Saturday, January 12, 2013

Writer's Envy, redux

I almost have some good news to tell you about. I’ve been offered a contract from a publisher I like, for a novel I wrote, and it may be coming out in the fall of this year. I’m almost thrilled, but I’m too superstitious to say more at this point, because I don’t yet have a signed contract in hand. So I won’t tell you the title of the book, or what it’s about, or who the publisher is. I hope to be breaking all this news to you soon.
The prospect of having another book published is always an upper. It makes up for the downside, the steady trickle of rejection that tends to erode the spirit.) This brings to mind an essay I wrote a couple of years ago, and I’m taking this opportunity to rewrite it and re-present it. It’s called “Writer’s Envy.”

Disclaimer: the intended audience for this essay, when I wrote it, was my students in an adult ed creative writing class. I realize that many if not most of the writers who read this blog probably don't need my advice, or anyone's advice, on this subject. 

Uh…congratulations. I mean, CONGRATULATIONS! I mean….
Okay, so your friend (your ex-husband, your old girlfriend, your colleague, your client, your dentist…) has just had a book published. How do you feel about that?

Terrific! Isn’t that great! And to think he’s come so far in so little time. Whoever thought she’d….

No, really. How do you feel?


How come she got published before I did? I’ve read that manuscript and I even offered some good advice on how to make it better, which he ignored, by the way. So why is she in print, why is he on the New York Times bestseller list, when here I am, every bit as good a writer, still….


Okay, okay, I hear you, but stop. Be cool.

Let’s face it: you are a writer, so naturally you want to be published. You have a friend who got published. You wonder what that will do for you, once you get over feeling jealous. Of course you do. The entire world is about you, right? I don’t mean that as a put-down. It’s just part of human nature.

Here is something true about making it as a writer, whether you define “making it” as getting on “All Things Considered,” selling out to Hollywood, taking up long-term residence on the New York Times bestsellers list, or simply having your pieces published in small press literary journals or church bulletins. There are three ingredients to success in writing: talent, hard work, and luck.

Don’t doubt your talent. If you love to write, you are talented.

Hard work is something you can do. If you can’t (if there’s always something that comes first—a garden to weed, pencils to sharpen, kids to drive to soccer practice, a sick husband who needs to go to the emergency room), then you’re probably not a real writer and you don’t have talent. But if you place writing above all else, then you will put in the hours.

What about luck? You can’t change your luck, but you can increase your odds. One way is to listen to coincidences. If you have a friend who’s lucky, maybe some of that luck will rub off on you. So don’t feel jealous. This coincidence is an opportunity in disguise.

But don’t blow it.

Here are a bunch of rules, do’s and don’ts under the circumstances. A lot of these rules are worth knowing even if you’re not an envious writer. A lot of them are just common courtesy and sensitivity to people’s feelings.

1. Buy your friend’s book. Buy it in its first edition, even if that means buying a hardback book. Spend your money. You have no idea (actually you probably do have an idea) what a gesture of friendship that simple act is.

Extra credit: buy the book from an independent bookstore or directly from the publisher, rather than from Borders or from Why? Because you’ll be supporting independent bookselling, which is good for writers, readers, and modern culture.

2. Having bought the book, go to your local library and make sure they have the book on their shelves. If they don’t, request that they acquire it. This is a bit underhanded, because you don’t really need it to be in the library (you already own a copy), but it will be good for the author and think of all the other people who will enjoy the book.

3. Read the book. That’s the reason you bought the book, right? Even if it’s not the reason, read it anyway. You might really like it.

Extra credit: Go out and buy more copies of the book to give away as gifts.

4. If you like the book, let the author know you like it. Be generous with your compliments, and make sure the praise has no strings attached. You’ll be winning points in heaven by giving this friend of yours the thing he or she wants most: appreciation.

Extra credit: Write a charming letter, note, or e-mail to the author’s agent and editor, complimenting them on their taste and express your thanks that they have done such good work for your friend. Do this without mentioning that you, too, are a writer.


1. Don’t ask the author for a fee copy of the book. Don’t even hint: don’t say, “Gee, I’d sure like to read that book,” or “What do I have to do to get an autographed copy?” Why? Because the author has had to pay for every book in his possession (except a few freebies specified in his contract with the publisher).

2. Don’t offer to buy the book from the author and then ask for a discount or a “bro deal.” An author is in business now. He’s a professional. Don’t ask for special favors. He did you enough of a favor by writing the book.

3. Don’t ask the author to introduce you to her agent or her publisher or her editor. Don’t even hint (“Are you happy with your agent?” “How is that publisher to work with?”). The author may wish to be generous with such information; after all, she’s your friend so she knows you’re a writer. But if she hasn’t done so yet, she may not be so inclined.

4. Don’t use your friend’s name without his permission. Don’t say, “My friend likes my book and since you represent him, you might like it too.” You may say, if it’s true, “My friend speaks highly of you, so I thought I’d ask....”

5. Okay, so you’ve read the book. Maybe you don’t like it as much as you wish you did, or, to be honest, maybe you don’t think the book is as good as your own. Or maybe your only way of responding to somebody else’s book is to notice where it could have been better. These are all examples of human nature, and especially of the writer’s nature. Nevertheless:

Don’t tell your friend that you didn’t like the book, or that you liked the book except for that part about..., or that the only thing wrong with the book was..., or anything, anything negative about his book. Don’t even point out typos. For one thing, there’s a good chance your motives are not pure. What you’re offering is not helpful criticism, even if you’d like it to look like that. Think about it: even if your motives are pure, and you’re offering suggestions for improvement that the author should be grateful for, what good are those suggestions, now that the book is already in print?

6. If you haven’t read the book, don’t try to fake it. Don’t give the author generic meaningless praise that you don’t mean. You won’t get away with it. If you say, “I couldn’t put it down” or “I read it in a single sitting,” and the book’s 100,000 words long, your pants will be on fire.

Finally, a few reminders:
Remember that friendship is far more important than getting published. If you exploit a friendship to advance your own ambition, you’ll be risking something of great value.

Remember that the writing game is not a competition. The fact that your friend got published does not decrease your chances of being published too. Your association with your published friend may even help your career, but only if you put friendship before career.

Unfortunately, you must also remember that there’s a good chance you won’t be published, not ever. I’m sorry to write those words, but it’s just a matter of reality. Not every writer gets published, and that’s a good thing. Not even every good writer gets published, and that’s a shame. If you, unjustly and unfairly, fall into this group, does that mean you lost, or that you’re a loser, that you should take up macramé instead, that you should have been envious after all?

No. As long as you are a writer, writing because you love to write, you’re a winner. The real joy is in the writing itself. Being published is wonderful, but the true high is in the creation, not in the marketing.

If you don’t believe that, then perhaps you’re not a real writer after all.

But if you’ve read this far, I know you are a real writer, and I know you have talent. So work hard, and good luck

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor!

In the post you’ve just read, I warned against telling a newly published author “I read it in a single sitting.” That comes out of my personal experience. An old friend of mine, who happens to be a distinguished writer published by Knopf, told me that he read my novel Geronimo’s Skull in a single sitting on his new Kindle. The book is 102,138 words long. Either my friend is feeding me a baloney sandwich, or he graduated magna cum laude from Evelyn Wood’s speed-reading course, or he has the world’s biggest, toughest bladder. I’m betting on the baloney sandwich.

So if you happen to read Geronimo’s Skull, don’t tell me you read it in a single sitting. But…I hope you will read Geronimo’s Skull, because it may be the best book I’ve written. Please check out the brag sheet:'s_skull.html


  1. Congrats, John! A publishing contract is a wonderful thing. No envy allowed. My favorite bit of advice (and nobody really wants advice anyway) is the following - never compare your life to anyone else's. Once you take that to heart, you'll never begrudge anyone their luck.

    P.S. Also, always wear sunscreen.

  2. Bill, I find your "favorite bit of advice" wise indeed. As for sunscreen, that's sound advice too, although here on the Redwood Coast the sun is an infrequent visitor.

  3. John, I've said it before, and I'll say it again--we writers are an envious lot. Your suggestions mimic those I've made to others and try to practice. Put a positive spin on that envy. Congratulations on the contract.

    1. John, I like the way you put it: Put a positive spin on that envy. That's judo for the soul.

  4. Sound advice. We've all been there, some of us longer than others. When the envy turns into admiration, we're often graced with the ability to be teachable and become even better writers. Congrats on the soon to be contract. It's so great to be able to say that I know the feeling.

    1. Thanks for the congrats, Theresa. Same to you!

  5. A wise and wonderful post, John. I'm taking the advice and I know several writers who I wish would take it.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tim, and thanks for the comment!

  6. Great blog, John! And very good advice!

    Billie Johnson
    Oak Tree Press

    1. Thank you, Billie. It's great to be working with you!

  7. John--I definitely have the feeling you're going to be "one of us" before too long. Watch out, because "the posse" is a fearsome thing. LOL!

    1. I'm already a proud deputy, Shalanna, and proud to be "one of us"!

  8. John, Congratulations on the contract offer! And your post was right on the money. What a wise many you are. :) Everyone, every author that is, should read this. Thank you!
    Marja McGraw

  9. John,
    I loved this post, especially the part about how wrong it is to point out errors in a book after it has been published. That's just mean! Once it's in print, there's nothing an author can do to "fix" it.

  10. John,

    Congrats on the contract! It's always exciting.

    Good observations.

    One other thing for newer authors - especially those with only one published book, and especially if they paid a LOT of money to get it published - please don't make every single conversation about your book! When you are talking with other authors, it isn't necessary to always steer the conversation back to you! (I have an acquaintance who is being avoided because she is so focused on her own book, she isn't interested in conversation about anything else. No one wants to be collared and lectured to!)

  11. I am on the same page with Pat. I love comments such as, "I loved your book. There were only a few errors in it. I hardly noticed them." Seriously? Why mention it then? And what exactly is an error? A typo? A plot hole? Grammar error?

    I do think jealousy is normal and part of the whole deal and part of human nature. Most of us can't help being jealous of those who have something we want and don't seem to be able to get. I do agree we have to squelch that ugly side of ourselves and try to be happy for the other person, and if we can't genuinely be happy, fake it so they never know. Everyone struggles to get published, nobody's ride is easy and support from our friends and peers is important. Especially when it's their turn to act like they're thrilled that we got published...

  12. Yes, alas and mea culpa, I confess that I envy friends who have made it faster or higher or better than I. The point is, practical etiquette comes in handy at times like these.

  13. Yeah, John. Congratulations on your new contract. Great news. And good advice in your blog, as usual. Fortunately, I'm always pleased to hear when colleagues and students get book contracts. I'm even pleased when they make the decision to self-publish, then see the job through and promote, promote.

  14. You're a fine teacher, Eileen. I know how much your students appreciate your wisdom and your support.

  15. Good blog, John. I completely agree with what you said about characters. You highlighted a theme I have in my new book out from Oak Tree Press this month, Character Development: The Heartbeat of the Novel. That point is -- create memorable characters.

    I enjoy your blogs and always take away some nugget to improve my writing, or my day.