This writing life has enough gremlins—rejection, bad reviews, economic uncertainty, short actors playing your 6’5” hero in a movie version—that a writer shouldn't be adding his own. Here are the top ten to watch out for. Maybe you have some to add to the list:
1. Thinking about your career more than about your writing
Guess what? No matter where you are in your writing career you can always find a reason to be unhappy about it. You’re unagented and you want to get an agent. You’re unpublished and you want to be published. You’re published and you want to be read. You’re read but not read in the numbers you hoped. You’ve gone indie and your books aren’t selling enough to buy you a monthly mocha.
You can always find something to be unhappy about. What you ought to do is write more. When you’re into your story and you’re pounding the keys and you’re imagining the scene and you’re feeling the characters, you’re not camping out in the untamed country of unfulfilled expectations.
It’s fine to plan. In fact, I’ve written a paper to help you do that. But once the planning is done, get to work.
2. The comparison trap
I’ve written a whole post on this one. What good is it going to do you to look at somebody else’s success and hit the table and cry out for justice? Writing is not just. It just is. You do your work the best you can and you let the results happen, because you can’t manipulate them. You can’t touch them, you can’t change them, you can’t fix them. You can only give it your best shot each time out.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” - Epictetus
3. Ranking Obsession
Another thing you can’t control is your ranking on Amazon or the various and sundry bestseller lists. Or sure, there are things writers do to try and “game the system.” The paid reviews scandal was one of the more egregious examples of this. But in the end, the game playing is not worth the knot in the stomach.
Don’t worry about rankings and lists. Worry about your word count, plot and characters. If you do the latter well, the former will take care of itself.
Another useless emotion. But it seems to be a part of most writers' lives. Ann Lamott and Elizabeth Berg both lost friendships over it. Envy has even driven authors to set up sock puppet identities not merely to hand themselves good reviews, but to leave negative reviews for their rivals' books.
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30). Try to have a heart at peace by getting back to your story while, at the same time, developing the next one.
5. Trying to be the next James Patterson. . .
. . . or J. K. Rowling, or Michael Connelly. Wait a second. We already have those. And they are the best at being who they are.
Become the leading brand of you, not the generic brand of someone else sitting on the shelf at the 99¢ store.
This is not to say don’t write in the same genre or try to do some of the good things other writers do. We can certainly learn from those we admire.
But when we write, we have a picture in our heads, a sort of writer self-image. And if we imagine our books being treated like Connelly’s books, or we see ourselves in LA Magazine interviewed like Connelly, we’ll just end up writing like a second-rate Connelly.
Do that and you stifle the thing that has the chance to set you apart—your own voice.
6. “I’m not good enough to make it.”
That’s not the issue. The issue is: do you want to write? Do you really? Do you want it so much that if you don’t write you’re going to feel diminished in some way, and for the rest of your life?
You should feel like you don’t really have a choice in the matter. Writing is what you must do, even if you hold a full time job. Even if you chase a passel of kids around the house. You find your time and you keep writing. Keep looking to improve. You can improve. I’ve got hundreds of letters from people who have validated this point.
Fear of failing. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of what your writing might say about you. We are actually wired for fear. It’s a survival mechanism.
So it has a good side so long as it is not allowed to go on. In fact, when you fear something in your writing it may be a sign that this is the place you need to go. This is where the fresh material may be. You need to go there, and assess it later.
8. Hanging on to discouragement
When my son was first pitching Little League baseball, he'd get upset when someone got a key hit or homer off him. This would affect the rest of his performance. So I gave him a rule. I told him he could say "Dang it!" once, and hit his glove with his fist. This became the "one Dang It rule." It helped settle him down and he went to a great season and a victory in the championship game.
When discouragement comes to you, writer friend (and it will), go ahead and feel it. Say "Dang it!" (or, if you're alone, exercise your freedom of speech as you see fit). But time yourself. Give yourself permission to feel bad for thirty minutes. After that, go to the keyboard and start writing again.
9. Loving the feeling of being a writer more than writing
The most important thing a writers does, said the late Robert B. Parker, is produce. Don’t fall into the trap of writing a few words in a journal, lingering over the wonderful vibrations of being alive with the tulips of creativity budding within your brain, and leaving it at that.
You’ve got to get some sweat equity going in this game. I don’t mean you have to crank it out like some pulp writer behind in his rent (though I like this model myself). But you do have to have some sort of quota, even if it is a small one. Writing only when you feel like it is not the mark of a professional.
10. Letting negative people get to you
Illegitimi non carborundum.
You can look that one up.
Next time that know-it-all says you haven’t got the stuff to be a writer, smile and repeat this Latin phrase. And as he looks at you puzzled, turn your back, get to your computer, and proceed to prove him wrong.
And plan to make 2013 the most productive year of your writing life.