Saturday, 19 October 2013

What to do when professional jealousy bites

When I was about 21, a family friend of my cousin's, also 21, published his first novel and it soared - gleaming reviews, radio art programmes, vast billboards in Victoria station, everything. That was Richard Mason with The Drowning People. Of course to family and friends, I joined in the "Isn't it wonderful" and "Isn't it brilliant." Inside, to my shock and shame, I seethed.

     I had one friend, also a committed writer, to whom I dared expose my real feelings. We met up for coffee in the grungy-chic quarter of Cape Town and vented a witty and spiteful stream of bile, jealousy, resentment, and envy. That sounds like a rash of synonyms, but each has its precise shade of emotion and we were vivid with all four. We knew our feelings were ugly and repeatedly agreed that what we said in the coffee shop stayed in the coffee shop. I don't think we denigrated Richard himself or insulted his book, but I might be remembering my 21-year-old self too generously. We both realised that logically, our jealousy was absurd - neither of us had even written a book yet! - but it stung. It even burned, quite literally, like the feeling of too much coffee on an empty stomach.
     Professional jealousy is ugly and we're not supposed to feel it. The quick-fire ego-self-defence responses are crude, unhelpful, and unworthy: I don't even want that! It's not even that good! I could do better than that! They only got that because [insert reason unrelated to their talent or the worth of what they did]. Putting an emotion off-limits doesn't help resolve it either, though. So what does one do, when jealousy bites?

Jealousy is a map

In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron talks about jealousy as a map. Instead of churning over resentment, treat it like a map which shows you what you really want. Unpick the different aspects of that success and look at it: what precisely about that do you want?
     When I was younger, I couldn't say "I want to be a writer" because that implied there was a role, Writer, that I wanted to play, when actually I just wanted to write. Saying "I want to write" made no sense - "Well, write then," would be the obvious retort, and I already did. So why be jealous of Richard's success? I wanted to write and I already did. I realised gradually that I wanted to be published because I wanted readers. I wanted acclaim because I wanted to really, genuinely, be that good. I wanted the high advances, the two-book deals, because I wanted to write all the time.
     Under the ugly jealousy was a more sincere self dating back to the three-year-old who discovered reading: a writer who just wants to write all the time, as well as she can and better, and have other people read and enjoy it. The jealousy gave me nothing to do but bitch. Underneath it, was something genuine I could act on.

Doing your own work

At my most blocked and frustrated, I'd switch off Radio 4 when the arts programmes turned to the latest dazzling new author. Surely that's insane? I love books! Hearing an author my own age interviewed on Woman's Hour made me feel sick. Beneath that jealousy was a kind of despair: why aren't I there, yet? An unanswerable, paralysing question.
     When I was working hard on my own novel, though, those programmes didn't bother me and I could once again enjoy hearing about new books and other authors' writing experiences. Hey, she writes better in the evenings, like me! Ooh, what a lovely knotty problem to set out to solve. I stopped feeling jealous of their novels, because I had my own to work on and loved it, even when it challenged and frustrated me. The question, "Why aren't I there yet?" had clear, definite answers. Because my book isn't finished. Because I need to find a way to imagine, tangibly, a five-dimensional world. Because this plot arc here, ooh, what if I tried this... and the answers led me back into my work, the joy of it and the doing of it. This applies just as much to submitting work as it does to writing it (though you should always keep on writing while you submit).
     When you're doing your own work, you don't need to be jealous of other people's. Your own work absorbs you and excites you.

We have colleagues, not competitors

Freelancing taught me to see colleagues instead of competitors, because when you freelance, you don't have colleagues. The only people who can share the intricacies of what you do are your "competitors". They aren't even necessarily competitors. As I make friends with them, on email or in person, we always find enough points of difference that we can swap work that doesn't suit us, cross-refer each other's skills, and share insights.
     In fiction writing, this is even more true. No-one will get the joy of what you do like they will. And in this case, we really aren't competing, at all, even when it looks like we might be. In my writing courses, my students repeatedly discover how the exact same story becomes totally different in different writers' hands. No-one else is going to write your story; that's not possible. When someone arrives white-faced and tearful to announce their book's already been written, I tell them to buy it and read it. When they do, they discover it's not their book at all.
     But what if it really is very similar? Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, Benedict Jacka, and Mike Carey all write series featuring a cocky, likeable paranormal detective-type man in a contemporary city fending off paranormal crime while navigating paranormal power-structures like a true renegade, most of them with an animal sidekick and / or a female assistant / mentee. That doesn't mean they stole each other's ideas and it definitely doesn't mean they're stealing each other's readers - they're cross-pollinating and widening the pool for all four of them. If you like The Dresden Files, The Iron Druid Chronicles, the Alex Verus series, or the Felix Castor novels, you'll want to check out the others, too. They boost each other's readership.
     Similar books also make it far more likely that your novel will get published. Of course publishers want something new and exciting, but everyone finds something they can recognise easier to accept - because everyone finds innovation a bit scary. Slipstream novels like Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveller's Wife and Scarlett Thomas's End of Mr Y make it far more viable to publish my slipstream work.
     What if the other person writes very different novels to you? Great! Read their books. You can learn masses about writing by reading outside your usual genres. What if it's very different, is selling by the truckload, and you hate it and think it's total rubbish? Fifty Shades of Grey is the obvious example and came in for a lot of flak, but it introduced a lot of people to a genre they thought couldn't ever be for them (cross-pollination) and it made a bucket-load for the publishers, which matters. Publishing houses are struggling and the hefty discounts that Amazon and big supermarkets demand from them (40% as standard) hurts them. We want publishers to do well, because we want them to feel able to take a punt on new and unestablished authors. If there's nothing else good that you can think about the latest bestselling book, think this: Your book is going to pay for my advance. Thanks! When I come to submit, that publishing house will still be doing well - thanks to you.

When we can look through our jealousy, these three remain: faith, hope, and love.

Image: Lettering scratched through gold leaf by Lin Kerr of Limetrees Studio.

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