This week, TASM member Angela heard an author on The Rebel Author Podcast mention that they’d slowed down to three books a year, and that prompted her question:
What’s normal? How many books do you complete in a year?
J and Crys dig into the definition of “normal” (spoiler, there isn’t one definitive definition), what the root concern of this question is, and how to turn it around and use it to create better systems for your writing life.
- The Rebel Author Podcast with Sacha Black
- Kristine Kathryn Rusch
- Lindsay Buroker
- How Do You Write podcast with Rachael Herron
- Clifton Strengths
Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost…
J: J Thorn. What’s up, Crys?
Crys: Well… well. Normally when you ask that question, my mind goes blank, but I prepared, because today has been a day.
First of all, I discovered that. Yesterday, which I drove a friend to a doctor’s thing and then back– was an all day thing… I had the emergency brake on all day!
J: All day?
Crys: All day. And I was like, one, why does this car burn through gas so much? Two, why is it handling so weird? And three, why is the brake– it smelled like a burny thing– and I don’t drive regularly. I’m not used to–like–I never use the emergency brake. So there was that.
And then second–second! Cause that’s not the only thing that I realized today, or that happened today. I went swimming with my son and we drove to a nice little beach that’s very calm.
And a rogue wave jumped up–and I saw it coming–I grabbed my glasses and it smacked my glasses off my face.
Crys: I did not find my glasses, J.
I was 20 minutes from home in the car.
Crys: I feel very guilty admitting this cause it’s like the visually impaired equivalent of drunk driving, but I did drive home… and I got home safely. I never went above, I was always under 60 kilometers per hour, but now… now…
I have a thing I’ve realized I have a pattern every February, I make a very, immediate, strong, big decision to change my life. And I’ve been wondering what this February is going to be. Well now I know my decision now is that I am going to get LASIK as soon.
J: You’re doing a good job of like listening to the universe, what it’s trying to tell you.
Crys: Right? How was your week?
J: Oh good. I don’t wear to glasses, so I’m okay there. And I don’t drive anywhere because everything is still closed. So I’m just here again. Yes.
Crys: Well, it doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty to talk about. And I have a question for you. This came up in our group, The Author Success Mastermind, this week and we had a good bit of discussion about it. It’s one that comes up a lot.
So I’m going to ask you that how many books per year is normal for a writer?
J: Oh, there’s so many ways we could start this conversation, right? Maybe I’ll take what I’d like to do first to say that Angela, I don’t think Angela intended her question to be this way, but we all interpreted it that way. So, because she kept saying, I was just curious what you guys are doing.
I wanna kind of give her that shout out, make sure she knows, like we’re not targeting her. It is a really legitimate question. And it’s one that gets asked all the time. I think the way into this maybe is to answer the question with the question, which is how do you define normal?
Crys: Yes, absolutely. A hundred percent. I agree with that.
J: How do you define normal?
Crys: I define normal personally as… not generally… normal for me–and I’m going to… I’m going to… so many caveats to this. Normal changes for me.
Right now, normal is a book a month. And that is with co-writing. But that is my normal currently. I do not want it to always be my normal, but that is my normal.
What’s your normal?
J: Yeah. I totally agree with you. I think there’s no such thing as normal. I think that’s what we’re trying to say ultimately about this. I think it may, maybe another way of phrasing it is saying that, I can only consider what’s normal and abnormal based on me and that’s it.
So I look and say, okay, what do I feel like is normal? And then what am I doing now? And like you, that can change. So what was normal for me five years ago is not what’s normal now.
Crys: Yeah. I really wanted you to bring that up because my normal has stayed pretty much the same for the four years that I’ve been writing, but your normal over the 10 plus years that you’ve been publishing has been different every few years.
J: Right. Right. And I think for me, Normal is a combination. Defining normal is a combination of a few things. It’s expectations. And then it’s what I know in my gut I can realistically do.
It’s some weird combination of those. I’m not a math person. Maybe I could come up with an equation to express that. I think it’s sort of… what is it I want to accomplish? And then what’s realistic for me.
Here’s an example in. In 2009 when I first started thinking about writing and publishing, normal for me was writing. It had nothing to do with publishing because I hadn’t published anything. KDP was relatively new. Joanna’s podcast was up, there were a few others that were starting. And so normal was like, okay, well, I’m going to write for an hour before I go to work. And that’s my normal.
Well, you know, here we are, 10, 11 years later and my normal is completely different. All I can do is judge what’s normal or judge myself based on what I know I can accomplish. So if I’m writing an hour, a day before or after work, that could be, maybe I finish a book in a year or two for me that I would’ve considered that normal at the time.
Crys: If you’re trying to look at a global sense of normal, if you look historically “normal,” and I’m using that in quotation marks, before indie publishing was a book a year. And that’s what everyone says, but even that wasn’t true. That is what publishers would publish for one name.
There were authors who were defying that. Nora Roberts is one of the big examples. She was putting out, I think, two or three books a year. And she started her JD Robb pen name, I think, so that everything wasn’t on her Nora Roberts name.
But then you’ve got authors like Kristine Kathryn Rusch, she says that when she was in traditional publishing, she was forced to publish under multiple pen names so that she could write the number of books that were normal for her to write, but that publishing would also allow her to publish since they would not publish more than one per name.
So when you define “normal,” when you’re told by “authorities,” what normal is, that’s never normal. That’s just what they will accept at any number of definitions, the definition changes based on what your criteria is. Again, just emphasizing that over and over no matter who says, what is normal, they’re wrong.
J: Well, let’s talk about the underlying trigger for this question in conversation. It came from a podcast interview, I believe.
Crys: Sacha Black’s podcast, I think.
J: Yes. And an author on there was talking about scaling back to three books a year. Right? So the question, the underlying trigger here is comparing yourself to other writers. what’s been your experience with that? Good and bad.
Crys: Ooh. Good and bad…
Hmm. My experience.
I actually, because I do write quickly… when other authors hear how quickly I write, my immediate emotional reaction to that is to qualify my quickness. Other people I know will get defensive. Because people will tell us, “Oh, you can’t write good books that fast.”
And I have friends will get really defensive. My immediate emotional reaction is to say, “well, they’re pulp fiction.” Like my immediate reaction is to qualify my work. So if they ever look at it, they won’t expect greatness.
And that’s ridiculous. That’s absolutely ridiculous. But that’s my immediate reaction and I’ve worked really hard to avoid those responses.
It’s really interesting just how our insecurities pop up, whether we write slow or we write fast, all about like, am I good enough? Am I doing the things the right way?
The one reason I do like this question is it brings up this conversation and we do get to talk about expectations and how we all are completely different from each other, so the expectations ought to be different.
J: Yeah, there’s so many variables that go into that, that I don’t believe you can ever have two writers and compare their output on anything because you have family situations you have career positions, you have external responsibilities. You have… possibly physical limitations or illness.
There are so many variables that you can’t simply look and say, “well, writer A produced three books and writer B only produced two. So therefore writer A is either more prolific or writing worse quality books.” Like it, you know, it goes both ways.
The comparisonitis angle is extremely dangerous, but I also want to acknowledge that… I think there’s an element to that can be positive, in very, very small doses. So I think… When I was starting out and… I think Lindsay Buroker might be a good example for this. Early on, I didn’t compare myself to Lindsay Buroker but I was aspirational according to what she was doing.
So I wasn’t saying like, “Oh, well, Lindsay puts out 17 books a month–” that’s true, by the way. ‘– so I have to put out 17 books a month.” But I was like, okay, she’s got a system and I want to learn how to do that and whatever that means for me. It doesn’t mean 17 books, but maybe it’s one or whatever.
I think there’s an aspirational element that you can look at another writer and admire their process or their system and use elements of that for you. I think it’s dangerous when you start judging yourself based on your output compared to them.
I’m a big fan of Clifton Strengths. If anyone who’s listening hasn’t heard of it, you can Google it and find out about it really quickly. But it describes elements of your personality of what you value and how you work within the world. And I know that J and I are both high Learners. I suspect that Rachael Heron is a high Learner, I can’t remember what she said hers are.
She has that [podcast], How Do You Write? She says she’s a process and I totally get that because I’m always examining how other people write, or how they build their systems to see what pieces I might steal. And I think that that is healthy as long as you’re not looking at anyone and saying, “That’s how I should be working.”
But when you look and say, “Would this work for me? Would this fit for me?” And you give it a try or you dismiss it. You’re like, no, right away. Like, nah, that probably won’t work for me. I think that’s extremely healthy.
J: Yeah. I agree. I think when you’re talking about creativity or artistic endeavors, you’re really talking about a spectrum, right?
It’s not binary. It’s not like, well, you can either do this or this. It’s usually where are you on the spectrum?
I think you can be studying other people’s work on one end of the spectrum and using that to inform what you’re going to do. But if you go too far along that spectrum, it turns into comparisonitis or procrastination.
Like maybe you’re not comparing yourself, but you’re saying, “well, I’m going to study all of these other authors, for six months to figure out how I’m going to write instead of doing the writing.”
So, you know, it’s not as simple as saying, “Oh, that’s a good thing or bad thing.” And I don’t think we’re saying that comparing yourself to other authors is always a bad thing, but there’s a spectrum. And I think it’s important to realize where you sit on that at any given time.
Crys: How would you say, or what would you say is a indicator that you are aware you’re stepping outside of the good study of others to the procrastination level or comparisonitis or what are your keys for stepping outside the golden zone?
J: I think if you have that feeling in your gut that you’re not doing as well as you should be because you’re wasting time or wasting opportunity, that’s one thing. But I think the red flag should come up if you accomplish something and then you immediately feel bad about it because it doesn’t match someone else’s accomplishment.
I think that’s the biggest danger. Like, publishing one book is a big deal, right? In this podcast, in our community, we are completely surrounded and immersed in all the people, like we’re all a big family trying to do the same stuff. And we forget that we’re like, 0.001% of the world’s population, because we’re, we’re a hundred percent of it in our bubble, right?
And most people, this is sad, especially in United States, most people will never read a book, let alone write one. We lose track of that. We’re talking about a very small microcosm of a society or culture and so, even one book… if you write one book and it takes you 4 years or 14 years, like that is still a worthy accomplishment.
Now, if you wrote four books in one year and you have the exact same life circumstances and the following year, you wrote one because you were laying on a couch a lot or watching a lot of TV or playing video games, or you were just wasting time then you should feel bad about that because you’re only using your own measurements, your own metrics to compare.
But as far as comparing it to other authors or their productivity, it’s usually the first sign. And it’s funny, when it’s happened to me, that’s usually when it crops up.
It’s not when I’m not being productive, it’s when I hit a milestone and then I go, yeah, but so-and-so did X as opposed to being satisfied with what I did. That’s where I see it.
I always thought it would come up, or I always expect expected to come up when I’m really down on myself, but it comes in those weird places when I accomplish something.
Crys: That’s very interesting. I’m so grateful for my background in software development because there’s… I pick up so many methodologies that I apply to how I work as a writer.
And one of them is business slash software dev, but it’s operating lean. So when I started, all of my time went to writing and the very bare minimum I needed on anything for publishing.
I kept it that way until it got too painful to keep it that way. Where, you know, adding audio or different tasks, doing some social marketing, I focused a hundred percent on the writing until it became absolutely necessary to do something else.
And I think that tends to be how I change my process. I absolutely observe everybody’s process, but most of the time I’m like, I don’t have time to try that yet, unless something so big that I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I know that it will work 100% for me.” Steal it, yank it, put it in a box. And I think that for most people that might be a really useful way to look at changing their process.
I do know some people who, every time they hear a new idea, will try and switch a hundred percent to that. And so they really interrupt their production because they’re always trying something new versus just focusing on getting what they need to done. The base action of their goal. Which for most of us is going to be the focus on the writing.
When it gets too painful to not to do other things, then do the other things.
J: Yeah. That’s an interesting observation. My guess would be, if you just went and talked to someone who you feel is really prolific or productive, they probably don’t change. They don’t upend their system all the time. Right? They probably have something that’s been working for them and they make minor tweaks or adjustments, but they’re not constantly shifting to the next newest, greatest productivity app or writing tool or whatever.
There might be something to learn there for from that.
Crys: The only thing I have as an example, that lives in my brain is when you get to a good level where you know your system, but you have this feeling like you could be doing a hundred percent better if you understood yourself, as you kind of started from scratch, and I think of Tiger Woods when I think about this.
How he was at the top of his career, but he knew he could do better. And so he went way back to the basics. Completely broke all his habits started from square one and relearned everything. That idea lives in my head a lot. But the thing to remember about that is he got to mastery level before he did that. Before he did a full restart.
J: Yeah. Again, if you use the spectrum analogy, what you’re talking about is sitting and learning plateau, where you’ve established something you’ve developed competency or even mastery at it, but you feel like there’s another gear, there’s another place to go, but you’re right.
You have to reach mastery first, and mastery not compared to other people, but compared to what your expectations are.
Crys: Yeah. Agreed.
J: Good question.
Crys: Yeah. It developed a lot of good conversation in the group and it’s been ticking around in my mind all week. So I was glad to hash it out with you.
J: Yeah. I’m glad you asked it. Like I said, I think too, that it’s not always necessarily a bad thing. It’s just sort of being very self-aware and meta about where you are and how and what your metrics for success are. And just keeping that all in check.
Crys: So what do we want to ask the listeners, then?
J: I would love to know how folks either avoid comparisonitis or use it to their advantage.
Crys: Thanks for joining us this week. Comment below! If you would like to be part of the conversations in real time, you can join us at The Author Success Mastermind.