The Bathtub of Life

The first time I heard this story was at the Oregon Coast Professional Writers Workshop, so of course it was 100% about writing, but lately I realized it applies to about everything else.

Lately it occurred to me that in every profession, and to some extent in every life, there’s something like that, a… sophmore slump. A time when you seem to be making no progress. There are reasons for this, and I’ll get into them. But first…. The BATHTUB OF PUBLISHING:

Imagine your publishing career is a bathtub. You’re just starting out, so the bathtub is empty.


Then you start writing, trying to work. And you turn on the water taps.

Of course you’re a newby, and every single attempt at creating a real story takes forever, so all your poor faucet does is drip, drip, drip.

There is an imaginary line, halfway up that bathtub. At the rate your little faucet is dripping, that line seems forever away.

Now in that bathtub, there is a rubber ducky.

And after a while you get a little better and ware writing a little faster. I.e. you find out how to turn on the shower.

Now, the tub is filling faster but more importantly, as the water drops from above, it creates waves, and sometimes even though your water is still well below the line, the waves hit above the halfway mark, carrying the little duck with it.

If you’re a traditionally published author, this means that even though your writing is still, largely, below what the agents and publishers look for, as you write and write and write, sometimes a wave will carry the duck up, and your story will be publishable. Sometimes even memorable. And that one will sell. But then a jet of water pushes the poor ducky down, and for a while nothing hits above that line again.

Like, you know, after eight years of writing, you sell a short story, and then you sell that short story EIGHT TIMES before you sell the next one… two years later.

And those two years and the year and half from heck, I was in the middle of a novel, still unpublished, that had no structure, and no end. (It came in at six hundred and something thousand words, seriously.) I now know how to rewrite it, but back then it just felt like I was doing nothing and going nowhere.

Something I heard a lot at that time was “trust the process” but I couldn’t imagine why repeating things I didn’t know how to do would make me better at doing the things I wanted. (Yes, there’s an answer to that to.)

In retrospect those three years taught me just about everything I know about how to write a novel. And the next novel I wrote after that was…. Darkship Thieves. (Which didn’t sell for thirteen years, because my life is like that.) And I had the tools to write Ill Met By Moonlight when I sold it on proposal at that workshop.

Look, even though I thought I wasn’t learning anything, of course I was, because I was reading, and studying various techniques for things.

Part of the reason that novel was a mess is that it was an “everthing and the kitchen sink” novel, because I tried to put in a lot of things I hadn’t integrated yet, and put in things I didn’t know what to do with. It was, if you will, my sampler, but an unorganized one, where I was trying stitches and things I was barely learning how to do.

It was so long and so messy because it took me that long to figure out a lot of things. And yeah, even though it is, in its current form, unpublishable, there are characters I’ll eventually rescue from the soup and put in a coherent form of that story, one with a real plot.

For indie authors, this could be the time when you’re trying to write things, and either can’t finish, or the stuff you put out there gets brutal reviews and few buyers, or simply gets ignored.

For anyone, including people trying to learn a trade, parents trying to learn how to cope with the little terrors and become better parents or someone choosing…. simply to live?


This is a representation of your situation:


And if you keep going, the water in the tub grows, until you’re so far above the line, that there’s no way to get back below that line.

Most crafts, most living skills, are learned at a level below the conscious.

That feeling of extreme suckage you have, not as a beginner, but as a sophomore , is that you know just enough to see all that you don’t know, and all the errors and all the mistakes, and you can’t do the things you desperately want to do.


Below the surface you’re learning and becoming more and more competent, and eventually, probably very soon (soon being a relative thing, mind. It took me two and a half years) you’ll be in command of your skills, and performing at the top of your form all the time without even trying.

So go for it, keep going. Fill that bathtub.

Let the rubber duckie SOAR.

15 thoughts on “The Bathtub of Life

  1. one of my neighbors has a giant ‘trust the process ‘ sticker in the back window of their car… always makes me shake my head.

    1. I think in marketing, we’re all groping in the dark together, because things are changing SO FAST.
      You know, I know this chick who can put your book in front of thousands of eyes in an evening and is willing to do whichever book you want once a month. Just saying.

  2. I can only think that I was very lucky in starting and completing my very first HF novel – in that I had several decades under my belt of writing for broadcast and administrative purposes, and then in blogging – and that the novel came ready-fitted with a plot. (A wagon-train journey with a beginning, middle, heart-stopping climax and resolution-end) and a cast of ready-made characters, about whom I had to do a little filling out. Basically, just put in the descriptions and conversation. Made it amazingly easy and a fast write.

  3. Thanks. The WIP is moving so fast that I’m actually a little spooked. It’s too easy – I’m doing something wrong/the quality stinks/I’ve lost some skill/arrrgh! Combine that with the spring sales slump (my fault, plus the economy), and I’ve been in a mild panic. But still writing.

      1. You had to curse her, didn’t you?

        The Law of the Unspeakable:
        If you speak of something good, it stops.
        If you speak of something bad, it happens.

        The poor girl just got hit with both barrels.

        (Superstitious? Moi? I’ve mostly just learned that cynicism is an ugly word for pattern recognition.)

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