Happy Labor Day! In 1894 the federal government created Labor Day to honor the hard work and accomplishments of American workers—and yes, that includes us writers.
As it should. Nobody works harder than writers, and no writers work harder than career authors. Yet we are so focused on where we want to go as writers and what we have yet to achieve in publishing that we often forget to stop and acknowledge our victories—large and small—along the way.
I was reminded of this over and over again at the wonderful writers’ conferences I attended over the past few months, from the Edgars and Malice Domestic and ThrillerFest and to the New York Pitch Conference and the Writer’s Digest Conference. Even as we cheered each other on during presentations and panels and lectures and awards banquets, we commiserated over all the many ways in which we had failed to hit this sales mark or sign that contract or win this award or nail that film deal, and on and on.
Enough. The truth is, writing is a tough business. Surviving and thriving over the long haul of your writing career means giving yourself permission to congratulate yourself as you navigate the highs and lows of the writer’s path. Here’s how.
Practice the Art of Positive Reinforcement.
Develop a reward system that works and use it. Reward yourself whenever you:
a) Make your writing goal for the day. Be it a glass of wine or a walk in the woods or an hour to read whatever you want, reward yourself. Do not skip this. Seriously.
b) Finish a chapter or a part or a draft. I cannot tell you how many times I rewarded myself during the (seemingly interminable) writing of BLIND SEARCH, the second book in my Mercy Carr mystery series. Six drafts and innumerable Beefeater gin and tonics, Elly Griffiths’ novels, and Boston Proper outfits later…. Trust me, it works—and you deserve it!
c) Hit a milestone. Publish your first novel? Sign a new contract? Sell audio rights? This demands a major reward, like a trip to the beach, a new laptop, or that blow-out party you’ve always to throw. Or you can adopt another dog, like I did.
Find yourself a Not-So-Secret Admirer.
As writers we all need one person in our lives who thinks our work is wonderful and that our future as a rich and famous writer is assured and is always quick to say so, no matter the evidence to the contrary. If you don’t have a person like this in your life, you need a new BFF.
Surround yourself with allies.
This is not the same as your Not-So-Secret Admirer. These are fellow writers and editors and agents and other publishing professionals who have your back—and you have theirs. You meet these people at book signings and literary events and genre association meetings and writer’s conferences, online and off.
Turn the green-eyed monster into a clear-eyed analyst.
The next time you find yourself a wee bit jealous of other writers—they’ve landed an agent, signed a “very good deal,” got The Call from James Patterson or Oprah or Reese Witherspoon—take a hard look at how they got there. Ask yourself what you can learn from their journeys. Or as my pal and swell author and writing teacher Jane Cleland always says, “Write a better book.”
Go out on an Artist Date.
In her classic The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron tells us to go on Artist Dates to feed the artist in our soul. Wander through a museum, go on a literary pilgrimage, attend the theater, go to a concert—whatever floats your muse’s boat.
Once a year, take stock.
Every year for decades I would sit down to write out my goals—and that often would become an exercise in self-flagellation: A Long List of That Which I Have Yet Again Failed to Do. Eventually I realized this, and so I began prefacing that tortuous examination with a look at all I’d accomplished during the prior year. Making a list of everything I’d managed to do—from writing a new blog to training my dog—helped me appreciate the many steps along my own journey, both personally and professionally. Becoming a good writer is a process (as is becoming a good person). Give yourself some credit.
Never stop learning.
I’m always amazed at the aspiring writers I meet who don’t study the masters of their craft or take workshops or read books on writing and publishing. Some don’t even read. (Seriously, what’s up with that?) No matter how good you get, you can always get better.
Sometimes the only way to really take your writing self and your work seriously is to splurge. Turn your attic into a writing room (or rent a space offsite). Book that trip to London to research your new work-in-progress. Sign up for a writing intensive with your favorite writer.
Pay it forward.
The most successful writers pay it forward. They remember what it was like to be unpublished, unheralded, unappreciated, and so they lend a helping hand or a cover blurb or a mot juste just when you need it most. Do the same for your fellow writers, whenever you can.
Someone has to make The New York Times bestseller list, sell the film adaptation rights to Netflix, sit next to Meryl Streep at the Oscars. It might as well be you.
Dream big. Work hard. Just remember to reward yourself along the way.
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