Debut Author Lessons: Status and Hierarchy shifts

One of the unexpected side effects of publishing a book or a story is a shift in your status. Now, I know you’re thinking, “but I’ve only published one thing, I’m not a REAL author.”¬† I’ve talked elsewhere about imposter syndrome, so I want to talk about the unintentional side effects of ignoring the fact that you no longer occupy the same place in the hierarchy

You and Ursula K Le Guin are the same. Bear with me on this one… Occasionally, I talk to an SFF fan who has never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin. Sometimes, they’ve never even heard of her.

We’ll pause for a moment to experience shock.

Also to sorrow for that reader’s upbringing.

Okay. So, here’s the thing. To that reader, picking up a book by this new author they’ve discovered named Ursula K. Le Guin carries with it exactly the same weight and expectation as picking up a book by you. Which means that to a new reader, you have the same social power as Ursula K. Le Guin.

In fact, if they’ve read and loved your book, and not read anything by her, you have more social power.

What is social power? Have you ever been talking to someone and then suddenly realized Who They Were. Then frantically reviewed everything you’d just said in case it was something was stupid?

Here’s me, experiencing that moment:

I’m standing in the cafeteria line at a puppetry festival. The older woman behind me points to one of the innumerable¬†orange dishes behind the glass. “Do you have any idea what that is?”

“Macaroni and cheese?” I mean, it’s orange and lumpy in that sort of way. I point to a different vat of orange. “Do you have guesses about that one?”

“Scalloped potatoes, I think…” She points at another. “That?”

“Sweet potatoes, maybe. It has marshmallows.” I point to more orange. “Thoughts on that one?”

“Cauliflower with cheese.” She points to something virulently orange. “What about that?”

I’m stumped. I turn to face her more fully, enjoying this game and I see her name badge for the first time. Jane Henson.

JANE HENSON

JANE

HENSON

My brain is now filled with don’t lose your cool. don’t lose your cool don’t lose your cool. What comes out of my mouth is, “Um… orange?”

Up until the moment when I realized who she was, she was just a pleasant older woman and fellow puppeteer. After that moment, she was Jane F*cking Henson and I’d been talking to her about orange food. Strangely, she is exactly the same person before and after that moment. Her internal status doesn’t shift. Her external status does.

And that is what happens with you, when someone realizes that you wrote a book that they liked. Everything you say suddenly carries more weight to them.

This is a sudden hierarchy shift. When you publish a book, or heavens, win an award, you don’t just jump one level, you jump a couple in terms of people’s view of your external status. Inside, you’re still exactly the same person but people respond to you differently and it is weird. It is tricky to navigate the change, because it literally happens overnight.

Beware of accidental abuse. Let’s take it as given that you are a good person and would never knowingly hurt someone. When you’ve had a hierarchy shift, by publishing a book, or winning an award, you take up more space than you’re used to but you feel the same.

So imagine if your idol is coming into town and says, “Want to have lunch?”

You drop everything, try not to hyperventilate, and say, “Yes.”

A random stranger comes to town, you say, “No.”

So, when you publish a book, you feel like a random stranger, but you are someone’s idol. It’s very easy to do something that would be innocuous if you were talking to an old friend, but in this new context your words and actions carry more weight. It’s not fair, on multiple levels, but that’s the way it is.

It means that people will have a harder time telling you “no.” It means that your opinion will carry more weight. It is easy to take advantage of people without realizing it.

Treat people like third graders. Wait– let me explain. I used to tour to elementary schools with puppet theater. I met a ton of third graders. They are great. They are hyper-intelligent people and everything is still new. They are excited to meet you.

At the schools, they wanted my autograph because I was The Puppet Lady. Now the thing is, I cleaned out my childhood room with that collection of show posters from community theater. I know exactly how much those pieces of paper are worth. Monetarily, nothing.

What they represent is a day that was out of the ordinary. These kids are excited because they had a day that was out of the ordinary. To me, it was just another day. I did puppet shows every day, literally. It took conscious thought to remember that this was the first time that they had seen a show.

Now, it’s easy to confuse out-of-the-ordinary with extraordinary. I can’t live up to extraordinary — I’m just doing my job — but I can be out of the ordinary.

With third graders, it takes so little effort to tip an out of the ordinary day into a fantastic one or a terrible one. It’s the difference between saying, “Sure! I’ll sign your poster. Did you have a favorite part of the show?” and “Kid, I don’t have time for this.”

I’ve realized that it is the same thing with readers. Autographs are proof of an out-of-the ordinary day, a memory that you can show to people.

Have boundaries. Just because you’re trying to be a good person and remember the size of your new footprint doesn’t mean that you can’t also take care of yourself. Don’t want to hang out with someone? Don’t. Need down time? Take it. Someone makes you feel gross? They’re an asshole and it’s okay to treat them accordingly.

Act with intention. All of this can sound terrifying, which… okay, is a little bit my goal. But only in the same way that fire can be terrifying. It is beautiful and keeps us warm, but if we aren’t aware and use it without conscious intention, it can burn everything down.

So you’ve published a book. Maybe most people have no idea who you are, but to the person who read it and loved it?

You’re out-of-the-ordinary.

You are Jane Henson and Ursula K. Le Guin wrapped up in one.

You’re on fire.

Enjoy the warmth and try not to burn anything down.

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