That collective groan and gnashing of teeth you heard Wednesday was the sound of authors reacting to Amazon’s new Author Ranking System—oh joy!—yet one more tool for us to compare ourselves to others. And for any of us trying to separate our selves from our writing? Well, you can just forget about that.
So this seemed like a good time to talk about writers and disappointment. For while writing is one of the most rewarding pursuits in the world, publishing can be a long, slow, painful slog toward the pit of despair, and you can quickly find yourself in the soul sucking land of Major Disappointment. And guess what? This disappointment applies equally to pre-published, traditionally published, and indie published authors alike, so I guess that’s the upside: egalitarianism!
The thing is, we writers are so very good at telling stories—even (or especially) to ourselves. We knew that we were going to be different. We were not going to need 10,000 hours or ten years. We were absolutely positively certain our career was going to be one big meteoric trajectory.
We knew that we would immediately hear back from all fifty agents we queried, and when our manuscript went out for the first time, a hot bidding war would ensue. Oh, we knew we weren’t going to hit the #1 spot on the NY Times list first time out, but we also knew that we would never languish in the midlist, or have our book go OP after only thirteen months.
And not only was Hollywood going to come knocking, but Spielberg or J J Abrams would be making the call personally.
Also? We’d be the very first person to win the Newberry and the Prinz and the National Book Award, all for the very same book! (Talk about genre bending!)
But then, with a great big confidence-shattering crunch, we find ourselves back on Planet Reality, blinking in surprise as the dust of our rosy dreams floats ash-like all around us.
This festering disappointment we sometimes feel is the elephant in the room among writers. We’re not allowed to talk of it lest we come off as ungrateful. We also can’t talk about it because so much of publishing ‘success’ is smoke and mirrors—it’s about creating the illusion of being in demand in the hopes it will make us actually in demand. So if we talk too openly about how our career is really going, well, we’ve just let the cat out of the bag, and everyone will know our true numbers and our career will sink even faster.
Writing in the age of Google, it is nearly impossible to avoid comparing ourselves to other writers. We know so very much about their book deals, their marketing budgets, their promotional roll out. Other writers’ success is right in our face, everywhere we turn. And knowing all this industry stuff is akin to letting the money lenders set up shop in our creative temple, and it can absolutely drain the hope and creativity and contentment right out of us.
So how does a writer cope with the often inevitable, painful jagged edges of our broken dreams and failed hopes?
First of all, it’s okay to just sit with our disappointment. We owe it to ourselves to grieve for the dream career that never quite achieved lift off, to mourn the publishing expectations that have gone on to that Great Shredder in the Sky. But then, how do we move forward?
I would like to introduce you to what I call the Seven Stages of Publishing Grief. Something I have great personal experience with. I’ve gone through this entire process at least three times, and I have no doubt I will journey through it another time or two before I’m done.
Important Note: It’s essential that you don’t get stuck in one of the first four stages for the rest of your life. It is vitally important to your creative soul that you keep moving through them all the way to the Resurrection Stage, for without that, you’re simply stuck in a really ugly place for a very long time.
Stage One—Shock and Denial: This is where we still can’t quite believe it has happened to us, and are processing and flailing as our dreams begin to crumble.
Noooo! This can’t be happening! Not to me. I followed all the rules. Met all my deadlines. Never responded to a single negative review (although that Philistine who called my book the worst book EVER WRITTEN totally deserved a response.) I took every marketing and promotion opportunity that came my way, and carved a hundred more with my bare hands and sheer dint of will.
Stage Two—Yearning and Anger: This is where we double down on those dreams and use our anger to fuel some changes. We tend to focus on the externals first. After all, they are much easier (and less painful) to address. And sometimes they are very legitimately the problem.
But I want that, dammit. I want it so bad it hurrrrrts. And I deserve it! My books are every bit as good as Author X. And I work just as hard as Author Y. And my books aren’t even fan fiction.
That’s it! It’s not me. It’s all those stupid readers who don’t know good literature from smut. (Or who alternatively don’t recognize that smut can be great literature.)
It’s my agent. Or my editor. Or my publisher. (It’s important to note that there can absolutely be a bad fit within a publishing team. Sometimes an agent is really good in the first stage of your career, but less so when it’s time to break out of the mid list. Some publishers are terrific with certain types of books, and weaker with others.)
Stage Three—Pain and Guilt: This is the shoulda, woulda, coulda period. It is as filled with regrets as the night sky is with stars.
I should have blogged, tweeted, posted, pinned more often. I should have attended every book festival within a
500 mile 1000 mile radius. Should have written faster, slower, with more plot, with more characters. Should have gotten that MFA, should never have wasted all that time getting that MFA. I should have done twenty seven drafts, not only nineteen.
D’oh! I should have written the manuscript in 12 point Courier!
Stage Four—Anger and Bargaining: We recognize personal change is required, so we begin to look for changes we ourselves can make, but still tend to focus on surface level things.
Okay, well, I’ll write more commercial books. Or more literary ones. I’ll stop dumbing down, or start dumbing down. I’ll write three books a year instead of only one. I’ll try self publishing—that will remove the problem right there.
Hey I know! I’ll write fan fiction.
Stage Five—Reflection: This is where disappointment—like other strong emotions—lets us finally turn inward so we can address the things we have in our control—the book, the writing, our own perceptions. It is the stage where we experience true grief, emotional despair, depression. This is where we have a long hard look at ourselves and start to reevaluate our dreams. Maybe take a hiatus or a sabbatical. A long, intense writer’s retreat. Something that give us some emotional distance and creative white space.
This is where we start evaluating what the NYT List, starred reviews, and awards will truly bring us. This can be a bit tricky because while it is true that being a successful writer won’t change the essence of who you are, achieving something you’ve been striving for can bring a great deal of satisfaction and blessed relief. (Yes, I did it. I wasn’t fooling myself and Uncle Seymour was dead wrong. I do have it in me!) But the emotional baggage you entered the writing journey with will likely still be with you.
The truth is, there usually are other ways to achieve all the ephemeral rewards we thought our publishing dreams would bring us, and again, many of those other routes are often within our own control, unlike publishing. It’s also a good time to ask why we need those things so very badly and poke around in that.
If the issue is money, well, there are other ways to make money. For some, weighing down the writing with the need for income puts them in the fast lane on the road to Soul Sucking.
Now, having said that, I am a firm believer in being able to make a living with our writing. If we elect to do that, we have to make some informed choices. We can still work on the types of books that feed our soul or the career of our dreams, but we have to carve out time for them in between our ‘paying’ writing, just like we did back when we were working in that engineering office.
Stage Six—Reconstruction: This is where it hits us: If our current writing isn’t getting us the career or income we want, we need to change our writing. Or our goals.
Although it’s romantic to think so, we don’t all have only one writing voice. As Barbara O’Neal so eloquently once explained it to me, our voice is like a potato, and we can make all sorts of wildly different dishes with that simple potato. We can make French fries, or garlic mashed potatoes, or potatoes au gratin or, well, you get the idea.
But wait, you say. I love what I’m writing!
Then listen closely because this is really important: Then the rest doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t.
Stage Seven—Resurrection: This is where you emerge from the flames, a different writer than when you first began. Maybe your new self has decided writing isn’t for you. It is perfectly okay to walk away from writing if it no longer feeds you or you recognize you were pursuing it for the wrong reasons. That’s not failing—that’s trying something and deciding it’s not for you.
Maybe you give yourself the gift of time and back off your insistence that you WILL be published by the time you’re thirty.
Or maybe taking a part time job will allow you to take some of the pressure off of the creative process so you can write the books that you long to write—and after this journey through despair, you’re happy about being able to take that heavy load off your writing to allow the creative joy back in.
Maybe you simply find a different way to move through the publishing world. Maybe you don’t turn on Google Alerts and don’t subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace. And you trust your agent and editor and critique group when then tell you this is good. This is the best thing you’ve ever written.
Or you make a complete break with the sorts of things you wrote before, and embark on an entirely new writing journey.
Because that’s the nature of creative work—we must constantly question and strive and doubt, and then reinvent ourselves in order to keep our work fresh and satisfying, but also to also find ways to build a thick, sturdy wall that the demons of Despair, Disappointment, and Hopelessness cannot breach.
(photographs courtesy of Flickr’s just.Luc and e³°°°)