By Gail Simone
It's an interesting fact that there are literally umpty-twelve kajillion articles in magazines like Hopeless Alcoholic, Failed Poet, and Parental Disappointment Monthly that tell one how to deal with the life of rejection and despair that comes with trying to break into one's chosen field as a writer.
But what happens when, through accident, assassination or nepotistic coup, one somehow stumbles into paying, rewarding work? Who is out there to help you through the catastrophic delight of your first paycheck, and how do you select that perfectly awful photo for your book jacket, that one with you pretending to smoke a pipe and pretending (even less convincingly) to gaze thoughtfully at some fascinating concept just out of camera shot?
Below are some helpful breadcrumbs to help you find your way back to your real world when you inevitably take the potentially fatal missteps that will likely cause you to become either a raging, obnoxious has-been or a bewildered, friendless almost-was.
You'll thank me later, unless you've forgotten all the little people by then.
10) Celebrity Is Horrible.
Meeting readers is nice. Meeting readers who love your work is nice. Having a photo of you caught just as pasta fell on your clean shirt is horrible. Having people tell you their fanfic epic in detail is horrible. Having someone you don't know angry at you for stealing the idea in their head that they hadn't written yet is horrible. But mostly, thinking about your celebrity means you're not thinking about your work, about doing important work. Today's medical science proves that the more you are willing to be toasted at writer's conventions, the worse your writing becomes. Don't let the celebrity overshadow the work, unless that's really what your goal was all the while, in which case, let me get you started. . . . "Here's to _____ _____, who used to be a writer, but now mainly yells at unfavorable reviews in front of an audience."
9) Don't Embrace an Image You Hated Just a Few Months Ago.
Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman excepted, being a writer is not being a rock star. In the current economic market, even being a rock star is not being a rock star. It's whispered lately that Metallica has been reduced to mildly rearranging the furniture in their hotel rooms rather than trashing them. It's fine to put on a bit of a show, but how many times have you seen a fiery social comic become successful, only to slide into the greasy descent of becoming the exact sort of diva-esque snob they had previously mocked? Don't be that guy. It's unflattering. It's also ironic, and we haven't covered irony yet.
8) Your Success Is Not Contagious.
Imagine the surprise the newly successful writer feels when finding out that even the low-rent celebrity of the popular genre author comes with strings attached . . . strings like friends and acquaintances who are convinced you got your paying work not through dedication and talent, but that you instead found a mystic closet or a golden key or something. You'll want to help these people break through, and you'll try, and you may even succeed once in a while but the unfortunate truth is, breaking in is tough. Those who do it on their own have achieved something that is meaningful in their careers, and to themselves. And many 'mentored' writers never really get over the stigma of that label. If you are trying to help a writer you believe in, do your best to do it invisibly, without a trace. You won't get credit, but you'll be doing them a favor from the heart. Then, when they become your competition, destroy them as only a former friend can.
7) No One Respects the Good Soldier.
Unless you are somehow exempt, most writers have an editor, agent, or publisher. If not, then you aren't a "writer" so much as a "scary crackpot." The thing is, most of these people are good people, and some are extremely knowledgeable and talented. Even many of the most obtrusive mean well. They're sincere. Don't shoot them.
However, sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes they tell you that Carol can't digitally pleasure a yak in the Oval Office. Clearly, it's something in their Puritanical upbringing, but regardless, they are wrong. There are writers who will do whatever they are told regardless of the circumstances--these are called "hacks." Your job isn't to make life difficult for your editor. But once a piece of crap goes out with your name on it, it is gone forever and will haunt you like the flying polar bears on Lost. Are there flying polar bears on Lost? I don't watch Lost. So, I guess my point is, don't be a jerk, don't be pointlessly obtuse, but don't be afraid to stand up when necessary, either.
6) Once You Turn On the Internet, It Will Turn On You.
If you have ever cried in your life, if your dog died saving your cat, if your town got together to raise the eight thousand dollars your stupid Uncle Billy gave to your worst enemy by accident, then the Internet will make your darkest day seem like a lovely and wistful memory. The net is not for you. You should get your news the old fashioned way, by town crier. It's surprisingly expensive and it takes dozens of years to get newes from ye olde country, but at least there's no one named IKICKAZZ400ROFL calling you names that would make a closeted Republican blush.
You'll learn some astonishing things . . . that that guy who called you the "worst criminal since Hitler and Stalin had a baby and Mao breastfed it," is actually a fanficcer who thinks you somehow stole the job that rightfully belongs to him. You'll learn that you once accidentally ignored a woman with a huge book of her rambling free verse, and she now follows you everywhere you go online to say your nose is too big and you shouldn't be allowed around children or chickens.
If you take the praise, you have to take the flames. If you can handle it, enjoy. But no one ever won an argument with a reader, ultimately.
5) Protect Your Health and Would It Hurt to Call Your Mother Once in a While?
When you're working, and there's a deadline (and you're always working and there's always a deadline), we start to envision ourselves, not as pasty, sun-allergic hermits, but Jack Bauer-like heroes fighting the ticking time bomb. We stay up nights, we disconnect phones, we frantically search for larger and larger containers to fill with deadly amounts of caffeinated beverages. DEADLINE!
And, inevitably, our health suffers. My keyboard alone has enough germs to win our next several wars, and the last time I saw a gym was when I drove into one accidentally, weak from scurvy and rickets caused by eating nothing but Funyuns.
Then I realized what was happening and have made a commitment to better diet and exercise, and it's paid off, not just in trivial matters like being able to live, but also in the writing. More stamina means the ability to write better and smarter and with less fatigue. Ask Orson Welles. Well, you can't, which probably proves my point.
4) Trust Your Gut, Or Your Friends' Guts, Or Something.
Many writers aren't aware of this, but there's a virus that writers give off, that somehow forces everyone around them to give their opinions on how that writer's story should go. These people don't mean to be rude, they think they're being helpful, even when their advice is something like, "Can't the killer be a robot?"
You may be tempted to run over these people with your cars, and if this list were just a little bit longer, I would cover some excellent suggestions on how to get away with it. But a better piece of advice might be to remember that it's your story. You may be forced into a writing committee. But your writing is still yours, no matter what the contract or your editor might say. Trust your gut. It knows when you're screwing up. Your brain will lie to you. It loves the paycheck, it loves positive feedback. Your gut is under no obligation to make you feel good.
And, if possible, find some writers and readers who won't lie to you. Just a couple, or you run the risk of getting contradictory good advice and that way lies flying polar bears and killer robots.
3) Don't Rinse and Repeat.
Let's face it, a lot of great writers find their groove and from then on it's no longer about challenge and exploration but about comfort and repetition. Flush with their first success after a lifetime of rejection, they suddenly cry, "Eureka! That's it, nothing but science fantasy semi-erotic transgender nurse novels for me from now on!" And many are happy with that choice.
But is that really what you want in your career? Think carefully. Few things are as terrifying an exhilarating as trying a new thing, putting out something completely unexpected. There's nothing dishonorable about doing sequels to your work, either of the thematic or literal variety. But you'll never have another chance to say, "I can't be pigeonholed" like you will after your first success.
2) Set Boundaries, But Let Your Loved Ones In.
Let's face it, the life of a writer is a little confounding to our families and friends. It's hard for someone who works in an office to understand that you are too working, even if you're working in your pajamas. My mother in law, whom I love, routinely calls and asks, "Are you working?" And when I respond in the affirmative, she immediately launches into a long string of gossipy misfortunes of people I don't even know. It's not mean, it's just that she doesn't understand.
So you have to set boundaries. Make a signal for when you can't be disturbed even when the house is on fire in a tornado. This is your job. That ten-minute call can take hours to recover from. Be firm. But if possible, be kind. These people love you, or at least take money from you, and when you almost certainly end up in rehab, perhaps they'll agree to water your plants. Take the time to explain what you're doing. Writers can be painfully inarticulate when in the process of the process, but bringing your loved ones in enough that they understand that it's still work can be surprisingly beneficial. Even if you're standing in the garage with a cup of cold soup muttering about your b-plot, it's still work. The exception is when you're looking at porn, because, I'm sorry, then you're busted, my friend.
1) Learn How to Not Think, Even a Little Bit.
Every international flight I've been on, there's a card in the seat pocket implying horrible, disfiguring consequences if I don't rotate my ankles every few minutes. Apparently, a series of sentient blood clots are salivating this very moment at the idea that my feet might remain sedentary for more than a few moments at a time. How they'll bury me with my legs all twisted and bent, I have no idea.
Writing is like that . . . it's long stretches of time where, if you were filmed with a stop motion camera, it would like you were carved out of margarine and left in the walk-in freezer. In your mind, you're fighting the evil Quixozoids on the planet Heffalump, but your body somehow became one of those mattresses where you can sit a glass of wine on one side while using the other as a trampoline.
Still, it's your mind that's sprinting. It's racing along at high speeds and avoiding obstacles and please feel free to continue this awkward racing metaphor on your own, but suffice it to say that it's exhausting. And it will overheat. And crash into the stands and kill bystanders. Wow, this really is a spectacularly good metaphor!
The point is, your body needs rest, and so does your mind. Learn to take a break for mindless activity, preferably with a bit of movement. Walk your dog. Walk your neighbor's dog. Walk your neighbor. Get his permission first, though. That few minutes away from the keyboard may be the key to keeping you out of the gutter, or at least in a better class of gutter, and I guarantee you that when you return to the keyboard, it will be with a renewed sense of purpose and well-being.
And that's actually quite a nice feeling.
Maybe we'll survive, after all.
Gail Simone is one of the most popular writers in comics, having written DC Comics and Marvel top titles including Wonder Woman, Justice League, X-Men Unlimited, Simpsons Comics, and Birds of Prey. Find collected editions of Gail's work and find out more about Gail on Red Room.