Jim C Hines: Despair


Codex-Born-Full-185x300-Jim-C-HinesMore than a decade later, I vividly remember the lowest point in my writing career.

It wasn’t really a point so much as it was a line stretching downward over several months like one of those profit/loss graphs you see right before someone throws themselves out a window. It began in late 2002 with an offer from a major publisher, something I had been dreaming about for seven years. After hundreds of rejection letters and countless manuscripts, someone wanted to buy my book about a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet spider fighting against those obnoxious adventurers.

And then, after a number of increasingly unpleasant interactions, the publisher withdrew the offer. It turned out that newbie me had violated an unspoken rule of etiquette for this particular publisher. (My agent was shocked as well, so looking back, I don’t feel too bad for not knowing this individual’s quirk.)

At this point, a logical, rational being would note that perhaps this individual wasn’t someone I wanted to work with. Furthermore, getting an offer from a major publisher proved I was capable of writing professional, publishable novels, which meant I’d either sell Goblin Quest to another publisher (which I eventually did), or else I’d write a new book and break in that way.

The problem is, I’m not a logical, rational being. I’m an author. And I was crushed.

The goblin book had been rejected by several other big publishers, and I was convinced I had blown my one and only shot. I would never be a writer. From that moment onward, I would be branded as a Failure, my utter worthlessness as a human being clearly visible to all who looked upon me.

The Black Cloud of Despair™ lasted for about two months, at which point my son was born, and suddenly I had something more important (and cuter) to focus on. It was an effective way of escaping the BCoD, but not one that would be practical to use too often.

That wasn’t the only bleak period I’ve gone through since setting out to be a writer. In some ways, the BCoD feels almost inevitable. Writers tend to be very passionate about our work. We invest so much in our stories. This whole process is incredibly personal.

And none of us are born knowing how to write, which means that sometimes we’re going to fail. Writing is a process and a struggle, one that tends to be full of rejection. There are times it all comes crashing down. For example:

  • My first rejection letter. It was a mark of pride, but it also crushed my naïve belief that I was a genius whose work would be instantly successful. Total bummer, dude!
  • Watching other writers who started out at the same time as me break in with short story and novel sales when I was still getting rejected. I was happy for my friends (for most of them, at least), but it was discouraging to see them succeed and be unable to understand why I couldn’t do the same.
  • Watching younger writers break in and start outselling me. This one can send me into the spiral of questioning why I’m not a better, more successful writer. What am I doing wrong?
  • Seeing sales of a series drop off. Sales of my fourth Princess book were significantly worse than the others, and I don’t know why. It’s depressing to see people’s interest fall off, and the only consolation here is that the dropoff didn’t happen earlier and cancel the series before I could finish.
  • And then there’s pretty much every single book I write, right around the 25,000 – 30,000 word mark. That’s where things all fall apart, and I feel like every other book I’ve done has been a fluke, and now the world will see the Real Failure that is me.

We don’t talk much about the despair, at least not publicly. I think there’s this belief that authors should project an air of confidence, because if we ever admit our neuroses we’ll drive away all of our fans and readers and then nobody will buy our books, and suddenly we’re back in the Black Cloud of Despair™, and oh God this blog post is going to be the one that destroys my career, isn’t it? Why oh why didn’t I write about rainbow-farting unicorns? Quick – go look at some cats!

But do you want to know a secret? Get a writer somewhere quiet, and most of us will admit to having had some bad times. Pretty much every long-term I’ve talked to has described at least one time they thought their career was over. Even #1 NYT Bestselling Authors get times of feeling like a fraud or a failure.

The BCoD does not discriminate.

I think that’s the point I want to make. If you’ve fallen into the Black Cloud of Despair™, you’re not alone. I’ve been there. I’ll be there again. So have a lot of other writers.

There’s no quick fix, no switch you can flip to make everything all better. But I have found a few things that seem to help me escape the cloud more quickly, before it becomes quite as suffocating…

  • Recognize you’re not alone.
  • Talk to other writers. You can talk to anyone, of course, but other writers get it. They’ve been there, and they know what you’re going through.
  • Ice cream. (Feel free to substitute the indulgence of your choice.) Writing is hard. You deserve the occasional reward.
  • Recognize that this is part of the process, and that this too will pass. For example, the 25-30K phase of the novel sucks, but I’ve done this enough to know I’ll eventually get to the phase where things start to come together, and that’s one of the best feelings in the world.
  • Remember the high points, whatever they might be. For me, it’s holding a new book in my hands or reading fan mail or thinking about that one perfect scene that made me feel like the badassiest author in the whole damn world. (And yes, badassiest is totally a word!)
  • Just keep writing. Because maybe today life sucks and I’m stuck and I’ll never make the NYT Bestseller list or win a Nebula or get a movie deal and I still have to go to my day job tomorrow and the dog took a dump in the bedroom again, but by God, I got 500 words written today, and that’s a Victory! Take that, universe!

Writing is a rough gig. Take care of yourself, and know you’re not alone.


Jim-C-Hines-photoJim C. Hines’ first novel was Goblin Quest, the humorous tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. Actor and author Wil Wheaton described the book as “too f***ing cool for words,” which is pretty much the Best Blurb Ever. After finishing the goblin trilogy, he went on to write the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, and is currently working on the Magic ex Libris books, a modern-day fantasy series about a magic-wielding librarian, a dryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. His short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies.

Jim is an active blogger about topics ranging from sexism and harassment to zombie-themed Christmas carols, and won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2012. He has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in English, and lives with his wife and two children in mid-Michigan. You can find him online at www.jimchines.com.

Other Links
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jimchines
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