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5 years, 6 books, 7 lessons

photo by Flickr's jun560 [1]
photo by Flickr’s jun560

We’re so glad to welcome back WU friend and Twitter team member L.J. Cohen today! 

First, a caveat: this is not some best practices list or definitive expert advice; it is the experience of a single author over a brief and specific span of years. If something here resonates with you, that’s great. If it doesn’t, you aren’t doing anything wrong – your experience is simply different from mine.

  1. YMMV is more than a cute saying, or, in other words, avoid dogma at all costs.

If you peruse the writing how-to shelves, you will find book after book after book of guides. If there was a single way of doing this thing called writing, there would only be one text and we would all have it.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard “never edit as you write” or “no one is buying books about _____” or  “you have to have an outline” or “just write a crappy first draft”, I’d have a heck of a lot of nickels and I wouldn’t need to be selling books to earn a living.

The thing is, people analyze their own process and experience and then apply causality to it. That’s a common fallacy after the fact: post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for ‘after this, therefore because of this.’ For example: Author notices that books which have more than fifty reviews are in general ranked higher than books that have fewer reviews. Author makes the assumption that having more than fifty reviews convinces Amazon to rank your books higher. What is likely happening is that more sales translates into more reviews (sales drive reviews, not the other way around) and it is the number of sales that primarily drives rankings.

I often say there is no secret sauce. Why? Because there is no secret sauce. Learn the process and method that works best for you for a particular project. And even then, don’t be afraid to try something else.

  1. Not succeeding doesn’t equal failing, AKA perseverance is key.

There’s a great scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie where a king is talking about the castle he built in the middle of the swamp:  “It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. And that one sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up.”

There are many days where writing feels like building a castle in the middle of a swamp where the construction of logic you have built will burn down, fall over, and sink into the morass. But so much of the process – both of writing and of publishing – is finding ways to make the impossible and the untenable somehow work anyway. And it doesn’t happen without a lot of sinking into a lot of swamps.

It’s crucial to find a way to see this as part of your personal narrative. In 2009, I was signed by an agent. Over the next four and a half years, every project she shopped sank into the swamp. Three novels received glowing, personalized rejections by big houses. It was hard not to see this as anything but utter failure. In reality, it was a gift. It showed me that I had the ability to write good stories, but those stories weren’t what major publishing houses were willing to take a risk on at the time. Ultimately, my agent and I parted ways and five years ago I went on to create my own publishing imprint and release stories which found their own audiences. One of the titles that my then-agent didn’t believe could find a publishing home has sold over 12,000 copies in two years. Small beans for a big house, but hugely successful for an author/publisher.

  1. Luck plays a bigger role in this game than we want to admit.

This is tied in to point number 1. Humans are prone to all sorts of magical thinking. I remember being utterly freaked out as a kid when I hear the rhyme “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” My logical brain knew that this wouldn’t happen, but I avoided stepping on cracks anyway. We haven’t outgrown or out-evolved our primitive thinking.

So we wear our lucky socks, or only write with our special pen and in all sorts of small and large ways believe that our actions are the sole factors in our success or failure. Or we buy into the very American Dream of hard work equals well-deserved payoff.

Yes, we need to do the work: write good books, get them edited, have them professionally produced. These are the basics that have to happen.

But those basics in no way guarantee that your book will sell, or land the agent, or receive a contract. So much of that is luck and timing.

You can’t manufacture luck; you can only work hard to be in the best position when luck strikes.

One of my favorite YA books of all time is Michael Chabon’s SUMMERLAND. It is a love letter to childhood, coming of age, magic, and baseball and it is written in achingly beautiful and elegant prose. It was not a commercial success because it was published the same summer as the juggernaut that was the first Harry Potter book. Chabon was a Pulitzer prize winning author. JK Rowling was a nobody. Luck and timing – or bad luck and poor timing. Sometimes it breaks that way.

  1. Comparison leads to jealousy. Jealousy leads to the dark side. There are no cookies there.

The other day, in a private setting, I whined and bitched and was generally petty about someone else’s success. And my friends listened and understood that really, I was simply feeling sorry for myself. My emotions had nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with my own sadness and disappointment.

This is a very human failing. We generally don’t like feeling bad and want to project those feelings outward, blaming someone or something else for them. Go ahead and vent if you need to – in private confidence (my husband lets me have my rare tantrums without judging) if you must, or in the pages of your journal, or create a ritual for yourself that acknowledges the negative emotions and lets them go.

One of the harder lessons I’ve learned is that someone else’s success doesn’t limit me. If readers suddenly discover Author X’s space opera series and it sell scads of copies and lands a movie deal, it doesn’t mean I should burn my manuscripts. Readers read and there’s a good chance that if the genre I’m writing in heats up, those readers will be hungry for more. Maybe they’ll find and enjoy my book, all because Author X blazed the trail.

Honestly? It’s far better in the long run to find healthy ways to deal with jealousy because we all know authors who have spewed in public. It rarely ends well and the internet has a long memory.

So skip the ugliness and go directly to cookies.

  1. It is a competition, but not in the way you think.

Following on to the jealousy issue, yes, we are in competition. But we are not truly competing with the seven zillion other books being published each year. Books are not identical widgets on a production line, they are works of creative imagination. And as creators, we are competing primarily with ourselves.

My goal is to improve with each novel I write. Future me is always going to compete with past me.

If that feels a little idealistic and naive, perhaps it is. Perhaps it is fair to say we are always in competition with thousands and thousands of calls on our time. But while there are a zillion channels of TV and the internet, and more books published than anyone can count, there are still also huge numbers of readers and in this world of splintered attention, we are not looking for everyone to be our fans.

In the days of network TV, shows competed for the biggest audience share against their two main rivals. It was a gladiator match. Today, it’s like a popular road race where most of the runners will finish to cheering crowds. A niche cable TV show can be successful with a small, engaged audience of its “just right” fans. This is happening in publishing as well.

  1. The goal posts are always moving. This isn’t always a bad thing and sometimes it is.

We are in the midst of a changing publishing landscape. Writers who can be flexible and who are able to adapt and learn will be more successful than those who cannot. The speed of change can be hard to manage. Sometimes it means that more opportunities come your way; sometimes it means that just as you’ve gotten comfortable with the status quo, it shifts.

While no one can predict where the future of publishing will take us (books beamed directly into our brains via a neural interface? Holodeck books that come alive around you through 3-d tech? Why yes, I do write science fiction. . . ) we can all agree that the days of a publisher doing all the work around book production, marketing, and promotion, leaving the author free to simply write are long gone.

Waxing nostalgic for a past that probably only existed for a select few writers isn’t productive. The speed of consolidation and contraction in the industry is only matched by the pace of change in the world of self publishing. The indie books that were good enough to sell five years ago wouldn’t make it in today’s marketplace – those goalposts have moved and not by inches. The flip side of that is there are some amazing books being produced today. And it means we all have to keep upping our game in the process.

  1. You get by with a little help from your friends.

The image of the writer as the heroic creator, struggling by the light of a candle in some drafty garret may be a romantic one, but it’s also cold, emotionally isolating, and damned lonely. Just knowing there is a community of folks who I can gripe to, commiserate with, and cheer on is, as they say in the credit card ad, priceless. Who else but another writer really understands when you talk about your imaginary friends, or the scene that refuses to emerge, or the stilted dialogue you can’t get quite right? Members of my various writing communities have come to my rescue more times than I can count, for crises and dramas large and small. I have done the same for them.

Some days, the best company is another writer tap-tap-tapping on the keys of their laptop across the table from you at the coffee shop. Other days, it’s the squeal you hear across the virtual landscape when you share your new cover art. Or the cartoon that shows up in your email after a particularly disappointing rejection.

This can be a heartbreaking business. And it’s important to remember this lesson from the fairy tales we all read as children: Don’t go into the woods alone.

One of the best antidotes to that sense of isolation is knowing you are traveling a road others are traveling, too. The Writer Unboxed community has become a safe haven for me in that dark and scary wood. And there are other communities, some local, some virtual, that can provide that same security.

Don’t be afraid to reach out both to support and be supported. We truly do get by with a little help from our friends.

What lessons have you learned in your journey to where you are today? As I mentioned in my introduction, this certainly isn’t an exhaustive or exclusive list. What would you add?

About Lisa Janice Cohen [2]

LJ Cohen [3] is a Boston area novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, LJ now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. Her most recent book, Dreadnought and Shuttle, (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space) represents her sixth published novel. Derelict, the first novel in the series, was chosen as a Library Journal Self-e Select title and book of the year in 2016.  LJ is active in IPNE (The Independent Publishers of New England), SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America),  and Broad Universe and blogs about publishing, general geekery, and other ephemera on her website [3].