I can’t remember who told me this first, but here’s the piece of writing advice that changed my life:
Eyes on your own paper.
I can’t tell you how many careers Comparison and her brother Jealousy have ruined. And they’re vicious. They’ll roll right into your house, take your remote, crack open a soda and put their feet up on your ottoman before you even know what’s happening. They’ll ruin your friendships. They’ll keep you from making new connections. Comparison will eat all your snacks, telling you your friend Steve got a much bigger advance; why didn’t you? What’s wrong with you? Meanwhile, Jealousy’s cleaning out your closet. Don’t look at me, he says. Look at Steve and how many authors are clamoring to blurb his book on Twitter. What’s wrong with yours?
Nothing’s wrong with yours!
The problem is this: unless you’re James Patterson, you’re always going to find someone who is doing better than you—and now that we’re all hanging out on social media for most of the day, it seems like those people are everywhere.
And you can’t get jealous of these people. You can’t compare yourself to Steve and James and everyone else who seems to have a better deal, a bigger advance, a more interesting life. You just have to take a breath, say “oh, how nice for them,” and turn back to your own paper.
It’s not a question of being kind. It’s a question of survival.
Comparing yourself to authors who are doing objectively than you is a losing game. You literally cannot win, because there’s really nothing objective about this business. Advances are complex calculations that have to take into account variables that will be different for each and every debut author. Steve’s advance is not your advance because his book is not your book and his life is not your life. When Comparison whispers in your ear, she’s not telling you that the other publisher is using an entirely different calculus.
Publicity, too, is a crapshoot—what’s trendy and popular when your book is signed may be yesterday’s news by the time the book is published a year later. Even if you and Steve are publishing in the same subgenre, your books will likely intrigue different journalists and different publications. Different publishers have different priorities, and slate books that do different things. (I’m using the word different a lot in this paragraph, but it’s important). Tor loved the pace of my book, which runs like a bullet train. Other publishers said no to it, because they prefer, say, a cross-country Amtrak, or, heck, a car, and not a train at all. That doesn’t say objectively better. It says subjectively different.
You can’t put a value judgment on different. I mean, Jealousy wants you to, but by the time you get down the list of all the things that might be different than you and Stephen, it’s like that old saw—comparing apples to oranges. Both are delicious. Both are nutritious. Both are fruit. But is one objectively better?
And social media? We all know that’s entirely a smoke-and-mirrors game, but we don’t like to admit it, do we? Even the most influential influencer has problems, and guess what—those of us who click “like” on their photos will never know what those problems are. Maybe that cool author having drinks with the literary elite is blocked on their sequel. Maybe that rising star posting from their ten-city book tour is having problems at home. Comparing your own blooper reel to someone else’s Oscar highlight submission will get you nowhere.
It’s all subjective.
What can you control? You can control the words you put down on the paper. You can control, to a point, how hard and how efficiently you work. You can control the edits you send to your editor. You can do as much publicity as possible. You can write the next book so it’s ready when your next opportunity comes along. You can pay attention to your own work, your own path, your own stuff. After that, if you’re going traditional, it’s largely about throwing the dice, then riding the wave.
And if you’re looking at someone else’s wave, you’re gonna crash.
That’s why I think the path to happiness as an author, and especially when you’re in your debut year, is to congratulate Steve and then turn your eyes back to your own paper. (In fact, throw the guy a party. He deserves it. He did good.)
You will, too.