10 Steps for the Miserable Writer


How to turn this:


Into this:


Pitch Wars selections end soon. With all the successes and good vibrations, it’s easy for those of us who didn’t get requests or become mentees to get frustrated or down.

Keep things in perspective, writers, and figure out how to get out of the funk. To succeed, you need to learn these emotional tools as much as you need to learn the craft of writing itself.

1. Pitch Wars is just one step in the process. A very cool, very enthusiastic one. But even then it’s optional.

The event is bonkers, and it becomes very easy to get wrapped up in. Brenda Drake & Co. organized this to help you, not to disappoint you. They aren’t winning awards, and neither are you. It’s networking, honing craft, and hopefully connecting to agents. Don’t lose sight of that.

2. With genuine respect to talented, insightful mentors, many are still only a few steps farther along the journey. Remember!

This is no dig at mentors. They’re great. But they’re not the Editor in Chief of Penguin, either. They’re mostly just writers like you who – in some cases – beat out a colleague by subjective whim. Without that, they’d be in the trenches with you.

They probably do differ from you in how much effort they put into reading and helping others. Learn from that, too. Just keep in mind most are also chasing dreams like yours.

3. That mentors are just a little further along probably means they’re more accessible. Interact with them. Read them.

Again – they’re just like you. They’re busy and tired and excited and love that one book you love. Ask them something. Say hi. Thank them. The worst thing that can happen, I wager, is that you get no response. And that’s different from where you are right now exactly how? Right, it’s not different.

And, yes, go check out their books if you can.

4. “Never give up” may not feel good now. Think about the real steps you need to do in the next week. One. Step. At. A. Time.

I’m a jaded son of a bitch sometimes. I hate hearing “never give up” when I feel like giving up. It’s a hill too big to climb. So just take a step. Tomorrow, go fix that one chapter you know you need to fix. Hell, go fix that one paragraph. Sentence. Word. Do it. Then do it again. And again. Progress is amazing. Look back in a week, and know you climbed out of the mud.

5. Set your goal. Pitch Wars is a means, not an end. You should set your goal on getting an agent. Not getting picked next year by mentors.

Is your goal what you think it is? Mine wasn’t for another event. But you learn. You don’t have to have it in writing (but it can’t hurt). But you do have to actually think about it. Think about it for your immediate work. What is your goal with this book? Have one.

You can have goal for your life as a writer. That’s great, but it’s too big right now. Set a goal for your book.

6. Many of us want to belong to a club of insiders. It’s not wrong, but it’s not being published, either. Reach out to outsiders.

This might be the most important point on this list. Pay attention.

Get serious about understanding why you’re disappointed. Is it really because the novel you submitted isn’t good enough? Or is it really because you don’t feel like you fit in? Or that you aren’t good enough?

I can’t solve that for you. Neither can Pitch Wars unless you’re that talented-cum-lucky one person in 114 who submitted and became a mentee.

Someone else out there is having the exact same thoughts you are. Right now. Find them. Misery loves company, as they say. And company brings validation. Validation brings confidence.

Confidence writes books.

7. Wait for the off season. In a few months, when mentors can breathe, ask one for a single tip on how you could have improved.

Screw summer. It’s too damn hot in Iowa. Give me fall any day. This October, when the Steelers and the Hawkeyes are undefeated (hey, it’s my dream), I’ll forget to reach out to Dan Malossi or Kellye Garrett & Sarah Henning or Kristen Lepionka about my Pitch Wars submission.

But that’s just four kinds of stupid. Maybe something in my query was awful or vague. Maybe my first chapter didn’t help them see the book’s direction. If they can tell me one thing to change, that’s one thing that might matter to others. If they can’t tell me even one thing, the least I can do is take that time to say I didn’t forget that they read my work.

8. Get over it however you can. The emotions you have are valid. But they also absorb your time, and time is your best resource.

I’m driven, but when I mope around my wife wants to strangle me. I’m a real bastard to live with that way. Mostly, it’s because I get down, and then get cranky because I feel like I’m wasting precious time.

I am.

Take care of yourself. My long experience with writers says they’re prone to melancholy. Find a single, simple thing to do and find what you can be proud of. And if you are prone to mental illness or depression, talk to someone. Find help however you’re able. There is no shame in this. Seriously.

9. Go love a story with great characters. Movies are allowed. Remember why you did all this in the first place.

You already know what your favorite movies and books are. What are you waiting for? I guarantee that if you re-read or re-watch one of those you’ll learn something. You’ll learn something while watching something new. Go get a little inspired. It’s why you did all this in the first place, damn it.

Me? I’m gearing up to watch There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both of which I’ve seen. I’m reading Leviathan Wakes, which I’ve never read. All of these are thick, heavy duty stories that I can’t wait to dive into.

10. Read someone else’s whole manuscript. You both need this. Others are working on CP exchanges. Find one.

This isn’t easy. Finding someone or a group to critique with is tough. But I also guarantee everyone who submitted to Pitch Wars wants someone to read their work and offer ideas. Keep a look out for people organizing CP (Critique Partner) events, but you don’t have to wait. Just watch the feed. Stalk people’s Twitter bios. Figure out if they’re in your “camp,” and ask them to read their stuff.

Do so respectfully. The great thing is that as you read, you’ll automatically learn from their writing. Whether it’s their mistakes or their brilliance, you’ll learn. You won’t be able to help it. Yes, it takes time, but it also directly helps your craft and theirs. Do it.

11. Also, whiskey. (Contents may vary.)

It doesn’t have to be booze. It does have to be relaxing. Get some chocolate chip cookies, BBQ, sushi, a massage, a hike – whatever your particular poison happens to be. You can’t get out of a fog by working harder. Well, you can, but you’ll still be miserable at the end anyway. Take it easy once in a while.

Girls Go to Jupiter … To Kick Ass and Take Names

I spent the last week obsessing over a Twitter event called Pitch Wars. It’s a mentorship contest where writers team up with writers and editors to workshop a full manuscript, then parade the selected winners in front of literary agents later this year.

The whole thing is a fascinating study in community and identity. Brenda Drake is the queen bee for the event, having started it a few years ago. I don’t know her, but kudos to her spirit to help others. Sure, it promotes her own work. Why shouldn’t it? The same is true of her colleagues who help.

Pitch Wars, and other events she organizes, is by writers, for writers. They just went out on social media and did it, demonstrating many times over how the Internet empowers people. The mentors volunteer a huge amount of effort and time. Judging from the blog posts and especially the Twitter posts, writers get swept up with enthusiasm and camaraderie.

The community is mostly women. Most participants are in Young Adult or Middle Grade fiction. Romance comprises a huge majority. Science Fiction and Fantasy are widely represented and celebrated. My manuscript is an adult international thriller, which absolutely is part of the contest, just in the minority overall.

It’s the kind of exercise my skeptical, cynical brain can’t figure out. Hell with it, I thought. Why not! So, I participated this year. I submitted my query and first chapter to three mentors (one is a tag-team duo). My expectations for response were low given the descriptions of what mentors said they wanted. 

That’s not meant as criticism. I’m wading into dangerous waters here. Pitch Wars and all its participants are doing a good thing. It’s worth celebrating. If I’m criticizing anything, I’m criticizing myself and possibly others like me — especially other men.

I’ve spent the last couple years attending various writers groups, workshops, and conferences. The women outnumber the men at these events by a huge margin. Several times, I’ve been the only guy in the room. This isn’t by design to exclude men. It’s just the tendencies of who participates. That’s not very surprising. Besides, we men could use a little dose of experiencing the minority position to better understand things in general.

What is surprising to me is the spirit these women engender. The feeling is one of open-armed, de facto sisterhood (who also welcome men, I should note). They are enthusiastic and emotional in a way many men usually aren’t. They make what appear to be sincere and strong relationships in ways the men I know don’t. They organize and support one another, leveraging their strength as a group.

Men, by contrast, seem to stand against the crowd. I observe a kind of individualism among male writers I know. They’re not withdrawn misanthropes. But each tends to be making a name for himself, without anywhere near the level of mutualism I observe in women writers.

When a guy like me wanders in, doubt wanders in too. Am I too off the mark for their interests? Does my writing have a shot? Maybe it’s not fair or right to think that way, but I think it’s honest.

I’m speaking in generalities here. Of course there are many healthy exceptions. And, of course men participate in Pitch Wars. Of course there are more individualistic women and more community-minded, more emotive men.

But, on the whole, the difference to me seems significant. Many men are working just as hard with — anecdotally — less success and support. Some become bitter, and they think that proves their point. It’s a lousy reaction, but I understand the frustration in that.

Remember that skeptical, cynical brain of mine? I suspect there’s more behind-the-scenes drama among the women (and the men, for that matter) than I realize. The cynic in me sees all the congratulatory enthusiasm and the dreamy, hyper-referential animated GIFs and it just feels … off. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, a gender thing, a social media thing, or whatever else. It’s not my “scene” or sense of humor. There’s no harm in that. I’m not asking the tribe to change for me. That’s on me to adapt or be the change. And they’ve done nothing but welcome anyone willing to participate. Still, I keep wandering the wilds for my tribe.

Without a doubt, finding writing partners has been the hardest, most frustrating reality for my writing path. I think that’s mostly from my cynical nature. I’m awful at making new friends and fitting into social circles, though I’m no misfit either. I’ve got a strong individualist nature that resists community, all while knowing I’d benefit from a bunch of fellow creatives.

It’s not that have I none. I’m in two local writer’s groups, and I’ve started working with a good friend on a “guy’s fiction” (as in: action thrillers) cooperative that I’m hoping takes off.

So, here’s to hoping communities like Pitch Wars thrive. It’s a fantastic event. I sincerely hope it helps many writers — of all kinds — achieve their dreams.