Writers: Extend flexibility to yourself

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Writers are continually admonished to be patient during the journey to representation and again to being adaptable throughout the knuckle-biting process to a contract and publication. This is wise advice. But have you given much thought to extending the grace of flexibility to yourself?

An editor-author I spoke to recently had this to say about flexibility: “I realized today that I need to be flexible with myself during the writing process. Each writer has areas that are easier than others; plotting for me is a stickler. Instead of getting frustrated and giving up, I need to be flexible and allow more time and patience while I’m coming up with ideas, crossing out lots of them, and acknowledging that for me this part of writing is going to require my most flexible, gracious energy toward myself. Flexibility will help me not give up but continue to wade through, seeking out others who are natural plotters.”

Great advice, don’t you think? It can apply to any function of this writing life. For instance, I tend to be task-oriented and organized in my processes. But after spending years working at publishing houses, following the structured 9–5 office routine, I had to extend grace to myself in adjusting to a self-imposed working routine as an agent. It’s far from a normal schedule. The first few months were frustrating until I realized what the core issue was. Added flexibility is a welcome ingredient in my life.

Goals are a key to success in anything. But to maintain sanity in this business, your objectives have to be seasoned with the salt of flexibility. For example, say you’ve set a goal to create an astounding proposal in three months so you can submit it to a desired agent. However, when the time comes, you realize it could use another review by your critique group. By all means let flexibility override your self-imposed date.

Or, perhaps you disagree with the editor at your publishing house. The changes he or she is asking for don’t make sense to you. The editor I was speaking to responded this way about listening to editors and valuing their input: “I realized long ago from my years in editing that I would never want to have something I wrote published without an editor’s input because there are always going to be things that I won’t see on my own that an editor sees. This is a good reason to listen carefully and let their advice sink in with time to process it before closing them off.”

Again, sound advice. Surrender a defensive reaction to a spirit of flexibility while you give yourself time to think through the issue. Of course editors are human and occasionally are wrong. That’s when you bring your agent in to mediate. But that’s a subject for another blog.

To survive in this industry all of us need to be flexible in our thinking, without compromising God’s standards and values. Publishing houses are acquiring  other houses, being acquired, or partnering with other entities in their efforts to keep up with new publishing models and consumer demand. Remaining inflexible and holding on to old models in this business climate would lead to their demise.

Flexibility is all about the grace that preserves a positive, optimistic outlook toward your work and your interactions. A flexible attitude will foster a teachable spirit that agents and editors look for, and it will preserve your relationships, your reputation, and love for your work.

What areas of your writing life frustrate you most? When have you experienced the need for flexibility, but it didn’t happen? When did you need flexibility, and it was extended?

50 Responses

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  1. Good morning, Mary.
    I giggled when I read “maintain sanity”. Fans self. Uh HUH. Nobody in my world believes I have any left, so thankfully, we can get past that delusion.

    Alright, I have my big girl shoes on now…(thank you Sue Harrison)…when I *began writing*, I’d already been writing for years. I’ve had editors suggest things, and I’ve had people gush to me about my writing.
    And, I’ve had people stop me, flaps their arms, and say “aren’t you that lady who writes in the paper??!!”
    “Why, yes, I am.”
    Thennnnn she dropped her arm to her hip and sneered.
    Insert cricket noises here.
    Score: The “aren’t you just special?” team. One.
    Jennifer’s pride. Zero.

    That was a tough, rather public lesson that taught me to bend with the heat, but not let it burn. My mom’s technical criticisms of my MS hurt, but I look at it this way, if I can handle my Mommy picking out the rough spots, holy frijoles, I can handle ANYTHING!!

    Area that frustrates me? The tightrope of finding representation and the subsequent tango of landing a publisher, all the while writing books that will grab my readers to the point of leaving them breathless…while still remaining an unknown in a sea of great writers.
    When have I needed flexibility and didn’t receive an nth? Hmmmm, I’ll think on that.
    Needed it and got it? Ask my husband. But he won’t say a word. Ask my newspaper editor, she’ll sing like a canary!

  2. My number one frustration: Inspiration NEVER coincides with free time! Please, someone tell me, why great plot twists, characters, blah-blah-blah all strike at inopportune moments? The days I have quiet, kid free afternoons – nothin’, but on the days I’m a multi-tasking basket case – ideas explode! I’m sure it has something to do with keeping an active mind, but seriously, if the left-brain and right-brain can reach some kind of peace accord, I’ll be forever grateful.

  3. Lisa says:

    I tend to extend grace to myself the least.

    I feel most frustrated when I know I have to stand out from a crowded field. I have always been a very behind-the-scenes person. My husband extends grace and encouragement to me. He knew writing was my heart and encouraged me to go for it no matter how long it took. He reminds me everyday I am making a difference with my words and that is what is important.

    Thank you so much for this blog. I did a teleseminar on-line last night about publishing, and did not learn anything new. I told my husband, I seriously have learned the most from the books and such blog.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Lisa, you are blessed to have an encouraging husband. And thanks for your feedback. It’s rewarding for all of the B&S agents to hear that we are providing helpful career information.

    • Lisa, I heartily agree with you. I’ve learned more here than anywhere else.

    • Larry says:

      Indeed! Not only is it fun to learn from other writers with varying styles, backgrounds, and perspectives….

      …..but we also get to learn from agents, some of whom are writers themselves! (and sometimes guest editors or publishers who write a guest-blog), so we get a much more diverse and complete view of the craft of writing and the state of the industry.

      Frankly, even though the recent blog posts have broken the 100-plus comment mark, I’m surprised that there aren’t several hundred comments per blog post. The group and
      discussion really is that good!

      Though we did find out recently that there are a substantial number of folks who read the blogs and discussions, but are either a little shy to comment, or too busy, but hopefully they join in!

      As the recent 100-plus blog posts have shown (and other blog posts in the past have shown) we’re friendly enough and focused enough to keep sub-discussions and multiple sub-topics on their own flow, while keeping the main topic and discussion going. Also, the format of the comments section itself helps in this, in that replies are grouped beneath the post being replied to, and form their own column [thus if someone doesn’t want to join in that discussion, they can quickly scroll down to where the format of the replies reverts back from the sub-column].

      Oh, and Jennifer has chocloates, which always helps discussion. 🙂

    • Maybe the Books & Such people should compile a lot of the previous blog posts into a book. I’ve seen some information here I never saw in other books and you certainly have what it takes to get it published. Of course you’d have to do it in your spare time and you probably don’t have any of that.

    • Jeanne T says:

      I’m with you, Lisa. I’ve learned so much from this blog, and I love getting to know the people here, agents and commenters.

  4. Jeanne T says:

    What a great post. Flexibility is so much easier for me to extend to others than myself. But, I’m slowly learning the beauty of this gift. When real life trumps writing life I give myself flexibility. It’s easier right now, since I’m not working under deadline.

    My kids have given me flexibility when I haven’t been able to do something right when I said I would. I try to keep my word, but sometimes, that is delayed. My husband has given me the gift of flexibility too many times to count. 🙂

  5. This shouldn’t be a tough one, but it is. We all want to know that Monday through Friday is going to be exactly the same, that we can sit down at the same time and do X, Y, and Z.

    I don’t think I really got it until about four years ago when I read Dave Ramsey’s book on personal finance. He said your budget will not look the same from month to month because each month has different expenses. Your food budget in November will not look the same as your food budget in, say, March.

    Same with time. Some days have needs other days don’t have. So some days are great writing days. Some–it ain’t happening. Once I realized that, I felt so much better about myself and the work I was doing.

    Thanks for sharing this, Mary.

  6. I’m right there with you on the structured routine, Mary. But homeschooling and six children don’t exactly create that sort of environment. On the upside, the six children and a rather spontaneous husband have forced me to learn personal flexibility. So my blog posts are usually written in increments of a few minutes captured here and there. As I replied to Kathryn, I make notes on my WIP throughout the day. Then, when the quiet time arrives, I sit down and pound that keyboard. Both family and writing are of supreme importance, so we continue to work on that balance. Thanks for the encouragement today.

  7. Ah, flexibility…my nemesis! 😛

    I tend to extend grace much more easily to others than to myself. I push and push myself to meet my self-imposed deadlines, regardless of what else happens (what, I’m a journalist, so deadlines have always been my bread and butter!). However, my husband and my awesome critique partner have been great this month about encouraging me to back off my goals a bit. See, we had a lot of unexpected things come up–like really sick doggies and some freelancing opportunities that might lead to something more permanent. Those things meant my ms draft gets finished a week and a half past the date I’d set for myself. I didn’t want to budge from my deadline but realized that there was more benefit to be gained by taking on the freelance work and pushing my deadline back–since it was self-imposed, after all. I know this wouldn’t have worked with a contracted ms, but in this case, flexibility was what I needed.

  8. Stacy Voss says:

    Fabulous post! I wrote a Bible study on contentment, yet sometimes it’s the process of trying to get it published that I have to remember to be content (and patient!). I’m giving a talk next month on “Contentment on your Writing Journey,” meaning that I’m really excited because I always learn more than I could ever teach. It’s such a hard path, isn’t it (but one filled with such treasure!)?

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Larry says:

    Flexibility is good, but for me it can sometimes become procrastination and laziness, in that flexibility becomes, “Well, I’m not putting off writing the next chapter! I’m just making sure that I’m being flexible with my own writing that I’m not forcing myself to write garbage!”

    Also: my website / blog 🙂

  10. Rick Barry says:

    When I worked as a project manager for a publisher of educational materials, I quickly learned flexibility in the area of artwork. My authors often requested graphics and included a sketch. Or I might picture something and write a description for a suitable graphic. In each case, though, the proof that came back from the art department was far cooler than anything the author or I had envisioned. I learned that these folks specialize in visual appeal. As long as the artwork matched the story, I learned to grant them the freedom to unleash their imaginations.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Rick, I started out as a product manager. I know well of what you speak. Don’t you agree that learning the how’s and why’s of being flexible early in a writing career serves us well in the years ahead?

  11. Stephanie M. says:

    I used to be inflexible… then I had kids. HA! You can’t be inflexible w/ kids (or you’ll be that OCD sock guy from Look Who’s Talking). My kids have made me flexible in almost every area of my life. You just have to roll w/ it.

    Some days I’m not going to have time to write- there it is. Family and work come first, and acknowledging that gives me peace.

  12. What a wise reminder, Mary. With young children, my life is a daily exercise in flexibility. Sometimes it feels like no matter how much I plan, they have the uncanny ability to throw it all out the minivan window. 🙂

    • Mary Keeley says:

      LOL, great word picture, Sarah. I think I was prompted to blog on flexibility today because I was thinking about all the things that need to be done for the coming Christmas holidays in addition to agenting privileges. It is the season to build in time for sharing and caring.

  13. “Blessed are the flexible for they shall bend and not break.”

    I love that saying! And I hope it’s becoming true for me. I’ve been so close to breaking so many times in my writing journey. And yet I bounce back, a little bruised and a little stretched, but still functional.

    I think the area where I’ve needed flexibility and not received it is in the industry as a whole. Like Janet said in her blog on Monday, there seems to be no room for a misstep. And I tend to interpret that as “no room for someone outside the box.”

    But I have received flexibility from individuals within the industry. From writer friends, from both of my supportive former agents, and even editors who’ve given encouraging responses to my writing.

    I think we find flexibility when we give ourselves permission to look away from the big picture and focus on the individual or the task at hand. Not that we shouldn’t consider that big picture from time to time, but God’s grace is in the details.

  14. Michelle Lim says:

    I can so relate to you, Sarah! I think the flexibility for me that has to come in besides the tornado of young children, is the time I need to refuel.

    Every now and then I drop off of the grid with an immense need for a week to refuel my creativity. It isn’t just rest, but extra reading, extra aesthetically pleasing things like trips to the art museum. Quiet, nature, music, art, words…all the fuel to quiet my mind to hear my own thoughts.

    Thanks for this fabulous article. You just sliced my current guilt to shreds. I appreciate the recognition that we all have a uniqueness in the process that requires grace.

  15. Diane Yuhas says:

    Sometimes I’m so flexible, I become like overstretched elastic and lose my ability to keep myself on track.

  16. Inspiring post Mary and as always I love and identify with so many of the comments.

    I found this rather unique definition of “Flex” and decided it is worth pondering over a cup of tea…

    Medical Dictionary

    flex (flěks)
    To move a joint so that the parts it connects approach each other.

    Hope everyone has a fantastic weekend!

  17. Thank you for covering this topic, Mary. I participated in NaNoWriMo and found that (at least this time) I didn’t want to write all the way through. I began to feel directionless, and chose to stop writing and study plotting for a while. I feel that I came out of the process at a good place with a plot that is developing with depth. Now I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be nice to have that 50,000 words and then be able to go back and plot (like several of my writer friends have done). Good for them! Maybe I’ll be right there with them next year.

  18. Peter DeHaan says:

    I have a two-way tie for most frustrating:

    1) Great ideas always come at inopportune moments.

    2) I never have enough time to accomplish what I want to write.

  19. I love Evangeline’s line and I’d like to revise to say “Blessed are the flexible for they bend -and keep bending.” I’m not a young mom anymore, but life in all its forms sure makes me remain flexible! I often think of ‘working in spurts.’ Ponder is also a word I reserve for use when I need to continue to think about some suggested revision. Enjoyed this post and the comments.

  20. I get in such a hurry sometimes when leaving comments! I meant to say, in my earlier one, that NaNoWriMo taught me flexibility is definitely key as a writer, as I didn’t make it to the 50,000-word goal. I did choose to extend grace to myself, as you say :), Mary, and to be happy with what I did achieve!

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