Welcome back and welcome to the last installment of my series of guests posts on the BIPOC Bookshelf. I’m Kay Costales, poet and author. Self-published and working towards becoming traditionally published. The journey has been both very short and agonizingly long. This is the most that I have ever talked about it all.
If you don’t remember anything I’ve written in the previous posts, remember this:
Traditional publishing is really freaking hard.
Rejections aren’t failures.
Dream big and small.
Set realistic goals.
Mope for a little bit. Get up, keep going. You can still mope if needed.
It’s okay if it sucks right now. Eventually, it won’t anymore.
In Part 1, we talked about the tough stuff. All the bad and ugly that we would normally sweep under the rug. In Part 2, we talked about having dreams and making new ones to survive the trenches. Now we’re going to talk about growth and growing in a healthy way.
I’m an annoying person who talks about the importance of recognizing negative self-talk and harmful habits and I fully admit to that. Self-care can be different things. You could do nothing or do something. Either could be helpful!
My main coping method was work, work, work. One book in limbo, so onto the next and the next and the next, etc. Do blog posts. Do networking. Do more and more. It was a temporary solution until I worked myself too hard and hit the bottom of the creative well where burnout awaited me.
When you’re on #sub, you’re supposed to work on the next thing. A fantasy book went on sub. A space opera went on sub. A romance novel also went on sub. I worked and worked. I went a little too hard on that, unfortunately, and then I needed a break.
A break was a big thing for me. It was mandatory. There was nothing for me to write, no stories that come together over time. I could stare at blank pages on my laptop or a notebook and words wouldn’t come to me. I stopped writing my novels even if I didn’t want to. Eventually, I decided I did want to stop writing for a while and do other things with my life.
Here are some of the things I did: more time on Duolingo, more exercise, puzzles and more puzzles, some dating, and lots of day job stuff. Actually, I was unemployed between mid-March to end of June. When I did work, they were temp jobs, usually week to week. It was very unsteady but a very good distraction. I learned about watches, property management, tech start-ups, non-profit organizations, etc. I did so much in my daily life that I didn’t even have time to write!
(Luckily, I eventually got a full-time, permanent job with salary and benefits. Hallelujah.)
It was a nice interlude of getting to explore other parts of my life. I am not only what I write and what I do with my writing. I have my family, my friends, my hobbies, my job. There’s still a big dream of getting to write for a living, but I’m being more realistic and strategic about it now. A back-up plan is in place. A way to build up a life that can survive if I quit my day job and focus on book stuff.
Now, here are the things I stopped doing: interacting on #Twitter; posting about my life so much; being so focused on the writer part of my identity; reading book deals; paying too much attention to announcements and celebrations.
Social media can be so, so toxic. There is always room for positivity as you support others, cheering them on for every accomplishment and visible success. Except you can see the numbers for interactions when someone has big news. It’s hard to see that and be happy when you’re hurting because it seems like nothing is going on since there’s nothing to announce. It helps not to look at those things, similar to how you’re not supposed to read reviews of your own published books as an author. Getting hung up on things beyond your control can really cause harm.
And, in the end, you do need to take care of yourself first. If you take a break from having to look at it all, that’s fine. It’s not meant to be your space if you don’t feel good about it. I try to remember that I write because I want to write, not because I want to do marketing and networking. All the work put into that can make a difference, yes, but it is a lot of work beyond the writing.
If all you want to do is write, then just write. Stay out of the popularity contests, deal announcements, and bestseller lists.
Take care of yourself first.
There’s no point in comparing yourself to others and getting caught in the thinking of what if it could be better? So much of the industry and success in general is out of our control. I often cycle around thinking about how I could do better, then go back around to remember that I am doing so much better.
When you’re a writer, focus on your craft. Read what you love. Don’t waste time on what you don’t. Keep your energy up by holding onto the things that bring joy and step away from the ones that hurt. Analyze the market trends. Don’t over-analyze yourself and what you do or don’t do.
Level up your skills with practice, with research, with feedback and critique. Surround yourself with people who help you grow rather than ones who inspire envy and bitterness. Hold onto the support, let go of the unkindness.
Become an expert in other things. Research is integral to writing whether it’s on a specific topic for a project, or a general area that interests you, even if it doesn’t influence your writing abilities.
Build other skills to prevent yourself from feeling like writing is all you have.
The truth is that every single person is more than one skill.
Learn a language or two. Learn an instrument. Watch hundreds of tv shows and movies. Become obsessed with an animal species and learn everything there is to know about it. Get into fashion. Explore new music. Go on a hike. Go camping. Learn to bake. Learn to cook complicated dishes. Start a collection whether its rocks or games or jewelry.
Getting into other things doesn’t necessarily have to become a talent. You don’t have to be good at a hobby; you just have to do it. I’m not amazing at embroidery, nor do I do it often, but I still call it a hobby.
However, being a writer has been so integral to my life and it still is. The problem is that I based my feelings of self-worth on my accomplishments as a writer. I got stuck in a pit where it felt like no matter what I did, what I wrote or how I wrote, it wasn’t enough and maybe wouldn’t be. But writing is both a talent and a skill.
If stories and characters come to you, that’s a talent. If you’re able to tell a story with characters that people can feel for, that’s a skill. If you wrote a whole freaking book, you already did much more than most of the world. The publishing world is small compared to the entire population on earth. Once you have a completed manuscript, it’s about making it better.
You can get better in lots of ways. The important thing to remember is that you can get better. Sharpen your skills. Learn techniques. Build a three act or four act structure. Learn to use Scrivener. Try the Pomodoro technique for productivity. Create a variety of characters with fascinating histories and personalities. Read books about novel writing. About screenwriting. Study poetry. Study cinema. Study other types of art.
Compare your book to others in ways that will help you. Look at what someone else has done better than you and analyze the why and how. Maybe it’s writing atmospheric prose, maybe it’s being concise. Try a short story if you only write full manuscripts. Try a long piece if you’ve only done short ones.
Challenge yourself to do things that you think you’re bad at until you’re not bad at all anymore.
It’s fine if you can’t write in several genres. Personally, I probably would never write a picture book or a middle grade. I probably wouldn’t ever write a very literary novel. It would be strange if I started writing poetry with a specific structure. I got into poetry for the sake of getting away from novels. I’m not the best poet, but I’ve gotten better with practice, I think.
But there’s nothing wrong with taking some time before working on improvements. Don’t dive in if you’re not ready. Just like you’d study for a test, study the industry. Study the work. It’s not about what they did and you didn’t, or the similarities between your work and theirs. Stop yourself when you start thinking about the unfairness.
The shitty thing is that when you’re a minority, when you’re marginalized, there’s more pressure on being better than everyone else and, consequently, a sense of competitiveness with people who share your marginalized identity.
That sucks to be pitted against each other. At the very least, you should be proving that you are getting better and better with everything you do each time you make an attempt. Your first draft won’t be perfect. Each revision makes the manuscript better. With each manuscript, you can improve substantially.
Maybe your editor has less to correct. Maybe you spot a hole and patch it up earlier than the previous time. Maybe you expanded your vocabulary. Maybe the type of words used is more appropriate. Maybe the story has more twists than you’ve ever done, or the foreshadowing is so subtle and magnificent that it makes you cackle like an evil genius.
A small improvement is still an improvement.
The thing about me is that I am a dreamer and I am disgustingly sentimental. It breaks my heart to be unable to do what I’ve been dreaming of. I went from writing 3 drafts a year to struggling with 1. I felt like a failure and fell out of love with my main genre. Because I want to be traditionally published, my agent and I talked about pivoting. Goodbye fantasy (for a little while), as I shift my focus on other things.
Deciding to go another route to get published didn’t happen over night. I had to think about so much, like my brand as an author, and try to come up with potential ideas. It’s not like turning slightly to the left. No, I have to rethink my story kernels and the structure. I have to imagine writing differently than I previously had. I’m all about the vibe and aesthetic of each book I write, and I had to find out how I could apply that to other genres. I wasn’t excited about that. I want to write what comes to me and often, it’s been fantasy.
But I don’t think I’m great at fantasy right now. I’m so heartbroken over the status of my SFF books that went on sub that it’s hard to even want to write another. It’s hard to even write more when it feels like my writing has failed. I haven’t failed; I have to remember that.
I’m relentless when I’m determined though. I’m going to write so many things, it will be impossible to ignore me. It’s like, the industry will see one thing that works for them and after that, it’s evidence that there could be more. there will be. If I focus on the hurt, though, I’ll never have nothing new. It will be my backlist and nothing else.
I already have one hell of a backlist, by the way, and I’m really freaking proud of it.
Your #support team makes a huge difference. This is why it’s important to have the right agent. I’m endlessly grateful for mine and her constant enthusiasm and unwavering belief. I’m relieved that she can tell when I’m not okay and we work on making it better. I’m so, so happy that she sees what I can do and knows what more I can achieve. I think I would have given up already if I didn’t have a great agent like that. If you don’t have an agent yet, have writer friends. I’ve held onto mine, especially select authors who make my life all the better, and it lessens the hurt. Sometimes it’s not a lot because I’m too wrapped up in my emotions. Other times, their love and support are all that keeps me going with my writing.
Also, I think everyone in the industry knows that the #pandemic was an extra bit of mess to top off an already messy industry. Going on sub is already unpredictable. It doesn’t matter how many agent offers you got or didn’t get. Even if you get hype for your book, there is a chance it still won’t sell, and books don’t sell for a variety of reasons.
Add the usual stuff to the pandemic and it gets worse. Things are slower, different. No matter what anyone says, we aren’t back at “normal” and maybe never will be. There’s the supply chain issues, the lack of in-person events, the minimal marketing, the drama on social media, etc. There is so much that’s overwhelming and now even more so because we’re all still in this pandemic and trying to recover as best as we can.
You never know how things will go on sub. It could take a week or a few years. When you’re comparing yourself to others, it will feel like an eternity regardless of the actual time. The last almost two years have been especially tough for me. People are stressed and exhausted and truly burnt out for several different reasons.
It isn’t an easy time to be on sub, especially if you’re trying to sell your debut. You dreamed about writing a book and publishing it though. You can keep dreaming. It’s already in you. Sometimes the dream shifts. Sometimes you get new ones. But you know how to do it.
If you’re angry, frustrated, sad, heartbroken, etc.—let yourself feel it all for a while. Build yourself back up. Find reasons to get excited again. Take deep breaths, remember what you love and why you do. Don’t force yourself if you’re not feeling it. Let the inspiration and motivation come back because it will. In the meantime, you can do other fulfilling things to help you remember that you are more than your writing and you’re not anything less if you’re not where you want to be.
You are not one story. If you’re a creator, you have tons to create, even if it hasn’t emerged in your mind yet. Don’t focus on what you couldn’t do. Remember what you can do and how you can be better. Be so good that they can’t say no. Be so proud that you can forget about the sadness for a moment. It’s hard to be happy about your accomplishments, whatever they are. Remember that you’ve likely done things you were never sure you could do before.
You’re still allowed to feel negative emotions.
But don’t let them be everything. It might take time and some work. Eventually, you will get out of the rut. The dark place in your career is like nighttime. It doesn’t last forever. The sun will eventually come out.
So rest while you can. When it’s morning, you can try again.
If you’re out of stories or just lacking energy right now, don’t worry. Take deep breaths. I had zero ideas for a full year, and now I’m overwhelmed by how many I have. If you still have a dream, you’re not done. If you haven’t sold a book or even signed an agent, it’s not over, it’s still beginning.
Thanks for reading. Take care of yourself and keep dreaming.
Kay Costales (she/her)
Kay Costales (she/her) is a Filipino-Canadian author and poet, represented by Lesley Sabga of the Seymour Agency. She has a passion for pretty things, ice cream and desserts, and trying to sound smarter and more interesting. She is queer and disabled and proud to be open about it. When not writing, she works as an administrator in property management. Currently, she lives in Toronto with her partner and their spoiled cat. You can learn about her books on her website.
Purchase Kay's Poetry: https://www.etsy.com/shop/byKessCostales
Poetry books (as Kess Costales):
SO SAYS THE HEART (2019)
SPEAK YOUR DARKNESS (2020)
TELL YOUR TRUTHS (October 2021)
LOVE LIKE INSECTS (2020)
LOVE LIKE GARDENS (2021)
COUNTING (Ruru Reads, 2018)
MUSEUM (Room Magazine, 2018)
WHATEVER SHE WANTS (Keep Faith, 2019)
MY MOTHER (Marias at Sampaguitas, 2021)