The Many Phases of a Writing Career (Or, At Least, My Writing Career) (#5)
I feel like I’ve been through a lifetime of phases in my writing career.
The “I’m going to write my book someday” phase.
Most people spend years here, but eventually, the top .00001% step out of it. You can still be one of them! But stop reading this post right now, because it will probably not help.
The “I wrote three chapters, and it was really freaking hard. How am I going to write a whole book?” phase.
In this phase, I literally wouldn’t have finished my first novel if it weren’t for the lovely Tanya Fraser, who cheered me on through the many horrible drafts that I would send her every single week. (If you are struggling through this phase, I highly recommend finding your own Tanya. Qualities include reading immediately, asking a question or two for every chapter, and never once telling you how terrible the draft actually is.)
The “My book is drafted, now I’m going to make it better—better than anyone else has ever tried to make their books. And it’s going to sell a million copies!” phase.
This is one of many of what I would call “delusional” phases. Most people overestimate their own abilities to ascend above the average result, and you are not the exception. (Ironically, you will think you are the exception, by your nature.) It’s okay to feel this way as it might spur you along, but don’t bet the farm on your future success just yet.
The “I have a million editors” phase.
I thought FOR SURE I could pull off a better book than all the ones that came out of traditional publishing with all their plot holes, inconsistencies, and grammar errors. All I need was…. drumroll please… more editors! Because no one in the world has ever thought of this before (and spent a high four-figure sum to get it).
The “My book is published! Now I can relax!” phase.
Your first published book is basically like your first marathon. You are racing to the finish line, ready to collapse, not even suspecting that you have actually only tackled the first few steps of your journey. It’s not just the marketing, either—it’s the fact that you need to write about twenty more of those bad boys to even have a chance of making a long-term living at this. Welcome to writing as a career, not just a fun hobby that has driven you to near-madness for several years already.
The “How do I get more people to read my book?” phase.
In this phase, you dive deep into the world of book marketing and probably listen to stupid people whose only bestselling books are the ones that teach people how to sell books. You spend way too much money, execute way too little actual marketing, and barely move the needle on your book sales. 50% of your marketing doesn’t work because that marketing DOESN’T ACTUALLY WORK (aside from its ability to sell books about selling books). You realize that people were soooo right about how writing a book is the easiest part of writing a book. And if you don’t sink into a deep depression or completely give up, you likely take a break from the whole thing to regroup.
The “Fuck you, less-than-five-star reviewers!” phase.
People slowly but surely start reading your book over the next year. Some of these readers love it. All the rest are idiots. If you are smart, you resist telling them so directly and instead write snarky, thinly-veiled rebuttals that live forever in your Evernote. Writing out your feelings and not publishing them sort of makes you feel better (really).
The “Shit. Now people expect me to write another book.” phase.
If you smartly wrote a book that is the beginning of a series, you suddenly stop feeling so smart. You suddenly realize that you unwittingly signed a contract with the few readers you have, and they are demanding payment in the form of the next book in the series so they can see where their beloved characters—the characters that YOU set them up on a blind date with—end up. They want it, and faster than you can write it. Also known as NOW.
Their subtle threats coax you out of hiding, and you start writing the next book.
The “I CAN’T write another book, there’s too much pressure!” phase.
You are 100% blocked by the pressure of people actually CARING and reading your next book. Ironically, you expected that there would be a lot more people wanting to read your next book by this point. In fact, you’re in a mushy middle spot, with not enough readers to make this your job and too many readers to forget the whole thing ever happened.
And since writing your next book is NOT your full-time job yet, you wonder if you should even bother. It was so painful the first time!
I got stuck in this phase for a long time. You may too, but if you push through it, it will pass, I promise!
The “Second book is done. Still not making a full-time living at this.” phase.
You wrote your second book! This means three things:
- The first book was not a fluke!
- You are kind of actually an author. It simply didn’t feel real the first time. By the second time, you get closer to the “business-as-usual” feeling. Which is what you will experience when you are a full-time writer.
- There is a business model forming. No, you don’t have a full sales funnel yet, but theoretically, you could someday.
This is such an amazing phase to get to. Most people don’t. But this is the place where I truly committed wholeheartedly to becoming a full-time writer.
The “Okay, I need to write 20 more books to make a living.” phase.
Yep, time to turn this into a business. In this phase, I got my spreadsheets out and did some math. At $4 per ebook, selling ~5 books a day per title (average), it takes about 20 books to make a full-time living at this. You could tweak the numbers and do some Amazon algorithm voodoo and throw in your fabulous marketing skills and connections, but this was my personal “long-haul” number, or what I needed to be willing to commit to if I was going to make a true go at this. I came, I saw, I agreed. I was officially in this for the long haul.
The “I’ll never get all my ideas into the world before I die” phase.
My ideas for fiction series mounted at a rate faster than I could ever hope to write them. I spent a lot of time being sad over this. Then I started thinking this couldn’t possibly be true, that it couldn’t be inevitable that some of my stories would really die still inside me. The horror!
And then I realized that if I spent all my time in denial about this, I wouldn’t get any of my fiction series out and they would all die inside me.
The “I’m going to maximize my productivity!” phase.
This was a continuation of the denial I was in from before. When faced with a deadline (especially one labelled “death”), the first instinct is to work harder! Go faster! Accomplish more!
In my experience, this works for a little while, but isn’t sustainable.
The “I’m writing 12,000 words a day!” phase.
Yes, it really happened, for two months straight from August 20th to October 25th in 2013. As you can imagine, I wrote drafts to six (yes, SIX) books during that time period.
And as you might further suspect, I didn’t finish another draft until the next year in March 2014.
In my experience, having a huge writing day is like pulling an overnighter. Yes, you got a lot done in a short amount of time… but eventually you have to sleep. I found that writing too much too quickly created a huge deficit of energy, one that I didn’t have any time left to refill with inspiration and life experience. Do it long enough, and you crash.
After two months, I was completely bankrupt of creativity.
The “I can hack Amazon/my writing/my cover/my productivity and create a viral book!” phase.
The next phase I went through was one where I intentionally created something that I thought would sell well. This came from being sick and tired of not finally making money at this.
So I looked at the trends, hacked my cover (this is crazy easy to do) and optimized a bunch of other little factors. That series made about $1000/month right out of the gate and is still my best-selling today.
That said, I kept getting pulled back to more meaningful writing, like my young adult series Waters Dark and Deep… so although I continue with the hacked series (and although I have another similar series that I plan to release next) I don’t think this is the perfect writing strategy.
I will say that the fever pitch surrounding a popular series is quite a motivator… especially once you’ve already optimized your rhythm and have the ability to produce quality content on a regular basis.
And that money is important. But not enough to sell your soul for it, so if you do want to do a hack series, make sure it’s something that you can love for at least six to twelve months.
The “This is the 5th book in the series, but I’m trying not to phone it in” phase.
A series is its own form of marathon. The problem is that it’s hard to maintain the energy over a long period of time, because you get very good at writing your series. The characters come easily to you, the plot is the same with a twist, the format is not particularly challenging anymore… Yet, you can’t switch up any of this (at least not too much) because your readers have expectations.
I can’t say that I have any good advice for this, only that you definitely shouldn’t phone it in, at least not past the first draft. You owe more to your audience. So make it great, even if you are in the muddled middle of your series.
The “Why aren’t I motivated anymore?” phase.
At some point recently, I hit a phase where I didn’t know why I was writing on a day-to-day basis anymore. I understood it at a high level, and I still had my goals—but when faced with the idea of oblivion (see The Fault in Our Stars if you aren’t familiar with this) I kind of started to question if any of it was worth it. Yes, I am going to die, yes, writing is one way to leave a legacy… but at the same time, there are millions of great thinkers from the past who have had their legacies washed away in fires, faulty hardware, and more. Also, I could get hit by a car tomorrow. And eventually, the sun is going to burn out and everything on the planet will disappear, anyway. Boohoo!
I couldn’t remember why legacy was so important to me anymore, especially when faced with more immediate pleasures like Gilmore Girls hitting Netflix. As humans, our shadow selves always fall back to primal states of gaining all the pleasure we can in the moment. Why work? Why care? Why try?
I don’t totally have answers to these questions, but I do know that this too, passed. I have tried the strategy of focusing on pleasure at all costs, and it simply doesn’t work for me. I have too much of a conscience. If my life is in vain, at least let me do a little bit of a good while I’m here.
Which brings me to my current phase.
Today, I’m at the “Contribute, contribute, contribute” phase.
For me, this phase has required a ton of soul searching to find (or relocate) my true purpose in doing all of this. Like most writers, I didn’t get into this for the money (which is a good thing, since it doesn’t flow nearly as readily or steadily as one might hope). I’m at the point where a small contingent of people want me to write more, and instead of feeling burdened by this, I’m searching for other motivations that will help me continue on.
In this phase, I know that:
- I can make at least one person (but probably more) happy just by writing a new scene in a book. This is not just a responsibility and a burden, but actually an honor and a privilege. The responsibility and burden parts are there whether I act or not; it’s only when I do act, though, that I receive the honor and privilege parts.
- I can help at least one person (but probably more) by writing a new blog post about the lessons I’ve learned. I learn new things faster than I can record them at this point, but by speaking from my heart (and not out of any sort of obligation) I can provide a lesson that truly sticks.
- My ideas serve the world better when they are out there instead of staying in my body, my mind, or my private journal. Even if the idea is terrible, it has the opportunity to inspire or help someone. At the least, someone could read it and realize that they 100% disagree with me, thus solidifying their own, better idea. I put stuff on the internet because the internet is the ideal medium and vehicle for the content to find someone who can make use of it.
Every day I wake up and realize how extremely selfish it is for me procrastinate (which for me, typically means choosing short-term pleasure instead of long-term contribution). As a result, I’ve transcended using word count as a metric. It’s simply not as necessary to track.
If I am able to direct my daily energy to being helpful to others, and if I leave as much of my work on the table as possible in usable format (as product, rather than by-product) then I have accomplished my purpose for the day.
It’s become as simple as that.
But I also doubt that this is the last phase I’ll go through. It’s always been hard to predict what’s next. Today, for example, both Patrick and I pondered the possibility of someday moving out of knowledge working and into building physical objects. There’s an appeal to doing hard labor when you’ve spent your whole life stuck in your mind. Converting physical byproduct to actual product seems easier than converting mental byproduct to 1’s and 0’s product on a computer.
Additionally, I’m still thankful for all the earlier phases. If I had entered this phase sooner, before I had learned to hack my writing to 4,000 words per hour (really, though I don’t bother doing so anymore), then I wouldn’t be able to write for hours about a variety of topics now. The past phases have helped me build the skills I need for this phase.
If you recognize yourself in any of these phases, or if you’re in a completely different phase that doesn’t match the experiences I’ve shared above, feel free to share it in the comments section!