A Writer’s Life: Surviving the Fire Swamp

Rodents of Unusual Size? I don't believe they exist...

After hanging out at the Cliffs of Insanity, I’m doing a bit of rumor control today before negativity infiltrates the Water Cooler crowd. The report is this: “We’ll never survive.”

Survive what, you ask? The journey–wherever it takes us–along the writing road.

Never survive? To quote Westley, our hero from The Princess Bride, when he faced the Fire Swamp: “Nonsense.”

Many writers survive–even thrive. Sure, at times the Brute Squad hammers our egos, but consider a pounding an occupational hazard. Westley and Buttercup conquered the flame spurt, the lightning sand and Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.’s). Like our hero and heroine, writers must overcome terrors specific to the writing world.

  • Expect the expected. Flame spurts were predictable. Listen for the popping noise, move, and you won’t get burned. Hang around the writing world long enough and you’ll recognize probable pitfalls. Listen for oft-repeated refrains like:
  1. Show don’t tell. (Unless you’re Erin Healy, who’s teaching a class at ACFW titled “Sometimes It’s Better to Tell than Show.” I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued.)
  2. Know the rules before breaking the rules. (See bullet #1.)
  3. Writers need a platform. (Or a brand. Or, at the very least, an engaging plot.)
  • Don’t travel alone. You don’t survive a solo encounter with lightning sand. Buttercup would have suffered a tragic death but for Westley’s daring dive into the sand to rescue her. And despite writer Jessamyn West’s oft-quoted assertion that “Writing is a solitary occupation,” I’m thankful for my writing comrades. They’ve saved me from death by over-writing. Death by over-editing. Death by over-thinking why I decided ever to set foot on the writing road to begin with.
  • Realize the reports may be true. I’ll disappoint some of you by not drawing an anology between R.O.U.S.’s and editors. Or agents. Sorry, not going there. (I’m an editor too, after all.) Remember Westley’s response when Buttercup asked about R.O.U.S.’s? He said: “I don’t think they exist.” And right after that–OOOF! An R.O.U.S. took him down. We’d like to think we’re exempt from the tough times writers face: Bad reviews. Low sales. Dissatisfaction with critique groups. Let me be frank: Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to R.O.U.S.’s in the Fire Swamp or very real problems along the writing road. Saying “It ain’t going to happen to me” only accomplishes one thing: You’re unprepared when low sales take you out at the knees.Or when your crit group pummels your work-in-progress (WIP). Or when your elevator pitch plummets to the basement.

What about you? Any survival techniques you’d care to share with the rest of the group gathered ’round the Water Cooler today?

Post Author: Beth K. Vogt

Beth K. Vogt is a non-fiction author and editor who said she’d never write fiction. She’s the wife of an air force physician (now in solo practice) who said she’d never marry a doctor—or anyone in the military. She’s a mom of four who said she’d never have kids. She’s discovered that God’s best often waits behind the doors marked “Never.” She writes contemporary romance because she believes there’s more to happily ever after than the fairy tales tell us.

64 Replies to “A Writer’s Life: Surviving the Fire Swamp”

  1. Remember WHY you write. If you’re a Christian whom God has called to write then you can be sure he has a reason and purpose for the calling. My problem begins when I hear God calling me to write and substitute my own agenda as a given. For example, God SAYS, ‘I want you to write.” I HEAR “I want you to be a successful, published author.” I don’t like reminding myself of this because it means that I have to let go of my dream and give it back to God – but that’s what we always need to do with every dream, isn’t it? This is a little like the ‘spiritual’ version of the “a million dollars or a million readers” question. Do I want to be successful by the world’s standards or do I want to be obedient to God and have him use what I write to touch people? The answer is… YES!! 🙂

    With God we can never forget that it isn’t about the destination and ending. He’s got that covered. The journey is where he teaches us things like trust, patience, and dependence on him. It is also in the WAY we make this journey and handle the pitfalls that we show a difference to the world and encourage one another.

    Sorry to get “preachy”, but oh do I have to remind myself of this all the time!

    Thank you for the reminder and encouragement.

    1. Sherri, no need to apologize for your comment. I hope anyone who reads it can find application from the post.
      And from your comment I found this nugget of truth: “…it isn’t about the destination and the ending.” Yes, I am a woman who is also on a faith journey. But I thank many find that traveling the writing road is also not about the destination but about the journey and the lessons learned, the triumphs achieved, along the way.

  2. Oh, this is pure brilliance this morning, Beth! Pure brilliance. The Princess Bride is one of my all-time faves. Using it as an analogy to surviving as we travel this writing journey was awesome!

    What other survival techniques do I have?? Grace! Extend grace to yourself. We’re all going to mess up or fall short. There will be days where we feel buried by social media demands and writing demands and editing demands. Where we feel like we can’t even sit up, the weight of it all is so heavy. But you know what? It’s OKAY to lay down for a day or two! Regroup. Relax. Remind yourself why you started. Take a deep breath. Then get back up again.

    1. Excellent reminder, Katie! Just like Westley pulled himself and Buttercup out of the lightning sand and then rested for a few minutes while they got their breath back (literally)! Sometimes you’ve just got to realize the only way you’re going to progress is to take a break.

  3. Soul, The Princess Bride is going on my Christmas wish list, even though I watched it not too long ago. Great post!

    Having a teachable spirit, humble heart, and keeping your personal expectations in check will help when you’re suddenly hit with a R.O.U.

    Also, we can’t compare ourselves to other writers. God made only one Susie May Warren, Francine Rivers, Stephen King. We have our own talents and abilities. Tapping into our own voice instead of trying to imitate our favorite authors will help us to dodge those crazy R.O.U.s too.

    1. “Heart,”
      I could park myself on the “Don’t compare yourself to other writers” mantra for a good long time. It should be on a billboard posted along the writing road at regular intervals! I think one of the R.o.U.S.’s in the writing world is named “Comparison.” (And, boy! R.O.U.S.’s is difficult to type!) 🙂

  4. Beth,
    Great advice.
    I continually have to tell myself to enjoy the journey especially when life (work, scheduling etc.) seems to conflict. If I only get half a chapter written and it even seems worthless, at least I have made some steps towards progress. It’s a step!


    1. Alena,
      Realizing that you’re always going to be balancing real life with the writing life– yep! That’s an “Expect the expected” truth too. And it also came up in the Cliffs of Insanity post under “Jump off the seesaw.” (http://wp.me/p1H9QL-bp)

  5. Beth, you are hilarious! What a great way to warn and placate us. I haven’t even seen The Princess Bride and it was funny. Thank you.

    1. Lucille,
      Movie night! I’ll provide the DVD, the popcorn and your favorite soda! No joke!! I must help you correct this grievous omission. Never enjoyed Westley and Buttercup and Ingigo Montoya & Prince Humperdinck?
      Let’s get a movie night on the calendar!

  6. Beth, thanks for speaking truth in such a clever way. Your post rocks–and so do YOU.

    My survival technique for today: Realize that even when things seem blackest–after a pass, a contest in which you don’t final, a one-star review on Amazon–and you feel like you can’t take any more (please tell me I’m not the only one’s who had one of “those days”), there’s still hope.

    Westley appeared to be dead at one point, but he was only “mostly dead.” His friends took him to Miracle Max, who helped them see that Westley was actually “slightly alive.” Miracle Max filled Westley with a fresh infusion of air and his friends with hope, and Westley rebounded. We, too, can bounce back from rejections, disappointments, and criticism and go on to accomplish more than we ever thought possible.

    1. Ah, Keli! I’m so thankful someone brought Miracle Max onto the scene! (And I’m not surprised it’s you. You’re such a hope-filled person yourself.)
      At times we’re mostly dead. (Usually after a long stay in the Pit of Despair. Preview of coming attractions!) The question is, who do we have as our “Miracle Max”–the person who breathes life back into us?

      1. Beth, my Miracle Max takes two forms. One is the Lord, who restores me regularly. The other is my hubby, Get-Up-and-Go-For-It Gwynly. He’s not happy when I’m unhappy and encourages me to pick myself up, dust myself off, and get back to work. He reminds me that feelings pass and helps me look at the broader picture.

  7. My best way to overcome R.O.U.S is to realize that writing/my books aren’t the most important things in my life. Sure, my book may tank (or currently be tanking) and no one may give any of my subsequent books a chance– but those are minor things in comparison to Christ…and my family… and my kids… and…

  8. Erin,
    Perspective is a game-changer for me. It’s kind of like Miracle Max asking our mostly-dead-but-mostly-alive Westly “Whatcha’ got to live for?”
    And our hero moans, “True love.”
    So, what are we living for?
    is it really all about books and contracts and Amazon 5 star reviews?
    On days I live like that–that’s when the Brute Squad gives me a good going-over.

  9. Hi Beth,
    I really enjoyed this post. I know that life can change in the blink of an eye. I think we do the best we can do, continue to learn and grow, lend a helping hand to others along the way and make sure the ego doesn’t get in the way. I’m looking forward to Erin Healy’s class too. 🙂

    1. Wow, Erin’s class seems to be intriguing a lot of the Water Cooler crowd!
      Good suggestions, Jillian. I know I wouldn’t be as far along the writing road without the help of others. It’s possible I would have quit altogether if others hadn’t come alongside me and helped me out.

  10. Great post, Beth! So clever. 🙂
    My advice on survival in this business is to be diligent about three things:
    1) Keep a Sabbath day. It doesn’t have to be Sunday, although sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday works best for me because I spend a lot of time with family then anyway. But as important as work is, it’s more important to keep our relationships healthy, not only with family but with God as well. Setting aside a Sabbath day is a great reminder to keep our goals in perspective, and our life at least a little balanced.
    2) Keep reading. Read the good stuff, don’t waste time on books that don’t teach you how to be a better writer.
    3) Realize that the great philosopher Billy Crystal – oh, wait, he’s a comedian, and that’s exactly the guy I mean – said any profession he’s ever tried took ten years to feel like he’s comfortable in it. So if you can survive ten years in publishing, consider yourself arrived. Even if you’ve never made the NY Times bestseller list, been interviewed on Oprah (or has The View taken that spot?) or made a million dollars, which likely wasn’t going to happen anyway. Keep an eye on your expectations and celebrate that you get to keep writing, increasing that thankfulness as each year passes.

    1. Maureen,
      Bill Crystal–so, so wise! Ten years to get comfortable, eh? That’s a good rule to remember. I wonder how many of us have hit the “comfortable” mark.
      And I think gratitude and celebrating everything you can along the way makes a huge difference too! And I don’t mean just celebrating your successes. Celebrate others too!

  11. Writing a ‘ha ha ha’ doesn’t show the real happy grin on my face at this post & the comments that followed. I too love this film and will never tire of watching it, thanks Beth.
    I seem to have read quite a few different posts recently on this subject, and I wonder if it’s preparation for a huge knock down. I have to admit that I’ve not really had the confidence to promote my books very much yet because I’m scared of the R.O.U.S! But with book three about to be launched I’m slowly finding different ways to promote them, almost like testing to see if somethings hot before you touch it, if you know what I mean.
    I’m slowly beginning to realise that most writers feel like I do, comparing their work to others and feeling dispondent. I draw my own illustrations but have recently felt so dumb when I’ve seen what others have produced, their work is amazing and makes mine look like something I’ve done at school! But, thanks to Lisa’s comment, I must remember that God does only make one of everyone, and we all have different talents so I shouldn’t compare myself with others.
    I’m afraid I won’t be strong enough though, to cope with the R.O.U.S when they come, but reading your post does give me great encouragement, just knowing that everyone has been in this swamp at some point and dealt with it helps.
    Whatever anyone may like to say to put me down, I did enjoyed writing the stories. I had fun with the bears and have been blessed by the reaction of one child in particular. If I had to write them just so that child could cope with a very difficult time in her life, then it has been worth it, that’s what I must remember.
    Sorry, I’ve gone on a bit!

    1. Dee,
      One thing I love about hanging around the Water Cooler–everyone is welcome to join in the conversation. And I appreciate your honesty. We writers need one another, we understand one another. I would dare say everyone of use has felt the same you same things you have. The doubt. The insecurity. The “Oh, why didn’t I write a book as good as (fill in the blank).”
      It’s times like the one you mentioned at the end of your comment–when you discover you encouraged one child, one reader–that makes all the difference in the world because you made the difference in one life.

  12. Great, great stuff. What’s better than a Westley/Buttercup analogy? I mean, who doesn’t love that movie? 🙂

    I love the idea of not being alone. Writers understand writers and are so willing to help, share, encourage–definitely take advantage of it. The friendships I’ve made on my way down this writing path have already pushed me forward, helped me to grow; changed me as a writer. I am grateful for those God has brought into my life.

    I’m taking Erin’s class at ACFW–I’m intrigued!

    1. Jennifer:
      We’ve all got to find our Westleys and Inigo’s and Fezziks and Buttercups–the people who believe in us and fight for us, no matter what. See you in Erin’s class!

  13. Love the Princess Bride, Beth! The main message to me was to not take myself or the journey too seriously, have some fun and laugh a lot. That’s a good mantra for a writer’s journey too. I stay sane by reminding myself that I’m here to be of service so it’s not so much about what I write but about what others are going to get out of it and I can’t predict that so I’ll just do the best I can in the day I’ve been given. Keep it Simple. Thanks for taking on a tough subject with a lot of heart and levity.

    1. Truth be told, Martha, there are days when I take myself and this writing life too seriously. And those days are usually a total bust. It’s when I can step back, breathe, LAUGH, that I am more productive. And, yes, remembering that it’s not all about me. (Thank God!) 🙂

  14. Awesomely entertaining AND truthful. Expect the expected – Inconceivable! Somehow we think we will be clever enough to escape the Pits of Despair without pain. Or despair. Thanks for the reminder. I will now journey to St Louis, trained, armed and focused on my goal. Ready to face those six-fingered editor appointments without fear. I shall meet them with faith and courage as did one brave secondary characer deluded enough to think he was the hero who realized the power of positive confession and of stating your purpose repeatedly. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

    Thanks, Beth. You rock. 🙂

    1. Eek! You dared to compare editors to the evil, six-figured nemesis Count Rugen!! Oh, Camille, I am cut to quick. Did you forget I am an editor? (Don’t look at my gloved hand, girlfriend.)
      But good point, nonetheless. Go to those appointments knowing your purpose–but please, leave your sword at the door.

  15. I am new at this whole publishing game but I do appreciate your posts and all your help. Three months ago I was unaware of what all it was going to take to get a contract. You guys have been a real eye opener. I am trying to learn all of the necessary information quickly. Thank you for your guidance and encouragement.

    1. Glenda,
      Welcome to the Water Cooler, the writing road, and a whole lot of fun! Can’t wait to hear about your journey!

  16. My book is spiritual in nature and I KNOW it carries a message that must will be light to many. So a slow start is only a blockage that needs to be hit from different angles to be removed. Belief in your own work I think is a place all need to start. Then don’t sit back and let things happen. Go out and make them happen. So I’m new at this; perhaps naive. The future will tell the story.

    1. Mary,
      Your right: You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in your writing. If you don’t there’s no way you’ll survive rewrites and rejections and just plain ol’ tiredness that happens day to day. And I like the idea of hitting the roadblock from different angles. Can’t go round it? Go over it. Or under it. Or through it. Whatever works.

    1. Um … many thanks.
      Truth be told, it was fun to write.
      (And rewrite. And rewrite. It’s the editor in me.)

  17. I don’t have much experience, I’ve never had a published novel so I’m still on the sunny side of the road, although I’ve had other published works. Writing seems really similar to the art world and in that I have a LOT of experience. I think the most important thing is to enjoy writing and take critique with an open mind. Learn all you can. This is a great reminder to keep plugging away. I love my critique group and partners too. I’m amazed at how well they help my story along. But I can’t do it without the passion for my story and my characters. I don’t want to write commercially. I want to write because I love it. For me, being published might be the end result of a journey well traveled! Great stuff here!

    1. Dianne,
      You’re the kind of person I like to walk with along the writing road. And just to clarify: you’ve got plenty of experience in my book, published novel or not.
      Accomplishments don’t equal “NOVEL” here — writing is writing.
      And agreed–if we’re not writing because we love it, we should stop.
      It’s that whole “True love” line from The Princess Bride.

  18. I agree with Katie, this is brilliant!

    This is the chocolate coating that makes some of these tough truths go down a little easier. 😀

  19. I’m taking Erin’s class at conference and very much looking forward to it. It’s a fine balance between showing and telling. Sometimes showing does nothing but exhaust the reader.

    Love The Princess Bride analogies! What a perfect way to talk about this writing journey.

    1. Rachel,
      It sounds like Erin’s class is a popular one with the Water Cooler crowd. We need to take notes! I’ve heard her speak before and thought what she said was excellent. Just loved her whole spirit, actually.

  20. Awesome post, Beth! I really connected with “Don’t travel alone.” Some authors believe writing is a solitary journey. To some extent, that’s the nature of the calling. But that doesn’t mean we stay alone the whole time. We need community, BFFs to scoop us out of the house and our current WIP, and professional encouragement/guidance. Thanks for such great food for thought!

  21. Donna,
    Sometimes it’s best to walk right out of the fictional world into real life and stay there. My BFFs know when I need to talk writing and when I don’t. I love them for that.

  22. Great post! And I haven’t seen The Princess Bride. *sigh* Guess I’ll have to break down and start watching movies. My suggestion is to stay flexible and realize your words are written in stone. Otherwise sometimes they’re hard to chisel out.

    1. Pat, you are hereby invited to watch Princess Bride with me and Lucille. Any other takers? I’m bringing the popcorn and the sodas. And yes, we have to be flexible and willing to hack away at what we’ve written.

  23. Can’t get enough Princess Bride! As for survival techniques, I think it’s important to remember not to overthink/overanalyze everything. As in, “Clearly, I cannont drink from the cup in front of me.” and “Clearly, I cannot drink from the cup in front of you.”

    1. ROTFL! Absolutely. We can’t overthink, but so often I do! And that, as we all know from Vizzini, can create serious problems. 🙂

  24. Thanks, Jordyn! I have to say the commenters have added a lot of wisdom to the original post, which was the conversation starter.

  25. I love this post. I’m a long time fan of Buttercup and Westley. I learned to do praise walks during the years I was my mom-in-law’s caregiver. God always managed to place something beautiful in my path. Gratitude goes a long way toward ending pity parties and increasing courage, and courage is one of the prime requirements of being a writer!

    1. Sue,
      Why am I hearing the word “Courage” in the voice of the “Impressive Clergyman”? (Honestly–that’s how he’s listed in the credits over at The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093779/)
      “Couwage is what bwings us togwether todway . . . ”
      No, really. You’re right. Writers need both gratitude and courage to achieve progress along the writing road!

  26. I am so loving your Princess Bride analogies (and the meme cracks me up, too!). Survival techniques? Hmm, one comes to mind—and in keeping with your theme, it’s sort of like spending a lifetime building up an immunity to iocane powder—get yourself out there, prepare for rejection, and embrace it. It’s one of the few certainties in this business, and it becomes a LOT less painful over time simply by the sheer number of times you face it. And once that sting is gone, you can really pay attention to what’s being said between the lines and learn from it to get better. (:

    1. Rebecca,
      Brilliant analogy between iocane powder and rejection! We do have to build an immunity to that, don’t we? Once we’re immune to rejection, we can take it in, deal with it, and move on. (And hope that we learn something along the way.)

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