Writing is a funny business. On the one hand, to be a writer you have to be attuned to detail and emotion, which generally makes you a sensitive soul. On the other hand, publishing, the murky waters in which we must swim to achieve “success” as a writer, can be rough and choppy. The path of the writer is fraught with self-doubt, small marketing budgets, the gnawing jealousy of watching a reality TV’s book soar to #1 on the New York Times best sellers’ list for your genre. No wonder we make ourselves crazy.
So, writers: 10 things you can do to be happier right now – ideas you can drop, reminders you can give yourself – to be happier in your chosen career right now. Not in some distant future when you’re on the red carpet with the stars of the movie based on your book… today. Here they are:
1. Stop trying to explain publishing to your loved ones. I can’t tell you how many well-meaning friends have asked me why I’m still living in my (perfectly wonderful) middle-class town and not in a mansion on a hill… on the proceeds of my ONE well-received but hardly blockbuster novel. At the start, I felt compelled to explain about royalties and advances and the realities of the marketplace. Today I smile knowingly and say, “I just love my house.” Let them imagine I have stashes of gold coins in the attic, Uncle Scrooge McDuck style.
2. Stop wondering why publishing takes so long. You wait years to get an agent. You wait for that agent to read your novel. You wait for her to send it to editors. You wait for months just to hear that most of them pass. When one says yes, you sign a contract and wait a year and a half for your book to come out. All of this is if you’re lucky. If you want a business that moves quickly, go work with toddlers. Publishing moves slowly. Make peace with that today.
3. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. I could just repeat this from #1 through #10 and this article would still be of value. Comparison is the death of happiness. There will always be a debut who gets an end cap at a major chain bookstore whereas your book disappears from the shelf on week two. There will always be another writer who gets book #2 and #3 out while you’re struggling to pitch ideas for your option book. Someone else will always get a splashier media mention. Comparing yourself to other writers, including your close peers, will almost always leave you feeling inadequate and, at best, will occasionally make you feel a little gloat-y and smug. It’s not a race. Everyone’s journey is different. Just take yours.
4. Don’t read reviews. I know, I know. Easier said than done. But even the best, most well-thought-out reviews do nothing for the work you’ve already produced and linger in your head when you’re trying to create the new stuff. One way I got off the roller coaster of trying to get a “fix” by reading reviews was by going to WorldCat.org instead. WorldCat lists many (but not all) of the libraries carrying your book. It’s a way to see that your book is getting attention without the bruising experience of watching the one-star reviews roll in. And they will roll in. (Go look up your favorite book on Amazon or Goodreads. It has one-star reviews). If you want to be happy, you just won’t be there to see them.
5. Don’t wait until the publishing industry “chooses” you to call yourself a writer. I spent my twenties and most of my thirties feeling like a fraud for daring to want to apply the term “writer” to myself. After all, I’d only published a few essays in local publications… surely I couldn’t be a real writer, right? Wrong. I’ve been a writer and storyteller all my life. Writing is an exciting journey of the mind, a way of making sense of the world, an exercise in growing insight into the human condition. Sure, it’s nice if all that results in a stack of pages bound together with your name on it. But that’s not what makes you a writer.
6. The joy is in practicing your craft. Even the most distinguished and accomplished writers keep learning about writing all their lives. You’re never “done” with writing, never at a point where you can’t use feedback or criticism. Don’t aim for the day when you don’t need to work on your writing. Fall in love with the process of it.
7. Don’t say mean things to yourself. A lot has been written about the “inner critic,” that voice in your head that cuts you down way more than any bully on a playground ever could. For writers, that voice is often vicious, questioning talent, worthiness and skill. Unfortunately, this is withering for the creative process. Make friends with the inner critic. In its own, twisted way, it’s trying to keep you safe. Thank it for its concern and send it on its way.
8. Don’t let criticism crumble you. You need constructive criticism to grow as a writer. It doesn’t always feel good. Seek it out from experienced sources that know how to give it. In other words: writing teachers, experienced peers and paid editors. Even with them, find the feedback that fits with your style. It will never feel “good” per se, but it will start to feel right. The more experienced a writer is, the more she can take feedback like technical observations and not like personal commentary on the merit of her work. Plumbers don’t cry in corners when a master plumber explains to them why a faucet they just installed is leaking. They listen carefully and do it better next time. Writers, take note.
9. Read about the rejections of your favorite writers. Yes, the first book in the Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times. Agatha Christie endured five years of rejection before getting a book deal. “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,” was one editor’s reaction to the classic (and exquisitely written) Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Publishing is a crazy, subjective business and prior rejection is absolutely no measure of future success. Spend lots of time at LiteraryRejections.com and marvel at the amazing company you keep.
10. Ask yourself, Why not me? What’s your big dream? Rubbing elbows with the literary elite? Awards? Commercial success? Just about everything you can dream in the publishing world has happened to someone before you. Why not you? It won’t be easy and it may not be a short path, but it’s okay to dream. It’s not arrogant or crazy. It’s hopeful. Give yourself that. I find that the more satisfying my publishing and writing life becomes, the less I need to imagine the fame and fortune. That said, the early days of dreaming of all those things made me go for things with greater gusto, ask for more than I dared for hope, reach out to more book festival organizers and do just one more thing to promote my book than I thought possible. Dreaming gives you wings. Go for it.
That’s it. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s a good start. Be kind to yourself, dream big and… go write!