Letter to a Discouraged Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My man,manwriting

Here’s the thing. You got yourself good enough to get a publishing contract back in the “old days” when you needed to impress an agent, get repped, get shopped, and then sign on with a house. Your books came out with nice covers, some marketing, some placement. You did book signings and conference appearances. Three books I think it was, right?

So what happened? Sales weren’t enough to earn back the advance. And not enough to get another contract from the publishing house.

There’s an author support group for that. It’s called “Practically Everyone” and they meet at the bar.

I don’t know the exact percentage, but most fiction authors who ever lived never caught on in a big way. Many used to manage a “midlist career” which meant at least enough sales to keep on publishing, though not enough buy a yacht.

So you went through a dry period. Your agent shopped you but without success. So you parted ways. That was a tough time for you. You wondered if you’d ever get published again.

A couple of your colleagues, myself included, suggested you ought to look into self-publishing. That was four or five years ago. You said you didn’t have the desire to learn “all that stuff.” You just wanted to write.

Then you found another agent, a newer one, and he thought you ought to start over with a pen name. So you did. And he got you a contract. (See? You are still good enough!) Yes, it was a smaller house, so the advance and marketing were minimal. You got some good reviews for the new book, which was to be the start of a series.

But the book went nowhere. And the publisher decided not to bring out the next book. (To hear more stories like this, go to the next Practically Everyone meeting at the bar).

Then your agent got out of the business.

You told people, That’s it. I’m done. Goodbye, writing. No use. Never again.

Your colleagues gave you a pass the first time you expressed this. We all understood. But when you did it again, I decided to write you this letter.

Look, bud, are you a writer or aren’t you? I’m not talking about someone who has a contract. I’m talking about someone who has this yearning to tell stories because you’ve been caught up in storytelling dreams and you want to do that for other people.You long to move them, entertain them. Is that you? Then you’re a writer.

And as such, you’re subject to the slings and arrows of this crazy business. The question is, what are you going to do when you get a few arrows in the keister?

You can give up. Or you can go see Miracle Max. (You’re only mostly dead!) And when you can sit comfortably again, self-publish.

Sure, it takes effort to learn what to do. But no more effort than it took you to learn how to write a good scene.

I know, I know. You’ve heard about that massive “sea of content” out there. Yes, you’ll be starting out as a minnow. But at least you’ll be alive and swimming. The beach, meanwhile, is covered with rotting kelp and flies and the bones of writers who gave up.

When you self publish, you’ll instantly be better off than you are now. Like the old prospector said, “A handful of somethin’ is better than a cartload of nothin’.”

It’s within your power to make it happen. Think about that. You’re not at the mercy of a corporation or committee, or the shrinking shelf space in bookstores. You are your own captain, your own boss.

You say you’re not a particularly fast writer. Well, fine, here’s my advice: write to a quota and stick to it. Find out how many words you can comfortably write per week. Then up that by 10%. You have to have extend yourself a little. Even the lowly oyster needs a bit of grit to make a pearl.

Do you want to be outclassed by an oyster?

Get out of your shell, man. Start by putting out short stories and novellas. Get them out there and in the Kindle Select program. Use the free promotion to move units. Set up an email list with a service like MailChimp or Vertical Response, and make it easy for readers to sign up on your website. Put a sign-up link in the back of your books.

This is your foundation. Meanwhile, work on a full-length novel. Continue your series if you like. Or write that book that’s been tugging at your heart. Keep at it—quota, steady pace. The pages mount up like magic.

You will make some money. How much? It depends. The formula is quality + production + time. Do your best every time out. Keep on doing it.

For the rest of your life.

That’s what I said. Because you’re a writer.

Am I right?

You’re bloody well right I’m right.

So write! You’ve come too far to give it all up now.

Your pal,
Jim

P. S. You still owe me that ten spot, but if you write a thousand words tomorrow, we’ll call it even. Deal?

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Even Writers Get the Blues

James Scott Bell

@jamesscottbell


Recently, TKZ’s own Jordan Dane wrote about getting through the “slumps.” I wanted to add to that, because all writers are subject to the writing blues from time to time.

Why should this be?
First of all writers, like most artists, are prone to highs and lows of the mind. One of the best things I ever wrote is a short story, “I See Things Deeply,” about a crazy uncle who was a poet, and suffered for it. But—But!—in return he saw things most men never see. He experienced life in a way that was richer and more colorful than the poor conformists who trudge through existence in the tight shoes of the ordinary.
This is also the theme of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. I was lucky enough to see a production starring Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hulce. It’s about a psychiatrist trying to help a disturbed stable boy with a horse fixation. In probing the boy’s demons the doctor is forced to look at his own rather dull life. What has he sacrificed by being so (to put it bluntly) normal?
At one point, he says, “But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than any I have felt in my life. And let me tell you something, I envy it. That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time: At least I galloped, when did you?”
Yes, but there is a cost to such vision. A multi-published friend of mine recently wrote this in an e-mail [used by permission]–
I do get blue and I do have doubts about being a fake or writing a good book. I get moody. I want to be alone at times. Other times I want to be a social butterfly. It’s a constant battle and sometimes I win. Other times, I just let the blues take over and wait for the fog to lift. Then I go back to my own little world where they at least understand me. 🙂  I’m no Zelda, but … I sure understand her fears.    
There is some science to back up the bluish tendencies of “creatives.” And of course we were all shocked by the suicide of one of the great creative artists of our time, Robin Williams. Shocked but perhaps not surprised. 
Further, we writers have many opportunities to sabotage ourselves. There are myriad things we can get anxious about: Am I any good after all? Why did that reader give me 1 star? How can I get anybody to notice my book? Why can’t I get an agent? Why is so-and-so doing so much better than I am? What’s my Amazon rank today? THAT’S my Amazon rank?
So it seems that the “writing blues” are a necessary adjunct to the artistic enterprise. But there are some things we can do to keep them from running roughshod over us.  
1. Learn to be grateful for what you’ve got
So you’ve self-published a novel and have only five downloads this year. First of all, realize you have been given a gift, the gift of getting your book out there for potential readers, of which you now have five (and yes, we WILL count your brother-in-law). Start by being grateful that you can type, that you can tell stories, that your imagination is on the move. And that you can learn to be a better writer. Which leads to:
2. Set up and follow a rigorous self-study program
The nice thing about writing is that there are abundant resources available for you to get stronger in the craft. Books published by Writer’s Digestand online by some really good people like K. M. Weiland, C. S. Lakin and Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. There are websites like Storyfix and The Plot Whisperer and the one you are reading now.
There is a page dedicated to my own offerings, which books I’ve labored to make easily readable and practical for writers of every stripe.
When you work at something, you’re being proactive. Activity is one sure way to drive the blues away. Do this: Take an objective look at your writing (you may need an outside source, like a freelance editor, for this). Determine the three weakest areas in your writing (Plotting? Style? Characterization? Dialogue?) and then find resources on them and study them out. Practice the techniques you learn.
I guarantee it will make you feel better. I love the craft and still diligently study it, but also remember this:
3. Write wild on your first drafts
Despite persistent internet claims to the contrary, Hemingway never said that writing means you sit down at the typewriter and bleed (it was actually sports writer Red Smith who talked about “opening a vein”). But it’s a proper sentiment for the writer. Give each scene you write the most creative and wild investment that you can. Get into “flow” by “being here now.” When you are in the zone, the blues disappear.
You all know about that “inner editor” that needs to be silenced when you write. Don’t think too much when you’re actually composing. That was Ray Bradbury’s great advice. He would start writing in the morning and “explode.” Then he spent the latter part of the day picking up the pieces.
Write hot. Then edit cool.
4. Know you are not alone
If you haven’t already, sometime soon you’ll get a case of the “review blues.” You are in good company. Even some of the best books of all time have their critics.
All writers (with the possible exception of Lee Child and Stephen King) face the-lack-of-sales blues, the envy-blues, the who-am-I-fooling blues and variations thereon. Which is why many a writer of the past turned to the demon rum for solace. Bad bargain. Instead:
5. Try exercise
It works. Get those endorphins pumping.
Another thing I do between writing stints: lie on the floor with my feet up on a chair. Then deep breathe and relax for about ten minutes. The blood flows to the gray cells and gives them a bath. The boys in the basement get to work. And I feel energized when I get up.
You’re a storyteller and the world needs stories––even if you have to slog through the swamp of melancholy to tell them. In fact, it may be that this very dolefulness is the mark of the true artist.
So stay true. Stay focused. And keep writing.
Do you ever get the “writing blues”? What do you do about them?

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10 Ways to Sabotage Your Writing

This writing life has enough gremlins—rejection, bad reviews, economic uncertainty, short actors playing your 6’5” hero in a movie version—that a writer shouldn’t be adding his own. Here are the top ten to watch out for. Maybe you have some to add to the list: 

1. Thinking about your career more than about your writing
Guess what? No matter where you are in your writing career you can always find a reason to be unhappy about it. You’re unagented and you want to get an agent. You’re unpublished and you want to be published. You’re published and you want to be read. You’re read but not read in the numbers you hoped. You’ve gone indie and your books aren’t selling enough to buy you a monthly mocha.
You can always find something to be unhappy about. What you ought to do is write more. When you’re into your story and you’re pounding the keys and you’re imagining the scene and you’re feeling the characters, you’re not camping out in the untamed country of unfulfilled expectations.
It’s fine to plan. In fact, I’ve written a paper to help you do that. But once the planning is done, get to work.
2. The comparison trap
I’ve written a whole post on this one. What good is it going to do you to look at somebody else’s success and hit the table and cry out for justice? Writing is not just. It just is. You do your work the best you can and you let the results happen, because you can’t manipulate them. You can’t touch them, you can’t change them, you can’t fix them. You can only give it your best shot each time out.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” – Epictetus
3. Ranking Obsession
Another thing you can’t control is your ranking on Amazon or the various and sundry bestseller lists. Or sure, there are things writers do to try and “game the system.” The paid reviews scandal was one of the more egregious examples of this.  But in the end, the game playing is not worth the knot in the stomach.
Don’t worry about rankings and lists. Worry about your word count, plot and characters. If you do the latter well, the former will take care of itself.
4. Envy
Another useless emotion. But it seems to be a part of most writers’ lives. Ann Lamott and Elizabeth Berg both lost friendships over it. Envy has even driven authors to set up sock puppet identities not merely to hand themselves good reviews, but to leave negative reviews for their rivals’ books.
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30). Try to have a heart at peace by getting back to your story while, at the same time, developing the next one. 
5. Trying to be the next James Patterson. . .
. . . or J. K. Rowling, or Michael Connelly. Wait a second. We already have those. And they are the best at being who they are.
Become the leading brand of you, not the generic brand of someone else sitting on the shelf at the 99¢ store.
This is not to say don’t write in the same genre or try to do some of the good things other writers do. We can certainly learn from those we admire.
But when we write, we have a picture in our heads, a sort of writer self-image. And if we imagine our books being treated like Connelly’s books, or we see ourselves in LA Magazine interviewed like Connelly, we’ll just end up writing like a second-rate Connelly.
Do that and you stifle the thing that has the chance to set you apart—your own voice. 
6. “I’m not good enough to make it.”
That’s not the issue. The issue is: do you want to write? Do you really?  Do you want it so much that if you don’t write you’re going to feel diminished in some way, and for the rest of your life?
You should feel like you don’t really have a choice in the matter. Writing is what you must do, even if you hold a full time job. Even if you chase a passel of kids around the house. You find your time and you keep writing. Keep looking to improve. You can improve. I’ve got hundreds of letters from people who have validated this point.
7. Fear
Fear of failing. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of what your writing might say about you. We are actually wired for fear. It’s a survival mechanism.
So it has a good side so long as it is not allowed to go on. In fact, when you fear something in your writing it may be a sign that this is the place you need to go. This is where the fresh material may be. You need to go there, and assess it later.
8. Hanging on to discouragement
When my son was first pitching Little League baseball, he’d get upset when someone got a key hit or homer off him. This would affect the rest of his performance. So I gave him a rule. I told him he could say “Dang it!” once, and hit his glove with his fist. This became the “one Dang It rule.” It helped settle him down and he went to a great season and a victory in the championship game.
When discouragement comes to you, writer friend (and it will), go ahead and feel it. Say “Dang it!” (or, if you’re alone, exercise your freedom of speech as you see fit). But time yourself. Give yourself permission to feel bad for thirty minutes. After that, go to the keyboard and start writing again.
9. Loving the feeling of being a writer more than writing
The most important thing a writers does, said the late Robert B. Parker, is produce. Don’t fall into the trap of writing a few words in a journal, lingering over the wonderful vibrations of being alive with the tulips of creativity budding within your brain, and leaving it at that.
You’ve got to get some sweat equity going in this game. I don’t mean you have to crank it out like some pulp writer behind in his rent (though I like this model myself). But you do have to have some sort of quota, even if it is a small one. Writing only when you feel like it is not the mark of a professional.
10. Letting negative people get to you
Illegitimi non carborundum.
Next time that know-it-all says you haven’t got the stuff to be a writer, smile and repeat this Latin phrase. And as he looks at you puzzled, turn your back, get to your computer, and proceed to prove him wrong.
And plan to make 2013 the most productive year of your writing life. 

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