Excuses are much like a fungus. They grow in the dark places, dirty places. They develop without any conscious effort, only get bigger if you don’t address them, and continue to spread if you don’t expose them to the light.
For the past several months, I have been a man of excuses. Some of them have even been really good. Between June 1st to August 31st I worked approximately two hundred hours of overtime in my Law Enforcement day job. That might not seem like much, but when you pull six, twelve-hour shifts in a row (the majority of which are night shifts), you feel like you’ve been dragged through a knot-hole backwards and it becomes increasingly easy to make excuses about why you’re not writing.
I have also been extremely disheartened by the publishing industry generally, and my career specifically.
In June, my publisher released my third novel, Shadowboxing (if you want to check it out, the link is here). I worked my ass off on that book – I mean, toiling in the salt mines ’til my fingers were worn down to ugly little nubbins type of work – and I was pumped for it to be released because I really thought people would like it.
In the first week of its release it sold two copies. Two. Even I can count that high without taking my shoes off.
In fact, the royalty statement for that period was a whopping $8 – and that’s with three books in the world. Books that have been positively reviewed by almost everyone who has read them – which is admittedly limited. I mean, if they were really terrible, and all the reviews were one star, and people hoped for my untimely death just so I wouldn’t right another steaming heap of shit and slap a cover on it…wait, I’m ranting.
The point is, the excuses come easy: I’m tired. My brain hurts. The publishing industry is being mean to me.
Over the course of the summer I let that fungal infection of excuses grow, unchecked. IN FACT, I fertilized the fucking things and helped them along. I also thought, very seriously, about quitting the writing life. A guy can only scream into the void for so long with no feedback before he takes his megaphone and goes home.
But I didn’t quit. And here’s why: I accessed four things, which all of us can find in our writing lives if we’re willing to look for it.
It was not any great epiphany that threw me back into writing. It was a series of very small, very accessible things that turned me back towards the page.
First, I read this post by Liza Palmer. I have been a student of Liza’s before at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference. This post is a bit of a condensed version of one of her workshops, but it popped up in my Twitter feed at pretty much the exact time I needed it. I talked to Liza (who is extremely accessible), and talked about the things that were really bugging me. She took the time to give me some advice and a little mentorship; she encouraged me to break down my writing goals to small, manageable things. She told me to not think in terms of “get a huge publishing deal”, but rather, “write that short story you’ve been thinking about” or “send out three query letters.” She also told me to focus less on the business and more on the story, and remind myself how much I love the process.
I commiserated with a dear friend of mine Jennifer Sommersby, who told me she wrote her book Sleight (which is freaking fantastic, by the way), while sitting in her car, waiting to pick her kids up from their jobs at night. She told me that I was talented, and my work was valid, and to not quit. She agreed writing was hard, and the publishing industry was infinitely worse, but that quitting wouldn’t make any of that better. Being able to access that sense of community, and know that I am not alone when I get discouraged, goes a long way towards putting a little iron in my spine and lifting my chin.
I talked to my wife, Sayeh, and told her how disheartened I was (and lamented over my $8 royalty payment, because it’s so small it doesn’t actually get paid out – until it’s over $10 – and I can’t even take the money and spend it on tacos). This woman, who is the rock of my life, took my hand in hers, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you, I’m proud of you, and you’re not fucking quitting. Now go down to your office and write something.” It is hard to argue with a beautiful Persian woman, who believes in you implicitly. With her as my support network, the writing doesn’t get any easier, but the bad news days are easier to take and don’t sting quite so much.
I have a young adult novel finished, and before my great excuse infection, I pitched it to an agent I had met through a writer’s festival. It took several months, but I got a reply. It was NOT an offer of representation, but it was editorial notes with a “Make these corrections, and I’ll consider it again.” This might not seem like a big deal, but that was the most feedback I had ever received from a literary agent. It was an acknowledgement that this particular piece of work had potential. This served to give me hope. And anyone in the writer’s life knows that a little hope goes a long way.
These four things – Mentorship, Community, Support and Hope – were enough to give me a nudge forward. They did not fall on me, I had to seek them out (yes I know my wife is going to support me anyway, but I had to take the step of sharing my insecurities over my writing career with her, so there). But, once I had found them, I found they helped. A lot.
In the last two weeks I wrote two short stories, for a total word count of about 10,000 words; the first new words I had written in…almost a year. The stories turned out well – I shared them with my wife, and with Jenn, who both gave me positive feedback – but more importantly they felt good to write, and I was proud of them.
Those fungal excuses are awful, insidious, greedy little bastards and they will eat your drive and motivation if you let them. But, if you look, help can be found, and you can root out the infection.
As always, thanks for reading.