I believe in karma.
Not just the idea that if you put good into the world, it’ll give good back to you – sometimes in ways you hope for, sometimes with the completely unexpected. But also the idea that positivity breeds happiness and success. It’s all connected – how you feel about life, how you feel about the crap life spews at you (we all get spewed at, some more than others), and how you handle it all.
I find this is especially true about writing.
Jealousy and envy are two of the hardest emotions to exorcise, and they’re also some of the most soul-crushing and embittering. It always seems like there’s someone ahead of you. Someone whose career is taking off while you’re stuck on the runway with a clogged toilet and a screaming baby in the seat behind you. You feel like a hamster on a wheel, always going going going but never getting anywhere. It’s disheartening, and it sucks. Not just in the slangy way, but it can suck the happiness right out of you, leaving you with nothing but doubts. Except when it comes to how terrible you are. Now that you’re sure of.
The thing to remember is that we all start on the same general level. Some learn faster, but in the beginning, we’re all the same – head up butt, clueless, with that new writer musk that smells like coffee and hope.
But eventually that hope will almost inevitably turns to despair. It does for just about every writer at some point in their path – there is always someone ahead of you. When you’re on completely different levels, their success seems to be unattainable, but when it’s just one step, ugh. They have a completed manuscript. A good completed manuscript. A dozen good completed manuscripts. Agent interest. Partial requests. Full requests. An agent. A publisher. And let’s not get into advances and marketing and reviews and sales. Someone will always have more than you. Always.
And while all of this is happening, you might be secretly wondering why they got signed (or published or critically acclaimed) when you didn’t. You’re part of the same critique group, after all, or you’re signed with the same agent/editor, and you’re all on the same level. Hell, maybe you think they’re not such a hot shot. Why them and why not you?
I don’t care how selfless, generous, and goodhearted you are, or how many orphans you foster. At some low point, these thoughts will creep into your head. How long they stay and how much of a hold they have on you, however, is completely up to you.
I’ve been there. I was signed with an agent for all of a day, and because of reasons that were not that agent’s fault, she had to cancel my contract. It hurt like hell, and it made me doubt myself completely. I was eighteen years old, a freshman in college, and I was convinced I’d never get to do what I loved professionally. I was convinced I was a loser.
But here’s a secret: whether you’re a winner or a loser is completely up to you. You can decide to let that bitterness take hold and leech the life right out of you. It will if you let it, but in the end, the only person it’ll hurt is you. You’ll turn off the people in your life. They’ll stop asking you how your writing is going. They’ll stop returning your grouchy emails. They’ll stop supporting and encouraging you. Negativity, like positivity, is contagious, and the happier they are, the less they’ll want to be around you. And trust me, you want happy people in your life.
Or you can acknowledge that bitterness, realize it’s doing nothing but hurting you, and tell it in a firm voice to leave. If it doesn’t, you can kick it where the sun don’t shine. Repeatedly if you have to, until it gets the picture and finds someone else to leech off of.
I didn’t query agents for four years after that agent-for-a-day incident, and when I finally did, I was scared out of my brains. I was a loser. A reject. That black shelter dog no one ever wants. No way was I finding someone. Sometimes I still feel that way – well, okay, most of the time (self-confidence isn’t my thing). But you don’t need to feel like JK Rowling inside to smile when someone brings up writing.
If negativity has eaten you from the inside out and it feels like you’re never going to find your rainbow, let alone the pot of gold at the end of it, you don’t have to let it win. I know these feel like empty words from someone who’s long past that stage, but they aren’t empty words, and the only thing less secure than a writing career is Donald Trump’s hairpiece.
Think positive. It might feel like rolling a boulder uphill at first, but like any habit, the more you practice it, the easier it’ll become. Rather than green-eyeing that writer who’s one step ahead of you, smile for them (remember that cliche about how many muscles it takes to smile vs. how many it takes to frown?). And when the initial wave of envy has passed, examine their situation as best you can. What is it that nudged them one step forward?
Maybe it’s dumb luck – that does happen – but just because they got lucky does not take away from your chances of getting published. Someone else’s success does not take away from yours. But what will suck you dry is bemoaning that one step. What will suck you dry is bitterly dissecting their work, looking for mistakes. Looking for reasons why they don’t deserve success, as opposed to looking for reasons they got there in the first place – the very same reasons that you can learn from.
And that’s the trick, really. No matter what stage you’re at, changing the way you see the people who are more successful – putting that positivity into the world instead of gnashing your teeth with envy – will increase your own chances of success, if only because you stop looking for the bad and start seeing the good. You start learning from the good.
That writer who got an agent before you? You might have a better grasp on when to use a metaphor, but she created a character readers fall in love with. That writer who sells more books? You might have a plot with more commercial appeal, but his is so tightly paced that readers can’t help but stay awake until the small hours of the morning to find out what happens next.
So if for no other reason than your own selfish desires, squash that ugly monster inside of you, the one who whispers words as sharp as knives during your darkest moments. Tell it to hit the road, because there’s a new kid in town, someone who understands you in a way they never did. And frankly, you like his pillow talk better.
You deserve it. Because that new kid knows where your rainbow is, and he’s going to do everything he can to help you find it.