Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 28, 2019

The Story that Holds You Back

by Kathryn Craft
Turning Whine Into Gold

The defining characteristic of the living organism is striving. Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche both wrote of this back in the 1800s. Writers get this. Yet we carry on, even though at some point, our eyes open to the fact that writing impactful stories is hard to do. And getting them published? Striving will be a given, often to the nth degree.

We have one powerful partner to help seduce, prod, and even pull us forward: story itself. Our characters spring to life, beckoning us again and again to the page. Their conflicts beg resolution, keeping us up at night as if awaiting the past-curfew return of our own not-quite-adult children. At some point, they become so real we feel obliged to see their stories through. We owe them this whole new level of striving.

But one story, often gone unnoticed, may be holding you back: the story you are telling yourself about your writing life.

It is easy to spin an optimistic story before you enter the publishing fray. In fact, I think rosy idealism is a necessary component in undertaking this particular kind of striving, where the odds of reaching the starting line toward traditional publication—gaining agent representation—will not in any way support optimism.

I belong to a marketing cooperative, the Tall Poppy Writers, comprised of some 45 accomplished women authors, some quite prolific. As each of them has a new release, I arrange the support they need to create the social media rocket fuel for a successful launch. Optimism meets measurable outcomes on release day, when even the most brilliant author’s fingernails are bitten to the quick, Amazon is neurotically refreshed, and the possibility of day drinking while holed up alone is high. It is a privilege to provide them support.

Since I haven’t had a title out in a few years, there have been times when, emotionally, this role felt like watching dozens of my teammates step up to the plate to swing while my failed proposals relegated me to the bench. To stay on the team, I played bat boy.

Somehow, worn down over time, the story I told myself as I launched title after title became a whine: “Ugh. I only have two books.”

Then, as 2018 turned 2019, I hosted Bloom, the Tall Poppy Facebook group for readers, where several members told me they had read and were profoundly moved by my novels. Several others said they were just starting to read them, four and five years post-publication. Such investment exposed the artifice in the story I’d been telling myself while holed up alone in my office.

“Ugh. I only have two books,” became, “You know what? I have written two really good novels.”

The self-condemnation evident in the first story could come to no good.

It’s a new year, I have a new agent and a new manuscript out on submission. Anecdotal evidence about editors who no longer edit, the death of the mid-list writer, and a glut of manuscripts under consideration suggest that my odds of success are not all that great.

Yet I refuse to let statistics tell my story. Instead, I’m focusing on the view the bat boy has, watching and learning from all that brilliance.

Back at the start of my journey toward publication, when querying agents, this was the story I told myself: “Yes, only 1% of submissions are accepted. But I’m working hard and getting better every year. Why couldn’t that 1% include me?”

There is no reason why I should forsake this idealism just because I’ve added a degree from the School of Hard Knocks.

Forsaken idealism shrivels into cynicism. Cynicism may seem like it’s protecting you, but it drains the emotional reserves you need to keep striving. On the flip side, it keeps you from fully steeping in moments of achievement. Your inner cynic will warn you that joy is elusive, too fragile to trust.

If you agree that Darwin and Nietzsche were right, and we writers are going to strive toward publication anyway, why make it harder for ourselves by spinning a tragic story?

Let’s just accept that our publishing life will offer many opportunities for the rush of our idealism to crash against the rocky shore of reality. But consider the nature of a wave: it draws back, gathers strength, and tries again. In doing so, it tells a story of relentless, heroic persistence.

So I’m committing this to writing, and in public: in 2019, I want to tell myself a better story. I am committing myself to circling back. Reclaiming the childlike curiosity and wonder with which I first approached story, as well as the cockeyed optimism and idealism with which I set out on my publishing journey. I will reframe my “frustration” and “disappointment” as “experience” and “wisdom.”

In telling myself a better story, I will empower myself to live a better story.

Who’s with me?

No time? Not enough education? Too old or too young? What story are you telling yourself that is hindering your writing dream?

About Kathryn

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 Writingboth from Writer’s Digest Books.

48 comments on “The Story that Holds You Back”

  1. I love this post, Kathryn, and full-on agree. I was tired of writing being 'a job', so my word for 2019 is 'wonder'...to remind me to see it all around me, and marvel at the wonderful career I've chosen for love, not money.

  2. Honored to be a Poppy with you. You are a gifted scribe and your stories matter. Reclaim the wonder, dear friend.

  3. “Wonder” is a great choice, Laura. Crossing the publishing threshold is such a “and THEN I’ll be happy” moment that it’s hard to believe that a Rita-winning author in a multiple book contract would get this. But the struggle rages on—and with higher stakes—as careers progress. Or, fail to progress as expected.

  4. I think you're absolutely right - a sunny idealism is absolutely necessary in this field. It's much too easy to get sucked into the poison of cynicism. Being cynical about the whole business provides the perfect excuse for giving up or for failing to 'succeed'.It's not me, it's them. Success is relavent- if you don't enjoy the journey, there's no point in going in the first place. Being the bat boy is investing in your own dream - all those players will likely be clamoring to chase your bat for you when the time comes again. Thanks for being honest about the struggle.

  5. Unfortunately my replies aren't showing up in-line today, so I hope you see this, Cara, because I love what you have to say here: "If you don't enjoy the journey, there's no point in going in the first place." If you're curious and have natural aptitude there is reason to try, of course. My husband went with me to some six years of writers' group meetings and conferences, thinking he'd write a mystery series once he retired. Funny thing is, I suspect his premise for the series was more commercial than any idea I ever had. But eventually he dropped out. When I asked him why, he said, "I've seen how long and how hard you've worked at this and you haven't gotten published yet. [It took me 11 years to power up my craft and get an agent.] I just don't want it that badly." It's kind of the bottom line, right?

  6. Kathryn, I've published 6 novels, and yet this post resonated with me, too, because I'm now writing in a different genre and facing new odds, for all of the reasons you describe here. Still, what keeps me going is the writing itself. Without that, I don't have a portal to disappear from my daily life (which is actually pretty good, most days, but still), and I sorely need a place for my imagination to rule instead, well, letting the rules rule. Sure, I hope my new book finds lots of readers--both those who have read my other novels, and new ones, too. But, in many important ways, writing and publishing have absolutely NOTHING to do with each other, and I'm grateful for that.

  7. Holly this comment means more to me than you can know! And BAM! What a takeaway: "writing and publishing have absolutely NOTHING to do with each other." My new mantra! I'll use it to fertilize the curiosity, wonder, and optimism I'm regrowing this year!

  8. I too loved this post. Very inspiring. I have a die-hard inner critic I try to ignore, but she's been needling at me lately. I haven't had a book published in a couple years either. Needed this reminder today. Thanks so much.

  9. So you know exactly what I'm talking about here, Joanne. Once publishing makes a "product" of our work, it's easy to lose sight of the way our investment in story can reap its own rewards. Best wishes to you as you re-invest in your storytelling soul!

  10. I have only 1 book out and I've had some hard knocks that kept down most of last year, but this really helped. I am rediscovering that joy in writing and not worrying about publishing so much. Life is so short I just want to do what I love and if it finds a home out in the world Yay! If not that's ok to because really I do this for my joy.

  11. Kathryn, your words continue to inspire other writers, both in your books (which are both great) and in your posts and columns here and elsewhere. Who knows why one book gets picked up and another doesn't? We've all had the experience of reading a traditionally-published book and wondering why that one was published with his less than extraordinary plot and sometimes thin characters. It's a giant game of chance but unfortunately it's the game we have to live with right now. I hope for good things to come your way in 2019 if for no other reason than I want to read your next book!

  12. Aw, thank you Maggie! I see what you mean, but I'm still not so much a cynic that publishing is all a game of chance. I just think there are factors that we creators aren't privy to—budgets, publisher's business plans and goals, who else has submitted similar work, timing, political climate, and numerous other mysteries. Writers may write for love, but editors cannot always acquire for love. We can only control our end—and without love on the creative end, we have nothing.

  13. Kathyrn, I've read both of your books and love them. You write powerfully. I've written two novels, and they aren't published and aren't up to the quality to be published--yet. I refuse to take the short cut of just pushing them out the door as self-pubs on Amazon. When I am published, I want to be proud of the quality of my book(s). I'm working on my third novel, maybe I've learned enough it can step into the fray of agent hunting and eventually be published, or maybe not. All I know is my characters won't leave me alone until I get them on an (electronic) page, then they give me peace.

  14. I'm late to the conversation so I want to add a resounding YES what others have already said and perhaps one more thought: My story (and yours, and each of ours) isn't over yet! We all have so much life ahead, and it's truly unknown. The best things in my own life have always caught me by surprise. I try not to "write my story in advance."
    Thank you for this post, Kathryn!

  15. This post definitely falls into the "thanks, I needed that" category, So thanks, Kathryn, I needed that. I think most of us do these days, whether we're under contract or not. I find I spend way too much time digging myself out from all the stuff that doesn't (or shouldn't) matter so much just to get to what does. And yet we persist.

  16. Carlene thank you so much for telling me! You hit something here, because for me, the lowest bar is to push out a book that has reached its full gestation, one that will make me proud. This often always involves getting informed feedback if time allows—and with a debut, time always allows. Others may have higher expectations, but we cannot control this.

  17. As a newbie writer, I can only compare this to long haul of parenting where optimism, wonder and faith are needed most after the excitement of "newness" wears off. Thank for your honesty Kathryn! Will be tucking this under my hat for when I begin the task of querying.

  18. Oh Barbara that's awesome. I aways try to remind myself that Janet Fitch's wonderful third novel, PAINT IT BLACK, was made into a movie a decade after the book was published. You're so right. Truly, you never know!

  19. Shelley I can't even pretend to imagine what it must be like at your stage of the game, after cranking out two novels a year in different genres. Product-product-product!! If you can reclaim the magic, that's inspiration to us all!

  20. Teri you remind me of a powerful visualization in which you think of your adversary (in your example, your willful offspring) as the innocent being s/he once was, who is only trying to get by the best s/he knows how. I guess that notion holds true when we become out own worst enemy by telling ourselves a harmful story about our writing career. Healing can come from remembering our innocent inner child, who is only doing what she loves and getting by the best she knows how. That child is curious and full of wonder, and if we let her lead the way, happiness is within reach.

  21. Haha Kerry! Bottoming out is definitely one way to regain your optimism! Although your energies were focused in a different way, toward the betterment of your school district, so I hope you can cut yourself some slack.

  22. ME! I am with you!! I got an agent relatively easily, but since then the road has been very difficult. I've been on submission for over thirteen months with two different projects--the first one didn't sell, and the jury's still out on the second--and cynicism has unfortunately taken root. I don't even celebrate the nibbles I've gotten from editors on Project the Second, because I know nibbles don't mean that I'll reel them in. And of course many of my friends are signing contracts, and I want to be happy for them and content to be their bat boy...but it's really hard, as I'm sure you know. Thank you for reassuring me that I'm not alone, and for giving me some coping techniques to turn this around!

  23. Thanks for this one, Kathryn. I shared it on my Facebook page, because you don't have to be a writer to get the point about changing the story you tell yourself.

  24. Oh believe me Amanda, you are not alone. Publishing has always been a highly selective industry, but it's doubly hard to face this fact after an agent seems to have conferred the keys to the kingdom, right? But on the days when we are parched, and we see no advantage to having our cramped foot in the door, we must somehow bolster ourselves for the long road ahead—especially since, as soon as they heard we got the agent, our friends and family scooted on down to the finish line to look for the finished book in stores. Our only path forward is to find a way to keep on loving the work. Gad to hear you're with me!

  25. Thank you for this post. We do beat ourselves up, turn ourselves inside out and shrivel. Let’s decide to become those Tall Poppies and Bloom. How very clever.

  26. I gotta say, the "Tall Poppies" and "Bloom" works for me, Jay! It does take courage to open yourself to what weather comes, but it's also the only way we can display our brilliance.

  27. Telling ourselves we don't have time is one of the stories that works against us, Denise, for sure. Maybe start by telling yourself this story: "My time management has improved and I will now give myself 30 minutes per day to write." If you don't believe it, write it over and over again in a journal until you do—then replace the time you spent doing so with creative writing!

  28. Kathryn, thanks so much for this post! (And kudos to all you commenters out there...I can totally sympathize). I'm writing my 10th book, and yet...I beat myself up for not writing faster, not selling better, and so on. I hadn't noticed until now (thanks to you) that a cynicism has been creeping into my writing life, something that robbed the joy that used to drive me in the beginning. Until I read your post, I wasn't thinking of it in terms of a cynical story I'm telling myself. But it makes sense, just as it makes sense that one's internal story can start to dictate outcomes, for good or for ill. And it can steal one's joy in the process. Looks like I need to get busy on some inner storytelling. Good luck with your latest project, Kathryn - I wish you all the best!

  29. Wow K.B., I'm honored that this post helped you see yourself in a new way. I hope that dusting the cynicism from the story you are telling yourself will bring you all good things in the New Year! May we all be better inner storytellers!

  30. Kathryn: thank you for renewing my optimism, my belief that as I finish the final draft of book two—yes I have only one published thus far—and start that agent search I will be successful—whatever the outcome. I see many hours of agent-research ahead and am buoyed by your encouraging words.

  31. Kathryn, I feel like you were speaking to me! I've been going through a bit of the blues and your words, which I've told myself in the past in one way or the other, gave me the kick in the ass I needed. Wisdom, experience, yes! You are an amazing writer. Success is already yours!

  32. […] The writing life can be a mentally and emotionally exhausting existence where hopeful dreams collide with cold reality far too frequently. Yolanda Smith shares 3 ways writers can grow a thick skin, Grace Elliott asks: why do I have to choose between being a writer and being a mother?, Rachelle Gardener weighs in on big dreams and realistic expectations, and Kathryn Craft explores the story that may be holding us back. […]

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