22 September 2015

Envy and Writing: Real-Life Noir

On September 10th, Sleuthsayer Eve Fisher described her story “Presumed Guilty,” published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Detective that I am, I deduced that it was the cover story.

I thought, Hmm. Not only have I never cracked the pages of AHMM, I’ve only received one slightly personalized rejection to date. Usually it’s just a straight bounce.

I could’ve gotten envious of Eve. Seethed about Eve. In fact, years ago, I might have done exactly that.

At my book club last month, we did a round table and each picked which deadly sin personified us. I chose both anger and envy. I’m also an enormous glutton—people are always astonished how much I eat and ask where I pack it away—but I don’t feel guilty about loving food. I have, however, blown up at people and swallowed a lot of bile and worked hard to change both these traits.

First, dictionary time.
  • Envy means you want what someone else has, whether it’s a fat bank account or the perfect family.
  • Jealousy means you’re afraid of losing what you’ve got, so you monitor your pretty young mistress to make sure she doesn’t take up with her dashing co-worker.

I bring this up for two reasons. I think writers are particularly susceptible to envy because there’s no clear path, so it feels like everyone else is always getting ahead.
“[A] woman with three poems in [Poetry Magazine] had been born two years after me, which was enough to ruin my day—and I didn’t even desire to write poetry. The notion of people my age or younger having written books, some of them quite good books, was more than upsetting. I did not precisely want them to die, but, wondering why they hadn’t the simple courtesy to allow my achievements to be recognized first, I wanted them, somehow, stopped. The moral of this little story, I believe, is that it is difficult to be ambitious without also being envious.”—Joseph Epstin, Envy

Edgar-nominated writer Kris Rusch/Nelscott told me, "In writing, there is no hierarchy, which is really strange.  It's the only profession I know where we don't compete against each other. We compete against ourselves--trying to outdo ourselves.  That's because each writers' career is different.  No one career is the same as another.  So we're always comparing apples and broccoli."

Still, when Kris asked for suggestions about topics for her Freelancer’s Survival Guide, I asked her to write about jealousy. She initially said no. But eventually she did write about it, and it was so popular that it became a two-part article.

“First, let me be clear about the reasons I initially declined to cover this topic.  I think jealousy is one of the most destructive emotions in the world.  I think you can attribute more horrible things to jealousy than you can to most other emotions, including anger. I see nothing positive about jealousy. I’ve watched it ruin friendships, marriages, and professional relationships. I’ve watched it destroy careers.  I know of cases where jealousy has led to actual physical harm, including murder.” http://kriswrites.com/2010/01/14/freelancers-survival-guide-professional-jealousy/

To my surprise, the follow-up article was called “Surviving Other People’s Jealousy.” 
I don’t think I ever harmed anyone, just gnashed my teeth a bit. And no one had envied me, as far as I knew, since I was such a newbie.

I needed more advice. Luckily, bestselling author Jennifer Crusie had me in mind for this: http://jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/green-is-not-your-color-professional-jealousy-and-the-professional-writer/

You’re human…Wallow in it...For five minutes. That’s all you get, five minutes to be seethingly, teeth-achingly bitter.
Then think about what the person did to get what she got….
Then take that analysis of what she did and see if you can apply it to your career. Whatever it was that she did, it obviously worked. 

I noticed a common recipe for success: hard work. I could do that.

Jennifer Crusie again:
Bette Midler said, “The hardest thing about being successful is finding somebody to be happy for you.” The one thing that I have noticed about all the successful people I know is that their circle of friends gets smaller and smaller…..

Well, that’s no good.
While I threw myself into writing, mostly toiling in isolation but occasionally selling a story, I slowly, slowly relinquished my grip on envy and admired my writing friends.

Here’s one Cinderella ending. My name appears in the latest AHMM. No, I didn’t get to write the cover story. But Ken Wishnia’s Trace Evidence guest editorial appears on the cover, and the entire third paragraph describes my appearance in Jewish Noir

And thanks to our generous “You don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir” policy, I also got to collaborate with writers like Canadian author Melissa Yi, who was a joy to work with. She sent me two stories for consideration, and I ended up replying with a carefully worded email explaining that I liked the first half of the first story and the second half of the second story, and asked if she would be willing to combine the two stories along these lines to create a totally new story. That’s asking a lot, but not only was she willing to do it, after revising the two stories into one, she ended up adding a new section that gave her story “Blood Diamonds” a crack-of-the-whip sting of an ending that will linger in your mind for long after you’ve read it.

May we all live and write happily ever after.


  1. My worst sin is pride. I don't usually have that much trouble with the others.

  2. My worst sin is anger and pride - I am a dreadfully impatient person with all the patience of a burning match, and I think that's an off-shoot of pride. But what do I know?

    I do know that it took me a long, long, long time to get a cover story in AHMM. And here on SleuthSayers I'm in the company of people who have published a whole lot more than I have. And I emerged this year, finally, from a two year drought where I couldn't get ANYTHING accepted or published anywhere.

    I just know that, whatever it is you want or love, you've got to keep doing it, over and over and over again. Write, edit, review, submit, write, edit, review, submit over and over again. Indeed, may we all live and write happily ever after.

  3. Thanks much for reminding me not to drink the poison in my own cup, or from anyone else's cup either.

  4. I like both the article and Karen's comment.

    Early on, James Lincoln Warren mentioned that writers in this genre are especially welcoming and happy for others. I've seen this repeatedly, so I'm happy for Rob or Janice or John or Paul or Melodie… or that lady who did all the neat fishing stories for Kobo!

  5. Thinking about Elizabeth's comment, I have to deal with pride. And perhaps gluttony… I'm convinced glutton isn't limited to the gastronomic system.

  6. Interesting that so many of us are proud. Maybe you need that to become a writer? Some sort of ego necessary to face the blank page and the editors' rejections?

  7. @Eve, indeed. I'll just have to keep working away at AHMM.

  8. @Karen, yes, it took me a long time to step away from the poison!

  9. @Leigh, I'm happy for your successes too. :) What other kind of gluttony is there? For power or land? I think that would be greed, although I'm no sin expert.

  10. You’re right– gluttony and greed could be closely related.

    I was thinking of a wedding dinner I attended and exquisite party favors holding birdseed (instead of rice) were placed at each plate. As the bride and groom were being sent on their way, a woman I knew rushed around the dining room snatching up the beautiful bowls that some had left behind. Her husband and I were friends and colleagues, and he was aghast. We’d both seen this kind of behavior before.

    While you’re right about greed, it seemed a lot like gluttony to me, partaking of far more than an ordinary person, consuming far more than she could handle. She never seemed to lust for expensive cars or fancy clothes and she appeared happy in their nice middle-class house in their nice middle-class neighborhood. But if something ‘free’ was offered– knickknacks at trade shows, swag bags at conventions, or store give-aways– some kind of inner monster surfaced.

    I thought of it more as a sickness than a sin, but something was definitely wrong.


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