Last week we talked about how a fear of failure can prevent you from writing to your full potential. Today, we’ll look at achievemephobia, or fear of success, and how it can keep you from being published. These are the mistakes new writers make when they start submitting pieces. Although, to be fair, it’s not just the newbies who fear success and create their own problems.
Like a fear of failure, fear of success can force us to create any number of obstacles that seriously impede our chances of success.
Why would anyone fear success, you ask. Lots of reasons. Success raises expectations which we’re not sure we can meet. Success alters our status quo and even good change is hard to handle. Success can make some of our friends and family resentful. Success makes us more visible and we are terrified of the spotlight.
“He is able who thinks he is able.” Buddha.
Not everyone can handle success. It can be even harder to handle than failure. One of the best ways to overcome this fear is to face it head-on. Try making a list of things that scare you about success, and another list of all the fabulous things that success can bring. Which one carries the most weight? Almost certainly it will be the positive list. Focus on that. Even if it starts out being shorter than the scary list, keep working at it until it’s longer. Write it in the front of your journal. Post it above your desk or on the fridge door. As for the scary list: for every worry, try to counterbalance it with a positive. For instance, if you write, ‘My friends won’t like me if I’m successful,’ add, ‘They probably aren’t very good friends if that’s the case. A good friend would want me to succeed.’
Acknowledge the fear, but commit to the success.
The change in your psyche won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. In the meantime, watch out for the things you might be doing to avoid becoming a published writer. For instance:
- Doing it bass-ackwards: You’re so intent on being published that you focus all your energy here. You know who the big markets are, how much they pay, and their degree of prestige, but you’re not putting one-tenth of that same energy into your writing. And it shows. Yes, research the magazines, publishers and agents. Yes, make a list of your top ten. But don’t make those things a priority. The work is what matters. Always.
- Punching above your weight: If you are just starting out and this is the very first short story you’ve ever written, then aiming at an established literary magazine like Granta is a very, very long shot. It’s a long shot even if you have a lot of experience and credits behind you. You may get lucky, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, but you’d best be very sure of the quality of your work. Oh, and don’t sulk if they say no, or don’t respond at all. Which leads us to…
- Ignoring the numbers: If a publication receives thousands of submissions a week, and from the likes of a Margaret Atwood or a Howard Jacobson, what do you think the odds of your success are? Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim for great heights, just that you need to be realistic. Which is better: A non-response or a rejection from a big publisher, or an acceptance from a smaller one? Small journals produce fabulous work and can give new writers much more attention than they’d get elsewhere. The same is true of publishing companies and agents. Smaller isn’t necessarily lesser. It’s just smaller.
- Giving up too easily: You get one rejection and curl into a ball. Submitting a story or a novel is a numbers’ game. The more work you have in circulation, the better your odds become. Rejection’s part of the process. We’ve all been there. Many, many times. We got over it like big girls. You can, too.
- You have just one basket and every egg is going into it: In other words, you refuse to write a second story / novel until you get the first one published. You do know how daft that is, don’t you? Listen, the rejections won’t sting so much if you have lots of pieces in circulation, or if you’re busy working on something new. You need to disperse that emotional energy.
- Believing your work is more precious than Gollum’s ring: Not a word will you change; not a comma. Your first draft is perfect. Mummy said so. Not since Moses came down from Mr Sinai carrying the Commandments has prose been more revered than your perfect little story. Ha! We all know what happened to Gollum’s ring, don’t we, Precious?
- Pitching wildly: You wrote a short story. Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine publishes stories. Simples. OK, your piece isn’t science fiction; it’s a homespun tale of family life that John-Boy Walton could have penned. See the problem? Now, I know I said you shouldn’t put all your energy into market research, and that’s true, but you also can’t ignore it completely. Identify your genre. Know what journals / publishers / agents specialise in that genre and study them. Seriously. Know if they prefer stories in the first person, or not. The past tense, or not. Check how many words the stories run. Examine if the stories are rural or urban; post-modern or traditional; funny or deadly serious. Make sure your submissions fit into that magazine’s general style. Use a site like Duotrope.com to find the perfect journal for you. The same rules apply if you’re submitting work to agents or publishers. Of course, you’ll remember that none of this is as important as producing the best copy you can manage. Right?
- Ignoring the rules: Many publishers or editors post their submission guidelines on their websites. You can also use tools like The Writers and Artists Yearbook or the aforementioned Duotrope site for the journal’s preferences. If you ignore this information then I can’t feel a bit sorry for you. If the editor wants the story submitted in Ariel 12 then why would you submit it in Times New Roman 10? If they won’t accept a story that’s longer than 5000 words, why send them your 30,000 word novella? Yes, the rules DO apply to you, too. And at the risk of stating the obvious, you really should read a magazine before you submit a piece. Preferably, several copies.
- Missing the clues: I read an article recently that said when an editor wrote on a rejection letter, “Not for us. Try us with something else”, the majority of male writers did exactly that, and swiftly. But women, for some reason, don’t. Maybe we’re interpreting it as politeness. But it’s not a social nicety, it’s an invitation. Don’t be a dope. Answer the call!
- You’re just not ready: I hate to break it to you, but it’s possible, you know. Don’t lose heart. Just because you’re not there yet, doesn’t mean you won’t make it eventually. Practice; study; and persevere. The biggest difference between writers who were published and those who were not is the successful ones didn’t give up.
You can succeed. Look, if I can do it, you can. But you have to be honest with yourself about the things you are doing to scupper your success.
Stop doing them. Duh!
And do this:
Focus on the work. There are a lot of things about publishing you cannot control. The ideal literary agent goes on maternity leave just when you sent in your proposal; the publishing house folded or started insisting on agented work only; the magazine received a fabulous story from a big name writer and they no longer have room for yours. You can’t do anything about these things, but you can manage the work. You control the story, the characters, the outcome. Focus on the stuff that’s in your power.
Cherish your successes. They don’t have to be publishing-related. For instance, if you finish a story, or resolve a difficult plot-point; if you get positive feedback from someone you respect. These are worthy of note. So, note them.
Re-program your thinking. Stop telling yourself it cannot be done. Tell yourself it can and will happen for you if you persevere. Find a website or a book of affirmations for creative people. Whenever you find yourself saying, even silently, that you’ll never make it, say one of these affirmations instead. Here are a handful of my favourites:
There is always a way, and it is right in front of me.
My intuition knows what to write.
I allow creativity to flow through all areas of my life.
I have something unique and important to say.
Today I will reach new heights as a writer.
Be bold! Be brave! Be amazing! And go for it!
They’re all true if you only believe.