Friday Is For Writers
The Success Ladder
So back seven hundred and fifty million years ago, before ereaders and iPhones, before Amazon and Audible, before social media and the internet, I went to my first Romance Writers of America local chapter meeting. It was the New England subspecies of the larger whole, and we gathered in a room- I think it was a basement- in a library in like, Wellesley or Framingham, MA. Someone was having a birthday so there was a cake. We sat in an open horseshoe of student desks- or maybe it was just tables with chairs.
I was the newbie. I knew no one and tried to take as unobtrusive a seat as possible. I’m tall and I’ve always been tall. When you grow up being bigger than all of the girls and most of the boys, year after year, it doesn’t help with social anxiety, especially if you’re an introvert to begin with. Consequently, even now as an adult, every time I walk into any room full of people I don’t know, I feel like a cumbersome, enormous freak that every one is giggling about.
Of course, now, with my bad eyes and fondness for high heels, I have self-medicated this issue by wearing sunglasses indoors and not just being taller, but towering over people- but that is another discussion, one better for my therapist and I to cover lolol
Anyway, I’m sitting there with all these women who not only knew each other, but had publishing experience, and I felt like a total f*cking fraud. I knew nothing about publishing, manuscripts, PR, the market, publishers, agents. The idea of becoming a professional author was a massive mountain in front of me, one I had no idea how to scale. I remember being totally intimidated and terrified, and I didn’t know where I was going to find the courage to come to a second meeting.
When you care so much about something, the slightest doubt in yourself can get magnified until it overtakes every strength you have.
And I REALLY wanted to write.
So we had a speaker that day. I can’t remember who. I can’t remember what topic they spoke about. I can’t remember much of anything (Except for Jessica Andersen reporting that she had a contract with Silhouette or Harlequin. Little did I know she and I would become so incredibly close over the years. All hail Doc Jess! Oh, and the cake. Which I didn’t have a piece of because I get too flustered to eat in public a lot of the time.)
What I do remember about the Q&A after the presentation was that it was the first time I heard someone talk about the success ladder. I don’t recall who brought it up, but the point was this. We all start on the same ground line (**edited to add: This is not true. POC have specific challenges and disadvantages that whites do not have.) In front of each of us is a ladder. With every piece we write and revise, every contact we make, every sale we execute, every book that comes out, we go up a rung. If we look to the left, and to the right, we will see people who move faster than us. There will be writers who climb quick and high and don’t break a sweat. There are people who will go up at our same pace. There are others who we will pass. Some years, we will rung-after-rung it, going steady, making progress. Other years, we will lose ground and find ourselves at a lower level. Still other twelve month spans will see us making no headway at all.
I remember thinking it seemed like a sound metaphor. Now, after all these years? I know it is THE metaphor for describing what it’s like to be in a collection of thousands of other people, everyone typing on keyboards, setting stories to the page, and trying to navigate the various ways to get that material into the hands of readers.
A lot of things have changed over the last two decades. I used to do copyedits on printed pages. And send printed MSs into my editor. There used to be only authors. No traditional vs epub’d identifiers (I am very pro self-pub’d and epub’d authors, btw. Everybody deserves to have their material published.) Tours were the only way to get nationwide exposure as there was no social media. No Goodreads. No Amazon with its review section. There weren’t even message boards and Yahoo Groups when I started (and just think, now those are not really done anymore.) Oh, and Facebook? It wasn’t even a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye because he was, like, f*cking 11 years old at the time.
So yes, so much is different now. BUT that success ladder is still a thing. I’ve seen authors come and go. I’ve seen people ascend to the stratosphere. I’ve seen writers lose their footing and fall. And it still freaks me out. Whether someone is up’ing or down’ing still freaks me out. Where I am on my ladder freaks me out. Everything freaks me out.
To be fair, that’s pretty common in writers, however. We do tend to be wired hot. I think that’s what enables us to tell stories that resonate. But again, that’s another digression.
Back to my ladder. These are the things that wake me up at 2 am: Am I losing market share? Am I going to get fired? Am I earning out my advances? Do my readers still like my books? Will I still have a career in five years, in ten? Who else is rocking it? Do I need to think differently, do differently, stop doing something?
Anyone who thinks that all that sh*t isn’t in my mind, just because I’ve hit the lists and have a trad publisher and have a track record is nuts. In large measure, I started writing these columns about my experiences because I had someone come up to me earlier in the year and be all, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about anything. You’re J. R. Ward.”
They didn’t mean it in a bad way. But it got me worried about the Instagram’ing of experience. It’s important for folks to know that we’re all the same. We all have our own ladders, and our own rungs that we stand on. We are all putting our hearts and souls on the line in our stories, and we get hurt by things, and we get exhausted, and we have self-doubt… and, and, and.
The fact that we all have these ladders, and they’re all lined up on the same ground (**edited to add: again, this is not true. POC have distinct challenges and disadvantages that others do not have to deal with.) is a two edged sword. It means we not only compare ourselves to where we’ve been and where we hope to be, we also are tempted to compare ourselves to everyone else.
Neither is a helpful strategy. At least it hasn’t been for me. It’s hard not to waste time on this, however, and in order to keep myself focused on writing and not the ladder, I’ve developed a short list of reminders to boot my own a&& with:
1) It’s all about the work, not the ladder. This is Sue’s (Grafton) number one rule for writing well. Time spent worrying about where your career is at in comparison with anyone else’s or even worrying whether you have a career ahead of you is time NOT writing. The work will move you up the ladder. It is the only thing that will do that.
2) Everyone has their own ladder. Just because someone is ahead of you doesn’t mean they’ve figured it all out, or they’re a better writer, or they’re special. That’s their journey. A corollary to this is, just because you’ve taken a step back, doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Or your ruined. Or your dream is over. See also below.
3) Every rung is different and important and other people’s rungs are different than yours. Wherever you are, get the most out of it. Are you starting out? Write the best book you can and see where it takes you. Are you in the middle? Keep trucking and refining your craft. Are you towards the end? Think of how you’d like to go out. No matter where you are or what speed you’re going at, make sure you learn the lessons that are before you. I feel like these are what the ladder is about. It’s not about making money and hitting lists, even though these one dimensional trophies are a facile way of measuring success. What it’s really about is developing yourself and your skills wherever you are. NOTHING IS A WASTE OF TIME IF YOU’RE LEARNING.
4) Find a few trusted friends to steady your base. You don’t need a hundred. You need like one or two and a mentor. These are the people, when things get unbalanced- and they always do- who will keep you from falling off and having to go to the emergency room for spinal surgery.
I’ve gone a whole helluva lot farther than I thought I ever would, and I have every intention of continuing to put one foot up after the other. It’s not always easy, and I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve taken steps back and steps forward. I’ve had friends I love drop out of the business and strangers zoom past me and idols turn into friends. And you know what I love most about my ladder? It’s not the view. It’s the not rungs below me. It’s the sunshine on my back. No matter what rung I’ve been on, the fact that I love what I’m doing, even when it’s hard, has made my workday seventy degrees with fair skies. I think that, more than any elevation, is what keeps me coming back.
Do you love what you’re doing? Do you have to do it? Is it, at the end of the day, what you look forward to tomorrow, even if it’s scary?
Then you are on the right ladder.
Remember: believe, believe, believe. And magic happens in the real world.
Sending love and hugs from the frontlines, J.