Why taking a risk matters—win or lose

It’s interesting. I just got back from a romance writer’s conference here in Atlanta and was reminded of some of the steps necessary when plotting a story to understand your protagonist’s motivation, and how they’ve changed by the end of the tale. It’s irresistible to think of your own story and motivation when crafting fiction. (It’s that whole unexamined life not worth living thing again.) I find it amazing how detailed and focused we can get in trying to figure out a character’s purpose or goal while, at the same time, blithely sail through life uninterested in figuring out our own. I’ll illustrate this with one antagonizing statement. And bear with me. Remember it was a romance writer’s conference I just got out of and so matters of the heart are on my mind.

The older we get, the less open we are to finding and accepting love.

Wow. Big statement. (I expect LOTS of comments!) If you’re happily ensconced in a loving relationship, you can sit this one out or not as you like. But here’s how I see it.

Remember in the 80’s there was that Time Magazine article that came out and sent millions of single women into vortexes of depression because they pronounced it easier for a woman over 30 to be abducted by aliens than find a husband? Well, with Internet dating and other available matchmaking tools, it is easier today to connect with someone but, statistically, it continues to be a major struggle for people of a certain age to find love.

In terms of actively seeking a mate, statistics show that as we age, we actually fear the companionship and love we think we crave. (We might’ve feared it a little bit when we were younger, but it gets worse as the years add up.) Steeped in habit and afraid of change, the older we get, the less inclined we are to risk getting hurt or disappointed. So, basically, just when we need love and companionship the most, we are more likely to turn away from it. (See how a little self-knowledge would be REAL helpful about now?)

Psychologists have shown that depression can be an offshoot of aging (no shit!) But struggles with loneliness are typically trotted out as a major reason for that.  What’s surprising is the fact that studies show that many older people (we’re talking forties and fifties here) are more comfortable being sad and alone than risking finding and being with someone who they might love or who might love them back. Like a lot of things, it’s easier to do nothing and take solace in the familiarity of your own depression than get off your ass, wash your face and “put yourself out there.”

You can say that life itself is a gamble and that’s undeniably true but nowhere is the gamble bigger than where it concerns the heart. Love is risky—no matter what age you are. (That’s why it makes such good fiction!) While the rewards are great, even if just temporary, the downside of a misguided or ill-matched romance is pain and even worse loneliness.

But, heavens, not even trying is just wrong.

Be Brave and Keep Going

What profession besides writing can you think of that requires the kind of incredible bravery (or is it masochism?) that writers must muster every day of their writing lives? Okay, firemen, cops and fighter pilots. But besides them? I’m not even making the distinction between Indie and Trad writers for this one because one thing is true across the board for every writer and that is that it takes guts to write your heart out—reveal the depths of who you are and what you value—and then drag it up the flagpole and invite people to rate it. And while you’re hoisting your precious dearest baby up the flagpole, you can see out of the corner of your eye, a few people are already loading up their bows and cocking their guns. No matter how great you think it is or your editor has assured you it is, you know there are always going to be readers out there who won’t like it. And it doesn’t matter that it “wasn’t their cup of tea,” or that it wasn’t the genre they usually read, or that they admit your main character reminded them of their ex-husband in a nasty divorce—they’ll still come at you with both barrels loaded and one in the chamber.
And yet.
Knowing this—and there’s not a published writer out there who hasn’t felt the sting of a bad review—we still do it. We not only do it, we do it everyday, we do it like we can’t not do it, we do it like we’re being paid to do it.
Weird, huh?
What possible other passion could be so fraught with the possibility of humiliating rejection? I suppose actors might be one but since the days of slinging tomatoes and rotten fruit at the stage are over (at least, mostly) perhaps not. Even publishing a couple crappy reviews about a play or a gallery opening can’t compare with hundreds (or more) of average readers with an opinion. A newspaper reviewer may be negative but Average Joe who feels you wasted his $2.99 on your e-book can be personally hostile. We writers constantly work the online e-channels for marketing purposes (since that’s where our books live, on cyber shelves) and which makes them—and us—static targets for all kinds of  whack jobs who are easily distracted by a big-ass bullseye.
Who knew when you signed on to be disrespected by your family, belittled by your coworkers and pitied by any and everybody who knew you were writing a book that, on top of it all, you’d have to deal with hate mail from  Sri Lanka when you finally finished the damn thing? And then? You sat down and began the whole process all over again. In fact, you couldn’t stop yourself from sitting down and beginning it all over again. (Honestly, is there any other reason why we keep writing other than we can’t not?) Most of my writer friends accept the second-class citizenship status of a novelist in today’s world—especially a self-published one—and they accept the possibility of the public slings and arrows of annoyed, unhappy readers too. Their advice is: grow a thicker skin or stop reading your reviews. Of course, that means you have to stop reading the good ones, too, and while I don’t exactly live for the good ones, they definitely add a cherry on top of my day and I’d hate to create a hard and fast rule requiring me not to look at them. I think it makes more sense to read the reviews with an ear for learning something that might make your book better, or to detect if possibly the reader is a lunatic (all caps are often a give-away), but not to take it too seriously. The last thing you want to do is approach your keyboard for the next book afraid you’re about to write something someone won’t like. Trust me, that’s guaranteed. Let. It. Go. And of course, the absolute best advice I’ve heard about bad reviews however you process them emotionally: don’t respond. I don’t care if they misunderstood what you were doing in the book (you should have been clearer) or if they skipped over the bits that would’ve clarified the problem (you should’ve make it more interesting so they didn’t skip). Just let them have their say and hope to bury the review under fifty positive ones. It’s all you can do. Oh, yeah. And maybe have learned something. That’s always nice.