When you traditionally publish a novel, you enter into a tacit agreement. You can no longer speak of wanting more. Millions of unpublished writers would love to trade spots with you. They yearn to have your one agent, your one published book, your one award nomination.
And, you, published writer? It’s unseemly to want more. So you bottle up your writing/career frustrations, mentioning them only to other authors, in back rooms, in the dark–and only on the third Sunday of every month.
It’s only after the long, dark haul that you can bring these frustrations into the light, and then, as an afterthought: I’ve achieved this new thing–and here are the struggles I went through to get there.
Thing is, shedding light on the dark times, while we’re in them, might help all writers. Whether it’s a matter of craft or career–or both–anyone can hit a plateau.
I reached this particular plateau with my writing partner Darcy Vance on May 19, 2009. That was when The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading was released. But on the last leg of the climb up, I hurt myself. So while Darcy danced around the campfire and other writers sprinted past and scaled greater heights, I nursed my injuries inside my tent.
(In real life, right after our book launch, I got terribly sick, lost twenty pounds in less than two weeks, and couldn’t leave the house for a while. Eventually I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.)
Darcy would circle around, pausing in her joy of being a publish author, to check on me. My mom worried too. I plastered my perky YA author smile on my face and pretended everything was okay.
Three years later, and I’m still on the same plateau. Oh, sure, I’ve left my tent. I’ve tried on some new equipment. I’ve taken a few test runs, explored a path all of us (me, Darcy, our agent) knew might result in a dead-end. Eventually it did. But I haven’t left the plateau.
Some writers settle here, seemingly happy with where they are and what they’re doing. Others sulk in their tents, bitter, resentful, and cold. A few find their way back down the mountain.
Some of us take on that cliff wall, skin scraping, fingertips bloodied, only to fall off at the slightest bump against our shoulder. A rejection hurts more than it should at this point in our journey; a casual comment meant to help derails us for a week.
Here’s the thing about scaling this writing mountain: At first, you run so fast. Sure, you might stumble and skin your knee, but you’re up again quick, ready to tackle the next foothill. It feels great, like you never want to stop running. Then the slope gets steeper. Sometimes the path isn’t so clear and you run straight into a cliff wall.
There’s a first plateau where, I think, a lot of writers get stuck. They run up to it quickly, stop to catch their breath, then never continue. Or they circle back around, running up and down that part of the mountain–starting and stopping, starting and stopping. Their battle cry is usually, “This time I won’t let real life get in the way.”
But real life–or something that resembles it–always does.
But there are things–good things–you can do while stuck on any plateau:
Get a resupply from base camp: You can only subsist on reconstituted freeze-dried meals and trail mix for so long. In writing terms, remember to refill the creative well. Read (not just fiction, but rich and varied nonfiction), watch movies and documentaries, go to museums. Take a walk; take care of your body.
Weigh all options: The well-worn, obvious path may not be the one for you. Maybe you need to go around instead of over. Or maybe you need to tunnel through. The publishing landscape is changing and shifting all the time. What’s impossible today might be standard procedure tomorrow.
Heal and rest: Sure, you might be able to continue to the next level, but if you’re injured or exhausted, stop for a bit to rest or heal. Otherwise, you might find yourself tumbling back down and landing hard–maybe too hard to get back up again. Besides, the race isn’t always to the swiftest, and it isn’t really a contest to begin with.
Lend a hand: If you’re on a plateau–any plateau–you can see things writers below you can’t. Don’t kick rocks at them. Instead, lean down and offer your hand. They may do the same for you someday. And if that particular writer is the sort who kicks rocks at others? Not your concern. It’s why avalanches exist.
Start from scratch: Give yourself permission to try something new and unrelated to your main goal of scaling the mountain–hang-glide, rappel. Or in writing terms, take a poetry class, write a screenplay, try flash fiction. It will remind you of what it’s like to have that beginner’s mind, where nothing is impossible.
I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be capable enough to leave this plateau I’m on. Sometimes I think not only don’t I have the skills to climb higher, I’ve lost the skills I had to reach this place. My pack feels heavier. It’s filled with expectations (mostly my own) of what I must do.
But there’s one more thing you can do while waiting on a plateau:
Enjoy the view.
(And don’t kick rocks.)