Thursday, December 13, 2007

Writing the Story You Need to Write

“I’d feel a lot better about working on this book, if I knew someone was going to buy it. I mean, this is a lot of work, especially not knowing if it’ll ever get published,” said a woman I met recently.

Well, duh. (I didn’t say that, but I thought it!)

My husband and son are avid poker players, but I’m the REAL gambler in this house. A poker play is over in minutes. I labor for months—years—and don’t know if I’m holding a winning hand. Even after the book is done, there’s no guarantee the public will fork out good money to own it.

Who, me insecure?

So, yeah, my complaining friend had a point. As my agent says (with a laugh), “All writers are insecure.” But who wouldn’t be? How many people labor without any surety of reward? The creeping doubts run deep in this business. And I’m particularly vulnerable right now because of a new work-in-progress. I’m grinding away thinking, “Maybe I’m just wasting my time.”

When author-friend Sharon Shinn asked me, “How’s your writing coming?” I didn’t hold back.

I said, “See, I’ve written this YA (Young Adult) book that might never see the light of day. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, but I just HAD to write it.”

Sharon Shinn's Advice

Sharon shrugged. She explained that when she’s written a manuscript on spec, she tells herself: “This is a story I wanted to write, and if it doesn’t sell, I’ve written what I wanted to write. Now I’ve learned something, and I have more experience.”

Then she takes whatever is good from that book and applies it to her next endeavor. Once the story that was nagging her is “out of her head,” and on paper, she can move on. Her course of action must have merit. Check out She’s had an extraordinary career, written twelve novels, and manages to work full-time.

She’s right. I wanted to write that story, and by golly, I did! I freed up a whole section of my head to move on to other ideas, such as the marketing plan I’m completing for Paper, Scissors, Death (September 2008). Check out the way-cool cover. (Kevin, you ROCK!)

The Universe Taps Me on the Shoulder

As often happens, the Universe decided to make SURE it had my attention. Right after my talk with Sharon, I happened upon a YouTube video of Paul Potts.

Potts was a salesman at Carphone Warehouse in South Wales. His whole life he dreamed of being an opera singer. But his career wasn’t getting any traction. He dithered about entering Britain’s Got Talent, a televised talent show judged by Simon Cowell. Potts couldn’t decide. He flipped a coin. He “won” the toss and became a contestant.

You have to see this to believe it. Trust me…this might be the lift your heart needs:

Paul Potts sang the song he had to sing. He just kept singing it until someone noticed. (Did you catch the sly looks between judges? Ho Ho Ho, indeed!)

My New Motivational Signage

I’ve put a small sign above my computer. It says: Paul Potts.

How about you? What keeps you motivated? How do you handle the downside of being a writer? What keeps you "singing the song" or writing the story you need to write?

PS Have a Merry Holiday and a prosperous, healthy and happy New Year.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, Joanna! I don't think there's a single one of us who doesn't often think "why in the hell am I doing this to myself?" I'm saying that daily now as my deadline approaches. Yet, still I get up early and stay up late and pound the keyboard under stressful deadlines. Once the deadline is met, I'll do it all over again like a hamster in a wheel.

When I get in the "why in the hell" mode, I make a list of what I'd be doing instead of writing: more sleep, more tv, more time with friends, more reading, more travel. There is nothing I'm missing by writing, I'd just get to do more of the things I like doing.

Sure, my life would be much easier if I wasn't writing and marketing books, but would it be better? Doubtful, because I'm sure if I stop writing, I'll stop breathing. It's that important to me.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Sue Ann,

Years ago I took a class from Madeline L'Engle. She told us that when her kids were growing up, she started feeling guilty about the time she spent writing--time when she didn't bake cookies, oversee homework, etc.

So she quit. And for months, she was the perfect mom.

One day her kids came to her. (She had quite a crew as I recall.) They asked her to start writing again, because...she was a happier person when she did.

Yeah, it's miserable some days, but I definitely feel the difference when I don't get to my REAL work.

Joe Moore said...

One thing's for sure. No one can accuse me of just being in it for the money. :-)

Keith Raffel said...

This is great to read Joanna. (I sent the URL to the Paul Potts video clip to my daughter the singer.) I must say though, all things being equal, I would prefer to have a publisher pick up my second book rather than being a martyr to my writing compulsion. Call me shallow.

Felicia Donovan said...

Good one, Joanna. I've seen Paul Potts several times now and it's an incredible story. By the way, last time I saw him on TV, he was still working the day job selling phones.

Did you say "insecure?" I read it "insane."

Why do I write? Because somewhere in the creation process, someone waved a wand, sprinkled fairy dust, gave an incantation, prayed (insert whatever belief you ascribe to), and we were born writers. And, as Sue Ann so aptly said, we'd stop breathing if we didn't.

When I have doubts, I remember that others believe in me, so to not believe in myself would really be letting them down.

G.M. Malliet said...

I'm not sure writers are really all that insecure. It takes *some* kind of weird confidence to stay with your writing when common sense keeps telling you there are far easier ways to make a living.

Maybe Felicia is right - "insane" comes closer.

Nina Wright said...

I truly believe that if you can resist telling stories, you're not a writer. Writers write because they (we!) have to write.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Yes, I like the story in Stephen King's book...a cello student asked a great master to hear him and tell him if he had any talent. The master did, and said, "No, sorry, you shouldn't be playing the cello." Years later, the "student" came to a concert by the master and visited him backstage. "Years ago you gave me advice that changed my life. You said I shouldn't play the cello," said the student."So I stopped." And the master said, "Then I was right, because if you were truly dedicated nothing I could have said would have stood in your way."

That's the point. This is who we are. That will never change.

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