I turned 59 yesterday. Not a milestone birthday, but dangerously close As a result, I found myself spending a good portion of this week taking stock. How do I want to spend the last decades of my life? What changes over the next twelve months to become that person?
Naturally, since being a writer is intrinsically tied to my identity, much of this introspection concerned my writing future. How do I grow as a writer?
The answer came in three parts.
I was raised to play it safe. Being too bold, too colorful, too loud? Those things would only draw unwanted attention. Jumping without a safety net? That would only court disaster. Better to stay in the middle of the road where I would offend or fall too far.
There’s nothing wrong with being a safe writer. Safe writers are published all the time. We create books designed to please every reader and dwell in the land of 3 and 4-star reviews. Good to above average.
Safe books don’t offend. Nor are they memorable. They blend into the landscape with hundreds of other safe books.
At the Historical Novel Conference in San Antonio, James Scott Bell said “Write like you’re in love, edit like you’re in charge.” My mistake has been writing like an editor. I can see it as I plot my next historical fiction. I’m trying too hard to hit all the right notes and create the perfect manuscript. The best books make waves. They evoke responses, both good and bad. They are written with passion, with confidence.
I want to become a writer who leaves everything on the page. The one who’s too bold, too colorful, and too loud. Because the writing is the only thing I can control. If I’m going to fail, at least I’ll be able to say I failed big.
One thing I’ve learned in this business is that once the book leaves your hands, you’re at the whim of luck and synchronicity. Oh sure, you can lay the groundwork for success – buy the Amazon ads, send out the review arcs – but that doesn’t guarantee success. Readers are fickle creatures. You can do everything right and the book still doesn’t take off the way you’d hoped. Meanwhile, some author pops up out of the blue and lands on the NY Times list.
My friend Donna likes to call me Zen Barb when I talk like this. Honestly, though, so much of this industry is out of our control. Doesn’t it make sense to accept it rather than rail against the Writing Universe every time something doesn’t go our way?
Bleep happens. A lot. All we can do is write the best book we can, use the tools at our disposal, and hope for the best.
I’ve had a good career. Many people dream of writing a book. I’ve written and published 26 of them.
Right now I’m waiting on an email that will bring either good news or bad. I can’t control the answer. Whatever the response, I’m okay.
That’s because being a writer is only part of who I am. A major part, to be sure, but not the entirety. I’ve worn a lot of other hats too. I’ve been a mother, a manager, a wife, a student, a volunteer, and more. All of them contributed to the woman I am today.
Or to use a metaphor my friend, Donna coined – we’re like ice cream cakes. Writing is a big slice, but other chunks exist too. My goal over the next year is to remember those slices and maybe even add a few. Then, if I never sell another book, I’ll still have a whole lot of cake left to enjoy.
Barb’s Recommendations for the Week
What I’m Reading:
The Madwomen of Paris by Jennifer Cody Epstein. A gothic mystery set in a French insane asylum. This is exactly what I meant by brave writing. It’s an uncomfortable read, but damn, if it isn’t memorable.
What I’m Listening To:
Rethinking with Adam Grant. I’m addicted to this entertaining interview show about behavioral and organizational psychology. I come away with some kind of deep thought every time. The recent interview with author Andy Weir is a must-listen.
What I’m Watching:
Three on a Match. I love old movies. This one is a pre-Code melodrama about three former schoolmates who reunite after a decade. Two are career girls, one is a dissatisfied wife who makes a drastic and tragic decision aboard a steamship. Joan Blondell is fabulous as the former bad girl turned actress. Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis are in this too, in small parts.