Or, Here’s that sweeping, inspirational post I promised last week.
I spent my formative years on my high school debate team. I mostly only joined because of peer pressure from my then best friend, although the very handsome coach was a persuasive argument as well. The funny thing is that my friend quit the team halfway through freshman year but I stuck it out. I don’t like to quit things. I still don’t think I ever had quite the right temperament for debate, but as the years went on, it certainly pounded any shyness I ever had right out of me and I learned a ton. I don’t regret the experience at all.
I imagine anyone who has ever done anything competitive probably has noticed this, but I found that debating against opponents who were better than me made me better.
In my four years on the team, I debated everyone from brand-new freshmen to national champions. By senior year, my partner and I were in the top 50 debate teams in the country—not the best, but definitely very good. In addition to honing my debate skills, one of the things I had to learn was how not to sink when faced with a weaker opponent. By that I mean that it was easy, when faced with a team I was confident I could beat, to sink a little, to play at their level, to get too cocky and not put the effort in. Some of my worst debating was actually against teams I should have handily beat and some of my best was against opponents who could handily beat me.
It’s about rising to the challenge. Eventually, I taught myself to always perform at my best, regardless of opponent, and that was really when I shone, but that was a tough thing to learn how to do.
Writing isn’t inherently competitive, but I think in these modern times, it’s hard not to feel like it’s a contact sport. We watch our Amazon ratings go up and down. We feel anxious and jealous when other books out-perform ours. We covet five-star reviews, contest wins, placement on bestseller lists. I think, too, that the anxiety that stems from this sense of competition is what brings out the worst behavior in authors. (I wrote an article about this for RWA’s Romance Writers Report that will be published in the near future. The thesis of that is that creative people operate under a scarcity mindset that assumes there is a finite amount of reader attention each author gets, so we all fight for it, but in fact, our reach is infinite.)
I’ve been following a lot of online discussions but not commenting on them, partly because I just don’t want to touch those discussions, but partly I think some of the drama and pettiness stems from this attitude, that we’re all competing with each other for readers. I think sometimes that one person can say something, can put forth an idea, and then everyone weighs in, and it becomes a sinkhole that is not unlike debating an opponent you should be able to beat in your sleep—you sink to their level instead of rising above.
I don’t say that to be superior. I’m just saying that I want to take those lessons I learned as a teenage debate nerd and focus them on my current writing career. I’m working hard and looking ahead. It’s tough not to get bogged down in all of it, from fretting about reviews and ratings and rankings to feeling like I should wade into whatever the big discussion topic of the moment is.
Because I also believe that we all rise together. Writing isn’t a competition. In fact, a career is built on support, on colleagues and friends, on the romance community. And there are some great people in this community, people who are just a pleasure to be around, people who inspire me, people who have helped open doors for me, people who make Romance better.
I’ve spent this year as president of an organization whose sole purpose is to advance the interest of LGBT romance writers, which means I’ve been working to get more attention on LGBT romance, for it to gain more recognition, for its writers to have more opportunities. I feel really proud of the work Rainbow Romance Writers has done with our limited resources. There’s more work to do, but if we work together, we can accomplish a lot. We can make writing any kind of romance a viable career option. We can gain more readers, more sales, more respect.
It’s already an uphill battle. The general public doesn’t take romance seriously, dismissing the whole genre as being bodice-rippers or something silly, sex-obsessed women do or whatever. You’ve read the articles about the genre. LGBT romance has a steeper hill to climb by virtue of the fact that it’s a niche of romance about people historically marginalized. But it’s not an impossible hill to climb.
This was brought to you in part by this post by Chuck Wedig that expresses a similar sentiment.
Step away from the pit by recognizing that while you aren’t perfect, you can always do better. We can commit to improvement. We can challenge ourselves. In this great big creative RPG we can level up in a character class of one — the character class only we belong to.
Then he concludes:
I just wanted to say all this because we all go there. And we can all get through it. None of us are singular beings in this feeling. It hits some of us harder than others (and to those who manifest this as bonafide depression, I can only remind you again that you are genuinely not alone). But it’s something we all experience. Doubt. Frustration. Fear. The envy of others. It won’t do much for you. It’s a poison. Stop drinking it. Spit it out.
Step away from the pit.
Be you. Don’t be me.
And create the things that only you can create.
* * * * *
Related to this, viewing that hill as impossible is how we defeat ourselves as writers.
Nothing is impossible. Write that down. Repeat. “But I’ll never—” Nope. Your career is yours it can be what you want it to be.
At a recent meeting of my local RWA chapter, we were talking a little about book distribution. An author was frustrated because his publisher had limited distribution channels. The panel of booksellers basically said, “That’s something worth looking into before you sign with a publisher.” I absolutely agree, and I think it is essential to do your research before you even submit a manuscript. Just getting published isn’t enough—you want to work with a publisher who will able to get your book into the hands of as many readers as possible. And I get that it’s tough in certain niches and sub-genres—there are limited audiences, the big publishers aren’t quite sure how to market erotica or LGBT romance yet, etc.—but there are small presses and digital-first publishers that ARE doing great work. An unpublished writer at the meeting said, “Well, yeah, but that first offer you get, why wouldn’t you jump at it?”
You don’t have to take the first offer. Thinking that you have to take the first rope thrown at us is one of the ways writers limit ourselves and our opportunities. It can lead to rough going ahead—publishers who end up cheating us or agents we don’t work well with. If you keep at it, if you make your book as good as it can be, the right opportunity will open up. Your dream publisher could come knocking. An agent you click with could offer to represent you. That first offer could be the opportunity of a lifetime, but it could also be a shot in the foot, and it’s worth taking the time to make sure it’s your best move before jumping at it. And, hey, self-publishing has made this a buyer’s market. You don’t need a publisher or agent to get your book out there. So if you want one, hold out for the right one. Take a long view of your career and decide what you want, what’s right, and what will help you reach your goals and go after that.
We also throw roadblocks in front of ourselves by assuming what we want isn’t possible. We assume we’ll never get an agent and let that discourage us from trying. We assume we’ll never make a bestseller list and so don’t explore as many promotional opportunities as are available to us. We don’t put in the full effort or we let our doubts cloud our judgment.
Rejection sucks. No doubt. But it’s not the end of the world. If you really want an agent but fear of rejection is keeping you from querying, you’ll never get an agent. If you’ve written a weird book—and I think we all have that wacky book in us that we’re convinced no one but ourselves will want to read—but don’t submit it anywhere, it will never get published. You’ll never know unless you try. And, yeah, maybe it will get rejected. Maybe an agent will pass. Maybe your book isn’t right for that publisher. But you can’t get to that next step in your career without putting yourself out there. The worst thing that will happen is someone says no.
No is not the end. I’ve got a nice little stack of rejection letters to prove it. In a couple of cases, the novels I submitted weren’t really ready for prime time. I was able to revise and resubmit to the same publisher or substantially rework and send it elsewhere. I’ve got a story that remains unpublished because its submission was met with a form rejection.
My way of coping with that is to allow myself feel bad for a couple of hours but then to move on and figure out the next step. Because one rejection did not end my career, nor will it end yours. So if that’s the worst that can happen, what else is stopping you from trying? Probably only yourself. Because maybe someone will say no, but maybe they will say yes.