My rating: 5 of 5 stars
2. The Importance of Routines
3. Churning It Out
4. Getting By
5. Following the Crowd
7. Beginner's Luck
8. One Phone Call From Our Knees
9. Controlling the Creatives
10. Believe in Yourself
11. Out! All of You!
12. The Writer You Want to Be
Kris Rusch has worn pretty much every hat in writing and publishing. She writes fiction and nonfiction, at all lengths, and has won awards and been a bestseller in multiple genres. She's edited short fiction, both anthologies and magazines (including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), and is, in fact, the only person on the planet to win the Hugo Award for both writing and editing short fiction. She's been an owner, with her husband Dean Wesley Smith, of two publishing companies (they currently own WMG Publishing) and several retail stores. She was a low-level employee at a publishing company she didn't own when she was young, and worked as a radio journalist and news editor for some years. She's made her living off of writing and publishing, without having a separate day job, for about three decades. She takes the long view, which separates her from a lot of the folks who've had some success in the last year or five or ten, and give advice based on what they've done short term. Which is useful, up to a point, but if you want a long-term career, the best advice comes from someone who's had one, and is still going strong.
Kris herself is the first to say that every writer is different, and that you should examine any advice you get to see if it will work for you, or how you can make it your own in a way that'll be useful. But basically, when she talks about writing or publishing, I listen, and I usually agree with her.
This book is a collection of essays originally posted on her blog over a period of some years, all on the topic of how a writer's attitude will affect their success.
Writing and publishing is an area where about 90% of success seems to come from just doing it, over and over, year after year after decade. It's easy to kill your own career -- or strangle it in the crib -- by having the wrong attitude, looking at things from the wrong perspective, buying into myths, thinking short-term instead of long-term... so many ways of wandering off the path. Kris talks about some of the trickiest detours into the underbrush, the ones lit up in neon and advertising themselves as shortcuts or expressways or well-lit, well-trodden paths to Success! which are actually no such thing.
She starts by looking at your habits and routines, which are two different things, in the first two essays. Developing good habits and routines can make you more productive by offloading a lot of the thinking and planning. Habits are how you do things, while routines are how you organize your day. So Kris is in the habit of, whenever she cooks, cooking enough to freeze leftovers so she doesn't have to cook all the time. Going to cook? then cook a lot, is a habit. Drinking some water before a writing session, then sipping tea while writing, is another habit; it forces her to get up and move around about once every hour, to keep her from getting crippled up from spending too much time sitting and typing. Sitting down to type? Drink some water and make a mug of tea.
She gives her routine as well, from getting up to going to bed, including several writing sessions per day, and also talks about when she has to deviate from it, and how she gets back to it as soon as possible. I appreciate that she shows the bumps in the road and how to recover from them -- much more useful than pretending to be Superwriter, or urging her readers to be.
The third essay talks about the damage that comes from internalizing the idea that writing fast is bad. There's a strong meme going around the larger society, and particularly pushed by English teachers and book reviewers and agents and many tradpub editors, that anything written quickly has to be crap. It was churned out, cranked out, dashed off -- clearly it can't be any good. That's a poisonous idea that doesn't belong anywhere near your writer brain, and Kris does a good job shooting that myth and burying the corpse.
The fourth essay is about people who do just enough to get by, and how that hurts them if they're a writer. I'll admit I was one of those people in high school. High school contained little that I was interested in and less that was actually useful. I learned some things, sure, but that was a minority of what was presented, and I learned a lot more on my own. Ignoring homework to read or write might not have been great for my GPA, but I think it was the right choice in the long run, even if I didn't make that choice for such great reasons at the time. It's easy to get into the habit of doing as little as possible, though, and feel good about getting away with that. Maybe that's not so bad if you're a minimum-wage slave, but when you're doing something you really want to do, and transition to working for yourself (as all freelance writers do, essentially) then the cliche about "You're only cheating yourself" becomes very true. This essay made me think about my own habits, how they've changed over the years and how they haven't. In some ways, I bust my butt when I'm working for someone else (and always have, even with that first minimum wage retail job) but in others I'm good at doing as little as possible so I can get on to the good/fun/interesting stuff. Being conscious of that means I'm applying my highly developed "efficiency" skills where they'll actually do the most good, rather than applying them reflexively.
Number five is about following the crowd, something I've never been very good at, even if I wanted to. Probably just as well, but this is another area where I'd prefer to be able to do some "crowd following" type things -- consciously and with forethought, of course. I'm probably better off with my inner writer being stubbornly unable to, though. If you find yourself thinking, "I'd better write this, or I should write like that, because that's selling," this essay is for you.
The sixth essay talks about how writers become indispensable to their genre or subgenre, and what Kris means by that. This is one of those things you can't just do -- it's not like finishing a novel, or taking a class in how to design covers. Kris gives seven tips you can follow to give yourself the best possible chance of being one of the indispensable writers in your genre, but like success itself, all you can do is prepare, and make sure that when it starts raining soup, you're standing outside with a pair of goggles and a big bucket.
Number seven is about how fast and early success can hurt you. Not something I have to worry about :) but it's an interesting read. Having great success right off the bat sounds like a great upside risk to have to deal with, but it is a risk, and thinking about how to handle it is worth some cogitation time. And I think a lot of this applies to great success no matter when it comes; it's easy to fall into the traps she discusses, no matter when that sudden boost comes.
Number eight is about major life rolls -- some catastrophic event, like a major illness, a death in the family, a house fire, a divorce, things that happen that feel like a knife in the gut -- and how they affect your writing (along with the rest of your life.) You might not recognize that what happening is affecting you until later. Kris gives an example of how this happened to her and she didn't recognize it until months later. It happened to me in 2012, when my husband's retina tore. He needed two surgeries, months apart, and his doctor couldn't say whether his vision would go back to what it was before, or whether the surgeries would just keep it from getting any worse. Jim is legally blind and doesn't have any excess vision to play with, and I was a quiet wreck for most of that year. I was more than halfway through the year when I realized exactly why my writing had gone to hell, and accepted that it probably wasn't going to get any better until the crisis was over with. It was hard to come to that conclusion -- I had plenty of spare time, there seemed to be no logical reason why I couldn't write. I just... couldn't. Deciding not to beat myself up about it anymore (which just added to my stress) was the best decision I could've made. Good essay.
The ninth essay is about how letting the battles and bad attitudes of your fellow creatives suck you in and take up real estate in your brain can hurt you. From the sheer time lost following online flamewars (and I'll admit this is me, depending on the subject of the fight), to the slams and sneering and flaming echoing in your head and preventing you from writing what you want to write, your fellow writers can really poison the well.
Number ten is about believing in yourself and your work, and sticking up for yourself and for a book or story or series, for a genre or subgenre you want to write, for a style of writing that feels right to you, no matter who is telling you you're wrong. Kris gives some great examples -- The Phantom Tollbooth, The Cat in the Hat, and Starship Troopers, of books that would've never been published if the writers had listened to their agents or editors, books that went on to become genre-changing classics.
Number eleven is related to number ten -- it's more about sticking up for yourself, but specifically about clearing people who are actively obstructing you out of your life and work. Kris talks about the example of Sally Field, who'd had success on TV playing Gidget, a vapid airhead, and similar roles like The Flying Nun. Now she wanted to move into movies, but her agents, her business manager and her husband all told her that she wasn't pretty enough and wasn't good enough.
Field's response? "You're fired."
She didn't bow her cute little head and listen to their advice. She didn't let them bully her. She left her agents, her manager, and her husband (who agreed with them). She ends the anecdote with this:
[That time] was like 'Out! All of you!'
Four very important words.
Out! All of you!
All of you who don't believe, who offer bad advice under the cloak of good advice. Who recommend that something innovative get tossed because it's unusual. Better to blend in, better to be like everyone else. All of you who are afraid of risks. You--out!
There's more. This is one of my favorite of Kris's essays.
The last essay is about figuring out what kind of writer you are, what kind you want to be. It can take some time, and our early guesses can easily be wrong. Or we might change somewhere along the line. This is about exploring the territory, trying things on for size, tasting what the field has to offer rather than just deciding that the one thing we've been munching on all along is our favorite by default. I've known a lot of writers who seem to be so paranoid that they might be falling behind that they dash as fast as they can down the first road they hit -- the first genre or even subgenre they start writing, or the first one they have some success with -- that they don't even look at all the other possible paths, much less explore any of them. "Oh, no, I'll just keep doing what I do best!" is, in my opinion, one of the saddest things a writer can ever say. Also, as Kris says:
If you look at what you're doing bit by bit, piece by piece, you'll probably end up with the same kind ofhybrid that I have. A bit of traditional here, some indie there, a little self-publishing in the middle. You might end up with a preference ... and that preference might remain the same for the rest of your career.
Or it might not.
The message I get is to stay aware. Aware of what's out there, and aware of what you're doing -- all of it. It's easy to dismiss or overlook that little side project, or that "not really published" stuff you do on your blog for six years, or non-fiction that doesn't really count because... why again?
And aware of what's going on in your own head. That's really what this whole book is about -- being awake and aware of what you think and what you believe, and how it affects what you do and how you do it. There's a lot of good stuff here, enough to reward several readings at intervals. Highly recommended.