Spiritual Pride and Dangerous Newbie Writer Traps

I’m repainting the master bedroom and started with the kiva fireplace. It was the same white as the walls before, so I’m happy with how it stands out now. The walls are next, in a creamier shade. Will try to post pics!

As some of you may or may not know, I used to study with a Taoist martial arts school. We trained in internal Chinese martial arts, but also in the corresponding mental, emotional and physical work it takes to clear your mind enough to grow as a person.

Our teacher was forever reminding us to be wary of spiritual pride. It’s easy, when you finally begin to get somewhere in this really difficult transformation of self, to feel like YOU ARE THE SHIZ. There’s a great temptation to feel better than everyone else. You can see this in people of all religions – where the phrase “holier than thou” comes from. Taoism is all about finding the middle path and part of that balance is feeling good about what you’ve accomplished, giving yourself well-deserved credit for hard work rewarded, while avoiding going too far into hubris and overblown ego.

What does this have to do with writing? 

As if none of us have seen those successful authors who are all ego and no sanity. In fact, I think some of the recent #metoo outings of Big Name Authors who’ve sexually harassed *many* people are partially a result of this entitlement. I can see it between the lines of their “apologies.” They thought they were special and untouchable and could take whatever they wanted – and often did. 

Those are extreme cases, for the most part, and can happen to anyone who reaches that level of fame and fortune (if they’re not careful).

But there’s another trap I’ve been seeing a lot of newer authors fall into that’s just as, if not more dangerous. That first Big Success. 

Now, for a lot of us, that never happens. Or it happens so late that we’re so thoroughly humbled by then that we’re not in danger.  That’s how it was for me. By the time I won my RITA® Award for THE PAGES OF THE MIND, that was my eighteenth published book. I was *really* used to not being much of a deal at all. In fact, it’s still surprising to me when people treat me like something special. I think I was lucky that way, as much as I hated slogging through all that, because my career has grown gradually enough that I’ve grown mentally with it.

Other authors – and we often know a lot about them because they make that big splash – hit it big right off the bat, in some way or another. Their first published story is nominated for a big industry award – and they might be nominated for a “best new writer” type award. They get a snazzy debut book deal, maybe even six figures. They might win a high-profile contest that gets them that book deal. All of these things are wonderful! I sure wished they’d happened for me.

At least, I did then. Now I’m grateful I didn’t have to go through that.

It’s a dangerous place to be, after that first big score, because they feel proud, excited, and giving themselves major strokes for succeeding in a difficult business. And they should, because it’s well-deserved. But it’s easy to stray too far to the other side of the path. Writers I’ve known – and didn’t know, but observed – tend to think that they have it down. That they know the “rules” and succeeded because of that. They think they are the shiz, when really they’re still brand-new authors with one or two publication credits. With this tremendous validation, however, they proceed as if they possess all the wisdom, often handing out advice.

This advice tends to be terrible in a very standard way. “Just write a Really Good Book.” “Follow these rules.” “Use this method.” This is because they don’t really know how they did it. And that is because a whole lot of it had to do with luck, not their craft. Learning and wielding our craft comes in with writing the second book. And the fifth. And the eighteenth.

Perhaps this is the cursed face that every great gift brings – and those writers will find their way through it. I don’t really have advice for them – and not only because they’re unlikely to listen to me, when they’ve done what I didn’t – but my caution is for everyone else. It’s tempting to look to these superstars and give what they say more weight. After all, who doesn’t want what they have? So we hear them say things like “Just write a Really Good Book,” (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this one from a writer with a snazzy new book deal) and we come away half exhilarated and half in despair. Because how the hell do you DO that? And we stare at our blank computer screens – or our list of publications that didn’t get six-figure deals – and we wonder why we didn’t write “a Really Good Book.” Maybe we’ll listen when they say to follow this rule or that, or we’ll slavishly use the method they recommend. 

Don’t do this. If you need advice – which we all do – get it from the authors who’ve been around the block a few or thirty times. It’s pretty much universal advice not to be distracted by the New Shiny, and that includes publishing’s newest darling. Congratulate them – they should enjoy the ride – and then put your eyes back on your own work. 

In the end, that’s the only way to write that Really Good Book. 

 

What Would You Write If You Weren’t Afraid?

CDSdpCIUsAEKz9EI saw this question go by on Twitter a bit ago and, as things seem to do at certain times, it really struck me. I can’t recall who posted it – if it was you, please say so and I’ll give you credit!

Some of you out there will be shaking your heads at me and joyfully proclaiming that you are not afraid. I know you are because some people said that back to me on Twitter. You write exactly what you want to write and screw the rules! Screw the critics, the gatekeepers and reader feedback!

Good on you!

I mean that seriously. It’s a great place to be. I used to be there and I miss it.

And probably “afraid” isn’t exactly the right word for what I feel at this point in my career. It’s more an umbrella sense of caution, of all the voices in my head, whispering as I write. With newbie authors I’ve often given the advice to throw people out of the room who are metaphorically looking over their shoulders. I think pretty much every one of us has to figure out how to overcome that in the early days – writing sex scenes that would shock your grandmother, expressing opinions your dad would have a fit about, starting a sentence with a conjunction which would have been points off in AP English. That’s a big challenge and not easy to do.

Then you get past that – you have to, if you’re going to free up your writing voice – and you write books and everything goes swimmingly for a while.

Until you find yourself writing book four of a popular series that straddles genres in a way that’s generating a lot of interest and discussion and suddenly new, different and LOUDER people are in the room with you. I’m hearing voices I never heard before about the marketplace, what my agent thinks, what my editor expects, what my author friends are saying, what reviewers identify as ways I need to grow as a writer or how I do or don’t fit within the genre. These voices are in many ways much more difficult to shut up because I have respect for their opinions. This isn’t my grandmother reiterating an uneducated attitude. These are smart people with intelligent things to say.

Things that can get in the way.

I heard this before, when I was a newbie writer, and professional writer friends advised me to enjoy that time. They said there’s a freedom to writing then that you lose later, when you have expectations laid on you from people like editors, agents and so forth. Naturally, I barely listened, caught up in my envy for their book contracts and success. But they were spot on correct.

I think it comes down to this – that I’m not always writing what I would if I didn’t have those expectations. Or rather, more accurately, writing what I would if I didn’t have those voices is more of a battle.

I want to write what I’d write if I wasn’t afraid, if I didn’t anticipate the reactions to the book it will become. So I’m focusing on this question. As I’m spinning the story, when I hit a decision point and the voices rise up, chattering about how other authors did it, what the market wants, what the award-givers will value, I ask myself how I’d do it if I weren’t afraid of their censure.

And I do that.

It’s an ongoing process. A lesson I feel like I’m learning anew every day, with every writing session. Maybe this is part of growing as a writer in this stage of my career – finding ways to stay true to my own storytelling in the face of more and more people having an investment in what I do.

Anyone else out there dealing with this? Any advice on banishing those voices? I’m open to advice!

 

What Do You Mean Paranormal Romance Is Dead???

034I haven’t done many sunset pictures lately. Wouldn’t want you all to pine away for lack of them!

And you can focus on the pretty clouds and take deep, calming breaths while I explain why everyone is saying Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy are dead genres.

I’ve participated in this very conversation several times over the last few weeks – in meetings, panels and online – so I thought I might as well write out my take on it, as something to point to.

But yes, this is the industry message we’ve been hearing and was probably one of the key takeaway messages from RWA 2014. Agents and Editors are just not buying new Paranormal and Urban Fantasy stories.

I’m sorry. Look at the pretty clouds. Take a deep breath.

But, but, but… Jeffe! I hear you all saying. But your Twelve Kingdoms books are doing really great and you said the other day that if presales on The Tears of the Rose are good enough you’ll get to do three more!

But I see new paranormal and urban fantasy books coming out all the time!

But I love to read those genres and know *tons* of other people do too, how can it be dead??

What do they even mean when they say a genre is dead?

Okay, so here are some simple answers for you.

“Dead Genre” – WTF??

You’re right – it’s a misnomer. Even the agent who declares on a panel that PNR is dead will agree ten minutes later that genres don’t really die. She means that it’s on a downcycle. When industry people say this, they mean that agents can’t sell that genre to a big publishing house and editors can’t justify acquiring it. Will that change eventually? Of course. Will certain books circumvent that rule? Of course. Will yours? The odds are not in your favor.

If editors say they won’t acquire, then why did [insert famous PNR/UF author name here] get another big deal?

 Because they *already have an audience.* It’s not a gamble to buy more books from an established author. It is a gamble to give a book contract to a new or midlist author. Having that uncertainty on top of a downcycle genre stacks the deck against the decision to go for it. This is why the big authors get big deals, to keep doing what they’ve been doing. This is why umpteen books still come out on the shelves. This is also why digital and smaller publishers are more likely to give a book in a downcycle genre more of a chance, because they have less investment to gamble.

But the READERS!

Okay, there are a few things to consider here. One is that these people see the sales and you don’t. Just because the big authors (see above) are selling lots of books, does not mean that all books in the genre are doing likewise. I can vouch that a number of authors I know writing in these genres are not selling that phenomenally. There are a LOT of books out there – the market is glutted, which is what causes a downcycle. It’s hard for a new author to break in, be different, catch reader attention. One thing to consider is, between you and your PNR/UF loving friends, how many of the books that you’ve bought lately were from totally new authors? Not new-to-you, but debuts? If can list some, think about why those debut authors caught your attention.

So… does this mean you’re screwed?

No.

EMPHATICALLY NO.

First of all, remember than genre is something of an artificial construct. If you can find a way to spin your story or the description to make it clear that it’s not yet another example of this dead genre, do that. Some of you cleverly pointed at my books and that I, as NOT a big author, am doing okay getting them out there. That’s because they’re Fantasy. If you were paying attention last week, female authors did great in the Hugo Awards. Keep in mind that the SciFi/Fantasy (SFF) publishers are not the same as the PNR publishers. Other romance subgenres may be hotter now, but there’s hunger for female voices and stories in SFF.

And besides, the wheel goes round, right?

 I’m giving you perspective and advice on the market right now. That’s totally different than the advice I’d give you as a writer, which is to write what you love. As an artist, as a storyteller, you have to follow your heart. Now, if your heart is polyamorous and can be just as happy with you writing an idea in an upcycle genre? Do that. But don’t chase the market. Put the book in a drawer and wait for a better season. I have one that’s a great book, could be an amazing series – and the market is all wrong right now.

Write something else.

That’s what writers do.

Planning for a Long-Term Writing Career

001 (2)Lunch with, Joyce, the winner of the Brenda Novak Auction prize that Carolyn Crane and I sponsored. We took her out to lunch at the RWA convention and gave her all the best advice we could come up with on planning the next stages of her career. It was very fun and we wish her well!

A theme that came up for me over and over at this convention was looking at the long-term career. It seemed we heard a lot of stories about writers who’d lasted through the ups and downs of the industry – and those who hadn’t. One gal I met had written for Kensington – my same publisher – back in the 1990s. She wrote nine books for them, in fact, then was dropped during one of the downturns. Her husband also divorced her at the same time. By the time she sorted out her life, she discovered her writing career had tanked without her noticing.

Quite the cautionary tale.

 Oh, sure, you can make judgments here. Having an agent would have helped. She likely missed signals, should have been paying better attention, but the fact remains that she “made it.” She had nine books with a very good publisher. And POOF. Gone.

During the same conference, I attended one of my favorite workshops, The Secrets of the Bestselling Sisterhood, put on by long-time career pals and friends, Jayne Ann Krentz and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. They often put their long careers in terms of their longevity when so many other very good writers have not survived. From their discussion, I tweeted:

If you’re in this business any length of time, your genre will go out of style. Find your core story and be ready to change genres #RWA13
 
I was amazed at how many people picked up that tweet, saved it in favorites and passed it around.
 
Upon consideration, however, I realize I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s excellent advice. Their point is – and this is mainly from Krentz, who has reinvented herself as an author several times – that the core story is the key. Whether you tell the story framed in fantasy or romance, with vampires or with regency-era dukes, with spaceships or sailing ships – those things are all external trappings. The heart of the story is what we love and want to read. And write.
 
All of this bears thinking about, much as we might not want to. The way the industry is, a huge amount of our focus and struggle goes into the effort to just get on the playing field. Getting Published might not be the high bar it once was, with the many options available today, but it’s still the enormous first step. It’s easy to see all the effort on the front end and forget the ongoing work.
 
But, like with marriage, while it’s tempting to see the wedding as the culmination of the quest – the search, courtship, engagement and ceremony are complete – it’s truly only the gateway into the thing itself. A lifetime of marriage is a continuing, evolving effort. We can no more let our writing careers go than we can take our spouses for granted and assume they are a done deal.
 
Food for thought.