QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, September 13, 2010

Succeeding as a Writer: Confidence and Determination

When I've written something and the words have just flowed, I sometimes feel like I'm looking down on the Seventh Day, basking in the warmth of my creation and proclaiming, It Is Good. I'll feel like I've captured the emotion and the angst; or the flavor, color, and texture of the world I envisioned. The characters will be as real as Real People to me. I'll feel that glow in my chest: Of course I'm a writer. This is something I was meant to do.

Now, as a psychologist, I believe it's not only okay, it's healthy to be able to say to yourself, "I did a good job on that." "I'm a good writer." You don't have to announce it to the world (in fact, you probably shouldn't!), but you're healthier if you have a secret little place inside with a nice big refrigerator to put up your accomplishments, and where you can nod and pat yourself on the back and think, I Did Good. I even have lots of professional terms to make that all sound more authoritative, like self-esteem, self-efficacy, and adequate mirroring on the Grandiose Pole. But I'm going to skip all that for right now.

If feeling good about what you'd written was as far as any of this went, all would be well. But so many of us have this urge, this drive, this need to get published. And what is that all about anyways? Few people make money publishing. It's cool, but unless you're Stephenie Meyer or JK Rowling or whoever this week's Hot Writer is, it's a passing cool that others soon forget. Getting published doesn't make you beautiful or thin or get you a Happily Ever After with whichever celebrity you drool over most.

Yet the need remains. So you sweat blood over a query and open a vein to get the synopsis right and then, hoping, praying, believing you've got something others will love, you start sending your work out to others.

Some writers start with crit buddies, some jump straight to agents and publishers; some do both simultaneously. And most soon discover that not everyone else thinks their work is so good.

According to Robert Heinlein, that's where a lot of people quit. In fact, he believed that only half the writers who actually put pen to paper (or words to screen) and finish what they start have the guts to submit to agents and publishers:

Writers...are inordinately fond of their brainchildren. They would rather see their firstborn child ravaged by wolves than suffer the pain of having a manuscript rejected. So instead they [only] read their manuscripts aloud to spouses and long-suffering friends.

But you're not satisfied to believe the friends and family who swear your work is fantastic -- you have to send your work out to people outside that little circle. And as the crits roll in and the rejections pile up, you look at your work with fresh eyes, and you realize it's miserable. It's embarrassingly horrible. You're embarrassingly horrible, and stupid besides to ever have believed someone else might be interested in the ridiculous stories you make up in your head.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Crit after crit, rejection letter after rejection letter.

Some throw in the towel right away. "The world just isn't ready for my material," they sniff, or they decide that all agents are self-important jerks who wouldn't know a good story if it ran them over. There are even websites that exist for the purpose of ranting about your rejections and throwing mud back at the agents who sent them. (Who are, by the way, human beings who are just doing their jobs as best they can. But that's another blog post.)

Other writers are worn down over weeks, months, or years of querying. Or by disapproving relatives. Or by savage critique "buddies." The rejection hurts. A lot.

But some always manage to drag themselves out of the dirt, brush themselves off, and try again. Just like they need to write, they need to keep trying to get published.

"Writing is a calling," says editor Betsy Lerner. "If the call subsides, so be it. [But] when writers say they have no choice, what they mean is: Everything in the world conspired to make me quit, but I kept going." She goes on:

Many writers have gathered their marbles and gone home for far less cause. It takes a supreme talent and fierce self-belief to write in the face of such acrimony... If the high wire is for you, if the spotlight is for you, if you believe that everyone should pay attention to you and your work, then you must stay focused. Ambivalence will never get you anywhere.

What it comes down to, I've read over and over again, is determination in the face of all that feedback, all those rejections. A willingness to learn, of course, but also determination to overcome and succeed:

** The degree of one's perseverance is the best predictor of success - Betsy Lerner

** In all manner of pursuits there's a tendency to overesimate brilliance and underestimate persistence. Talent is common. Determination is rare. -Ralph Keyes

** [The authors of the Chicken Soup books] instinctively understood that all those rejections were simply an uncomfortable part of the process that would eventually get them where they wanted to be. - literary agent Jeff Herman

** [Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ken] Kesey was not even remotely the best writer in class [at the writing program at Stanford], but he was maniacally determined. - Classmate and writer Thomas McGuane

** Talent is extremely common. What is rare is the willingness to endure the life of a writer - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

So where do you find the determination? According to Keyes, you have to hate the idea of being ignored, of never being read, more than you hate the pain of rejection. "It is some combination of ability and ego," adds Lerner, "desire and discipline, that produces good work." She continues:

A writer's success or faltering can usually be traced to some abundance or deficit of those elements. Some of the most gifted writers I've worked with were also the most self-sabotaging. Lack of discipline, desire for fame, and depression often thwart those whose talents appear most fertile, while those who struggle with every line persevere regardless.

In many ways, learning to deal with rejection from agents and publishers is just the first step. Because when you do manage to get published, you will have to deal with critics, the bloodthirsty pirahna in the sea of your success. People who have sudden, overwhelming success, are not prepared for it. And that may topple them and keep them from producing good work going forward. So keep running that gauntlet, and be proud of your calluses and scars, because they mean you believed in yourself enough to keep going.

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD writes fantasy, scifi, and nonfiction. She loves helping writers "get their psych right" in their stories, and her book on the same topic, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior is now available for pre-order. Learn more about the book at the WGTP website or ask your own psychology and fiction question here.


Suzi McGowen said...

This is a great (useful and encouraging) post. Thank you!

evleroux said...

Every writer should read this post. Its truly enlightening and encouraging.

evleroux said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
redcharlie said...

Was just going to comment on the wonderful “color” photo of the ancient typewriter but read the blog—Good stuff! A very successful writer, Luis Alberto Urrea’s (Hummingbird’s Daughter, Into the Beautiful North), advise is … "wear the bast***s down."

Kristi Helvig said...

Carolyn-this was the perfect post to start the week. Thanks for such inspiring words. :)

Aubrie said...

This is a great, inspiring post! I'm glad my CP's aren't savage!

Pam Torres said...

Great post for a cloudy Monday morning! Thanks!

Crystal Cook said...

Thank you so much for this, it was exactly what I needed today. :)

Jeffrey Beesler said...

I can't help but write. And revise. And blog. The only thing I need to do more of is the hardest thing of all, by golly. Submit. So I think I'll spend today doing exactly that, thank you.

Hope Clark said...

Absolutely remarkable post! This is going on my Twitter. Thank you.

C. Hope Clark

Danyelle said...

Awesome post, Carolyn! I love that thought that ambivalence will get you nowhere--because it will. Thanks for the reminder that it's hard to stretch above the ground, but very much possible to reach out and catch hold of the star if we keep reaching and growing and wanting. :)

Nicole Zoltack said...

Thanks for the great, inspiring post!

Christauna Asay said...

That was the best, most inspiration post I've seen on the web in a long time. Thanks so much for the encouragement. I completely agree with the last paragraph, If I'd found an agent and a publisher for my book, three or four major edits ago, I would never have grown as a writer.

Time to go hone that determination now.

Cynthia Watson said...

Flawless post!

Thank you, Carolyn, this couldn't be more timely for me, personally.

I'm framing this (just kidding) ;D

Wicked-Sassy said...

Good points. My grandma gave me great advice as a child. SHe told me that whenever I wrote something I liked, to hide it away for a while--minimum two weeks. Then after the time had passed, to look at it again. If I still liked it, then I should share it. If I didn't, then fix it.

I pass it on, cuz it's good advice :)

Carolyn Kaufman said...

*cheers* at all the confidence and determination in this comment thread! :-D

Katie said...

whoa. What a great post!

Tere Kirkland said...

And here I thought I was just stubborn, hanging in here this long, after so many rejections.

Turns out I'm just determined! Thanks, Carolyn!

Silke said...

What a wonderfully inspiring post.
Thank you, Carolyn. :)
And for those plugging away and doubting themselves...
I've been there. For 20 years. Granted, the first 15 or so I didn't have the courage to submit anything (Luckily. Because it was BAD, I was still learning, and English is not my native language.)
I sold a novella in July. First one ever, and I'm still in shock.
I haven't even told my parents, for fear of jinxing it, and waking up to find I dreamt it all. :)
Persevere. It can happen.
No, I haven't sold the "Book of my heart" yet, but selling "Howl" gave me a much needed boost and bumped up that self-esteem no end.
Finaling in contests (or even winning them!) can have the same effect.
But you have to give yourself permission to fail, as well as win. Not everyone can win, but as long as you keep at it, keep putting those words on paper, you have a shot. :)

lexcade said...

Carolyn, THANK YOU for this post! Great timing... Really great timing...

Linda Gray said...

Loved this post! I'm wondering -- what do you suggest, as a psychologist who really knows writers, that we do when self-doubt enters the equation and it feels like a fiction to claim we're determined by nature and will overcome all obstacles? I see many writers do this and wonder sometimes whether it's bravado or real, and does it matter?

Carolyn Kaufman said...

Hi Linda,

I think sometimes we all need a little bravado -- as long as it doesn't get in the way of us being realistic about things like the need to edit (a reasonable amount) based on (trusted) others' feedback. You have to be a little crazy to want to publish, I think -- it's certainly an uphill battle for most people -- but if you've truly worked at your craft and developed some talent, then I think some stubborn determination (and maybe even a little bravado) are a good thing.

I have a couple of posts I wrote very, very early in the life of the QT Blog about what to do when self-doubt is eating away at you, making you wonder if you shouldn't just burn all your work and claim you never learned how to string nouns and verbs together...how to fight the bad feelings using psychotherapist tricks. I looked at the calendar and I'm not supposed to post (my own stuff) again until Monday, October 4th, but I will post my psychotherapist tricks then, ok? So keep an eye on the blog October 4th & 5th for what to do when the self-doubt is knocking you down!

Linda Gray said...

Sounds great, Carolyn, thanks. I will look forward to that.