Byron, birthdays, and putting back the joy

Happy birthday, Byron, 221 years old today! I’m blogging about him on Delle JacobsIn Search of Heroes blog today (or possibly later today, as Blogger has been a bad boy–doubtless in Byron’s honor–and Delle and I are three hours apart), so come on over and visit.

It’s also the birthday of my dad, the Old Man who is not a Tree, who is a mere 98 years old. He was born the year the Titanic sank. He remembers traveling alone on a train when he was very small, and being given chocolate by soldiers on their way to the front in World War One. I’m sorry I don’t have a digital image of him.

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of the new year, we talked about various things we intended to do this year, and one of the big issues that a lot of us were interested in was how to put the joy back in writing. I suspect that this could cover several posts, but I’ll get the ball rolling here. And not only writing–this could apply to any sort of creative endeavor, something to which you’ve made a commitment but which now seems stale.

Let me get personal on you here. When I first started writing, it was an amazing experience. I’d come home from work and produce a few thousand words every evening, more on the weekends–I wrote 14k words one weekend. I’m not saying they were good words, but they were prolific and they were there, and that’s half the battle. I dreamed and daydreamed about my characters. I wrote whole scenes in my head and typed them up, word for word. My subconscious kicked in at the drop of a hat. I developed a sort of ritual of placing my fingertips on the keyboard and breathing. Then I wrote and wrote. My mantra at the time was just do it (not very original, but it worked).

Smugly, I acknowledged that I wasn’t one of those writers–the ones who were always complaining about having to write and doing anything–housework, even–to avoid writing.

And then I became one of those writers. What happened?

Part of the problem (don’t kill me, please) was getting published. For one thing, it’s really easy to get all tied up in the niceties of marketing and promotion. If you want to get some perspective on this, read this article by Julie Ann Long on the Tao of Publishing, based on the presentation she and her agent made at nationals in San Francisco last year. I realized fairly recently (duh) that the success of your book (in print publishing, at least) is determined by your print run, a number chosen by your publisher and completely outside your control. Unless you’re one of the rare exceptions and your book takes off, with or without your efforts, leading to multiple print runs, you won’t make the bestseller lists.

Also, once you’re published, you find yourself up against all sorts of expectations, or perceived expectations–those of your readers, your agent, your editor. You must keep writing about the Regency, you must write the same sort of books; yes, you may long to write about reindeer breeders in fifth century Lapland, but at the moment it’s just Not Hot, so write it in your spare time. (What spare time?! I’m too busy blogging, pricing promotional items online, googling myself, and handing out bookmarks to strangers!)

Also something from the past may come to bite you on the ass as we say in the Regency. In my case, it was something I heard all the time during my formative years: that if you enjoy doing something, you won’t like it if you do it as a job. This is in direct contrast to the mantra of the 1980s (and beyond?) that you should do something you love and the money will come.

I did my best to disprove the family theory by doing jobs that I did indeed love, but writing was a different matter, and I had to really struggle with this. One thing that helped was looking at the theory in perspective; this was the theory of my parents and their generation. At least three of them wanted to be professional musicians but found that circumstances–being the only one in the family with a job during the Great Depression, World War II–made it impossible for them to fulfil their dream. One of them was talked out of it by her jealous sister. And musicians generally have to grab the opportunity at a time when they’re at the peak of their physical dexterity and mental alertness; a year or two can make all the difference.

Whereas writers… well, I was a late bloomer. I’m not someone who wanted to be a writer all their life. I’m not making any great claims to mental alertness either, but it’s a different process.

And the bottom line–I refuse to accept this theory that was drummed into me along with other dubious advice from my family. I will trust my instincts (a good rule for writing too).

That helped, and strangely enough, just writing–just doing it–helps. I finished my revisions for A Most Lamentable Comedy (August, 2009), and that helped me get back into the swing. I’m started a new partial, and that’s always fun, by participating in a BIAW (book in a week) with my local chapter. My agent told me she liked my idea for my next Little Black Dress book (I posted a short excerpt last week). Oh, and I got an advance check, and that always cheers me up, even if I’ve spent it several times already. I’ve decided early what I’m going to do for promotion in August so I can concentrate on writing now.

So yes, you can put the joy back in. I feel it’s presumptious to give advice to people without contracts, but I will say that now is when you can get really good at writing; hone your voice; play around with different conventions and historical periods. Have fun. Build inventory, because you may be the one who introduces romance’s next trend, hot love among the reindeer herds in fifth century Lapland. Determine to have fun throughout the process. Rejections–and I get a lot, honestly, still–are an evolutionary process to find the house and agent who are right for you and your style.

So what do you think?

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Delle Jacobs
13 years ago

Terrific and inspirational, Janet! And if you write about Lap reindeer, be sure to let me know where to buy it.

You post is up on IN SEARCH OF HEROES now! Great post there, too! Not exactly as I planned it, and Blogger still won’t let me make some links work, but I’ll give it another try in a few minutes.

Cara King
13 years ago

Love the post, Janet!

Yes, I recall my own father (who was also not a tree) say “no one likes their job.” Took me a while to learn that that wasn’t exactly true…


13 years ago

Dear Reindeer Breeder,
How do you get the pretty white reindeer like in your picture? Genetic crapshoot or planning? A bit of magic from the man in the tree?

Now that that’s out of my system, thanks for sharing your journey, Janet. It’s truly helpful to hear from a professional writer I admire very much.

I’ve recently run into the very thing you’re talking about even though I’m unpublished and have two projects in the works that are very fun. But I’m wrestling daily with this giant cloud of dark, icky goo that comes from my fear that my timing truly sucks. I failed to break into a career in illustration, even after winning prestigious awards, and now the publishing industry is on the same shifting sands that swallowed up illustration. Hmmm, might be time for the Ivory Tower Treatment. No media allowed inside! 🙂

13 years ago

PS A very Happy Birthday and a piece of cyber-cake to Janet’s dad!

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

Great post, Janet! I sooo hear you. It can be hard to remember the sheer love of writing and creation when the business side of things can be time-consuming and self-confidence-sapping, but it’s so important to try. Otherwise why bother–it’s the love of the stories that brought us here in the first place!

Luckily I am finding that this new WIP has really captured my imagination, and I’m eager to work on it every evening (though daydreaming about it is probably not helping my day job performance, LOL). But it’s a real challenge.

And happy birthday, Byron! Maybe we should all eat some plain boiled potatoes in remembrance?

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I miss those days when all I wanted to do was write. Now I actually think about cleaning out closets.

Still, I love the job. I just wish there wasn’t so much to take the joy away.

andrea pickens
andrea pickens
13 years ago

Thank you for the great post, Janet. You give some very wise and wonderful advice.

As publishers expect writers to do more and more self-promotion, the pressures really do mount up. The demands take sooo much time away from the creative effort. It can be discouraging—and so can the rejections, which god knows, keep happening, even when you are published. So sitting down and getting lost in the magic of writing a story seems even more special. That love is what keeps all of us going in the face of the crazy publishing world.

13 years ago

This is a wonderful post, Janet! Growing up, I loved writing but never considered it as a career. “Writing is not a career.” It’s taken years to realize that the voices telling me that believed the only “real” career was engineering. Worked for my brother… unfortunately, I’m hopeless at math. I’m not making any money at writing now, but life is much happier with it than without it. You have some fantastic insights. Thanks for sharing them!

Janet Mullany
13 years ago

Thanks for your comments, Delle, Cara, Jane, Amanda, Diane, Andrea Ladyhawk–all in one post since I’ve been out for the past six hours or so.

I must rush off and write chapter 1 of “Savage Lichen Love” right now…

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Here’s the Gotham Writers Workshop Writing Quote of the Day.

“When you start writing you’re 98% pure writer and 2% critic. After you’ve written for a length of time, you’ve learned a great deal about your craft, and you’ve become 2% pure writer and 98% critic. It’s like writing uphill.”
-Larry Gelbart

How coincidental is that??

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Great post, Janet, and much needed! I have always loved writing, but now that I really, really want to make a career of it some of the joy is gone. It is all caught up in “Why don’t the editors like it?” “Why can’t I get an agent?” “What if it is all a fluke or some cosmic joke?”

I used to be able to come home from a long day at the DDJ and sit up until 2 AM writing. Now I have to make myself sit in the chair sometimes. I know the joy is there. I just have to find it again.

Singing wasn’t like that until the very end. And even then there were nights I was up on that stage and things were going great and I would catch the young tenor or baritone’s eye and we would exchange this look “We’re getting PAID to do this!” It was so much fun and we sang for the sheer joy of it.

I want to get to that point with my writing again!

And a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY to your Dad and to my darling Georgie, Lord Byron. I do love him so!

13 years ago

Dear Janet,
Loved your post. I especially liked the memories your father had of his train ride and chocolate from soldiers…very touching. I think your advice is spot on pertaining to promotion…

Thanks for the inspiration I needed this morning…


Keira Soleore
13 years ago

You remembered our discussion from last year about your Dad being an Ent. 🙂 Happy Birthday to Dad!

I’m reading a very interesting book The Creative Habit by dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp on infusing the joy into the act of creation and the discipline to be able to draw on it on demand.

Fourteen Thousand words in one weekend?!?!?! OMGosh.

Ahem, that excerpt would be “hot love among the reindeer herds in fifth century Lapland” leading to the eventual melting of the polar cap 1500 years later. 🙂

Ah…the famous conundrum: if you enjoy doing something, you won’t like it if you do it as a job -vis-a-vis- you should do something you love and the money will come. But I think this advice is right on the nose… “Determine to have fun throughout the process.”

13 years ago

Well, I’m not a writer, but I think most creative work has some things in common. In my case, I love my job, but I don’t love everything that my job entails. The many things that loosely fall under “service,” including committees, administration, writing and review reports and proposals, etc., range from boring to actively unpleasant. And the more conscientious you are about it, the more they “reward” you by giving you more to do.

But even the part of the job that I love the most–the research–can be difficult. I sometimes find myself finding excuses to put it off, like clearing out my inbox or cleaning my desk. And that is because it calls for a kind of mental effort that grows increasingly difficult–the ability to immerse yourself in a problem and try many, many wrong paths before you solve it, if you do.

I think writing is not that different. The art of writing is not the same as the business of being a writer. To be a writer you have to deal with editors and publicity and contracts (if you’re lucky), and before that typically with lots and lots of rejection. But even in writing itself, making the mental effort to put yourself in your story and stay there, that is not easy.

Still, I’m glad that those who say “no one likes their job” are wrong. Often when I’m caught up in some unpleasant aspect of what I do, I have to stop and remind myself how very lucky I am, compared to so many people, that I get to do what I love and even get paid for it. And that makes the hard parts worth it.


13 years ago

I wish I could remember who said it, but whoever it was stated that to be truly engaged in your job you must be intimately acquainted with both the positive and negative aspects that are a part of every single job. The sign of work you truly love is one in which the positive aspects outweigh the negative and being able to live with the negative.