A Road Map for Writers and Authors: Part 1

Are you a writer, or are you an author? Here’s the difference. A writer has one story to tell, and although it may take years to finish a book, a writer will feel content when that book is done. An author–someone who aspires to have a career as a creative person–will feel driven to learn as much as possible about the craft of writing and will (albeit reluctantly) agree that marketing plays a key role in making that career financially sustainable.

Let’s triangulate on where you are with your writing this very moment and where you hope to go in the years ahead.

A writer or author needs a road map. This one is a road map of the highway to south america

Let’s say you decided to drive to the tip of South America–Tierra del Fuego. A journey of that length would take some time. To prepare, you’d need to figure out your stops along the way. While you’d certainly want to take a detour and see Machu Pichu, you wouldn’t want to build in too many detours, or you’d never reach your goal. With writing, it’s easy to get diverted and think that the distractions of social media are getting you closer to your destination. Maybe they are, or maybe they’re detours. Whether you’re a writer or an author, you need to be strategic about how you spend your time.

The Writer

So, why do I suggest that you consider whether you are a writer or an author? A writer has one book in mind, one story to tell, one idea to share with the world. When that book is finished and uploaded to Amazon, a writer feels a sense of relief. She/he/they pushed through the self-doubt. They found time to get their ideas together. They took an idea from conception to completion.

A writer enjoys many rewards. The day a box of books arrives on the front porch, they can make an “unboxing” video for Facebook friends. If the writer gives talks, either nationally or in the community, having a published book lends credibility. The very existence of a book casts the writer as an expert.

For a writer, publishing what has been sitting like a gargoyle-on-the-soul can be cleansing. The writer’s message to the world–or life lesson or discovered truth–will have been recorded for posterity. The writer’s essential wisdom can be passed down to the next generation.

The impetus for many writers is to put a frame around a particular experience–to speak their truth. Examples? A memoir about a tour of duty in Vietnam or Korea or Afghanistan. A memoir about losing a spouse on 911 or during the COVID-19 pandemic. A memoir about infertility or beating cancer or conquering the demons of an abusive relationship.

Once the writer has completed that book, he/she/they often has no wish to write another.

For a writer, writing a book is “something they did.” It’s not necessarily “who they are.” On a very deep level, a writer may feel satisfaction at having completed a “life task.”

How is Being an Author Any Different?

An author has more than one story to tell. Writing is central to their identity. Getting one book finished and starting the next is their entire focus.

An author keeps lists of character names and book titles. An author keeps a writing journal into which she or he might write fifteen to twenty things a day, everything from the vee-shaped pattern of migrating geese to the antics of a man at tax time, dressed in a green satin gown and fake Statue-of-Liberty crown. (The man was stationed on the sidewalk outside an H&R Block office in a strip mall.)

An author finds ways to quickly enter the dream state where she/he/they are most productive. An author may have rituals to help induce that state—a special chair, a certain mug from which to drink coffee, or a dedicated card table or closet where the Post-its, scene cards, and whatnot can be left without drawing negative attention from the Felix Ungers in the house.

postits sticking to a board

Scraps of paper and Post-its accumulate on authors’ desks. We simply can’t keep all the details in our head. I don’t know about you, but my notes are never laid out this neatly, nor are they ever where I can find them.

An author consciously develops writing routines that ensure they’ll complete the day’s word count, even when said author doesn’t feel particularly inspired.

An author often has trusted writing friends who are willing to enter into the author’s fictional world and talk about characters as if they were real people. An author’s imaginary friends become topics of dinner table conversation. “You’ll never guess what X did today! I was totally not expecting X to go off script like that!”

An author can get grumpy when they’re not writing. (Ask my husband.) Although most authors welcome the occasional period of “noodling time” between one project and another, when that time stretches into months, the fallow period produces anxiety.

If given a choice between spending time with an actual, living person and spending time with the author’s imaginary friends, an author may very well prefer the latter. Hemingway, for instance, did not rush to his dying father’s bedside. Hemingway was trying to finish a novel.

How heartless, you might be thinking. Yes, but authors are acutely aware that putting a book aside in favor of more immediate concerns can spell disaster. There’s no guarantee that the work-in-progress will still be alive when the author returns to the desk. Whatever motivated the author in the first place may have gone dead. Come take a look at my filing cabinet. There sit three unfinished novels, dead as doornails, and no way to breathe life into them.

Writership vs. Authorship

When I was writing my first novel, Montpelier Tomorrow, I hadn’t thought through any of the above. I knew I had a story to tell, and although I had thought of myself as an author for years, I couldn’t seem to move past that first book.

I made many mistakes. Revision after revision. Agent-hunt after agent-hunt. Even though I heard the same thing again and again, I didn’t understand why my novel was unmarketable. “It’s excellent, but we can’t sell it.” Or, “It’s not what readers are buying.” Basically, I didn’t understand the market. In between the time I got my Master’s in Creative Writing (in my mid-twenties) and the decade when I turned fifty, the reading public’s tastes had changed.

I had zero idea of the concepts put forth in Chris Fox’s enlightening nonfiction book, Write to Market. I didn’t know that sites such as Alex Newton’s K-Lytics existed. K-Lytics taught me about the niche markets of genre publishing: “second chance romance,” “urban fantasy,” “billionaire romance,” and “paranormal romance.” That wasn’t me either, but authors who can write in those genres and who like to write books in series are often successful in building an readership of avid fans.

From online author groups, I learned that indie authors hitting the bestseller lists released four to eight books a year. How was that even possible?

For the first time, I learned that these authors also planned their releases. They stacked free days, Facebook promos, author-e-mail list exchanges, newsletter announcements, and BookBub deals in order to have their books reach the widest possible readership during the critical first three weeks of the book’s release.

As Nixon said, “Mistakes Were Made”

Even after an independent publisher took my novel, I made mistakes. I didn’t realize that covers were the key to attracting the right readers. I didn’t know how to use keywords in the title, subtitle, and online bookstores’ sales pages.

And, as for book categories, an important piece of the book’s meta data, I didn’t know how to search for categories that would give my book a chance of making it to Top Twenty, the page Amazon’s buyers see when they’re searching for their next great read.

Similarly, in my haste to publish, I failed to craft a good blurb for my Amazon book page. That hurt conversions. People might click on the book’s page because they liked the cover, but not enough casual shoppers bought the book.

Oh, and the necessity of having a mailing list slipped from my attention. Heck, I didn’t even know why I should have a mailing list.

In other words, when I decided to take control over my author career and publish my own books, I had a partial skill set, but not the skills that would guarantee success.

The Importance of Efficiency for Authors

Back in the 1980s, I had a day job that required me to typeset manuscripts. I used Ventura Publisher to format publications for a university press, but my typesetting skills were out of date. When I made the decision to self-publish, I looked at the options and decided that Amazon’s publishing tools wouldn’t allow me enough control over the book’s final appearance.

Because the layout features (flowable text; importing a Word document) were similar to those for Ventura Publisher, Adobe InDesign became my choice for the books’ internal layout. After formatting my print book, I exported the file in e-pub format. I then used Calibre to create files for multiple e-book formats. That proved to be a time sink and a nightmare because it required me to edit my e-books in html, which, not being a programmer, I had to partially teach myself.

But the deeper into this I got, I saw that the writing itself would fall by the wayside if I didn’t find ways to write more efficiently. I stopped using Microsoft Word and switched to Scrivener. That switch, though painful–Scrivener takes a solid week to learn–saved me huge amounts of time. I am two to three times as productive as in the past.

But the traffic jam of book production still stood in my way. Formatting a book in Adobe InDesign and then tidying up the loose ends in Calibre created a huge and aggravating time sink.

Six months ago, I bought a used Mac on eBay, and I switched to Vellum for formatting both print and e-books. I will never go back to Adobe. And, in fact, I may even be able to consolidate the book writing and book formatting. Right now, I’m experimenting with cloud software that’s still in beta—Atticus.

Where Are You Going?

My goal in this is to break down the publishing process for writers and authors. If you are a writer, then I have one set of tools and recommendations. If you are an author, then I have another set of tools and tactics that can help you write your books and find readers for them.

If you’re a writer, then you must make the most of the book you’ve written. You must single-mindedly try to reach a wider and wider audience. (You probably don’t care so much about an email list, which is a must-have for authors who plan to write many books.) What you do care about is finding blogs that will accept you as a guest blogger, podcasts that will have you on as a guest, a TEDX talk that will allow you to speak to a live audience, and so forth. By finding more readers, you will do justice to your original vision.

If you’re an author, then, in addition to the writing itself, you’ll want to focus on crafting an author career. In my next post, we’ll start down the author path. Authors must juggle many balls simultaneously. I’ll try to spell those out in enough detail that you can decide, “Yes, I want to learn how to do that, or no, that’s something I’d like to farm out.” My goal is to give you a clear vision of your destination and then to help you get there.

I hope you will read my posts, open my newsletters, and think about how you can make sure you’re headed in the right direction—the direction that will bring you the greatest satisfaction.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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