Turning Whine Into Gold
You chose to pursue a career as a novelist because of your passion for the written story. But what is your long-range goal? Mine was specific—as a writer interested in legacy, I wanted to leave behind a “body of work,” which to me meant eight novels. Maybe your interest in creative range, and you want to be published in three genres. Or maybe financial gain is most important and you hope to support your family.
“Human desire is a sticky thing,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go, There You Are. Desire is sticky enough to pull you toward your goal, but can also be sticky enough to blind you to unexpected opportunity along the way.
I wonder how many of us have written off opportunities as obstacles? I could imagine someone who tried to make it in TV and is now writing novels, saying, Oh great, I’m trying to write a novel and now someone offers me a job hosting an arts show on a local cable channel. I’ll never finish my novel!
Who’s to say this is the best year to seek publication? We live in politically (and therefore economically) unsettled times and publishers are twitchy. What if getting published three years from now might get you to your goal quicker—and in the meantime, you could put those years to good use fleshing out new novels while building a valuable platform? Let me tell you how many publishers would like to see “cable TV host” in your query letter. Even delivering mail could introduce you to countless potential readers.
I love the old joke about the man praying that God will save him from the floodwaters threatening his home. A neighbor knocks on his door and says, “We must leave now. There’s room in my car—come on!” But the man says no. He too heard the warning, and is certain God will save him. When the floodwaters cover his stoop, the man retreats to the second floor. A stranger in a boat comes past his window and says, “Get into my boat and we’ll paddle to safety.” The man says, “No thank you. God will save me.” Then, from a hovering helicopter, a rescue worker shouts, “Grab hold of the ladder and climb up.” The man shouts back, “No thank you, God will save me.”
The man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he rails against God. “I was praying to you the whole time. Why didn’t you save me?” God answers, “What do you mean? I sent a warning, a car, a boat, a helicopter…what more did you want?”
Tunnel vision may appear to offer the shortest route between two points, but it may not be the quickest or the most satisfying. While focused on your all-consuming author goal, could you be missing the warning, the car, the boat, and the helicopter?
A softer focus on your goal could help you see these opportunities for what they are.
Aspiring novelists are told all manner of things that tighten their white-knuckle grip on our goal. Perseverance is key. Write every day. The only failure is quitting. Getting agented is a numbers game. Type “x” number of words a day. It takes a million words to make a novelist. These old saws can help us reach a destination that seems too far away. But think about it: should the same advice apply to all authors, when no two careers are ever the same? Who’s to say that an unforeseen opportunity might not increase your visibility, stoke your creativity, and lead to connections on which you can capitalize?
The quandary interests me, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have the answers. While I’m happy to play God in my novels, I am overjoyed I wasn’t cast as the master of the universe. I would have bungled the job by giving myself an easy path rather than challenging myself to explore the deep, lasting rewards of prevailing over rockier terrain, which ultimately gave me so much to write about.
I have seen writers hold onto their goal until it has shredded them apart. I’m just saying, this might not be the best use of your time on earth.
Think carefully before declaring something an obstacle or an opportunity. Saying “yes” might just take you one step further on the path of your unpredictable, creative life.
Maybe those opportunities could open more doors for your writing career.
Maybe they could make you happy.
As a fun exercise in career imagination, pick one of the following “obstacles” and show how it might lead to novel success. In addition, please share stories of success that arrived in an unexpected—or perhaps even unwanted—package!
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.
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What an inspiring piece, Kathryn. Yours is a voice of reason, not just for aspiring writers, but for all of us out here who're still, in our later lives, trying to figure out what it's all about. In a world that's changing so fast -- new ideas, challenges, and technologies bombarding us every minute -- it's all too tempting to hole up somewhere and pretend it's not happening. Thanks for reminding me that spontaneity is a quality to be nurtured, not ignored or forgotten, and that stopping to "smell the roses" can -- and often does -- yield unexpected and rewarding benefits.
I think all who want to write can relate to that desire to hole up, Patricia. Writing novels has always demanded a writer's entire mind, spirit and heart, but maintaining that all-consuming focus in today's breakneck world without becoming a total recluse is a real skill.
My husband will be the first to tell you that I do not like to explore. I do not like straying off the beaten path. And yet, my first novel came to publication via a route I had literally never envisioned. Had I stayed tunnel-visioned on my "planned" path, I would not have a book out there now. While that unexpected journey has not been without bumps in the road (and what journey doesn't have those?), it is perhaps those very bumps I needed to experience to serve me well in my career ahead. I am glad I said "yes" even when my anxiety wanted me to say "no."
Thanks for sharing that, Kerry. I'm glad you have a book out there too! Isn't it funny how we all have a vision of a huge breakout debut? When you think about it, the only direction to go from such a pinnacle is down. Much has changed in traditional publishing, but I still believe it's possible to build a career.
I have found the oddest opportunities feed writing & creativity. Because EVERYTHING is material!
Great attitude, Devon!
Terrific piece, Kathryn, and such a great point of view. (I'm a fan of Jon Kabat-Zinn as well!)
Thanks for reading, Tiffany!
For the past several months I have been thinking of the past. Not the good stuff, but the should of done this or shouldn't have done that stuff. Didn't know why. It was depressing and I seriously thought about putting the manuscript down for good. While reading through the first draft of my manuscript this week I noticed I had subconsciously eased those feelings into my writing. Your right, an obstacle has become an opportunity. I'm pushing full steam ahead.
That's great Mary, thanks for sharing. Good luck!
I admit, I've been whining lately. When I do that, it's always because I've been looking outward, not inward. Inside, all is calm, creative and good.
It's the grass on the other side of the fence that's so damned distracting...
Sounds like you need this post more, which I wrote when struggling with the same thing, Laura: https://writersinthestormblog.com/2015/05/disable-the-green-eyed-monster-before-it-disables-you/
Any way you can use these feelings in your writing?
I have to admit, I held onto my goal until my knuckles were whiter than my legs. But for me, the rejections weren't obstacles, they were opportunities to improve.
I agree with you there, Orly. Submission is not any sort of final act, it's a process that's part of our learning curve.
I don't know about you, Orly, but my legs are pretty damn white. I don't know if I could hold on THAT hard. Lolol.
Kathryn, it's Camp Nano time and I'm trying to finish my book, while polishing the query to the agent from the WFWA pitch event. These are good problems to have, but it means I'm not doing your exercise!
Every opportunity I've ever had has come from connecting with others, either via a conference, a writing group or blogging. That's good, because I'm an extrovert. 🙂 Basically, it means that reaching out, and also paying my blessings forward, has enhanced my writing life in ways too numerous to count.
Paying it forward also cures what is ailing Jenny. Realizing there are those who are willing to do anything to get where you are helps you appreciate how very far you've come.
"Desire is sticky enough to pull you toward your goal, but can also be sticky enough to blind you to unexpected opportunity along the way." What a great takeaway for me, Kathryn. Head down, in the yoke, pulling forward. And not taking advantage of other opportunities. Thank you!
Enriching or emotional experiences give us something to write about! It all colors our work. The more we mature, the greater our potential depth as a writer and--more importantly--as a person. I'm guilty of being too narrowly focused on my goals at times. In the end, it's not how many books I wrote, it's how many readers I've touched.
Those "emotional experiences" rarely feel good at the time, but artists feel things deeply for a reason, right? xo
This piece so speaks to me Kathryn as my life has been founded on obstacles! It's been a hairy-scary ride at times crashing into them and veering around them. But all of them led me to where I am today. As you say, those "lasting rewards of prevailing over rockier terrain, which ultimately gave me so much to write about."
If my mother had not passed away, I doubt I would be a novelist. I began writing to overcome grief and wrote my first book - and then did it again and again. So she left me that gift in her passing - an unwanted package at the time, but it left me with a package I now embrace.
It's way too Pollyanna and sometimes downright unseemly to think of our obstacles as opportunities in the moment, but so often it works out that we feel that way. Many of us also thank your mother for this gift she inspired!
Thanks Kathryn! I like to think my mother is beside me cheering me on with each book - as I know she would have been in real life. Bittersweet but beautiful all the same.
It is so bittersweet to write for our mommies in heaven. I'm sorry you know this feeling, Donna. But I too am glad you are writing!
I had, early in my career, an agent i was submitting to set me a similar challenge to write a short story in 3 days, in a genre I'd never written before. I thought it would be impossible, but it turned out to be an amazing experience. I think you are so right about goals and challenges.
I know others who have had amazing results with that exercise. Thanks for mentioning it, Sherry.
I just completed my second novel, and I feel a bit lost. When I read your blog I decided instead of whining I would give myself permission to withdraw from the white knuckle writer's life. Just for now. There are plenty of other writing opportunities: my poor old neglected blog, research projects, daily pages just for fun. I have to remind myself talent doesn't always appear in the same form. Thanks making me think!
I felt the same way after my second, Nancy. I've heard many other authors say they use other, shorter projects as a palate cleanser between novels.
This is worth saving!
Hope it gives you comfort with the obstacles ahead, Priscilla!
I am so proud of everyone here for completing novels. I'm still working on it, trying to shove obstacles aside daily. It's a great post, Kathryn. Thanks for sharing this with us.
Good luck Victoria! I'd bet everyone who has done it agrees: completing a novel is a big undertaking, especially while you're still learning the craft. In proof I hold up all the repeat novelists who can't recall how they ever pulled it off the first time. Hang in there!
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Goal is to write and to be published. Again. I may never be a household name, but I want to be recognized for the stories I write. In any small way. Hopefully, they make some money.
And there are so many ways to achieve that, Denise. Keep putting yourself and your work out there and scanning the horizon for opportunity!