When I was writing the first draft of my first novel, I had big dreams. For one, I wanted it to be published in hardcover. I had published nonfiction in paperback and felt like I would finally be able to consider myself a “real” writer if I had a hardback. (It was 2001. Such ideas seemed to make sense back then. Now I know being published “only” in paperback is the writer’s equivalent of a first-world problem.) Also, I wanted a two-book deal, and I wanted the book to be optioned for a movie. Like I said, big dreams.
Over the next few years my dreams grew less grand. I stopped caring whether it came out in hardcover or paper and just wanted it published. Just this one novel. Forget a two-book deal. Then, as I got deeper into the thicket of rewrites, I stopped caring whether it got published at all. I just needed to make an agent’s cut, I figured. If I could do that, then, even if he or she couldn’t sell it, I’d know I was on the right track. By the last draft, I didn’t care if an agent ever read it. My only dream, my only goal, was to finish the damn thing.
Ironically (or maybe not so ironically, depending on your belief system), I got a lot of what I wanted. Two-book deal. Awards and great reviews. My first novel got optioned for a TV movie and even more amazingly, they actually made the TV movie.
But all that didn’t lead where I had hoped it would lead. My second novel didn’t do as well. The economy crashed. Technology changed. My editor got laid off. An editor at another house who wanted to buy my third novel based on a proposal got laid off. I wrote a partial draft of a sequel to my first novel and a treatment for a movie. Both almost happened, but didn’t. Friends shared similar sad tales. Every day it seemed like there was more bad publishing news. I started to suffer a crisis of faith. I felt like I had been led down at least two dead end paths. It was hard to keep any writing dream alive. Woe was me.
Then last year around this time I switched my focus a little, and went on Weight Watchers. I kept writing. In fact, after blogging a few times about writing through doubt, I got a deal with Agate Publishing to write a book on the subject. (Working title: The Not So Fearless Writer. If all goes well, look for it sometime next year.) I kept working on my novel-in-progress. But I also worked on getting my head and spirit right too. And it helped me see things in a new light.
Like losing weight, being a writer isn’t a one-and-done situation (unless you’re Ralph Ellison or Harper Lee or unless you want to be done after one). I’ve lost 49 pounds, but now I’ve got to keep it off. Just like I’m never done watching what I eat or making sure I get lots of exercise, I’m never done with the struggles that come with working and publishing. Even writers who “make it” have worries and hurdles to jump. They have to figure out how to write each new book, and with the added pressure of all the expectations of their legions of fans. (Even JK Rowling is nervous about what you’re going to think of her new book.)
Like I have to keep learning my craft even though I’ve written a few books, I have to keep working on my faith in myself and my work. Like any muscle, my optimism muscle will get flabby from lack of use. So to rebuild my optimism muscle:
- I went back to just writing for myself. Just to finish. In fact, the working title of my novel is Every Good Wish, but I named the computer file “Every Good Wish for me” as a reminder that it’s for me that I’m finishing it. Oddly, thinking less about its commercial prospects, actually put me in a better mood about it and gives me more hopes about it being a good book (which does up its chances for commercial success). Tayari Jones went through a similar situation with her novel Silver Sparrow and blogged about it eloquently saying:
It was a tricky thing because I had to think of why I wanted to actually experience it as an author, not why I thought the book needed to be in the world. What did I hope to get out of the process? Any reward would have to be in my own heart, because I had been pretty much assured that SILVER SPARROW wouldn’t see the light of day.
- I let a good writer friend (who has successfully self-published a novel and a cookbook) read my manuscript for me. She liked it too (though she had notes for me. Boy, did she have notes for me.) Who knows? Maybe I’ll self-publish too.
- I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I read more novels this summer than I did all last year. Last month, I sent myself to the Elinor Lipman School of Writing by reading (or rereading) every novel of hers. Right now I’m reading The Cutting Season by Attica Locke, and it’s blowing me away. Reading good stuff makes me more optimistic.
- Lastly, I got help for the woe that was clinical depression and not just being in a funk about publishing. It’s important to know the difference between moping too long and depression.
The stronger my optimism muscle gets, the more I write, and the stronger I become as a writer.
So fellow writers, how do you keep your optimism muscle strong?