I know I’ve been away for a while, because I’ve been in the midst of the frantic throes of releasing my new novel, The Conscience of Abe’s Turn and my dad John King’s memoirs, Can You See God in This Picture. (We sold out of the latter on the day of its release, but I have more on the way.)
Releasing Abe’s Turn has taught me something. I need a lesson in humility. Not a lesson in how to be humble, but a lesson in how to admit when I’m good enough. You wouldn’t think a guy like me, who absolutely hates to admit that he’s ever wrong, would need that. But (like Dad), I’ve always doubted my own ability, always been plagued by feelings of inferiority, and usually for no good reason. That’s death knell to the working writer.
Fear is the mind-killer
Once when I was a little kid, probably about the age of my youngest daughter, I performed in church, sang a special song with my brother, if I remember correctly. Afterward, we stood near the back of the sanctuary, and as people made their way out, they shook our little hands and looked down at us and complemented us on how much they enjoyed our little song. Once the line of people had passed us by, I had a great idea. Let’s move closer to the exit, I told my brother, because then all those people would have to pass by us again and complement us again, and we’d get more praise for our performance.
Silly boy. Scary in an adult. Was I headed down the path that turns good men into “cult leaders”? (This is the term Sylvie Fortin used in part 2 of her excellent Internet Marketing Sins.)
I was not to become a cult-leader, fortunately. Unfortunately, somewhere in between boyhood and adulthood, I grew scared of myself, scared of success, scared of failure. I didn’t feel good enough. I know intellectually that I am good enough, because otherwise what were all those years of practice, critiques, and improvement for? I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and–doggone it–people like me! Truly, it’s a great feeling to have another writer tell you that he aspires to write something like what you’ve written. But no matter how much I write, and no matter how much positive feedback I receive, I still fear sending my work out into the world, where it can actually change what people think of me.
I didn’t want my friends and family to read Abe’s Turn, because as one reviewer noted, “this book will prove to be highly controversial by many,” and I didn’t want my friends and family to look down on me for writing something they disliked due to its controversial nature. As it turns out, that’s a pretty silly fear, because my friends and family continue to love me, no matter what I write, even if they disagree with me. On the contrary, probably the very fact that I wrote it will make them want to find some rationalization for accepting it, even if they do disagree. Silly fear, keeps you from realizing your potential.
Fear is the mind-killer.
I don’t think I would even have made it through if it weren’t for The Lake House. Remember the last scene of The Lake House, when Kate figured out what happened to Alex and why he had never made it to dinner that night? Suddenly, her life had only one goal, one focus, to get a message to Alex, to warn him. She allowed no obstacle, no distraction, no fear to slow her down. She took on what Dan Kennedy calls “a sense of urgency,” which is a key to success. So whenever I found myself holding back, I just remembered The Lake House: Sense of urgency. No time to be cautious. You slow down, you die.
There’s a difference between humility and fear. Humility knows its own limits, but fear imposes them. You can still stretch yourself beyond your current limitations, in humility, but only if you have the courage to do so.
Mindset is the fear-killer
Fear doesn’t go away with more and more successes, because you’re constantly trying new things and experiencing new failures and new successes. You’ll never know whether new experiments will succeed until after you try them, and in the back of your mind resides the fear that they will be failures.
Perry Marshall in his Marketing Letter wrote last year about when his 11-year-old son Marcus faced a ropes course at a father-son camp. (I mentioned Perry in the acknowledgments to Abe’s Turn.) When Marcus got two steps across the tightrope, he froze, afraid of heights. Finally, one of the camp counsellors showed him how far he would fall if he lost his balance. There wasn’t even enough slack in his harness for him to sit down on the rope, never mind fall. That gave him the confidence to inch his way across. Held up a lot of other campers. But he finally made it all the way through the course.
Perry summed up the lesson:
You’re going to confront this same Black Wall of Fear at every important transition of your life. You will always question your sanity and you will always wonder, at some level, if the bottom is going to fall out…
Dear friend and subscriber, I only know of ONE way to defeat that black Wall of Fear.
Punch your fist right through it and drive on.
Indeed, punching through the Black Wall of Fear can even be an invigorating experience. I’m actually looking forward to giving interviews now, whereas I was terrified of the prospect before.
It doesn’t matter if you fail occasionally. In fact, you can expect to fail. Interest in Abe’s Turn is less than I originally expected. People have liked the series, but it’s been hard to convince them to give it a chance, even those in its direct target market. Now I’m looking at a backup plan that will allow me to build a more enthusiastic fan-base for the series over a longer timeframe (because easy-come easy-go, but fans that stand the test of time are more loyal). On the other hand, we sold out of Dad’s book the first day. Practically everyone we asked wanted a copy, and there are lots more people on our mailing list who probably also want a copy.
Know what you’re getting into, and plan alternatives. Publishing the two books was actually the easy part, because I knew the technology and what might go wrong. I knew that the book came out okay, because I had printed a proof before going into full production. I knew that if it took a month for it to appear on Amazon, that’s no problem, because I wasn’t depending on Amazon to fulfill initial sales. The hard part is–and always will be–marketing and publicity. How to get noticed? How to turn notice into sales? It’s hard even if you do everything right. But there are dozens of ways to market your book, and dozens of ways to get noticed. Alternatives. Still, what happens if I run out of money. Well, there’s always software development, and I’m a damn good, veteran software developer. Alternatives.
But what if the economy tanks? That’s a whopper of a question. But the answer is still the same: education, alternatives. There’s always someone who makes money in a so-called “bad” economy. What alternatives are most likely to thrive in your niche or market during the “bad” economy? (Recently, I read a press release by a company who helps people collect on civil court judgments. It sounded like they’re planning for a big upswing in business.)
The ultimate weapon against fear is to change one’s mindset, to transcend fear. Steve Pavlina talked about this in his podcast about overcoming fear. When I was looking for websites on which to publicize my book, I occasionally froze, because what if they’re not interested? I was afraid of being rejected. But what’s the worst that could happen? Nothing. I would be in the same situation as if I had not even asked. Does that reflect on me? No, it reflects on them. It’s their choice, not mine. Indeed, some did reject me, because they weren’t interested in “self-published works.” But that’s okay, because my alternative was to spend another 10 years being rejected by publishers, and that was something I had already decided not to do.
(By the way, unlike some self-published authors, who are just trying to get the attention of a third-party publisher, I am actually trying to succeed. By the time a third-party publisher approaches me wanting to publish my work, I’m not going to need them anymore. There are some websites, for example, like GoodReads.com, who are right now developing a bond of trust with me. There are others who are shunning me and will therefore miss out on what I have to offer, probably forever in the future. That’s okay. My business model does not actually depend on them. It doesn’t even depend on Amazon, actually.)
But what if I write something that turns out to be crap?
So what if you do?
This is possibly an author’s greatest fear. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve written, how many accolades you’ve received, or how many stories you’ve published. As long as you continue to stretch yourself, you will be trying new things, and you will fear having written crap.
I certainly have written stories I think read like crap, stories I think feel like crap, and even a story about crap (“Children and Toilets”). And still, I’m stupid enough to post them on my website, hold them up as examples of my work. What kind of an idiot am I?
On top of that, no matter how good you are, someone’s going to be nice enough to tell you that you got such-and-such plot device wrong, or they didn’t understand your character’s motivation, or they think your prose stinks. When I posted a snippet of a short story that takes place in Abe’s Turn, a story that my father told me was one of the best things I’ve ever written–and I believe him–someone was nice enough to comment on the snippet to tell me that I had screwed up a plot device, that if my character really had Malignant Hyperthermia, she would have died. (Maybe, but the point of the story is that the doctor got to her just in time. In any case, it’s too late to change it now.)
I’ve been as opinionated myself, and I still am. Wait till I tell you about a classic best-selling Danielle Steel novel I just finished. It was great, until she got to the place where the characters started doing stuff that made no sense. Oh, and the little girl, supposedly 12 years old, talked like she was 6. How stupid is that?
So when I say that Danielle Steel just has way too much touchy-feely goo in between her paragraphs, because her characters are always thinking about how they feel, and they always feel the same way, and would she just get on with the story already?!— If Danielle Steel has any intelligence at all, she’ll ignore me. Or better even yet, swear to God that I should shove it up my story, and see how I like that. Because her readers swoon over all that gooey crap.
The thing you have to remember about critics is that their job is not to be fair. It is to appeal to their readers. So ignore them. Ignore me!
(The novel is Safe Harbour, and I rated it 4.5/5 stars, because I liked it enough that I know I’m going to be reading it again. Yes, I hated the gooey, boring way all the characters were always thinking about their feelings. But I loved the characters themselves. I actually felt myself passionately sympathizing with them, and I couldn’t help myself. So yeah, the critic in me is an idiot.)
The more I think about it, the more I think there’s only one thing that really matters about what you write.
Okay, two things, actually. The first is: do you like what you wrote? Do you love your characters as much as you expect others to? Do you think of them as real people, and do you dream of the life they lead, as if it were part of your life? When you pick up your book, do you have an inner desire to read it from cover to cover? When you finish it, do you feel a sense of loss, because it’s over? You’re never going to satisfy everyone, but can you satisfy yourself? If not, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Secondly, marketing and celebrity are much more important than the quality of your writing. You need to be a competent writer, yes. But all of that competence will never be seen by anyone, unless you know how to market your work.
The point I’m trying to make, perhaps clumsily, is that you are worth every word you write.
- You are qualified to write, because you’ve worked hard to develop the skills you have.
- If you aren’t getting published, it’s probably not because your writing is crap, because plenty of crap gets published; it’s because you haven’t made the contacts you need in the publishing industry.
- If critics criticize you, that’s just their job. You can’t let it make you think you’re less of a writer. (In fact, the first time you’re lambasted publicly by a critic, you can take heart that you have finally arrived; you are a real writer, because you’ve moved someone enough to make him feel like he needs to tell everyone how much he hates your work.)
- You can’t let self-doubt and fear freeze you. Keep learning. Keep exploring new alternatives. Know what you’re getting into. And then go forward.