I recently watched Adult World, a movie about a young female poet struggling to get published. In one scene, her roommate, not really a writer, learns something she wrote will be published. The poet forces back her stunned envy (and certain anger at the injustice of it all), manufactures a smile, and congratulates her. Obviously, this is the right thing to do, because she has someone else’s feelings to consider. But now and then I’ll see guidelines online for writers that discourage perfectly private internal envy, anger, indignation, etc., directed toward other writers, or toward agents (or publishers) rejecting the work. But that hardly seems realistic, nor is it fair to ask humans to stop being human. It’s hard enough feeling terrible without feeling terrible about feeling terrible, so I’d like to propose amendments to those guidelines:
Do not envy another writer’s success for too long.
Maybe you’re 38 or 52, and the fourth book you’ve sent to agents is, as with the first three, getting rejected all around. Yet, some 18-year-old’s first-ever attempt at writing not only got a killer publishing deal, but it’s being adapted into a movie.
Of course you want to latch onto a shred of confirmation that this 18-year-old lottery winner doesn’t have EVERYTHING. You’ll find it, too. A tiny crack in their future: as the writer of the book that someone else adapted into the screenplay that will star famous, good-looking people other people actually care about, the kid who got the killer book deal will have pretty crappy seats at the Academy Awards (ha!).
Embrace that hypothetical victory. And when the rage heat drains, think about how excited you would be if you were that 18-year-old. Then remember that the universe is one of chaos and randomness, that art is subjective and has nothing to do with “fair,” and that there are many reasons (or no reason at all) for any person’s success or failure. Then get back to that synopsis you were writing and remember there’s room for both of you.
Do not complain, “They just don’t understand my work,” for too long.
Your book is too subtle for them, you’ll tell your trough of spaghetti. Or it’s too complex. Too layered. Such successful satire that it breezed right past them. Embrace that! Blame the unseeing agents.
After that, think about what you’ve written. Go over the characters, their conflicts, the story’s high points and narrative arcs–but do it critically. If there’s a sticking point, or if you see that it is, in fact, a confusing jumble, fix it. But if you’re still happy with your work, think about your query and whether it did a decent job selling the story. If the agent rejected the full manuscript, consider the possibility that it simply wasn’t the rejecting agent’s taste, continue believing your book is “too” something that just needs the right agent, and then get back to that synopsis you were writing for the agency you’ve been putting off because they require a $%!& synopsis.
Do not put down others’ writing in order to elevate your own for too long.
Yes, you’ll visit Amazon and click “Look Inside.” You’ll read the first page of that 18-year-old’s novel, and you’ll snort, “Mine is so much better!” You’ll wail into your spaghetti. Who wouldn’t do this? Maybe yours is better. Maybe it isn’t—but if you’re trying to sell it, you must of course believe your work is just as good or better. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be approaching agents, would you? Close the Amazon page when you finish reading the sample (better yet, buy the book—maybe you’ll like it), forget the other writer, continue believing yours is good enough, period, and get back to that synopsis you were writing.
Do not hate your own work if theirs is better than yours for too long.
Maybe you looked inside on Amazon and discovered the 18-year-old is a genius. The word choices, the assonance, the metaphors—brilliant! You hate that kid! Of course you do. You also now very much hate your own word choices, your personal disdain for using metaphors, and your lack of poetic aptitude. You will never be as good as that 18-year-old, you cry onto your last sauce- and tear-soaked linguini noodle. And maybe you won’t ever be as good—in the same way. But! Maybe instead of writing astounding metaphors, you set a scene like no one else. Your words might not be multisyllabic, but they’re “right.” Your cadence may not be poetic, but your chapter could occupy someone’s thoughts for the rest of the day.
King is no Chopin; Chopin is no King. Get back to the synopsis you were writing and remember there’s room for both of you.
Do not express any of your natural, reflexive, “everyone else is awful” feelings in a blog post, or to people who don’t know you very well and love you. It’s just a bad, bad idea.
* And don’t assume I’m writing any of this from experience. I’ve never felt any of these things, because I am a good person. (See? Ridiculous.)
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, Pretty Much True, and, under the pen name Chris Jane, The Year of Dan Palace. She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.