Do any of these scenarios resonate with you?
- You’ve dedicated yourself to the craft of fiction for years. You devour craft books, attend conferences regularly, consume publishing-related social media with absolute devotion. You work hard, and it’s starting to pay off via personal and positive rejections. But they’re still rejections. One after another. You feel like you’re pressed up against some invisible membrane separating you from success that’s so close. If you could only figure out how to break through.
- You’re the darling of your critique group, the one everyone comes to for help. You’re the best beta reader within a thousand-mile radius. You know your stuff. And yet, you’ve watched one friend after another leap ahead to publishing success--often, with your help. You’re happy for them (truly) but come on! When will it be your turn?
- You’ve published a novel—or a few—but you can’t seem to gain a real foothold with readers. Every book feels like you’re starting over again. Your advances are shrinking or stagnating. You’re even considering firing up a new genre under a new pen name in the hopes of creating some sparks.
- You experienced publishing success five or ten or twenty years ago, and then you lost your passion for it, or a family or personal crisis kept you from it for a long time. You feel like you waded onto shore and now the river is rushing by so fast, you’re scared to jump back into it again. But, you have this idea, this big, juicy, important idea…
So, what do you do? When you’re almost—but not quite—there. When this work feels like a lot more than you bargained for, and to be honest, your heart feels wounded over how hard it is. When every idea seems stupid, your writing feels flat and uninspired, you could find other creative things to do (like candle-making; no one ever rejects a candle), and if one more person asks you where they can buy your novel, or if you’re finished yet, or how that agent search is going, or did you read about this person’s sixty-bajillion dollar advance, you might beat them with a copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because it’s the longest and therefore the heaviest and most likely to get the job done.
First, remember that everyone travels her own path. Some people break in at twenty-five and some at sixty-five. Some people take the fast track, and some take the long mountain road with switchbacks that make it seem like you’re looping back to where you started but which get you where you’re going, eventually, and often with an awful lot of wisdom earned along the way. And some of us start out with one destination in mind and then decide we want to turn around and go somewhere else completely.
The best thing you can do is keep your eyes on your road. Look toward your destination and not at others racing—or trundling along--beside you.
Second, touch base with your first writing or reading loves. Go back to those first books that broke you open, that made you dream, and that fired your writer’s soul, whenever and wherever you found them. As much as you can, read them as you did when you first discovered them—without envy or analysis but with joy and interest. Let yourself be swept away.
Third, ask yourself if you’ve grown complacent or content to be small. It’s satisfying to be the big fish in the little pond of your critique group or writing program or peers. Your midlist success is someone else’s dream. Your deft prose is the envy of your friends. Often, we get the same gratification out of these things as we would from breaking into publishing—or breaking out. Perhaps even more. So, it can be attractive to stay put and tread water.
But, the question remains: Can you do more, think bigger? Can the imaginary world you’ve created be bolder and more original? Can the central story problem be made more complex? Can you be more daring with language and form? Can story stakes be elevated? Can the planned end of your story become its middle? What then?
In broader matters, can you seek out new, more challenging workshops and experts to push you outside of your comfort zone? Can that issue you’re passionate about start to drive your vision for not just one book but your entire oeuvre (once you have an oeuvre)? Where are you resting? What would it take to startle you awake?
Fourth, unabashedly devote yourself in service to another writer (or writers). Not just the friends and colleagues you’re already helping, though keep on doing that, of course. But seek out people who haven’t had the same access to craft instruction that you have. Kids or teens. Seniors. Someone who doesn’t have a great writing group in his area or that shy newcomer at the conference. Take him under your wing and raise him up. Think about who your dream mentor was, or who you’d have wished for, and become that where this person is concerned. Listen to him. Help him overcome his fears. It’s not about you demonstrating your acumen, which you naturally will, but about you becoming a conduit into a world of possibilities for someone else.
Along the way, you’ll rediscover techniques you’ve forgotten. You’ll recommend books or instructors and remember why they were important to you. Maybe you’ll seek them out again, yourself. And you’ll be reminded of how far you’ve come. Something will unlock for you along the way. I guarantee it.
Lastly, seek out other art forms. Get inspired. Give yourself a month off from writing or worrying about writing or reading anything at all about the publishing industry. Forbid your friends from talking about it with you. In fact, forbid yourself from doing it at all. Not one word for one month (unless you’re on deadline, in which case, keep on chugging, friend). Go to the opera, instead. Or live theater. Or to your local art gallery. Or to that exhibit of quilts at the local museum. Do it all, actually. Go to craft fairs and wander around. Touch things. Listen to music. Better yet, lay on your bed in the dark and blast anything you loved as a teen. Do this nightly.
Don’t look for inspiration, but let it come as it will. Try to take the experiences for just what they are—food for your soul. But notice what sparks your interest, what sets your imagination in motion. Try to let all of the ideas and creative energy reach critical mass in your mind. Don’t write anything down until you feel like you’ll burst if you don’t.
Periods of inertia usually precede great growth. Remember that you’re here for the journey, and that’s where all the value is. The fallow times help us solidify who we are as writers. As with plants, it can seem like not much is going on because it’s all beneath the surface. But we’re drawing nutrients in the form of inspiration, community, generosity, and challenges to ourselves. We need these frustrating and sometimes fearful periods so that, eventually, when it’s our time, we can burst forth with all of our colors and truly dazzle.
CLIENT AND STUDENT SUCCESS STORIES
- Rebecca Rosenberg. The Pulpwood Queen Book Club has selected Rebecca Rosenberg's debut novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF MRS. LONDON, for their July read.
- Meg Leader. The television series, UNCIVILIZED, that Meg wrote and pitched to Netflix has been optioned for development.
- Gigi Pandian. Gigi's short story, "The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” won the Agatha Award.
- Rob Sanders. Rob's children's book, PRIDE: THE STORY OF HARVEY MILK AND THE RAINBOW FLAG, has gone into a second printing and received a starred review from Shelf Awareness.
- Maaja Wentz. Maaja published her first novel, FEEDING FRENZY, sold a story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
- Donna Glee Williams. Donna sold a short story to an online anthology and two of her poems and one of her fantasy stories will be published in The Main Street Rag.
Big congrats to all!
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