Everyone always says that writing is a solitary endeavor, but I’m here to tell you that this notion couldn’t be more wrong: in fact, the success of a writer is often due to a supportive group of surrounding players. Your name may be on the spine of the book, but so many other people come into play to help get you there. It’s teamwork. And I’ve been fortunate enough to make this discovery over the past year.
As I’ve previously written about on Writer Unboxed, this past year was one of soul-searching for me, one of honest consideration as to what I really wanted to do with my career, what I wanted to do with my life, what I found satisfying, what I found unsatisfying, what I was unwilling to tolerate, what and how much I was willing to bend. (If anything. If at all.) Indeed, a lot of what I contemplated had very little to do with the words I am lucky enough to put onto a page. Actually, my thoughts had to do with just about everything other than that. The writing I enjoy; the other stuff….less son. Because let’s be clear here: much of a writer’s career isn’t about the writing. No, a writer’s career is about many, many things more than writing – it’s about negotiation, it’s about compromise, it’s about self-advocacy, it’s about business sense, it’s about trust. And it’s about surrounding yourself with the very best people you can. And that’s what I’m going to talk about today. How critical the people in your life are to your success. How building your team is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer.
Because you might produce the words, but so many other people help you get where you need to go.
Here, in my opinion, are a few folks (and tactics) who can guide you on your way:
1) YOUR AGENT. Whenever an aspiring writer asks me about finding an agent, I always say that having a bad agent is worse than having no agent. I have been with the same agent since my first book sale way back when. Is she great at selling books? Yes. But just as critical, she’s great at having my back. When you go on your agent hunt, when you start vetting agents and interviewing them and considering them, ask yourself this: will this agent have my back? Maybe not now, maybe not with your first book sale or even your second book sale, but when you call her up and say: “I don’t know what I want to do anymore,” or “I want you to turn down this offer because of xyz.” Will he or she have your back? This past year, mine did. We had hard decisions to make (and to that end, I have some super-amazing and fun news to announce as soon as I am allowed to announce it, and I cannot wait), and with every step I took, with every tough call I considered, she supported me. That I now have good news to share is a testament to the fact that while I may have been willing to take some leaps, she was willing to hold my hand while I jumped.
Good agents do that for you. They make your career more than you could on your own (of course), but they also understand who you are, not just as an author, but as a person. Do you have to be best friends? No. But you have to have a level of trust and a level of same-pageness (made up that word, sorry), so that when you have to dig deeper, you’re both okay getting in the trenches to dig. I have peers who haven’t been fortunate enough to find this level of support and when the going got tough, their lives just got tougher because the agent who should have been in their corner turned out to sort of be actually waving on the side of the street from afar.
To that end, don’t settle for just anyone. Ask questions:
How much involvement do you like from your author?
Where do you see my career in five years?
What other authors do you see me emulating?
What’s your take on the future of publishing?
What happens if my book doesn’t sell?
You’re entitled to ask these questions, and you’re entitled to like (or dislike) what you’re told. Don’t rush in to a relationship, much like you wouldn’t rush into a marriage. Agent-author relationships are indeed much like a marriage: there will be ebbs and flows, and not everyone will be happy all the time, but for the most part, you know the other is there for you.
2) YOUR NON-WRITER FRIENDS. Yup, I often find that some of my most valuable assets are the women/friends who aren’t connected to the industry but whose counsel and smarts I trust completely. They know me; they know what makes me tick, they know what makes me happy, they know what they think I’m capable of. Whether or not you have (or want) an agent, surround yourself with a few people who will listen to your frustrations and help advise you when you face obstacles. They might not know what constitutes a “good deal” on Publishers Marketplace or whether or not one editor is better than the other, but in some ways, that also makes them objective, and because writers have a tendency to get too caught up in their own brains, objectivity is critical for all of us. Let your guard down in front of them. Be okay admitting your short-comings (in our industry, we all have plenty of short-comings) in front of them. Trust them. Do not isolate yourself. Isolating yourself as a writer means too much time in your own head, too much time to doubt yourself. You absolutely must have someone or many people who can quell those doubts. (Of course, friends within the industry are also great because they understand some of the nuance and politics that those outside of it don’t. Which leads me to…)
3) A CRITIQUE PARTNER. I’m hesitant to include this on the list because finding the right critique partner is so difficult. I’m often asked how I found mine (the wonderful fellow writer, Laura Dave), and the truth is, it was just dumb luck. Laura and I struck up a friendship, and it turned out that we sort of share the same brain, and we also share similar writing styles and tastes, and happen to be able to give each other honest advice without hurting any feelings. And over time, we built a total foundation of trust. When she gives me feedback, I take it seriously. When I’m stuck on a plotline or character, she and I will hash it out. Finding this one person (or group of people) can and will help make you a better writer. Writing a manuscript that you believe is genius isn’t enough: we almost all think our efforts are genius. (At least initially.) You need a second opinion. The tricky part is not settling on just any second opinion – you really need to seek out the right fit. One person’s advice might be totally wrong for the book (and for you). I’ve certainly been in the position of getting editorial advice that I stridently disagree with. Fortunately, most of this advice has come later in my career, when I was comfortable enough with my writing and my process to know what advice to ignore. A newer writer might not have yet tapped into these instincts. So when looking for a critique partner or group, know that it’s okay not to fall in love immediately. Keep looking. (Of course, part of finding a critique partner is also being okay with “critiques.” Not loving your partner’s advice is very different than not loving any advice period. If you can’t take criticism, this isn’t the right career for you.)
4) YOUR EGO. I have often said that one of the best things that writers can do for themselves is shed their ego – that in order to become a great writer, you’re going to be put through the wringer, in terms of rejection and criticism, and you’re either the type of person who can bounce back…or you’re not. Constructive criticism makes improves your craft, period. You have to be able to deal with that and set your ego aside if you want to succeed. But I do want to add an addendum to this theory of being egoless: and that is that there is a lot of value in knowing your self-worth. As tides have shifted in our industry, I hear over and over again how writer friends feel short-changed or that they aren’t getting their due. I have felt it. Many of us have felt it. And to this, I say that you should never allow anyone else to sell you short. Authors should be a commodity. Authors are a commodity, and if someone else tells you that you’re not valuable, that you’re not an asset, then you have every right to stick to your guns and trust that you are. You are valuable, and you damn well bring something to the table. Too often, this is forgotten these days. This is the one time when your ego is a necessary ally. But don’t you forget your incredible worth. If you don’t forget it, others won’t either.
5) (And one thing to let go of): THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER. Now this is someone/something that only impedes your career: your envy. Let go of your jealousy before it turns into total insecurity. Don’t compare your success to that of another author. He or she has very little to do with you. You don’t know how hard she’s worked; you don’t know what sort of tears she’s shed; you don’t know much about her at all. Envy is a very futile emotion, in my opinion. The only thing jealousy should do is fuel your belief that if she can make it, so too can you.
So those are my thoughts on the people and tools that you need to steer your own ship in the publishing world these days. What about you guys? Have I forgotten anyone/anything?