My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, August 30, 2019

Existential Publication Questions (Mailbox)

Forget the procedure questions about publishing. What about the existential ones?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one question about once a week.  I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And when I say one question, of course I mean five or six.]   

Katie (the anxious academic) writes:

Hi Chris,

Thank you so much for your page! It’s really helpful and uplifting for a stressed-out grad student like me.

I am a first-time author looking down the barrel of publication with a small house. Not only am I a first-time author, but I am a first-time FICTIONAL author which adds another layer of complexity to my writing. It’s been really fun and exciting and my editor is a godsend, but this is a terrifying process for someone who’s used to academic writing and has never published before.

I have several questions and it’s your page so you can answer as many as you’d like: Is it normal to feel really anxious about publication and if so, how do you deal with it? Do you know of any successful authors who have crossed genres like me? Is it unrealistic? What if nobody reads/likes my book? Am I overthinking everything?


My reply:

Hi there! I'm so glad that my particular cocktail of f-bombs and academia side-eye doesn't scare away ALL the grad students. My relationship to higher learning is often best described as a parent's, "I'm  only disappointed because I know you're fucking better than this."

"Now go to your ivory tower and think about what you've done.  No...wait. You'll probably write a paper or something, and that's how we got into this mess. Go anywhere but your ivory tower, talk to actual people, and do some praxis."

So before I get to your questions, let me just congratulate you. What an exciting time you've reached! Finishing a book is an amazing experience. There's still a lot ahead, but that first massive push is in your rearview mirror.

I'm going to plumb your academic background (which is not nearly as fun as it sounds) for a metaphor to give you some advice that you can keep in mind as I get to your questions. Remember that your objectives are big and will take many steps and years to achieve, but your goals are much smaller and can probably be broken down themselves into single-serving steps. If someone just took all the end products of what you needed to get an advanced degree and said "This is it. Go to it," it would overwhelm almost anyone. But that's not what you do. You start with classes. You get an advisor. You refine your ideas. You have a sense of what's expected before you start. You lose some sleep of COURSE, but you also kind of learn the next step as you go. And now you might remember feeling some terror at that first day of OMGITSSOMUCH at grad school, but there's no reason to be terrified.

This is a useful way to think about big life accomplishments (like publication). Just remember to take deep breaths, concentrate most of your attention on what's right in front of you, and focus on THE NEXT STEP. It's easy to publish a book if you never think of yourself as doing that. You're just going to query one agent a day for a few weeks. You're just going to do some revision. You're just going to go over some changes with a copyeditor. You're just going to let your agent do their thing. You're just going to sign some paperwork. You're just going to focus on something else for a few months and try not to stress eat literal cardboard. You're just going to go to a thing and sign some books. You're just a published author...... Oh HEY!!!

So let's get on to those questions while I still have three people's attention.

Is it normal to feel really anxious about publication and if so, how do you deal with it? 

So, so, so normal. I have a number of published authors on my friendslist (and several more who are in the shopping-for-agents/publishers state), and this is a really, truly stressful time for them. Among the worst moments of their lives. One says they are generally crankier than when they were quitting smoking, and another is trying to coordinate vacations to get their spouse and child out of the house so they will still be married when it's all over. ("You must leave Jeffery. You must leave, or your next coster-less cranberry juice will become an additional verse in the "Cell Block Tango.")

One keeps asking for help hiding bodies. I laugh nervously.

You're coming down from the adrenaline rush of a huge project but you still have to go through the process of SELLING that project. That's a lot of stress and emotion and uncertainty hitting you at once, and it all feels focused on something you've poured your SOUL into for probably at least the last year or two. No one in the world is going to be at their best during that––least of all not we usually-quiet writers who are not used to having to put ourselves "out there" most of the time.

Do you know of any successful authors who have crossed genres like me? Is it unrealistic? 

Yes!  I mean NO!  I mean..... Um....YES I know successful authors and NO it's not unrealistic. Fortunately crossing the fiction/non-fiction divide is common and easy, and writers do it all the time. Unfortunately what they can't do is cross the "genre divide" when that word is used in a slightly different way.

Most writers whose last names are not King or Rowling are locked into whatever fiction genre they are known for (and even for them, they can't stray too far*). If they want to cross genres, they generally have to have a pen name. It is not unheard of for a multi-bestseller to be REJECTED by a publisher if they write something out of their established fiction genre. This is because author names are a lot like branding, and if someone expecting a SF western crossover picks up your book to discover erotic horror, they may never buy anything from you again.

*King could do Eyes of The Dragon as long as it was Fantasy with a grisly six-page horroresque description of a guy dying from magic poison, but Rowling had to publish detective fiction under a pen name.

What if nobody reads/likes my book? 

Well.....that's always a possibility, and I know that is really the ONLY thing on your mind right now, but the best advice I can give you is to try everything in your power not to think like that. Treat it like a numbers game. You wouldn't have gotten this far if everyone hated it. Some people will like it. Some will love it. Some will not like it. You have a lot of work ahead of you finding the former group, and the more you kind of look at the next step and the WORK, the easier this part is going to be.

We all feel like we chip a little piece of our soul off when we write something big like this and that it's US being accepted or rejected by the world. I've seen writers hang up their pencils and never write again if this moment didn't bend their way. This part of the process is a month's-long version of that torturous moment in reality television where we find out if we're going home or advancing to the next round.

The more you just look at this as work, the easier this part will be. There's more to be done. There's the next book to write. There's feedback to incorporate. There's craft to refine. There's a short story you've been meaning to get to. There's second steps if you get some suggestions on how to improve the book. The more this is just a job and you're just going to do the shit out of it with all your heart and soul, the less something like this will seem utterly salubrious or utterly devastating to your invested ego and it will just be good news or a setback on an arc of your career that you intend to keep slogging away on no matter what happens. Once our ego is separated from this one bit of news and its validation of us in ways we probably aren't even admitting to yet (as much as that separation is even possible), then we can more objectively handle our failures (and successes) with much more professional acumen. (Imagine if your thesis were rejected. Would you pack up and go back to the farm? When you got your advanced degree, was that the last step and you were done?)

Even if you just have to say, "Right now, tonight, I'm making pasta primavera with peas, asparagus, and broccoli," just keep focusing on the next step.

Am I overthinking everything?

Let's pretend I said yes. Are you going to stop?

It's in a writer's nature to create a million scenarios in our imaginations, and we've just been plunked into one of the most stressful moments of "waiting to see" of our lives. There's almost nothing we can do BUT overthink everything.

Hang in there Katie. And focus on the work.


  1. I'm approaching a similar situation to Katie. By the time my novel is ready, an academic paper will have hit the streets, creating a possible nonfiction/fiction crossover point. I like the idea of "I'll just...", which is an approach my mother often took. It reminds me of another saying: You CAN eat an elephant - one mouthful at a time.

    What you describe looks like an emotional roller-coaster. I reckon I'll keep a journal of emotional responses (e.g. to rejection letters). That might give me some real-life examples I can feed into future characters who get themselves into difficulties.

    That's my bit of over-thinking for today. Perhaps I should lie down now.

  2. Ada Palmer is an academic (History professor) who also writes fiction. She's easy to find on Twitter and a really nice person. Suggest asking her too. :)