In the Future, Tense

May 27, 2010

Finishing — Part 2: The Fear of Failure

One of the great contradictions of professional writing is that it attracts control freaks, and then removes almost all control from them.  You’ve got very little control over what will sell, or if, or how.  Once it does sell you’ve got very little say in anything related to production, publicity or package.

The one thing we do have control over is the story itself, and that’s the important part, right?  So it’s okay to obsess over it.  In fact, it’s vital to obsess over it.  Every word must be carefully chosen and placed, and it must be rewritten and rewritten until it is perfect, no matter how long it takes.  Right?

Ummm…right.  Up to a point.  At some point you just have to declare it done.  It’ll never be perfect.  Perfection doesn’t exist, especially not for the author because you know where all the seams are and the location of each and every buried body.  The more you rewrite the more seams and buried bodies there are going to be.  You just have to dig deep and say it’s good enough, and let it go.

The inability to stop rewriting is one of the manifestations of the great writing fear; fear of failure.

If you never stop rewriting, you never have to submit the mss. to an editor, and you’ll never get rejected.  It’s nothing more or less than a very active, very busy form of procrastination.  It’s effective too, because it allows the writer to feel like they’re accomplishing something important when what they are really doing is running on a hamster wheel built of ink and pixels.

Another common manifistation of this fear is First Chapter Syndrome.  That’s when the writer can’t seem to get past the first chapter of a project.  They get an idea, they’re enthusiastic, they write the first chapter.  It’s good, and then…then nothing.  Silence.  The next chapter won’t flow.  Logical flaws have been discovered in the plot and characters.  It’s not a good idea after all.  It’s crap.  It’s garbage!  It goes in the trash, literally or metaphorically, abandoned in favor of another idea.

This is another great way to avoid finishing.  If every idea is abandoned, then none of them have to face the judges…erm…editors.  You do all the rejecting yourself and save them the trouble, and yourself the suspense.

The following is a true story.  John W. Campbell, the most famous and influential (and best paying) SF editor of the pulp era was also a great booster of new talent.  He used to go to a lot of SF conventions and talk to a lot of wannabe writers.  At one point a young wannabe came up to him most humbly to talk about writing.  “Have I ever seen any of your work?” asked Campbell.  “Oh no, Mr. Campbell!” replied Wannabe.  “It’s not good enough for you!”  Campbell reared back and said “Young man, how dare YOU reject stories for MY magazine!”

Think about that for a second.  Who are you to do the job of an experienced, and professionally compensated, editor?  Rejection is not the work of a writer.  The work of a writer is to make the idea as good as it can be and get it out the door. Rejection will come soon enough after that.  Why rush?

I’m not saying that to be cruel, or snarky (okay, maybe I’m being just a little snarky).  But the first fear, the big fear, the abiding fear of the working writer is fear of rejection.  I am hugely familiar with this fear.  I’ve got 4 proposals plus 3 mss. out to various editors and it’s sitting on my shoulder right now, giggling in my ear.

Unfortunately, rejection is the price of doing business.  If you want to be a professional author, you are going to get rejected.  You are going to get rejected at the beginning, in the middle and at the end.  I spent the time from 2006 to 2009 being rejected by pretty much every SF house in NYC, and not a few of the romance houses, and then there were the rejections for the graphic novel thrown in for good measure.  On the 10th anniversary of my first rejection slip, I threw a party.  This was back in the day when submissions and rejections were all done on paper.  So I took all my slips and taped them together in a banner and hung it up as the party decoration.  One of my housemates measured it.  In 10 years I had collected 55 1/2 feet of rejection.  I still have that banner, and I’m still getting rejected.

So what’s my advice?

Write.  Read.  Work on your craft as you get the chance and make it as good as you can.  Then — Man up.  Pull on your big girl panties.  Get someone to hold your hand if that’s what it takes (and I have in fact done that).  And send it out.  And while you’re waiting for the answer, start your next project.  It’ll help pass the time, and keep you in practice.

And yes, you’ll get rejected.  And you’ll get rejected.  And you’ll keep getting rejected, until, one day, you don’t.


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