What If?

Usually it goes something like this:

What if I’m a terrible writer. Or (gasp) a truly average writer?

What if all the kind words people offer about my stories are nothing more than polite lies accompanied by fake smiles because they want to avoid hurting my feelings?

What if my dogged pursuit of traditional publishing is a fool’s errand? What if there are exactly zero literary agents interested in the kind of stories I write? What if the only thing I learn from querying is how poorly I handle rejection?

What if I self-publish and the book just sits there on the virtual shelf, impervious to my attempts to find an audience for it?

What if the book’s cover is all wrong? What if the marketing blurb sends people away with a shrug? What if people think it’s too expensive? Or too cheap?

What if readers hate the book and slap it with 1-star reviews? What if they find it bland and purposeless and don’t review it at all?

What if I run out of story ideas? What if all my stories just plain suck?

Or it could go something like this:

What if I’m actually a decent writer? Or maybe even a really good one?

What if I start to believe the nice things people say about my stories?

What if I learn to trust my writing voice on the first draft, and my re-writing voice on the second and third and fourth?

What if I accept the possibility that I just haven’t been lucky enough to find the right literary agent, and reject the idea that my work isn’t good enough for traditional publishing?

What if the 1-star reviews don’t matter? What if I own the idea that I’m writing for the people who do get it and that this is more than enough?

What if readers fall in love with the characters, the plot, the words? What if my stories matter?

What if I’m a better writer than I think I am? What if I get better with every story?

What if I could trust the “what ifs” in the second half of this blog post more than those in the first, and still be thinking about them long after I’ve clicked out of cyberspace and returned to my writing reality?

I wonder what that would be like.

Self-Talk for Writers

Writers are notorious self-talkers. We have to be. All of our employees live in our head. Self-talk is our way of motivating them to do their jobs.

But not all our self-talk is helping. Some of it is de-motivating those employees. Yes, it’s true that there are a few uniquely-wired writers who seem to be genuinely motivated by de-motivation. If repeating “I’m a loser!” inspires you to greatness, well…good for you. (And be sure to tip your therapist.) But be careful. Negativity (and also just plain wrongful thinking) leaves a residue that can poison your writing life.

The solution seems simple enough: just use self-talk that actually helps and avoid the stuff that doesn’t. Yep. But it’s not as easy as it seems. Some self-talk appears to be positive, when it actually isn’t. Here, I’ll show you.

Don’t say… “I’m going to write a bestseller” (see also: “I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling”). Why not? Isn’t that every writer’s dream? Not exactly. Because you don’t write a bestseller. You write a book. Then, if the literary wind favors you and blows your book into the right hands, it becomes a bestseller. (Lucky you.) If your motivation is “writing a bestseller,” your chances of falling short of that goal and into a deep, desperate depression are…well, it’s a really big number. Will some of you write a book that becomes a bestseller? I hope so. Probably. But not most of you. Still want to write? Good. Then keep reading.

Do say… “I’m going to write the best damn book I can.” Yes. Please say this. Every time you sit down at the computer or legal pad (remember those?). And then do what you say you’re going to do. Write, read, learn, apply. I don’t care what genre you’re writing – romance, science fiction, mystery, bacon (it’s my blog, I can make up genres if I want to), whatever – and I don’t care if you think you’re a literary writer or can’t tell the difference between David Foster Wallace and David Foster – if you can find motivation in writing well, you will always be successful.

Don’t say… “I’m brilliant.” You might be. I suspect you are, actually. But unless you’re just rehearsing ironic self-effacing humor for the talk show circuit, this kind of self-motivation will be self-defeating. Especially when you see the notes from your editor. You are what you are as a writer. And the only person who can rightly call you brilliant is…anyone but you.

Don’t say… “I suck as a writer.” Yeah, you do. You shouldn’t even be allowed near a laptop. Really? Does saying that to yourself help? Try this instead…

Do say… “I have a long way to go as a writer.” Then just…um…keep going. The journey isn’t the only thing, maybe not even the  most important thing, but it is a Very Important Thing. This is true of every writer on the planet. It should be, anyway. Let me know if you ever come to the end of your abilities. Then we need to talk.

Don’t say… “I don’t have enough time to write.” I totally understand this statement. I say it more than most. But what I’m really saying is “I’m not willing to change my writing habits right now.” We say this because we think we need something more than what’s available to us. Two hours instead of the one that sits before us. A whole day instead of an afternoon. A weekend away from distraction instead of these impossible 15 minute windows. I still need to work on this one. If I wrote during a tenth of the small pockets of time that appear in my day, I’d have completed a dozen novels by now.

Do say… “I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t write today.” How does this motivate? Well, it gives you permission to live. Writers have to be intentional with that sort of thing. Because what are we doing when we’re not writing? We’re thinking about writing. Tell yourself it’s okay not to write all the time, not to dwell on it every waking second. Go outside and enjoy the scent of rain for what it is instead of worrying about how you’re going to fix that scene where someone is enjoying the scent of rain for what it is.

Don’t say… “I don’t need an editor.” You do. We all do. Accept it.

Do say… “I love my editor. He makes me better. I will send him chocolate.” Nuff said.

Don’t say… “I’m ten times a better writer than [insert bestselling author here].” What’s wrong with this? It’s true, isn’t it? Well, maybe. It depends on how you measure “better.” (Frequency of adverb use?) Look closely at the statement. It’s a dangerous motivator. Sure, it could push you to the page, propel you forward to The End. But once again, there’s’ a good chance it will ultimately lead to disappointment. Think about it. What does “being a better writer than someone else” get us? Well, we hope it gets us more attention from agents and editors and readers. In a perfect world, it does. But that result is entirely in their (subjective) hands, not ours. The only two things we’re certain to get from such a claim are smugness and a sense of entitlement. If you ask me, smugness and entitlement don’t look that good on (most) writers.

Do say… “I am a writer.” Those four words are magic. Say them often. When you’re in front of the computer or stuck in traffic. When you’re looking in the mirror or lingering in a bookstore. When you’re frustrated and when you’re encouraged. “I am a writer.” Say it again. “I am a writer.”

Yes. You are. So write.

 

The Buoyancy of Words

Fair warning: I’m going to stretch a swimming metaphor well beyond my non-metaphorical comfort level. Feel free to believe that this discomfort serves some greater meta-metaphorical purpose. Then let me know what it is so I can say “yeah, I meant to do that.”

Writers spend a lot of time going nowhere.

We start out strong enough, with a perfect swan dive into the ocean of ideas. [Already the metaphor is causing me gastric distress.] But after a few weeks or days or hours of swimming in a Direction We’re Absolutely Sure Of (Until Suddenly We’re Not), we find ourselves far from the dock and nowhere near the distant shore. Our confidence falters and our Olympic-qualifying freestyle pace devolves into draggy doggy paddle.

And then we’re just treading water.

I’m not a very strong swimmer. I’m also pretty bad at treading water, or as I call it, “pausing briefly before drowning.” You may be great at treading water. But even if you are, eventually you have to start swimming again or drown.

Did you know that drowning doesn’t look like drowning? I’m talking about actual drowning now, not the metaphoric kind. There’s rarely any thrashing, handwaving or cries of “Help! I’m drowning!” A drowning person can’t call out because it takes every bit of respiratory energy just to keep breathing. [The preceding message was brought to you by the American Lifeguard Association. And now, back to the metaphor.]

Two truths:

  • Writing, like swimming, is a solitary act.
  • Writing a novel is like swimming across the Atlantic.

Do you see a problem here? I’ll paint the picture for you: You know that scene from Titanic where the lifeboat returns to look for survivors? Remember all those floating frozen bodies? Novelists. Every last one of them.

We can’t swim across the Atlantic on our own. We need a little help along the way. Encouragement to keep swimming. Direction to send us toward the right shore. This can come from a spouse, a friend, a writing group peer, a mentor. It can come from a tweet or a blogpost. Or…from another novel.

Sometimes the best motivation to keep swimming is evidence that someone else made it to the other side.

I read The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green last week. It’s a heartbreaking, edgy, funny, beautiful novel – the kind that implores you by its brilliance to become a better writer. I grabbed onto it just in time. The novel I’m writing (ten words at a time between editing projects) had been dragging me under. But thanks to John Green’s words, I’m swimming again. I can almost see the shore.

And I can see something else. That familiar look of quiet panic in your eyes. I don’t want you to drown. I want you to finish your novel. Do whatever it takes. Call a member of your writing group and plead for help. Ask your spouse to toss a few kind words your way. Read an encouraging blog post. (You’re welcome.) Read a great novel. Just find a way to get to the other side.

Not just because doing this will make you feel good. (It will.) And not just because it’s an incredible accomplishment. (It is.)

But also because I’m still not a very good swimmer. Someday I’m going to need another great novel to grab onto.

I’d like it to be yours.