August Theme: Obstacles - A Control Freak's Lament (Stephanie Burgis)

Honestly, there are bound to be a lot of bad moments in every writing career. For one thing, just to get started, you have to show your work to other people who will point out its flaws - ouch. Then you have to submit it to agents and editors, and almost every book - this even happened to Harry Potter! - gets rejected over and over again before it ever gets accepted.

I don't know any writer who's actually managed to grow such a thick shell that they don't care about rejection, but every successful writer has learned to get used to rejection and to not let it stop them - even if they have to cry in private, throw things, scream, or complain privately to their significant others or anyone else who's sympathetic and discreet.

For me, though, the single hardest part of having a writing career is this: the lack of control.

Now, just to give some context, I am a person who really, really cares about self-control. I'm not proud of this, but it is inherent in my personality, and has been ever since I was a toddler, so it doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. As a child, I wouldn't even start talking until I could speak in complete sentences! That's how much of a scary, perfectionist control-freak I really am, in my heart of hearts.

Now here's the single most scary-to-me fact about a career in publishing: as a writer, I have almost no control over the most important parts of my career. Oh, there are things I can do, as a writer: I can write my best work; I can work hard to revise it; I can keep on submitting and submitting, not letting rejection stop me, until I find an agent I trust and admire to sell my work. But here are some of the things I can't control:
  • Which of my ideas are marketable, in the first place. This part drives me crazy. I want to be able to know which ideas will sell, and focus on those ones, letting the others go. Doesn't that make sense, from a practical perspective? Hahahaha. Yeah. If only!

    In my experience, the ideas that I think are marketable tend to turn out flat and unengaging - my heart wasn't really in them, only my brain, and it shows. On the other hand, the ideas I don't think are marketable often aren't, either. I just can't tell, as a writer, which ideas will sell. One of the hardest lessons I've had to learn is that I have to let go the whole idea of marketability and just write the ideas that call to me the hardest...and hope with all my heart that someone else will love them, too.

    The only rule is (and I wish I could remember this more often): I have no control over which books will sell, so all I can do is write the books I love, so that they'll be worth writing regardless.

  • How my books are sold. Writers have very little input on covers, and no involvement in how their books are pitched inside their publishing houses, or to the major buyers. And once the books are out in the world...well, as much as I might secretly yearn to, I can't visit every bookstore in the country to helpfully peer over reader's shoulders and say, "Wouldn't you like to buy my book?" Even if that didn't sound weird and stalker-y, it still wouldn't be practical...which is probably a good thing. But that lack of control - that lack of even basic knowledge of how many of our books are selling (which affects so many other parts of our career) - is what makes so many writers go crazy over Amazon rankings, Bookscan numbers, and every other seductive semblance of control - or at least awareness.

  • Whether readers will like my books. Of course we all want all readers to love our books. We revise and revise. I don't know any writer who didn't write the best book she/he could write. But just like I often love books that my friends hate, and vice versa, there are always going to be readers who don't like our books. And writers just court trouble when they try to do anything about that - as witnessed by every writer who's ever responded to a bad review. Ouch...
So. Here I am, a control-freak in a career that gleefully yanks away every pretense of control. It's a scary thing. But it's also the career I always dreamed of, the job that makes me feel happiest and most deeply fulfilled and most convinced that I am genuinely doing what I was born to do.

So how do I find a balance?

My personal solutions, when the lack of control starts driving me particularly crazy, include:
  • Chocolate (gourmet dark chocolate, in case you wondered! ;) )

  • Phone calls, emails, or private venting/cries-for-help to other writer-friends who understand exactly the issues I'm going through

  • Soothing music

  • Time spent offline

  • Visits to beautiful, peaceful places where I can sit and close my eyes and let my stress be (at least momentarily) swept away.
What about you guys? How do you deal with career-related anxiety, whether you work in publishing or any other field?


  1. You are so right about needing to write what you love, because then at least the writing of it will have been worth it!

    Love this post!


  2. Chocolate and curling up with a good book. Coloring definitely helps relieve stress too! Seriously. It takes me back to those carefree childhood days!

  3. I love that idea, Laura! I might just find a coloring book for myself sometime.


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