Monday, May 20, 2019

Riding Out the Storms

Over the last month or so, I’ve seen social media posts from writers who are discouraged – so much so that they want to quit writing entirely (and some who have already done so). A writer who believes he wrote a book that was essentially invisible. Writers who are depressed because their newsletter stats show that no one clicked on the links to their books for sale. Writers encountering one rejection after another, dealing with shady editors and agents, volatile and unstable markets, markets that take forever to pay (if they ever pay at all), lack of reviews, lack of readers . . . And maybe worst of all, feeling like they’ve made no impact at all, that they might as well have chucked their stories down a hole for all the good they’ve done in the world.

I know that a lot of people use social media to vent, and that these feelings of discouragement might only be temporary. But I also know that there are plenty of people who struggle to keep writing day after day. I know writers who’ve quit. You might even be one. Over the years, I’ve spoken to people who’ve gone to intense workshops such as Clarion or gotten an MFA and haven’t written a word since. I know writers who’ve written three books, had their publisher pass on a fourth, and who have stopped writing altogether. I know writers whose books are constantly pirated and who see no point in creating new content if other people are only going to keep stealing it. And of course, I’ve known writers who’ve had so much to deal with in their personal lives that finding time to write seems impossible.

I’ve had my share of discouragement, too. My first novel contract was abruptly canceled by the publisher because they “no longer felt comfortable with the book.” I’ve been nominated for awards nine times but I’ve only won once. My first agent gave up on me after a year. My second agent lasted nineteen years, but toward the end of our relationship, he stopped responding to my attempts to contact him. Editors have lied to me. I’ve pitched short story collections to some who tell me they don’t do collections, except they’d already published a bunch and went on to publish many more in the future. I’ve had editors tell me their publisher doesn’t offer advances only to learn they are giving other writers advances. I’ve requested blurbs from writers who say they don’t have the time but go on to regularly blurb others. There are editors who, after I’ve made progress on a project with them, ended up ghosting me. I’ve had editors publish my stories and never pay me. I’ve had interest from and worked with Hollywood people on stuff that goes nowhere. I’ve been offered tie-in projects that end up never happening, getting canceled, or which are given to someone else. I’ve written and published books that got little notice and few reviews. There are a lot of Year’s Best anthologies I’d love to have stories in but never have. I’ve had publishers drop me after a few books. I’ve had book contracts canceled after I’ve written the book for the publisher. And I could go on.

I didn’t write the above to engender any sympathy (but if you want to feel bad for me, I’m not going to stop you). I want to show you that writers who most people might see as successful (or semi-successful), have plenty of things happen to make us discouraged, too. The truth is, discouragement is a perpetual part of a writing career.

 So how can writers – those who are just beginning, those who’ve stopped writing, and those who’ve been writing for a while and find it hard to keep going – do to deal with discouragement?

·         The Darwinian view. Many professional writers take the attitude that if someone can be discouraged from pursuing writing as a career, then they don’t have what it takes to become a writer. And maybe there’s some truth to that view. But it’s also a facile way of avoiding any responsibility for nurturing the next generation of writers, said nurturing being part of what makes a good literary citizen. But as I often tell students and attendees of workshops I present, a writing career is, in many ways, about mental and emotional resilience. And ultimately, that can only come from within us. No one can give it to us, not even the most gifted of teachers and devoted of mentors.

·         It’s okay to stop. No one ever tells you this, but it’s perfectly fine to explore something – like writing – and decide for whatever reasons it’s not for you. Or to write for a while and then decide you’ve gotten what you needed from that time, and move on to explore something else. If you do this, you’re not a quitter or a loser.

·         It’s okay to take a break. You don’t need to write 24/7 365 days a year to qualify as a “real” writer. You can write for a couple years, take a few (or many) years off, and come back to writing when you’re ready, when you feel like you’re creatively energized again. Plus, while you’re taking a break, you’re living life, which means when you return to writing, you’ll have more experience to draw on. And sometimes you need to take a break for your mental and physical health, what I call “maintaining the machine.”

·         Don’t buy into society’s – or any other writers’ – paradigm for success. In America, people are what they do, and their success is judged by how many things they can acquire with the money they make. Writers often believe that that the ultimate expression of a writing career is to be able to write full time and support yourself financially solely with your writing. That’s when a writer has “made it.” But this is bullshit. I’ve known many writers who write full time and are barely living above the poverty line. Plus, they have no healthcare. They are so stressed by trying to pay bills and so worried about getting sick or injured, that they don’t produce any more work than writers with day jobs. Stress is the enemy of creativity. Feeling like you have to live up to some imaginary standard that others have created – and feeling that you’re constantly failing to reach that standard – can make you feel like you’re a failure before you even begin. Each of us make our own path as a writer, and it’s fine if your path is different than anyone else’s. In fact, it should be different. It’s yours. Do what you need to do to be able to make a life that’s conducive to writing, whatever that means for you. I decided a long time ago that what I wanted wasn’t to become rich or win a ton of awards or have millions of readers. I couldn’t control whether or not I got any of these things. I decided I wanted to have a life in writing. That aim was entirely within my control, and I’ve achieved it. I won’t know the ultimate shape that life has taken until right before I die, but there’s no doubt I’ve created it.

·         It’s okay to have a small audience. Writers are often told – either directly or implicitly – that they need to have the biggest audience possible. We need as many followers on social media as we can get, as many subscribers to our newsletters as possible, as many reviews as we can get on Amazon, as many books sales, and on and on. If your goal is to make a ton of money, then all of this is true. But if you want to make money, why the hell did you choose to become an artist? If you want to make money, go to law school or medical school. We pursue art because it’s what we love, it’s who we are, we can’t imagine living life without doing it . . . If you’re writing what you love and feel satisfied with your work, then it’s fine if you have a small audience. If you cook a meal, how many people do you need to serve it to in order to feel satisfied? Bigger is better is a fallacy created by American consumer culture. Better is better, and you decide what’s best for you.

·         Stick to your guns or explore new territory? Writers are often told they need to pick a genre, to create a brand, and then stick to it. That’s marketing talk, not artist talk. There’s nothing wrong with taking a market-based approach if it helps you create your best work and you find that approach fulfilling. But you don’t need to write the same kind of thing forever. It’s okay – and healthy – to explore different types of writing from time to time, especially if you haven’t had much success with one type so far. By trying different types of writing, you might find the success that’s eluded you so far. A friend of mine in college wanted to be a science fiction writer. Instead, he became a well-published author of sports articles. I know writers who started out in one genre – YA – and became a hit in another, like romance. If nothing else, trying something new can re-energize you when you return to your main focus. Earlier this year, I wrote a one-act play, the first play I’ve written in over thirty years. I wrote it just for fun, as a kind of creative vacation from the horror and tie-in fiction I usually write. Remember the old saying: A change is as good as a rest. I don’t know if anything will ever come of this play. I’ve submitted it to a theatre company, but even if the play is never produced, it still gave me what I needed, and I returned to my usual writing feeling refreshed.

·         It’s a long haul. Sometimes REALLY long. How long does it take to establish a writing career? If you go immediately to self-publishing, hardly any time at all. (And whether that’s a good thing or not is very much up for debate.) But in the case of traditional publishing, the amount of time I’ve heard most often from people – and which my experience bears out – is about ten years. And that’s just to get to the point where you’re regularly selling your work. How much longer does it take to become a “success”? The rest of your life. In any art form, there is always more to learn, more to explore, more to achieve, both creatively and in terms of the business aspect. The truth is no artist probably ever reaches whatever they consider to be ultimate success. Stephen King craves acceptance from the literary establishment. Literary writers want a larger audience and more money. Writers of entertainment-based fiction covet awards for literary excellence (to the point where some of them tried to rig the Hugo Awards in their favor several years in a row). Dissatisfaction and restlessness are important fuel to an artist. They might even be two of the defining qualities of an artist. Once you reach the summit, there’s nowhere left to climb, and the climbing is where all the fun and challenge is.

·         Rejection means nothing more than a no from one person at one time. Rejections are the most common part of a writer’s life. They are inevitable and, when you’re starting out, they’re numerable. They begin to add up fast, and they have a cumulative effect. They seem like a chorus of voices saying your work sucks, you suck, and you should never write again. Now it’s true that at the start of a career, when a writer is still learning his or her craft, that the stories they produce may not be publishable yet. But if you keep writing and growing as an artist – and you get better at targeting your submissions to specific publications/publishers – you’ll start selling. The rejections will still come, though, (I still get them) and you have to remember that unless you get specific feedback that helps provide insight on how to improve your writing (which editors are under no obligation to give you), one rejection is just one, and it’s not a statement about you and your writing. It’s just a no. Do your best to put it behind you, keep sending your work out, and keep growing as a writer.

·         Don’t set unreasonable deadlines for yourself. When I decided to become a professional writer (I was probably eighteen or so) I gave myself until I was thirty to sell a novel. If I couldn’t do it by then, I’d put my energies into some other career. As my thirtieth birthday approached, I still didn’t have a novel contract. But on my birthday, the man who would be my second agent called and offered to represent me, and I figured that was close enough. I’m sure I would’ve kept writing anyway, but I soon realized that it was foolish of me to set a stupid deadline like that. Don’t set yourself up to fail – or at least feel like a failure. The writing life is hard enough without making it harder on yourself.

·         Envy is the writer’s disease. I have no idea who first said this, but I’ve heard it many times over the years. It’s too easy to compare ourselves to other writers who get larger advances, have greater sales, larger audiences, better reviews, more awards. Don’t do this. I repeat DO NOT DO THIS. This way lies madness. Admire other writers’ work, learn from it, learn from their accomplishments and their setbacks, but never compare yourself to them. Unless you’re a narcissist, you’ll always come out second best when you compare yourself to someone else, if for no other reason than it’s impossible for you to be someone else. You can’t have anyone else’s career. You can only have yours.

·         Social media makes envy worse. I’m fifty-five. As I said earlier, I started writing seriously when I was eighteen. Back then, there was no Internet. You learned about other writers’ careers by reading interviews with them in physical magazines or by watching them be interviewed on TV. You could also read books about writing and the writing life written by authors. I didn’t start going to writing conventions until my late twenties – by which time the first public message boards were appearing – but you could learn from other writers there (especially after they had a few drinks). Since there was less information out there, there was less to be envious of. Now every writer trumpets their successes (no matter how minor) on social media as part of relentlessly promoting themselves (as they’ve been told they have to do). Now there’s a shit-ton of information out there to make us feel bad about ourselves. It’s harder than ever to stop ourselves from making destructive comparisons. That’s why it’s so vital that we keep fighting the writer’s disease.

·         It’s a calling. We write because we have to. It’s an essential aspect of ourselves and how we manifest those selves in reality. We can stop writing, but if we do, something inside of us withers away. We stop being our authentic selves. (And if this isn’t true of you – especially if you have other creative outlets – then the thought of quitting writing shouldn’t bother you at all.) So regardless of what level of success we achieve, we have to write anyway, so why let success or failure bother us? They are both immaterial to producing writing. But on the other hand . . .

·         It’s a job. I don’t know if the magazine still does this, but for years, The Writer proclaimed on its masthead that it was the oldest magazine for literary workers. That’s a wonderful way to think of ourselves: literary workers. Everyone knows that a job isn’t all sunshine and rainbows every day. Hell, it’s almost never sunshine and rainbows. And we don’t get upset by that. We expect it, we deal with it, and we keep forging ahead (assuming the job isn’t so awful we have to quit to protect our mental and/or physical health). But by thinking of writing as a job, it’s easier to accept the drawbacks and the hardships because you understand that sure, they suck, but they’re also par for the course. So keep grinding it out.

·        We need to create many things to make one truly lasting, impactful thing. I read an article recently that discussed a study on creativity. The researchers came to the conclusion that an artist needs to make a lot of things to create something truly special, something that strongly resonates with an audience and has a chance to make a lasting impact. And the kicker? Artists don’t know when they’ve made a special thing. In fact, they’re a terrible judge of their work. As an example, the researchers talk about Toto’s hit song “Africa.” It was a song they tacked onto the album just to finish it, and no one thought much of it. But almost forty years later, it remains well known, by old and young alike. Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery.” Poe’s “The Raven.” Sure, these authors produced other great works, but those two works are the most famous, at least as far as the general populace is concerned. The lesson here? You’ve got to write a lot of stuff in order to have a shot at producing your own “The Lottery” or “The Raven.” One work of art that you’ll be known by, that will become your ultimate brand. Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker and Dracula, George RR Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire (which will undoubtedly always be better known by the TV show title, A Game of Thrones.) Yes, you can find examples of artists who produce one work – Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind, Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird – but they’re exceptions. So if you don’t keep writing, you may never produce the one great work (which could be a series or a character, not just one story or one novel) that will become your artistic legacy, and perhaps change the field you write in forever.

“Perseverance furthers” the I-Ching tells us, and writers love to pass along this piece of advice to each other. This advice has the beauty of being absolutely achievable. It doesn’t guarantee how far perseverance will take you, but it clearly implies that it’s the only way you’ll get anywhere. The trick is to think of your path as a journey of learning, discovery, and growth as opposed to a race to some imagined finish line. Write, write, write. Send your work out into the world. Write some more. Get better. Repeat.

And don’t let the bastards get you down.

My novel Supernatural: Children of Anubis was recently released.
Sam and Dean travel to Indiana, to investigate a murder that could be the work of a werewolf. But they soon discover that werewolves aren't the only things going bump in the night. The town is also home to a pack of jakkals who worship the god Anubis: carrion-eating scavengers who hate werewolves. With the help of Garth, the Winchester brothers must stop the werewolf-jakkal turf war before it engulfs the town - and before the god Anubis is awakened...

My horror novel They Kill is coming this July from Flame Tree Press.

Sierra Sowell’s dead brother Jeffrey is resurrected by a mysterious man known only as Corliss. Corliss also transforms four people in Sierra’s life into inhuman monsters determined to kill her. Sierra and Jeffrey’s boyfriend Marc work to discover the reason for her brother’s return to life while struggling to survive attacks by this monstrous quartet.

My novel Alien: Prototype is coming in October.

Corporate spy Tamar Prather steals a Xenomorph egg from Weyland-Yutani, taking it to a lab facility run by Venture, a Weyland-Yutani competitor. Former Colonial Marine Zula Hendricks--now allied with the underground resistance--infiltrates Venture's security team. When a human test subject is impregnated, the result is a Xenomorph that, unless it's stopped, will kill every human being on the planet.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I removed the comment only because I'd fixed the error the poster pointed out. I appreciate whoever it was (no name was attached to the comment) for pointing it out.

  2. Terrific article, Tim. Thanks for writing and sharing.

  3. Great inspirational article for both young writers and old ones like myself. I would add, a person asked me what would I like to be of all jobs. I said a writer. I am that. How many people can say that they are exactly what they dreamedof doing?

  4. What a great article, Tim. You've given me much to think about and hope for the future as a writer. Thank you.

  5. Wonderful article - these are things that we need to remind ourselves of regularly as writers. Just subscribed to your newsletter to keep in touch!

  6. That "envy is the writer's disease" passage is some of the most encouraging advice on writing I've ever read.

  7. Thanks for writing this, Tim. Definitely motivational!

  8. Absolutely needed to read this, perfect timing....thank you, ver much, for easing some of my disappointment, doubt, and frustration....

  9. Some of those bastards are alleged friends, sadly. But so it goes, eh? Nice piece.

    Be well.

    --Jason V Brock

  10. Every word of this is true. That's pretty good for a fiction writer.

  11. Excellent! Thank you.

  12. As someone who has flirted with quitting the writing game after trying to break in (or out) for a couple decades with very limited success, this article caught me at the right time. I especially like the advice about the paradigm for success. Might be time to lower my aim. "A life in writing" sounds like a pretty good goal. (Not that I still wouldn't love to be a bestseller.) :)