Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Finding Happiness as a Writer: ESTABLISH A SUPPORT NETWORK



If you’re new to FHaaW, you might want to check out the whole series.

It doesn't really matter if you're high or low control or information or any of that stuff I talked about back at the beginning of the series. Everyone needs support sometimes. It's like that great philosopher Hugh Grant said in the movie About a Boy: "No man is an island." [Yeah, I know Milton or Donne or somebody said that first, but it's just more memorable to me in Hugh's lilting accent. #SorryNotSorry You should totally watch that movie if you haven't. It gave me all the feels.]

Moving on--Less-than-ideal support networks:
  • 95% cats
  • 95% other writers 
  • 95% internet people
  • 95% spouse
Cats might mean well, but they sleep too much and they tend to be shitty conversationalists. However, the word on the street is that having a pet makes you happier. Pets lower blood pressure and cause people to live longer. [Well, provided your pets aren't like mine and trash the living room when you're sleeping and develop bizarre psychiatric illnesses requiring hundreds of dollars of veterinary care when you leave town >_<]

We are here for you, Human. Just speak quietly so you do not wake us up.

But seriously, the best support networks are like...good movie collections. They're diverse in scope and include small doses of reality mixed with larger amounts of comfort and escapism. I know that comparison is really random, but I'm writing this late at night and it's been several hours since I've had coffee, so bear with me. 

Ideally, you want to surround yourself with both writers and non-writers. Writers are great because they understand the finances and disparity and uncertainty of the publishing industry. Writers understand why you check your Amazon rankings forty-two times a day even though your book is still a month away from release and those numbers don't mean much anyway. Writers get why you're sad that your book is spine out at B&N instead of stacked on a table next to Divergent. They can relate to the fears you have that will leave non-writers scratching their heads.

But non-writers are great too, because they're not neurotic and jaded. Non-writers will be quick to point out "Holy crap! Your book is in B&N! Do you know how many people dream about that? You are a rock star!" If you write a book and it makes it to the shelves at B&N, that is actually pretty frickin' awesome and those of us who have made it there should probably take a moment to reflect on that. *takes moment* And if your books aren't in B&N or you're not published yet, the amazing thing is that the shelves at B&N await you. It can happen. It happens to people every week, so why not you? The only way it definitely won't happen is if you quit trying.

I’m not married so maybe I shouldn’t say it’s a bad idea for your spouse to be your whole support network, but that just feels dicey to me. Writing comes with a lot of stress and gripes, but no organized happy hour to vent them. Putting all that (or 95% of it) on one person feels like a recipe for divorce expecting too much.

Writer message boards and online groups/communities can be phenomenal sources of support as well. Some boards have writers from all different stages of publication so when you have questions you can find someone willing to answer them. Sometimes there are even agents and editors on the boards to give you industry insight. The problem is that sometimes these boards can feel like just a huge collection of everyone else’s good news. Because let's face it, just like on FB, we're more likely to post good things than bad. If you’ve just gotten your seventeenth rejection from an agent or editor, reading about everyone else's preempts, movie deals, and starred reviews might be really discouraging.

And then sometimes the boards can flip the other way and turn into an endless horror story of bad reviews, low sales, books getting canceled, getting dumped by publishers, etc. Getting a faceful of bad news all at once can also be psychologically damaging, especially if you are a low-information person. So a good rule of thumb for participating in online and in-person writing communities is this: if doing it is making you feel like crap, quit doing it. In fact, that’s kind of a good rule of thumb for life in general.

**Warning about writer forums** If you're in a writer forum and you don't personally know everyone in the group, please know that the YA publishing community is very tight and you might be interacting with editors, agents, publicists, and other industry employees who are posting and/or writing books under pen names. I know there are still people who don't know I wrote work-for-hire as Fiona Paul. I know one editor who writes under three different pen names. I know there's at least one high-profile NYC agent in a group I'm part of who secretly writes under a pen name. Not that any editor or agent is going to betray your writer-forum trust, but how terrible would you feel to be venting about something someone at your publisher did and then find out his/her best friend/spouse/assistant read it? 

Definitely make use of the bigger groups to get your questions answered, to network when it comes to marketing and promo, and to commiserate and congratulate each other in personal and professional events. But for more emotionally-charged things, I recommend you either join a smaller author group or create your own informal group. I'm a member of the YA Valentines, a fourteen-person author group, and we've all gotten to know each other throughout the past couple of years to the point where our forum is a very safe place for all of us. 

I also send a lot of informal emails to a couple of writers I was lucky enough to meet on tour. The three of us have exchanged emails for years now, and whenever I write one I just cc the other and it's like the three of us are having an ongoing conversation about publishing and life. Like with the Vals, these are people I trust completely. Writing success is a cyclical thing, so inevitably one of us will be selling while the next is struggling while the third is taking a life-break or whatever, but we just kind of take turns supporting and cheerleading for each.

The thing with depending solely on internet people, even awesome ones like I've mentioned above, is that they're internet people. They have their own lives with spouses and kids and jobs and hobbies and those things are always going to come first. You really need to have someone you know will be there in a crisis (a real crisis, not the one where you find out your local library only has one copy of your book and no one has requested it.) So even though I kind of suck at it myself, I recommend building a support network that's a blend of real-life people, electronic people, writers, and non-writers. And cats, for bonus points :D

My friend feels your pain.

The most important quality these people should have is that they don't make you feel bad about yourself. Let's go back to my random movie collection metaphor. Building a good collection isn't just about picking movies that make you smile and feel happy or comforted. It might also be about getting rid of some of the movies you have that aren't a good fit for you any longer. Maybe you don't want to watch that depressing downer of a movie that makes you cry. See where I'm going with this?

We're done, Hachi. All you do is make me cry and cry and cry.
(I'm still kinda mad at my mom for making me watch this.) 

Yep, I'm saying should quit the people who make you feel like crap too. Well, technically you have four choices:
  1. Grin and bear it. I don't recommend this. Life isn't kindergarten. We don't all have to hold hands and sing songs. Everyone is someone else's fingernails on the chalkboard, even me. It's okay for you not to like someone, even if you can't exactly put into words the reason why. Bottling up frustration or anger is only going to give you high blood pressure and/or explode out of you at the worst possible moment.
  2. Tell the offender they're upsetting you, that it makes you feel lousy when they [condescend to you/brag about themselves/talk about how they suck even though they're way more successful than you are/judge you/put down your writing/act like you're crazy to want to be a writer/etc.] and ask if they can try not to do it. Note that you’re calling out a behavior here, not a person. But also note you're essentially asking someone to change in order to save your friendship. It's hard for people to change.
  3. Ask for space. Maybe you've been spending too much time with this person and you just need a break. There's nothing wrong with saying, "I'm feeling stressed. I just need some time to myself." If they're really a true friend, they should respect your wishes and still welcome you back if you choose to return.
  4. Walk away. You don’t have to do this in spectacular fashion with a huge confrontation. Just stop showing up where they do, become too busy for their crit group, be a little slower to respond to their emails, mute them on social media if you need to. And know that it’s okay. You are not a bad person if you don't like everyone. You're just human. Human is good...almost as good as being a cat ;)
Which of the above options you choose should depend on how much you want to keep the offender in your life and whether they're being hurtful on purpose or inadvertently.

If you think someone is belittling you or condescending to you on purpose in order to make you feel small, I would cut that person out of your life without a second thought. And there are writers like this out there. I was in a really harsh critique group when I first started out. It was like everyone took turns telling everyone else how their writing was so terrible they had no chance of ever being published. You stay in a relationship dynamic like that long enough, one of two things happens—you either become a victim or a bully.

But sometimes people can make you feel like crap unintentionally. I had a friend tell me “Wow, all you do is complain. It's like you're totally ungrateful of all the good things in your life.” And honestly, that was a light bulb moment for me, because I had been downplaying my successes and focusing more on my problems with this person because I didn’t want to come across like "Hey, look at me. My life is awesome!" during a period when I knew she was feeling discouraged. I was trying to commiserate with some of the issues she was having, but it turns out I made her feel worse by not acknowledging what I had.

Sometimes it's not intentional or unintentional. Sometimes they're not doing anything--it's just you. I had a friend in nursing school who just inexplicably stood up in the middle of our weekly study group after I answered a question and was like "I just...every word out of your mouth makes me feel terrible." And then she started crying and ran out of the room. And so then I started crying because I was so shocked. And so our mutual friend talked to both of us and I was like "What did I do? What can I do to fix it, C? I really like her. I never meant to make her feel bad." And C was like "You can't fix it, because you didn't do anything wrong. She's stressed about stuff and resents the fact that you're working and still getting really good grades. But that's her problem, not yours."

So yeah, sometimes it's you. But that doesn't change the fact that if you need to walk away then you need to walk away.


Feeling smooshed? It's okay to ask for space.

I know there are some people reading this who will think the option of just quietly walking away is cowardly, that people should be able to talk about problems in a friendship. Again, I guess it depends. If this is a real-life friend you've known for years or someone you're dating/having sex with, yeah, I think you owe it to them to be honest even if it's hard.

But if this is someone you only know through a writer's forum or crit group, there's no need to spill your guts if doing that will stress you out. Some of us are very comfortable with confrontation and others will do anything to avoid it.  People are different--we can't expect everyone to be like us just because that's what we prefer.

Some people, if they forced to choose between suffering in silence and a big drama-filled confrontation, will choose suffering. I don’t want you ever to choose suffering. So walk away, if you need to, temporarily or permanently. Whatever it takes for you to feel better. At the end of the day, the number one person in your support group isn't a friend or a cat or a spouse--it's you. Take care of yourself <3