• tarahthornburg

What I’ve Learned in 5 Years and 15 Books

Today is a very special day. Today marks the five-year anniversary of the day I published my first novel. So much has happened in the last few years that it honestly seems like a lifetime ago. I was so different back then, and my life . . . Well, I was living a completely different sort of life.

Back in 2013, I was working at my first real job. I was an editor. I was living in another state in a little apartment with a dark galley kitchen — the very kitchen where I first pressed “publish.” I had no dogs. I had not even met the man who would become my husband. I desperately wanted to move to Colorado, but I had no idea how I would get there. I wanted to be an author, but I had no idea if my book was any good or if anyone would want to read it.

All I knew that I was fresh out of college and jobs in my field were not easy to come by. I felt lucky to have a job, even if it wasn’t exactly the right one. I had the advantage of being surrounded by really supportive people and not making that much money. (I say that it was an advantage because I figured out that I could replace that income fairly easily — I’d just need 30 or so books.)

Seven or eight books in, and I was talking to my bosses about scaling out of my job. I freelanced for a while, and then I fully jumped out of the plane. I’ve learned a lot in the past five years — not all of it about writing. Here are just a few of my more profound lessions:

1. You must have experiences to write interesting books. I know lots of incredible authors who are insanely prolific. Many of them have earned a staggering amount of money from their books, but they also have no life (at least for a while). Hard work is crucial to write for a living, but so is taking the time to travel, fall in love, play the ukulele, or learn how to operate a chainsaw. (Can you tell I’m digging into personal experiences?)

If you have the sudden weird urge to learn a new skill or go someplace you’ve never been, follow that impulse. You never know how your experiences will show up in your writing. They just will. Great writing happens when you’re living your life.

2. Your work needs time to marinate. Just as you need experiences to enrich your writing, your writing needs to spend some time in the cellar just like any fine wine. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that I can get ahead by skipping the marination period enough times to learn that you can’t rush great things. Your work needs time to rest so you can come back to it with completely fresh eyes.

3. You need time to recharge. In the indie author community, authors are obsessive about speed. If you aren’t publishing a book a month, you’re nobody. But over the years, I’ve found that my writing is actually better when I go a little slower. (Full disclosure: Four months is and has always been my max speed for publishing a book.) I give myself ambitious word-count goals, but sometimes if I have a lot going on, it’s difficult to hit those targets.

I’ve found that my writing is usually better when I take vacations. And sometimes, I need a day to just not write at all. Of course, this doesn’t fly if you work for someone else. You have to show up or you get fired. And if you work for yourself, there’s no one to lie to about being sick so you can take a mental health day. (Not that I’d ever do that.)

Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, you just need to quit whining and get some words on the page. But that other 0.1 percent of the time, you have to be willing to give yourself a break.

4. You cannot get to the next level on your own. One of the harder parts of writing for a living is that there are times when you have to be the crazy growth-obsessed business lady and times you have to let your inner artist do her thing. Balancing the business side with the creative side can give you whiplash at times. You may feel that the split personality is going to tear you apart.

The best way to combat this is to stick to your strengths and get help with the things you aren’t good at (or don’t enjoy). Usually, these are one and the same.

I’ve spent the past five years building my team with an editor, a cover designer, a financial planner, and an accountant. Recently, I had the realization that if I wanted to get to the next level, I had to get serious about Facebook ads. But the idea of managing this myself was absolutely soul-killing. I decided that I would save up the money to hire someone to manage my ads for me, and then a successful author friend of mind volunteered her services. It has been a game-changer. My inner artist is happy that she doesn’t have to mess with ads, and the business side of me breathes a little easier now that my sales are more stable.

Regardless of where you are, you cannot walk alone. You must build your team of supportive friends, early readers, a writing coach/critique partner, whatever. Even having fairy godmothers in the form of other authors can help. You just need a sense that you aren’t in it alone.

5. You don’t need to read all your reviews. This may be controversial, but I just don’t believe it’s necessary or even helpful to read all my negative reviews. It doesn’t matter if I have a hundred glowing five-star reviews on a book; it’s usually the really mean three-star ones that haunt me for weeks. The ones that truly bother me usually have a kernel of truth, but the self-doubt these can generate is more detrimental to my writing in the long run.

6. People will ask you what you write — whether they’re truly interested or not. The bro at the bank doesn’t read sci-fi. It’s possible he doesn’t read at all. And yet there’s something intensely fascinating about writers to society at large. You should be prepared to answer the same questions over and over.

Yes, it will get old. Just remember that you are fortunate to be living your dream. Writers write. Therefore, if you write, you are a writer. You are fulfilling your destiny, your ultimate purpose — whatever. You are making it happen.

7. Your accountant will screw up your taxes. Get friendly with the IRS. In the five years I’ve been doing this for money, I’ve had three different accountants. I’ve had nasty surprises that came from my accountant filing the wrong forms, which resulted in me owing a bunch of money to the IRS. Yes, I had to get on a payment plan. Yes, it was incredibly stressful.

I can’t say that I’ve learned much other than that it’s better to overpay (and get a refund) than underpay and get hit with a big tax bill when you least have money for it. Save, save, save, save, save. Sock money away like you’re planning to flee the country, and do it as soon as you are earning money from your writing.

8. How you publish is your business. Don’t let fear (or other people) run your company. One of the most polarizing issues in the indie author community is whether one should publish widely (across all platforms) or enter into an exclusivity agreement with Amazon. The prevailing argument is that being exclusive (while it may earn you more money) is risky because an author is putting all of her eggs in one basket.

For a long time, I tried to be everywhere, and this was one of the most financially disastrous moves I ever made. I let fear-based thinking (my fear of Amazon changing the rules) determine my course of action, and it almost drove my business into the ground.

If you’re in publishing, the people around you will often have very strong opinions about what you should do, but it’s not their business. It’s literally not their business! It’s yours. And it’s you who will suffer if things don’t go well. You must be willing to own the decisions you make.

9. You don’t need to have confidence in the future so long as you have confidence in yourself. If you spend any time in online author communities, you’ll find so much collective hand-wringing that you’ll come away soggy. People are always fearful of the future. Every move Amazon makes seems to have apocalyptic weight. Authors fear the rise of AI, changes from Createspace to KDP Print, and Facebook algorithm changes.

I always thought authors were paranoid — until I learned about day traders. Now there’s an easily spooked bunch. My husband got me into investing, and I’ve learned that a stock’s value can plummet within minutes if the president’s hair blows the wrong way. And then it recovers.

The key to the future is equanimity.

I’ve said for years that the entire publishing industry could change tomorrow, and my income could disappear. A black hole could open up and swallow Jeff Bezos whole. My house could be hit by an asteroid.

But here’s the thing: I’m not worried. Publishing can change. It changes every month. Readers’ habits and preferences change. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the future holds, I will write, and I will find a way to make a living.

10. Goals alone cannot sustain you. You must find satisfaction in the act of creating. When I first started writing, the idea of completing one novel was extremely daunting. I thought I would feel a sense of completeness when it was done. I thought I’d be a different person. But after that novel was written and published, I wrote another and another.

With each novel came different goals, and whether I hit them or not, there was never this moment where I felt “Ah! I’ve done it. I am satisfied.” I became a full-time author, but once I’d accomplished that, I hit a bit of a wall. I didn’t know where to go from there. I didn’t know how to direct my energy.

What I’ve learned is that if you’re looking for a specific project or some form of external validation for fulfillment, you are never going to find it. It doesn’t matter if you hit a bestseller list or gain a million fans or make so much money that you never have to work again.

The only thing that gives me deep satisfaction as an author is writing a scene that leaves me charged or reworking a chapter until it’s literally the best I can make it. I get excited when a new idea is bubbling up, begging to be written. I get satisfaction from my Morning Pages — even though no one will see them but me. And I get satisfaction from publishing a new blog post. As writers, joy must come from the process, not the product.

Wherever you are, embrace it. When I was waking up at 6 a.m. to write every morning before going to work, I thought I would go crazy if I had to spend one more hour in front of a computer — one more day in the town I was in doing a job that I didn’t love. But here’s the thing: I look back at that time fondly. It was a time of lower pressure, uncertainty, big dreams. And I will look back on this time in my life as a period of excitement, new marriedness, upheaval, something new every day.

Wherever you are, be here now.

It doesn’t matter where you are in your writing journey. You will think that things are one way, and they’ll turn out to be totally different. You’ll have ups and downs, successes and failures, but you just have to be along for the ride. You must be willing to keep at it, learn from your mistakes, and seek out new stories that fill your cup. You have to be willing to create every day just for the sake of creating.

Photo by John Baker

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