Monday 18 February 2013

The author has four faces: A writer's survival guide

By Kate Harrison
Guest Blogger

Writing is a dream job – that’s official. According to this survey, being a writer is the number three dream job, after Pilot and Charity Worker.

Yet we’ve also been told that there’s a strong link between being an author and mental health problems. So writing is a dream job and a potential nightmare rolled into one. So how can you make sure being an author is still a dream come true?

Being an author is a pressurised business. Not as pressurised as being a frontline soldier or a heart surgeon, of course, but just because I can work in my pyjamas, doesn’t mean there aren’t tricky times. I’m a big fan of writers’ retreats – getting away with other writers to work, eat, drink and indulge in some therapeutic moaning.

But when I tell non-writers, they look baffled: why would I need to retreat from a dream job?

I began thinking about that at the SCBWI retreat. My answer? The modern author lives a topsy-turvy, contradictory life – playing (at least) four different roles. We must be introvert and extrovert, wildly creative and ruthlessly analytical, endlessly cheerful and commercially pragmatic.

No wonder we sometimes feel torn, stressed, if not utterly confused, as we try to be the Perfect Author. It made me think of the movie, The Mirror has Two Faces. Except as authors, we can do better than that. I think we have at least four.

Face 1: The Creative Genius 

Think Roald Dahl in his writing shed, inventing worlds, word and characters… It’s where most of us started – with the thrill of story-telling. It’s the most personal of the roles – all about your ideas and inventions, about indulging your playful, childish side.

Your ideas are born free, and you let them run wild. But you stand or fall by what you produce – and if the idea isn’t selling, or is getting poor reviews, you’ve only got yourself to blame… 

Face 2: The Ruthless Editor 

If your ideas are like over-excited puppies, then your editor is Cruela de Vil: she’ll stop at nothing to turn them into a well-tailored fur coat.

The Editor is the opposite of the Genius – she must tread on ideas, be cruel to be kind. She is judgemental, pernickety, cruel, murderous – not for nothing do we call editing ‘killing your darlings.’ If the Genius is child-like, then the Editor is an unforgiving parent who wants you to be the best...

Face 3: The Willing Author

Like Pollyanna, the Willing Author is relentlessly positive and co-operative.

She has immaculate manners and never complains about anything… It is wonderful to be published – to work with an editor, designer, and the whole team who want to make your book a success.

Yet the minute you sell a book, you have to give up any control-freakery and try not to mind if things are done to your ‘baby’ that you don’t agree with. Only the huge authorly names can afford to be ‘difficult.’

Working on your own means that trivial things – the font on a cover, the position of your book on a website – can be blown out of proportion. Yes you keep smiling. Your editor has a huge ‘family’ of authors to deal with and you have to wait your turn for attention. And when that attention comes, it’s often accompanied by an urgent deadline. The smile becomes strained at times.

Face 4: The Sparkling Performer

Like the well-known children’s author, Katie Price (ahem), the author must do whatever needs to be done to promote her books.

This very grown up role demands a persona that’s the exact opposite of the dressing-gowned genius.

Once a year, or more, you must dress up and sell your wares. In an ideal world, you’re already a celebrity or TV star but at least you must be a King of Queen of Social Networking… Which is fine if this is your natural inclination – but after months in a fantasy world, it can be a shock to be in the limelight.

Yet despite the multiple roles, it’s still my dream job. One of the appealing things about writing is that it does offer such variety… and yet, the Cruela, Pollyanna and Katie P parts of the persona can begin to overwhelm the Creative side – and in my experience, that’s where this dream job gets tricky.

Sometimes it’s enough to acknowledge that you’re stressed, and that there’s a good reason. That’s where a retreat or an online forum is great, because you realise you’re not going mad – you’re just doing a mad job. But you don’t have to pack your bags to retreat or reboot – I find it’s often enough to put your other personas on hold, and reconnect with your inner Creative Genius: chances are it’s the ideas or stories that made you decide to become a writer in the first place, so make time to rediscover what matters. Grant yourself a mini-retreat without leaving your home town.

Here are some of my suggestions – please do add yours in the comments!

• Go people-watching to a new location. Observe, invent names for the people you see, make up a story that amuses, entertains or thrills you, instead of trying to please or second-guess the market. Do it for fun!

• Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is a Marmite book – people love it or loathe it – but it’s worth leafing through. And she has one concept that works for anyone…

• The ‘artist’s date’ – where you set aside a day or a couple of hours to do something that will feed your creativity: brainstorm what you fancy doing that is not related to a current project. You could
     o Go to the train station and choose a new destination to visit right now o Go to a dance class o Visit an exhibition or museum or the zoo
     o Go to the pound shop with a budget of £5 and spend an hour choosing what to buy
     o Bake a perfect cake
     o Take the afternoon off to watch a DVD that your family would hate

• Buy some stationery – most writers have a paper fetish so indulge it and give yourself a fresh start. I love Muji’s multi-coloured gel pens, choosing a colour according to my mood.

• Re-read the books that you loved as a child – the chances are they will re-inspire you, and remind you why you write and the emotions you’d love to evoke in your readers.

If you can reconnect with your ‘inner Dahl’ then hopefully when you have to put on one of the other ‘faces’, you’ll be able to remember why you’re playing these roles. Because, after all, being a writer is a job other people dream of…

Added this after mrkelly2u pointed us to the video in the comments!

Kate Harrison is the author of the Soul Beach trilogy, published by Orion, as well as nine novels for adults. She's also the author of recent hit The 5:2 Diet Book and is currently at work on novel 13… @katewritesbooks


  1. What a brilliant blog! I identify with all those personas- well most of them; my editor is lovely and certainly no Cruella De Vil! But the rest is just spot on. I laughed and nodded in agreement as I read. Thank you for taking the time to write it, and for making the rest of us writers feel less mad.

    1. It certainly identified which bit of the insanity spectrum I belonged to!

  2. Terrific blog, Katie - and all so, so true!

  3. Made me laugh, too, especially the picture of The Willing Author. Thanks for the reminder that making time for creativity is so important -it's often what gets squeezed out of my schedule.

  4. I've been known to stalk the first floor of Paperchase so I'm all for treating yourself to scrummy stationery!! As for people watching - these days it's people hearing for me - ie. listening to other people's conversations as they yak over their mobile phones - sometimes they say things that tickle my fancy!

    p.s. thanks for the info about the Marmite book! Sounds good and I love love love Marmite!

    Take care

  5. Brilliant, rang so many bells with me. Thank you.

    Hazel Osmond

  6. Very well put Kate. Multiple personality disorder, that's us!

    1. On a day to day basis, my husband never knows if he's going to wake up with Mrs Lovely-Inspired-Satisfied-With-Her-Creative-Life Author or Ms Snarky-Bitter-Twisted Author.

  7. Absolutely brilliant. Thanks for guesting, Kate! See you at the next retreat I hope!

  8. Fabulous blog Kate. Really truthful and helpful too.

  9. Great blog, Kate. Whatever the creative pursuit, it's so easy to beat yourself up for not feeling inspired and motivated every waking moment of the day and you have given some great examples of ways to break out of the malaise.

    For everyone else, you should take a look at Kate's recent video for even more inspiration - Life of a Writer, which I was lucky enough to work on. She is a really inspiring person. You can find the video on Youtube here:

    1. Thanks so much for pointing this out! A beautifully made video with some great nuggets of advice for writers.

    2. I've embedded it in the story! Thanks again!

    3. Teri ... it ends with a shot of a slice of cake. Fitting.

  10. I loved reading this – I can identify with all of it! Writing is a dream job, but it can also be a lonely job, and it's nice to be reminded that we're all in it together ;-)

  11. Excellent blog--my Cruella is out in full force this month, as I revise my current WIP--and beautiful video.


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