Fear of success: If you never publish, you can keep believing Midnight in Paris is a documentary.
by Anne R. Allen
What is “Publishing Success?”
Our culture attaches all sorts of romantic ideas to the business of writing. Beginning writers tend to conjure up nostalgic writer fantasies like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris reveries and ignore the boring facts of what it’s like to actually write for a living in the 21st century.
I understand why newbies don’t want to know what’s under the hood of the industry when they’re starting out. If they did, they probably wouldn’t get past page one of their first story.
So how do we define a successful writing career today? You don’t have to quit the day job and move to Paris to call yourself a success. But you do have to publish your work regularly (indie, trad, or both) and get paid something for it.
Jami Gold wrote a great post on the subject last week. She pointed out that a lot of writers have day jobs. And they’re wise to keep them.
Jami mentions the sad story of author Merritt Tierce that’s been circulating in booky circles lately. Ms. Tierce’s publishing success turned out to be a giant failure, even though she got the fabulous book contract and the rave reviews we all fantasize about. Mostly because she quit that day job too soon.
But I’m not talking about the fear that success in today’s publishing world doesn’t mean as much as it once did, or worries that writing isn’t even a real job any more, as Ester Bloom wrote at Billfold.
It’s possible to have real success as a writer today, but I agree with Bob Mayer, who wrote in response to Merritt Pierce’s article that most of us have to work a lot harder than we did a few years ago.
Fear of Success
What I’m talking about here is a more primal fear.
It’s one I suffered myself. Although if you’d told me I was fearful at the time, I’d probably have given you an icy stare and crossed you off my A-list.
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I had all sorts of reasons for not pursuing my dreams.
I was young and wanted to have adventures. Travel! Have wildly inappropriate relationships!! Live a glamorous life in the thea-tuh!!!
All that serious writing stuff would have to wait until I was too old to remember my lines.
The truth was that although I wrote fiction from the time I could hold a crayon, and I had tons of stories, poems, and half-written novels in my files, I didn’t get any of my writing officially published until I was over forty, unless you count getting a few plays and teleplays produced.
The reason was…I never really tried.
I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I wasn’t emotionally ready for my close-up.
Fear of Success vs. Fear of Failure.
Being scared of failure wasn’t my problem.
Failing was something I did on a regular basis. I was always quitting jobs that weren’t “a good fit.” And failing at romantic relationships was a favorite hobby. Plus I’d failed rather spectacularly at marriage.
I also failed a number of times as an actor and director.
But I moved on from the experiences and was able to learn from them.
My writing fears were different, though.
Why? Maybe because writing was what I REALLY wanted to do with my life. The rest was just playing.
I feel conflicted when I see writers who are stuck the way I was for so long.
You know the ones. Their Facebook or LinkedIn profile lists them as a “writer” but you’ve never seen them actually arranging words into sentences on a page. They might talk vaguely about that novel or poem they’re working on, but nobody ever sees it.
These days I’m spoiled because I know so many determined writers who are the opposite of fearful. I love watching them move from placing their first stories, to working on novels, to finding publishing success. They educate themselves and submit to contests and blog and are active in writing groups. Baby steps turn into giant steps and—zoom! They are on their way.
But others stay stuck at square one for decades the way I did. They’re telling the same lies to themselves, or have invented new ones.
Do You Identify as a Writer but Never Try to Publish?
In the old days, when people asked me what I did, I didn’t say “bookstore clerk/administrative assistant/whatever pays the bills and part-time actor-director-film extra and acting teacher.” I didn’t even say “I’m an actor,” although I earned money at it some of the time.
Instead I’d always say “Oh, I’m a writer.”
I’m sure I wasn’t fooling the people who were close to me. They knew I wasn’t making money from my writing. Some of them probably cringed for me.
I don’t know if was lying to myself or giving myself a pep talk. Maybe I was trying to get through to that little part of my psyche that still had the “professional writer” dream.
It’s not that I didn’t write. My drawers were full of plays and poems and stories. I was in several critique groups. But I didn’t send anything to agents or magazines or contests.
I only had a vague dream of being a writer that glimmered in some distant future.
Meanwhile, all my time and energy went into acting and teaching and running a theater and directing plays, which I found increasingly less fulfilling as I climbed the ladder to another kind of success I didn’t particularly want.
The Wake-up Call
It wasn’t until my father’s death a few days after my fortieth birthday that I got the big wake-up call.
When I heard the devastating news of my dad’s sudden death, all those clichés flashed at me in big neon letters:
“This isn’t a dress rehearsal. Life is short.”
Did I really want to be a writer? If I did, I had to make some big changes. I had to do the things anybody who is “stuck” in life needs to do:
- Ask yourself what you really want.
- Name the barriers that keep you from getting it.
- Confront those barriers and figure out how to surmount them.
My writing dreams were still in there, and I was doing some pretty stupid stuff to hold myself back.
When I see writers doing the same things, I sometimes wonder if I should say anything. But I don’t. They have to confront their fears on their own. Maybe this piece will give them a nudge.
Five Ways Writers Can Block Success
1) Never Finish Projects
I had approximately 34 unfinished novels in my files. And 87 stories and poems that were “not quite there.”
I would hardly ever polish anything. My most enjoyable writing sessions involved starting something new. Even though I was in several critique groups and loved going to writers’ conferences, I’d take notes on what needed fixing, but I wouldn’t follow through.
Sometimes I’d write a whole novel for a group, writing to please them, but I’d never focus on what I needed to do to ready the manuscript for submission.
2) Aim Too High
This is really embarrassing, but for years, when I did finish a story, I only sent it out to prestigious literary magazines and the high-paying women’s magazines, knowing perfectly well the big guys never publish anybody with no publication credits.
Then I felt justified in babbling at parties about how difficult it was to get published.
When I talk to writers now who go on about how the system is rigged and only people who know bigwigs can get published and blah, blah, blah… I ask where they’ve submitted.
They usually name only A-list publications, so I know they are sabotaging themselves for some reason. Either they fear success or failure or both.
If you think you can start your climb at the top rung of the ladder, you’re either delusional or aiming to fail.
3) Don’t Read Contemporary Bestsellers
It’s easy to fail at writing commercial fiction if you don’t read it. Because both my parents were literature professors at prestigious universities and I was Ivy-educated myself, I grew up as a literary snob. If a book wasn’t reviewed in The New Yorker, I probably didn’t read it it.
Which meant I had a whole lot more to learn than most people when I started writing contemporary mysteries.
I cringe when newbie writers say they “never read that crap on the bestseller lists” and then go blank when I ask them what they do read.
That usually means they haven’t read anything since their literature classes in college.
Of course some of those writers do read a lot, but not in the genre they’re trying to break into. Unfortunately if you only read Don Delillo and Jonathan Franzen, you’re not going to attract readers of Lee Child or Dan Brown.
Some writers only read literary authors because they’re literary writers, of course.
That’s fine, as long as they realize what it takes to break into the literary writing establishment. It tends to be a closed ecosystem.
Academic literary writers live and work in academia. They usually make most of their money teaching. They get advanced degrees, train in MFA programs, and intern at high-end literary magazines.
If you’re not part of that ecosystem, you probably need to read bestsellers like the rest of us. And even if you are, it sure helps to know what the majority of book buyers like to read.
4) Workshop Addiction
I let myself fall into this pattern for a while. There were a number of writers’ conferences in my area and I belonged to several critique groups, so I’d shop the same work around to a number of workshops. Everybody’s critiques would conflict, so I’d focus on the negative ones—and decide my work was terrible.
I became a negative criticism junkie.
The negative responses would justify putting my project in a drawer and starting a whole new book or story. Which I could then take around to the same groups, with the same results.
Another kind of workshop addict is the writer who constantly revises. He’s been taking one novel to the same writers conference workshop for 20 years. Every sentence has been rewritten 100 times. This person will always find something wrong that will keep him from publishing. (Edit—Linda Maye Adams has a horror story in the comments about a co-author who had this kind of addiction. Talk about aiming to fail!)
Then there’s the praise-seeking of workshop junkie. I’d like to think I never fell into this trap, but criticism junkies and praise seekers are equally self-defeating.
I’ve met a lot of praise seekers in my workshopping journeys. They usually wander into a critique group for one or two meetings. But they never stay.
As soon as somebody suggests that twelve-page info-dumps might not be the best way to begin a novel, or that giving all the characters names beginning with “Q” might be confusing to the reader, the praise-seeker is out of there.
The only reason he’s there is to hear his work is perfect.
Perfectionists like this usually scorn self-publishing as second-string, so they may send stuff out to agents, but they’re in no danger of being published, so they never have to confront their fear of success.
5) Be Above the “Crass” Business of Publishing
A helpful woman in one of my critique groups kept telling me to join the Romance Writers of America, but I paid no attention. I was not a romance writer. Romances were just “supermarket fiction.” I wrote literary women’s fiction, thank you very much. Who needed to hang out with a bunch of pulp writers?
In other words, I was running from success as fast as I could.
If I’d joined RWA, I would have been able to learn in a few meetings what it took me years to find out on my own about how the publishing business works.
Just recently I heard a writer complain that publishing was “rigged” because no agent would take her phone calls when she was in New York on vacation.
She hadn’t even bothered to learn the basics of the query process.
And these days you don’t have to join an organization like RWA to find out the basics of traditional publishing. You just need to do a quick Google search or glance at an agent’s blog.
Somebody like that phone-happy woman is going to fail even more miserably as an indie, because she won’t bother to find out how to get a book properly edited and formatted, or get the right cover for her genre. And of course she won’t follow Amazon guidelines and will probably buy a bunch of reviews and get kicked off the site. And she’ll keep complaining forever about how everything is “rigged”
It is. Against people who are determined not to succeed.
What Fuels Fear of Success?
1) Fear of Public Exposure
Personally, I had a lot of irrational fears of being exposed in public. I wanted to keep my private life private. That may be why a lot of beginning writers want to hide behind a pen name. (Although in the Internet age, pen names provide little privacy, and a whole lot more work.)
When an agent asked for a full manuscript, I’d often have nightmares about being on a TV talk show of the Jerry Springer variety.
- I’d have all the wrong clothes.
- Or none at all (you know the dream.)
- They’d ask me a question and no words would come out.
It was the actor’s nightmare, but ten times worse.
At the time, I was happy in the theater world where I could hide in plain sight on the stage every night. I was with people, but protected from them by costume and make-up. The person on stage wasn’t me. I was somebody else, saying another writer’s words.
I could get applause and public recognition, but nobody had to know the real me.
In my writing, however, the real me would be hanging out for all to see. This might have been partly from Imposter Syndrome and partly from being an introvert masquerading as an extrovert (which is true of many actors.)
2) Fear of Lifestyle Changes.
What if I got the big contract and had to change how I lived? I knew a few successful women authors. They had to fly all over the world and wear pantyhose and talk to corporate business people and act as if they cared about all that stuff.
Designer clothing and the life of the ultra-rich was only interesting to me as the stuff of comedy. Yes, I had relatives who belonged to the 1%, but my parents were both black sheep who had escaped that world.
Would I have to pretend to be like Camilla if my books about her were successful? I had a horror of exchanging my jeans for Versace, and my Nikes for Manolos. (I didn’t say my fears were realistic.)
My biggest fear was that I’d have to pretend to be somebody I’m not.
3) Fear of Losing Artistic Freedom
That was a biggie.
As I said, I did know actual bestselling authors. Their lives involved working their butts off while under fierce deadlines. They seemed to spend a lot of time doing stuff they didn’t want to do.
In the days before indie publishing, some writers seemed like indentured servants, bound by contract to corporate publishers and tyrannical agents.
They’d finish a book and the agent would hate the protagonist and make the author do mass rewrites. Editors would demand another rewrite. Then the marketing department would demand a major change of focus. Or the removal of a major love interest. Or a change of setting or historical period.
The only person whose wishes didn’t seem to matter was the author.
Did I want to go there? Was I strong enough to stand up for myself? (It turns out that publishing with a small press allows for a lot more freedom, but I didn’t know that. See #5.)
4) Fear that the Reality of Publication Won’t be as Cool as the Fantasy
This is where that Midnight in Paris dream kicks in. Deep down a lot of writers have that Scott-and-Zelda, Hemingway-in-Paris fantasy. I know I did.
But my conscious brain knew that if I ever got that big prize—the big book contract or the major bestseller, I’d have to face the fact that my Midnight in Paris fantasy was never going to happen. The 1920s are over. And those perfect, misty Gertrude Stein-salon 1920s never quite happened at all.
But as long as we don’t let that prize come near us, we can cling to the fantasies, and live in that Midnight in Paris dream forever.
What Do You Really Want?
When I got that wake-up call, I had to face all these fears, realize that most of them were pretty silly, forge on ahead and get serious about my career. Because that’s what I really wanted.
But not everybody does. And that’s okay, too.
Some writers don’t actually have a burning desire to become professional writers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You may be holding yourself back because you really don’t want to go on that journey at all. There’s nothing magically fulfilling about being a working writer.
There are lots of fantastic ways to be creative, and writing as a hobby can be a very satisfying one.
If the hobbyist writer is someone you love, you may be disappointed when you realize they honestly don’t want to go pro. The hobbyist may be pretending to want publishing success for your sake. Then you’re the one who needs to let go.
Your loved one may be a happy amateur who simply doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of publishing, and if you’re a real friend, you’ll accept that. It may help to read my post on why being a hobbyist writer can be a good choice.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) October 2, 2016
What about you, Scriveners? Did you ever suffer fear of success? Did you have that Midnight in Paris dream? Have you ever sabotaged yourself with any of these self-deluding tricks? Know somebody who does?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
THE GATSBY GAME
What happens when a writer starts believing he’s living in a Fitzgerald novel?
Based one of Anne’s wildly inappropriate relationships and a real-life corpse found on the set of a Burt Reynolds movie.
When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead a movie star’s motel room—igniting a world-wide scandal—the small-town police can’t decide if it’s an accident, suicide, or foul play. As evidence of murder emerges, Nicky Conway, the smart-mouth nanny, becomes the prime suspect.
She’s the only one who knows what happened. But she also knows nobody will ever believe her. The story is based on the real mystery surrounding the death of David Whiting, actress Sarah Miles’ business manager, during the filming of the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.
Available in ebook from:
Available in paper from:
Grey Matter Press is looking for exceptional dark, speculative fiction for anthologies. Stories may be 3000-10,000 words.
MYSTERY AUTHORS! Here’s a list of 15 small presses that specialize in mysteries and do not require an agent for submissions. It’s compiled by Authors Publish Newsletter.
ROMANCE AUTHORS! And a list of 31 small presses that specialize in romance and do not require an agent for submissions. Also compiled by the Authors Publish Newsletter.
25 PUBLISHERS YOU CAN SUBMIT TO WITHOUT AN AGENT. These are respected, mostly independent publishing houses–vetted by the great people at Authors Publish. Do check out their newsletter
The Wanderer: A Paying Market for poetry, book reviews and more: The Wanderer is a new monthly literary magazine.