the Author

On Writing Process, part seven: Anxiety & Authoring

Posted in writing, process.

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.


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?

8. Hobbies


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.

8 Responses to On Writing Process, part seven: Anxiety & Authoring

  1. Argentum says:

    I love writing. For a long time, I intended to write fantasy novels as a hobby, (1) because I loved it and didn’t want it to become a ‘job’, and (2) because I am pretty risk-averse and not inde­pen­dently wealthy. Then I worked for nearly a decade doing some­thing I was not at all passionate about, and life tran­spired such that my husband currently makes enough that our house­hold budget needs are met on one salary (I am incred­ibly lucky in this), and these things together drove me to give writing-for-publi­ca­tion a shot. Since I’m working on my first novel, it’s tech­ni­cally still an unpaid hobby with no dead­lines or audi­ence to worry about, but my mindset has changed and when people ask what I do, I tell them I’m working towards publi­ca­tion. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this reminder to hold on tight to what it is I love about writing.

    Perhaps oddly, I think of myself as a social person but am deeply suspect of social media. I love social­izing in person. I don’t have Insta­gram, Twitter, a blog, or any of the newest plat­forms; I have a ‘left­over’ Face­Book profile that I don’t update — my listed loca­tion is where I lived three cities ago. I don’t judge people who do use social media, but for me person­ally, it seems like an alter­na­tive to ‘real life’ — like I only have so much time in every day, which I can either focus on my ‘real life’ OR distribute amongst various online lives. Maybe this is similar to your mental stacks.

    My husband once mentioned at a work dinner that I write novels and a senior exec­u­tive told him very enthu­si­as­ti­cally that I was doing it all wrong: I needed to start a YouTube channel right away. I laughed and told my husband that I just want to write! This is also why I am hoping to go the route of tradi­tional publishing — so that I can focus more on writing and less on the busi­ness side of self-publishing.

  2. michelle says:

    @Argentum: You will get more advice about How To from people who you have not asked for advice about writing/publishing than about anything else except parenting.

    But I’m really happy that these posts have been helpful for you :D

  3. Argentum says:

    @michelle, HAHA! I suppose I’m lucky the unso­licited writing advice isn’t coming from my parents or in-laws (who, to be fair, can at least claim some expe­ri­ence with parenting, and very rarely frame it as ‘you’re doing it wrong’.)

  4. DeDe says:

    @Michelle, I am still enjoying reading these & really appre­ciate the time you’re taking to put these together. The self-depre­cating humor always seems to make me nod in sympathy and chuckle at the same time.

    I now have a new anxiety for my list: Michelle will think her book is horrible. She will try to burn the book. Large book = large fire. Bonfire will ignite the kitchen. Kids will be forced to toast marsh­mel­lows for dinner. #6 will be solved. And #8 will become: remodel kitchen — which shouldn’t be anyone’s hobby. :-)

  5. michelle says:

    @DeDe: thanks :). I’m going to be taking a small break because the last post is kind of an answer to a long ago question.

    Some people like remod­eling their homes. Some people are me.

  6. Mary Allen says:

    I am not a writer and have always been afraid of writing but I love to read and enjoy all your posts. It gives me an insight into another way of thinking ( seeing words instead of pictures and liking to write). It is almost fiction to me as it is so foreign to what I do or am. I have all your books and read them over and over. Thank you so much for hours of respite. I honestly feel books kept me from ever wanting to try drugs as they offer such an escape from the everyday trials.

  7. michelle says:

    Thank you! I’m not always certain that very specific things will be inter­esting to people who aren’t doing them, so it’s nice to know.

  8. Joanna says:

    Thank you so very much for this. I’m sure it is not easy to write this kind of post, but as a fellow author, or, well, someone who lives to write but managed to shut the whole thing down when the other stacks asso­ci­ated with Being a Writer became like Shadow and started to disin­te­grate the name, the heart of what being a writer truly is, this post eased a lot of that anxiety.

    Truly, I think one day your work will be a house­hold name because it is excep­tion­ally beau­tiful, raw, and honest in a way that allows — or reignites — parts of me to live openly again.

    I confess I’m a long­time reader that started at 0.5 and read/listened to every one of your Cast books, but I got frus­trated at the sort-of-love-triangle that stut­tered and died, and I’m like What Happened To This Thing? At the same time, that’s me, the reader. Me, the fellow writer, knows that stories and char­ac­ters have their own lives, their own truths, and we can’t play God and make them fit a template even though, by all accounts to outsiders, we’re the ones in charge. We aren’t. Kaylin’s char­acter acts true to herself, every time, throughout 15+ books. All of your char­ac­ters do. It’s an exquisite thing to behold, even when I, as a reader, am like Oh, for crying out loud, do —-. I also talk to movie char­ac­ters and (more quietly) to people in plays. They never listen to me, either. :))

    So, if it is any conso­la­tion, if it helps at all during the anxious times, we who are your fans will love you uncon­di­tion­ally, even when we grow up and get married or go to college or other­wise become immersed in Adult Life and don’t read your books as vora­ciously, because there is some­thing in your writing much like true words and they resonate. You are bright­ening the world with your writing, because it is you, and — much like Kaylin, perhaps, there is so much that is only yours to give, to see and transmit, that, no matter how appar­ently clumsy (to the Barrani, espe­cially, or, to the Outsiders, for us) and seat-of-your-pants, is going to come out right in the end.

    Thank you very much for writing. It has always come at the right time in my life and helped me through diffi­cult times, and helped me cele­brate beau­tiful times, too. Sending a big virtual hug.

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