Managing expectations—is this a thing? I laugh sardonically (or maybe maniacally) even as I write the title. Writers, by definition, are dreamers. We’re creative and our imaginations are dynamic, and naturally, this extends beyond storytelling. We see bestselling books and movie deals and plastic dolls for sale, fashioned in our character’s likeness. We dream of book awards and a place at the altar of literary greatness. Dreams are important. They push us to try new ways to tell a story, again and again, and most important of all, they push us to do our best.
The only problem is, they can also be paralyzing when they fail to materialize and cause crippling self-doubt. At times, we need to be grounded, come down from the castles in the sky, sit ourselves down and have a frank discussion about not only managing our expectations, but about how to avoid the wretched self-doubt that rears its ugly head when these dreams don’t go according to plan. Along the way, I’ve found myself in this position at times, and have come to understand a few grounded truths to live by:
My WIP isn’t a failure just because something “went wrong”.
I’ve talked a little about this before, but I had a lot of visions for the book I just finished. At first, I wanted the dual-POV narrative to be framed by interviews of many different characters (sort of in the way Leann Moriarty does in Big Little Lies), but no matter what I did, I couldn’t make them work with the body of the story without having to completely change one of my main characters. And my characters were fixed points in my mind—the driving force of the story as a whole. The next “failed attempt” was to bring a framing device of a present-day person who is related to one of my protagonists from the past. Not only did this end up feeling trite, it over-complicated an already complex story, and the book suffered greatly because of it. I berated myself for a time because I really wanted to include an interesting framing device for this book, but it didn’t, in fact, work. Until it did. I finally stumbled across a series of newspaper articles that not only changed the direction of my story, but made perfect sense as a framing device that also added a nice bit of tension.
Did I fail? Yes, a few times, but is the book a bust? Absolutely not. It did eventually find its way, even if I couldn’t lead it in the direction I envisioned.
My work-in-progress doesn’t have to be the pen ultimate of my entire body of work. Neither does it need to contain everything I’ve ever wanted to say about life and death and religion and politics and living day-by-day on the planet earth. You see what I’m saying? I think sometimes, we place immense pressure on ourselves to make our current WIP a shining, pen ultimate piece, so that it feels like we’ve created something worthy of praise, or better yet, that we’ve created something brilliant.
While brilliance may be a good thing to strive for, it’s important to remember these three points: 1.) Brilliance is relative. What you think is brilliant comedic writing may be someone else’s “meh,” so there’s no need to hold yourself to an exhausting standard that is very much a moving target; 2.) Brilliance is really about executing the best book you can for THIS particular story you need to tell. Executing it well doesn’t have to involve innovative methodologies or complicated literary structures that may, ultimately, freeze you in your tracks and make the drafting process agonizing; and 3.) The most important thing to remember is that you’re writing for readers. Placing so much pressure on ourselves to create something “brilliant”, can often prohibit a reader from connecting emotionally to the emotional journey of the characters.
A way to confront the issue of “this book has to be everything!” is to keep a folder with a list of your other ideas. It releases some of the pressure, knowing you have some great work ahead of you. (And who knows, perhaps with one of those in the future, you may even get to use one of those complex literary devices or new points of view you’re itching to try.)
My WIP isn’t the last thing I’ll ever write (probably).
As writers, aka lovers of story, we can be a little melodramatic about the importance of our art. Of course it matters, and it’s important for so many reasons, but it’s also not a life-or-death situation should the piece you’re writing not be everything you dreamed it would be. We finish the work to the best of our abilities and we move on. If you’re a writer, you will write something else. This means you’ll have other opportunities to take a crack at all of those dreams.
I’ve been finding, of late, that managing expectations is one of the most important keys to success. It keeps us from spiraling into an abyss of worries and fears, and it helps us from becoming paralyzed; unable to move forward in a book that will have its own true merit, even if it doesn’t look exactly as we expected. Frankly, I haven’t written a book yet, that came out exactly as I’d envisioned it to be. They still have plenty of merit, and in fact, I’ve managed to do things in my body of work that I didn’t expect! So. Manage your expectations and don’t be too hard on yourself. And most important of all, take the time to enjoy the process of puzzling together a novel—a truly challenging, wonderful, admirable feat.
What do you consider a “failure” when working on a story? How do you help manage your expectations as you navigate the drafting and editing phases?