Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
August 2011

What We Control -- And What We Don't

I remember when I was in junior high and high school, I would write a long list of goals every year. It's the American New Year's tradition, isn't it? We all want to lose weight, and if we make a goal of it, write it down and post it, refer to it frequently, then it must come true, right? Well, mostly wrong. At least, it was wrong in the way that I did it at the time. In high school, I wrote down my goals, looked at them now and again, but mostly they were wishes rather than goals. On the list every year for about ten years from age twelve to twenty-two, mostly at the number one slot, was "get a book published." And in that time, I never got a book published. It was very disappointing to go back and look at my list of goals at the end of every year and realize that the one that mattered the most to me I had failed at.

Lest you think that I was lazy, I did actually have a couple of novels written that I wanted to get published. When I say that it was a "wish" to get published, I don't mean that I did nothing. I just mean that I didn't know what the steps were to getting published. And I got distracted. I had other things in my life, occupying my time, as most writers do. I was a full-time student in high school and then college. I had a steady boyfriend and disapproving parents to evade. I had friends to go shopping with and scholarships to earn. I also read a lot, not just books that were assigned, but everything. Cheap romances and classics. I checked German novels out of the college library that weren't assigned and read them, too, just for fun. Or rather for self-improvement. I wrote essays for classes and graded essays for a job. I was doing things that looking back on now, I can see were useful steps on the path to becoming published. But I didn't see it then.

I even sent out my novels occasionally to publishers. As a teen, I cherished the single rejection letter I got from a local publisher, inviting me to submit again and complimenting me on my writing. I especially liked the fact that I had never mentioned my age, and that no one had questioned whether or not my writing was up to the standard adult level of publication. But I never sent that novel out to another publisher.

In my twenties, I learned from this mistake and sent out literally dozens and dozens of query letters, all on the same (bad) novel. I had no idea who anyone was, had no contacts in the field, but I knew that you had to send something out to get published, so that's what I did. I didn't have any idea who a good agent might be. I didn't do things like look at the house publishing books that I liked (something I do routinely now -- before I even read the first sentence). I didn't turn to the acknowledgments page and find out what agent had sold the book or what editor had edited it. I didn't look at lists of clients or writers for people I submitted to.

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Then, when I got an agent at age 30, I was so relieved not to have to go through this painful process that I let him handle everything. I stopped writing short stories. I focused almost completely on novels, and if I wrote short stories, I would send them out to an editor I had met at a conference, and that was it. If I was rejected, I would tell myself that the story must need more work, look it over, and if I couldn't figure out what it needed, I would set it aside and the story would essentially join the pile of dead stories that in my mind had no chance of ever being accepted. If my agent told me he didn't like a novel, I would give up on it, too.

It might not be surprising to you to discover that I began to experience more and more anxiety as a writer. It was surprising to me, however. I thought that being published and having a track record for sales would mean that I would feel more confident about myself. My anxiety was not about writing manuscripts. That I can do just fine. I am very comfortable sitting at my computer desk, pounding out words. I feel that I have become more adept at telling stories the way I want to tell them the first time around. Or at least knowing how to fix them when they need to be fixed. What I had become paralyzed by was my own rejection. I would work on something, sometimes finish it, but then I wouldn't know what to do with it. I enjoy experimenting and when I did so, I knew it did not fit into current categories of publishing, so I would sit on my own manuscripts, not even sending them to my agent, or simply giving up if he admitted that he, also, did not know who might publish such a thing.

Lest you think of me as a pathetic, cringing writer who could not leave her house, I will hasten to add here that there are many things that I became more confident about as a writer. I used to collapse in paroxysms of fear just thinking about being asked to give a speech or speak to a group of other writers. The idea of addressing school children about writing seemed more terrifying than asking my father for money had been as a teenager. I spent years refusing to attend conferences because I could not imagine the courage it would take to walk into a room of strangers and introduce myself to them one by one. And yet, I can do all of these things easily now. I have learned that I have certain limits and that I can only deal with strangers for a certain number of hours before needing a break, but I know how to leave quietly and come back later. Or how to schedule public speaking so that I don't feel like I will start babbling incoherently. Well, anymore than usual.

My point here is that in the normal course of things, we humans become better at the things that we work at. To use an exercise analogy (you knew that was coming, didn't you?), your body adapts to physical stress. Your muscles tear apart and regrow stronger. Your heart learns to beat more efficiently. And then you can push yourself again, further and harder. We don't all have the same capacity to adapt endlessly, but we all do adapt. It was happening in other areas of my life, but it wasn't happening in this one area, dealing with rejection and my own anxious assessment of my work.

Then one day I was talking to a writer friend Tobias Buckell, and mentioned my anxieties. He told me quite simply that I needed to figure out what I was in control of as a writer, and make goals about what was in my control. Making goals that were outside of my control would only make me neurotic. Then he likened writers in general to neurotic animals who, having learned one way to be successful at writing, were then stuck in a maze where the rules changed every moment and they got completely random rewards. These animals spent much of their mental energy trying to figure out if this particular kind of scratching of their side produced the desired reward. Does this sound familiar to you? It sounded very familiar to me.

What do we as writers control? It's easy to say that we control nothing at all, and that lightning just strikes and we have no idea how to do it again. That's obviously not true. It's also easy to pretend once you've become successful that you know how to do it and that you just keep having to do the same thing. Most writers have found that this is also untrue in the long run. The rules change. The economy changes. E-books are changing things. Borders has gone out of business. The independents may be on the rise again. Harry Potter changed everything. Then Twilight changed it again. Hollywood is a bigger part of the book industry than ever before. Publishers are now accepting fewer and fewer unagented submissions. Contracts are changing. You get the idea?

So I ask again, what do we control as writers? This is what I came up with:

  1. We control when we write. You as a writer have to make a regular schedule to write. I won't say that you have to have my schedule. You may be a writer who works in spurts. Or you may be a plodder like me, spending a couple of hours every day on a manuscript. I don't care what method you use. I'm just saying that the writing doesn't happen without you. You have to actually sit down and type the words out. It doesn't getting any easier by postponing it again and again.
  2. We control where we write. I write in my office almost every day. Occasionally, I try to force myself to move elsewhere in the house or to try to write while I am traveling. It can happen. But it's not my most productive spot. Find out where works for you, and use it. I have friends who go on writing vacations to exotic locales with other writers and instead of being a tourist, like I would be, they actually write. Sometimes it also helps to turn off the internet at times. This doesn't work for me. I use the internet as a carrot to spur me forward, but know yourself.
  3. We control learning to write better. This is, in my opinion, largely done by reading. Sometimes critique groups can help. They can also hurt. Ditto conferences.
  4. We control our own health. I know, we don't control everything about our health. Certainly some people have to deal with tougher situations than I've had to deal with. Cancer, Parkinson's, Diabetes, Strokes. They happen and sometimes even to the healthiest of us. But we do have some control over preventative care, and even if something has struck us, we can still choose to do what we can to keep healthier, if not at one hundred percent. Writers sometimes think that they should focus only on the writing, but I think you need to remember that you are a machine. A complex machine, yes. But you need to take the machine in for checkups. You need to keep the machine well oiled. If you don't, it won't work properly.
  5. We control who we associate with. Relationships are important to humans. We need our tribal connections. Some people find these connections in a church setting. Other people find them in other service opportunities. I would recommend that you don't have only other writer friends. I think this makes writers too insulated. It makes us forget what non-writers are like, and most of the world is non-writers. It can be fun to write a novel about a writer, but you can't write every novel about what it's like to be a writer. And let's face it, writers are well, crazy to a certain extent. I'm one of them. I know it. I love books and story and that passion is important for me as a writer, but it's also good to remember that there is a world out there. Healthy relationships help keep the machine oiled, as well. They keep us from being distracted by the poison that can destroy our ability to write. So spend time getting and keeping healthy relationships.
  6. We control what we send out, and to whom. Toby suggested that I begin to reward myself for collecting rejections rather than my current plan of merely rewarding myself for sales. This is absolutely what I need to do for myself, and I have now set a goal to collect one hundred rejections before the end of the year (I have about twenty at the moment, so I'd better keep working at it!) This also has the advantage of forcing me to get used to rejection, and to stop rejecting myself before anyone else has a chance to. Yes, I may be embarrassed in the future about some of the things I sent out. But I think it's the only way to keep writing, to keep fresh. You have to take chances.
  7. We control who we choose to associate with in the publishing world. What I mean by this is the temptation that we as writers sometimes have to ignore the problems we see with a certain publisher, editor, or agent, because we want so much to be published that we decide we don't care. I have seen many of these relationships blow up and almost always there is an admission that the writer knew it was the wrong thing, but couldn't help it. You can help it. Don't sign a contract that is bad. Don't put your career into the hands of someone who is unstable and could ruin it. Don't think that if someone has turned on someone else, that you are going to dodge the bullet. Next time, it will be you.
  8. We control our on-line presence. I have been known to say in public that I don't believe that the kind of marketing authors do for themselves makes one bit of difference. That is perhaps too strong. But on the other hand, I wouldn't suggest spending most of your time marketing your book. Half and half might be a good goal to reach for. But when you are on-line, remember you are in public. Be nice. All those rules. You know them already. Don't bash other authors' books. Don't bad talk agents and publishers. Don't be mean to readers, even if they post nasty reviews.

I think if we focus on the things we DO have control over, we will tend to be less neurotic, but only if we also accept that these are the things we have no control over:

  1. When we are published. I believe we do our part in writing the best that we can, but that's all. The rest is luck. Yeah, people who work hard have the best luck, but they still have to rely on luck. Keep writing, and it will happen. But don't set yourself time schedules that you don't control.
  2. How much money we are offered. You can control which agent you go after. You can do your best to understand the market. But comparing your initial offer to another writer's is only going to make you crazy.
  3. What we write. I know there are people who believe that they control this. I think they are wrong. Very wrong. Perhaps we can shape it a little. But the stories that we believe in, the stories that we need to tell, they are hard-wired into us. They are part of our growing up years, our genetics, our strengths and weaknesses as people. They are part of our journey. I think trying to find what you want to write is hard enough. I don't try to complicate it by adding to that the desire to write what someone else writes because I love it or because I want to make money.
  4. What our sales numbers are like. I'm as bad as anyone on this, checking the ridiculous amazon numbers even before my books come out. We can do signings and tours, if our publishers invites us (something else we don't control), but mostly the best thing we can do is write the next book. I'm afraid that the lessons we as authors think we are learning from talking to other authors about sales numbers are utterly wrong. Anecdotal evidence is not scientific.
  5. What reviews/awards we get. I don't believe trying to write for good reviews affects reviews much. I don't believe that writers can write to awards, either. I've heard rumors about authors who try to get their own books on short lists for awards, but I don't think it helps in the long run. Call me naïve if you like. I actually think I'm just over the whole awards thing.

After years spent in grad school, I think I had a really good look at what happens in academia and which books can be chosen for special status as "classics." I've seen the sausage being made and I don't care much about being sausage. There are plenty of authors I love who will never be seen as classics, such as Tolkien, because of genre prejudice. And there are authors like Jane Austen who have been grudgingly accepted because they are truly great.

It doesn't affect long-term popular reading of these novels at all. There will always be underground classics that people read for fun and pass on to their children. And then there will be the books that we are forced to read and be examined on for classwork. I know which I prefer to be.

  1. What our book covers look like. I appreciate it when my editor gives me a look at an early cover. But I'm not sure that I know that much about marketing books. There are writers who do studies on book covers and their appeal to audiences. I'm not one of them. I hope for excitement in the house for the manuscript and I hope that the excitement will lead to time spent by others on my team. I try not to tell them rudely how to do their jobs. There are times when I will consult with my agent about how to delicately say what I feel I need to say. I'm not saying book covers don't affect sales. I'm just saying that at the end of the day, I have to let go of this one.
  2. Editors leaving the business/publishers going out of business/chain bookstores going bankrupt. You are a writer. You are above these things. They may be nasty wrinkles, but you will rise again. Don't allow this to keep you up at night. The sky is not falling.
  3. Fans. It's great to have fans, but you don't control them, either. Be nice to them. Be a decent human being.

You can drive yourself crazy, as I've done, worrying over decisions that other people make that will affect you. Or you can do your best at what is your job, and let everything else go. In the long run, I do think that a good writer will find a place in the world and that your books will be read. Or if not, you will write other books that will be even better.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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