Control What You Can Control: Good Writing (And Life) Advice

Just around seven years ago, November 2009, I submitted a query to an agent named Stacia Decker for a book called Blackbirds. By December of that year, 2o09, she was my agent. (I’m sure she’s still kicking herself, if only because she has to field my daily emails.)

A year later, Blackbirds was on submission. This book, which had already taken me five years to figure out how to write, had been on submission since the start of 2010. And it just kept sitting there. It would go out, round after round. It would return from the wild with brand new rejections stapled to it, all of them kind, many of them glowing. Which is a strange thing, of course, to receive rejection messages that ostensibly read like acceptances. “WE LOVE THE BOOK IT’S THE BEST GOOD JOB oh hey by the way we can’t sell it.”

It became very frustrating.

Inevitably, like the scouring natural force of erosion, Stacia’s tireless efforts on behalf of the book somehow wore the padlock off the GOLDEN GATES OF PUBLISHING, and the door swung open half-an-inch, and not one to miss an opportunity, I shoved my way into the gap and slithered through, all snakey-like. Blackbirds was published in April of 2012, about two years after it went out into the world. And since then, things have been, well, pretty rad. The fourth Miriam Black book, Thunderbird, comes out in February. I’ve had the good fortune in just a handful of years to have published 18 (!) novels, with another batch of five or so on the way in the coming few years. It’s been a good run, and no, this is not me bowing out — barring any unforeseen circumstances (aneurysm, meteor, robot attack, the dystopia that arises post-Trumpocalypse), I’m just getting started over here. But I’m a fan of looking back as a way to look forward, to say, okay, how did I get here? And what lessons have I learned to carry me forward?

To sidetrack a little bit, a thing you should know about me is that I am something of a control freak. This is not necessarily a healthy way to be, mind you, and it can occasionally be stressful to be constantly reminded how little control I have over things. Especially with a five-year-old. Having a child is like spilling a bucket of tarantulas on the kitchen floor. You can’t control that. That swiftly changes from A THING I CAN CONTROL to A THING THAT JUST FUCKING HAPPENED OH WELL. The spiders are everywhere. They’re just a part of your house now. A kid is like that — the child will enter into your life and the first thing that happens is Ian Malcolm appears behind you and whispers chaos theory chaos theory in your ear. As I am fond of saying, every day with a child is like that scene in Jurassic Park where the velociraptors learn to open doors. Having children is a good way to remind you how woefully outmatched you are in all things.

More importantly, it reminds you how little control you have.

Lots of influence! Little control.

It’s a horrifying reminder, but it’s also a good — and necessary! — one.

To go back to the publishing thing, while Blackbirds was out in the wild collecting rejections the way a deer’s ass collects burrs, that was stressful. Because I did not control it. I didn’t have my hand on any of the levers, wheels or buttons. I wrote the book. The book left my hands and it went into the world. It wasn’t even in my agent’s control. It was, in a way, loose in the wind like a fucking kite — nobody controlled it but the weather. And even once the book was published, I still didn’t control it. I didn’t control people’s response. I didn’t control sales. I didn’t control reprintings or reviews or pretty much anything at all.

Again, that’s very frustrating. We work very hard in life to create for ourselves environments we control. We put this widget here, we put this duck over there, we hook that button up to that dongle and we endeavor to keep control of every aspect. When chaos creeps in like a clambering cockroach, we swat it and return order to disorder and get back to life. Publishing is like this. We want control over the whole process, from nosehole to butthole, snout to tail.

But all that’s a lie. This shit’s just a sandcastle. Sure, it’ll stay standing for a while, but eventually, man — *whistles* — eventually the ocean or the wind or some stompy little kid is gonna wreck your business. That sand castle is not long for the world. Your control is temporary, and all too often, a total illusion.

And that’s really hard, especially for someone like me. But I came to terms with one piece of advice that has helped me significantly in my writing career and that is:

Know the difference between influence and control.

Then, influence what you can influence.

And control what you can control.

The end. Game over. That’s it.

Influence is light, imperfect, improbable. Some aspects of my career I influence — again I go to the kite metaphor, because when you’re flying a kite, you don’t control a fucking thing, and yet, the illusion is that you remain in control, right? You’re the KITEMASTER with the spool and the string and you feel like that gives you an element of control, but it doesn’t. You don’t control the wind. You don’t control the kite once it’s up there. The best you have is influence — and that influence exists only over the kite via the string-and-spool. That’s it. The kite isn’t a drone. It doesn’t do what you want. It does what the wind wants.

The only thing you really control in that situation is you.

And so in writing, that means recognizing the limits of my control as well as the opportunities for influence. Influence means I can, I dunno, be a friendly person to other creative and publishing industry humans. Influence means I can do a book signing and meet the bookstore staff. Influence means I can (gasp) WEAR PANTS at a PROFESSIONAL EVENT —

Ha ha ha I’m just kidding I wouldn’t do that.

*burns pants in the fires of solidarity*

PANTS ARE THE OPIATE OF THE MASSES

PANTS ARE A TOOL OF THE OPPRESSOR

DOWN WITH THE MAN

DOWN WITH PANTS

DOWN WITH THE MANPANTS AND THE PANTSMAN

*deep cleansing breath*

Okay I’m feeling much better now. Sorry. Onward.

So, that’s my influence. I can urge the publishing kite to move a little bit, but I don’t control the winds. But the one thing I do control is: I can build the kite. I can fix a hole in a ripped kite. I can improve on my kite’s design and I can buy better string and —

You get that the kite is my book in this metaphor, right? I control the book. I don’t control much else, but that’s one area that’s mine. (And editors, if ever I or any other writer push back, understand that this is what we’re dealing with — our control is very limited, so we want to exercise it as much as we can.) I can control my time, the words, the work. And beyond that, I control me. I control my response to edits, to critics, to reviews. I control my reactions to the twists and turns of the industry. I control everything to the end of my own personal margins — and that’s pretty much it. Everything else beyond those margins is one big vigorous shrug emoji.

That helped me immensely. You’d think it might make me feel helpless, but it was to the contrary — it helped me bear down and focus on the aspects of the job I do control. In essence, it encourages me to do my part. I control what I control. I influence what I influence. And the rest of it is left to the GNOMES OF FATE.

I’ve recently begun to take this advice to life, too. Because in all things, I control alarmingly little. So much of what comes at us in a day is external. We can’t control it. We might have some influence over events, but not always. We can, at best, control how we react.

We control simple things. Like breathing. I can control my breath. Sounds small, but it feels so huge. It’s also obvious on the face of it, but not always so easy to see — when the shit hits the fan, it’s incredibly clarifying to realize that I control that one vital thing. To realize that I control me, and not much beyond that. (And even then, I don’t always control me as well as I like — though, the potential is always there, and it’s useful to know that in times when I feel out of control, I know that the control is theoretically potentially there.) It’s become something of a mantra — control what you can control — and that’s helped me deal with daily stresses and anxieties as they hit. Control what you can control. Influence what you can influence.

The rest can fuck off and go.

Helpful to you? I have no idea. But I thought I’d share it.

Go forth and be awesome. Do what you can do, because that’s all that you can do.

* * *

INVASIVE:

“Think Thomas Harris’ Will Graham and Clarice Starling rolled into one and pitched on the knife’s edge of a scenario that makes Jurassic Park look like a carnival ride. Another rip-roaring, deeply paranoid thriller about the reasons to fear the future.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Out now where books are sold.

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26 comments

  • October 4, 2016 at 6:19 AM // Reply

    I agree. And yoga helps, too. Both with the breathing and the pants thing — cuz yoga pants are to pants what tiramisu is to a mud pie.

  • New reader here, been sneaking around the blog for a few weks now and this post hits at exactly the right time. In writing as in life, lots of exiting things are going to happen in the next six month for me and there’s only so much control I have over them. (But seriously, yuck, spiders!)

    Maybe you can make the sacrificial burning of the pants a thing. You know… an offering to the powers that be to stirr things your way 😉

  • ‘Having a child is like spilling a bucket of tarantulas on the kitchen floor.’

    I know that’s not what I was supposed to take away from this post, but I must bring it to your attention that it was a great sentence.

    Fantastic post, Chuck. You’re very right about how little we can control, but handling what we can control in stead of freaking out over all the things we don’t control is the way to go.

  • This post is great and a nice reminder that the path is the same (rocky, crooked, steep) for all writers, even those who you who make it look easy and the thing is just to assess it and move forward as it allows. But listen: That PHOTO! You’re not going to talk about that? About all those baby mantises?

  • Timely advice as my kite is up there right now. I’m feeling like my agent hold the string, though.

    Question to Chuck: While you were waiting, was the Terrible Minds blog active? In other words, do you think the influence you demonstrated with your blog affected the wind?

  • October 4, 2016 at 10:15 AM // Reply

    I look forward to your Mindspills…this one also excellent. I can always find something to tuck away and come back to as needed in the rocky, turbulent, uncontrollable world of getting a book fm my head to a publisher. Thanks again. Keep the spills coming.

  • OCD Not me…who’s down with OPP. Control zone is a place I struggle to exit so this post hits home like my 12 year old kicking soccer ball into the garage forcing the entire house to vibrate while the people inside wonder if it might actually be a earthquake in the heartland or Godzilla on short reprieve from low budget Asian cinema. The kite metaphor I plan to hold onto and apply with vigor, even though I have limited experiences with kites. Molto Grazie, Master Jedi!

  • Good advice, nice metaphors and hey, I believe all of that. You did get an agent in a month so I’m a bit jealous but I know everybody is different. I like how writing effuses a personal touch, no one can hurt that part and you do walk away with an accomplishment, the book. Eighteen books, youza! I’m thinking I have to find a bunker and settle in for awhile. Looking.

  • Excellent advice. Right now I am just a kite tossed in the wind of need between McMini and my elderly, ill parents. I cannot plan, I have no control over anything at all in my own life because I am too busy doing or remembering or helping the others with all the shit they have to do to live theirs. I snatch writing time in the gaps between it all and try to accept that I can only do what I can do. I very definitely control nothing in my life, other than how I react to what happens.

    Thank you. I think I needed to read that today. 😉

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Amen, my wife is like you. We adopted, so there was no slow lead-in to the chaos. One day she had control, the next a two year old. After two years she is better about letting go.

    Thankfully I’m a plumber so rolling with the shit that life tosses at you is what I get paid to do.

  • Just when I feel adrift in a turbulent sea, you come along and do the North Star thing, as only you can.

    Again.

    Thank you for being you.

  • Hey! Love this. I’m sure know this already, but what you’re talking about is Stoicism. (?) Epictet is my jam, too–and most of his bits of wisdom are nicely formatted in little chunks for the modern reader. The idea of non-control is a strangely comforting one, when it works. I also think that you can go too far with Stoicism, my husband tends to remind me of this when I get on one of my ‘NONE OF THIS FALLS WITHIN MY REALM OF CONTROL and therefore I AM A SHAM OF A HUMAN BEING IF I LET IT GET TO ME’ kicks and start using dead-Greek-man-wisdom to self-flagellate. It’s like Zen or Buddhism, where you can go too far towards the end of the line after taking a slight but significant misstep, and start using philosophical/spiritual practice to not care about anything, rather than as a way to accept everything. Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison talk about this in The Etiquette of Freedom (currently reading) and it’s helpful when stuck in those situations where control is kinda brutally exposed as an illusion (and in moments when you’re trapped in the false mindset that you are indeed in total control of something). ANYHOW gone on too long, just meant to throw in me cents. Cents thrown!

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