by James Scott Bell
I know a demoralized writer. [Note: This is a composite portrait, though everything in it is fact based.] Said writer had written a number of good novels for a small house, then landed a two-book contract with one of the Big 5. The first book came out to mostly positive reviews, but not massive sales. The second book had to build on the first and make some serious money to justify the advance. The author worked really, really hard on this novel. It was in a popular genre, had a good title, and a great cover. The writer did all the right things marketing-wise, too.
But the book didn’t hit it big. It got a large number of 2 and 3 star reviews (some 1s as well, but those seem unfair, which is usually the case with 1s). Suffice to say, this has ended the professional relationship of said writer with Big Pub.
This writer has not written anything since. I have suggested the indie route, but this writer does not have the desire to learn a whole new set of tasks. It appears this career, until further notice, is over.
Another writer I know of was given an insane advance and a two-book contract back in the wild 90s, when such deals were not uncommon.
The first book, a thriller, was put out with a big marketing push from the publisher. I remember seeing the book featured prominently in the window of a Barnes & Noble. The bio on the dust jacket described said author as the next big name in action thrillers.
Well, the book tanked. Had it been even a moderate hit, there’s no way it could have sold enough copies to cover the advance.
When the second book came out, the publisher gave it no support. I went to the same B&N to find it. It was not prominently displayed. Indeed, I found only one copy, spine out, in the thriller section. This book died. The author, someone told me later, had fallen into the abyss of strong drink.
For a writer, demoralization is always lurking, waiting to be a soul killer. We can’t let that happen.
We’re talking here about the mental game of writing. (Someone should write a book about that.) It’s every bit as important as the craft. Without the right brain settings our writing will stall, drift, flame out or otherwise suffer. All writers must be ready to meet the challenge of demoralization.
The main cause of which, the philosophers and theologians tell us, is expectations unfulfilled. We set ourselves up to desire a result, and want it so deeply, that when it doesn’t happen devastation is inevitable.
Buddha figured this out and proposed a solution: get rid of all desire!
The Stoics, on the other hand, accepted that we all have desires and dreams and worries and fears. Their key to happiness is learning how to focus your thoughts only on what you can act upon, and forget the all the rest.
As Prof. Massimo Pigliucci puts it in his course Think Like a Stoic:
The Roman writer Cicero explained the Stoic position by considering an archer who is trying to hit a target. The archer can decide how assiduously to practice, which arrows and bow to select, and how to care for them. They also control their focus right up the moment they let go of the arrow. But once the arrow leaves the bow, nothing at all is under the archer’s control. A sudden gust of wind might deflect the best shot, or the target—say, an enemy soldier—might suddenly move.
Hitting the target is what you’re after, so it’s what you pursue. But success or failure does not, in and of itself, make you a good or bad archer. This means that you should not attach your self-worth to the outcome but only to the attempt. Then, you will achieve what the ancients called ataraxia: the kind of inner tranquility that results from knowing you’ve done everything that was in your power to do.
For a writer, then, what is out of your control is how your book does in the marketplace. What you can control are your work habits, study of the craft, and interactions with editors and beta readers. On a daily basis, it’s you and the page. You control what words you put down, and how many.
When the book is published, you control what marketing methods to pursue. You can spend money on ads, put out the word on social media, notify your email list, and beg your mom to buy copies for the entire extended family for Christmas.
But after that, it’s out of your hands. The Stoics would say: Don’t give any thought to outcomes. Eradicate such musings from your mind as a good gardener kills weeds.
I learned this lesson years ago. I won a literary award, the Christy. It was the first year of the awards, so I had no expectations. Thus, I had a good, relaxed time at the banquet, and winning was frosting.
The next year I was a finalist again, but this time I was all hopped up on really wanting to win again. That’s all I thought about in the weeks leading up to the banquet. My stomach churned at the dinner, and not because of the rubber chicken. When I didn’t win I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. This feeling lasted a couple of days.
And then it occurred to me that this was a useless and stupid way to feel.
So I went back to the wisdom of the Stoics (one helpful book is The Stoic Art of Living by Tom Morris).
Cut to: Fifteen years later. I was again up for an award, this one from the International Thriller Writers. I did everything in my mental power not to think about it. When I did, I noted the thought and immediately replaced it with something like, “Stop it!”
My wife and I went to New York for the convention and the banquet. When the finalists in my category were announced, I noted that I was pleasantly serene. Epictetus would have been proud!
When my name was called as the winner, it was an unexpected gift, which is the best kind. All the more because I hadn’t been knotted up with expectations.
I offer this example simply to illustrate that you can control your thoughts. It takes practice. It takes many times when you think, Oh, here’s a thought. Is it about anything within my control? No? Then get outta here! (See also this stoic article.)
So to any demoralized writers out there, if writing is still something you want to do (and, deep down, you know that it is), then do this: keep showing up at the keyboard. Dive bravely and daringly into the daily page. Get lost in the telling of your tale. When you start to think But what if this isn’t good enough? or What if this doesn’t sell? or What if I’m just a talentless doofus? give yourself a quick kick to the cerebrum and write some more.
Do this over and over, and soon your brain will get the message and make it a habit. Demoralization will lose its power over you.
You’ll be a writer again.
“Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you.” – David Eddings
“I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable….If I write rapidly…I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” – Stephen King, On Writing
All of you have faced demoralization at one time or another. How did you handle it? Any advice for a demoralized writer?
I quit writing for years. I don’t recommend that. I didn’t even have a really good reason. Almost everything I sent out was published. Every editor invited me to contact them again. The only thing that didn’t sell was the Civil War book and that agent asked me to do something about Scotland instead. My lone screenplay made the top 3 in a screenwriting contest.
But I wasn’t rich and famous by the time I was 30, therefore I was a failure. (I was also raising two children, working several day jobs, and doing theatre so I was tired).
If you’re a goal-oriented planner (as I am) it’s hard not to go from beginning to end of a dream. – from the greatest idea ever (as I always feel at the beginning) to award banquets and a beach house (which is where my dreams always end up).
These days I do focus on what I can control, which is finishing the work. And I have plenty of unfinished things to take me through the next century.
I still want that beach house, though.
Rich and famous by 30…gee, not such a high bar, right?
I’m a goal setter like you, Cynthia. Goals are what get a dream walking. Then you focus on the steps, each one, with only an occasional glance at the desired end.
Glad to hear you’ve got plenty of projects! If a beach house comes along, we’ll chat more there.
Saw a post that sums this up:
“Focus on the next step, not the whole staircase…”
Tough to do when you’re used to taking ‘em two at a time, tho…
I believe spectacular, early success is a terrible curse for an author. After that, it’s all downhill. Better to be the tortoise than the hare.
I’m bookmarking this wise, wonderful post. I frequently talk with writers struggling with despair. Your words will help them. Your stoic philosophy has certainly helped me through rough times over the years. Many thanks, Jim.
Boy, you’re right about early success, Debbie. We could go through many an example. Back when book critics were all powerful, there was a repeated pattern where an author would have a spectacular first book…then the critics would lie in wait to tear down the next one.
Back in the 90s I also saw repeated the author who got a great contract for their first book and decided to quit the day job to write full time. Oops.
One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received, which I didn’t want to believe at first, was “don’t quit your day job.” Priceless advice.
Good article, Jim. Absolutely. Once I learned to focus on my specific goals and detach myself from Outcome I was free to fly. I haven’t looked back. I added to that the knowledge that I can’t please all readers all the time, another way of letting Outcome go its own way. Now I just write, publish, and let the readers decide. Very freeing.
Wise words you added there, Harvey…you cannot please everyone. In fact, that is a sure way to end up writing drivel.
“Free to fly” is a great way to put it.
I suffered 417 rejections before I sold. I got good at the skills you mention above. Bottom line – you have to remember why you started writing, and I’ll bet it had nothing to do with selling and awards. You’re right – control the hell out of what you can, and when you can’t, let it go.
By the way, that first book? Won a RITA award for Best First Book.
My favorite quote is by Randy Pausch, from The Last Lecture: ‘The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.’
Wow, Laura, inspirational. You are among those writers who piled up the rejections before breaking through…like Mr. Stephen King, who posted his rejections slips on a big nail in the wall, until it was filled up…then he replaced the nail with a spike!
Thanks for adding the Pausch quote, which I’ve read several times. So true.
I came to writing late in life, as a ‘can I learn some new tricks?’ project. I never expected to become famous, but I did win some awards. I made some decent money–enough to walk into the car dealership and pay cash (for a modest car), and into Tiffany for a VERY modest pair of earrings. But my goal was, and still is, to have fun writing books. The money is nice, but it’s gravy. We’re retired empty-nesters, and don’t need my writing income.
As I’ve mentioned in my annual New Year’s Resolutions posts, it’s knowing what you can control and setting goals within those boundaries. The same holds true for writing goals. That’s the main reason I turned to indie publishing. I’m in control.
That’s immensely freeing, Terry, when you can be writing for fun (at the same time, caring about the writing and trying always to get better) and not have the worries of income necessity.
Also freeing is the control of indie publishing, as you say. What I especially like is that a book appears the moment you think it’s ready…an not a year or 18 months later!
Thank you for this insightful piece for writers. Publishing is an unpredictable business with much outside of our control as writers. We have to take our own responsibility and continue on–persistence and consistency is key plus continuing to learn and practice the craft of writing. The only way we get defeated is to quit.
author of 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed
Thanks for stopping by, Terry, and for all the wise words you have had for writers over the years!
Great post, Jim. And VERY important.
In an earlier life (occupation), I became frustrated and unfulfilled when I couldn’t satisfy everybody, all the time. When I finally realized that my expectations unfulfilled were focused on me and my achievement, rather than the service, I finally learned to provide the best service I could for the recipient, and let go. If the recipient was not satisfied, they could go elsewhere. I found fulfilment in giving 110%.
I believe that the expectations unfulfilled also have to do with our motivation. If our motivation is ourselves – wealth and fame – we’ll never be satisfied. Nothing is enough. We’ll always want more. Our expectations will always be unfulfilled. Fulfillment and joy are most likely achieved when our motivation is outside or beyond ourselves – service to family, community, faith, civilization. And fulfillment and joy are the opposite of demoralization.
Have a great weekend!
Wow, Steve. As Plato said to Aristotle, “You’ve said a mouthful.” A lot of great philosophy stuffed into two paragraphs. I especially like the idea of finding fulfillment in giving 110%. There’s a great satisfaction in knowing you’ve done the best you can with what you have…that was John Wooden’s definition of success, too.
“Don’t read your reviews.” Probably the best advice I ever got besides, “Hey – you should check out stoicism.” Thanks for this down-to-earth, no-BS piece Mr. Bell.
Excellent added advice, Garry. I’ve never learned anything from a negative review, so why bother? And the really good ones are fine for a taste, but as they say, don’t let the good publicity go to your head. Keep that head down and working!
I’ve found Stoicism a natural ally of writers. Both death and rejection are inevitable, so we must remind ourselves to make the most of the opportunities we have, and to accept that we cannot control everything.
Mike, Stoicism seems to be making a bit of a comeback these days. It’s really common sense wisdom, when you get right down to it. That’s what people are hungering for, especially in light of all the baloney they are being fed, and find unsatisfying.
Good advice, Jim. Makes me reflect on why do we write?
1. The pleasure of telling a story, creating a world. “Daddy, tell me a story.” How do we respond, assuming we’re not totally wiped by a day of work or totally consumed by out local football team?
2. The pleasure of exploring what makes people tick, how do they handle adversity (and success).
3. The reward of disciplining ourselves to craft the story to the best of our ability.
4. The hope that we’ll get some positive feedback for our writing. This, of course, as you point out, is the bit we can’t control.
Excellent, Eric. I track with your entire comment!
This article resonated with me, Jim. I’ve dealt with demoralization numerous times, and early in my career I let it fester till it paralyzed my creativity. No more, though. I refuse to allow things I can’t control rule me. It’s not an easy lesson to learn. Writers tend to think of books as pieces of themselves rather than products we create. A change in mindset is key to accepting demoralizing situations. Rather than concentrate on failures, I celebrate my small wins along the path to success. In other words, enjoy the journey.
Self-doubt is different, and I doubt it ever goes away. My husband’s usual response during this phase is, “You do this with every book. It’s part of your process.” Alas, he’s not wrong.
Thanks for sharing all that, Sue. You’re right to put demoralization n terms of creative paralysis. That’s exactly what it feels like. But you worked your way through in stoic fashion. And so can we all.
Such an important topic, Jim. I’ve definitely faced demoralization, like many writers. I’ve found that expectations about outcome are indeed at the heart of that demoralization, for me at least. The solution is to remember that the one outcome that I control is the writing itself. Sales might be scarce, a new release might bomb, you might not get an award or even nominated for an award, but the one thing you’ll always own is the writing itself. The writing process belongs to each of us, as does the opportunity to learn.
Failing is part of learning, and fiction writing is a complex process with many moving parts. That’s enough to keep me focused and motivated, and reminds me to let go of expectations (no small task of course).
Also, fiction writing is like having a chest of magical toys you can play with at any time, any where–how cool is that? Plus, seeing writing as play can also help with releasing expectations.
Thanks for another great post. Have a great Sunday!
Also, fiction writing is like having a chest of magical toys you can play with at any time, any where–how cool is that?
That’s a great, focusing thought, Dale. Indeed, Ray Bradbury looked at writing just that way. He did pretty well with it, wouldn’t you say?
Priceless. Thank you, James. I forwarded this to everyone in my mystery-writing group, Monday Mayhem. Almost all of us are traditionally published, small press, and older. Some have won or finaled in book contests. And yet…where are the soaring sales, the NYT and USA Today ratings?
Solution? Re-read above.
Kind words, Carole. Thanks. And all the best to your mayhem mavens.
“,,,you should not attach your self-worth to the outcome but only to the attempt. Then, you will achieve what the ancients called ataraxia: the kind of inner tranquility that results from knowing you’ve done everything that was in your power to do.”
What wonderful wisdom in Professor Pigliucci’s words.
The way I see it is that writing is somewhat of a zero-sum game. Whereas the archer can act alone, shoot the arrow and immediately see if he hit the bullseye, everyone can’t land on the NY Times best seller list. There are millions of writers, many of whom are producing very good work. People can only read so many books, and if they choose someone else’s to read, they may bypass mine. Audience tastes change, superstars come and go, life happens. Focusing on the external reward may miss the most important part of what we do – the ability to touch someone’s life and make them think. We may never know the impact our words have, but we can control the amount of time and effort we put into them.
Well said, Kay! I agree so very much.
Thanks Dale. This is not to say I don’t get discouraged, but I just don’t have any time to give in to it. I’m too busy trying to keep up with JSB’s latest craft books!
Kay, I’ve likened the writing game to a wheel of fortune atop a pyramid. We can control our climb up the pyramid, which is based on production. But once a book is “out there,” how it hits is up to that wheel. Only a few hit the big jackpots…but there is still plenty of other spots on the wheel. Keep spinning.
Very powerful post, JSB.
And I guess I’ve been a Stoic and didn’t know it all this time. I’m going to dive into stoicism more now; thanks for the links.
Some people are naturals at it, Harald, coming to it just the way the stoic philosophers did: by thinking about how they are thinking, and figuring out a more productive way of thought!
Jim, excellent advice. My first award was icing on the cake, because I didn’t really expect it (or have expectations beyond it). The others have been fraught with anxiety. Thanks for sharing this.
I know exactly what you mean, Doc. But you are also one of those late success stories that is an example for all writers. Thanks for stopping by!
Thanks for the pep talk and sound practical advice, Jim. Sharing!
Happy to do it, Jodie!
My path into publishing was filled with so much disappointment and near misses I became an expert at failure in my almost 20 year path to selling a book. I reached the point where success seemed scarier than failure. PRO TIP: It was.
Even my “the call” moments were Zen calm because I knew that that publisher and that agent could disappear or disappoint because I’d seen too much. They did. The agent destroyed my name in traditional publishing through her own illegal acts, and all her clients were black listed. (Publishing makes no fudging sense!) That’s one of the primary reasons I helped start the ebook movement. I had no real choice. My career was a great example of prepare for the best yet expect the worst. I retired not from too many failures, though, but from the exhaustion of having others implode my career through stupidity.
As someone who has watched other writers’ career paths, I’ve seen instant success authors with a number of bestsellers walk away forever when an editor wanted a few changes. I’ve watched others reinvent themselves over and over again. One very talented cozy author and friend of many years has reinvented herself more times than I can count. At least four new series, two name changes, and a dip into romantic horror as the editor of anthologies. At Christmas we exchanged catch up emails, and I told her how excited I was for the next book in her current series. Her publisher has decided to drop their mystery line so no new book. Fortunately, she was able to get all her rights back, and she’s in the process of self-publishing her backlist as well as the new book. Never say die!
The moral of this long and depressing story is don’t be a diva who won’t change anything and be willing to reinvent yourself when you need to.
That is indeed another thing out of our control—the unscrupulous. Bouncing back from that is a hard road. The stoics would have called it “wrestling with God” (in their pantheistic understanding of deity) in order to train us into stronger wrestlers.
“Don’t be a diva” is another bit of sound advice.
I follow a couple of other writing blogs, and this morning’s weekly newsletter dovetails nicely with today’s post, Mr. Bell.
It’s too long to cut-n-paste here, but the subject heading was: “What does it mean to you to be a writer?” – followed by “What does your writing mean to you?” – and the whole thing wrapped up with:
“Once you know your why, you can focus on that, and quit wasting energy on the aspects of writing that don’t mean as much to you. And that frees up mental bandwidth to focus on your work, hence allowing… improvement…”
That is a fine summation, George. Thanks. We have got to protect our bandwidth!
I wasn’t happy with the ending of my first novel and wished it were better. I put it on the shelf after I sent it out a few times and had it rejected a few times.
Eventually I said, “This novel is about as good as it’s ever going to be. Let’s ship it: like they said in the WWII shipyard, “The ones that float are ship, and the ones that sink are submarines.” But the main thing is, I need the headspace for my next novel.
As it turned out, the novel was a submarine. But I’m working on novels again: much better ones, because I learned things in the meantime that simply couldn’t be applied to that novel, because they called for a whole different approach. Deciding not to let my first novel be a pair of cement overshoes was a great decision.
Re advances: To a certain extent, it’s an agent’s job to get the publisher to pay a stupidly large advance for a novel, because it’s the only sure money. On the other hand, it’s also the agent’s job to place the first novel beyond the current contract. How much should one resist a publisher’s euphoria? And HOW do you resist a publisher’s euphoria? Sounds pretty contagious to me! I really, really, REALLY want to learn these things from first-hand experience!
I recall the writer, editor and teacher Sol Stein warning about first time authors taking huge advances, and listing a few examples where that ruined the career. His advice was not to seek such a large advance, but it is awfully hard to turn down the money when it’s offered to you. And then you have your agent who would think you were foolish to do so. I can’t think of any writer who did this, though there must be an example or two out there.
Ka-ching is a very seductive sound.
James—Sol Stein was also a publisher. OF COURSE he advised not to take such a large advance. LOL
There are advantages to a large advance. The publisher is motivated to promote the book in an effort to make back the advance. The large advance is a mark of publisher enthusiasm and will help w foreign/film sales.
If the book disappoints, at least the writer has the money and can reinvent him/herself. New genre, pen name—you know, the usual suspects.
Yes, that was the “argument,” that the publisher would be motivated to market and push…only, as in the case of the writer I mentioned in the piece (and others) when the book did NOT take off, they let the next one die…and with it, the author became “damaged goods.”
At least now we have the greatest “re-invention machine” ever known…INDIE! Many writers have been able to find a solid second career there.
Good blog, Jim. I’m traditionally published, and my career has had its ups and downs. I depend on my agent, my husband, and my friends — they always get me through the bad times and back to writing. Not sure that’s helpful, but it works for me.
I think it’s essential, Elaine, to have a support system. You have one, and that’s a good thing. My wife has helped me through a number of disappointments.
Reminds me of a saying many of us have heard. “He who has no expectations, shall not be disappointed.”
I love aphorisms, Bob. Thanks!
“Cross country skiing is great if you live in a small country.” – Steven Wright
Wow. I’m a stoic and didn’t have a clue. When my first book came out I worried about sales until I realized books sales were out of my control.
Like others I came to this writing gig late in life so I don’t have time to worry about things I can’t control. Great post, Jim. I have several people I plan to send it to.
Thanks, Patricia. Glad to help
Thanks for this insightful post, Jim,
I made a pact with one of my friends from my writing group in the Bay Area to keep showing up at the keyboard no matter what. We joked writing was a war of attrition and so our motto was ‘never attrit!’ :))
Love it, Clare. Great motto. Here’s another:
“Keep Calm and Write On.”
Thanks for the post. The story you told sounded so similar to mine that I wondered if you had heard of me…LOL. But nobody has. I am the the best paid and most critically acclaimed writer nobody has heard of. But I didn’t turn to drink so it wasn’t me 🙂 even though I wouldn’t judge anyone who did. I sold my first two tender romances myself to a wonderful family owned publisher that is long gone called Avalon Books. Not much money but I was overjoyed. I had a thriller in me so I wrote it. I had a lot of interest from agents so I knew I was on to something. Plus my sister who is an English teacher sat up until 3 a.m. reading the draft on a camping trip. I knew my book was awesome. I got picked up by John Grisham’s agency in NY. We sold at a pre-empt to auction to one of the Big 5. They insisted on a two-book deal. The money was so big I did almost fall off my chair. I got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and made their Top 100 Books List. Got nominated for an award from RWA. We sold the rights overseas and my book was translated into other languages for even more money. It was a dream. And then ….you could guess the rest….a lot of things went wrong. To cut a long story short I wrote 7 more novels that didn’t sell. No matter what I tried (and I did try a lot) I finally developed writer’s block so bad I couldn’t focus on pacing. The characters didn’t come alive and speak to me any more like they did in the beginning. My voice on the page finally dried up. I went back to work f/t a few years ago. We needed money. I am much happier (worrying about money is a horrible thing). Very sad. I found no way around it. When people bring it up now I feel as though that part of my life was a dream. I do still have one story inside I want to tell, one more thriller. It is a very high mountain to climb though. I hope I get back to it one day in the not too distant future because for me there is nothing more wonderful than knowing people enjoyed my books.
Oh my gosh, Margaret! What a story. I wish you only the best as you get to that book crying to get out. I daresay expectations will not be your hurdle this time around.
Carpe Typem! Seize the Keyboard!
We walked a similar path, Margaret. Right now, I am in a self-imposed respite from novel writing. I don’t miss it. But I probably will. This has been a terrible year of upheaval and reassessments for everyone — some of us suffered hardly at all; others had their lives turned upside down. I needed this time off for family and friends in a miniaturized world. Things will bloom and enlarge again, I trust.
Thanks Kristy. I went through a lot and looking back, I was like a babe in the woods for people who saw me coming from a mile off. Probably starting with a bad agent. Not uncommon! I was just super strong out of the gate so it is super weird. KillZone blog really helps. It reminds me that I was (or am) still a writer inside:)
Sir James –
An outstanding post.
Thank you –
Great advice, Jim. I especially like the David Eddings quote about “calluses on the soul.” Just so. Thanks!
All writers who’ve hung around long enough can relate to that quote, Joe. Thanks.
Go to any conference or convention and ask an author why she or he writes, and more often then not you’ll get an odd expression and the response, “I can’t not write.” So, the process, the journey, for most of us, is what matters. It’s in the doing that we find both the lows and the highs.
But after five agents, six publishers, hundreds of rejections, 15 published novels, starred reviews, some minor awards and a Thriller Award nomination that comprise a 35-year career as a commercially unsuccessful mystery/thriller author, demoralization is a familiar word, and not always unwarranted.
To use the “if a tree falls…” puzzle as an example, a falling tree in a forest creates waves, but those waves are not “sound” until ears and a brain to interpret those waves hear them. Writers are storytellers. And while it’s all well and good to find pleasure, joy and pride in creating a good story, it’s not of much use without a reader. It doesn’t serve a greater purpose, in other words, than occupying a writer’s time, a more disciplined form of daydreaming.
In a reply to a comment you said,
“I’ve likened the writing game to a wheel of fortune atop a pyramid. We can control our climb up the pyramid, which is based on production. But once a book is “out there,” how it hits is up to that wheel. Only a few hit the big jackpots…but there is still plenty of other spots on the wheel. Keep spinning.”
To have no expectations as a writer, to be Stoic, suggests we should be nothing more than self-disciplined daydreamers. But I doubt there are any of us who don’t want people to read and be moved by our words in some way. Putting a book “out there” is both harder and easier than ever—harder to find agents and traditional publishers, and easier to self-publish. But to actually reach readers is the true challenge. And to publish a book, get a starred review from PW and then sell ten copies is, frankly, demoralizing, even when our expectations are low (my daydreams include reaching more than a few readers).
Will I write another book? Since I can’t not write, I suppose someday I will. But I’m tired, so tired. What convinces me that I will go on is the kind of comment I got from a woman who said her husband read one of my old books, loved it and thought it should be made into a movie. “There’s always a new fan,” she said. “Never stop.”
There’s a lot to chew on in your comment, Michael. I get it. To pound away all those years without the big hit or a swath of fans, yeah, demoralization can catch up with you. Though you might want to slap him, a Stoic would say, “It is what it is.” Now it’s a matter of what we do with it. The Stoics admit we all have feelings, often strong. They just didn’t want feelings to be our master. Not always easy, I grant you.
I do appreciate how you ended your comment. “There’s always a new fan. Never stop.” Yes, a thin reed to grab onto. And yes, it can be tiring to come to the keyboard yet again. I don’t think a season of rest is uncalled for. Our own P.J. Parrish is in such a season now.
I would take slight issue with the phrase “nothing more than self-disciplined daydreamers.” Perhaps a Stoic would put it this way: “A daydreamer with the self-discipline to keep daydreams from stopping his production.”
I will agree that “five agents, six publishers…a 35-year career as a commercially unsuccessful mystery/thriller author” makes that a harder thing to accomplish. Epictetus was a slave whose leg was permanently damaged by his master. Yet he wrote: “Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.”
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Michael. I do hope you continue to write and find those new fans.