Rats with Islands: How To Survive Your Publishing Career

My plan was to make this column about the realities of publishing, giving you all a head’s up on what you’re about to face. Then I realized that was a remarkably bad idea.

Here’s the thing about reality: It’s not good for you. They did a study on depressives, testing them to see how out of touch with the truth they were. The plan was to help these people by showing them that their fears and their depression were based on unrealistic views of life as compared to optimists who were realistic about their futures. What they found was that depressives actually had a better grasp on reality than optimists. That’s why they were depressed. And depressed people tend to write crummy fiction. I know, I was depressed for two years, and the stuff I wrote was unpublishable.

I think Trudy the Bag Lady in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe says it best. Trudy, once a high level advertising executive, has completely lost her mind and she feels much better because of it. As she puts it, “I made some studies, and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it. I can take it in small doses, but as a lifestyle, I found it too confining. It was just too needful; it expected me to be there for it all the time, and with all I have to do–I had to let something go.”

But, you ask, how I can let reality go, don’t I need to face reality in order to survive in publishing? First, what has reality ever done for you? You write fiction, for heaven’s sake, reality has never been your strong suit. Second, whose reality? I understand there were several realistic editor panels at National that depressed the hell out of people because the editors were so brutal. Well, it’s a brutal business, folks, but what does that have to do with you? According to conventional wisdom, only one in a thousand writers who submit get published. Is your reality that you’re one of the 999, or the one who gets published? Don’t tell me it’s unrealistic to assume you’re the one who gets the call, because it sure wasn’t unrealistic for the ones who did get the calls. I also understand that some people complained and asked for kinder, gentler editor panels. These are people who want their reality pre-chewed, the “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” bunch. That’s not what you need to build your own reality, you need to say, “You tell me the truth as you see it, and I’ll decide if that works for me.” Listen to what people have to say, take what you can use to help you achieve your goal, and reject the rest of it. If it’s too confining, if it’s too needful, do a Trudy, and let it go.

Because here’s the thing about making your own reality: Everybody else is doing it, too. Your choice is not between some Ultimate Truth and Your Illusions, it’s between Conventional Wisdom and What You Know in Your Heart. And Conventional Wisdom is not only a bully, it’s wrong about fifty percent of the time because CW is based on what happened yesterday, not what’s going on now. Which means that your reality is as good as theirs, if not better.

Still don’t believe me? Well, they did a study on that, too. They–it’s always “they”–got two tanks of water which they colored with milk so that the water was opaque. In one tank they put an island just under the surface; the other tank was islandless. Then they dropped rats into the tanks. In the tank with the island, the rats eventually found a place to stand that kept their heads above water even though they couldn’t see it. In the other tank, there was no island and all the rats sank (whereupon they were rescued by lab technicians).

The next day it was back in the tank for everybody with one big difference: neither tank had an island. And what they learned was that the rats that had found an island the day before swam twice as long as the rats that had sunk the day before. They were all in the same boat, well, tank, but the rats that believed there was an island lasted twice as long. What does that mean? According to Susan Vaughn, an associate professor of psychiatry and the author of “Half Empty, Half Full” (the book where I got all these great studies), it’s the perception of being in control, not the reality, that determines our success in navigating the world. That’s why the rats kept swimming; their perception was that they were okay, that there was an island some place, damn it, and they were going to reach it.

When I read about this study, my first thought was, “Thank God, I’m not a rat.” Then I realized I was. Because I believe that Vaughn is right, that what separates the successful writers with long term careers from those who don’t make it is that the successful writers have the perception that they’re in control, that if they keep going, somebody will finally see the greatness of their stories. In short, successful writers are rats with islands. They can’t see the island, they have no logical reason for thinking there’s an island, but as God is their witness, they know there’s one somewhere and they’re going to keep swimming until they find it.

Take Debbie Macomber who survived eight years of humiliation and rejection before she sold, yet never gave up. I think it’s safe to say that Debbie and Reality were not close pals. I think it’s also safe to say that Debbie had an island, which now, thanks to multiple bestsellers, has cabana boys and a yacht. Or there’s Diana Gabaldon who wrote a six-hundred-page book (nobody reads six-hundred-page books) about a WWII nurse (WWII romances never sell) that was a time-travel (and time-travels were poison at the time). Diana’s island now has cabana boys in kilts. Or my favorite story, Golden Henning, who worked for twenty-five years, through the deaths of her mother and two husbands, who never gave up and who in 2004, finished her book “Song of Promise” and published it with Xlibris Press. “Oh, wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “That’s self-publishing, it doesn’t count.” By whose reality? Yours, maybe, but not Golden’s. I’ve met Golden, I have seen Golden’s face, and I’m here to tell you that Golden not only has an island, it’s an amazing place full of perfect grandchildren and cabana boys. Stop raining your reality on Golden and go make your own island.

Because that’s what’s going to make the difference for you. Take me, for example. Last year, in the midst of a major burn-out, I started collaborating on a book with a guy. Nobody thought it was going to work because there’s this impression floating around that I am controlling and opinionated (tsk) and because Conventional Wisdom says that collaborations that are not hidden behind a single pseudonym sell 60% of a book written under one of the author’s solo names. (CW also says that you never tell anybody that CW says the book will only sell 60%, which pretty much tells you how tight CW and I are.) The thing was, though, this was a really good collaboration and the book it produced was not only exciting to write but great to read (IMHO). So now Reality and I are facing off, but it’s okay because I have an island. On this island, people look at a book with a male and female writer listed on the cover and think, “Wow, both genders’ points of view, gotta have it.” On this island, the word of mouth is terrific and the book sells 110% of what a solo author book would sell. On this island, editors all over New York read it, see the sales, and grab their assistants, saying, “Get me a male/female collaboration, stat!”

Is this realistic? I don’t know. Better yet, I don’t care, I know it’s right , and it’s so worth swimming for that it doesn’t matter if I get to the island or not. It’s the same for you. So you’re building your island based on unrealistic dreams and convictions made of thin air. What’s the worst that can happen? You never get published or the book of your heart tanks, and you never reach your goal, but at the end of your life you look back and say, “I had a dream and I fought for it, I believed in myself and my work, and I never, ever gave up.” That’s a life well lived, folks, a helluva lot better than, “I had a dream but it wasn’t realistic so I quit and watched television.” Do not let reality push you around, do not be sensible and kill your own dreams, and for the love of God do not let people who are only guessing about what’s going to happen next tell you that you’re a fool for believing in yourself and your stories.

You want my advice on how to survive a publishing career?

Be a rat with an island.

I’ll see you in the water.

Jenny Crusie’s next book is a collaboration with Bob Mayer called Don’t Look Down , out in May of 2006. She is looking forward to the cabana boys.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. October 2005.