July 25, 2019
Talk about "platform" is pretty scary for a lot of writers. Many of us are not really all that social, so we're not excited by the words "social media." But really, isn't that just one more fear in a pretty full bucket? Writing is a scary profession. Facing the blank page when you're not sure there's a good story or article in you is scary. Doing your first interview, struggling to come up with a strong title or hook, and digging for research, hoping there is enough to sustain your project are all scary. And that's before we tackle the terrors of submission and rejection. Then there's promotion. Are we doing enough? Are we doing it right? It doesn't help when many of the experts give completely conflicting advice. All of those scary bits can hold writers back from success.
Fear is built into humans and when we're afraid, we're hard-wired to flee or freeze, but neither of those are particularly helpful responses for the writer. So what are?
Combat Fear with Truth
Many of the things that scare us in the course of this writing life come from internalizing things that aren't exactly true. For instance, most writers have a visceral response to rejections. They're painful. They can make us doubt ourselves. And it's really hard not to take them personally. But some of the fear of a rejection can be combated by a little truth. For instance, rejections aren't about you as a person. They are simply a reaction by a publisher to a specific piece of writing that does not fit their specific needs at this specific time.
Think of it this way: when you're researching publishers, if you find one that only publishes material written in a language you don't speak by people who live in a country far from you, would you send them your piece? Of course not. You'd know they couldn't use it. And you wouldn't take that personally. You'd recognize that your work doesn't fit there.
That's all a rejection letter is. It's a notice that this piece of work didn't fit there, not right now anyway. Now, sometimes it doesn't fit for reasons you probably should have known (such as the publisher only publishes nonfiction and you send them a fairy tale) and sometimes it doesn't fit for reasons you couldn't have known. They may have all the adventure stories they can handle in their line right now and you've sent an adventure story. They may have room for just a couple more books this year, but the one you've sent isn't different enough from what they've already picked up to fit that slot. They may have just been sold to a different company and are in the middle of sea change. And most of the time, they're way too busy to explain that to you, so you get a rejection. And if you try to read a lot about your writing into the rejection, you'll just be distressing yourself over nothing.
So what is the truth about rejection? It doesn't really matter. Some extremely popular books have had dozens of rejections until the publisher that was the right fit for it snapped it up. It wasn't because the other publishers were stupid, it was because they couldn't have done well by the book at that time. And the publisher who picked it up did. And that's what you want. You want the right publisher to say yes and all of the wrong publishers to say no. So what does a rejection mean? Wrong publisher. Move along. Be disappointed at the wasted time, but not discouraged.
Combat Fear with Education
Many fears simply come from the fact that we tend to be working alone in the dark. And many of us come to writing because we're itching to tell stories. Or because we are enamored by the idea of creating stories for the children we love that will be handed down someday to the children they love. And those are lovely motivations, but they leave us open to fear of what we don't know. Especially in the early days of our careers.
We may be doing a bit of online searching about writing, and we're getting a lot of conflicting advice. And we aren't sure what advice is safe to take. This is where reputable education can help. Joining the Institute’s Writers’ Block, taking one of our courses, or joining an organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators can open educational doors in the form of the materials each publishes and conferences and workshops they provide. Taking writing courses or attending webinars and online workshops can provide solid information from trustworthy sources. And always, peek behind the curtain to see who is putting on the workshop or the webinar or offering the advice. Check credentials. Ask questions. Reputable people and organizations can take questions without getting hostile. Any person or organization that belittles you for asking questions should be struck off your list. Hey, asking questions is part of being a writer. So folks who slap down questions aren't going to really help you become a better or more successful writer.
The answer to virtually any writing question that is scaring you right now (How do I write a query letter? How do I write a summary? What is a hook? What does platform mean?) is available. Truly all of them. We answer lots of similar (or exactly the same!) questions in our Facebook groups. So make some lists of the things scaring you today and begin to peer into that area, educating yourself so that the fear dissipates in the light of knowing.
Fear is not the Boss of You
Finally, know that every writer deals with fears. Am I good enough? Am I fooling myself? Are the naysayers right? People with published books fear the possibility of it all drying up. People with a book soon coming out fear the reception. Most of the time, fear only controls you if you let it. Being a writer will make you a stronger person because the only way to do it successfully is to press on even when you're scared.
The problem isn't the fear, it's what you do in response that can hold you back.
So instead of fleeing something that's not as awful as you think, tell yourself the truth about it over and over and over as you press on anyway. Instead of freezing and losing time while fear holds you back, take an end run around it by seeking out more information and understanding. And every time you make it over or around or through your fear, you become more immune to the fear. Pretty soon you're the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of writers. And that, my friends, makes you cool.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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