Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The value of taking one mouthful at a time

I miss having time to respond to every blog comment, but rest assured, I read them all and have several tattooed on my body. I keep a special file for comments that seem to merit a blog post in response. This one in particular has been floating in the file – and in my brain – for awhile now:

I would love to see a post from you on how not to give up.

I’ve been mulling it for weeks, trying to find the right words, accompanied by trumpets and pom-poms and a hearty “don’t give up!” cheer. I’ve also been thinking about my bumpy road to publication and the fact that I once fantasized there’d be some magical post-book-deal moment when I’d stop wondering if removing my own spleen with a paperclip might be easier than trying to make it as an author.

As it turns out, my fantasies were misguided. (Well, not all of them. The thing with the spark plugs and strawberry syrup turned out great, but that’s a post for another time).

But I’m sorry to say, you’ll be disappointed if you’re holding out for a day when angels sing and you’re freed from the panic you’ve lost your writing mojo or your next book sucks or your editor is plotting to creep into your house at night and beat you to death with your vibrator to avoid reading one more word you’ve written.

That’s not very encouraging, is it?

But it’s reality, and it’s something you need to face early in your writing career so you’re prepared to face it again and again, and spit in its eye. That’s what it takes.

And now that I’ve told you all that, I’m going to tell you to forget every word of it. Ignore it. Erase it from your memory. Soak your brain in bleach if you need to.

Because the trick to not giving up at any point in your writing career is the same as the answer to that age-old joke, how do you eat an elephant?

Take it one bite at a time.

If you let yourself spiral down the ugly path of envisioning failure or the agony of picking up the pieces afterward, your journey as a writer will become so overwhelmingly terrifying that you’ll crumple into a ball behind your sofa to spend the day rocking back and forth humming Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me” until someone shows up and carts you away to a room with padded walls.

Maybe that’s just me.

I have a clear memory of sitting on a hotel bed the day after I’d finished writing Making Waves. My celebratory mood was dampened by the reality of the situation – I’d written half-a-dozen manuscripts before that one, and at least that many partials. I’d racked up countless rejections, been told, “it’s just not what we’re looking for,” and forced myself to keep trying.

Could I really do it again? I honestly wasn’t sure.

I sat there feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of rejection, of starting again, of seeing that effort rejected, and another, and another. How much more could I take?

At last, I sat up straight and blew my nose on the comforter (reason #259 you should never touch hotel duvet covers. You don’t want to know the other reasons).

“Enough!” I said out loud. “You’re making yourself crazy!”

A valid point, considering I was talking to myself in a hotel room.

But also very true. Absolutely no good would come from wallowing in what-ifs. I couldn’t control any of that, and fretting would just make me nuts. The only thing I could control was my ability to get back up and focus on the smallest, most immediate tasks in front of me – submitting that manuscript, and starting something new.

Small bites of elephant, mind you. Trying to fit the whole thing in my mouth was ludicrous.

Know what’s funny? Making Waves did get rejected. Over and over and over, even by the publisher that eventually bought it. It wasn’t until a year later when we shopped a new book – the one now scheduled as my March release, Believe it or Not – that Sourcebooks requested both manuscripts as part of my three-book contract.

Making Waves went on to be nominated for “Best Contemporary Romance” in the RT Book Reviews 2011 Reviewers’ Choice Awards. The magazine gave it a 4.5 star review – their highest rating, and the same score they just gave Believe it or Not in the brand new issue that hit shelves Friday.

I’m not telling you that to be smug.

I’m telling you that because two weeks ago, I had one of the lowest points in my writing career. I can’t go into details, but suffice it to say, it’s the closest I’ve come to throwing in the towel as an author and becoming a shepherd instead.

I didn’t give up, and I won’t. Not now, and not in the future.

But if you’re looking to me to say, “don’t give up because it’ll get easy someday,” I can’t do that.

What I can promise is that if you stay focused on taking things one bite at a time, it gets easier. And while the hardships and frustrations will always be there in one form or another, the moments of glory and good fortune have a way of balancing it all out.

Oh, and the thing about elephant? It tastes delicious with whipped cream. That’s a promise.


Jess Corra said...

<3 I needed this post today!!

Mary said...

Fabulous, encouraging post. My first MS was rejected and rejected until I finally shoved it into the trunk and started again. Only to fail yet again. I'm in the doldrums of my current WIP but am determined to see it through. Maybe this time, maybe this will be the one that catches an agent's eye and then a publisher's and then readers' eyes. One bite at a time, right?

Caitlin Whitaker said...

I love you so much right now, it's not even funny. <3

Kristina L. Martin said...

It's good advice although hard to swallow. I'm guessing I should always have a can of Ready Whip in the fridge...sounds like it comes in handy.

Thanks for this post Tawna.

Matthew MacNish said...

Comment replies or not, I will always enjoy reading your blog, because you're the only person I know who can be so damn funny while telling the (sometimes) brutal truth.

Matthew MacNish said...

Dang, my browser crashed, and now I can't remember if I commented, or if you have moderation on.

Unknown said...

I haven't dipped my toes in the querying waters yet, but I'm actually looking forward to my first rejection, because it means I'm trying. I'm actually going after my dream. That being said, I love your honesty in this post. Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us :)

Kathleen said...

Thank you Tawna, I needed this. Oh and about the elephant, I'd add chocolate, too. Almost everything is better with dark chocolate!

Prudence MacLeod said...

This is truly inspiring and what we all need to hear from time to time. I read your blog fairly regularly, but rarely comment. (my bad) As a result, I have awarded you the Versatile Blogger award. See details here: http://www.prudencemacleod.com/

Tammy Patton said...

Thanks Tawna. Just what I needed shut down the Doubt Demons and get to work!

Stephsco said...

Thanks, I needed this. Sometimes following agent blogs and agent twitter feeds can depressing; you hear about all the slush submissions and think you'll just be adding to their future rejection list. I know it helps to actually follow each agent's directions, and know what they are looking for, and have at least done some kind of editing, which amazingly enough, apparently people aren't doing (?!). BUT STILL.

Everyone and their brother wants to write a book. So many people try, and sometimes I feel like just one in the crowd.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

It's definitely easy for anyone to get overwhelmed. I often think of the big picture, and then I start worrying about how I'm going to do everything I need to do and/or whether I'll actually be able to do anything. It's scary when you don't know what's going to happen. I think that taking things one bite at a time is very good advice, because looking at things that way makes it much easier to get things done.

Michelle Wolfson said...

Tawna, you have truly tested my pep-talk giving skills, but I don't know another person who could have shaken things off and refocused so well. I hope you give yourself enough credit, because even one bite at a time, that's a lot of elephant to eat, and not everyone can do it. You inspire me.

Nicole said...

Wow, Tawna. Great post. I'm not a writer but I feel like this advice works for anyone who is working hard for a dream.

BarbN said...

great advice and it applies to more than just writing. :-) thanks!

Lynnanne said...

I can't believe you didn't make a "eating elephant & elephant trunk" joke!!! But you did mention whipped cream.

Unknown said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful and realistic reply to this question. Most of things I read either say to imagine the best or deal with the worst (neither of which ever works to get me in the mood to actually do the work). And of course, love your analogy, though I'm unlikely to try elephant anytime soon as I'm vegetarian - guess I'll have to think of another food I can relate it to.

Anonymous said...

Was it a pink elephant!?

Giving up sounds so tempting, like the only solution, but it never is if writing is truly a part of who we our. Our spirit is called to do this, and through high times and low, we do it. It's like being asked to give up breathing - not having it!

Great post, Tawna!

- Julie