What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting
Being a writer may well mean writing all the time (in which case, you’re fortunate), or writing in as much of the day or night as you can steal from the world and your family and your day job. The point is that it’s difficult, a lot of effort goes in before anything ever sees the light of day. You’re unlikely to be constantly bringing out a new novel, or even a series of short stories. It can be a long time between drinks – some of which I’ve covered in this post right here.
This post today is about the stuff to do in between times: the useful busywork that will help you keep going. It will help lay the foundations for your next steps. Now, please keep in mind that the usefulness of this advice will vary depending on the point you’re at in your career, your degree of self-pity/self-righteousness, and your willingness to drag your butt out of the traditional writerly “nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms” impostor syndrome pit.
There’s a myth that says once you’ve got your first book deal, you’re set. You’ll always have a book deal. That your first publisher will be your forever publisher and you’ll be faithful to one another until death do you part. Even then, your literary estate will live on and all those bits of dross you never wanted out in the world will somehow appear in published form as your ghost howls into the void. Wait, where was I going with this?
Oh yes. Your first publisher won’t always be your last publisher. You won’t necessarily have a novel out every year for the rest of your life. And you know what? This will probably bother you and make you feel bad at some point – or all points, but don’t reach for the whisk(e)y and revolver quite yet. There’s a good chance (unless you’re very well-adjusted – but hey, we’re talking about writers here) you will become convinced everyone is going to forget who you are; that you’re sliding to the bottom of the snake in life’s game of Snakes and Ladders.
You’re in between contracts: your publisher has decided they don’t want any more books from you and it’s hard not to take that personally. Your books haven’t sold as well as they’d wished; your editor has moved on and now you’re an orphan; the publishing house is changing direction; their marketing plan of “throwing shit against a wall and seeing what sticks” simply hasn’t worked to the surprise of no one but the marketing department. Not to mention that your agent has decided they shall slip away into the night leaving neither a forwarding address nor even a fiver on the dresser.
It’s easy to feel that your career is over.
It’s probably not.
There are things you can do:
Just keep writing. A writer writes, folks. Keep writing. Just coz you’re in a slump doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Get off the fainting couch and write. Or, if you insist on staying on the fainting couch, then at least grab a notebook and pen and/or the laptop and keep writing. Because this is the equivalent of stocking up your pantry, so that when someone comes asking for what you’ve got in your bottom drawer, lo and behold you will have perhaps 72 manuscripts ready and waiting. Write the next novel because that’s your job.
Find second and third homes for your previously published short stories. Put in some time researching markets for reprint anthologies, and podcasts that are willing to turn wordery reprints into speakery. And don’t forget translation markets that are happy to have reprints for first time translations. See where other people are getting their work reprinted, podcasted and/or translated and see if you can find your way into those venues.
The bonus is that you’ll get paid again for something you’ve already been paid for – huzzah! The rate probably won’t be as high, but it’s still better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And this can help keep your work circulating during the publishing droughts.
If you’ve been writing novels, you could try something different and school yourself in the art of the short story – just like a novel only shorter, with fewer characters and probably a more ambiguous ending. Or something like that. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – it’s not, trust me – but it is a way of extending your writing skills and possibly finding new markets and new readership. And even if they don’t find a home, you’re building up the table of contents for a short story collection somewhere down the track.
One of my personal bugbears are writers who disappear when they haven’t got a novel coming out: they only turn up in your feed when there’s a book on the way. This is short-sighted and looks very much like you simply can’t be bothered interacting unless you’ve got something to shill. That might not be your intention, however …
There’s a community out there of readers and fans who like your work. There’s also a community of fellow writers out there who probably understand a lot of what you’re going through: talk to them. There are new writers coming up through the ranks who look to those ahead of them for how to act: lead by example. (Hint: don’t be an asshole.)
Stay present in the community. I’m not suggesting that you spend all your time on the socials – coz you should be writing and you might be amazed at how a novel fails to materialise when you’re on Facebook – but spend a bit of time interacting with the people you want to read and support and promote your work when it’s coming out. Don’t just be that relative who only turns up on the doorstep wanting a handout at Christmas, or because your kid’s got Girl Guide cookies to sell (although those are admittedly delicious cookies).
Go to conventions and festivals even if you’re not on panels and don’t have a book to promote. Meet people – yes, I know, we really only like people as an abstract concept on our computers where we can block or mute them, but sometimes you need to go out amongst the humans. You might make new friends, have interesting conversations, and form new networks that could be helpful later on to you or someone else in your circle. Or, you know, just enjoy being there and not being “on show”.
Go to other people’s launches, buy their books, be supportive. Do not, I repeat do NOT advertise on your website that you’ll be there. It’s not your event! It’s not about you. You’re not a special guest star unless you’re launching the book, and even then you’re just the MC.
If you’re in a position to mentor a new writer, then do so. You don’t have to give up your time for free (nor should you unless it’s your choice), but you can help and you can influence. You can help shape the future of literature and if that doesn’t appeal to your god complex, I don’t know what will. You can offer the benefit of your own experience.
Join a writers’ group – one that suits your needs and the amount of time you’re prepared to commit. It can be a safe space to talk out frustrations – writing might be a solitary pursuit, but writers still need some human contact. And your cat, whilst adorable, is probably an asshole (harsh critic), and your dog, also adorable, probably thinks you can do no wrong (rabid fan) – so they are not the best givers of feedback. Also, they can’t actually talk. Sorry.
And you know what? These sorts of interactions also give you the chance to learn. There’s no point in your career at which you will know everything. Really. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: you can always learn something from someone, even if it’s that said person is a total butthead. But you learned that, right? Now you have the basis for a new character in a story.
Write Blog Posts
By which I don’t mean write anything that could be termed a “manifesto” (and therefore used at your trial), but rather useful posts that can help yourself and others with common experiences and reference points. If you’ve had an epiphany about your writing process, then write about that – someone else might find that info useful. So might you, at a later date, when you come back to it and think “Hey! That insurmountable problem I’m not surmounting now? I surmounted it before! That’s how I did it! Thanks, Past Me.”
Ultimately, don’t skulk. Stay present.
I know it can sometimes feel difficult – and our natural urge towards imposter syndrome is just waiting for the moment to flare up like a nasty rash. The inner critic gets louder and louder.
“I have nothing to promote.”
“I have nothing coming out.”
But those thoughts lose sight of the fact that (a) you probably have had things published and you have already contributed to the literature of the world, and (b) you will probably do so again, if you’re not a self-pitying idiot and you continue writing and producing.
How do you keep doing that?
Simple: you do the things above – it’s part of the business of writing – and you write for yourself. First and foremost, you are your first audience. If you try to write a first draft of something with the weight of “this must be a bestseller” or “this must win awards”, then you are setting yourself up to fail. Write the story you want to write – in order to entertain yourself in the first instance, in order to get the words out of your head. In order to have fun. (OMG look at all those repetitions of “first”.)
Your career is unlikely to be a constant stream of hits, accolades, festival circuits – and that’s kind of good because if you’re constantly on-the-road, it’s hard to write and create. Some people do it, sure. Some people can do it from talent, habit, sheer bloody-minded discipline. I am mostly not one of those people – I’m not good at creating when I’m doing festival-y stuff, when I’m promoting things, because I need a break between tasks that use different parts of my brain. Make the most of the quiet times, because when success hits it doesn’t leave much quiet time. Not a complaint, merely an observation.
Don’t waste time envying another person’s achievements. What they’ve
got, they worked hard for and their career is just on a different timeline to yours. The only thing you can control is how you react to things. You can either do stuff that is positive and affirming and will help set you up for the next stage (manuscripts in the bottom drawer), or you can throw yourself onto the fainting couch and howl ad infinitum and still be there when things are looking up (dust bunnies in the bottom drawer).
So, make a list – what are you going to do first?