Saturday, August 26, 2006

Good Grief

I'm not a shrink like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, but a while back I did a riff on her five stage grief theory. Mine was about defining writers' common experiences during the first years of their career. Here's how my theory of the five stages of publishing grief goes:

First stage: Who Let the Dogs Out?

If I could do one thing for the next generation of writers, it would be to chase off everyone who tries to mess with them during their first pro year. Preferably with a baseball bat. It's not completely horrible for everyone; a few authors have charmed first book experiences or great mentors who shield them from most of the crap. The rest of us? Are thrown to the Dobermans.

The season in hell is a rite of passage. If you're lucky, you'll develop selective amnesia and stay away from the people who messed with you. Forgive, and if you can't, forget.

Second stage: Play It Again Sam

A lot of writers face the second stage as the dreaded second book syndrome. It can be a concern if you sell the very first novel-length work you write; you don't know if you can do it again. Another variation happens when your first novel does super well, and your second book is very different from your first; there are going to be plenty of unfavorable and unfair comparisons.

I think writers often overthink the second book too much and overwrite it, or spend too much time promoting the first book and not enough writing the second. I seemed to skip this stage because I had finished both of my first two novels and sold them as complete manuscripts when I signed up for this cruise. When my book two hit the shelves, I was already working on what would be my fifth, sixth and seventh published novels. The wisest course is to focus on the work. Don't let a season in hell hangover or your insecurities short-change your second novel.

Third stage: The Gilt Flakes Off

I asked some other career writers if they have any problems after their rookie year and second book syndrome, and they all came back with basically the same reaction I had: by this time, publishing loses a lot of its glam. What seemed so wonderful and glittering and gorgeous loses its sequins and feathered mask; people you admired or thought were genuine whip out their true colors. The financial reality hits around now, too. While other new writers are getting dream deals, you're getting paid-upon-publication advance clauses.

I hated this stage, but I was to blame for the disillusionment. Having zero contact with the industry allowed me to build up authors and editors and publishers into demi-gods and fantasy creatures who Could Do No Wrong. Turns out that they're just people, like the people you work with at any job, and the business is like any other business: good, bad, and everything in between. Once you accept this, you're okay.

Fourth stage: Last Straws

The combination of what happens during your first, second and third stages all contribute to the eruption of the fourth stage: unreasonable anger. You find yourself getting pissed off over the most minor things. Everything becomes intense, magnified and overwhelming. You see into things too much. Nothing is fair.

Publication wasn't supposed to be like stage one, two or three, so stage four is really just an aftershock. Batten down the hatches by reminding yourself that most of what happens to you during your writing career is beyond your control. You can't change it, and letting it piss you off is counterproductive. Let it go and move on.

Fifth stage: The Longest Yard

The last stage a career writer goes through feels a bit like a perpetual marathon. At this point, a big chunk of the writers who started the same time you did are now writing something else or have quit. You have a pretty good idea of where your career is headed, and you've got a ballpark on what your maximum annual income is going to be. Writing has become work rather than fun, and with all you've learned in the four previous stages you're suddenly not so sure that you want to go the distance.

This is the killer stage, and guess what? It never ends. You have to accept that career writing is a job and it requires a lot of personal commitment and effort. Even if you give it 200%, there are no guarantees. For most of us, it's compete or die. You do this stage every single day until you stop writing professionally.

Have you got what it takes to survive the five stages of publishing grief? Only you and time can answer that question. In any stage, remember that publishing is not about you but your work. Let the work always be your center and your navigator, and however your writing career goes, it won't be riddled with regrets.


  1. Anonymous2:16 AM

    I am SO in the Fifth Stage. It ain't fun.

    Thanks fr the breakdown.

  2. Clear, concise - and wise.
    Thank you.

  3. Anonymous8:29 AM

    Great post! With only a few short story sales I haven't quite made it even to the first stage. I'd like to think I'll make it to the fifth stage. Nothing to do but focus on the work.

  4. What does it say about me that I'm in the cynical stage before even sending out my first query letter? I figure I'm either doomed or will do very well.

  5. THAT is one helluva great list.

  6. Like Jean, I've long been in stage 3 lol. Great post, PBW.

  7. Anonymous1:17 PM

    Thanks, PBW. It's posts like this that give me a sense of clarity when I approach my work. I've only written one full-length novel (almost finished completely rewriting it though), but I think that stage 3 will be avoidable if I make it that far. A lot of my friends and even classmates (I'm in a creative writing program, of course. Unsure if it's really been worth it, but at least I know I've learned a lot regardless of its overall impact on my work) are somewhat disillusioned about publishing. I feel like everyday I keep writing while knowing the odds are so slim, it's a good feeling in its own way. It's a sort of determination that makes me want to keep trying, even if I never make it to stage one. I don't know... I've never been a quitter unless absolutely forced (ie, my summer job because I'll have no way to continue it while in school, or city orchestra because, duh, I moved) and I'd like to think I'm that way about my writing. :) So, thanks again, for keeping me in perspective.


  8. how about four point five? Not angry, but not really done with the process.

    What's it called when you feel like you're back to pre-pubbed? There's no gilt left, but no contracts either--so there's no "real" work and it's all up to me again.

  9. Anonymous7:05 PM

    Jean wrote: What does it say about me that I'm in the cynical stage before even sending out my first query letter? I figure I'm either doomed or will do very well.

    Knowledge is power, Jean, so I figure you're well-armed for this thing. I sometimes wonder if I would have signed up if I'd known then what I do now, but there's no do over so I can check. :)

  10. Anonymous7:09 PM

    Miss Kate wrote: how about four point five? Not angry, but not really done with the process.

    I think that stage just takes a while for some of us. Took me about three years to work through my issues with the pissants of publishing. And I still have days when I revert back to stage four thinking.

    What's it called when you feel like you're back to pre-pubbed? There's no gilt left, but no contracts either--so there's no "real" work and it's all up to me again.

    Oh, that's not a stage. We call that being a professional novelist. :)

  11. or, when there's no money in it, an amateur novelist.

  12. Anonymous9:36 AM

    You've mentioned the first year a couple of times and I would love to see a post just on the first year. Surviving it. Explaining what it is the vultures try to do to baby authors.

    Maybe a few of the readers here would be willing to offer up their experiences with the first book/year.

    As for myself. I'll just be happy if I get published. I will work hard to sell myself and my work with very low expectations as to the return on that effort. While I would be pleased if this turned into a valid career for me, I doubt it will.


  13. wow - WOW. You hit that proverbial nail on the head. I think my 'wake up call' was stage 3 - some really, really nice people in the trenches with me and some total horses' behinds. I wasn't a writer then (or now) who felt they had anything to USE - lol, so it was shocker to find myself used a time or two.

    The great thing about stage 3 for me was discovering that while the gilt wore off of some people and institutions, there were some real gems in there as well. People who were solid gold and needed no gilt. Editors with smarts & encouragement, fellow writers who willingly shared info and gave the necessary hugs or kicks in the pants.

    I normally just lurk but had to comment on this one. THANKS for such a great post.


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