Deferred rewards

One of the things that makes a writing career difficult is that all your payoffs are deferred.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. Each day, or whatever schedule you work on, you add some more to the pile of words. Go you! But if you’re not someone who lets people read the draft in progress (I’m usually not, though there have been exceptions), then you do that work in a void. And it’s a long, long road to having a completed draft, so you’re in that void for quite a while.

Then you finish your draft. Go you! Now maybe you let somebody read it. But you know, in your heart of hearts, that this isn’t the end of anything; it’s just an intermediate stage. There’s revision, and that’s before the novel even heads out into the wide wide world.

Ah, but surely you get payoff when you sell the novel, right? Go you! Except . . . what “selling a novel” actually looks like is generally that your agent sends you an email saying “here’s what they’re offering,” and you say “that sounds great, let’s do it!” Whereupon your agent haggles for a while, because that’s their job. Or maybe this is the next book in a multi-book contract you already signed, at which point this stage doesn’t even really happen, because it happened years ago.

Assuming it’s a new deal, eventually somebody sends you a contract to sign. This comes probably weeks after the offer you said yes to, if not months. Is this the payoff? It doesn’t feel much like a payoff. On the one hand, you kinda sorta sold the book a while ago; on the other hand, you haven’t been paid yet, much less seen your book in print.

Some number of days or weeks after you signed the contract, money shows up. This used to be in the form of an actual check, but these days lots of people use direct deposit instead. So instead of a Real Live Check, you get an email saying “hey, we’ve deposited this money in your account.” Is that the payoff? Literally, yes; emotionally, no.

Edits.

Copy-edits.

Page proofs.

Somewhere in here, you get a cover. Awesome! It mostly has nothing to do with you, since at best you got to offer some ideas that your publisher may or may not have listened to, but at least it’s shiny! Meanwhile you’re busy with something else.

And then, one day, FINALLY, months after you got paid, months after you sold it, months or maybe even years after you wrote the book . . . it’s on the shelves! Everybody is so excited!

Except for you. I mean, sure, you’re happy. I’m not trying to say that it isn’t cool to hold your very own book in your hands and see your name on the cover. But . . . as a payoff for the long marathon of writing the thing, it isn’t much, because it comes way too late. By the time it arrives, you’re already doing something else. You’re in the void of a different book, probably, and when people talk about “your new book,” you have to remind yourself which one they’re talking about. To them, the one that matters is the one they can buy. But that’s not the one eating your time and attention anymore. And psychologically speaking, a reward that’s massively deferred from the behavior that earned it is pretty much useless.

This is why I’m coming around to the opinion that it is hugely important to set up some kind of ritual for yourself — in whatever form works for you — that celebrates the milestones. Two years may go by between finishing the rough draft and seeing the result on a shelf, but if you’ve done something meaningful to mark the achievement of that draft, or the other landmarks along the way, then you won’t run as much risk of the job starting to feel meaningless. If the way the circumstances work isn’t going to reward you in a timely manner, then you’ve got to do it yourself.

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