Stop Me, Or The Writer Gets It

I don’t believe in fear of success.

No, that’s not exactly true.  There might be people out there who are genuinely afraid of doing well and succeeding.  I just have never met any.

I’ve met any number of people who, unconsciously or consciously sabotage their career, their love life, or their economic well being.  Some of these people use “Fear of Success” as their excuse.  I guess because it sounds so much better than “I’m not sure I’m good enough” or because they, themselves, don’t understand their self-destructive behavior.

Look, we all have self-destructive behavior.  I, myself, have found there are things I MUST do even when it will destroy my career or lose me half my audience. Is this a fear of success?  I don’t think so.  I think in my case it comes closer to “there are things that are more important than my career.”  I find myself pivoted into issues where my speaking out will alienate editors and sometimes writing friends.  At that time, the decision comes down to “Is this topic/idea more important than my career?”  In other words “Is it bigger than me?”  If it is, I speak out.

It’s a balance.  Part of my duty (something to talk about later) is to ensure I maximize my income, so we give our boys a better start in life than we had BUT with indie I can write confessions on the side.  I can even (Hey, there’s such a thing as single malt and a mild buzz) write erotica under a deep pen name, if I’m starving.  So if you remove my duty from it, what is left is what matters most.  That’s the only deciding factor.

So, that’s number one.  Sometimes people know behavior is self destructive, but really, for them, to their value set, it’s the only thing they can do.  You simply can’t know from the outside.  And yeah, they might fob you off with “fear of success” because they can’t or don’t want to explain it to you.

Then there is not knowing where to start.  I think this is less of a problem with the net, because you have all these writers and publishers blogs to consult.  In my time, not knowing how to start was huge.  For instance, mid-eighties all the houses needed synopsis.  I simply had no clue what a synopsis looked like.  I didn’t send novels out for five years.  I had no idea HOW.  The thought of reducing my entire novel to ten pages gave me cold sweats.  I’d done precis in college, but had no clue if that was what I should do.  (Answer – yes, no, maybe.)  Then someone local published a small chapbook called “proposals that sold.”  I immediately started sending stuff out again.  Got an agent the next year.

You’ll say “you could have figured it out on your own” and undoubtedly, I could.  Not to the conventions that would sell, mind, but something that at least meant I sent stuff out.  Wouldn’t have made any difference, but it would have looked better to myself, in retrospect.  But isolated as I was, ignorant as I was, and afraid of approaching “real writers” for fear they’d laugh at me – among other things, because I am ESL writing in English.  How crazy is that? – it was one last, overwhelming barrier.  The straw that broke the camel’s back applies to this type of situation, and I’ve seen my kids go through it.  I don’t know who the joker is that decided kids must apply to college while finishing their senior year – usually during first finals.  Perhaps it is because both my kids were AP/Honors/Advanced and it’s more demanding.  But I’ve seen them let college applications slide, refuse to jump the hoops for scholarships, and kind of willy-nilly blow deadlines.  I think it’s because they can’t cope.  It all climbs up, and they can’t cope.  That was the “How do I write a synopsis?” was to me.  Not a fear of success, but a neurotic shutting down and hiding under the bed.

But the most common “fear of success” thing I see is actually a fear of failure.  I get that.  I have that too.  Like most writers I have the bottomless, negative self confidence in my writing.  I understand just enough of what I do, to know how much I don’t understand – in fact, how much I don’t get – about how my writing works.  And what’s not under my control freaks me out and makes me afraid it’s not god enough.  So I live in fear of failure.  Like Wily Coyote, running mid air, sometimes I try to run hard enough to escape the inevitable lack of ground under me.

However, there’s something people who fear failure do that prevents success.  (This reminded me of it.  Apparently writers are not alone.) I think the first question that anyone asked me as a more experienced (I wasn’t published yet) writer was “How long do you leave a submission in, until you pull it?”  At the time to me this meant gibberish.  “You leave it till it’s sold or rejected.”  But no.  Later on I came to know my modus operandi was amazingly rare.  I didn’t pull books or shorts, but everyone else did.  And at the time doing that ranged between stupid and suicidal.  Stupid if the book or story had been just waiting, but suicidal if it had been making its way up from undereditor to editor to managing editor or, worse, if it was on the executive editor’s desk, ready to be sent to you with an editorial rewrite request or even an acceptance.  An editor who has gone through the process of accepting an unknown will never forgive the unknown for spitting in his face and withdrawing.  So unless you’re sure you’re J K Rowling and Pratchett and Heinlein rolled into one, this was an insane thing to do.

Now… other considerations obtain. and therefore, in addition to the above, I’ll give you a few touchstones for figuring out if you’re committing suicide in a complex manner.  If you’re doing any of these things, don’t.

- Don’t pre-reject by not submitting.  If you write a short story you think would be perfect for Analog or Asimov’s – or even a long shot there – don’t not send it in.  At least if you think the prestige of a traditional publication is still worth it.  (For most people it is.  For those who are, like me, midlist, it might not be.)

- Don’t commit suicide by removing stuff that the editor might want.

- If you’re traditionally publishing, don’t air dirty laundry in public.  (Don’t even try the quoque tu, Sarah.  I am only traditionally publishing through Baen and they’re family and through Naked Reader, where I have a say.  The others… meh.  Let the laundry hang.)

Those are old points, mind.  Now remember the market is changing very fast, and even if you’re still traditionally published, there are new caveats:
- Don’t confine yourself to traditional only.  Always remember, belt AND suspenders.  If you’re riding in the titanic, a lifeboat seems puny, but it will save you drowning, if the thing hits an iceberg.

- Follow industry blogs and indie writers’ blogs too.  I can’t say this enough.  FOLLOW those blogs.  DO it.  I don’t care if you don’t have time.  It’s the equivalent of being on the deck of the titanic and saying you don’t have time to use the binoculars.

- If you go to conventions, be aware of what is happening with the publishers there and what their authors think of them.  The days of pitching blind are gone.

- Keep trying.  Or to quote what an acquaintance-I-hope-will-become-a-friend quoted at me from Heinlein, in another context, last week “The cowards never started and the weaklings died on the way.”

You’re afraid of failure, and failure is a real danger particularly these days, with the industry crumbling under us.  So, what are you going to do?  Are you going to curl up and die and admit you can’t cut it?  Or are you going to fight?

Never give up.  Never surrender.

25 responses to “Stop Me, Or The Writer Gets It

  1. ppaulshoward

    What about “advance toward the rear”? [Wink]

    Seriously, good post. [Smile]

  2. Another problem – making perfect the enemy of the good. It will never be perfect, so make it as good as you can within reason, and let it go.

    • If you make it perfect the editor will only insist on screwing it over. Remember Jubal Harshaw’s advice and leave something in for the editor to fix.

    • Not disagreeing, but … How do you know when it’s “good enough”?

      • My answer may seem circular, but I suspect it is when an editor sends other than a form letter in response. Unless, that is, if the OTAFL response is a threat to have you flogged through the streets should you ever again submit such tripe.

      • When you can look at it and say, “I don’t know how to make this better without starting over — that is, deleting it, formatting the disk, mulching and composting all the notes, and waiting for the tree to grow to make paper out of to write more notes” — then it’s as good as it’s gonna get this time. At that point you say “done!” and put it out there.

        As for “good enough” — good enough for what? To satisfy yourself? Ain’t gonna happen, not if it was Shakespeare. To satisfy everybody? Echo answers with a hollow laugh. All the other possible meanings involve exposing it to other people, which you do by either submitting to a tradpub or putting up on Amazon with a price attached. The people who read it will tell you whether it’s “good enough” for them, at that moment or not, and the primary way they do that (reviews be damned) is that the ones who think it’s good enough will plunk down money.

        The good news and the bad news are the same news: “good enough” is a movable feast. Even if you sell one to every man, woman, and octopoid in the Spiral Arm, it only means it was good enough for that audience, under those circumstances, at that time. And if you sell none at all, well, it means that that audience, under those circumstances, at that time didn’t find it “good enough”. It says nothing about the next one.

      • Well, first of all, I wouldn’t really know regarding writing, since I’m not an author. However, being a Developer, the same rule applies. In writing software, that point is generally reached when you haven’t been able to find any more application-crippling bugs, and the amount of improvement that can be produced is minimal compared to the time investment required.

        Your own self-criticism can be overly strict, too, if you’re not one of the “artistic” types who believes that their work is golden, and if someone doesn’t agree, then they just don’t “get” it. I have handed over code several times that I would barely use a printout of to line a birdcage, but the people I have written it for have come back and heaped praise on me. That made it a lot easier to decide when I was done, let me tell you.

        • One other factor in determining “good enough” is: put it away. Stick it in a metaphorical drawer for a month. If when you pull it out at the end of that time you don’t need a gas mask and tongs to read it … it is probably as good as you’re getting in the present and ready for the next stage of testing: actual readers.

    • “‘Perfect’ is the enemy of ‘good enough’ — but so is ‘inadequate’.”

  3. I have a friend who writes very well (if you go in for turgid). I noticed he was not exactly fearing success as much as making excuses for himself. Fear of failure moved him to point to the fact that Maxwell Perkins is dead and that those nasty Internet mammals have eaten all the tasty bits. And thus publishing’s dinosaurs were doomed. Doomed I say. Not that either of us aspired to being anything more than dung beetles.

    It didn’t help to point out that creative destruction would open new doors, because it wasn’t really about the doors. It was the excuse, “I’m not Hemingway because ____ ”

    Same as your synopsis thing. I’ve got my own self-sabotaging behaviors and attitudes and certainties that I’m blind to. Trouble is that whenever anyone points them out to me, I don’t want to hear it or can’t hear it.

    • Stephen,

      All blind spots are like that. Moving to a different country and living there is one way to expose blind spots – everyone gets defensive when one of their blind spots gets exposed so it’s something you need to actively work at removing.

  4. Traditional vs. Small Press vs. New Indie vs Self. They all have different approaches, and will fit writers’ styles (or phobias or hot buttons) variously. Some of them fill an ego need, some seem less intimidating, some would be right for the obstinately computer illiterate, and some help those with poor face-to-face people skills.

    Now it might be better to overcome rather than avoid, and I wouldn’t mind the ego boost of getting traditionally published, but self epub avoids all my shy-hermit-can’t-possibly-actually-talk-to-a-publisher-problems. I love it.

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  6. There are other reasons for fear: I have a novel I’ve been working on for a while, but I can’t even try to publish – because if I make a small amount of money at it – currently $720 a month – my disability income (which I depend on to do things like, duh, eat) will start to disappear. The details are too long for a comment post, but affect many, many disabled writers.
    It is very discouraging – I’m considering serializing the novel (and other things that have taken a long time to write) with a donate button (which makes contributions a gift).

  7. Melvyn Barker

    “I find myself pivoted into issues where my speaking out will alienate editors and sometimes writing friends. At that time, the decision comes down to “Is this topic/idea more important than my career?” In other words “Is it bigger than me?” ”

    I think that is a often a dillema to some degree in most walks of life. Whether to keep one’s head down, go with the received wisdom in the organisation/group, and ignore inconvenient facts, or to point out the facts that superiors/colleagues would rather not acknowledge and risk unpopularity or alienation. Going along with the crowd is the more comfortable option, but not always the right one. It depends how important the issue is to you.

    I found the most difficult thing to do was to judge when it was o.k. to compromise and go with the crowd, and when it really was necessary to dig my heels in and make a stand.

  8. Very nice post, Sarah. It really rang a bell with me. I started out writing for magazines in the 80s because they told you how to actually submit. The instructions were there on the editorial page– word counts, where to send etc. It sounds ludicrous to say it now but that was important. I had no idea how to submit a book to a publisher or how to find an agent. The thing was just to make a start. Eventually the other stuff fell into place.

  9. Yes. I absolutely grok this. I was actually thinking about this last night.

    This week, I published my first indie short story. My deadline for this was the 15th of the month, which I missed via a combination of being ill and just the whole dragging-feet-so-I-don’t-fail thing. But I didn’t miss it by many days because I forced myself to sit down one night and do everything.

    Now that it’s out, I’m convinced it is utter drek, of course. (In spite of the fact that it’s already sold nearly twice my “low-ball” sales predictions for the entire month.) But I’m trying to push myself forward because the pen name is a way for me to learn and make mistakes. And, yes, drag my heels on working on my “real” projects, I suppose. But I figure that it’ll be less scary to work on my “real” things after I have a few months of my pen name publishing works under my belt. And, I also am telling myself that practical experience beats reading and researching forever, because that’s pretty much what I would be doing if I weren’t doing this.

    So, though the terror of failure is on entirely different vein now than previous, at least I can order a large pizza or a few ebooks to celebrate my progress when the first check rolls in, which beats the terror of failure where I can’t. :p

  10. I have two quotations in my sig file, and they are as much so I will see them frequently as for anyone else to see. The first, I’ve had on there for awhile. It’s a quotation from one of my own books, because it expresses ME.

    “Sometimes you gotta say what’s in your heart… And you have to stand for what you believe. No matter what.”
    ~’Dr. Michael C. Anders,’ Burnout

    The other was recently discovered, and by one of my favorite (unfortunately departed too early) actors, Jeremy Brett, who did such a marvelous job portraying Holmes for Grenada/BBC in the 1990s.

    “Sometimes our hopes and dreams do not go the way we planned, but we must never let despair overcome us. We have to try and we have to care. We must never give up when we still have something to give. Nothing is really over until the moment we stop trying.”
    ~Jeremy Brett

    • Brett’s performance (in an admittedly minor role) is one of the delights of the film version of My Fair Lady.

      • Two of my favorite sig file quotes come from the same writer. on the same topic:

        “Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”
        — Gilbert Keith Chesterton

        “Education is the period during which you are being instructed by somebody you do not know, about something you do not want to know.”
        — Gilbert Keith Chesterton