There’s so much of this advice out there. Blog posts. Craft books. Workshops and lectures. We pay for it, we go in search of it. Sometimes it finds us, when we’d rather not be pondering whether or not we’re currently bungling the effort.
There’s advice telling us how to do the actual writing, then how to sell it.
Advice on how to be a professional author—how we need a blog, a website, a Facebook fan page, a Twitter presence, a newsletter, an Amazon Author Page, Google Alerts, a mailing list, a marketing strategy, a book trailer, a blog tour, promotional items, a tagline.
How we need to monitor our web traffic, our inventory of followers or fans or friends or subscribers, our Goodreads presence and how we’ve been shelved and how many times, how many ratings we’ve been given and what the average is—to the second decimal place—how many Likes we’ve gotten, our Amazon Author Rank, our Novel Rank stats, our place or lack thereof on Top 100 lists (paid versus not paid versus genre versus subgenre and refreshed on the hour), reviews of our work and the comments attached to them.
How to pinpoint, quantitatively, numerically, in stars and in hits, where we rank amongst our peers, whether we’re ahead of the curve or trailing behind, how this month compared to last, how this book measures up to the previous one.
Are we promoting ourselves enough? Too much? In the right ways? What is the right way?? What did I say to make that person unfollow me?!?!
The Internet makes this kind of authorial hyper-involvement so. Easy. So easy! And so instantaneous, and so accessible, and so constant. If denizens of the epidemically overfed first world are living in a so-called food circus, then twenty-first-century authors are living in a feedback circus.
I’ve seen people refer to the act of obsessively monitoring facets of one’s author presence as “self-stalking,” which works. I’ve seen others calling it, “managing your author platform.” I’ve seen it treated as madness, and as professionalism. I’ve seen it condemned, and exalted. I’ve seen it harnessed and turned into incredible sales and earnings. And I’ve seen it turn formerly beloved hobbies into pure psychic torture.
In its worst guises, I call this stuff “nanny-camming.” This is an opinionated term, and one I’m not suggesting reflects every author’s experience—not even close. But it’s how I see it, when “being aware of your author presence” crosses that line into self-stalkery; when all that diligent management of one’s own brand and rank and quantifiable success becomes more harmful to one’s productivity than motivational. Keep hitting Play on that nanny-cam feed for long enough, and eventually you may see something you wish you hadn’t. But even if you don’t, the act of constantly reminding yourself that you might and anticipating that ugly moment can be just as upsetting.
I’m not going to tell anyone what they have to do. I’m certainly not going to tell anybody How To Be An Author. What the poop do I know about it? This is my job now, and I make a passable living from it, but I wouldn’t purport to be any kind of capital-S Somebody.
What I would like to suggest, however, is some emotional self-awareness.
[Begin aside—skip this paragraph if you have no interest in feelings-y mumbo-jumbo.] If you’re not familiar with emotional awareness work, it’s basically a technique for recognizing how you’re feeling, physically, as you experience different emotional reactions. For instance, when I’m anxious, my stomach feels empty or upset, and my breathing turns shallow. When I feel I’m being misunderstood or unheard, my throat gets tight. When I’m angry at someone’s callousness, my heart knots in my chest. It’s just a collection of techniques for recognizing and processing emotions as physical discomfort—or pleasure—as a way to detach those emotions from their stimuli, so you’re not giving other people’s actions the power to upset you. The basic idea is: they’re your emotions, here’s how to keep their mitts off your steering wheel. Anyhow—emotional awareness. It’s pretty liberating. If you think you might benefit from such a thing, check out the book The Heart of the Soul, by Gary Zukav. It’s a little oovy-groovy, but it might prove helpful if you identity yourself a particularly impulsive, reactionary, or hypersensitive personality. I honestly believe emotional self-awareness is simultaneously the most useful yet under-exploited skill in the human toolkit. [End aside.]
Authors have kind of an unfortunate reputation for being crazy. Same as comedians and musicians and artists—anybody whose job requires that they flip their hearts inside-out then ask people to pay to take a gander at it. We’re basically gestating and birthing babies then holding them up, inviting strangers to either coo or throw darts. That’s a really weird thing to want to put yourself through. A bit of crazy’s probably as necessary as coffee and a keyboard, for this gig. But if the crazy’s getting in the way, eating up your energy or sucking the joy out of the practice of writing, then something’s not right.
My basic advice to my fellow authors is, if it feels bad, don’t do it.
And please, hear this too—it’s okay if it feels bad. Even if you think it’s supposed to feel good.
Obviously, life will feel bad sometimes—challenging, disappointing, frustrating, unfair. Writing will occasionally feel shitty, and so will revisions and edits and untangling plot gnarls, and I’m not saying don’t do those things. If you want to be a professional writer, them’s the breaks. You have to finish books.
But all those other things we tell ourselves we have to do—the social networking and blogging and promo and other interactions… Those are not required. Just because someone stood behind a podium and told you in a conference workshop that you have to use Google Analytics or you have to tweet or you have to be active on this forum or that, it doesn’t make it so. If you’re finishing books and completing their edits, and making them available to the public in some manner, and you’re getting paid for your work, you are a professional writer. Period. Anything else you choose to do is gravy.
And anything else you choose to do but don’t enjoy…
Let yourself question if it’s worth it.
Perhaps you blog, and you suspect this might earn you an extra ten book sales a month, and perhaps that works out to an extra twenty bucks in royalties and a nice little stream of potentially loyal readers. That’s all good…unless blogging makes you miserable these days, and every post feels like an obligation. Consider if it might be a more valuable use of your time, not spending those few hours a month composing (or procrastinating) those posts you feel you have to produce. You could use that time to write your books, or for some other pursuit, one that makes you feel energized and inspired. You might be more productive if you invested those hours walking, or knitting, or reading, or cleaning the crisper drawers, or going out with friends or your poor neglected family. (My husband would likely endorse the latter.)
You don’t have to do anything, just because somebody slapped a bullet point on it and said it’s what legitimate, responsible, ambitious, real professional writers do. If you’re a professional writer, then whatever you’re doing, that’s what a real writer does, too.
Some writers thrive on external feedback, both positive and negative, from friends and strangers alike. Praise puts wind in their sails, and criticism drives them to consider areas where they might improve, the next time around.
If this is you, God bless. You are well adjusted. You’re the envy of many. You need not read on.
But if this isn’t you, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It would be nice if we all felt this way, and on good days, many of us do. But you may simply not. It doesn’t mean you’re not cut out to be an author in the digital age, but it may mean you have some damage control to exercise.
For example, if you know from experience that every time you look at your Amazon ratings or your Goodreads stats, you wind up feeling jittery and naked, then don’t do it.
Some days we need to pretend there’s no audience. No eyes on us. If even glowing reviews wind up undermining your ability to get the day’s word count met, because they make you feel exposed and ruin your ability to “dance as though no one is watching,” then don’t check them. Or check them on days when you don’t feel primed for anxiety, or can afford to derail your productivity for a little while.
I have to do this. I’m a fairly anxious person, and some days I’m simply more wound-up than usual. It’s more a noisy-brain thing than a thin-skin thing, for me—the sensitivity manifests in different ways, for different people, to all different degrees.
“But I have to read to my reviews—it would be rude not to, after people took the time to write them!” No, you don’t. It wouldn’t. They wrote those reviews for other readers’ consideration, in most cases. This is a concept that many authors take their sweet time in grasping, and with good reason. It’s hard for us to accept that it’s not about us, when a book can so often feel as attached and vulnerable as an exposed organ.
On those noisy-brain days, a thoughtful friend might forward me a link to what I can safely assume will be a lovely write-up of one of my books—but I know not to click on it. It’ll snap me out of writing mode and into author mode (the verb versus the identity) and for a time, I’ll cease simply being a person who bangs her fingers on a keyboard, telling herself stories, and become one who worries about whether those stories will give strangers the pleasure they were hoping for after they were kind enough to pay to read them.
Other days, no problem—click that link, smile to know someone is a happy customer, back to work. I suppose I may be lucky in that I can readily pinpoint which sort of a day I’m having. Thanks, Gary Zukav!
If you feel anxious and insecure (in general or just in a given moment), and even coming upon a nasty review of someone else’s book will make you feel paranoid and naked and vulnerable, don’t click.
Conversely, if you think reading someone else’s nasty review will make you feel better about yourself, give that impulse some serious circumspection. Ask yourself if that hit of schadenfreudean dodged-bullet relief actually feels good. I’d venture to suggest that “Look—she’s not so great!” is not a satisfying emotional substitute for, “I’m actually doing pretty okay!”
If even seeing the name of a book reviewer in your tweet stream is enough to pull you out of your writing flow and trigger that sour-stomach, stage-fright feeling, give yourself permission to unfollow them—for the morning or the week or for good. If you’re worried they’ll notice and be hurt, or worse, that they’ll give you bad reviews as a result… Try to remind yourself that most professional bloggers and reviewers are just that—professional. If they do even notice an unfollow, it’s highly unlikely they’ve got some shit-list of Mean Authors to Punish. If they do…? Well, be glad you’re not following them anymore. They probably need to work on their emotional awareness techniques.
Ditto goes for anyone else you follow on social media who consistently pulls you out of your flow. They may do so through no fault of their own. Maybe they simply retweet lots of breaking industry news, and in order to dance as though no one is watching, you need to avoid constant reminders that you’re but a miniscule cog in said industry. You can unfollow people if they trigger you. It doesn’t mean they’ve done something wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re too sensitive. It just means you’re a more productive writer without that particular person in your periphery.
If you find yourself thinking that just about everyone in your social media network triggers these feelings, and regularly… I’m not being flip, but consider that you may not be emotionally compatible with social networking. That’s totally okay. The real world is a fine world to inhabit, and most of us authors could probably stand to spend a bit more time there.
Of course, not-clicking is easier said than done—that adrenaline spike upon seeing a link that you know pertains to you is hard to simply let pass. For some, over-clicking or self-stalking is simply a bad habit, but for others it’s a true compulsion. I don’t mean to suggest it’s easy. It might require some weaning, or even a taste of cold turkey.
“But I have to be on social media, if I want to be an author!” To be a professional presence in the industry, yes, it certainly can be important. But if it makes you too paranoid or tightly wound or exposed-feeling to be productive or take joy from this craft…? Fuck it. It’s not worth it. Scale back, or opt out, or take a hiatus. If you can’t get your work done, then your digital platform’s moot.
If you need some flattering review snippets for your website, but you know heading to Google and nanny-camming yourself is a powerful anxiety trigger you can’t afford on a given day, ask a friend to wade into the interweb waves and source a couple for you. If they’re an author, they’ll probably sympathize.
“But this stuff all comes standard with the job, nowadays! I should toughen up.”
You could. I think most authors endeavor to, when they cross the threshold that separates “aspiring” and “published.” We check everything when our first book comes out, because we’ve earned the right to feel like we’ve arrived, to confirm that we exist on these websites, to seek out proof that a stranger invested the time and money to read our work.
And some of those new authors are on their way to cultivating nice thick skins—waxy skins that repel the bad reviews like raindrops while the good ones stick tight. Good for them!
Or in time those authors might decide they don’t care what anyone aside from their editor or their critique partner or their most admired reviewer thinks—their finite list of Ideal Readers, to steal Stephen King’s phrase. Good for them!! That’s been my own adopted approach, and it’s served me well…provided I keep it at the forefront of my brain.
Other writers will care what every last reader thinks, and use that feedback to correct course and adapt and strive for the most dizzying heights of mass-market appeal. Good for them!!!
But if you’ve been around the block, survived a few release days, and exposed yourself to enough public criticism to recognize that it’s not getting any easier, and that exposing yourself to it inhibits your writing… Not good for you.
Cut down. Be selective, and make a short list of forums you’d like to stay active on, the ones you feel are worth your energy. Or set aside designated time for such things, when you’ll be in the best state to process whatever feelings they might trigger. Or opt out all together.
Do what you have to do, to dance like no one’s watching.
Give as many or as few fucks as you can spare. Just make sure, above all else, that you’re saving enough fucks for your work-in-progress.
Writing itself is hard enough. Being an author is something else entirely.