Riding the Writer Roller-Coaster

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

First off, thank you for all your wonderful support for the launch of my new thriller, Your Son Is Alive. The print version is now available.

Launch week is usually a high for an author, though nerves can be set a-jangling as we wonder what the reception will be.

Which brings up the subject of the roller-coaster ride that is the writing life. For as we all know there are ups and downs and curves and twists. Sometimes it’s exciting. Other times you get queasy. Which is why you should never launch a book after a big Italian dinner.

Ahem.

We all know this gig is rife with opportunities for that devil disappointment. Our human condition can’t avoid it. We construct hopes for ourselves and our work knowing there are plenty of rocks and boulders ahead in the rushing waters of the marketplace.

This is not just in our professional lives, of course. It’s there in every other aspect of our existence on this good Earth. We are hopeful beings, we strive and and work and desire. Sometimes those things turn out exactly as we envisioned. Most of the time not so much.

I remember when my son began playing baseball. He developed into a pretty good pitcher at a young age, and there was one game where he gave up a home run that lost the game. It crushed him. As the other team was running onto the field cheering, he was standing on the mound trying not to cry.

I went out to the mound and put my arm around him and bucked him up as best I could. Then later, over ice cream, I tried to impart a little bit of stoic wisdom. “Most of life is about losing,” I said. “It’s how we handle the losses that make us or break us.”

I told him that in moments like this, when a home run is given up or such like, I would allow him one great big DANG IT! He could pound his glove as hard as he could. He could feel it for a moment, he could shout, “Dang it!” But after that he was to begin the task of forgetting it and getting ready for the next batter or the next game.

It’s a lesson he learned well. He went on to become one of the best pitchers in the league. During the season he had a bad inning against the strongest team. It was brutal. And they let him know it, the way little boys do. They jeered and threw shade. He pounded his glove as the coach relieved him.

Then came the championship game, and he faced that same team. As he stood on the mound they began to jeer again and try to rattle him. He proceeded to mow them down. And his team won the championship.

I consider that one of the best moments of both our lives.

This is how we should handle disappointment in our writing life. Our book goes out there and doesn’t perform as well as we would like. Or we get a scathing review. Or a rejection from an editor. Or Aunt Hildegard says, “When are you going to grow up and go to dental school?”

Give yourself a great big DANG IT! Pound your glove (but do not kick the dog). Then get back to your keyboard. One of the great truths about writing is that when we are in “the zone,” disappointments melt away. When we come out of the zone, the harshness may try to revisit, but it won’t be as strong. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Let me offer three more bits of stoic wisdom:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others

Comedian Tom Shillue has a great five-minute video on the perils of comparison. Here is part of what he says:

If my happiness were based on being the biggest comedian in the business, I’d be mad at whoever was getting more Netflix specials than me. (I have zero.)

If it were based on having the best TV ratings, I’d be mad at Jimmy Fallon. He beats me every night.

And if it were based on being rich, I’d be mad at a lot of people.

And even if I were rich – really rich, like #10 on the Forbes 400 rich – I’d be mad that there were nine other people richer than me. It never ends.

Comparing yourself to others creates a totally unrealistic measure for what constitutes success. And I know, because the entertainment business is all about unrealistic expectations.

He concludes: “Professional success is about making a living, pursuing excellence, and finding meaning in what you do.” (You might also be interested in this video by the redoubtable Joanna Penn on the dangers of comparing yourself to other writers … and how to get over it.)

  1. Keep expectations in check

While it’s good to set goals, make plans, and take action, watch out for letting expectations build up too much in your mind. We have this wisdom not only from ancient philosophy; there’s also recent data that suggests lowering expectations leads to greater happiness.

For example, if you get nominated for an award, don’t keep picturing your acceptance speech. Don’t dust the mantel twice a day. When you get to the banquet, sit at the table and be a good conversationalist. Try to enjoy the rubber chicken. Then, if your name is called, it’s a bonus. If it’s not, you won’t want to crawl under the table with a bottle of wine (or whine, as the case may be).

As the great John Wooden used to tell his players, “All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”

  1. Worry only about the page in front of you

Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You can’t control the will of agents, editors, critics, readers, awards committees or the IRS. So don’t worry about them. Instead, focus on your daily work. Get into your scene. Think about ways to make it better. That’s what you can control.

The mental aspect of writing is every bit as important as the physical act of typing. Which is why I wrote a whole book on the subject.

Friends, when you’re hit with disappointment, or on the other end with a great reward, remember the Latin phrase (which I had the audacity to make up):

Carpe Typem!

Seize the Keyboard!

What is your go-to method for handling the highs and lows of the writing life?

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23 thoughts on “Riding the Writer Roller-Coaster

  1. Funny, it’s been mostly highs for forever for me, coming from the thrill of putting the material on the page, and the expectation that someone out there — writers groups, beta readers, an agent, a publisher, paying readers — will like some of it. I’m old enough now to know that publication, something I’ve experienced only a few times, will never reach the highs one expects. Got one coming out June 1 (JANE’S BABY, Intrigue Publishing, http://amzn.to/2FUKT5j), fortified with some book signings, readings, etc., and coverage in The Big Thrill. It’s all good, will always be all good, no matter what. The reality is, I just can’t not write. Also a reality, I can’t not write better, so I need to stay the course.

    • Staying the course is the key to all of this, Chris. Nicely put. As for “publication highs,” knowing human nature, I’m not sure anyone, even the A-listers, are immune the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

      Good luck with the new book!

  2. Good morning, Jim

    First, congrats on your new book. It’s keeping me up later at night, and keeping me turning more pages than I would normally read.

    Great advice on dealing with disappointment. I struggle with letting the highs get too high and letting the lows get too low. The best way for me to flatten the peaks and valleys is #2, modulating my expectations. If I don’t get my hopes up so high, the crash is not so devastating.

    Another way that I deal with disappointment, healthy or not, is to hang on to some of the sting of defeat and use that to motivate me to work harder at my goal.

    • Steve, it may be managing those “highs” that’s more of a challenge. I say enjoy them, but don’t expect them to sustain you. I heard a wise man say that in the “pursuit of happiness” don’t go for a 10 … try to get to 7.5 and hover there. If a 10 happens, you take it thankfully, but keep moving ahead steadily.

  3. One of my favorite quotes comes from Babe Ruth. Others may not know that he struck out much more often than he hit a home run. He said,“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
    When I think of that, I know I have a home run in my future.

    • Thanks for quoting the Bambino, Brian. So true. Similar to what Edison said about all the “failures” in the light bulb experiments. He saw each one as an advance, because he knew another way that didn’t work.

      I also like Wayne Gretzky’s line: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

  4. Love all the baseball metaphors. I was struck (Ahem) the other day by a story a famous writer told about his wife. (I was going to use his name until I realized I didn’t know which of the 3 wives he meant.) Anyway, he was ruing how differently writers accept criticism than do other professionals. After a let down, we writers often ask ourselves, “Am I really a writer? No, I’m not. I’ll never be a writer I can’t do this well.” The author’s wife is a ballerina. After a bad rehearsal, her choreographer will say. “Let’s take a break and try again in a few minutes.” So she goes on her break and never questions whether or not she is really a dancer. To rephrase the Babe Ruth quote above: one bad rehearsal moves a dancer closer to a stunning performance.

    • And each book is a learning experience, or can be if you let it.

      BTW, you reminded me that Dean Koontz, with each manuscript, walks into the special library in his home containing copies of all his books, in all the languages, too. He looks at the shelves and says, “I’ve done this before. I can do it again.”

  5. Hi, Jim

    Recognizing how far I’ve come helps in dealing with the highs and lows. I’m running a race with myself, not anyone else, but it’s important to me to acknowledge the milestones I’ve reached. I also double down on what’s on the page, as you say. Finally, getting in some more practice on a particular craft point really helps ground me. Right now, I’m focusing on sentence crafting and style, after spending a long while on structure, plot, character etc. It’s relaxing to concentrate on this fundamental “micro-craft,” and not worry about the ups and downs of my career while I do so.

    • Dale, that’s the main point Joanna Penn makes in her video. Make this a competition with yourself, and look back and see how far you’ve come.

      Then be purposeful as you move forward, as you are. Nicely done.

  6. I’m getting ready to launch my next book, and have the usual “will anyone buy it, and if they do, will anyone like it?” anxieties. And while my personal “room of books” is a single shelf, I do this for the love of writing, as someone above mentioned. I know I’ll never be a Big Name Author, and I set my expectations accordingly.
    I admit to a bit of a “low” when at a recent conference banquet, several Big Name Authors auctioned off character names in their books–for charity–and the bidding was fast and furious. When I tried offering ANYONE who donated ANY amount to a national charity I’ve been supporting in honor of my daughter, I had one taker. But that was one more than if I hadn’t made the offer.
    Meanwhile, I’m doing everything I can to put out the best product I can, enjoying the days when my sales dashboards show peaks, and accepting the days when there are valleys.

    • You are not Aaone, Terry, and I’ll bet that some of those big-name authors were ticked off that they didn’t bring as much as some other big-name authors. Human nature, what are you going to do?

  7. Regarding not comparing yourself to others, have you ever looked at globalrichlist.com? People typically view what they have in terms of what they don’t have, not what they do. You may think you don’t have much, but if you go onto this site and plug in your income and see where it ranks worldwide you may realize you’re doing a lot better than you thought. It puts things in a different perspective.

  8. Great advice, Jim. Hope you and Mrs. B had a wonderful Mother’s Day.

    Laughter and nature are my go-to methods for helping with the lows. If it’s after dark, my husband I watch stand-up comedy on Netflix; it’s the perfect way to drown out the negativity. During daylight hours, we go “exploring.” Country backroads, National State forests, and even our own backyard, offers endless opportunities to admire wildlife. As for the highs, after I share the good news on social media, I get back to work. Neither the highs nor lows last long, but the passion for writing never leaves.

    • I like the idea of exploring, Sue. You have nature and country. I have L.A. My wife and I like to go to obscure corners of the city and discover new places to eat.

  9. I typically spend an hour or so feeling sorry for myself. After a glass of wine and a pat on the shoulder from my hubby, and a couple of “there-there’s” I’m ready to hit again.

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