Grab Back Control

There’s nothing worse than feeling as though your writing career is out of your control, that others are in charge of your fate. For many of us writing is our second career. In “real life” we’re lawyers, accountants, police officers, teachers, entrepreneurs, retailers, and scientists. For myself, I spent years as the CEO of a national art consulting firm with $4 million in sales, shipping hundreds of framed pictures each week to hospitals, clinics, office buildings, and hotels throughout the US. In that role, I wielded major control not only over my own success, but the livelihood of the thirty plus people on my payroll. So it was a rude awakening when I made a career move to realize how many things we writers have no control over:

  • Whether an agent reads our query
  • Whether said agent requests a full
  • Whether a publishing house buys our manuscript
  • Whether all those friends who promised to support us write reviews
  • Whether someone we never met hates our book and leaves a one-star review
  • Whether (insert famous writer’s name) brings out a book the same day as ours and sucks up all the publicity – Bonus points if it’s got the same title
  • Whether our Instagram or Twitter post goes viral
  • Whether we host a launch party and only our family shows up
  • Whether we win a big literary award
  • Whether we’re accepted into an MFA program
  • Whether Hollywood comes calling
  • Whether a literary journal accepts our short story or poetry
  • Whether a top writer’s conference accepts our workshop proposal
  • Whether a top writer in our genre agrees to write a blurb
  • Whether Reese, Oprah, Jenna, Jessica et al pick our book
  • Whether … Well, you get the idea.

For someone who comes from a world where effort equals success, it’s enough to make you tear your hair out. Or sit in the corner and pout. Or eat a gallon of ice cream. Or take to Facebook to bemoan the fate of writers and how unfair this whole crazy world of publishing really is.

I hereby declare ENOUGH. It’s time to realize what we CAN control.

It all starts with attitude, which is under our control.

Let’s begin with those little grey cells residing between our ears – in other words, our minds. The messages we tell yourselves. When we read about someone else’s success, do we think how they don’t deserve their accolades, how they probably had an “in” with the publisher, or paid for that endorsement, or can afford to write full-time because they aren’t stuck at home juggling two part-time jobs while home-schooling their kids?

Or do we accept that life has never been a level playing field and resolve to appreciate the things working in our favor? That we have a working brain, that we can think of intriguing plots, that we understand the human heart and can express those feelings through words that readers appreciate. That we love being able to create art in whatever form, that it brings us intrinsic pleasure to create worlds, characters, scenes that didn’t exist before we brought them into being. That we willingly chose to do this work because we love it and it makes us happy.

Our attitude toward writing is under our control. Send yourself positive messages.

We can control our effort.

Try tracking your time for a solid week. Record how much time you spend at the various tasks of daily life. Most of us find there are activities we do that we could forego and not miss them, like checking e-mails every hour, hanging out on chat rooms, and watching a re-run of Seinfeld. We are in charge of where we put our focus, meaning our time. We all get the same number of hours each day. Are you spending yours in a way that feeds your art, whether that’s butt in chair actually putting words on the page, or physical activity, or reading good novels, or socializing with friends, or simply closing your eyes, relaxing and listening to music.

If you have a book coming out, you may decide to spend more time on social media making meaningful contacts with influencers, other writers, and prolific readers. You may expend time and energy applying for awards and asking for reviews. You may network to gain endorsements and sign up for author interviews. But do this work strategically, knowing what you want to gain and measuring the results of your efforts.

How we spend our time is under our control. Make wise choices.

We can control our art.

There’s an old saying, generally attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, an immigrant from war-torn Poland who became a Hollywood legend: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Are you working to make your writing the best it can be by attending seminars, studying craft books, joining critique groups? Do you read good books and notice how the authors control pacing, develop characters, keep the reader turning pages? Are you ruthless in striking down cliches, searching for richer words, diving deeper into character’s motivations? Do you ask yourself the hard questions we all grapple with — what does it mean to be a family? What does love look like? Where’s the meaning in life? — and explore that in your fiction?

It’s often said that the number one priority of the writer if they want to succeed is to write a good book. THAT is something we can control. In fact, no one else can.

We can seize back control from the gatekeepers.

Publishing is changing in wonderful ways. We see it in the surge in self-publishing, the growth of hybrid publishers, the emergence of small presses, and collaborative publishing ventures. It’s what’s led to the growth of podcasts and webinars and Facebook reader’s groups. Fifteen years ago, a fiction writer was at the mercy of the major publishers who you could only meet through a top-name agent. Now the advent of print-on-demand, on-line bookstores, and social media has made it possible for those writers who also choose to be entrepreneurs to find an audience for their work. If that’s you, count yourself lucky to be living in 2021. All the control you want is yours for the asking.



  1. Barbara Linn Probst on April 13, 2021 at 4:52 pm

    Terrific post! We can’t hear this often enough! In my recent review of hybrid publishing, “control” (over timing, cover, title, etc.) was the single biggest reason that authors chose to take that path. The feeling of helplessness can be quite soul-depleting … As in all things, learning which things one can control and which one can’t is the better part of wisdom 🙂

    • Maggie Smith on July 31, 2021 at 11:01 am

      Couldn’t agree more. By the time we’re all “grown up”, we’re used to controlling most of our environment. The writing industry can be a rude awakening.

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