The Mid-List Crisis

By Jennifer Hillier

Not long ago, sometime between the end of writing my fourth book and the start of writing my fifth, I had a nervous breakdown.

Okay, no, I didn’t (I just wanted to be dramatic). But I did have a pretty massive freak-out, the writerly equivalent of a mid-life crisis. Let’s call it the mid-list crisis. From the outside, I’m sure it seemed like my career was going swimmingly. Four books published. Same Big Five publisher. Still writing thrillers. I even had the same agent who was still with the same great New York agency. I was an author duck floating calmly across my portion of the publishing pond, and everything was dandy.

Except it wasn’t. My feathers may have seemed unruffled on the surface, but my little webbed feet were paddling like mad, dude. Like mad. I was exhausted. I was stressed about sales. I was worried my fourth book wasn’t doing very well. I was wondering if I was done.

And then I thought: well, what if I am? Let’s run with this for a moment. What’s so bad about being done? Haven’t I accomplished everything I set out to accomplish? I thought back to where I was in 2008 when I was writing that first book. What did I want then?

An agent.

A book deal.

An actual published book.

Didn’t all those things happen? Yes, they did. Four times. So why was I so frustrated? Why wasn’t it enough? What more did I want? The answer was clear as day, once I allowed myself to really think about it.

I wanted to love writing again. I wanted it to be fun again. I wanted to stop being so caught up in whether I was succeeding at writing, and just WRITE.

That’s what was missing, that’s what had changed. Somewhere along the way, I had stopped writing for myself. I’d spent the past eight years worrying about everything I couldn’t control – sales, mainly – and writing wasn’t fun anymore. And shouldn’t writing thrillers be fun? I was writing to meet deadlines and fulfill my contractual obligations, because aside from my first book, I’ve never finished a novel without a signed contract.

But what if there was no contract? I’ve often talked about how writing a book after your debut novel is different, how it’s never like it is the first time, when you don’t know if you’re any good but you know you want to be, and goddammit, you love it so much you can’t imagine not doing it. How would it feel to write a book without any idea of where it was going to end up? What if, instead of submitting yet another terrible proposal to my publisher as per my option clause (all my proposals are terrible because I suck at writing them), I just wrote a whole book instead? And not tell anyone, and not talk about it? And allow it to take as long as it takes, and – this is radical! – not worry if I can sell it? What if I just wrote, for the pure joy of writing?

But Jenny, my practical voice whispered, horrified. You can’t do that. Writing a book without a contract? How does that even make sense? What if you spend a year writing a book and your publisher doesn’t want it? What if nobody else does? You’ll have wasted all that time. Lead time on a book is nine months after delivery and acceptance, and if you don’t get the contract squared away now, you’ll miss putting a title out next year.

You want to know what I said back to my practical voice? Nothing. But I mentally stabbed it multiple times until it stopped talking. And then I started writing.

Sans contract.

Every day, for about five months, three hours a day, five days a week (which is all the childcare I had), I wrote. I came to the page with anticipation and excitement. I wrote thousands of words. I deleted thousands more. I let the story meander. I indulged strange plot lines. I wrote scenes I could see and feel clearly, with no idea where they’d end up in the book, but believing it would all come together eventually. I experimented with structure. I wrote.

And I felt like a writer again. Not an author. A writer. I know you understand the difference.

It was amazing. I’ve never finished a book this quickly, and with so little stress over the outcome. And along the way, I learned this: everything I want and need out of writing a book comes from the actual act of writing a book. The rest of it – contracts, sales, marketing, what other people think – is the stuff that matters after, and most of it is stuff I can’t control, anyway. I had to learn how to compartmentalize. Up until now, I hadn’t been doing a very good job of protecting my writing space, which, frankly, is the only part of the whole process I actually love. I won’t make that mistake again. It isn’t worth it.

How’d the book turn out? Good, I think. Did I sell it? Well, that’s a story for another day. But I’m still on the pond, and still paddling. Just not quite so madly.

JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers Creep (2011), Freak (2012), The Butcher (2014), and Wonderland (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at

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