(First published January 2011 in the ROMANCE WRITERS’ REPORT)
Please forgive the rather sensational title. We all know that, in this business, there’s no such thing as a “Has-Been.” Anyone who has rung the bell is perfectly capable of ringing it again.
That being said, a few of us have been swinging mightily on the rope for some time now, with no corresponding carillon breaking out overhead. And amid the deafening silence, doubts creep in. It’s impossible not to wonder: Am I a Has-Been?
I hope this question is not keeping you awake at night. If your career is humming along quite nicely, thank you, you have my permission to skim this article. I will not even take it amiss if you pat yourself on the back and move on. But if you are still climbing the path to publication, or have newly arrived, you may find it useful. In a cautionary way.
I am addressing RWA members who fall into neither of those categories. They are neither newbies, nor are they “humming along.” They form a lonely, neglected subset of RWA’s membership: the “Once-Successful Authors.”
These authors are not unsuccessful. They are PAN members. Some were RITA nominees in the not-so-distant past. Some may have even won that coveted statuette and doubtless polish it daily to remind themselves of their glory days.
But the glory days have come and gone.
Once-Successful Authors attend conferences with a rather forced air of nonchalance, greeting their successful friends with strained smiles. They look … hungry. Some of them seem bewildered and depressed. Others are raucous, defiant and devil-may-care. None of them are fooling anybody. They once were in, and now, for whatever reason, they’re out. And everybody knows it.
Do not blame these authors if they seem to be in a state of denial. It’s difficult to gauge whether you are, in fact, a Has-Been. You may be experiencing a mere bump in the road. Perhaps you will quickly resume your meteoric rise. Everyone knows that if a Once-Successful Author is brilliant—and lucky—the glory days return. Many of the Once-Successful Authors you saw smiling through gritted teeth at the last RWA will recover their aplomb by the next conference. But some of them won’t.
Because some of them are Has-Beens. And, absent a miracle, they will never get published again.
If you suspect that you may be a Has-Been—or if you wish to avoid becoming one—check yourself for these seven habits. It only takes one or two of them to derail your career. If you have all seven habits, congratulations! You must be a terrific writer. Otherwise, no one would have published you in the first place.
Are your advances inadequate? Are they so low, in fact, that they are practically insulting? Patience, grasshopper. If you have been underpaid for your masterpieces, your books will quickly earn out and bring you mucho dinero down the road. You will also get another contract, because your numbers will look really, really good.
And if this doesn’t happen—if your books do not earn out quickly, or at all— alas, grasshopper, you were wrong about the value of your work, and your stingy publisher was right.
This is a bitter pill to swallow, so you will still (probably) blame your publisher. And you may be justified in doing so, for any number of reasons. The Powers That Be may have given you a print run so tiny that it was mathematically impossible for your book to earn out. They may have given you a hideous cover, and/or priced the book wrong, and/or misinformed the market about the nature of your book, thus ensuring that it was inadequately ordered and improperly shelved. And if your publisher has, in fact, underpaid you, stupidly shot itself in the foot, robbed itself—and you—of a surefire bestseller, and sabotaged your career? Still I caution you: patience.
Your author friends will tell you that a big advance would have forced the publisher to support your book. Under this theory, your wonderful book went down in flames because your advance was small. Well, maybe. But a big advance can also be a career-killer. We all know authors who received enviable advances for books that were respectably received—good books, books that sold well—but “respectable” and “well” won’t get you another contract if your advance was “enviable.” So beware.
I know you feel restless and resentful. You would dearly love to jump ship and write for that publisher your author friends rave about, the one with the clear career path and the fabulous, supportive editors and the terrific marketing. Nevertheless, don’t abandon the ship you are on unless you actually see that other ship off the starboard bow, signaling you. And even then, wear a life jacket.
And a wet suit. Because it’s mighty cold down in those waters, if you jump off one ship and fail to land in the other.
Do you wait for inspiration to strike … and wait and wait and wait? Has-Beens (and authors on their way to becoming Has-Beens) often tell themselves that they work better under pressure. They play “chicken” with deadlines, never rolling up their sleeves until it’s all-but-impossible to finish the work on time. They fritter their lives away on Facebook and twitter them away on, well, Twitter. They make excuses. They read instead of write, and call it research. Watch TV instead of write, and call it research. Garden instead of write, and call it recharging their batteries. Blog instead of write, and call it building a platform. They do anything, anything, other than write. And in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter what they call these various distractions, because they have no product to sell.
If you recognize yourself in this pattern, what’s really paralyzing you may not be laziness, per se. You may be blocked with fear—fear of success or fear of failure; it really doesn’t matter. Fear is fear. Or you may be suffering depression. It would be cruel to chide you if your palms sweat at the thought of writing. That’s not laziness. But if the behavior is the same, the result will be the same: no product.
The bottom line: If you don’t find a way through whatever is standing between you and that keyboard, your career will founder.
This habit really shines at RWA’s national conference. The other rude things you’ve done this year—the snarky phone messages to your editor, the snarkier emails to your agent, that time you stood up your writer friend because you had a better invitation from a more famous writer friend—that’s small potatoes. Put you in a hotel with two thousand compatriots and you can really go to town. You can cut ahead of people in line. “Save” the elevator. Monopolize conversations. Complain about all the walking. Complain about the schedule. Complain about the food. Complain, complain, complain. Wear perfume, because since nobody else is wearing perfume, your little ol’ perfume can’t possibly hurt. When the stack of free books has dwindled to a handful, take two anyway, because if other people wanted one they should have shown up earlier. Then choose a moment to look around a huge room teeming with writers and wonder (aloud): “Why are there so many fat people here?” (Because writing is a sedentary occupation, you nasty little …!! – But I digress.)
You’ll be the talk of the conference. And isn’t that really what RWA is for?
No, seriously, you need to get a handle on this career-killing habit. Don’t alienate people who can make or break you in this business, or your star will fizzle out, and fizzle fast.
Gosh, it’s fun to be “in the know.” Once-Successful Authors know a lot of things. Even if you are on the very fringes of publishing, you can easily find writer friends who are farther out of the loop than you are. Sometimes you can actually be useful to these other writers, act as a mentor and so forth—but isn’t it more fun to just, well, gossip? They’ll hang on your every syllable as you relate the juicy details of your editor’s messy divorce or your agent’s gall bladder disease. Be sure to tell them who just got fired, and why, over at Publisher X. Remember, you’re talking to nobodies. It’ll never get back to your editor, or your agent, or the poor soul who just got fired at Publisher X (but is about to become a mover and shaker over at Publisher Y). They’ll never know that you spread tales about them or laughed at their misfortune. Right?
Has-Beens make promises they do not keep. They are late for appointments. They are slow to respond to emails. They forget to call back. They miss deadlines.
They let people down.
If you are new to the world of publishing, your agent and editor may chalk it up to inexperience and help you find your feet. But once your unreliability becomes identified as a habit, watch out. Your agent probably has other clients, clients who do not embarrass him. Clients for whom she does not have to apologize or make excuses. Your agent has a career of his/her own, and a reputation to maintain in the industry, and your bad habit may be dragging your agent down. Meanwhile, your editor will quickly weary of the chaos that follows in your wake as your unreliability forces other projects to be juggled and rejuggled.
Don’t embarrass your agent. Don’t inconvenience your editor. Each time you do, you will be pushed farther and farther outside their circle of trust.
Everybody knows how hard it is to get published. When you reach that pinnacle, it may go to your head. This is a delightful sensation, and at first people will tolerate your giddy boasting because it’s kind of cute. Also because they hope to be there someday (or have been there themselves) and trust that others will tolerate it when it’s their turn.
Just don’t let it become a habit.
Yes, you rock. Yes, your work is fabulous and you are receiving fan mail and your family is proud of you and your friends throw parties for you and on and on and on. Some of the fan mail is gratifyingly gushy. You have touched the hearts of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of readers. You have comforted the grieving, lifted deep depressions, ministered to the dying and the sad and the anxious and the bored. But you’d better get over yourself, because a lot of other romance writers have stood where you’re standing. The ones who got right back to work are still standing there. The ones who rested on their laurels? Well, they’re probably Has-Beens.
It’s no secret that an attitude of gratitude is key to earthly happiness. Yet somehow, in our careers, we fail to perceive its importance. In fact, we are suspicious of it. Nobody wants to be a pushover. If you are thankful for whatever you receive, won’t you receive less?
Maybe so. Maybe not. Niceness can get you pretty far in life. Publishing houses may be faceless monoliths, but they are run by people. Your manuscripts will be read by individuals. Decisions on whether to buy your manuscript—or not—will be made by individuals. Don’t these people deserve your thanks? They are investing their time and effort and a lot of careful thought. Even if they say no, don’t you want them to feel a sense of regret as they turn you down? Thank them. Show a little appreciation.
This is not rocket science, folks. Be somebody that other people want to work with. Be an author that editors wish they could buy. Yes, this is largely dependent on the work you submit, but people are only human. All things being equal—and remember, judgments about art are subjective, so all things are never equal—they will want to choose a manuscript written by a nice person instead of a manuscript written by a person who is a pain in the neck. Which is why, if you are habitually a pain in the neck, you may be already be a Has-Been.
So there you have it. The Seven Habits: Greed, Laziness, Rudeness, Blabbing, Unreliability, Pride and Ingratitude. Everyone probably exhibits these unpleasant traits from time to time, but if you do a little soul-searching and discover that one or two (or more) are becoming habits of yours, I urge you to take a few deep, calming breaths and reassess your priorities.
How badly do you want this writing career? You’ve put an awful lot into it. Why sabotage it with your own careless habits?
Some of the seven habits run in packs. Rudeness, for example, is often paired with Blabbing. Laziness and Unreliability go hand-in-hand. The trick is to ferret out these nasty little career-killers and nip them in the bud.
The first step in curing any bad habit is to recognize that it is a habit. Once you are on the look-out for it, you’ll catch yourself in the act—repeatedly, much to your chagrin. Do not despair. An awareness of what you are doing is an irritating, but necessary, part of the cure. Now that you are aware of the pattern in yourself, you will consciously begin to correct it as it occurs. Eventually you will correct it before it occurs. And finally, it will stop occurring—or at least will stop habitually occurring. (Remember, these are human traits that everyone exhibits occasionally.)
Good luck, and get going! And one final word: if you never find yourself at the top again, you should still hold your head high and smile. Because it’s still better to be a Has-Been than a Never-Was.