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.
* * *
“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.