I got my book deal while I was taking a writing class from Brandon Sanderson. When I came in--probably still shaking with excitement--to announce I’d finally sold a book, the other fourteen people in the class cheered, Brandon gave me a high five, and then someone chimed in, “So, statistically speaking, the rest of us are screwed, right?”
Funny, sure. It was a joke. But sometimes that doesn’t feel like a joke. Writing is competitive. If you set it up as that sort of competition, a you-succeed-equals-me-failing sort of situation, then it would be statistically impossible for authors to be happy. We have all these tools to compare ourselves. At first it’s how many manuscript requests you get from agents. Did you get an agent with your first query? Your tenth? Your two-hundredth? How long were you on submission? Overnight? Did your book get sold at auction? And if it didn’t, it’s easy to think, “Geez. Maybe that happened for other writers because they’re real authors. Maybe I’m not good enough.”
I recently joined a group called “the Swanky Seventeens.” Contrary to how it may sound, I’m not seventeen (and haven’t been for quite some time), and the definition of the word swanky seems as if it should involve a picture of Justin Bieber next to it rather than mine. Not a huge fan of Bieber or anything, but he just seems like the type of pop icon to wear things like … pirate pants. Which is what I think of when I hear the word swanky. Pop icons wearing pirate pants.
Luckily, the Swanky Seventeens don’t require pants. It’s a support group for YA and MG authors debuting in 2017. It’s all very exciting, and since we’re all creepy talk-to-imaginary-people-in-our-basement types (hello! Authors!), having a whole internet community with which to hyperventilate is helpful. The funny thing is, all these wonderful ladies and gentlemen with whom I am swapping advice, experiences, crying with over rescinded contracts and agent communication problems, laughing and jumping up and down over cover reveals and book trailers . . . these guys are my competition.
We haven’t even gotten to the really fun tests yet. We’ll be able to see actual stats: numbers of books sold, numbers of stars on Goodreads. It’s easy to see exactly how we stack up. Awards. Movie deals. The NYT Bestsellers list.
Or on the content side, it would be easy to have the same underlying worry. The authors debuting in 2017 are so amazingly talented, and if I let myself go down the compare-myself rabbit hole, it would turn me into an actual rabbit probably. A depressed one, living in a hole. There are so many awesome books coming out next year that address BIG THINGS in a beautiful way. Like autism. Or rape. Racism. Eating disorders. Depression. Real things.
I wrote a book about a fake people with fake problems. Fiction, when it comes down to it, is all fake people with fake problems, but my book is about a teen pariah who has to leave everything she knows up in the mountaintops of China so she isn’t executed for a crime she didn’t commit. Know anyone facing those particular hurdles? I don’t.
There are pieces of me in my book that are real. I hope at least some readers will see past the bombs and shooting and stuff to the heart of what it is about, but who knows?
And that, right there, is the reason comparing yourself to other writers is sort of silly. We all write from our hearts and brains and dreams and nightmares. Comparing ourselves based on how many queries we wrote or whether or not our books are important enough, or if other authors sell more copies than we do only makes us feel bad. It’s like trying to take a human spirit and attempting to plot it alongside thousands of others on a graph. It doesn’t even make sense.
Realizing that, I think, is the key to successfully surviving this whole author thing.
There are only so many YA books released in a year, and their authors are the ones giving me a virtual high five when I get my first round of edits. It isn’t 2017 yet, but when the numbers come out, will all these writing buddies I’ve made turn in to slightly sullen or self-congratulatory annoying people who post all over my twitter feed? It’s like that kid’s comment in my class: if you guys succeed, does that mean I won’t? Is it because I’m not good enough?
The answer is a huge resounding NO.
Getting a book published is not like jumping into a swimming pool (you sort of want to and then you do it without thinking about it anymore). It’s hard. It takes work and persistence and a thick skin. I’m still embarrassed to tell people how many rejection letters I have lurking in the depths of my gmail account. I’m hoping, someday, I’ll be able to pull them all out like a badge of honor and say, “all you have to do is try!” Right now they’re still sort of hard to look at.
No matter who you are or how fast it happens, writing a book is awesome. Getting an agent is a great accomplishment. Getting published is CRAZY, SO LUCKY, THE BEST THING EVER. I thought that when I got here I’d feel like I deserved it, rather than wondering where I got the right to (figuratively) rub shoulders with all these awesome people. Or expect people to read the crap I wrote down and like it. Guess what! It’s because I’m awesome too! All of us and our projects are awesome in their own ways. Sure there are better writers out there than I am. Sure there are better stories, better characters, better plots, hard-hitting emotional scenes and fantastic morals that I can only sit back and think “what genius!” But I can learn from those writers, and I hope they learn something from my work too. The moment you jump into the community and revel in the excitement of what is happening as a group, it stops being about ME ME ME I MUST SUCCEED and starts being about how exciting it is to be standing with so many cool people who like to geek out about the same things. People who speak in story arcs and world building, and who don’t look at you funny when you say, “I HAVE TO WRITE SOMETHING DOWN!” and run out of the room.
Get involved! It’s so tempting to just hang out, you, your story, and that creepy guy who hangs next to the Robert Jordan section of the library, but there are so many other people who would love to be a part of your amazing writing. Who will bolster you up when you need it, or who you can bolster in turn. Find a writing group. Participate in book signings and library events. Go to conventions if it’s possible. Connect with writers on twitter and facebook, or through YA highway and other blogs. Be a part of the tribe rather than sadly looking at the ones who seem to be successful from the outside. Or worse, feeling like their success makes yours impossible.
As a writer, you’re automatically a part of the tribe. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career. You don’t ever have to watch from outside.
The writing tribe is overwhelmingly warm and kind and down to earth. I might be just past basecamp, where all of us are just jumping up and down and screaming with excitement that we got this far (and sometimes falling down from the whole seems-like-I-might-wake-up-from-this-dream vertigo), but I’ve never felt more like one of an amazing group of people rather than like I’m climbing a ladder with people above and below me. The writers I’ve met who are farther up the mountain always seem to be reaching back to pull me up after them rather than kicking rocks down to make me stumble. And writers who haven’t made sold a book yet, haven’t landed their dream agent, or haven’t even finished their first manuscript…no one is cheering louder for you or more ready to give you useless advice than I am.
And yes, that was a horribly mixed up metaphor.
Writing books is competitive. Writing can be isolating and depressing and, if it’s always a competition, can turn sour. But writers themselves don’t have to be competitive. Success doesn’t come from being better than everyone else. It’s about creating something beautiful, (or awesome, or horrifying, or sexy whatever it is your write.) About sharing something you made with everyone else. Book people are good people. Standing with them rather than across some imaginary line from them has been the best part of my whole writing experience.
Please, join the tribe.