I just turned 50.
This means I’m certifiably middle-aged and that means I’m much, much more dangerous.
When you get older, I find, you tell the truth, consequences be damned. You have more tolerance and less tolerance, simultaneously. You don’t put up with the slings and arrows in the name of “learning” or “experience” or bear fardels with any blind, youthful enthusiasm.
So I thought it was time I tackled the five fears that are usually uppermost in the mind of a writer … and the responses you need to send them skittering back to the shadows where they belong. I hope these help fight the dark days, both for published authors and those who are striving to be.
I’m sure I will be re-reading my own advice often … because, even at 50, it’s a lot easier to dish out than to follow.
1. I can’t write/have lost my ability to write.
This is the fear most common for first-time writers, but it hits everyone, no matter how many books you’ve actually written. If you’ve managed to complete a novel or non-fiction work and you’ve gone through the agent/editing process and you’ve managed to get it published, I’m sorry—the pain doesn’t end there.
Every subsequent piece of writing will seem like the first time in terms of self-doubt, self-sabotage and torture. Sure, that first book was pretty good—you just re-read the first few chapters and what stank like cow piss to you when you were writing it now smells like Chanel—but now … now, it’s all over. Now, you’ve forgotten how. You’ve developed amnesia, Alzheimer’s, too much self-consciousness, too much awareness, yada yada yada …
Here’s the response: if you’re suffering self-doubt, you’re normal. It takes an enormous amount of energy, compulsion, and ego to create in the void of a blank page, and sensitive, creative people (you know the type) don’t often have the unbridled egos necessary to handle it 24/7, especially with a publishing deadline. The good news is that if you’re wondering whether or not it’s good, your work is already better than 98% of books that are self-published on the internet, many of which suffer from an arrogance that crosses into delusion.
Thank your demons for proving that you’re not delusional … and keep writing.
2. No one will read it.
This fear is more the province of a published writer, as new authors are mainly concerned with finishing the book. But if you’re lucky enough to see your work made available, this, too, will be one of the fears that keeps you up at night.
I call this one “launch sickness.” It tends to manifest itself when a new book hits the racks and magnifies with how much money you or a publisher is staking on the book, because—believe it or not—that adds significantly to the pressure. Do not envy those people with billboards advertising their books … their sales have to pay for them.
Hollywood is strewn with the sun-bleached bones of failed epics (Lone Ranger, anyone?) massively bloated projects that failed. While six figure advances in publishing are very, very rare these days, the more success your books have, the more pressure there is for you to achieve more, particularly if the publisher is staking any money on huge print runs or an ad campaign.
Still, even for a modest book with modest expectations, this insidious fear will creep into your bones and whisper that your book is going to get buried. The publisher isn’t putting up much money—no one will read it. The publisher puts money in it—not enough people will read it. It’s got you where it wants you.
Here’s the response: Ignore the whispering. You have no control over your book once it is available to the public. Do what you can to call attention to the fact that you’ve written a good one, but honestly—everything else is up to the universe, and the universe is rarely thought of as a just and balanced place. So try—very, very hard—not to worry too much about readership. The accepted wisdom is that with enough material in the marketplace, they will find you.
Hope and faith come into play … hope that they will find you, and faith that there are enough of your kind of readers out there to begin with.
3. Those who do read it will hate it.
Except, of course, for our families and friends. In fact, all good reviews come from people who like us, right? That’s the only possible reason for a good review, or so says this particular little demon. So we ignore the good ones and remember the bad ones, unless we have the discipline to not read them at all.
OK. So the truth is, we need as many readers as possible to stay in the business of being authors. But good books, let alone great books, rarely appeal to masses, especially when said masses have been given free reign to exercise opinions … some of which, more rightly, should be exorcised.
I’ve always felt that readers help create a book, and I still hold to that belief. A book truly comes to life when a discerning reader brings his or her own imagination and vision to what you’ve created. I love to meet them, I travel to conferences and bookstores and events in order to do so, and they never fail to amaze me. I’m incredibly, enormously grateful to them and, indeed, would not be able to continue writing without their support. Journalists and bloggers and writers and librarians, true reviewers, literate people of all stripes … the business of writing itself would not function without them.
Note, however, I said “discerning” reader. That does not mean “every” reader—in fact, quite the opposite.
What if someone hates your book? What if a whole bunch of people hate your book? And what if (gasp!) they leave a “review” about it on a website? How do you react?
It depends on who wrote the review. Solid, well-thought out criticism is always worth seeking out, even if it’s painful to swallow. But a vitriol filled diatribe or a comment that could only be called stupid? Not so much.
Here’s the response: If you think it’s a good idea to pluck a random person off the street and give that person control over your happiness, then by all means listen to grammar-challenged opinions excoriating your work.
Do you stop writing? Do you stop writing YOUR way, change who YOU are, because a comprehension-challenged nitwit doesn’t like the kind of books you write and decided to read yours to get his or her hate on?
You can clearly label your book in one genre and have people who hate that genre attack it for exactly what makes it the genre that it is. You can be read by people who have no problem with graphic serial murders but who get very worked up about honest conversation using Anglo-Saxon profanity. You can have people try to correct things that aren’t mistakes and get mad at you for telling them they’re wrong. People can bully you, lie about you, lie about your work, and broadcast it to audiences as intellectually and socially limited as they are.
As an author you can be be attacked and pilloried and subjected to personal insults, be envied and therefore hated by people who desperately want to be published, in short be treated to all the indignities and injustices of celebrity without (at least for 99.9% of authors) being rewarded with the money that celebrity usually brings.
So ask yourself: do you really give a damn if someone whose taste, intelligence, social conscience or mental or emotional health makes them a person you a) wouldn’t respect or b) should avoid decides they loathe you, loathe your book, or leaves an insulting review?
Is that why you write, why you continue to work and sacrifice and labor through the course of a year and sometimes more?
Remember: being hated by some people is a compliment.
4. If I don’t achieve X, I’m a failure.
This is probably the most deceptive of all writing fears, because it changes in scale with circumstances.
To a first-timer, this could mean “If I don’t get published.” To a NY Times Bestseller, it could mean “If I don’t get to #1 on the list.” To a critically-acclaimed author, it could mean “If I don’t get a good review from the NY Times.” To someone who has been writing for many years, it could mean “If I don’t finally win an Edgar (or Pulitzer, or LA Times Book Award, etc.).
Down this path lies madness. The perfect self-sabotage is a never-ending series of qualifications for success.
Here’s the response: Do not let outside forces define what success means for you. This means you have to define it, which is damn hard to do (see #1). Nevertheless, defining your purpose in writing, your attainable goals (not your dreams, which are dependent on other people and other circumstances beyond your control), and your own success is very important to your well-being.
Come up with something you can live with. Something like, “I want this to be my best book —my best book according to me, that is.” Hold to it, and hold it fast—and don’t get sidetracked by any other definitions of success. If they happen, they happen. You’re a winner, no matter what.
5. I’ll be forgotten.
This is the one you get after you’ve been published. It’s also known as “I’m gonna lose whatever small success I’ve had and die unknown and unread, my books pulped into recycled paper and my e-books wiped by a virus.”
That title is a little long, so let’s keep it simple.
This is actually another (in a way) beneficial fear, because (like #1) it proves that you are humble and have a sense of the big picture.
I revisit this fear quite a bit. Maybe it’s because I’m a classicist by training, and I’ve translated fragments of authors who were noteworthy in the ancient world and who are now mostly lost, whose work was not transcribed by monks or was destroyed at Alexandria. Despite their contemporary glory, they are doomed to be known as footnotes in obscure passages from Plutarch.
This could also be termed the “What does it matter, anyway?” fear. Basically, it’s what comes up when you’ve successfully fought all the others.
Here’s the response: Millions of years from now, our sun will explode. Should we stop writing and worry about how our books are going to be saved or should we just write the best damn books we can, following the response to #4 about defining our own success?
Sure, we can pull back in time like a giant cosmic camera, imagining the future, imagining the fate of our work, our cultures, our species and our planet. And after all that, take a stiff drink and bring our worries a little closer to home and do something to combat global warming.
What matters is the here and now: finishing your book, working to make it the best it can be, and trying your best to get it noticed.
In other words … keep writing.