May 8, 2024

Working on a body of work

Writing and publishing can often feel like a series of limbos. So what do you do when you feel forever suspended between an infinitude of probabilities?

Artist studio with canvases and paints Image by Karl Solano from Pexels

If there’s one thing I can confidently say about myself, it’s that I really, really hate living in a state of uncertainty. I can deal with immense amounts of stress and even waiting, if there is a clear issue, or a clear timeline, or both. But just waiting, unsure of what’s going to happen? Literally my kryptonite.

So, of course, modern trade publishing is the game for me! An industry that produces open-ended periods of uncertain waiting like the Dutch produce tulips.

There’s the open-ended limbo of querying. Then the open-ended limbo of being on submission to editors. Then the slightly less open-ended limbo of waiting for your book to come out, which is nevertheless full to the brim with short periods of intense uncertainty, waiting and crossing of fingers. And, of course, the open-ended limbo of waiting to see what happens with the next book, and the book after that, and the foreign rights, and the blog interview that you were sure was meant to go live last week. Open-ended limbo ad infinitum.

It’s taken me a while to discover coping skills and mitigations for this surfeit of suspended, unresolved, ambiguous uncertainty. Because boy howdy do I need it. The first couple of years that I was taking my writing seriously and working towards publication, this endless waiting felt absolutely untenable. But, over time, I’ve mostly figured out how to function in the zone of indeterminate anxiety.

The way I do it is by focusing on the concept of a body of work.

What is a body of work?

I like the image at the top of this page a lot. Canvases, paintings, paintbrushes. A physical studio filled with objects. A tangible, concrete body of work. It’s something that I’ve often envied visual artists - from the moment you first place pencil to paper, you’re creating a series of physical artefacts, showing your progress as an artist and providing clear visual evidence of the effort you’re putting in, both for yourself and others. Visual art can also be seen and appreciated in a heartbeat, making it accessible to a huge audience.

By contrast, writing can seem very insubstantial and ethereal, especially before you have any physical copies of your work. And even once you do have a magazine or a chapbook or a whole novel in your hands, it’s still an artform that relies on a fair amount of upfront commitment: even a 3,000 word short story still takes the better part of half an hour to read for most. A novel can take days or weeks.

But even if it doesn’t quite feel real, it is still your body of work. And this is the mantra I’ve started saying to myself, when the nervous energy inherent in this business makes me feel like I’m going to vibrate right out of my own skin.

Work On Your Body Of Work.

Agonising over which book idea to write next? WOYBOW.

Feeling a bit sad about lack of query responses? WOYBOW.

Not sure if your agent is going to like your next book? WOYBOW.

Chewing your fingernails while you wait for your edit notes? WOYBOW.

Waiting on some possibly life-changing news and feel like your head’s going to explode? WOYBOW.

What the hell is WOYBOW?

What do I mean by work on your body of work? It’s a bit of a reframing exercise. When I’m thinking about the particular piece of writing in front of me (whether it’s a blog post, a short story, a screenplay, a novel or anything else) as the only piece of writing that matters, it makes everything feel like life-or-death, make-or-break. The stakes feel incredibly high in that moment. And when you drop that kind of self-imposed pressure into the swirling pool of open-ended limbos that the publishing process creates, that’s a recipe for grinding to a halt, or at least being completely miserable.

By contrast, when you are working on filling that artist studio with canvases, in creating a lasting body of work for others to enjoy, the relative stakes of any one piece of art drop. And when that happens, it is far, far easier to produce a lot of work and to make it good work into the bargain.

It’s also really quite startling how quickly a body of work can accumulate, once you stop focusing on individual pieces and start focusing on trying lots of things and writing lots of words. One minute you’ve got a handful of completed short stories you can’t sell anywhere. Then you look up and you’ve got hundreds of thousands of words of material. I guarantee you, it will happen faster than you think.

By handy coincidence, working on your body of work is not just an immediate coping strategy. It’s also a sound career strategy for the long term.

The Amazing Cumulative Lottery Ticket

When people are critiquing the publishing industry, comparisons are often made to lotteries - millions of people getting nothing, a few tens of thousands getting the equivalent of scratchcard winnings, a few dozen taking home a reasonable amount and one or two raking in millions.

It’s a tempting metaphor, because it seems to fit the outcome curve very well - a classic hockey-stick distribution of good fortune, with vanishingly few at the high end. But there’s one big difference between a true, random-chance lottery system and the publishing industry.

And that difference is, you guessed it - a body of work.

In this metaphor, you buy’ lottery tickets by finishing pieces of work. Now, completing a 100,000 word novel is hardly the same as handing over a few quid for your lottery ticket in the local newsagent, but stick with me here. In the lottery, you pay your money and you take your chance - one throw of the dice to see if you’ll get lucky that week. If you don’t win, that ticket is a bust. You can play the same numbers week after week, but statistically, there’s zero increased likelihood of a win.

In publishing, that ticket has value, even if it wasn’t the lottery winner. Books get published, people enjoy them, they post reviews. People read short stories. People watch films based on screenplays. Slowly, slowly, the lottery tickets you buy’ with your efforts, book after book, story after story, start to tip the scales of probability in your favour. Your body of work grows and with it your chances of some kind of breakout success.

Even tickets’ that don’t succeed in industry terms have an effect. Perhaps a book which dies on submission means an editor remembers you, or asks you to pitch to them for an IP project, or gets picked up later as an option book in a future deal. Perhaps a short story gets optioned for an animation project a decade after you wrote it. You never know. No unpublished story or novel is ever truly dead and no published work is ever a true failure. They’re all just part of your body of work.

And the amazing thing is, should your ticket ever come up, the gods smile on you, the stars align and your ship comes in? When that glorious day arrives and something you wrote strikes a chord with a lot of people? Well, you know what they’re going to go digging for, right? Yes, your body of work.

Deciding to continue

There was a point, about five or six years ago, when I was really struggling with my writing. I was early-mid career in my day job, doing okay but struggling to save any money, working long hours and feeling thwarted at every turn creatively. And for a long time I seriously considered giving up. I was very tired, and demoralised, and certain that if I redirected the time and energy I spent on writing into freelance side gigs, I’d probably ease some of the financial pain we were feeling. I worried that I was expending resources I could ill afford on a glorified hobby that was making me unhappy into the bargain.

I even tried quitting for a while. But I kept coming back to it. I couldn’t help myself. And eventually, walking one morning on the beach, I asked myself whether I would continue to write even if there was zero guarantee that it would ever come to anything, that there would be any sort of extrinsic reward for the work that I did.

And my answer, when I framed the question like that, was unequivocally yes.

So, I reasoned - if I’m going to keep writing regardless, I may as well really go for it. As long as I have a keyboard, or even pencil and paper, I can write. It’s art that nobody can take away from me. And since I’m producing this work anyway, I can and should decouple the creation of the art (the job of being a writer), from the commercialisation of the art (the job of being an author). If all I did at the end of my life was look back and feel a bit of pride at the body of work I’d left behind me, that would be enough for me. The intrinsic reward of the work itself. Everything else is just gravy. But it’s the body of work that makes it possible.

This is the mantra that’s helped me to manage the ups and downs and uncertainties of the publishing world. And it’s also helped me to produce a lot of work. I hope if you’re feeling some of the same uncertainty and facing the same challenges, it helps you too.

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