Around 12:10 a.m. on January 1st, just after 2019 began, I made what I hope will prove to be my worst choice of the entire year: I started watching the latest “Black Mirror” project on Netflix, alone, in the dark.
“Black Mirror” is eerie at best and often genuinely disturbing, and probably should not be watched alone in the dark in any case. In particular it should not be watched under those conditions when it’s not just a regular episode, but a stand-alone interactive movie that is asking you questions and presenting long stretches of new narrative based on your decisions. Because then? So much for sleep.
The name of the “Black Mirror” movie is “Bandersnatch,” and its choose-your-own-adventure format has given rise to the shorthand “bandersnatching,” which can either mean 1) watching the movie (not as interesting for our purposes today) or 2) making a series of irrevocable choices from behind the scenes.
So though you’ve probably never thought of it this way, you are, in short, bandersnatching your whole life. In the “Black Mirror” episode/movie, you’re bandersnatching Stefan — will he choose Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast? take what he’s offered or refuse? go into a certain building or off down the street? — but of course, that’s not how life works. We may not be fully in charge, but no one else is, either, so it’s our choices, our decisions, that make the difference.
And sometimes it can feel like someone else is bandersnatching your writing career. Early in a traditional publishing career, someone else, an agent, is making the decision on whether or not to ask for your full manuscript when you send them a query letter or pitch them at a conference, and then makes the decision on whether to represent you; and in any author’s career regardless of publishing format, someone else, a reader, is making the individual decision of whether or not to buy the book. There are editors and sales teams and Costco decision makers and cover designers and book clubs and event organizers and festival committees and awards judges: sometimes it feels like everyone gets to make decisions about your book/s but you.
But it’s you, deep down. You’re bandersnatching. You’re making the most important choices.
Not to spoil too much of the actual “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” but there’s a choice early on that seems very easy to make — and it leads to an almost-immediate dead end, abruptly bringing all the possibilities down to zip. Game over.
That’s what your choice to write or not write is. You’re the only one who can completely shut yourself down. If you don’t do that, then everything else is still possible. You may run into walls — mostly figurative ones — but you can always step back from the wall and hunt for the place in the wall that’s really a door. You can do that a nearly infinite number of times.
My new novel Woman 99 comes out in March, and it is very hard not to view every single choice as one I have to say yes to. Should I pitch that essay? Yes. Send a note to that bookseller? Yes. Schedule that event? Yes. Spend hours on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc., reaching out to readers? Yes, yes and yes.
And for many writers, every choice in their career can feel utterly momentous — and irreversible. Should you write the massive epic fantasy novel or the simmering, dark domestic suspense? Should you accept that agent’s offer of representation? Should you approve a cover you don’t really love based on how excited everyone at your publisher seems about it? Should you apply to that retreat, start that new series, collaborate with that other author on a new project? The choices really never end.
Only, as “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” shows, not every choice makes a big difference. Again, not to spoil things for those who want to try every option for themselves, but when two choices are presented, there’s no guarantee one leads to a good outcome and one less good. Sometimes a decision is just a decision; sometimes a slight fork in the path leads you back to the road you were already on. It isn’t really possible to know what matters and what doesn’t until after the choice is made — and whether the place it leads to is the best, worst, or somewhere in the middle.
I don’t know about you, but I find that very freeing. It’s exhausting to say yes to absolutely everything. It’s exhausting to agonize over each individual choice until the wee hours of the morning, believing that if you just get it right this time, everything will open up to you like a flower and you’ll never worry again. (Spoiler for the writer’s life: nope, you will always worry.) It’s better to make some choices, concentrate your efforts on what you think is likely to have the biggest impact, and just push hard in that direction.
No matter what point you’re at in your writing career, I think that’s good advice. Recognize that the most important decisions are yours; look at each decision and measure its potential impact; and once the decision is made, don’t agonize about all the other directions you could have gone in.
Or to put it in terms Stefan would appreciate: just go ahead and serve up the Sugar Puffs.