The Marathoner's Guide to Writing: Staying in it for the Long Haul without Losing your Perspective, your Patience, or your Mind

The race to get published can be pure hell, but as someone who's spent more than twelve years and twenty books in the trenches, I can tell you it's a leisurely Sunday stroll compared to the Herculean effort of staying published--and staying sane and healthy while doing so. Of the scores of romance writers I started out with (the Class of '99, we called ourselves), very few remain. Some have dropped out, disillusioned. Others flew high for a time, then crashed down and became embittered. Still others succumbed to insurmountable health or financial problems.

But before I depress you, let me say that there were in fact survivors, just as there are those who have been writing for decades and dozens (sometimes even hundreds) of books longer and are still out there kicking tail and taking names. So what are the distinguishing qualities that enable some to keep working through the ups and downs common to every career? What lessons can those of us who aspire to be marathoners take from their stories? I'll begin by sharing those traits I've noticed, and it's my hope that other writers who've been published for more than ten years will add to the conversation with their own observations.

The long-haul writer...

1. Does not equate publishing success with self-worth.
How can we, when we've seen how fickle the business can be? A writer who's this year's hot property can find herself untouchable next year. Another whose career had seemingly circled the drain years before can suddenly emerge triumphant, then soar to dizzying heights. (This is also a great reason to treat everyone with respect and kindness instead of only sucking up to those you think can do you some good!)

2. Finds the balance between chasing trends and selling out...or starving. Trends come and go too swiftly to be predicted, and too fiercely to be ignored. If one speaks to you, it's fine to create your own take on it--as long as you're bringing something new to the subgenre. But faking an enthusiasm never works well in the long run. The readers always know.

3. Cultivates nurturing friendships with people she genuinely cares about and supports. The key word here is "genuinely." If you're *just* networking, you stand the risk of being perceived as a user. And nobody helps out a user, but they share all sorts of great stuff with their friends.

4. Remains professional. The long-hauler carefully considers her schedule before making commitments and then keeps them. If unforeseen circumstances put on the big squeeze, she deals with the problem promptly and honestly. She avoids public snarkage and gossip, erring on the side of kindness, and treats her business relationships with respect.

5. Never stops striving to do better. The truly committed writer never feels as if she's arrived. She reads constantly and keeps studying the craft, experimenting with techniques, and listening to the likes and dislikes of the fans with whom she seeks to connect. She understands that phoning it it is the quickest route to burn-out.

6. Honors her own pace and process rather than trying to be "the next *insert name of publishing phenom.*"
Each writer works at a unique pace, in a unique way. The marathon writer gets this, and realizes it's not a race to see who can write the most books in the shortest time period, or even the most popular or successful. It's an individual journey, where the writer strives to create a deep and meaningful connection with her readers, to the very best of her ability. Besides that, comparing yourself to others will just drive you crazy.

7. Understands that change is the only constant.
Trends, business models, even people change, pulling the rug out from underneath you at the most inconvenient times. The survivors are the ones who go all Darwin on the problem, adapting and evolving rather than getting endlessly mired in the LaBrea tar pits of Woe Is Me (although a little whining to your friends and a lot of chocolate are to be expected in the moment.)

So what qualities do you feel are most important for the career writer? What lessons can those of us who hope to either join the business or stay in it learn from our genre's veterans? I hope you'll share your own experiences or your questions and comments below.


jink willis said…
Colleen, thanks for the great post. I'm a newbie that appreciates sound advice! Staying in the game is my goal, no matter the finish. :)
ShanaGalen said…
Great suggestions, Colleen. I hope my career is as successful and long-lived as yours.
Julie said…
I'm not published but I've been around a long time. One thing I've noticed is the number of one hit wonders who dropped out of writers groups after publishing. Not sure if they thought they were too good or if they simply checked published off their to do list.
Thanks so much, Jink and Shana (whose career appears to be in fabulous shape!)

Julie, I think there are a few writers who truly only have one story to tell. But in reality, there's a steep learning curve. It's one thing to sell a manuscript you've spent years (and numerous contests and critigue partners) polishing to a fine sheen; it's quite another to do it on demand and on a schedule later and keep up the quality/marketability. Not everyone can manage, and a lot lose heart when an editor leaves (I've been "orphaned" four times this way, and it forces you to sell all over again!), a line folds, or sales are disappointing.
Brandie N. said…
I think that's a fear of mine. It takes so much to get that first manuscript polished and published. What will when I'm on deadline? I have plenty of ideas rolling around in my head, but I'm on a self-impose deadline now and I'm going blank.

Thanks again for another excellent blog post :-)
Something that really helped me, Brandi, was having a second book well under way by the time the first one (my first romance, but not my first manuscripts; I have two short, middle grade children's novels still under the bed) sold and getting myself on a writing schedule with realistic target dates for completion. (I gave myself a year to write a full-length manuscript. Challenging, since I was teaching full time and had a young child at home, but not impossible.) While the first book was being shopped, I tried to emotionally detach from it and throw my hopes to the new book. After all, you never know which one's going to be the one to break through the brick wall.

Everyone's track is very different, though. The important thing to remember Han Solo's "Never tell me the odds!" :)
Deeanne Gist said…
Once I published, my mantra to myself became: *I don't want readers to say, 'I liked her old stuff the best.'* So, I challenged myself to try and make every book better than the last. Because schedule conflicts keep me away from our local chapter much more than I'd like, I purchase the RWA National Conference on DVD and listen to all three discs start to finish in my car. It takes about 8 months to get through them all since sometimes I'm only in the car to run up to the store, but I learn sooooo much. And, alas, I've still so much to learn! Great topic, Colleen.
Love your mantra, Deeanne! I'd be so disappointed in myself if I felt my best writing was behind me. Still have much to learn, too. And those RWA conference tapes are a treasure trove.
HI Collen, who sits by me alphabetically at book signings.

Since I have 11 projects under my belt, and a contract for another one sitting on my desk, I have to say that staying in the game is my goal as well.

I love writing, and I'm still a teacher by day, so I'm blessed to have the best of both worlds right now. I don't take this for granted, believe me. I try to change some things up, tweak my style up a bit, and come up with fresh ideas that inspire me enough to be able to write to deadline after my other job.

Short deadlines are stressful. But that stress is a small price to pay for doing what I love, and hopefully getting better at it so that I can continue doing this great thing called writing.

Happy New Year.
Kay Hudson said…
Well said, Colleen. I may not have sold anything yet, but I'm still here, which is more than I can say for a lot of the women I met when I first joined RWA fifteen years ago. Determined? Stubborn? Clueless? Probably over-committed, too, but still here.
So glad you stopped by, Linda. You always make signings a lot more fun.
I agree that short deadlines can be very stressful. I have found I can pull off one now and again, but stacking them is killer! I always forget to account for revisions, edits, art fact sheets, and real life! Hoping to get better at juggling.
Spreading of which, juggling is an absolutely essential skill!
Thanks, Kay. And being stubborn, determined, and overcommitted is great preparation. But I disagree with the "clueless" part. You're anything but that!
Lynn Lorenz said…
I agree with all of your post, Colleen, especially professionalism and mentoring, but I think you also have to love the stories you're telling. They have to resonate within you, and that has to transfer to the writing.
For me, keeping emotion first and foremost in my characters is key. In my genre (gay romance) we say "It's not the sex, it's the emotion." It keeps readers reading and keeps me writing.
I wake up and can't wait to tell the next story...
So glad you stopped by to offer your $.02, because you've hit on the number #1 factor, IMHO: keeping the joy alive. It's sometimes tough to not to let the day-to-day grind of deadlines and disappointments leach away the pure love of creating and connecting with our readers.

Thank you!
Vicky Dreiling said…
Loved your post, Colleen. In 2009, I attended a PAN panel in which two agents talked about their veteran authors. The topic was all about the long haul. The single most important quality the agents identified in their authors who stayed in the game for years was flexibility. When they hit a rough spot, they were willing to change course.

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