novel current words
2. Cast novel, possible causal forward writing (i.e. what MIGHT happen).
3. West novel current words
4. West novel events and reactions of off-the-page people
5. West novel, possible causal forward writing.
6. What am I feeding the kids for dinner, or will I let them starve
7. What if every word I have just written is wrong?
Let me now shift these tracks around.
This is Michelle when Page Proofs for Firstborn were being proofed.
1. Cast novel, current words
2. Cast novel, possible causal forward writing
3. What am I feeding the kids for dinner and OMG my house is a mess
4. What if every word I’ve written is wrong
5. It’s been almost four years since a West novel was published, and people will expect that all that time was used to write the perfect book and this book is not perfect
6. Should I just pull it back and burn it to the ground and start it all over again?
7. What should I say in public when the book is finally available.
8. Nameless, amorphous book anxiety.
You would think I would have one anxiety track labeled: FEAR OF PAGE PROOFS, but you’d be wrong.
For 22 days, from Cast in Oblivion publication day — where, I confess, things were on fire (no AU version, problematic pricing, and a number of other things) spots 1 – 5 were taken up with all of the things going wrong and all of anxieties of reception because:
What if everyone hates everything.
spot 6 was household
spot 7 was writing actual novels.
There was no spot 8. So: no Hobbies, no feeding the brain. I am now borrowing against future need; I am reaching for what’s banked.
I’ve said I need multiple tracks in order to write fiction.
I have multiple tracks because my brain is my brain and it functions by-and-large with words. There are bumps of tension and anxiety that temporarily eat the writing tracks, or severely lessen the number available.
For a few days here or there, I can struggle through with 2 tracks. Or even one. But everything dries up and everything slows down. It becomes much harder to actually squeeze words out when the mental stacks have been eaten by various anxieties.
And now, let me move to the anxieties of authoring. Some of this – the fear of disappointing longterm readers – folds into the regular anxiety. On good days, on normal working days, I can keep them together so they take up one slot: All the words are wrong and therefore all my readers will leave.
Authors are told that they must, in this multi-media, social media age, be available. They must build a platform and build a brand. (I have a minor allergy to these words; probably my general oppositional streak.)
They must be on twitter. They must have a web-site. They must do many, many things in order to increase the chances that their book will be a success.
When my first book was published, I had none of that pressure. Internet was free to university students; everyone else was expected to pay. Lynx was most of the web. Yahoo was the search engine. There was no household broadband. Etc. Etc.
I was, I admit, invisible on book launch. I had one book review in Locus. But — that was considered sad, if normal. I was not told to go out and publicize myself somehow.
Now, of course, it’s different. New authors are told that they must be on social media and interacting with people so that people will be interested in their books. And it’s much, much harder for someone new, who is nervous and trying hard to be a Real Author, to say No.
Publicists will tell authors to get out there and publicize. Some editors will say it. You are expected to ‘help’ your books in any way you can by increasing your visibility.
If you are John Scalzi, you have an internet presence because you liked to be on the internet and you liked posting and then blogging. But he was doing that before he got a book deal. He’d been doing it because it was his hobby.
If you are Suzanne Collins, you have no internet presence.
Both of these authors have done well.
If you enjoy social media and social interaction — and I do at times because writing is a bit isolating, and I step up to the water cooler and chat for a bit before I go back to words — this will not be an issue for you.
But social interaction before you are published, and social interaction after you are published grow to become … two different things. One you do in your down time. But when it becomes part of your job, it is no longer down time. It is another element, another responsibility.
And before you’re published, you are a reader. You are “one of us”. After, you will begin to find that to some people you’ve become “one of them”. The establishment. The powerful. (Which is of course hard to see when you feel powerless.)
I like to interact — carefully — with my readers. (A number of people who follow me on twitter have the same issues with teapots and boiling water that I do.) But there are times when I am simply too anxious. When I’m certain whatever public persona I’ve barely managed to scrape together is going to fall apart at the seams and I simply don’t have the bandwidth to make certain that doesn’t happen.
I stay away from Twitter, etc., at that time.
The web-site is meant, for me, to be a catalogue of the books that I’ve published. Or that have been published. With chapters. I have tried to make one monthly State of the Author post, in part because at one point I’d been offline for so long, readers were starting to worry that I’d been hit by a car (or something similarly catastrophic had happened).
It did not occur to me that readers would take some comfort in knowing that I was still writing; I thought I had to have at least something new to share (book sales, covers, etc.).
But — I’ve wanted to blog about things I’m thinking about for an age. I just… didn’t want to spam readers who really weren’t interested in that. If you come here for book information, and you get all this process dumped on you… that’s probably not what you wanted, and eventually, you just check out.
I know, because if you’re dedicated to, say, knitting I will probably check out, as well. This is not personal; I can love an author’s books without loving their knitting tribulations. Having a mailing list which is just publishing news meant I was willing to take the risk of posts like these.
Obviously, I want to talk about these things. And I am.
But… they’re things I have a huge interest in, unlike knitting, and people who don’t, won’t. They’re not general purpose and they’re not meant to create a “platform”, because in order to do that I would have to write posts that are entertaining in and of themselves, regardless of content (and probably shorter. Much shorter.) Writing has to be of interest in and of itself, almost irrespective of content, if you want a blogging platform. IMHO.
That digression over, let me go back to the authoring anxieties.
At first, it’s wonderful to know that you have people who want to read your books. But with time, the small stings and scars from the interactions which are not good build up. And also: a reminder of the readers you failed. Of the people who loved your books and now don’t.
This, by the way, is normal. It happens all the time; new readers come and older readers move on to different things. We’ve all done it ourselves; we grow out of authors we once loved, or they move in directions that no longer speak to us. But… on some days, it does still feel that somehow I’ve failed them.
That fear of failure looms larger with the passage of time. As it does, it can easily take up another mental slot — and that pushes a writing thought off the stack. So: let’s say I have that on top of the general imposture syndrome writing anxiety.
When I first got published: I looked for reviews. I did. I knew I was not quite where I wanted to be, and I’ve detailed some of the in prior posts. I could read all the reviews, and I could keep myself at enough of an intellectual distance while doing so.
This continued until Broken Crown, which was the first book that did what I felt I wanted to do. Finally. I felt as if I had finally succeeded.
And then it kind of fell to pieces as I realized that what I want to do is not, in fact, necessarily what readers want to read. I can achieve what I wanted, and it does not mean that I will then somehow be more successful as an author.
But: it remains, to me, a success as a writer. It was what I set out to do.
These two things are somewhat in conflict, and that’s the burden to bear for people who turn a thing they love — a hobby — into the foundation for a business. A hobby isn’t the same as a job, even if you spend all your waking hours when not at work doing those hobbyist things. The core of the hobby is now entangled in the web of other things that must also be done. You can do the thing you love, yes. But you must now also do the things you do not and cannot love as well; they become part of what was, before the transition, an act of joy and engagement.
Your household now depends on the thing that you did because it was engaging and exciting and you loved it. The realities of your household now depend on it. Your writing now has that weight as a concern, and — it is a weight.
This is not worse than any other job or job stress or job-related fears, fwiw. All fiscal responsibilities — especially when there’s a short fall or a layoff in the household, are hugely stressful. But the amount of control you have, the things you can do, are different post-publication.
Because of course, if the book doesn’t sell to enough readers, you might not be able to sell the next one. You want to write, you’ve written a book, it’s been published. But if it doesn’t sell well enough, it could be the end of your career.
This is a new and entirely unwelcome anxiety. It is also not entirely true.
Most of us will not quit the day job when we sell a first novel, because there’s not usually a lot of money in first novels. But if you are writing because you want to do well enough to quit the day job, this anxiety leads into Do All The Things. Do all the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (I don’t have an instagram account, which will probably be obvious by now, it being largely dependent on the visual), blog posts, interviews on blog-sites, any articles on blog-sites you can line up yourself — everything.
Some authors do all of this but it eats so much time — because they’re often working full-time as well, or they have small children, or demands on their time for other, real life reasons — they don’t get much writing done. Book two might be finished when book one is published, but there’s no follow on.
I understand why people do this. It’s one of the few things you can control. You can do all the things.
But if you are at all like me, All The Things eat all the stack space. Writing is pushed off the stack completely.
And then, when you are drowning in all the things, you will also start to see other people on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere, really, who are all doing “better” than you are. They have sold a trilogy. They have a book hit the NYT list. They are being talked about. Maybe they are nominated for awards — for their first book!
But I also know that books are not fungible. No one else is writing my books. No one else is writing yours.
And so many people are told that they have to look like a winner. Like a success. So… you don’t talk about things honestly because sometimes those things are terrible and stressful. Which means we can all look like winners when things are … terrible and stressful.
I am certain that there are other prevailing wisdom things that I’ve not mentioned.
But: I don’t do All The Things. The book of mine that has sold the best in the long term was published when I was so entirely off-line I didn’t even read email (it was a period of about a year and a half). Now… this may say something about me personally — but let’s pretend that I’m not driving people away in droves by simply being present.
I did nothing to support that book. Nothing except write it. And then write the next one, and the next one, and the next one. At the time that was the sum total of what I could manage.
(I’ve been told that it could have sold really well if I had been pushing it. But this is all theory. No one has come up with believable, rational metrics that prove that all of this effort will net results.)
But the reason I remained offline at that time was that I realized that the stacks that were occupied with anxiety had grown; the stacks that were occupied with writing had dwindled to one. Maybe one-half. It made writing an agony – a slow, painful struggle to put one word in front of another while carrying the anxiety with me every step of the way.
And if I wanted to write — to continue to write — I had to drop the anxiety stacks. Preferably off a tall cliff. I could talk at myself, could give myself pep talks, etc., etc., etc. But that didn’t work. I could control my impulses when anxious, yes. But… the anxiety was still eating brain space.
So I looked carefully at the things that entrenched the anxiety stacks, and I began to disentangle them, one by one. To pull away from the things that made them worse.
I stopped reading reviews, except for a couple of times a year. I stopped checking Amazon. I stopped ego-surfing on google. I just – stopped. Were all these things still there? Yes. But nothing I could do could actually change that. I did not have to see them all and read them all if the cost was driving a new tent-peg of anxiety into my brain. They could exist in that space without me.
Here’s the thing. In this post publication period, you want to be an author. You find writing difficult. You’ve lost the immediacy and the joy of it to internal judgement and fear and anxiety, because you’ve internalized the external judgement. You are living in the world of “but what will people SAY?” and it is immobilizing. What drove you to write? What drove you to finish a novel when no one was paying you or reading you? Hope? Love of writing? Love of reading?
I did love writing. But writing is not publishing. To me, the two are separate beasts, joined somewhat at the hip. I wanted to continue to be published, yes. Absolutely. But I couldn’t be published if I couldn’t write. So I prioritized what I personally needed in order to do that writing.
Without the writing, you have no career.
Without twitter, you can. Without facebook, you can. Without a web-site *cough Tanya cough*, you can. Without conventions, you can.
But without the books, you can’t.
(One author I know said she comes back from every convention so energized and ready to write she’s chomping at the bit to get started.
This is not me. I like conventions and I like meeting readers, but — I have to turn the Oscar the Grouch ship of my mind around, to change its course. And when I get home, I spend 3 nights thinking I’ll just head down to the bar to see who’s awake. When, of course, we have no bar, and no convention and no writer friends in residence. So every convention takes 2 days of non-writing prep time (packing, packing anxiety), the convention days themselves, and then about 4 days on the back end to re-orient my brain so I can write normally again.)
Authoring is not harmful if you can juggle both the authoring tasks and the writing and get both done. I don’t believe it’s necessary, but — its not harmful and may even be helpful. For some, it eases isolation, and it can be energizing. If you are one of these people, then 1: my envy knows no bounds and 2: keep doing what you’re doing.
But I am not one of these people, sadly.
I can carry the load of the writing anxiety, and can deal with the periodic increases as authoring anxieties eat brain stacks. But I can’t carry both the writing and the authoring anxieties full-time. Because then I have no stacks for the things that allow me to write.
So I guard the boundaries of my interior mind map with visceral desperation, so I can keep the sparks of excitement and engagement burning. Writing is not publishing. Writing is writing.
And if you are also not someone to whom the social blur comes naturally or easily, I’m here to say it won’t kill your career.
Not writing, however, can and will.
I don’t think I’m alone in making these choices. There are writers who are writing and who were once very active on social media who have become almost invisible with the passage of time. Not because — as I saw one reader say — they’ve out-grown their readers or they’re now too important, or whatever garbage is offered as a “reason” by people who are not the authors in question, but because they need to do so in order to write.
We’re told we have to be tough. We’re told if we can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We’re told that publishing is by nature a foray into public, and oddly, that we have to, with grace, handle comments that no one would offer if they were standing in front of us.
And you know what? We can.
But every time it happens, it’s another cut, another bleed. So: the knife is always on the table. We can either pick it up and stab ourselves with it, or wait until we have the dispassionate frame of mind we need to pick it up and use it to cut vegetables. My choice is to leave the knife on the table. It’s going to be there, and remain there until you need it.
Years ago, someone asked me to write about “writing for the long haul”, and this is my answer:
Keep the spark of the process, the writing itself, alive. Remember how you once felt when discovering story, when building it, when things were going well (you will have no choice but to remember the agony of writing when things are stonewalling you and the book is being difficult).
I write the way I always wrote. Publishing-related things are the new day-job.