Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Craving for Validation Can Really Screw Things Up

Writers–especially new writers–crave validation the way a cat craves catnip. I’ve seen the craving result in a few writers doing some incredibly destructive things from a business perspective. I myself did quite a few stupid things business-wise due to the validation crapola in my head until I learned from much more experienced writers that the crapola was there and that I needed to get rid of it.

Validation is NOT asking “Is this piece of writing any good?”  Validation is all about saying stuff like:

When thus-and-so happens, then will I be a REAL writer.

It’s the part about “then I will be a real writer” that messes writers up in the head. Badly.

Several wise old pros told me, “a real writer is someone who writes, day in and day out,” and I used to be inexperienced and stupid enough to scoff at that saying.  Surely there had to be more to being a “real” writer.

I don’t scoff anymore, because I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a core seed of truth to what those writers said.

A writer writes.

A painter paints.

A singer sings.

A coder codes.

Whenever someone quits doing the action (code, sing, write, etc.) that is the core of their dream, everything grinds to halt in a matter of time. Writers who stop writing will eventually become the topic of “What ever happened to so and so?” among readers.

Also, validation is NOT about setting goals.  It’s fine to have goals.

What I’m talking about here is having a mindset where a writer is totally dependent on a particular thing happening to feel like a “real” writer. This dependency results in neediness that can be manipulated by scammers, and a frantic urgency that results in bad business decisions that can postpone (or even wreck) the ability to make a living as a writer.

For quite a number of writers, “thus-and-so” is “published with a NYC publishing house.” The problem is the “When I am published by a NYC publishing house, then I will be real writer” mindset leads to a neediness that makes it hard for a writer to do the negotiating that needs to be done to get a decent contract.

Here’s something to think about.  These NYC publishing contracts are between a writer and a corporation.  We aren’t talking about two individuals working out a joint partnership here. Those people you meet from the corporation can be really really nice, but at the end of the day it’s the corporation the writer signs with. Editors and CEOs can be fired.

The craving for validation from corporations based in NYC can be used against a writer in contract negotiations. It’s just the nature of business–the writer’s book is a profit-and-loss statement for the corporation. If a writer wants to play doormat, that’s the writer’s problem as far as the corporate entity is concerned. Sometimes an editor will warn a writer if the writer acts too much like a pathetic wuss in negotiations, but for the most part the writer is on his or her own.

The other nasty part of this “NYC publishing house” requirement for being a “real” writer is that all the great middle-sized publishing companies get ignored because one is chasing after a narrow definition of being “real.”  There are some terrific small and middle-sized publishing houses out there, ones that are going to be big publishing houses 15 years from now.

Lastly, the whole mindset of  “when thus-and-so happens, then I’ll be a real writer” also makes it harder to keep morale up. Several old pros have pointed out to me that writing is disheartening enough as it is due to the rejection process; there’s no need to pile more anguish on by setting absurd goals for what is “real” as a writer.

A real writer writes, day in and day out.

Everything else is just a goal to aim for.

The Pricelessness of Time, and a Couple of Great Links

There are only 24 hours in a day. That’s it. Even those people who have a natural need for only 4-5 hours a sleep a night (or even none) can’t get around this time limitation.

Several swift deaths that have happened to people I cared about over the past three years have brought home to me just how priceless the time we are given is.  Once Death shows up for you, it’s over.  That’s it. We all like to assume we’re going to live into our eighties or later, but there’s no guarantee. And people love to assume that they’ll have lots of time to put their lives in order and do those things they always dreamed about.

Death can kill you in seconds. A stroke can strike you down where you stand and there won’t be time to say, “Goodbye,” or write a couple of poems before it is too late.

Never assume you can wait until retirement to do the things you dream about. People die before they reach retirement all the time. If your dream is to go to Paris before you die, start planning out tiny steps tonight that you take to work towards making that dream a reality sooner rather than later.

I think about time a lot, since I’m in the “squeeze” years. There’s work to do, a family to raise, a house with never-ending repairs to deal with, and writing to do. Several of my hobbies had to be put aside when I started to pursue writing in a serious way–there were only so many hours in a day.

Several months ago, I decided to turn off comments on my blog, because it was either do that or stop blogging all together. I didn’t know what impact it would have, but one of the surprising results was that now my blog thoughts sometimes dig deeper into things.  The time I used have to waste wading through spam in the queue instead gets spent thinking and writing the post instead.  There is only so much time each week I can devote to a blog, and I was actually surprised at how much a help it was time-wise to have comments off.

Zoe Winters did a post not too long ago about why she turned off comments on her blog, and brings up her reasons why a writer may want to do so.  Every writer is different–one writer’s healing potion is another writer’s poison. So each of us will have to experiment to see what works best.

In other news, I stumbled across a wonderful short essay by James Lee Burke on writing, “Seeking a Vision of Truth,” that can give consolation to writers in difficult times. I hadn’t known that his novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie received 110 rejections during nine years of submission.  I’ve provided the link to get to it on his website.

Also, musician Jonathan Coulton has done a long thoughtful essay on how he became a success as an indie musician. I think what he has to say also applies to becoming a success as a fiction writer (whether traditional, indie, or a traditional/indie combo).

So, I leave you all with the question, “When Death comes for you, is there anything you’re going to regret having not done? And if the answer is ‘Yes,’ what small steps can you take here and now to change that?”

Some Days the Writing Business Feels Like an Endless Bad Sequel to JAWS

I’ve been lucky to have gotten to meet so many writers (both old pro, published,  and beginning) over the last nine years. I know writers in many different fields: history, memoirs, journalism, children’s books, Young Adult, mysteries, romance, science fiction, horror, fantasy, literary, westerns, etc.  And I’ve been to variety of conferences, such as Romance Writers of America, over the years just to hang out and listen to writers talk.

I started writing nine years ago simply as a way to take my mind off the difficulties going on in my life. It was something that gave me joy. And I thought about seriously pursuing publication, but I shrank back from it for a variety of reasons. Today I want to talk about one of those reasons, because it’s something that all writers end up having to deal with.

There are a hell of a lot of sharks in the publishing waters, and I’ve seen quite a number of writers end up as shark chow.

Many years ago I started to hear conversations like the following dramatization:

THE NEW WRITER AND THE OLD SUCCESSFUL PRO

New Writer: Hey, Old Successful Pro, can I ask you some advice?  I just got my first ever offer to be published in fiction. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s an all rights contract for a flat fee.  Should I sign or not?

Old Successful Pro: Is it media work for someone else’s universe, like STAR WARS ?

New Writer: No.

Old Successful Pro: Don’t sign.

New Writer: But I’ll be published!

Old Successful Pro: It’s a bad deal.  Don’t sign.  If it’s a success, you’ll see none of the money. Royalties, sequels, film rights, translation rights…you’re closing a lot of doors to money by signing that contract.

New Writer: I don’t care!  I want the validation. You’re just bitter because you’re not as successful as J. K. Rowling.

… Five years later …

New Writer: Arrgh, they’ve made nearly a quarter a million on my story, and I get none of the money.  It’s not fair! They screwed me over.

FINIS

What I find most disturbing about the above scenario is that if you switch out “all rights” for other issues, like “so-and-so, terrible literary agent” the same story plays out. New writer asks about the terrible agent, gets warned about the incompetence, and goes with the agent anyways.

It’s like watching an endless bad sequel to JAWS, where the same loop gets repeated over and over and over and over…

New Writer: Is it safe to go into the ocean today?

Old Successful Pro: Don’t go in the water!  Sharks!

New Writer: I want to swim to that floating platform!  There’s a rubber ducky on it I want. I gotta have that duck or my life will have no meaning.

Old Successful Pro:  Don’t do it! They’ll eat you.

New Writer: I must have that duck.  I’m swimming over. I can swim fast enough to avoid the sharks.

Old Successful Pro: (low to self) Dumb fool.

New Writer:  Aiiieeeeeee.

A few minutes later.

New Writer #2: I’m going swimming, I want that rubber ducky.  Is it safe to go swimming today?

Old Successful Pro:  Don’t go in the water! Sharks!

and on and on and on and on and….

THE END

Seriously folks, this is no fun to watch from the sidelines.  The craving for validation (i.e. the rubber ducky) is so strong in so many new writers that I’ve watched too many jump into the shark-infested waters even though the old successful pros are yelling for everyone to get out of the water.

The “lucky” new writers finally stumble back out onto the beach with only a leg or arm chomped off. The unlucky ones I’ve watched disappear in the bloody churn of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

Writer beware, indeed.

Getting Beyond “Yes or No” Thinking in Writing, Part Two

So, last time I wrote about tips and techniques I’d learned from others to get past seeing rejections as personal (“My story sucks”), pervasive (“I’m a loser”), and permanent (“I’ll never sell a story”).   Rejection is a fact of life for writers–the rate of rejection will go down as one gets better, but it will never go to zero.  Even the best writer produces a lousy story on occasion.

Chances are, you’ve noticed how binary humans can be in their thinking, i.e. that attitude of “It’s either Yes or No.”   So this week I want to go into more depth about getting comfortable with searching for the wriggle room between the “Yes or No” mindset.

Since we’ve been discussing the pursuit of publication through a traditional publisher or magazine, let’s use it as an example of the wriggle mind game.

Playing Mind Games with Rejections

On the surface, it seems so straightforward when a story is submitted to an editor–it’s either a sale or no sale.

But if we dig a little deeper, we find that not all No’s are equal.   There’s:
1) “No, but please send us your next story.”
2) “No, but interesting story.”
3) “No.”
4) “No.  This story is not to my taste.”
5) “No.  The craft in this story is poor.”

That third “No” can have a lot of hidden background that the writer doesn’t see.  It might just be a plain old “No, this story is no good.”   But, it is also possible the editor was swamped with stories and had to do form rejections for everyone, even the ones that were liked.  Or a story was recently published that was very similar to yours, so they had to pass on it.   Or the editor wanted to buy it, but the sales and marketing department rebelled.

Too often, writers see all No’s as exactly the same, because they’re focusing on selling one particular story instead of focusing on establishing a relationship with an editor.

I’m sure you’ve heard salespeople talk about cultivating clients.  Writing is no different.   Over time, as they submit story after story to an editor, writers have the chance to cultivate an editor by showing what they can do.   Stephen King did not sell the first novel manuscript he sent to William Thompson.  Nor the second, nor the third.  It was on the fourth manuscript, CARRIE, that he finally made a novel sale.

That’s why pro writers with 20+ years experience making a living as writers emphasize the importance of “keep submitting a work,” and “keep writing new work.”    A “No” isn’t about “No,” it’s about cultivating potential business relationships that may result in a sale a few years later.

The Wriggle Room Between “No Control” and “Absolute Control”

So, we’ve seen that when we look closer at rejections there’s more going on than a simple “Yes” or “No.”  Another example of that binary attitude at work is when we see a situation as having “No Control vs. Absolute Control.”  Oftentimes, there’s wriggle room if we look closer.

This is probably best explored with an example.  Let’s take the example of … book covers in publishing.

It’s rare that a writer gets absolute control of his or her book cover unless the book is indie published.

But often we go to the opposite extreme in mindset, and assume we have no control at all when our book is traditionally published.  But if we sit down and brainstorm ideas, sometimes we can come up with ways that can “tweak” what is going on with a book cover at a publisher.

Okay, so I’m going to take a moment and try to brainstorm ways I could wriggle past “No Control” on book covers with a publisher.  There’s no guarantee that any of them would help, but I wouldn’t know unless I tried.

Brainstorm Ideas to Get Past “No Control” Over Book Cover

1)  I could learn more about book covers in publishing.  Laura Resnick has a great series of articles to read on covers.

2) I could make a collage of favorite photos and pictures about the book, and send a JPEG copy to my editor to share with the art director and/or book artist.

3) I could ask for “cover consultation” in the contract if I have some clout; if I have major clout, “cover approval.”

4) I could demand a particular cover artist in the publishing contract if I have enough clout.

5) I could ask for final approval of the cover artist chosen written into the publishing contract if I have the clout.

6) I could provide a list of cover artists I admire (with their website gallery addresses) to the editor.  The editor and art director might throw the list out, but there’s a chance one of the names might catch their interest.  Can’t hurt to try.

7) I could politely ask the editor for a chance to see the cover sketches and layout before the final cover is done.

8) I could take a class on Photoshop, graphic design, or illustration so that I had a better understanding of what a book cover artist does.

9) I could go to bookstores to study covers, and browse through e-bookstores to look at thumbnail-sized covers.

10) I could find out who has won awards for their cover design work, and study the award-winning covers.

I could go on, but I’m certain you all see the point I’m getting at.   Sometimes even in situations where the writer officially has “No Control,” there’s wriggle room IF the writer is pleasant to deal with.   Woo, don’t whine.

So, to reiterate, remember that there’s more to a “No” than just “No.”  And keep an eye out for ways to wriggle out of a “No Control” business situation in publishing.   Good luck!