Monday, April 17, 2017

What is it like to be an author?

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.

If you read our publication stories last week, maybe, like me, you noticed a common theme that being a published writer was not Jill, Shannon, or I thought it would be like.

I imagine this is normal for most, if not all professions. Maybe you've even found it's true for events like going to college, having your driver's license, or getting your first phone. You thought you would feel a certain way, or have some kind of specific freedom, but the experience is different.

In my post last week, I made the statement, "I had spent all these years learning how to get published, but I didn't know a thing about how to be an author." Melanie left a comment asking, "Any advice on how to be an author?"

I had already planned to talk today about life as an author but I had really struggled with the post, honestly. I wrote a thousand words that bounced all over the place. Until Melanie asked her question, I just couldn't figure out how to approach what being an author is like. So, thank you, Melanie!

***Quick note about my use of the terms "writer" and "author" throughout this article. I chose to use writer when talking about being pre-published and author when referring to someone who is paid for their writing.***

The Writing

The obvious piece of being an author is the writing. This is the reason we wanted to be an author in the first place, our love of writing and stories. As we did all our striving to write a book that was good enough for others to want to read, we kept thinking, "Wouldn't it be amazing if I could get paid to write stories?"

It is amazing. I feel grateful nearly everyday that writing stories is my job.

But what does the reality of it actually look like? I've said it before that when I originally imagined my life as an author, it meant living in NYC, writing when I felt like it, sending my finished manuscript to my editor, and then starting on the next one.

It's certainly not that, so what does the writing piece of being an author look like?

Selling your ideas: One thing that surprised me about being an author is the need to sell my stories. My first taste of this came in the form of describing the story I had already written to agents in a way that I hoped would convince them to represent me. Then later, it was trying to describe my story in a way that would excite editors enough to ask to read more of my book.

I thought after I received my first contract, my days of trying to sell my story were over, when actually they were just beginning. I needed to learn how to sell my novel to potential readers, whether it was on my website, on social media, or in person at signings or my day-to-day life.

Maybe you've heard the hardest book you sell is the first one, but I don't think that's true. With every book you want to write, you have to convince your agent and your publisher that this book is worth their investment.

Juggling projects: Another piece of the writing life as an author that surprised me was the need to juggle projects. Before I received my contract, I had trained myself to stop chasing shiny new ideas and focus on one manuscript until it was completely finished. This discipline served me well for learning how to finish a book.

My first contract was for a three book series, and since I hadn't planned on the book being a series, I had two books that needed to be written from scratch. As I was writing book two, my editor got back to me with content edits for book one, and they were due in a few weeks. So I set aside my draft of book two and made the changes she requested to book one.

Then I got back to working on book two, only to have my agent ask me to put together a few more contemporary YA ideas that she could pitch for after this series released. Again, I paused work on book two to brainstorm new ideas. Then while I was editing book two, the copy editor sent me line edits for book one, and again I had to stop to pay attention to those.

Sometimes (often, it seems) when you have a deadline you have AN AMAZING STORY IDEA and you want to go run after it so badly. But you can't because you're lucky enough to be an author, and you have deadlines.

You're not just writing stories: In addition to writing stories you love, you now have lots of other things you need to write. Including, but not limited to:
  • Your author bio: Before I became published, I always thought authors had assistants who did this for them. Nope.
  • Back cover copy and a hook sentence: Back cover copy is self-explanatory, but a hook sentence is your book boiled down to a sentence or two. Like for The Lost Girl of Astor Street, mine is, "When her best friend is abducted during the spring of 1924, eighteen-year-old Piper Sail will hunt for answers amidst the corruption that strangles Chicago, but she will have to decide just how much she’s willing to sacrifice for the truth when her amateur sleuthing skills lead her back to her own front door." If you're traditionally published, these things often get tweaked or rewritten along the way, but you're still responsible for providing it. If you're self-published, obviously this is up to you unless you outsource it.
  • Story synopsis: When you're pitching a book, whether to agents or editors, this is often the first thing you're asked for. Even if you've written multiple books for them. My editor likes me to turn in 2-3 page synopses. Not everyone in the publishing house is able to read every book, so sometimes this is all they have to familiarize themselves with your story as they put together marketing campaigns and sales copy.
  • Social media posts: Content for Twitter, Facebook, or wherever you like to hang out online.
  • Blog posts, articles, and interviews
  • Website copy for your author site
  • Classes: I teach at several workshops throughout the year, and those all involve writing out my talks.
  • Emails: With my agent in Portland, my editor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and my closest writing friends living everywhere from Calfornia to West Virginia, I write a lot of emails. Writing good emails is also important for asking for favors, like endorsements or help from other authors.
With that lengthy list of not-stories to write, you might be asking, "If I do all that, how will I have time for writing stories?"

It's not about finding a balance, it's about identifying seasons

I spent the first few years of my career chasing balance.

I wanted to balance writing with marketing, and my career with parenting, and I frequently felt like I was failing at all aspects of my life.

As I prepared for my debut novel, Me, Just Different, to come out back in July 2009, I was completely unprepared for how much of my time launching a book would take up. I was a real grouch about not being able to find time to write. 

Somewhere along my journey, I started to understand that balance wasn't going to happen. That not everything could be a priority all the time.  I learned to identify seasons when different aspects of being an author became my highest priority. 

When The Lost Girl of Astor Street released in February, for about three months my focus during my work time was marketing. I said yes to every interview, every opportunity to promote the title, and I set a date for when I got to start writing again. Whenever I felt grouchy because I missed writing, I could look at my calendar and say, "This is when my promotions schedule clears up enough that I can start writing again." At first, I would only allow myself to write for 25% of my work time, and then I made myself shut things down so that I could take care of all the marketing work. But eventually I was able to go back to the split that I like, which is about 50% writing and 50% "other stuff" like social media.

A few other surprises I experienced when I became an author:

Money is inconsistent: For most authors, it takes several successful books before checks start showing up on any kind of regular schedule. Even then, a lot of publishers only pay out royalties 2-4 times a year. Indie writers get paid much quicker, of course, but they're also fronting the money for cover design, editing, formatting, and so forth.

Being published doesn't cure insecurities: Every writer I know has similar insecurities to what they had before being published. Sometimes, if you've had a book do really well, insecurities only grow. (What if they don't love the next book like they loved this one???)

Being a writer is like being a small business owner: Not many writers or artists go into their craft for the love of the business. I'm an author because I love writing. But because I make an income from it, the government views me as a business whether I do or not. I pay taxes, have inventory, hire professional services (web design or hosting, etc.), and other businessy things. Some writers are an official business, with a staff and everything.

Few writers stay with one publisher or agent forever: I had very idealistic notions about finding the perfect agent, who would then find me the perfect editor, and then we would all live happily ever after when I hit the bestseller lists.

The truth is, I hardly know any writers who are still with their first agents. And even if you're lucky enough that your editor stays at the same house for several years, there are lots of reasons that authors and publishers part ways. 

Nobody cares about my career like I do: When I was an unagented, unpublished writer, I imagined that having one or both would feel like I was on a team. There's some truth to this. I adore my agent and my editor. Both of them care about me and my career ... but neither of them care about my books as much as I do.

If my book fails, my agent and editor both have other authors they're working with. They can just cut me from their line. I, however, am stuck with me.

Nobody makes sure I'm writing as much as I should be. Nobody reminds me to blog, network, or forces me to use Facebook Live. Nobody makes sure I'm take care of myself so that I don't burn out. While my agent certainly cares about my career, and while my publisher wants me to succeed, ultimately nobody cares like I do, because nobody is stuck with me like I am.

Even though being an author is different than what I imagined it would be, I absolutely love it and can't imagine walking away. Does anything on this list surprise you? Are there questions I left unanswered?


  1. Wow. This is so helpful. Right now I'm still trying to get through my first draft of an edit *gulps* It's my first time editing any project, and I'm freaking out XD
    Oh well. Thank you so much for posting this - it's really helpful for me as I'm trying to figure out how much of my career can actually be my writing.

    1. That's such an important and overwhelming step, Florid Sword! That's what motivated Jill and me to focus the Go Teen Writers book on editing.

  2. I was surprised by all the other writing responsibilities you have to have. (Story synopsis, etc.) Those things should have been obvious, but I guess I've been focusing on actually writing my WIP.
    I'm kind of worried about being able to get an editor and agent. Also, I'm just worried about writing in general. Who will like it? Who will have the passion for the subjects that I'm trying to point out. Will anybody even catch my points? Am I being clear? I'm just so worried about everything being perfect. Will my work be good enough to release to the world? I love being able to write my feelings, but what if I pour out my heart and my work never gets seen or even thought about?
    I hope this wasn't too long, but I'm just driving myself crazy. :\

    1. They weren't obvious to me either, LHE! I was learning a lot of that stuff as I went.

      Those are really normal concerns. I think you'll notice that you start making progress when you stop worrying about what others might think and focus on your enjoyment of the piece. That's one of the reasons that I write my first drafts with my "door closed" as Stephen King puts it. Knowing that no one will see gives me complete freedom to write the draft the way I want it. I worry about letting others in during the second draft.

    2. Keep writing, LHE! Judging from the comments you've made here in the past, it sounds like your writing is stemming from the right place--a desire to share the love of God with people who feel hopeless. Even if your skill inevitably comes into question, always remember that. I hope to read your work someday. :)

    3. Stephanie Morrill: Yes, I think really starting to worry about others thoughts in the second draft is the best. Maybe worrying will actually stump my writing.....Hmmm. Thanks Mrs. Morrill! :) I am really enjoying writing and giving my characters personality. :)

    4. Olivia: You made me teary eyed, Olivia! Thank you so much! I really hope that my work goes out there, and God's love will really shine through a hard cover book. :)
      Today has been rough, and what you said really made it me smile. :D
      You all are really amazing people! :)

  3. I was a little surprised authors don't keep their same agents. Is it because the author switches genres/target audience or something and they're not good fits anymore?

    Thank you! Great article that really made me think. It seems a writer is in the 'dating' stage. It's all getting used to the craft and butterfly feelings. And an author is the 'married' one. Commitments, putting yourself out on the line, and deeper investment.


    1. Sometimes it's that the author/agent have just gone separate directions, one focusing on something the other isn't doing. Sometimes personalities just don't mesh. Sometimes an agent leaves the agency and doesn't take the clients with them. With me, my first agent actually retired.

    2. Ah, interesting. I guess change is unavoidable in just about everything. Thanks so much for the examples! I enjoy learning about all the inner workings of publishing. :0)


  4. This is such a great over view, and a look at things I hadn't really considered before... thank you so much. Stephanie!

  5. Sorry about the crazy spam comment, you guys! I try to stay off my phone when I'm hanging with my kids in the afternoon, so I didn't notice it until now. You guys were so sweet offering advice and encouragement :)

    1. Who do you say that I am -JesusApril 17, 2017 at 10:15 PM

      Well, somebody might have been struggling with that, so nothing's lost. :)

    2. Yep! Hopefully, our replies helped!

  6. OMG THE PART ABOUT SEASONS OMG IT TOTALLY RELIEVED ME. I don't even know why, but it did. And getting a realistic view of the industry makes me realize what areas I would need work on and what areas I'm good with. However, could you maaaaybe do an article about insecurities you've faced? I saw you gave LHE some great advice, and I'm interested in reading more from you about it.

    1. I'm so glad!

      An article on insecurities is a really good idea. Even if makes me squirm a bit to think of writing it! Thanks for the suggestion :)

    2. Writing can get so hard sometimes. I've learned that you just need to push through all your worries and write what you feel like you need to write. Also, people have told me that your worries should come to notice during the second draft, but during your first draft, you get to be creative. You get to just mess around with your story, and know that only you can see it, and that it's for you to do with it what you want to do. :)
      All that was basically what others have to told me that help. :)

  7. This was incredibly insightful! As I query and look for an agent, it's wonderful to have this realistic look into being an author. What should always keep us grounded, no matter what stage of the writing/publishing journey we are in, is our love for writing. Period. And like you said, Stephanie, no one will ever love your work like you, even those closest to it. Thank you for this!!

    -Caitlin @ Quills & Coffee

    1. I'm so glad you found this helpful, Caitlin!

  8. I was just following a discussion elsewhere on the internet about this very distinction. I love how you've laid it out, Steph. Super helpful.