Better in the Middle: Eight Writing Hacks From a Mid-List Author

When my editor suggested we call the protagonist of my novel a “mid-list author” for the book copy, I must admit—I had to google it! Wikipedia told me that mid-list is a publishing term that refers to books that are not bestsellers but are economically strong enough to justify their publication. In other words, books with “average sales.” And I guess like my main character Astrid, I am a mid-list author; I might actually be a bottom-list author but I blissfully ignore the economic side of publishing.

I could say that being invested in my books’ profitability would interfere with my ability to create, but in reality, business just bores me. And while mid-list might sound like an insult, I feel extremely blessed to be here. Every day, I thank my lucky stars that people actually want to read my writing and some of them even seem to enjoy it.

While mid-list might sound like an insult, I feel extremely blessed to be here.

Writing advice is always a little funny because everyone’s journey is different and there are really no right or wrong answers. For every piece of advice someone gives, you can find someone who did the opposite and thrived. So below I’m just going to include some subjective tidbits that have worked for me during my four years and three books as a mid-list author. Maybe they’ll inspire you, or maybe not. Maybe you’ll think I’m not top-list for a reason. Ok, let’s go!


Let yourself write imperfectly.
Perfectionism is the biggest obstacle between yourself and your novel draft. So many incredible writers will never finish a book because they can’t let themselves write imperfectly. I get it. My perfectionism is crippling whenever I leave the house, but at a keyboard, for some reason, I’m down to be a raging mess. Think of writing a book like a drunk text. It’s just words! Which leads me to my next piece of advice…

Don’t take yourself too seriously.
I think it’s so funny when people compare writing a book to giving birth. Like, no. That is a miracle and a feat, growing a small human inside of you and pushing it out of a tiny orifice. Making up stories is something children do. It’s so much fun, and both reading and writing have gotten me through some incredibly difficult times, but at the end of the day, like I said above, it’s just words. So chill. But also…

Be delusionally confident in the drafting.
When you’re drafting, you can take yourself seriously. Or something like that. For me, drafting a novel feels a bit like how the DSM-5 describes a manic episode: “inflated self-esteem or grandiosity,” “decreased need for sleep,” “more talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking” (replace talking with writing), “flight of ideas that are racing,” “increase in goal-directed activity.” Check, check, check, check, and check! Drafting a novel is the biggest high there is, less like giving birth and more like being on the world’s purest molly. You’re gorgeous, you’re a genius, your book is going to be a bestseller, and how are you going to handle the fame??? This is literally how I’m talking to myself when I’m drafting. And then…

And be self-loathing in the revision.
What comes up must come down. It’s not fun, but it’s life. If you keep that delusionally confident energy post-drafting, your book will probably be shit. And you’ll probably have no friends. I’m currently revising a book that just a month ago I was convinced was the best thing anyone had ever written, and now it’s reading to me as trite garbage that could have been written by Chat GPT. And I’m attacking it with the fervor of an exorcist battling a stubborn demon. This is the process! Embrace it!

Obsession is your friend.
My girl Patricia Highsmith said, “obsessions are the only things that matter.” For writers, yes. This is why we’re so annoying to be around. Many writers including myself tout official OCD diagnoses. I always tell my students: if you find yourself becoming obsessed with something, whether it’s film noir or flower arranging or a friend you just can’t stand, it’s a sign you need to be writing about it. And then maybe talk about it in therapy.

Listen to your dreams. (Literally.)
The subconscious is very wise! The logical brain is helpful for editing but less so in drafting. In fact, the overly analytical part of the brain can get in the way. If you have a plot issue, think about it before you go to sleep and the answer might literally come to you in your dreams. Write fiction when you’re close to sleep—either right when you wake up or right before you go to bed. If you wake up in the middle of the night, jot some things down. If you’re an insomniac or don’t dream, meditation can also get you there. Or a long walk in nature without your phone. (I live in California, can you tell?)

Reach out to your heroes. The thing about “famous writers” is they aren’t actually famous. I wouldn’t recognize Stephen King if I saw him on the street. Sally Rooney is not Jennifer Lawrence. And after I read Conversations With Friends in 2017, I messaged Sally Rooney on Twitter and she responded! And was very nice! We haven’t spoken since and there is no way she remembers this, but the point is: reach out to the writers whose books you love. I’ve become friends with several writers after messaging them about their books. And I’ve also become friends with several writers who have messaged me about mine. Writer friends are crucial because writing books is a very solitary career. I’m someone who loves being alone and I still find it isolating at times. Having people you can bounce ideas off of when your agent is rightfully sick of you or people who can read drafts that aren’t ready for anyone else to see is beyond helpful. So don’t be shy!

Dissociate when appropriate.
Remember how I said I ignore the business side? That’s an act of healthy dissociation. It’s none of my business how many people buy my book or why people hate it on Goodreads. When you put a piece of art into the world, you assume the risk that people will hate it. If it’s any good, people will definitely hate it. If it’s not, people will ignore it, which feels much worse. But the point is not to feel at all! Distract yourself. Don’t read reviews. Don’t try to figure out how many people bought your book (to be honest I don’t even know how to do that). Put all of that nervous energy into your next project, where you get to be delusionally cocky instead of insecure. Go on a hike and at the top, look out at the world and remind yourself of your own insignificance. You’re a speck of dust who is lucky to be alive!


Anna Dorn, Perfume and Pain

Perfume and Pain by Anna Dorn is available from Simon & Schuster.

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