January 31, 2019
Having been writing professionally for a lot of years, I have sometimes been asked how do you build a career that has legs, one that will last. This is a valid question considering I've done a lot of creative things in passing phases of my life, things that I don't do anymore, but I've never really stopped writing and selling. I'd love to say that happened because I'm just that awesome, but it’s really because I’ve done things to help continue on a steadily building trajectory and avoid those things that can wreck a career. Let's look at some of those bad things so we can all avoid them together.
1. Beware of Burning Bridges.
One thing to keep in mind as you follow your writing journey is that publishing is a fairly small business. And editors, agents, and publishers will share horror stories among themselves. They generally won't run down writers in public, but among themselves, well, if you're really, really difficult, you may be talked about. I've tried always to avoid being difficult. This doesn't mean I don't question politely or stick to my guns (pleasantly) when something is really important to me, but it does mean that you will flatly never hear me bring up the name of a single reputable agent or editor and say negative things about that person. Even if I had a negative interaction (which is pretty darn rare), the most I am likely to say is that "he and I just weren't a good professional match." That's sometimes just realistic. Not every person is a great fit with every other person. Someone I struggled to work well with might work fantastically well with you. On top of that, all editors and agents are people, which means they sometimes have bad days. They sometimes say things that can be misconstrued. And sometimes they're just tired. So even if I'm not having a good time, I try really hard to make sure I'm not making someone else's life harder. We all struggle enough.
As a result, I have been contacted by editors who tell me that another editor recommended me. And they tend to say, "She said you were great to work with." I'm always delighted to hear that, because it means that something I'm trying hard to do was successful. For any given project, an editor's wishlist for writers tends to have things about both skill and interaction. Smart writers work continually on both.
2. Beware of Burnout.
This is one I've not always done well. I have been known to simply pile on every single job I'm offered, believing that I'll be able to get them done. And I always have been able to come through, but sometimes it has come at a cost. Exhaustion is not a good fit with creativity. Draining your mental, physical and emotional reserves is really never conducive to good work. Trial and error (lots of error) have made me see how essential balance is to my productivity. One way that I've gotten better at finding balance is mapping all my projects out on a calendar and taking care not to squish my projected time demands in the hopes of being able to do the work anyway. Even if I can get the work done with more demanding hours and production, I'll do better, happier work if I'm not exhausting myself.
There is, however, another source of burnout. I also have to guard against piling on too many non-writing commitments. Often these are things we commit to out of guilt. "If I were a good person, I'd make it to the PTA meeting and I'd help out at that school function and I'd do that writing workshop at the senior center." That might be true, but each of those commitments chip away at what else I can do. And the world will be perfectly happy to fill your schedule to the point where you get no writing done because every time you steal a moment to sit down and write, you're too tired to come up with anything. Then it's easy to pile on the self-condemnation and question whether you're actually meant to be a writer at all. It doesn't help to hear people say "writers write every day" or "if you were really a writer, you'd have that book finished by now." Instead of giving in to those kinds of negatives, be sure you aren't simply scheduling yourself out of potential success.
3. Beware of Expecting Output without Input.
I can always tell when I'm not reading enough because my writing tends to flatten and my enthusiasm for plotting flags (and plotting is one of my favorite things). At this point, I don't do a lot of critical reading (where I'm really breaking down books to see how they tick), but I do a lot of passive learning as I read for joy. Every time I read a book, there's a part of my awareness that is noticing how a different writer is putting together a story. And when I'm having a really good time with a book, I can almost feel my creative well filling up.
Now, I’m about to say something that may not work for everyone: I can fill my creative well by other things than reading as well. Consuming any kind of storytelling will pour into my creative well. So I do read. I also listen to audio books. I watch silly YouTube videos (for one, I love to watch Sims videos where young people are using a game as a vehicle for storytelling. It fascinates me and because it’s so unlike writing. I find it really challenges some of my preset notions of storytelling, thus helping me become more creative.) I also watch television and sometimes movies. One thing television and movies help me do is to hear other voices in my head as I write dialogue in my books. I find benefits in every way I consume story and the more I do it, the more smoothly story comes out when I sit down to write.
4. Beware of Negative Voices.
Psychologists tell us that if we hear a lie repeated often enough, we'll eventually be more inclined to believe it. And this tends to increase if the person speaking the lie matters to us. Throughout my life, I've had periods of realization that I'd internalized something that simply wasn't true. And when I spent time pondering where this idea came from, I've nearly always realized it sunk in when people who mattered to me said it, usually over and over. Internalizing negative lies can be dangerous for a successful writing life. Some people have internalized beliefs like, "I'm not very creative" or "I just cannot grasp grammar" or "I really can't write a novel so I stick to short things." Many of these beliefs came about because of things said to us or things we've told ourselves.
All of us are learning all the time and once you've learned something, it will tend to feel like a talent while things we're still learning will feel like a roadblock. But we can see those things we're still learning as challenges. We can tell ourselves that we are well able to overcome these challenges through effort, learning and practice. Or we can see them as personal weaknesses that we're doomed to fail at forever. If we tell ourselves that it's a challenge, we'll be energized to overcome it. If we see it as a personal weakness, we'll shy away from it because it makes us feel bad about ourselves. So here's the thing, if you want to make a career of writing, you need to gag those voices that are lying to you and telling you that challenges are actually insurmountable personal weaknesses.
Make a list of any negatives you've said about your writing abilities: I'm no good at plots. I just can't write short. I simply cannot plan a story, I just have to sit down and write. Then look at the list and rewrite them as challenges: "I need to learn more about plot structure. I don't yet know how short story plots work. I could look at pre-writing options to see if any would work for me." Then decide on the ones that would help you be more successful. Pick one and come up with a plan for turning that negative belief into a positive skill. Even if you don't ultimately decide to implement your plan, just thinking about the negative in a new light will help you see yourself as stronger.
So watch for these Beware Bears that might be standing in your way or slowing down your success. You just may see an increase in your forward momentum in 2019 by chasing some bears out of your creative life. I know I'm going to drive off a few of my own. Let's go get them!
Don’t forget to download our Success Journal before it goes away! It will help you focus on the positive, not the negative.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.