Surviving Times of Stagnation

A Harrowing Survival Tale of Authorial Resilience

by Paul Jessup

It will probably happen to you. Almost every career for a professional writer hits a snag at some point. Usually after a huge burst of activity and a feeling of momentum, of going somewhere. It comes out of nowhere, out of left field.

And things change. You won’t be the next big thing anymore. You’re no longer up and coming. Or, you’ve plateaued. The upward career swing seems to stop, and then falter, and then kind of drop off. It’s never a quick thing, mind you. It happens slow enough that you might not even notice.

It might be that you sell a few short stories less, and then even less than that, and then it becomes impossible to even get some random flash fiction published on a barely paying website. Or it might be that your books aren’t selling what’s expected, and your editors are dragging their feet getting back to you about your next novel, and your agent’s tactically avoiding your calls…

Or you lose your agent. Or gain another agent and lose that one, too. Or maybe you’re no longer the small press darling, and no one is returning your texts and emails anymore. You’re just…a ghost. A ghost in the world of publishing.

It’s terrifying stuff. The death spiral happens. The stagnation and dropping off of the publishing world will destroy any hope you have of keeping up with this business. You might unsubscribe to Locus. You might just stop writing for a while. And then that while turns to years, and years. And it gets harder to send stuff out.

Or you might switch to editing and putting out collections, just to keep seeing your name in print, even if it’s in a different context. Or you might be trying to move on from shorter fictions to novels, and having a hard time making that transition. It all feels broken and wrong.

You finish, you finish, you finish. You send it out, and only hear murmurs and whispers and nothing more.

There is no proper response to this bump in your career. I can’t tell you not to give up and go and do something else, because really? This business is a brutal business. But, no matter what, it will still be here, waiting for you when you get back.

That’s happened to me, a few times in the past. Once when I was doing experimental and literary writing, and had an upward trajectory in that career, only to hit a snag and falter. And then I switched over to my true first writerly love, genre fiction. And then I tooth and clawed my way up from the ooze in that one as well, rising up and rising up!

And then hit my own snags and stagnations. I won’t get into the ugly details here. I also had a lot of real life nastiness going on at the same time that compounded everything else. So I wrote on my own but didn’t send very many places. Or I focused on literary fiction again for a while, or writing poetry for a few years), but still, struggling around in that murky plateau and not moving forward.

You might even be tempted to strike out on your own and self-publish. Yet, there is a depressing fear that it could be worse. That you could put your own work out there and get nothing in return. That no one would buy you Amazon novel or KDP published short story collection. So you forgo that risk. Why court even more sadness of having a whole market reject you? And you struggle on, in secret.

But that all changes. Sparks light up again. It took about five or six years, but I’m pushing forward. I’m burning brightly, I’m a screaming star, and I think, yes. It’s always after these dark moments I see other writers I respect have their careers take off and do amazing.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s not an easy thing. None of it ever is, is it? You have to fight that temptation to completely change everything you do as a writer. To chase after more profitable markets (won’t work if you don’t love it), to writer in more profitable ways (no, trying to write just like Dan Brown will not make you rich), and to try these millions of things that won’t work.

Until you struggle up and stand see the true beating heart of your writing and distill it down to its purist form. Because, you know what? You have nothing else to lose. You have no further down to go, so why not just go all out. Why not set the world on fire with that true essence of you, no longer diluted by what you think everyone else wants.

And then the lights will burn brightly again, I think. It’s a struggle, yes. A struggle between skill and self-loathing. But the market waits. It might take you awhile longer to burst back to where you were before, and yet still the market waits. Take the time, be patient. Give the market what it really needs, which is you. You. Writing fast and real and dream haunted. That’s how you survive. By keep going, keep burning. By being true to only you.

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Paul Jessup is a critically acclaimed/award-winning author of strange and slippery fiction. With a career spanning over ten years in the field, he’s had works published in so many magazines he’s lost count and three or four books published in the small press. You can visit him at http://pauljessup.com or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pauljessup.

4 Responses

  1. Susan Forest

    I heard that the typical writer’s career is shaped like a W (or M). I had very few short pieces come out while I was noveling, and though I am still working mostly on novels, I sent out a few short pieces and sold 3 out of 4 of them this year, so it makes me think I really should not ignore that part of my career! The important part, for me, is that I love the work and depression hasn’t hit me, as it has others, I know.

  2. Weston Kincade

    Paul,
    Great points. I agree. Have had similar things happen, but I’m still at it. I hope troubled authors will take your advice and keep at it too. I always hate seeing passionate writers give up, even though I know it happens more often than I realize. Well said.

    1. Paul Jessup

      Oh, I agree. Its part of the reason I wrote this, reflecting on my own experience and hoping others don’t give up. I can’t blame the ones who do, but it us very sad to see bright, amazing, interesting authors bow out in the bad times.

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