Being an Author, Not a Writer

Something horrible happened to me the day I became an author: I stopped being a writer.

I spent six years working on THE LOST GIRLS. It was the great pleasure of my life, second only to raising my children. Each morning I woke up and immediately started figuring out how I could avoid as many of my obligations as possible so I could spend more time writing. Days when I couldn’t write at all — when I absolutely had to drive on the field trip, take a child to the dentist, and take the car in to the shop — left me feeling antsy and incomplete.

Then I sold my book. The dream had come true! The book was going to be published! I hadn’t known there was a difference between writer (unpublished) and author (published), but now I did, and I started telling people I was an Author. An author.

In the months that followed, I happily dived into the revisions my editor suggested. I’d spend several hours a day up to my elbows in them, then I’d send them off and wait for my editor’s response. And wait. And wait. Write your next book while you’re waiting, other authors told me; it will keep you sane. But every time I sat down to try, I couldn’t do it. I told myself this was to be expected. I’d never been good at writing two things at once, and with my head still so far into THE LOST GIRLS, I wasn’t going to be able to focus on a completely different story during alternate months.

But the revisions were done in December, and I still haven’t been able to get going on my second book. Oh, I’ve done some research, and I’ve gone to visit the place where the story will be set. I even managed to write one chapter, though that was only because I had to have something to turn in to a workshop/retreat I’m going to next weekend. Instead of writing, I’m researching how to market my book, how to get blurbs for it, how to grow my social media platform, how to use Goodreads, how to use Twitter, and how to use Amazon. Five months from the launch, I’m so anxious about making sure I’m doing everything I can to make THE LOST GIRLS a success that I can’t relax into the creative mulch that storytelling needs.

Worse: it’s been so long since I began writing THE LOST GIRLS that I actually can’t remember how to start a book. I’ve only done it once, after all. What was I doing five years ago, six years ago? I remember it took me a year to write the first hundred pages. Why? What was so hard, and how did I overcome it? It’s almost like graduating from college and then being told to go back to kindergarten. You know all this stuff that you’ve learned along the way, but you can’t remember how to cut out a paper doll.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, although my fellow Debutantes are making me even more anxious by plowing ahead into their second and even third novels with seemingly little difficulty. In fact, I went and researched it (again, instead of writing Book Two), and found all sorts of articles with titles like Four Ways Not to Fuck Up Book Number Two and Second Novel Syndrome and Why it Matters to You that ranged from comforting (the latter) to nightmare-inducing (the former).

My agent, when I told her of my struggles, said it was indeed common for authors to have a hard time with the second book. “With the first, you’re writing with no expectation that it will be published. But with the second, you’re writing it with the expectation that it will be, and that changes everything,” she said.

She’s exactly right. I didn’t sign a two-book deal, so nobody’s waiting on my next book. But they are, of course. At least, my agent is. How long can I take to write the second book before I’m forgotten in the publishing industry? Two years? Four? One? Naturally I have to research this, too, and the story slips further from my grasp.

I will write again. I’m certain of it, just as I was certain I would finish THE LOST GIRLS even back in the mists of time when I couldn’t seem to get past page fifty. Well, maybe I’m not quite so certain. But I’m fairly certain. So, despite my anxiety over not being able to write at the moment, I’m trying to accept that now is just not the time for it. My head is too spinny and jagged and loud for the quiet work of storytelling, and I can’t calm it, not with July 26 staring balefully from the calendar.

Maybe, at the writers’ retreat I’m attending next weekend, where there will be no internet to search for articles on how to use Facebook to promote your book or how to schedule bookstore events, I will find the peace I need. But I probably won’t, and I’ll have to allow myself to be okay with that. Because, God knows, I’m anxious enough about how the one book I’ve managed to write will do without adding the pressure to write another into the mix.

Here is what I’m telling myself: when the time is right, I will know. I’ll get up one morning — maybe it will be July 27 — and when I’m brushing my teeth I’ll start calculating how many of that day’s obligations I can postpone, and I’ll know. On that day I’ll sit down at the blank screen, and, word by painstaking word, I will begin the labored, halting, blissful process all over again. I hope. I hope.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 12 Comments

  1. Great post. I am unpublished, but have felt similar about my second book. I wrote one that kinda/sorta counts, but I was a disaster, and not fun. Now I’m working on another. My fourth attempt, actually, if you count my other false starts. And the fear is huge. The self doubt bigger. Gone is the passion and “let’s see if I can do this” kind of momentum. Now everything I do seems to pale in comparison. It’s been torturous at best! And yet I can’t stop. So I keep going. I can see how publishing doesn’t take any of that away. Maybe lucky to be sorting this out without the extra pressure. But man is it hard. And especially hard to keep going when the fruits of my labor so far have yet to be realized, at least externally. Thanks!

    1. You’re so right when you say that “let’s see if I can do this” energy is gone. That energy is fun, and sparks creativity. The “let’s see if I can manage to do this AGAIN” energy is much darker, and it definitely gets in the way. Good luck to you, Meaghan. I think the most important part of your post is the part where you say you can’t stop. It’s vital never to stop.

  2. It’s so hard to be an author and a writer at the same time. I know a lot of writers think their problems will be solved when they’re published, but it just introduces a new set of problems. Marketing-brain and writer-brain are two very different beasts.

    I’ve found every book feels totally different, and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the next, so don’t panic about not remembering what you did last time. Things were different then. You were different then.

    You’ll get there. Go easy on yourself and good luck with both!

    1. Thank you, Eleanor! You’re right about marketing brain being a different beast. I thought that about revising brain, but revising brain is at least a cousin of writing brain, while marketing brain is like somebody else’s brain altogether. Sigh.

  3. “It’s almost like graduating from college and then being told to go back to kindergarten. You know all this stuff that you’ve learned along the way, but you can’t remember how to cut out a paper doll.”

    Ha! This is the perfect analogy. I’m going through such a similar situation right now. Honestly, it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one. Here’s to both of us re-learning how to cut paper dolls with confidence.

  4. Much truth here, Heather. Though I have to say book 2 came (fairly) easily for me — in part it HAD to because I was on a two-book contract and the book was due! But book 3, which I’m currently writing? This one is my problem child. It’s sassy and likes to talk back and not do anything I tell it to do. Ah, the glamorous life of an author (not a writer) 🙂

    1. Karma, I sometimes wish I did have a two-book contract, because then I’d have the gun at my head that I think I need to get the thing written! But I’m sorry to hear you have a bratty Book 3! I’d offer advice on how to tame it, but I’m clearly no expert. All I can do is wish you luck!

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