My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Writer's Attitude: A Dozen Adjustments Toward Success

A dozen things a writer should start believing to improve their chances of success.  

There is definitely a point of limited returns on the power of positive thinking but the power that attitude can play, especially in a career (or serious pursuit of writing) where you are almost always both your own worst enemy and your own best ally. Though it would unfair to suggest that attitude adjustments would matter one flip in the absence of hard work or many many hours of practice or that you could just positive attitude your way into a book deal with your December 1st NaNo manuscript, it is also true that a positive attitude will help with everything from your daily efforts to handling gatekeepers.

Panacea? No. But foolish to ignore.

Yes, success involves luck. It involves privilege. It may even involve genes and aptitudes and shit like that.

But here's the thing: all that crap is out of your control. You can't control how tall you are or how rich your family is or how many people want to sleep with you and will give you opportunities to curry favor.

Many of us can control our attitudes though (it would be ableist of me to say all can). And here are some things to remember:

1- If I can read this (online), I am probably in a group of some of the most empowered human beings of all time.  Social mobility may be increasingly a myth in our modern society, and far, FAR more mythical than our charming fairy tale about the meritocracy ever tried to convince us, but we have a lot of things better than our ancestors. There is no caste system. You will not do what your father did for a living. You are not a slave or a serf. You do not have to be a housewife if you are a woman. You do not have to be a provider if you are a man. Further, you have a computer that is connected to more information than your parents could have fathomed. You absorb more information in a day than a peasant in feudal Europe did in a lifetime. You can Google a major portion of the sum of all human knowledge and that amount is growing every day.  You can communicate with one of eight hundred million people with a few hours of effort, and solicit the opinions of people from a wide variety of folks about practically anything. You have rights that were unheard of four centuries ago and liberties that we haven't even dreamed of for most of the time we've been human beings.

You don't even have to use the Readers Guide to Periodic Literature.

It is also true that there is unequal power in our society. And certain groups push others to the margins. I can't underscore that reality enough. But these things are also in contexts.

2- Only I--and no one else--get to define my success.  A piggy back off of what success looks like to you.  Empower yourself.  You don't need others' approval.

3- My intentions can help shape my reality.  I have to be careful here because I really, really hate the idea that motivational speakers are always spouting that anything you dream can come true. I don't care how focused you are, you can't do a backflip 60 feet into the air from a standing position and land balanced only on your tongue. And privilege is a very real thing that makes life just a whole lot easier for some folks than others. But consider the difference between a writer who has an idea in their head that they would love to turn into a published novel "some day," and someone determined to "win" NaNoWriMo. One has no focus because their intention is vague. The other sits down and writes 1667 words every day because they know exactly what they want to accomplish. This really applies to anything.

4- People are facilitators, not obstacles.  Not everyone is going to be helpful to you, so be careful. Some people will sabotage you consciously or unconsciously just because you're doing what they didn't have the courage to.  But for the most part we see people as competitors and road blocks when we should see them as allies.  (I gladly write a review for an artist friend's book because when the physical version of the book comes out, it will involve a link on Huffington post back to that favorable review.  I get traffic.  He gets a good review.  Everyone wins.)  If you see the opportunity to network, you should.  Find good people; collaborate with them.  Give them what you do best and let them give you what they do best in return.  Almost no one is capable of doing great things alone--even if we had time to wear all the hats, our skill sets mean we're probably not as good at some as we are at others.

One caveat: this is a symbiosis.  People aren't there to be used.  Give back.  Parasites have a hard time once they're recognized for what they are, and the writers who populate the world around you are probably more observant than most.  Don't use people.  They'll know.

5- Even as a writer, I am not isolated.  Writing might feel isolated when you're clacking away at book six of your Dragonspleen Saga, but once you need a reading group to give you feedback and especially once you get into the business end, you will not be alone by any means--even if you desperately want to be. One of the biggest problems I see is people who expect everyone to be interested in their art when they make and take no interest in others'.  Everything is interconnected.  Form bonds and hold them tight. Work with people.  Pimp your friend's shit--especially before you ask them to pimp yours.  Read friends' fiction (even if they never even thank you). Who knows when you'll make friends with the next Random House editor whose opinion will tip a book into the "Let's give them a chance!" pile. Circle of life shit, you know. Be one with the universe. All that crap.

6- How can I benefit from this?  At some point, something is going to suck.  And not in the good way.  Something won't go your way.  Some shit will hit some fan somewhere.  How will you respond?  Will you find a way to turn the situation to your advantage or at least learn a valuable lesson (which is trite, I know, but....it became a cliche for a reason).  Or will you just complain ad naseum about how unfair life can be and on how X situation prevented you from doing Y.  We all hate the asshole who responds to someone getting laid off with that "This is an opportunity in disguise crap."  Oh yes we do!  We want to find that person and punch them in their pancreas.  You don't have to be chipper when things go wrong.  You just have to look for a way to turn it around.  Look for a way to make every shitty thing that happens into a benefit and you will find a few.  Because the sad fact is that here's what happens if you don't look for a way to make the best out of a bad situation:

(See what I did there?)

7- Hard work and tenacity may not merit out, but nothing else ever will.  Believe it because it's true.  We live in a world of instant gratification and shortcuts so this is really hard to be patient enough to have faith in grandpa's tired old wisdom, but it's true. Yeah, you might have to face the music that your door-to-door pickled hotdog van idea isn't taking off like you thought it would, but with most art, and certainly writing, you have to give it an ungodly amount of work before you start to see even a sliver of success. Just don't forget that it is work. Sitting around and dreaming for 15 years isn't really tenacity. (Trust, ol' Chris on this one.) Hard work may never get you there (so love it for its own sake) but you're not getting anywhere without it.

8- When I am ready, the master will appear.  The student/master adage is not one about surreptitious masters hiding out in the shadows and waiting for the day some wunderkind student almost perfectly performs the Vendrizi maneuver and becomes worthy. It is about the fact that masters are everywhere, at all times, always, and once someone has the frickin humility to admit that they have something to learn, the "student" will begin to see masters everywhere. Many teachers will tell you that they learn more from their students than they did in college. Once you stop being too good to learn from everything and anything around you, the world will rise to that opportunity and teach you things that you can't even imagine you don't know.

9- I embrace failure because it rocks.  If you fail at something, take the lesson, look for new opportunities it may have provided and move on. If it was something huge, take a night to nurse a scotch, pout, and THEN do all that other stuff. Your life will be defined not by your successes, but by how you handled your failures.  Failure is the single greatest crucible for progress in all of humanity. Learn to cherish it.

10- I won't take it personally.  You're in for some pretty epic rejection if you're serious about being a writer. You're going to get some scathing criticism. You're going to get enough form letters to wallpaper a room. And don't think going the e-pub/self-pub/blogging way is going to get you out of that either. You should see the anonymous letters I get in an average week. I have one here suggesting that I eat powdered glass. Honestly what the actual fuck??? Just don't read it if it's that bad. Jesus! You just have to remember that as much of your soul as you're pouring into that writing, the rejection is about the writing, not you. And the criticism is about the writing (or about the circumstances of the other person) and not about you.

11- I want to be refined and improved.  Hate to bring some buzzkill juice to this  positivepants party, but you're not perfect. And even though most people sort of intellectually grasp that. ("Yeah yeah, I'm not perfect. Of course I'm not.") Most people sort of kind of think they are about as good as they can reasonably be expected to get. Fuggedaboutit! Seek opportunities to be better. Both in your craft and as a person. You can always get better. Always. Shakespeare was not that good at plotting or pacing. He had room to improve. You surely do too.

12- Don't be too quick to close the doors.  You don't have to forgive your abusers or work with people who take blatant advantage of you, but the publishing industry is a kind of incestuous little clique. Even in non-traditional publishing, a reputation can matter. Nothing will knock your risk vs. reward out of balance quite like having to go way upriver to cross because you burnt the local bridge. Allot your grudges sparingly.


  1. Understanding of life and the plight of modern writer -- you has it! I agree with everything on your list, to be honest. I especially like the sections on student/master and on people being facilitators, not obstacles. A lot of people forget to mention things like this in the type of list you've compiled here, despite how important they actually are, so it rules that you've included them.

    1. Thanks. It's borrowed pretty heavily from a more general article about success and attitude, but the source material was a little touchy feely. (Chi energy and making the universe "see things your way" and stuff.)

  2. One of your best yet.

  3. Just a nitpick - you frequently use the word 'surf' when you mean 'serf'. It does lead to some entertaining mental imagery, but not quite what you were going for, I assume :D

    1. NICE CATCH!!! I'll see if I can find all of those and fix them. Thank you!!