How to Get What You Really Want Out of Your Writing Career

Filed in Finding & Following Your Voice by on July 17, 2017 • views: 1304

Last summer, I attended a panel filled with
award-winning, bestselling literary writers.

The experience was outstanding in many ways, but I was surprised by what one author had to say.

This author had been lauded over and over again for his talents. He’d won numerous awards for his fiction, including international awards and the PEN/Hemingway award, and had been compared to Dostoyevsky.

When asked about how all this had affected him, though, he just shrugged, shook his head, and gave us a blank expression. He described having received “the call” for each of the awards, and how excited he had been, and how every time he expected his life would change, but within a few weeks, realized that everything was pretty much the same.

This award. That award. This recognition. That. Another shrug. Nothing.

He sat there on the panel, brown eyes wide, looking at us. We looked back. I could feel the energy drain from the room. I imagine all the writers in the audience were thinking the same thing: If after all that nothing changes, then what?

After all, most writers dream of getting where this man was—having created a work that was lauded by all the powers that be in the literary world, frequently invited to speak on elevated panels along with other accomplished authors, young talents looking up to him for advice, and book lovers waiting with baited breath for his next work.

Why then, we think, we’ll have arrived!

But what if all that happens, and nothing really changes?

Writers Work Their Tails Off for…Disappointment?

The truth is that many writers have worked their tails off getting where they thought they wanted to go—a traditional publishing contract, a place on the bestseller’s lists, money in the bank from the sale of their books, the ability to quit the day job—and then found out, usually years later, that what they thought would happen as a result of those achievements didn’t happen.

Talk about disappointing, especially because we all know how hard most writers work. We’re not sitting around eating bon-bons. We really turn to in our efforts to reach our goals, which can make it all that much more devastating when everything we worked for tends to fall flat.

“I was chatting to a senior commissioning editor at a publishing house this week,” says author and speaker Stephanie J. Hale. ‘What we really should be telling authors is that the day their book comes out will probably be one of the most disappointing days of their life,’ he said.

Why – when publication considered is the ‘pinnacle’ of success for so many writers? Sadly, for many authors, publication is a huge anti-climax.”

And it’s not just publishing. It’s also reaching the bestseller’s lists, winning a contest (or two or three), or even getting several great reviews on your book. Under certain circumstances, all of these experiences may feel great for a day or two, but then fail to create the life changes you hoped for.

This sort of outcome usually occurs because of one very important reason: your goals didn’t line up with what you really wanted.

When a Writer’s Goals Don’t Line Up with Her Wants

It’s not always easy to figure out exactly what we want as writers. We may “think” we know, but it actually takes some significant introspection to really figure it out, and often we don’t take the time to dig that deep.

Maybe you enjoy writing, so you think what you want is a traditional publishing contract for a novel. You sweat blood writing your novel over a period of several years, getting feedback and making changes and gradually getting better at your craft, all while holding high that dream of the traditional publishing contract.

Finally, after years of battling through various disappointments and discouragements, the day comes when a publisher signs you on. You celebrate, elated that all your hard work finally paid off. You sail through the next year or two in book production, and feel on top of the world on publication day.

Then, a year later, you look around at your life and realize not much has changed. Your book got some good reviews, and sold pretty well for a first novel, but you’re still at the same old job, in the same old house, with the same people around you, and honestly, you don’t feel any different than you did before the book was published, except perhaps to have some small sense of personal satisfaction.

But one day you realize that’s not enough. If you’re truly honest with yourself, you realize that the traditional publishing contract did not get what you really hoped for.

That’s when it’s time to step back and ask yourself:

What was it you were hoping for? What was it you really wanted?

Being a Writer Can Be Very Disappointing

“I had hoped this book would change millions (okay, at least thousands. Alright, I’d take hundreds) of lives and inspire people to live with intention,” says writer and editor Andi Cumbo-Floyd, “And maybe it did…but the sales didn’t show that. I was disappointed. Still am, a little, if I’m honest.”

Many authors have felt like Andi. And if you asked them what they wanted when they published their books, they would say something similar—that their books would inspire people, or change their lives.

When that doesn’t happen—or doesn’t happen on the scale a writer hoped for—it’s disappointing, and can make a writer question her purpose. Is this really the right career for her? Should she keep going trying to make this dream come true with the next book and the next?

What about the writer who—honestly speaking—wanted most of all to make money on his books? Maybe he starts out with the same approach, seeking a traditional publisher, and when he finds one, thinks he’s well on his way to reaching his goal.

But then he discovers that the publisher isn’t going to put much effort behind marketing for his book, and a year later, is disappointed in sales. In fact, they weren’t high enough to earn out his very small advance.

Now what?

Or what about the writer who wanted her books to bring her renewed respect in her field? She publishes the book, but nothing changes in her business. She’s confused. Why didn’t it work?

“As a writer,” says CMO of YourTrafficHits Aaron Harris, “I feel like my efforts in creating well-thought contents are wasted because people do not read my works at all.”

Other writers may end up feeling the same disappointment. They take time and effort to craft writing that reflects their deep thoughts, but don’t find the connection with readers they hoped for.

In 2014, author Ayelet Waldman tweeted out her disappointment when her book, Love and Treasure, wasn’t chosen for the New York Times notable list for the year. As quoted in a Salon: “I am really not dealing well with having failed to make @nytimes notable book list. Love & Treasure is a fucking great novel IISSM.”

Author of the Salon article Erin Keane noted, “Waldman’s naked outrage likely rings true for many authors, even if they’d never say so on social media.”

There are many more examples. Being a writer can be very difficult at times, and disappointment is to be expected. But you don’t have to just sigh and shoulder the burden. You can do more to help yourself get what you really want from your writing career—if you’re willing to be more specific about exactly what that is.

How Did You Think You’d Feel When You Accomplished Your Goal?

If you’ve experienced these sorts of disappointments in your writing career, and you’re at a place now where you’re questioning what you’re doing, that’s a good thing.

Finally, you can turn your attention to what you really wanted in the first place.

To figure that out, you have to imagine how you thought you would feel when you achieved your goal. Maybe you thought that once you got that traditional publishing contract, you would make money, and prove to your family and friends that what you were doing was worthwhile. You would feel justified spending all the time on writing that you do. Or you would feel more understood by those you care about.

Or maybe you thought once you won that award in that contest, your writing would be more respected in the literary world, which would bring you that sense of pride you hoped for, or even a sense of being admired by your friends or peers.

Or perhaps you thought once you published that book you’d attract more clients to your business, which would bring you more money, and you’d feel a sense of financial security, or the freedom to be able to pick and choose the projects you want to work on

No matter where you are in your career—whether you’re just starting out or you’re an old veteran—it’s important to ask yourself the question of how you want your writing career to make you feel.

Emotions are at the heart of our desires, and they also are our most powerful motivators. When we can really tune into them, we can light a fire under our backsides and accomplish more than we ever thought we could.

It’s easy to get caught up in what we think we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to blog, self-publish or go after a traditional publishing contract, write at least one book a year, stay active on social media, and the list goes on. We can get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the life so much that we can lose site of what we really hoped to get from it all.

If you take a step back, though, and give yourself some time to really dig deep into what you truly desire, you could potentially create a much more fulfilling career for yourself—and that’s definitely worth a few days of introspection.

4 Ways to Zero In on What You Really Want from Writing

If you, like many of us, struggle to figure out what it is you really want from your writing career, here are four ways to go about it that may help.

What you may find as you dig deeper into your real desires is that you’ve been going about fulfilling them in the wrong way, or at least a way that has low odds of success.

Zeroing in on the basic need that you’re trying to fill can open up new avenues that you may not have thought about before that could bring you what you want a lot more quickly and easily.

1. Journal about it.

The nice thing about a journal is that it’s a safe place. You may be afraid to admit what you really want because you think it sounds selfish or shallow. In your journal, it doesn’t matter. Here, you can be brutally honest about what you really hoped your writing career would bring you—financial security, recognition, pride in yourself, freedom, respect—whatever it is, you can feel free to write it down here.

Realize that it may take awhile, especially if you haven’t thought about it in a long time. Simply answer the question: What do I really want, in my heart of hearts, from my writing right now?

Then write for at least ten minutes without stopping. Go back later and pick out the key phrases that jump out at you, and repeat the process if necessary with those key phrases in mind.

2. Pinpoint the disappointment.

Maybe you have a general sense of disappointment about your writing career, but if someone asked you what you were disappointed about, you’d have a hard time putting it in words.

It’s time to write a list of five statements.

  • Start by finishing this sentence: I’m disappointed that…
  • Once you have that down, go to the next line and finish this sentence: That disappointed me because I wanted…
  • Go to the next line and finish this sentence: I wanted that because…
  • Go to the next line and finish this sentence: I thought once I had that, I would feel…
  • Go to the next line and finish this sentence: I wanted to feel that way because…

Once you’ve completed all these sentences, you should have a pretty good idea of what you really wanted. Now you can start to think of new ways you may be able to get it.

3. Recall the rewarding experiences.

No matter how your career has gone so far, it’s likely that you’ve had at least one rewarding experience. Maybe it was when your agent talked about your novel in a way that made it plain that she got it.

Recalling that experience can help you zero in on what you really want—to have someone understand what you write, or to have it touch your readers. Knowing that, you can renew your efforts to connect with like-minded people, perhaps through a niche blog, by writing smaller pieces for publications that fit your vision, or by taking your ideas out to speaking events. Perhaps you can work on attracting like-minded readers and then self-publish your next book after you have a ready-made audience.

The options are endless once you know what really makes your heart sing. Spend some time recalling each moment in your writing career that gave you that feeling of true joy, and then look them over and find out what they all have in common. Most likely they will help you realize what you’re really going for.

4. Determine what you want to do again.

You may remember the Muppets show called “Dinosaurs” that aired back in the 1990s. The baby dinosaur famously taunted the father at all times, calling him “Not the Mama!” and banging him on the head, usually with some sort of cooking pot or pan. When the dad had enough and threw him across the room or otherwise blew up at him, the baby would take it all in fun and holler, “Again!” (You can see an example on YouTube here.)

It’s time for you to decide which of the experiences you’ve had so far in your writing career you’d like to repeat. Do you want to traditionally publish again? Self-publish again? See your short story in a journal again? Speak at a writers’ conference? Start a new blog or online magazine? Collaborate with another author? Try a children’s book or comic book? Teach a course online…again?

What was so awesome you’d like to repeat it? List those events, and then list what you really enjoyed about them to help you determine where you’d like your career to go.

Remember, it’s your writing career. What’s the point unless you’re getting what you want out of it?

Have you gotten what you wanted out of your writing career?

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  1. Carol Roan says:

    This is a great response to an earlier post about expectations and non-happenings. The expectation of, and the work involved, in writing a good book is completely different from expecting that book to make the Best Seller List. The latter takes as much work and requires a different skill set.

    • Colleen says:

      Very true, Carol, and even then you never know. Much better to figure out what we’re looking for and adjust our course as needed.