Why do we do it? We slave over words. We pour our hearts onto a blank page. Instead of ink, we write with our blood, sweat, and tears. At home, our loved ones get neglected, while our work hours are spent with our heads in the clouds. And yet, we plow on. Why?
Agents reject us, publishers ignore us, and the only way we can see our novels in print is if we pay for it. And even then, the only people who will buy a copy are our loved ones (if we haven’t neglected them too much). So why do we keep writing when reality is falling short of our starry-eyed international best-selling expectations?
Bob Clary, the Marketing Manager at Webucator, asked me how I’ve stayed motivated to continue writing over the years when the financial benefits have been, ahem, somewhat out of reach. Looking back, my goals and perceptions have changed dramatically over the past 7 years.
The Newbie Writer
Remember when you first started out? Or maybe that’s you right now. Perhaps writing was an idea that formed at an early age. You dabbled in school, wrote some short stories, and all the while, your desire to write was insidiously wrapping its tentacles around your heart. Or perhaps, like myself, it hit you one day. An idea, inspiration, an explosion of desire. It infected you with the ache to get those feverish ideas in your head down on paper.
Perhaps your imagined writing career looked something like mine. It went a little something like this:
- Write amazing book
- Apply to agent A
- Agent A instantly falls in love and declares all 140,000 words perfect
- Get publishing contract week later
- Become rich and famous like JK Rowling
My plan was flawless. I’m still not entirely certain why it didn’t pan out. However, it doesn’t take writers long to realize the publishing process is a little tougher than we first thought. Like really, really tough. As the agent rejections start filtering in, this realization tends to hit us like a locomotive, followed by the next thirty or so train cars, and as if that isn’t enough, the caboose.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “I heard about this writer who sold their very first novel after only a month, and now they’re a best-seller.”
In reply to this, I’d like to quote one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read, ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ (a book I clearly need to pick up again – but that’s for another post, or a therapist):
“Assume you’re the rule, not the exception.”
If you turn out to be the exception, then great. I’m sure we’ll read about you online and aspire to achieve the same great things you did. But if we hold onto unrealistic expectations, and our newbie writer dreams are dashed, that could stop our writing career before it even starts.
So when we discover that we are, in fact, not the next JK Rowling, and the hopeless depression kicks in, why the do we keep writing?
All You Need Is Love
For some people, writing is a short-term thing, for others it’s a life-long affliction. That’s because it either kills you or it makes you stronger. So what separates the weak from the from the robust? One word: love.
Once it becomes apparent that this isn’t some get-rich-quick scheme, or a full-time job, or maybe even a part-time, (heck, I’d be happy with five dollars. Someone just give me five dollars to write!) those that were in it for the wrong reasons get weeded out. And those of us left standing continue to write because we have to, because there is a voice inside of us screaming to get out, because we love (and sometimes hate) writing. We just can’t stop.
Taming Your Worst Critic
But now what? We’re likely not going to be JK Rowling. And if we are, it’s going to take a lot more work than we initially thought. So we work, and we try new things, and we alter our patience levels. Since I began writing 7 years ago, I have had to revise my own expectations and continue to do so.
- I stopped putting a time limit on reaching goals that were out of my control (like finding an agent or getting a book deal). Yes, I have control over completing the project and getting queries out, but I can’t control if an editor likes the work or not.
- I call myself a writer. When I first began, I was afraid to use that title. “I write books,” I’d say. “But I’m not published or anything.” If you write, you are a writer. Writing is hard work, we love it, but it is still hard. It’s special and important. Not just anyone can write, and if your average Joe Blow tells you otherwise, ask them where their latest manuscript is. You put a lot of time and effort into your art, and you deserve to be proud of that and to scream it from the mountain top. Never belittle yourself and your work.
- I’ve accepted rejection as part of the process. As writers, we can always improve. Even the best-selling authors improve over the course of their career. If you get rejected by an agent or editor, they are not rejecting you. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to do with your actual work. It might be the market, or the timing, or even their mood. Don’t forget, this a very subjective field. Look at it as part of the learning process, even if it’s simply learning how to roll with the punches.
My Little Bit More Experienced, Much More Realistic Goals:
- To write what I love, not what the market dictates (but with any luck, they will be the same thing). When you don’t love what you’re writing, it shows. You’re readers will know it, and chances are, you won’t even finish it. Your momentum will peter out before you hit the climax. Besides, you can’t predict the market (although, the publishing industry does try). By the time you finish your novel about the latest fad (vampire, fairy, angel, zombie, demon), the world will have moved on. So write what you love, and even if it doesn’t sell in the end, then at least you’ll have enjoyed every minute of it. And don’t worry. Vampires will come back… eventually.
- To become published… eventually… one day. While no one completely lets go of the traditional publishing dream, most of us writers simply desire to converse with the world, to connect with others, to somehow convey the stories that are stuck inside our heads. And if that means our audience might only turn out to be friends and family, then so be it. Traditional publishing is a much more viable option than it used to be. I would hate to think that the stack of manuscripts hidden beneath my bed will never see the light of day. Some of those deserve to remain hidden for eternity, but not all. I will always strive to be traditionally published, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be open to other options along the way.
- To find that happy balance. When you think you’re going to be JK Rowling in 6 months, you spend every waking moment writing. You even dream about it. But you can only keep up that pace for so long until, one day, you look around and wonder where all your friends went. Or, maybe more immediately concerning, where your next pay cheque is coming from. After 6 months, if you’re not rich and famous, you need to consider plan B – a real day job. At least until the royalties start rolling in. Currently I’m still driving my giant haul trucks in the Alberta Oil Sands, but I’m also training for a safety role, and taking university courses for it, and writing a novel, and editing my last one, and … Ack! Think marathon, not a 100-meter dash. Pace yourself.
- To improve my writing skills. ‘What?’ you ask. ‘You mean, when you put pen to paper the heavens don’t open up and smile down upon you singing an angelic chorus as you write?’ Yeah, no. I know it’s hard to believe, but even the great Cassandra Griffin has some improving to do. I read books, take courses, join writing groups, and practice, practice, practice. I don’t just want to write something that passes as publishable, I want to write a fantastic publishable novel. If I get published tomorrow, twenty years from now I want to look back and say it was crap. Because I always want to strive for better.
- And most importantly: to write simply for the love of it
Exception To The Rule
Don’t worry. We’ve all been there, with our high hopes and our rose-colored glasses. I’m not telling you to dream smaller dreams. I still have high hopes. Only now, I have set myself realistic goals to strive toward those same hopes.
If you’re writing to be a published author, then I wish you good luck. But if you want to maintain your sanity and to stick with it, then simply write because you’re a true writer. The rest will follow, and you’ll still love what you do after all of it. Even on the bad days.
The only way you won’t achieve your goals is if you stop trying. Not everyone can be the exception, but you can still be exceptional.