Question of the Month: Joy

by Susan Henderson on February 1, 2010

My sister-in-law sent this to me, and I figured some of you could relate…


So we all know the misery of the business, but today I want to ask you about the flip side. After all, how many people do you know who follow their passions as much as writers do? So tell me, what about writing (or the ritual you have around writing) is a real joy?

Recently, Jordan Rosenfeld (author, radio host, and Writer’s Digest editor) interviewed me about the process of revision, and we talked about both the misery and the joy of it. Feel free to chime in!

One last thing, I hope those of you who are political geeks will check out Charlie Shaughnessy’s gloriously fiesty blog, Only Connect! Why am I recommending a political blog to writers? Well, for some of you, because you have a genuine interest in politics (think a male Rachel Maddow with a British accent). But for all of you, it’s a reminder of what writers need to do: Be bold, energize people (even if it’s energizing them to disagree with you), and find a way to connect.

{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 8:39 am

Great article on the weekend mess between Amazon and MacMillan: (Thanks, John Scalzi!)

And Scott Westerfield did some great blogging about it, too:

And with full credit going to Michael Cader’s Publishers Marketplace, here’s the literary agent letter he posted over there:

Here’s What the Agents Say for Now
The AAR board of directors issued this statement a few minutes ago:

“The AAR strongly believes that the future of the digital book market requires a business model that is sustainable over the long term, and is fair to retailers, publishers and our authors. To be in the best interests of our clients, such a model must respect the high value of book-length work, and adhere to the long-held practice in all media (and most retailing) that new and exciting work bears the highest prices. We have never believed that a model that incurs a per unit loss on every sale, and sets an unrealistically low price on the most popular bestselling books, can possibly be in the best long term interests of our clients or the publishing industry. Therefore we applaud Macmillan’s stance on e-book terms; and Amazon’s stated intention to work within Macmillan’s model. We hope and assume other publishers will soon follow suit.

“It is unclear at the moment the extent to which the ‘agency model’ sales terms will work to the advantage of our clients. But it is clear that having access to our authors’ work used as a weapon in negotiation is an unacceptable turn of events that we roundly condemn. Regardless of the content of the negotiations between Amazon and Macmillan, about which we have no information beyond what has been reported publicly, we believe that Amazon’s punitive choice to stop selling print editions of work by all Macmillan authors was a blow to the industry and to authors. We certainly hope to see Amazon rectifying this situation with regard to our Macmillan authors immediately. We and our clients have been hugely supportive of Amazon’s innovative, indeed groundbreaking efforts since its inception, and we hope that going forward the spirit of partnership between Amazon and our authors can be once again something we can depend upon.”

And another great discussion. Thanks for the link, Lance!


Jimnichols February 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

For me the real joy is working through all the possibles and actually finding the real, unchangeable ending to a story. It’s always an organic extension of the guts of the story, and you always know it when you find it and that discovery brings such an uplift. Another joy — one I’ve just (finally!) experienced with my novel — is selling it!


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 9:27 am

Details! Title! Link! 😀


Jimnichols February 1, 2010 at 9:34 am

Hi Sue! Loved that cartoon. I’m not supposed to say anything publicly until the contract is actually signed (today or tomorrow). But big regional publisher, small advance, publication next spring (2011). Title: Midcoast.

What a timely subject on LITPARK!


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 9:39 am

Jim, the SECOND you’re allowed to say everything publicly, I want to hear the whole story. Also, I’m smiling so hard, my face hurts. So so thrilled, and not just for you, but for all of us who’ve been dying to read another of your books! (P.S. love what you said about finding the organic ending of a story.)


Eric Rickstad February 1, 2010 at 9:41 am

Discovery. The moment(s) when an idea takes on its own life and you begin to follow the characters’ lives and track them, write them down as quickly as you can while they are speaking and going about their lives. The rewriting. Honing down the rough writing so it’s concrete and deliberate but still maintains a poetry appropriate to the story and characters. Getting jacked up on pots of coffee. Wearing pajamas. Fulfilling a part of oneself that needs fulfillment. Living in the moment. Attuned and aware, writing from instinct and intuition.


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 9:44 am

I’m having the best day already. Just reading this is giving me a shot of adrenaline.


Jimnichols February 1, 2010 at 9:45 am

You are the nicest. I’ll come back when I can talk out loud. But really, you’re always so happy for others it makes me want to be like you.


billiehinton February 1, 2010 at 10:06 am

The amazing synchronicities that begin to happen between what I’m writing (which is fiction) and real life.

Way too many examples to go into detail here, but a quick one: I was editing a scene that took place in a small roadside motel. I’d written the scene years before, and based the motel on one I’d driven by while doing research for the book. The original book had been agented and shopped, and didn’t sell, and I was editing it one more time before trying it again. Meanwhile, we’d moved to our farm, coincidentally in the same county as the real roadside motel. I had forgotten that – but on the way to somewhere I passed that little motel and noted that it was still there, but the name had changed. Later that week I got to the scene with the motel and proceeded to edit. But I got seriously stuck. I was sitting in my writing garret feeling completely stuck and the phone kept ringing. I ignored it, determined to push past the block, which involved the main male character’s ambivalence about using the motel as a meeting place. After awhile I decided to take a break, and on my way out to the barn I grabbed the phone to see who had called all those times. All the calls were from that little motel – which I knew the new name of b/c I’d just driven past it earlier in the week! I have no idea who it was that called. I decided it was my main male character trying to help me out with the scene!

This kind of thing happens on a daily basis when I’m in the thick of a book, and for a writer who is also a Jungian-based psychotherapist, it’s a glorious process indeed. 🙂


Anonymous February 1, 2010 at 11:21 am

I get joy in the great gush of first drafty-ness, and I get joy in the pulling of seams tightly when I know which ones to tug on.

Thanks for linking. I loved your interview.

(Jordan Roseneld–In case my profile doesn’t show up again)


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 1:38 pm

What a great story. I love being inside your writing process… and the uncanny magic of it.


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Good point about knowing which ones to tug on! (You could write a whole blog post using that analogy, and I hope you do.)


larrybutz February 1, 2010 at 2:05 pm

For me, the biggest joy of being a writer comes from reading your work to others. When people laugh along with the piece, or cry along with it–when it touches them in just the right way so you can see a peculiar flicker of the mouth–that’s when I think, “I love being a writer.”


Nathalie February 1, 2010 at 2:20 pm

It’s the words! The words! The wondrous, magic words.


billybones February 1, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Received my first fan e-mail the other day (addressed to me, NOT the man who types up my stories). I am now officially tickled pink.


Lance Reynald February 1, 2010 at 3:06 pm

I’ve gotten some pretty amazing notes from readers.
I have to say, those are more treasured than any review, accolade or sales figure from within the industry.
the simple fact that somewhere out there someone was touched by something I said, enough to find the voice to write it down for both of us…

yeah, that feeling really can’t be beat.


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 3:39 pm

I’m laughing because I’ve certainly read stuff out loud to others and thought, when I prepared the piece, that people would think it was so funny. And then, there’s the empty room and a little polite applause. But how awesome to even imagine it going the other way!


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 3:40 pm

I agree. Whether you create them or someone else, it’s finding a sentence you have to read a second time– aloud– because it’s that remarkable.


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I’m going to send you fan mail, Bones. It’s going to be long, stalkerish fan mail.


SusanHenderson February 1, 2010 at 3:42 pm

I agree, and I’m so thrilled you’re getting those (well-deserved) notes.


Anonymous February 2, 2010 at 3:20 am

I enjoy knowing that I still write even though no one is waiting for my words.


SusanHenderson February 2, 2010 at 9:03 am

Yay for LitParkers and friends with Oscar nominations: Best Actress, The Blind Side (Sandy Bullock). Best Animated Film, Coraline (Neil Gaiman) and Up! (Ronnie Del Carmen and Enrico Casarosa).


SusanHenderson February 2, 2010 at 9:04 am

Love this, Amanda. (Terry Bain, any reason why people are having trouble signing in via their facebook accounts?)


Anonymous February 2, 2010 at 2:33 pm

The infinite discoveries: news ways of seeing and understanding, new levels of my own best (writing/being), new forms, new words, new metaphors . . . the joy of solitude and connectedness.


SusanHenderson February 2, 2010 at 2:44 pm

That’s so true, how there’s intense solitude and connectedness all at once. Well said.


Anonymous February 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Sorry for the double post as I kept getting that spinning circle forever and didn’t think it when through.
Lisa Cheby


SusanHenderson February 2, 2010 at 3:23 pm

No problem, I’ll just take off the double. Sorry about the spinning wheel, Lisa, but glad you’re here.


robinslick February 3, 2010 at 1:54 pm

First of all, my middle name is Joy. For real. I hated it my whole life because I thought my name sounded like a candy bar (I’ll have a Robin Joy, please, because sometimes you feel like a nut…) and my evil father used to tease me all the time once he knew it was my achilles heel being chubby and all as a kid.

Anyway, getting back to your question, everyone who has written comments before me here pretty much nailed it. All I can add is that when I am really writing, when I’m really in that zone, what I love best is the total escape from reality. I am so wrapped up in the story, in the characters, etc. that I walk around speaking their dialogue out loud and I have notebooks everywhere scattered throughout the house in case I get a brilliant idea and can’t get to the computer fast enough. (Erm…what this means is pretty sad. Once you are of a certain age and certain hormones come into play, you feel like there’s a fog over your brain and if you don’t write your ideas/thoughts down immediately, they are GONE). But yeah, the joy for me is leaving the real world for one of infinite possibilities and getting to live out fantasies on paper I could never do in real life. At least not anymore. xo


SusanHenderson February 3, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I’ve been hearing privately from some of you that there’s not a lot of joy in the writing these days. Sometimes an edit creates a ripple effect in a story and things come undone. Sometimes you get feedback that you have to fit plot and bone structure under what you thought was beautiful, organic and finished. And I’m not one to say there’s necessarily joy to find in that. It’s just going to be hard work. But here’s some ideas I use, and ideas I learned from other writers to make the experience a little nicer. Take what works and add your own ideas: Dress up. Fill your writing space with candles and light them before you begin. Write uninterrupted for an hour, two if you can, without getting up for coffee or the phone or anything. But when you do get up, give yourself a treat: a chai tea, a truffle, something. Take one thing you’re stuck on and go on a walk with that scene/paragraph/plot line. Walk as long as you need to, thinking of nothing but that one small knot in the story, and have a pen with you because the ideas will surely come.

If you have ideas for making things a little easier, share them. Writing’s not for sissies, that’s for sure.


SusanHenderson February 3, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Robin, I never ever knew that. And of everything you’ve ever told me over the years, I think your middle name is the one thing that’s actually shocked me.

I’m glad you brought up the “zone” because I’m one of those people who finds that zone maybe once or twice a year. I’d love to leave the real world more often and have a story pouring out of me as if from some other source, and I thought for a long time that I wasn’t a real writer, or was at best a failed writer, because I couldn’t get myself to that place. In the end, I’ve found that my strength is that I’m a workhorse. I’m fine spending a day writing something awful because then I have something to revise on another day. When I’m not feeling poetic, I outline the plot and figure out what elements I need to place in the next scene. Every day I push I little further than I think I can go, and I get a huge sense of satisfaction from that.

When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to the weight room at the Pentagon Officer’s Athletic Club. I was usually the only girl, and always the only kid. And I would set up the weights without anyone’s help, and no matter what they recommended for me to lift, I’d add five pounds to it. I’m sure this is why I have such bad knees, but it’s kind of the same idea when I write. I decide what I think I can get done, and then I add five pounds to it, just to prove I can. 😉


SusanHenderson February 4, 2010 at 7:46 am

I’ve been posting jobs as I hear about them. This one comes from someone from my high school crew team. (Thanks, Eric!)

Subject: Job: Academy of American Poets

Web Programmer
Academy of American Poets;


Ric February 4, 2010 at 11:13 am

Joy. You know, there has to be a reason we keep doing this – it must bring something to our souls or we wouldn’t keep banging our heads against the wall. Joy is a good way to describe it. The joy of having the character you’ve been struggling with, the one you just couldn’t quite figure out, suddenly take over the keyboard and start saying the most amazing things – all perfectly in tune with what you expected.
The joy, like Lance, of getting letters and notes indicating you touched a nerve, brought a tear, gave hope.
The joy, that comes when you bundle up the last pages you’ve been working on for months and shyly give it to your beta reader, hoping against hope; and when you see her next, her only comment is “WOW!”
The joy of running into the local newspaper editor and asking if he would read samples. And his response is, “I know you can write – but I also know you’re beyond what we can pay you.”
The joy of writing itself. The act of pounding the keys, transferring all those voices in your head onto paper where they keep insisting they need to be.
The joy of being able to put into words those unquiet thoughts you can’t share with even your closest friends, lest they think you insane, terribly twisted, or too far gone to help.
And the joy of being able to share with kindred spirits, like LitPark, all of whom know the terror of a blank sheet, the endless waiting for “the call”, the pain of revision, and, most of all, the doubt, the oppressive doubt hanging over every word and wondering if this is the manuscript to break through – doubts that clouds the joy but not enough to make you stop.


SusanHenderson February 4, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Ric, please go publish this somewhere.


Ric February 4, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Oh, Joy!
Doubtful I can get much more exposure than here, but thank you.


SusanHenderson February 5, 2010 at 9:36 am

Thanks for the link, Ellen. Returning the favor:

Oh, and a great opening at Writer’s Digest for any of you living (or willing to live) in Cincinnati: (this is via Jane Friedman)


kategray February 5, 2010 at 11:44 am

Well, it is words, as Tom Stoppard reminds us; they’re all we have to go on.

For me, the joy comes when I can disengage the higher thought process, and just find myself hammering out pages. It’s like…when you’re out for a run, and slip into a pace, and the body and mind are separate creatures. When I can actually leave behind the nagging thoughts, worries, distractions, and find that place, writing is all I want to do forever.


SusanHenderson February 5, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I like your comparison to going out for a run, because before you’re out of the house, it feels like it’s all chore and no fun. And the beginning is the shock of the weather and the body wishing it were still just sitting. And your head’s full of worries and to-do lists. And then the fresh air takes over, and adrenaline, and the scenery, and pretty soon, you’re in your stride. Glad you’re here, Kate.


Jimnichols February 7, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Hi Sue…well, contract signed and sealed, so I hope I”m good to go! Publisher is Downeast Books. They’ve decided to start a line of fiction with a recognizable look…like Vintage Contemparies did…and are kicking it off with my book and one another (don’t know whose) next spring. They make lovely books and I’m very happy to be included.


SusanHenderson February 8, 2010 at 7:54 am

Really smart marketing to go directly for the Maine market. Of course, those of us who know your writing, know your appeal is universal. Let us know how it’s going every step of the way… cover, marketing plan, etc. And most importantly, when your book is up for pre-order!


Jimnichols February 8, 2010 at 8:41 am

Thanks, Sue…Downeast has a regional flavor, but a pretty wide reach. Their magazine goes around the world — 2 or 3 hundred thousand circulation, I believe — and they have several hundred books in print and won four IPPY awards this year — one for a book with writers like Richard Russo, Wesley McNair, Monica Wood and Bill Roohrbach. The more I find out about them the better I like the whole idea.


SusanHenderson February 8, 2010 at 9:29 am

Wow! Lots of Richard Russo fans here, I already know. I’m thrilled about this and itching for a copy!


SusanHenderson February 8, 2010 at 10:08 am
Ailina February 8, 2010 at 8:58 pm

My joy of writing? It quiets the demons for a while. 😉


SusanHenderson February 8, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Know exactly what you’re talking about, Ailina!


SusanHenderson February 9, 2010 at 8:19 am

Another job someone here may be interested in:

(Thanks for pointing it out, Lance!)


SusanHenderson February 9, 2010 at 8:39 am

Passing along some exciting news: Our friend, MJ Rose, has her series PAST LIFE airing tonight on Fox at 9 (right after AMERICAN IDOL).


SusanHenderson February 12, 2010 at 7:46 am

What an honor to find I’ve been linked by the amazing poet laureate of California, Al Young. Please check out his work here: It will be like giving yourself a gift.


scapa February 15, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Another writer said the process is about keeping your butt in the chair. You have to pound and grind and polish in order to sparkle.

I find the most joy in revision, the (never) final honing of all that comes before. The insight and subtle changes make the original struggle doable.


SusanHenderson February 15, 2010 at 12:24 pm

More jobs for writers and creative types (Thanks, Eric!):

Administrative Assistant – Special Events Department
New York Philharmonic;
New York, New York, United States

Associate Director of Special Events and Volunteer Services
New York Philharmonic;
New York, New York, United States

Visitor Services Associate
Carnegie Hall;
New York, New York, United States

Operations Manager
Washington Bach Consort, Metro washington, DC Area;
Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Salary: Negotiable. Flat fee per performance.

Individual & Corporate Giving Manager
Urban Arts Partnership;
New York, New York, United States
Salary: Commensurate with Experience

Events Coordination Manager
The New York Open Center;
New York, New York, United States
Salary: $38,000, possibly more depending on experience
Deadline March 20, 2010

Web Programmer
Academy of American Poets;
New York, New York, United States
Deadline April 2, 2010

Managing Director
Arts Nova;
New York, New York, United States
Salary: Competitive salary, commensurate with experience
Last day to apply: March 1, 2010


SusanHenderson February 15, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I agree. The artistry is in the editing process, but you said it better.


michaelmcintyre February 15, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Finding that apt turn of phrase that fits, whether in first draft or rewrites. That’s the supreme joy in writing for me.


scapa February 15, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Do you still freelance edit?


SusanHenderson February 15, 2010 at 9:19 pm

I don’t, but I highly recommend Jordan Rosenfeld:


SusanHenderson February 15, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Me, too!


Aurelio February 17, 2010 at 11:07 am

I believe any creative career comes with this potential downside, be it fine arts, acting, writing, dance, or music. It is especially difficult to be a creative sort in our current corporate-dominated, quick-money, short-term-gain world. This world insists on reducing risk, and the unknown is by definition risky. This leaves us only with the known, thus all the regurgitated fodder, the smaller and smaller client lists, ho-hum book sales and a shrinking market.

I think to creatively flourish as writers we need to ignore things like publishing company’s wants and be the ones driving the literary world rather than begging publishers, agents, and the like for a seat in their downsized and shrinking clown car. Just as Jobs, Wozniak, and Wayne did with Apple, Inc., we need to reinvent our industry out on the edges and away from corporate timidity and fear of failure.

This means letting go of aiming for advances and multi-book deals and really digging into what we want to say. It means believing in the creative process more than the bottom line.


Aurelio February 17, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Oh, and to actually answer your question Susan, the real joy for me is when my characters come alive and begin writing themselves. It feels so strange. Like a variation on automatic writing. Like, “Is this coming out of me?” But when that separation happens, when they become real in my head, I can enjoy them as an observer rather than a puppet master.


SusanHenderson February 18, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Ha! What you said about the shrinking clown car made me laugh out loud. And I think you’re right, artists have to learn to transcend not only the rejections but also the pressure to produce what’s trendy and get back to the art, the individual calling. Love what you said about the moment you don’t feel like you’re the puppet master so much as someone who’s watching the story unfold. For me the final revisions are about removing all indications of those strings so that I, as a reader now, fully believe the characters and the story. It’s a great feeling when something you imagined comes to life.


SusanHenderson February 24, 2010 at 12:43 pm

More jobs, guys. Get to work!

Editor—Razorbill [Full Time]
Penguin Group (USA) (New York, NY)

Contracts Associate [Full Time]
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY)

Accounting Assistant, Children’s Books [Full Time]
Sheldon Fogelman Agency, Inc. (New York, NY)

Editorial Director [Full Time]
Brilliance Audio (Grand Haven, MI)

Acquisitions Editor [Full Time/Freelance]
Globe Pequot Press (Guilford, CT)

Managing Editor (Pharma) [Full Time]
WebMD (Manhattan, NY)

Sales Assistant [Full Time]
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. (New York, NY)

Web Programmer
Academy of American Poets;
New York, New York, United States

Visitor Services Assistant
The Morgan Library & Museum;
New York, New York, United States

Assistant Director of Admissions for Recruitment
The Juilliard School;
New York, New York, United States


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