A Twelve-Step program for Getting Out of Writer’s Limbo

It’s 2015 and I’ve entered writer’s limbo. Limbo is (as you may or may not know) a level of hell. The very tip and not really all that bad, but still. Hell. Modern people might even call it purgatory (the great waiting room in-between heaven and hell). It doesn’t really matter what it is, just that I know I’m in it. When I can admit it, then I can get out of it: the very pinnacle of every twelve-step program.

Step 1: Admit you are in limbo.

I’m a writer, but I still whisper it when people ask me what I do. I put words on paper and people pay me money for them. It’s happened a number of times now, so I can pretty much verify that all adds up to a possible job title. To me, do it once it’s an accident. Twice, it’s a favor. Three times, “Hey! Maybe I could do this for a living?” Beyond that it’s now a job title. It’s magic. Sort of like how peanut butter and chocolate become twenty times more awesome when put together, not just a standard double awesome like people would expect.

But in the writing world, you’re not anybody until you have a novel. It can be through a traditional (large or small) publisher or it can be self-published. It doesn’t matter, really, just having something to point to on the shelf that has your name on it and all the pages in between were written by you. So, yes, I still whisper “writer” when people ask, “What do you do?” I say writer and most of the time people perk up. (Or their eyebrows smash together and huge concern that I might be delusional. Or maybe I’ve misread them; maybe they just had a bad turkey sandwich.

It’s like I’ve uttered the magic word and people’s ears perk up, but I want them to perk back down, because then I have to explain that I don’t have a novel. I have a lot of books they can find in a bookstore or a library, but I don’t have one that’s mine all mine. I don’t have a precious.

I have an agent. I have books out with editors. Those editors could be right now staining page 50 of my manuscript with their American-roast-part-skim-milk-touch-of-vanilla coffee.

And that is limbo. Also not having a book sold means I have to continue like I don’t have one or won’t have one. So I’m working on other books that have nothing to do with the current books I have out in the wild. Also there’s the unease of what projects I should be working on. Do I self-publish a short story series? Do I write a ton of short stories to send out to magazines, hoping I land in a good one? Do I beg my way into anthologies and other opportunities? What direction is the smartest?

And that is limbo.

I hate limbo.

Step 2: HATE limbo. It will suck you down in its never-ending abyss.

After wallowing in step two, it’s time to narrow down which project is the smartest direction to go. I’d do all the things, but time is not on my side. Remember how I mentioned those children things in past posts? They need me to pick them up from school and interact with them. I am their designated bringer of love and food and help with homework.

I’m sort of taking this approach to figuring out what projects should get my time:

Warning!! Foul language ahead. I’m sorry, but this is the only other language I speak other than English. And now that I’ve spent my good impression piggy bank money on telling you I’m a writer, I now have no other ways to impress you. So turn away now if these foul language waters will give you seasickness.

Turn away.

I mean it. I don’t want nasty letters from people telling me I shouldn’t cuss.

Grandma. Mom. I’m looking at you.

All right. So I assign every project a number of fucks given. If I have a burning need to write a certain story–then I give a fuck for that. Will it take a ton of effort or a little? Give fucks appropriately. When each project has its scorecard of fucks I give, I start to pick at those reasons.

I imagine this step to be me with an empty bottle of tequila in one fist and a carton of S’mores Ben and Jerry’s in the other. I have mascara down my ugly-cry face, bad hair, and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs “What did you ever do for me short story?” If I bully it into giving up it’s fucks-I-give points then eventually I’ll have no more fucks to give it and I can safely eliminate it from my pile of things I feel overwhelmed to do.

Some of the projects are like “But we can be good together if you give us a chance!” and they say even nicer things like “Remember last summer, when you were free and careless? You were at the top of your game when you were with me.” And they get to keep floating around in my mind as possibilities.

Step 3: Give as many fucks away as possible. You don’t need the baggage in limbo. It just gets heavier.

Step 4: Don’t let the past make you afraid of the future.

Last year I thought I made a mistake. I had too many possibilities for projects. All paying. I had to say no to at least one. I was getting two novels ready with my agent to send off for consideration, so it gave me less time to work on short story projects. I had an opportunity to write a tie-in for a game company and I so badly wanted to, but I knew even though it would be a lot of money, it would be a lot of time taken away from writing my own original work that I’d hold the rights to. I also didn’t have the skill to do it right (so it would be even more time taken away to gain the skill). So I had to let it go. Instead I said yes to an anthology project that was right up my alley, but it ended up falling flat. And I spent that time writing a story I never got paid for. So I was out two projects in one fell swoop. At the time I thought I misjudged the risk, but I think there might have been another reason.

I have to trust my gut. And I can’t spend time looking back and worrying that I’m making the wrong choices. Stay the path and take the opportunities that make sense. Not all of them will have huge rewards at the end. So for now I’m working on a novel. A short story that is a finish-up to a project (a guaranteed sale—although I’m weary of those now.). And a secret project.

On to next steps!

Steps 5 – 11: ?

Step 12: Enjoy being out of limbo.

And there you have it. My plan to get out of limbo!

I love comments! For every comment you will buy a writer’s way out of limbo. Sort of like the collection box at a church.

Junkie

funny-pictures-catnip-toy-brokeWelp, I’m a junkie. Not the gross, bad kind that steals from family and mortgages the farm, then hides in  rundown houses to get high. No I’m the socially ok addict. The kind who is hooked on a substance that can bring both great joy and great pain.

I am a writing craft book addict.

I find when I start to question my skill, or get a harsh critique, or get yet another rejection, I turn to my addiction, and the knowledge is helpful and motivational and almost comforting. Yes, I am doing it right. But that’s when caution is necessary because it’s easy to confuse activity for progress.

The monkey on my back isn’t all bad. Some of the joy: finding the exact way to tweak a work-in-progress, locating a unknown problem and being able to fix it before it gets worse, stumbling upon a gem of knowledge that makes ‘POV’ or ‘pacing’ or ‘show don’t tell’ make sense, and using rhetorical devices to empower your prose and make your writing smooth.

So this seems to be all roses and sunshine and unicorns and rainbows. And it is, for a while but as with any addiction, there is a dark side.

The obsession takes over as a hint of shadow reveals itself. Every book or class starts to take precedence over the actual writing. Three new paper books about pacing sit on the shelf, two on Kindle, and still you want to interloan more. You get so involved in learning and how it’s done, but never have time to apply the tools your work-in-progress.

How do you kick or at least manage the addiction?

Pick one technique. Study it, then use it on the very next project. Let that knowledge build and next time add a new layer. My last short story, for example, was a practice session on deep characterization.

Look over critiques for what specifically has been addressed as a problem and ‘focus read’ about that.

Pick a chapter in a craft book that applies to your goals and skip or skim the rest. If characterization is not a sticking point for you, then don’t read a hundred pages about deepening character. Skim to the section you need work on, like speeding up a snail’s paced novel, or making your openings pop.

I can’t kick my habit. Heck, I don’t want to. But I do want to control it, and twist it to my will, so that the learning process isn’t only educating me and making me a better student, but with application and a daily word count goal. The craft books are making me a better writer, as well.

Now pass me ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, I need to get my fix.

The Writer’s Life: Fiction vs. Fact

small pen

Today, I had a taste of the writer’s life.  Some of those outside of the industry might envision a book tour, shaking hands and signings, or meetings with movie producers and merchandisers, interviews with Oprah or Good Morning America, or even sitting in a perfectly appointed office with neat clean with a large oak desk, blithely typing perfect prose and finishing another novel, piling the pages in a box to be sent to your NYC agent.

This is a fantasy. Oh, someday those things might happen but the ‘everyday of writing’ is another  matter. It’s fighting to get your kid to school and chugging down a coffee so you can jump start some semblance of your once clever brain. On the wonderful days when you don’t have to also run off directly to the day job you have to finance your writing career, you still have a house full of responsibilities, dishes, laundry, dog, cat litter, making and breaking appointment and running by the grocery store. When that is done, part of you wants to just ‘check’ your email and Facebook and an hour later you realize the three hours you were going to write is now down by one.

After getting a tea and a snack and searching for another half an hour for the notes you jotted down while at your dreaded day job, you finally sit down to the screen and the cat’s want attention, the phone rings, you realize you haven’t exercised in three days and you will soon grow to the size of a Thanksgiving day parade balloon.  You remember you had to get your daughter set up for driver’s training and now the laundry needs to be put in the dryer.

At last, after a third scoop of peanut butter, you sit and make your fingers move.  Even if it’s just a blog post, even if it’s to edit a page or three of the short story you need to send in by the end of the year, even if it’s to write down a plan to avoid all the distractions. Cause you’re a writer and once you fight through the fluff that is what you do.  So someday I may be on a talk show or meet  a producer, or my first draft might come out perfect, and I may have all the time in the world, but that doesn’t make me a writer. Today I’m a writer, because I fought the distraction and I wrote.

Happy Rejection

rejection

I got yet another rejection today and I can’t say it made me feel super happy.  It wasn’t as bad as the first, or the fourth, or the tenth, but it still had a bit of bite.  It woke up the internal voice that reminded me I’m not marketable enough, not original enough, not good enough, not something enough.

But I then I remembered, it’s rare for anyone on the writer’s path to get accepted immediately or easily, and I dig into other writer’s journeys to give me inspiration.

Sherilynn Kenyon was denied access three times to a creative writing program because they wanted to save the spot for someone who actually had a future in publishing.  She is currently a multi-multi international bestseller.  In her keynote speech to the RWA in 2011 (which I attended), she said that, “Sometimes impossible only means you have to try harder.”  For her whole really inspiring story see this http://www.sherrilynkenyon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/-rwa%20luncheon%20speech%20delivered.pdf

I have friends who have only gotten published after hundreds of rejections.  What kept these people trying, when all common sense says that you obviously are not suited to being a writer?

My first answer is always faith, unshakable, rock solid faith in themselves and their story.  But it even goes deeper than that. I think it also has to do with attitude.

Kresley Cole (another mega bestseller) gave this advice to new writers:  “…if you’re set on publishing, then don’t dabble. Decide if you’re in or you’re out. Then do whatever it takes to achieve your goals. I had a “25” plan. At any given time, I would have my writing out in 25 myriad forms—either contests, critiques, agent queries, publisher queries, etc. I believe you have to jump in with both feet.”

Obviously, a rejection or two didn’t deter her.  I think some of her methodology comes from the fact that she was an Olympian before becoming a writer.  Half of being an athlete of that caliber is showing up and attitude.  Practice, practice, practice until you master a technique. And I believe she applied that to her writing career.

I think it’s not a bad idea for other writers to embrace this style of submission.  Just pound on the door with absolute confidence, because this is not an objective business, personal preference plays a part.  The agent could have just bought a book just like yours, or only likes dark paranormal when your book is full of humor, or it just didn’t grab them. So for every rejection or pass isn’t the end, it’s a step forward in the process of finding the agent or editor who ‘gets’ your vision.

In 2015, I’m going to have the never-give-up-Olympian attitude about rejection. Impossible only means I have to work harder.  For every pass takes me closer to the right agent and editor, the one who ‘gets’ me and my work, the one who will champion it to the world–and that I can feel happy about.

When You Think You’ve Reached the Top. Look Up.

DSC01287s I write.  Not every day and not always well, but I write. And I’ve been writing for a long, long time. I have consistently followed the writer’s path to publication for the last seven years. In my thirties, I took classes and started novels. Further back in my preteen years I wrote ‘The Story’, a 300 page, hand written tome, that had characters very similar to Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.  Even longer ago, I scribed a retelling of the Eros and Psyche myth in play format for my fourth grade project. I even dabbled with short stories before I knew how to write in cursive.  So when I say I’ve been writing a long time, I’m not exaggerating.

The last few years have been very similar to climbing a steep mountain side.  First the foothills, constant improvement, learning more craft, finaling in contest, finding great writing friends and critique partners.  Then I hit some tall, daunting walls: harsh critiques, rejections, financial woes, family issues, indecision about self-publishing, loss of faith.  But for every rock slide or loss of hand hold, I took two steps forward. I could see the top and nothing was going to stop me. I put my head down and worked harder.

I recently received some positive feedback from one of my all-time-favorite mentors and I thought for sure the apex was in my reach.  An agent or editor would grab my book soon and it would be all downhill from this point on.  Finally, I would be a published author.  I would be living the life of my dreams.

But as I read over my latest manuscript, I glanced up to see the top maybe further than I expected.

A lot further.

Could this have been just self-defeating, lack of confidence?  Or could this feeling be a realistic worry.  I felt frozen.  Like a climber who has miscalculated the time it would take and is worried she didn’t bring enough food. My thoughts spiraled into a vortex:  Can I financially make it without additional income for another year or two…or five?  Have I blown out my arms?  Writer speak for: Do I have the knowledge and strength to keep writing and rewriting and pushing, year after year?   Do I have enough faith in myself and my ability?

I sat and read craft books and wallowed in my story, unable to even begin the process—yet again.

I never thought about quitting. When you are this far up the mountain, you have passed the point of no return, you are committed. It’s reach the top or die.

And I remembered that it’s not just the idea of reaching the top that pushes me on day after day. It’s the journey. It’s the writing. It’s the puzzling together of a story that not only delights me but may someday delight others.  It’s the learning and the growing and the process.

I decided to find the strength and fight.  Write a new story, or dig in and edit one of the pile I have finished, or do both. Because no matter how high this mountain goes, there will always be another peek, another goal that pushes me forward, another milestone to reach.  Even when I finally get published, I will look up and realize that there is yet another mountain to climb.

Because I am a writer and that’s what we do.