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! ;)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Introduction: Finding happiness as a writer...

This is not a New Year's Resolution post. I don't make resolutions because I feel like if you want to do something, go do it. Why wait for the beginning of the year? Why turn it into a ceremony? To me, January is the worst time to shine up some new goals because the classes are all filled up, the gym is too crowded, etc.

But like many authors, I've struggled in the past with being happy. Compared to other occupations, writers are at a higher risk for problems such as alcoholism and suicidal ideation. Some of that is probably due to the sensitive people drawn to the field and/or the fact that a lot of us can't afford good health insurance so we don't get help when we need it. 

But some of that is because writing is its own kind of punishing work. Not punishing like ditch digging or trail building, which I've done. Not punishing like cooking 386 omelets to order in five hours for Easter Brunch, which I've done (and am weirdly proud of). Not even punishing like giving someone chest compressions and then watching them die. Yep, you guessed it--done that too. Writing is punishing in an isolating, self-doubting, creatively sapping, judged harshly by strangers, always uncertain, financially capricious kind of way. 

Then again, writing is the best job I've ever had, and one of the only things that makes me truly happy. When you land your agent or a book deal, when you wake up to a message from a fan who found your story to be heart-healing, man it doesn't get much better than that. 

Check out this picture:

This is coarse ventricular fibrillation, a heart rhythm we medical types like
to call "incompatible with life."

Unfortunately, this graphic is also a pretty good depiction of how my emotional status used to fluctuate on a regular basis. I was going to fill in some points:

  • Several editors pass on a submission.
  • I struggle to complete revisions on time, doubting the quality of my manuscript. 
  • Publisher buys two books for slightly more money than previous deal. 
  • Bestselling writer pal opts not to blurb my book.
  • Blogger emails me to tell me my book helped her get over a breakup.
  • Total stranger reviews my book in a 4000-word diatribe, implying I'm racist, intolerant, and a bitch. 
  • Kirkus gives me a starred review. 
  • Foreign publisher buys rights. 

But do I need to? You can see where those situations would fall on the chart of highs and lows. Sometimes several moments like this can occur in a single day. And note that all but one of these situations involves my feelings being altered by the actions of others, people over which I have no control. 

This kind of emotional rollercoaster is also probably incompatible with life, at least with any life I want to live. And a lot of people need four or five high points to mitigate the pain from one low point (think about it--the last time you read a scathing review, how many good reviews did you need to read before you felt better?), which means even when we're doing pretty damn good in our writing lives, we're still predisposed to feel unhappy. 

Last year I sold four books...and I still wasn't happy. (And I know how messed up that sounds to most of you, believe me). I was good for a while. They all sold in the same month so I felt like quite the rock star for a few weeks. Sure, some people had much bigger advances and fancy bling that I didn't have, but I had four more chances in 2016 and 2017 to build an audience backed by the support of major publishers.

And yet after the congratulatory tweets and glow of the new books deals faded, I felt vaguely...uneasy. Don't get me wrong, I knew I was in an enviable position. I knew that even though I'd busted my ass writing and promoting to get where I was, there had still been an element of luck involved. I was grateful for everything that happened and recognized the roles that other people--from bloggers to beta readers to editors--had played in my success.

So then, what the hell was my deal? I think, for me, it was that I still didn't feel stable. Even with nine books under contract, I still didn't feel like a career writer, like I had job security, like I could downshift from overdrive into a gear that allowed me a little more time to breathe. And honestly, I still don't feel like that. What the publishing industry giveth, the publishing industry sometimes taketh away at the worst possible moment. [ETA: The same day I posted this, I learned of Egmont USA's closing, which means several of my friends have just had their contracts canceled and their 2015 books--already edited in many cases--won't be distributed.] I live with that knowledge every day, and the only way it doesn't make me crazy is because I channel it to make me work harder and be better.

And I'm proud to say I did recapture my joy last year, and aside from occasional bouts of fleeting anxiety I would now describe myself as happy :) I decided to share part of my process, partially to help other writers who might be struggling, and partially to reinforce things for me. 

My original plan was to organize the posts into twelve steps and post once a week from now until April. But that felt kind of rigid and overly structured. Besides, who am I to tell people not only what to do, but also in what order to do it?

So instead I'm going to run this blog series as a collection of happiness-seeking tips until I get bored or run out of things to say, posting roughly once a week, at intervals that don't hamper my creativity, make me excessively cranky, or prevent me from going outside to chase sunbeams on those rare winter days when they scamper past my window. 

We love sunbeams, yes we do. We love sunbeams, how about you?

There are awesome bloggers who can handle a topic like being happy as a writer in a single blog post, but for me this was a process that took months--I didn't just choose to be happy and turn off my self-destructive feelings like a light switch. There was a lot of introspection, reflection, and admitting to myself that I needed to make changes. My process was about self-awareness and seeking balance and pitting reason against emotion repeatedly until reason won. 

We're all different, so not all of my tips will work for everyone, but if you're struggling right now, I hope you'll come back and check out more of the series. Please feel free to share some of your own tips in the comments. We're all in this together. 

And on that note, if you've arrived at this post and feel you may be suffering from depression or anxiety, or are engaging in self-harming behaviors, please seek the help of a trusted friend, family member, or clergyman. If none of those are options for you, you can also go to the closest emergency room. They will treat you and get you resources even if you don't have medical insurance. I'll try to find some reliable online resources to post at the end of the series, but right now I don't want to post links without vetting them. Just know that you're not alone, and there are people who will help you.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Where in the world is LIARS, INC.???


It's giveaway time again :) (When is it not giveaway time?) This contest requires that you follow @pstokesbooks on Instagram. If you want to win and you don't have an IG account, you'll have to make one and follow me. But no worries, it's totally fun and means you'll always have something to do while you're stuck in the post office line.

Because one of my kitties is an obsessive licker of books and the other is a destroyer of all things, I safeguarded all my ARCs of LIARS, INC. by hiding them in hard-to reach exotic locales. Your job is to "locate" the book based on the clues I give you on my Instagram feed, clues which are mainly going to be photos. Like this one:

Oh where, oh where can I be?

Only strong-willed, pure of heart, sound of mind, intrepid explorers will be able to locate this well-hidden tome. (Or, you know, if you're a big traveler, good at riddles, and/or Googling you might find it too.)

The logistics:

1. I post clues to the location of the ARC once a day on my Instagram feed.

2. You figure out the location from the clues in order to win.

3. You post your guess in the comments beneath the latest posted IG pic. Be as specific as you can. Just saying the book is in [city, state/country] is not good enough. If I don't respond to your comment, you're not right. Once a new pic is posted, you can no longer guess on the previous pictures.

4. Each intrepid explorer (that’s you) can guess only once per picture clue. You must also follow me on IG and like the picture for your clue to count, because I'm just needy like that ;)

5. This contest is open internationally. If no one guesses the location within 5 days/5 clues, I'll keep the ARC and do a second contest, but you guys are really good at this so I'm betting someone will "find" it quickly.
6. Contests like this can have a little wiggle room where someone's answer is close but not quite there or two people respond almost simultaneously, but one's a little more specific. I'm the sole judge of who wins and I'll do my best to be fair, but my decision is final and not open to appeal.

Questions??? Put them in the comments so I only have to answer them once :) Remember, do not guess the location of LIARS in the comments. You can only guess on Instagram.