Discouraged as a Writer: You’re Not Alone

Yesterday, someone posted in one of my Facebook groups a comment I’m seeing more and more lately: a statement of how discouraged they are as a writer.

Truth be told, I understand that all too well. Recently, I decided to leave my previous genre and pen name to start over again. I knew it would be tough, starting over from scratch, but I seriously underestimated how hard to would be to gain traction in today’s market, despite all the lessons I’ve learned about marketing, networking, and how to use social media effectively.

So this post could be a long wail about how tough the industry is, and how hard it is to get noticed when 4500 new books are published on Amazon every day.

But it’s not.

Instead, I’m reminded of the horse-mad girl I used to be, and how I would do anything to ride horses–bike five miles a day to the barn to muck stalls, just to be allowed to ride the school ponies. Volunteer to get on the ‘crazy’ horses, to find out how bad they were before letting students on them. Save my pennies for riding lessons when friends were taking ballet or learning to play the piano.

Once, I’d bargained hard for a riding lesson with a new instructor, only to fall ill on the day of the lesson. I begged to be allowed to reschedule, but the instructor said no. Instead, I attempted to follow her coaching while sick as a dog, barely able to sit upright in the saddle. At the end of the lesson, she told me I had no business being on a horse and I should never bother getting on a horse again.

At the time, I was crushed. Mortified, it was a year before I got up the nerve to approach someone about riding lessons again.

But I did it because I loved horses so much, I couldn’t imagine not riding.

The same holds true for writing.

Several years ago, I was warming up my horse for a dressage clinic when one of the women in the class asked, “Does he always just go on the bit like that?” Her tone was clearly one of admiring envy.

I had to laugh. ‘Going on the bit’ requires the horse to round his back and be compliant to the rider’s hands, the impulsion of movement coming from the hind end. It is a measure of the communication between horse and rider, and in certain disciplines, it is highly prized. It is impossible to do if the horse has his head flung up high and his back hollowed out.

I’d bought my horse as a three-year-old from a slaughterhouse, at meat prices. He was the last horse anyone would expect to become a dressage champion. When I first began appearing at the local shows, people shook their heads and wondered what I was doing there. Over a period of nearly a decade (and many hours of diligent training), we went from being the horse and rider that made people snicker to the team that came home with the ribbons.

The woman at the riding clinic was stunned when I told her of my horse’s background and how much work it had taken to make coming on the bit look natural for him. In the world of competitive riding, most people buy the right horse for the job. The right horse, the right saddle, the right boots, the best equipment money can buy: these can make a huge difference in where you place in the show ring. It doesn’t eliminate the need for disciplined training, but your starting point on the podium is higher simply by virtue of having an athletic horse, and a saddle that prevents you from making a wrong move. That being said, I’ve seen sheer hard work and determination overcome genetics and natural ability. I competed with my meat-market nag because he was the only horse I had, and the hours I put in riding him were a labor of love. Winning ribbons wasn’t the goal. The horse shows just gave me a structure for the time we spent together.

So I have to laugh when people ask me if I’ve always been a writer, in that same sort of wondering, envious tone. As though having a natural gift for something is more valuable than working your butt off to achieve the same results. The truth is, I wrote passionately as a child, only to give it up entirely as a teenager because I didn’t think I was good enough to be a ‘real’ writer. I thought it was time to put away childish dreams and get on with the business of making a career for myself. I wasn’t a natural.

It wasn’t until I discovered online fanfiction archives as an adult that I rediscovered my love for writing. My creative self, having been ruthlessly starved and repressed for several decades, woke with a vengeance. I read everything I could lay my hands on regarding my favorite show, and then tentatively, I began writing my own stories. Not because I thought I was any good. Not because I ever thought I’d be any good. Because I loved the characters so much I wanted to spend more time with them. Because I felt compelled to tell stories about them and share them with like-minded souls. While I was active in fandom, I wrote over a million words of fanfic. The enthusiastic support of friends gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction, and eventually go on to submit my stories for publication. Making the transition to original fiction was tougher than I’d imagined, but in the end it was no different from moving up a level in dressage: everything that was once seemed effortless becomes hard work as you increase the challenge and have to master a whole new skill set.

Being a natural is over-rated. It tends to teach poor work habits because everything is easy for you at first, and then when it gets harder, as it always does, you get discouraged and frustrated because you’ve never learned how to put in the hours to reach a specific goal. If you want to get better at anything, you have to put your hours in: under saddle, swimming laps, on the dance floor, at the keyboard. You ‘train’ when you don’t feel like it, when it’s raining, when you’ve had a bad day.

One of my favorite quotes is from Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

They are words to live by—but especially if you’re a writer. You don’t wait until the muse strikes you. You don’t let reviews sink your confidence. You don’t compare yourself to others. You write, pure and simple. Every day, without fail. You hone your skills by practicing. Your creativity is a muscle you exercise. The more you write, the stronger you get. The better your sentences become. Sure, you can sigh and wish you had more talent, but in the end, it is the person who puts the words to paper who is the winner. It is the person who persists who achieves their dream. That person can be you.

Had I been older and more confident, I would have told that instructor if she’d been any kind of decent trainer, she could teach even someone like me. That’s what you need to do when someone tells you that you can never achieve “X”. Decide then and there who you intend to listen to, and keep plugging away. Am I an Olympic level horsewoman? Of course not. But there will ALWAYS be someone who is a better writer than you are at this stage of the game–and someone who is worse.

Keep at your craft. Practice. Take classes. Work with critique groups. If multiple people say the exact same thing is a weakness in your story, they’re probably right. Listen to them. In the end, however, it’s your story, your voice, your vision. No one else can tell your story the same way you can.

Are other people going to be more successful than you are? Hell, yes. But if you are comparing yourself to some Big Name Author who’s been writing for the last 15 years, you’ve done the equivalent of putting your nag in an upper level dressage test when you haven’t done the training for it. 

And once the level at which you’re competing becomes too easy, you’ll find yourself raising the bar. Just remember, every time you do, it will feel as though you’re starting over again. You’re not. You are at a specific point in the path. Everyone else is either ahead of you or behind you–but it’s still the same path.

So take heart. It just means you’re a writer, that’s all.

Dear Nietzsche: I’m Strong Enough Now, Thanks

I’d originally intended to title this post: Nietzsche Can Bite Me. It would have been catchy and clever, no? It also would have clearly stated how I feel at the moment. Nietzsche, of course, is known for the statement “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

I thought that title, paired with this image, would perfectly highlight what I was about to say.

So I Googled Nietzsche to get the exact wording of the quote, only to discover he began suffering from health issues that forced his early retirement, and at the age of 44, suffered an acute collapse that destroyed his mental abilities. He lived in the care of relatives the rest of his life.

Oh dear.

I think Karma was being a serious bitch there.

So I re-titled my post, though my basic feelings haven’t changed. I’d very much like it if the universe could lay off me for a while. But that’s not how it works, is it?

2017 has been an incredibly difficult year for me. I’m not going to bore you with the tally of losses, but suffice to say if I put them all in one story, no one would believe it. It’s the equivalent of living inside a country music song, the kind where the singer prefers the ‘bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’. Imagine if you will, a heroine who, while trying to outrun a tornado on her way home from her daddy’s funeral, flipped the car, killing a child/spouse/pet. And then she staggered home, bloodied and grief-stricken, only to discover a foreclosure notice on the front door and a wildfire raging toward the house from the back forty. While she is trying to put the fire out, she gets a text message that she’s been laid off and her health insurance has been canceled. And then the doctor’s office calls to tell her she has cancer.

Okay, things aren’t that dire for me here, but it has been bang-bang-bang, one loss after another with more on the way and scarcely any time to recover my breath. And certainly no time to grieve. ‘Take all the time you need’ in reality means ‘you can take Friday afternoon off before the funeral if you must.’ The demands of work are such that even if you do take time off, you end up paying for it before and after your return in terms of additional work.

I tend to be a ‘put it on the back burner’ kind of person. I’m the sort of person of whom people say, ‘She’s really managing quite well, all things considering.’ I don’t cry at funerals or family gatherings. I’m the one who organizes and sees that the appropriate things get done. I’m good at my job and I work hard at it. I walk out of a funeral and right back into the office.

But the stress fractures are starting to show. I’ve become a real weenie when it comes to my entertainment, avoiding anything that might be too sad or violent. Recently, the unexpected turn of events in La-La-Land left me unsuccessfully trying to smother sobs on the couch so no one else would notice–something that wouldn’t have affected me six months ago. I’m losing my temper over things that normally wouldn’t bother me–or at least, not openly. Health issues that had been dormant are becoming active again.

The thing is, even for those of us who set aside grief to be dealt with at some future date, that date always arrives. My problem is I haven’t allowed myself to deal with the first loss before the others began piling up. Now I’m walking on a thin crust of barely cooled lava, hoping it will support my weight as I go about my day, trusting that no one will notice the ominous glow shining through the cracks, the sulfurous odor, or the smoke coming off my shoes.

We’re not a very forgiving society when it comes to grief. Hell, we’re not a forgiving society when it comes to anything at the moment, if the current state of affairs in the US is any indication. Stiff upper lip, and all that. It was the way I was raised and I know no other way of behaving, to be honest. But I strongly suspect this time, this year, it’s not going to be enough.

I’ve been collecting–but not reading–links to articles on grief. I intend to read them. You know, when I get the time. Today, I did click on one–an article about a letter of consolation Seneca wrote to his mother.

One passage in particular struck me: It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.

It occurs to me that I’m not going to get the kind of time I need to process all my grief right now. Not in one block of time. I certainly won’t be able to package all grieving into a specific time frame, after which I will declare myself done and move on. But if I don’t do something, it will lie beneath the surface like a festering wound, unable to heal and with the potential of becoming truly toxic with time.

The only solutions I can see at the moment are to take little mini-breaks. To say no to things I don’t want to do. Stop filling up every free minute with commitments and promises. Turn off social media. Play more music. Walk outside barefoot. Appreciate what I have, let go of what I’ve lost, and fight for what I want in the future. Honor grief by being quiet enough to listen to it.

But Nietzsche can still bite me.

 

June Recommended Links on Writing

Hah. I need to find a better image for these ‘links’ posts! This is the first of what I hope to be monthly posts where I share useful links to posts on writing, marketing, and any aspect of the business I found useful.

Starting right off the bat, the first article I wanted to share dealt with impostor syndrome. It was written from the viewpoint of a photographer, but everything the author said applied to writing as well. Unfortunately, the link I’d saved no longer works, but I found another one: 5 Tips for When You Feel Inadequate.

If you’re not already following Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds.com, you should be. He has one of the best blogs out there on writing. This post is a gem: Wrestling with Writer’s Block by Maurice Broaddus.

Thinking about creating an audiobook? This post by Isobel Starling walks you through the process on ACX: Indie Authors: Using ACX to Find a Narrator.

One of the terrific things about indie publishing is the ability to make your own rules. Kristen Ashley shares her success story here: The Secret to This Romance Author’s Success? Breaking All the Rules.

Jane Friedman is another author who posts excellent advice on writing. This one here about How to Spot Toxic Feedback is something we all should read and understand.

The Write Practice also had some words to say on How to Give and Take Better Writing Feedback.

I have a confession to make here: despite the fact I’m a romance writer, I sometimes struggle to write kissing scenes! Face it, when you write a lot of such scenes, you have to find new ways of keeping it fresh! Ride the Pen has a nice little post here about How to Write a Kissing Scene.

Molly Wetta posts about the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, which is a handy reference guide, as I write both! Urban Fantasy for Paranormal Romance Readers.

Kristen Lamb is another writer with a fantastic blog on writing, marketing, and social media. I’ve said before, I don’t always agree with everything she says, and this post is an example. Her post: Shame, Shame, We Know Your Name. Or Do We? Shame and Fiction had some interesting things to say about shame as a driving force in all great stories. I quibbled a bit with the argument that all great literature had shame as a central impetus for character behavior, but I was hard-pressed to think of stories that did not… 

And last but not least, Lit Hub posted an essay constructed out of quotes from Jamaica Kincaid on How to Love and How to Write. I wasn’t familiar with the author when I read the post, but I found the quotes to be pithy, amusing, and thought-provoking.

I wish I had time to read all the posts I bookmark for future reference! Ah, some day. In the meantime, I’ll share the ones that resonated with me. And I’ll keep searching for a better link image!!