Are We Having Fun Yet? Remembering Why You Write

I used to work in a public school. The two libraries I helped oversee served 5th graders through seniors, and I often ended up in the building way past the hours that I stopped getting paid. There's always something going on in a school, and basketballs bouncing in a gym have a way of calling to the ex-athlete, as does the ring of softballs hitting aluminum bats.

I don't get a chance to play much of anything anymore, taking the kayak out in the spring and hitting the gym three times a week is how I get my exercise now. But I'm often drawn into school sporting events, and while I know that the past is golden, I see some definite differences from the proverbial way things used to be.

I see the parents of fifth graders keeping stats in the bleachers, kids being pulled aside after games by coaches and parents alike (sometimes with a referee in tow for official backup) about what they did or didn't do, and how they can improve. I see adults talking about college admissions, scouts, percentages, injuries hurting playing time, and having conversations more suited to ESPN than a gym with fading paint.

Kid's faces are intense, and don't get me wrong - I think that's awesome. I know exactly how it goes in the moment, when a turnover under your hands feels like the end of the world, when sliding into home and winning the game could very well be the best thing that ever happened to you. Yeah, that's all true.

But sometimes I wonder if anyone out there is having fun anymore. Or anyone in the bleachers is either, for that matter.

Writing often feels the same way. I spent ten years receiving rejections for books that I was certain were Pulitzer material (they're not, for proof hit up my hashtag #BadFirstNovel). I was writing with visions in my head of awards, fame, and yes, money (that's a whole other post).

What I wasn't doing was writing because I loved it. I was writing because I was intent on making it my everything, and proving to myself and the world how freaking awesome I was.

  • Reality check #1 - I just wasn't.

  • Reality check #2 - That's partly because there was no heart in my writing.

After ten years of failing, I gave up. I truly did just let it go for a few years. I came back with a recharge and the thought that maybe I should try writing YA, since I had just started working in a high school. I came up with an idea I loved. A fun idea, nothing that was going to land me awards or even a sale, but something fun. Something I liked.

And I wrote it.

And while it didn't garner representation or achieve publication, I rediscovered the enjoyment of writing. Which prompted me to write Not A Drop to Drink, which opened up a whole new chapter of my life.

So if you're mired in your stats, or singing sad misereres over the dusty bones of the novel you've been rehashing forever, try to remember why you started doing this in the first place. And then maybe have some fun with it.

The First-World Problems of A Published Writer, Part One

My life is awesome, don't get me wrong.

When I was mired in the foxhole of query hell dodging rejection bullets while trying to reload with a better, more awesome query, I looked at published authors as people with no problems. Or at least, their problems were nothing in comparison to mine.

And I still think this is true. But...

Published authors have our own set of issues—marketing plans we don't agree with (Hey, at least you have marketing that you're not funding yourself!), a cover we hate (Um, an art department made your cover, not your cousin with her outdated Photoshop software!), a title change (Really? Because if a pub house wanted me I'd change my title to This Book Sucks & The Author is Ugly), or thematic battles with your editor (Hello!??! At least you have an editor!). 

And to be very clear, in case any of the fabulous people at Katherine Tegen are reading this (I love them all, along with every cell right down to its nucleus in every one of their bodies), these issues are not my issues. I'm culling these examples from years of conversations with other writers.

But the problems I want to talk to you about today are the everyday problems, little misunderstandings that crop up with people who don't understand the publishing industry—and you shouldn't expect them to. In fact, I won't even call them problems because they aren't. They're blips on the screen that have occurred enough times that you feel like it's a problem, like an eye twitch that happens one too many times in the afternoon. What's the remedy? Remind yourself to be grateful you have eyes and move on.

Examples:

1) Where can I buy your book?—Well, a bookstore is a good start. Just saying. Or this magical thing called the internet. Don't say that. Yes, they might be the 1000th person to ask you that—and essentially it might feel like a silly question—but it's not their fault they weren't the first person to ask you back when you had patience. If they're the 1000th person to ask—and you answer politely 1000 times—you might sell 1000 books.

2) How much is your book?—This depends entirely on who is selling it. Seriously. Amazon is selling it cheaper than Barnes & Noble, and both of them are selling it more cheaply than the local Indie. It all relates to the magical Amazon algorithm and overstock and price gouging but Indies count on support and... oh wait, this person doesn't care about the politics behind everything. Just answer the question with the jacket price. If this launches them into a long story about how they found it cheaper on eBay, fantastic. Listen to it. Don’t launch into a diatribe about how the secondary market hurts you. It does, yes. But it’s only going to make them feel bad, and they just supported you… or at least they thought they did.

3) Can I buy it from you? - Technically, no. In order to do that I have to have a vendor's license and charge tax and declare it as income. Also, I don't carry my books around in my trunk like I'm selling roses on the corner or meat out of coolers. If fact, this is one of the major reasons why I went the traditional publishing route—I don't want to handle sales myself. Again, just answer the question. They want to buy the story that's published, not the long boring one you're telling in response to a simple inquiry.

4) Hey, I wrote a book too! Will you read it?—Here's the thing, 200 million Americans have written / are writing / want to write a book. Chances are you know a few of them, and if you don't already they are going to seek you out. The quick answer is no, however it's also a fairly rude answer that will make people think you are too big for your britches now that you're a fancy-pants published writer. Definitely say the no part, but say it nicely and with encouragement, along with a list of writing blogs and podcasts (this one is a good start), and suggestions on how to find a critique partner more suited to where they are in the journey. You might be passing on a chance to usher in the next Margaret Atwood, but that's not your job. Your job is to write, and you can't do that when you're mentoring someone else.

5) My cousin in Tucson bought your book! How did you get it in bookstores out there?—Yeah. Here's the thing, the general public doesn't know the difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Remember, 200 million Americans want to get published and they now have the opportunity to do exactly that (and more power to them). So those authors are selling their books themselves, they are hand delivering their stock to bookstores, and this is the average person's concept of how books get "out there" now that they probably know someone who is doing exactly this. Your publisher did all this for you, and you sank a third of your lifetime into getting the deal that made that possible. Explaining this will make you sound elitist, even if you're not. So what's the best answer? The simple one: my publisher. Period.

These are some of the tiny, silly, nagging little problems of a published author. It's not the questions, it's the repetition. And there are days when none of these are asked, followed by days where I get all five multiple times each and I want to drink bleach just to see how it makes my intestines smell.

Then I say to myself, "Mindy—you get paid to make up stories about things that didn't happen to people that don't exist. Shut up."

Take The Guilt Out Of Writing

A writer's worst enemy is procrastination.

The second thug in our lives is procrastination's close cousin - responsibility.

Too often our writing time is carved out of the day, the niche of a few minutes where there isn't food to make, laundry to do, floors to sweep, lawns to mow, weeds to pull. The terrible truth about the to-do list I just ripped off is this: it never ends. The food will be eaten, the laundry will get dirty again as will the floor. Grass grows, and weeds (unfortunately) grow even faster.

Very rarely do we treat writing as a responsibility on its own. Even when I'm under contract or on deadline, writing still very much feels like something I do for myself. Because writing is a solitary undertaking, it's easy to identify it more as me time than as something that requires a true work ethic in order to be properly executed.

Squaring these two facts is no easy feat. Sitting down to write can often feel like a guilty pleasure if there are dirty dishes in the sink, or socks on the floor. While the to-do list is daunting, it cannot go ignored - unless you don't mind starving, stinking, living in filth, and being covered in ticks from your yard. And if all of those things sound just fine to you, I'm guessing that finding some alone time isn't all that much of a challenge anyway.

I recently went on a writing retreat, which is something I've always pooh-poohed in the past. I used to think that if I took a writing retreat, I would laze about, act like I'm in a coffee commercial while I sit on the deck of a cabin, then take long walks in the woods while pretending that I'm in some sort of medication commercial. None of these things would bulk up the word count, so I always thought a writing retreat was a euphemism for I'm going to get drunk in the woods and play Tetris on the laptop but keep a serious look on my face while doing it so that everyone thinks I'm writing.

Surprisingly, I wrote quite a bit while hanging out in a cabin, and starred in exactly zero imaginary commercials. I realized on the second day that the reason why was because I wasn't worried about laundry, floors, lawns, food, or any other myriad of responsibilities present in day-to-day life. I could sit down and write without guilt.

I realize that leaving home for three days might not be in the cards for everyone, realistically. But the lesson remains - next time something is stopping you from sitting down to write, ask yourself if it's actually the chore that is the obstacle, or the guilt?

Because if it's the guilt, don't worry - the chore will be there tomorrow.

Your inspiration might not.