Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Finding happiness as a writer: KNOW YOURSELF

I'm doing an ongoing weekly series about staying happy as a writer. Check out the introduction to the series here.

So there’s this part in The Art of Lainey [Shameless plug: it's worth reading just for Micah :D] where she’s reading a passage in The Art of War about how if you know yourself and you know your enemy you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. And Lainey, being kind of clueless, scoffs a little because she thinks that of course she knows herself and her ex-boyfriend. But then later:

If you asked me whether I was the type of person who liked trying new things or preferred sticking with what was familiar, I would have told you I’m the second girl. The if –it-aint-broke-don’t-fix-it girl. I also would have told you plays were lame. It suddenly occurs to me that I don’t seem to know very much about…me. It’s a weird feeling, like maybe a stranger is inhabiting my body. Or maybe a stranger was, and I kicked her out. --The Art of Lainey

Today’s tip is about figuring out YOU. Maybe you’ve got yourself all figured out, or maybe you only think you do. From what I’ve seen, writers come in all different flavors. Some are introverted while others are gregarious. Some are hot-tempered at quick to argue while others are conflict avoidant. Some are obsessive and neurotic while others are flexible and laid back. The kind of person you are matters, because you can use that knowledge to make decisions about the writerly behaviors that will maximize your happiness. It's also important to recognize that your friends might have completely different writer-personalities and coping mechanisms, so it's okay if something that doesn't bother them bothers you. It doesn't make you weak or inferior.

This post is going to deal with four major writer personality traits: need for information, need for perceived control, willingness to sacrifice, and definition of success.


If you came for the graphics, you're in the wrong place.

A great way to decide if you're low, moderate or high on this scale is to consider your behavior at the doctor's office. When he tells you that your gallbladder needs to be removed, do you sign the consent form without a second thought and schedule the surgery, do you ask about possible complications, or do you expect him to give you an entire lecture on the etiology and pathophysiology of cholecystitis, and then go through the steps of the surgical procedure?

I have a writer-friend who doesn't want to know about things like reviews or sales figures, so she doesn't even have an Amazon author account [Note: Amazon gives authors their Bookscan sales numbers, which are inaccurately low, but are generally the numbers used by industry professionals outside of your publisher to judge your book's performance.] And then on the other end of the spectrum, I have a friend who tracks her sales rankings at five different Amazons, B&N, and Book Depo multiple times a day and inputs the data into some kind of statistics software looking for trends. Two completely different ways to cope with the hard data of being a published author.

Writers who are low need for info might:
  •  not read ANY reviews, not even trades                     
  •  not track sales/rankings                   
  •  not read PM/pub blogs,            
  •  maintain minimal social media,
  •  avoid Goodreads,
  •  not ask your agents/editors things they don't want to know, just because some of your author pals have the data--things like real print run, whether the book will be in B&N, etc.

Writers who are moderate might:
  • only read trade reviews and a limited number of reader reviews 
  • restrain themselves to occasional rankings checks
  • limit themselves to reading a handful of publishing blogs
  • resist the urge to ask questions of their agent/editor

Writers with a high need for information might:
  • obsessively Google their books
  • read all the reader reviews on GR, Amazon, blogs and ask their editor about trade reviews
  • check rankings multiple times a day and read scads of industry blogs
  • ask many questions of their agents/editors

There are no right answers here. It's easy for people to assume that moderation across all spectrums is the healthiest place to be, but we are who we are, and you deserve happiness regardless of where you fall. Often it's easier to accept ourselves as-is and work with what we've got than to try to become someone else in our quest for writerly peace.

Also note the usage of the word "might" and the awesome arrow graphics. I in no way mean to imply that these categories are discrete or that people can't be a mix of traits from all three. The idea is to figure out your average, where you would plot yourself on the continuum.


Microsoft Paint, FTW.

You probably know if you're a bit of a control freak [guilty!] or not by the time you're old enough to start writing books, but if not here are some characteristics of low, moderate, and high need for perceived control.

Low need for control authors might:
  • not go to any conferences unless sent there by publisher
  • not feel the need to participate in flap copy creation
  • only do interviews and guest blog posts for the bloggers who reach out to them
  • accept copy-editor suggestions without question
  • trust their publisher without worry throughout the publication process

Moderate need for control authors might:
  • want input in their cover and flap copy
  • do less intense self-marketing
  • go to local or affordable writing conferences
  • do everything high need for control authors do, but in a scaled-down manner

High need for control authors might:
  • self-publish
  • give their agents submission lists of desired editors/publishers
  • want to write their own flap copy/design their own covers
  • create street teams and complex marketing plans they implement on their own
  • reach out to librarians, magazines, newspapers, bloggers, booksellers for promo opportunities
  • pay their own way to all the major literary conferences
  • micromanage each step of the publication process
  • question a lot of content and copy-editor suggestions

Again, falling into any of these categories is fine. This is just about recognizing you might be different than some of your writer friends and knowing yourself so you can make the best choices for YOU. Note that this is perceived control. I'm not getting into debates on God, free will, destiny, etc. I know what I believe, but even with free will, it doesn't mean that anything we do really makes a difference. Maybe sales figures and writing success are predetermined by the stars, or maybe they're determined by completely random public whims outside of our control. We'll never know. But what I do know is that for me it helps to do some things that make me feel like I'm a little bit in control.


Oh hai.

Ah, sacrifice, we do love to glamorize it, don't we? I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to writing I'm all in. I'll write 80 hours a week sometimes, skipping exercise, skipping human interaction, skipping shopping, existing on a diet of Mike & Ikes and RedBull. And then when I'm dealt a writing setback, I'll double-down and work harder and skip even more things. [ETA Mom/Mom-types: this is a bit of writer hyperbole and I promise I'm eating more than Mike & Ikes or I'm at least eating the fruit-flavored ones :D No seriously, don't worry about me--I'm happy, I really am. It's okay to be a workaholic if it makes you happy :)] I'll scream stuff in my head like YOU WILL HAVE TO DRAG ME BLOODY AND BROKEN FROM THE FIELD, PUBLISHING. YOU WILL NEVER WIN BECAUSE I HAVE NO QUIT!! But before you applaud what is probably insanity on my part, step back and recognize that this trait correlates highly with obsessiveness, and there are other ways to be successful.

Low sacrifice authors might:
  • almost always put their friends and family first
  • have no desire to ever leave their day jobs
  • say things like "I want to be a writer, but not if it means jeopardizing the other important things in my life."

Moderate sacrifice authors might:
  • skip social outings to work more
  • reduce work hours or take a different job in order to write more
  • say things like "I am going to keep trying until I get published/sell five books, etc."

High sacrifice authors might:
  • work excessive amounts of hours
  • ignore their friends and family in favor of work
  • quit their day jobs/give up benefits in order to write more
  • go without luxuries (or in some cases necessities) to write more
  • say things like "Being published/being an author is the most important thing in my life."
And I know I'm beating this point hard, but it's difficult to read those categories and not feel judgy so again--it doesn't matter where you are. Olympic athletes are often high-sacrifice individuals, and that's an honorable thing. Not ignoring your family and finding a healthy work-life balance is also an honorable thing.You don't "deserve" a book deal or a bigger advance if you're a high-sacrifice person. No one "deserves" a book deal--it's just not one of our unalienable human rights.

Technically Eminem, success is not your only option.


This one doesn't get an arrow because I don't think how people feel about success is as linear as the other traits. Here are some possible ways you might measure your writing success:

  • it's about the journey/process
  • just feeling happier when writing
  • knowing your work is making other people feel happy

Single Achievement:
  • finishing a manuscript
  • being signed to an agent
  • selling one book to a publisher
  • being able to quit your day job
  • making the NYT Bestseller List

Quantitative Achievement:
  • selling [x] thousand copies of a book
  • selling [x] books to publishers
  • making [x] thousand dollars a year with your writing
  • earning out on your books so you make royalty checks

I'll be the first to tell you, that once you start writing for editors and contracts and advance payments and trade reviewers, etc., it can be painfully easy to forget why you started writing in the first place. Once you achieve what you were using as a measure of success, it's almost automatic to raise the bar. Figure out what success in writing means to you now, today. That way when you start wallowing about what a failure you are because you haven't made the NYT List you can remember that once upon a time you didn't need quite so much to feel successful.

Were you able to figure out where you stand on these four traits? Write down the info or put it in your phone or something because we'll use this data in the upcoming weeks. Note that your position might change as you progress through your publication journey. That's totally normal--just keep track of when and why you change, if you can determine it.

What other writerly traits do you think we should analyze in ourselves when deciding how to balance our writing and our happiness? Add your thoughts in the comments. Have a happy rest of the week! ;)


  1. This is a fantastic post, Paula. While the specifics are most helpful for authors, of course, I feel like we all can learn a lot about how important it is to know yourself and how much control you need to have about things, how involved you get in things and how much you need to do about any given part of our lives and how knowing that and working with that we can learn how to be happy with ourselves, and not getting ourselves into situations that would make us unhappy, and if we had only stop to think about them, we'd known that.
    As the oracle of Delphy said: Know Thyself!

    1. For me a big thing is realizing we are all made differently, and that's okay. It's okay that I am bothered by something that my author friend is like "Oh, I don't care about that," or vice versa. It just means we probably need to make different choices to be happy.

  2. I'm loving this Finding Happiness as a Writer series! Thank you Paula, for writing posts that are relatable to writers. Your words of encouragement provide a big "push" in helping them write because they love the craft and not write because they need to. ChatEbooks recently posted's-Reading-Choices


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