Thursday, August 02, 2012

Your Path is Unique; You are Incomparable

I read a nice blog post the other day that inspired this -- but it is something I say when I give talks all the time:

There's a lot of advice out there for writers. I've read lots of it, I've given some of it... and you might have, too. No advice is "one size fits all." (Not even the advice in this very blog.) But one thing I feel very strongly about is, it is damaging to compare yourself to other writers.  (<--- don't do it! this is advice. sorry.)

Recently a writer I think is terrific said that when she writes faster, she writes better. She's quite successful, so it is tempting to take that to heart and say, "Hm, clearly, if I want to be successful, I HAVE TO WRITE FASTER!  FASTER!!!"  ...until the next successful writer declares that slow and steady wins the race. One writer says that she has to write things out of order, skip from action scene to action scene and fill in the rest later. Then somebody else says they have to write things IN order. One person is a plotter and does a detailed outline before she starts. The next is a "pantser" and the story comes to her in the moment.

If you were to hear all this advice from these expert-fantastic-genius writers, and you were new enough to think advice was all gospel and had to be followed to the letter, you'd likely feel real crappy about yourself pretty darn quick. Because it'd be IMPOSSIBLE to do all those things at once. They contradict each other. It is a recipe for failure and sadness. The only thing that works is to figure out what works for YOU.

It's like dieting. There is NO crazy fad diet that is awesomely good for you, works for 100% of people 100% of the time, and keeps working. If there was, we'd all be "bikini ready" right now. You generally get healthier by eating more good stuff and being as active as you are able to be. "But that is BORING and SLOW" you say! I say, if you try to circumvent it ("Hey! This magazine says I should ONLY EAT BACON from now on and I'll lose weight fast!") -- well it might work in the short term, but in the long run, you will probably be damaging your body.

And let's say you do get healthier: There is no "right" way to look at the end of it. Some people's "healthy" is the body of an Olympian. Personally, my "healthy" is the body of a Yugoslavian peasant woman. Genetics, babe. Neither is wrong. And if I bemoan the fact that even at my healthiest, I'm naturally more "Hammer Throw" than "Uneven Parallel Bars", that is not helping me be as healthy and happy and successful a Hammer-Thrower as I can be. In fact, if I sit at home crying about it instead of practicing, I'll be a TERRIBLE Hammer-Thrower.

Wow that was a long tangent, sorry.

The point I'm making: Just as there is no one way to look, there is NO ONE WAY to write a book. There is NO ONE WAY to get an agent. There is NO ONE WAY to be published. I have personally seen as many paths to publication as I have seen books. All of them different. None of them "right."  There are no guarantees in life, and there sure aren't any in this crazy business, except that everything is subjective, and your path will be your own.

Great writing. Great hook. Kick-ass Query. All of these might help you, and definitely couldn't hurt. But what is "great"? Every single one of the manuscripts I've sold, also had rejections. I know for a fact I'd have turned down a book like DA VINCI CODE, TWILIGHT or 50 SHADES... does that make those books "bad"? No. Just bad for ME. While many would agree with me and pass on these books, many more millions of people do not share my taste at all... and that's a good thing. People liking different things - it's what makes this crazy world go round. If everyone liked the exact things I liked... well I'd be richer, sure... but I'd also be pretty bored.

Perseverance. Being in the right place at the right time. Sheer luck. These factors will likely play a part in your success, too. Author A was writing and actively looking for an agent for ten years. She wrote and queried several manuscripts over that decade. We became friends when I wasn't even an agent yet, just a bookseller. I thought she was terrific. I said, "If I were an agent, I'd rep you!" -- and then, later on, I became an agent, asked her to query me. Everything clicked into place beautifully and I sold two books for her in two weeks.  I know for a fact that this has happened to me with editors as well - - for Author B, I sent a manuscript out for almost a year with nary a bite. I sold a picture book and a chapter book for B, but the novel didn't sell and didn't sell. On the third round, it got snapped up immediately... by somebody who hadn't been an acquiring editor yet when I sent it out the first time. Kismet! It was a perfect match, and the book went on to become an award winner.

And see? Two successes right there in that last paragraph - two VERY different paths! If Author B compared herself to the quick-selling Author A, she might have been miserable for a year... but she didn't. Instead, she kept writing, and I sold different projects for her, and she has had terrific success, in her own timeline, on her own terms. If Author A compared herself to Author B, she might have grimaced about the 10 years and many manuscripts before she even landed an agent... but she didn't. Because she couldn't have had that path. It TOOK the 10 years, and it came together when the manuscript and the timing were both right.

There's a quote that's attributed to Samuel Goldwyn that I like. "The harder I work, the luckier I get." I feel like this applies to writers. LOTS and LOTS of people want to be successful writers... but then they never finish a book. Or they finish, but they never learn to revise. Or they finish it, and revise, but are too scared of rejection to put it out there. 

If you've finished a book? CONGRATULATIONS. You are ahead of MOST of the world. Sure, that doesn't mean it will automatically get published. Still, the harder you work, the luckier you are likely to get.

Pretty much everyone who shares advice is doing so from a good place in their heart. If the advice works for you... awesome. If it makes you feel upset or weirded-out or doesn't work for you -- you're allowed to ignore it!  Take the best, discard the rest.

Ultimately, no matter how much research we do, no matter how many "buddies" we have to ask questions of, we each have our own machete, and we each have to hack out our own path through this jungle. Bring a headlamp!


  1. Very well said. I have to remind myself ALL THE TIME not to compare myself to other writers, but I still do it. I guess the thing that keeps me going is that no one else has my story in them. If I don't write it, no one will be able to read it!

  2. This is great! It's so hard not to compare but so important. And I love that quote. I must be working harder, because I've sure felt luckier lately. Thanks for writing this post.

  3. Thanks for this post. It is very timely and encouraging. I do believe in the right time and the right place. Sometimes things are not ready until the "stars align" and the perfect partner/agent/editor connects with you. No use banging my head against the wall. Just get out there and work. I also love this quote. I found a delightful version of it on Pinterest a couple months ago, printed it off and popped it in a frame.
    Thanks again for your encouragement!


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