Last week, I wrote about ways to make yourself miserable as a writer and received some excellent additions to my list from two author friends, Katie Kenyhercz and Patti Kurtz. I’m including their suggestions on my updated list:
- Spend hours each day lurking on social media and reading about the sweet publishing deals your writer friends have gotten while you count your rejection slips.
- Visit Goodreads often and re-read the awful reviews on your last book; ignore the good ones.
- Obsess over those writers you secretly don’t think are very good but whose careers are going way better than yours.
- Make a list of authors whose work is so good you know you’ll never measure up.
- If you don’t have an agent, lament that you’ll never get one; if you do have an agent, convince yourself that you’re about to be dumped when he doesn’t immediately respond to your last email.
- Katie: “The way I most often beat myself up is to wallow in how slowly I write and the gaps in my publications that seem to get longer and longer when I have a ton of writer friends who keep nose to the grindstone pumping out book after book. I feel like a bad writer and that I’m letting my readers down/risking losing them.”
- Patti: “How about, read your fellow writers’ posts about how they wrote 10,000 words in one day while you can barely manage 500 words in the same time period? Or even: read about author friends who don’t need to work a day job while you’re struggling to balance your own job with your writing?”
- To insure continued misery, repeat all of the above as needed.
So, I promised some antidotes. And truthfully, I’m not sure I have any ones that are guaranteed to make you less miserable. But I do notice something about our list: Most of the ways we make ourselves miserable involve comparisons to other writers. I found Donald Maass’s advice in Writing the Breakout Novel to be helpful in this regard. He writes: “Each author is unique. No career is like any other, and that includes the pace at which it develops. It is difficult not to feel envy, let alone act upon it, but envy is worth resisting. Not for nothing is it one of the seven deadly sins.”
Great advice, but how do we resist? I think it’s a combination of acceptance, reframing, and keeping our focus on what really matters—getting something/anything done toward continuing to grow and improve as writers.
What do I mean by acceptance? I think we have to accept the reality that life isn’t fair and the playing field is not necessarily level. There will always be other writers:
- Who are further along in developing their craft and/or who are more talented
- Whose work is a better fit for current market demands, even though the writing may not be especially strong
- Who were lucky enough to find that one agent or editor who believed in them and enthusiastically promoted their careers
- Who are not trying to write while juggling an overload of competing demands (work, raising children, caring for aging parents, coping with debilitating illness, loss, or depression—the list goes on)
- Who are better at pumping out globs of words in one day
Regarding this last point, I often think about my mentor during my previous life as a dancer. I was a horribly slow study. Everyone else seemed to pick up movement so much more easily than I did. One day, my mentor said, “Stop beating yourself up about being slower than others. Speed is not the same as quality.” So, your 500 words may be a whole lot better than another person’s 10,000. And a book every few years may be a much better read for your fans than the book you tried to force out sooner than it was ready to be born. In my own genre of YA fiction, two fabulous writers, Gayle Forman and John Green, both have best sellers that have come out in the past two years. Forman’s I Have Lost My Way (2018) is her first book in three years. In a recent interview at the LA Times Books Festival, she noted that she’d spent time on seven manuscripts she wasn’t happy with during this difficult period. And John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down (2017) is his first published novel since 2012. He has been very open about his struggles with performance anxiety following his enormous success with The Fault In Our Stars.
What to keep in mind while reframing? Here are a few thoughts:
- Social media is all about self-promotion. If your writing career feels like it’s in park or neutral compared to your other writing friends, keep in mind that they may not be sharing all that’s happened to them in their careers that’s been discouraging and disappointing. And wonderful writers in your boat are probably not posting that they too got five rejections in the past week. One thing I’ve found helpful is to spend a lot less time on social media making myself miserable.
- Reviews are one person’s opinion. And often reviewers have issues and the really nasty attacks on work have much more to say about them than the quality of the work. I’ve reached the point where I don’t think my work is as fabulous as the most glowing reviews I’ve received, nor do I think it’s as bad as the most negative ones. I think it’s very human to let the bad ones get to you, but again, we have to resist! My advice? Spend as little time as possible looking at your reviews, and more time paying attention to the comments you get from trusted critique partners and beta readers who genuinely want to help you improve your writing.
- A related point: When you read a really good book in your genre and think, “Wow! This is so much better than my work,” resist wallowing in despair and engage in what Timons Esais, writer/master teacher from Seton Hill’s MFA program, calls writers’ “reconnaissance.” Analyze what made the work so strong and how you might apply your discoveries to improving your own work.
- As for the agent quandary, either getting one or having one who seems enthusiastic about you and your work, I don’t have a great antidote to that—other than the solutions other writer friends have found. Some have chosen to take control over their own careers by focusing on Indie-publishing and are happy with that decision. Others have broken up with their agents and gone on to find better fits.
Overall, I’ve found the most relief from making myself miserable comes from refocusing. Why am I doing this? Because on some level, I enjoy writing and sharing my work with readers. And there is always more—more ways to grow and get better as a writer. We are each unique, with unique voices, talents, strengths, and things that don’t come so easily to us.
And the best times for getting away from those nasty voices that tell me I’ll never be good enough or measure up? They come from good old “butt-in-chair writing.” When I’m in the zone working, all else falls away. It’s a good place to be.
How about you? What antidotes have you found to the inevitable comparisons to others? In writing or in other careers? Chime in! I’d love to hear from you.