This is going to get ugly before it gets better.
Sorry, but we’re going to begin with the bitter stuff. The hard-to-swallow stuff. The let’s get this over before dessert stuff. Because there are plenty of very awesome things about writing (in my personal experience… your mileage may vary) but there’s a lot of crap that you have to make peace with (or not, hey, your career, not mine).
FIGURE ONE: Most advice for writers is crap.
Oh, isn’t that meta, man? I’m writing advice and I’m saying my advice is bad. How subversive. No, not really. What I’m saying is that there is no one way to succeed as a writer. And any writers’ guide that begins with a promise of success, or a definition of success, or a guaranteed pathway to said money, fame, and fortune, is full of feces. Doo doo. Caca. You get it.
The good news? You get to choose what works for you. You don’t like what you hear? It’s fine. Ignore it. Come up with your own rules. I mean, I wouldn’t throw all the babies out with the bathwater — but just because something worked for someone else really, truly, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. And given that there is no shortage of fledgling writer scams out there, there are thousands of desperate writers out there willing to try anything. Just put simply: there is a lot of bad advice out there, and a lot of awful people looking to take advantage of folks with a big dream to publish. Don’t stop dreaming, but don’t be an ignoramus, either. (PRO TIP: If someone asks for money up front to “critique” or offer their “editorial eye” or wants you to pay THEM to publish YOU, run away.)
FIGURE TWO: Most of the time writing is not easy, is not glamorous, and is not that fun.
I guarantee you, no matter how much you love to write, you will find something about the process that you hate. For some writers, it’s editing. For others, it’s cover design. Still, for others, it’s the review process of getting their book into the wild; or the mind-bogglingly slow timelines; or, rather universally, marketing their work!
Of course, there are a few exceptions out there. I recently read that Brandon Sanderson wrote 18,000 words in a day, and he makes a lot more money than I do and seems to enjoy just about every part of the process, from what I hear. Most of us are not Brandon Sanderson. Most of us don’t have very large paychecks from our books, and designated writing time and, more than all of that combined, an iron will to just keep writing even when your feelings are hurt and your fingers fall off and you are crying to yourself in the corner eating raw cookie dough and drinking flat Coke Zero.
There will always be
overachievers blessed individuals who make it look easy. But, in my experience, the vast majority of writers — successful, prolific writers, and artists in general — just do the hard work anyway. When things don’t work out, they move onto other projects. They figure out how to adapt. I, myself, took half a decade trying to figure out why I couldn’t get writing done… and eventually came to realize it was because I was treating writing as I had when my life was vastly different. I didn’t have the luxury to sit around and wait for inspiration. I had to make it happen, or I was going to just keep playing Dragon Age and never write a book again. Quite frankly, playing Dragon Age is one of my favorite things to do, and it was a very close call. But, eventually, I decided that I wanted to write books, too, and not just chase Alistair and Cullen around Fereldan forever. Again, personal choice, there.
I’ll talk more about this later, the writer chameleon effect, but for now, we’ll leave it at that. Meanwhile, I’ll be wandering around my mansion, sipping cardamom tea, and holding my pet opossum while I contemplate my next great novel, thanks.
FIGURE THREE: Writing will not make you much money, especially not at first, and maybe probably likely not enough to quit your day job over (and honestly, that’s ok).
I learned this one very early on, thanks to meeting a very cool, very transparent writer early in the 2010s. She was very candid and told me that she’d taken home about $11,000 dollars that past year. This was a person with seven traditionally published books.
It was hard to hear. I was just starting out, and still harboring little dreams that I was going to be able to quit the day job as soon as I got an agent and a book deal. Fun fact: many midlist authors — and even some bestsellers — have day jobs. And they like them. Day jobs are predictable, and often provide unique benefits like health insurance and 401K plans. It is not, I repeat, not a failure or a weakness to have a full-time job and be a writer. These are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, some folks who write must work full-time jobs for a myriad of reasons. I was the breadwinner in my family for almost three straight years. Having a reliable paycheck kept me alive, kept my family alive, and let me tell you — being alive is really the first step in writing. Before anything else.
Getting published isn’t like winning the lottery. It’s like running a marathon with thousands of other runners, and you’re all screaming your elevator pitches at the skies and flailing your arms, and someone happens to get to the finish line first and make all the headlines, and maybe, through some magic alchemy, they sell a big book in a year. But selling a book is selling a book. Sustained success comes from a lot of work, from writing even when the paychecks aren’t coming in. From training relentlessly. Well, for most of us.
FIGURE FOUR: Writing is the easy part.
It doesn’t matter how hard writing is, it’s generally the easiest part. It’s the part you’re in control of — even if you’re under contract and on deadline, barring that you have a djinni somewhere clacking out words for you, you’re the one that makes words happen.
But, if you want to be published, you’ve got to face down rejection. You can’t think of it in terms of hours logged or words clocked. Because it’s someone else’s now. Their version of your story isn’t yours anymore, and they’re going to have opinions. And, oh, my darlings, we live in a world of opinions. So many damned opinions.
My first big reviews came while I was very pregnant and very sick, and very much falling apart. I had almost lost my daughter three or four times during said pregnancy, and now I was sharing this first novel to the world (in retrospect, maybe not the best idea in terms of timing). In spite of the onslaught of great receptions, there were still a few that stung: PW liked my self-published steampunk novel podcast more (WHO EVEN HEARD THAT, I MEAN COME ON!); some dude called my heroine a total slut; another reviewer was furious because my novel wasn’t a YA novel. That’s like eating a strawberry and being pissed off that it wasn’t bologna.
Everything that comes after writing is unpredictable and very personal. Your imagination is on display. Your weaknesses as a writer (yes we all have them; learn yours, fix them or embrace them), your foibles in text, the typos that somehow made it to press. For everyone to see. Like that weird high school dream of being naked with nothing but a Lightsaber in front of your whole class, except this time it’s real and it’s a sword…
But hopefully! Hopefully! You’re not just in this for the cash, the fame, the hot chicks, and the fast lifestyle (this sentence, hah!). Hopefully, you’ve got a bit of the Dowager Countess of Grantham in you (I sure do) and you can go back to writing something better, or different, or take a break. Or you don’t care and you move on, not a single hair on your head bothered from the bashing. There are some delightful honey badgers out there, and gosh, I do envy them.
FIGURE FIVE: You really are in this alone.
No matter how amazing your critique group or writing partner or sentient squid companion, you are responsible for your work. For figuring out what works for you. No amount of reading books, of planning or dreaming is going to make a novel happen. As in life, as in so much in this existence that defies all explanation, you’re in control of your trajectory.
Life is gonna suck. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Shit is going to happen that’s going to tear you down — and I’m not even talking about writing! I’m talking about being a human.
So don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself a break. Yes, you’re responsible for your own writing. But you’re also responsible for your own mental well-being. Beating yourself up about not writing is like rubbing a dog’s nose in their own turds (I really have hit the mother lode of scatological references here). It feels okay in the moment, but really, it doesn’t lead to any learning. It just makes us feel scared and angry and fuels self-hatred. Not to go all Jedi on us, but the world is hard enough without making us hate ourselves.
Cry if you need to cry. Eat that ice cream. Go on a hike. Scribble in sharpie on that page until it bleeds all the way through. Get good medicine, however you define it. Talk to your therapist. Get a therapist! Then come back when you want to. But whatever you do, take care of you, first. I’ve seen people quit writing altogether, not because they weren’t capable or talented or successful, but because it was eating them alive. That’s a toxic writing relationship, and no one can sustain that.
Now that we’re fully depressed…
The next installment is a bit more neutral. I’m saving the happy stuff for later. Why did I start here? Well, I wish someone had been more candid with me when I first started. Eventually, I got there, and I’m lucky to have so many great writer friends who have shared their own journeys with me. But it’s important to know the stakes. Some people are destined to write and never publish; some are destined to write for a time, then stop. No journey is the same.
So, I’ll tackle the business of writing, the changing landscape of the digital realm, and some insights into process and discipline next. Meanwhile, pour yourself a cup of tea, put on some Netflix, and take a deep breath. You’ve got this. Unlike the fellow below. He is so screwed.