This is an interesting one. And possibly subject to misinterpretation. So let me say right up front that—in my opinion—self-belief (or any other phrase describing how we view ourselves and our place in the world) is important, and can affect how we navigate the world. But not for some mystical reason.
In my view, this stuff works for reality-based reasons. Our brain is basically a machine that programs itself, constantly taking in whatever information is within grasp and using it to add to its programming. You can’t really stop the process, but you can help determine what you program it with. (This is similar to the “read good, write good / read bad, write bad” effect we discussed earlier, where what we put into the process helps determine what comes out. Or, as my dad used to say, “Garbage in, garbage out.”)
Critical to understanding this is grokking that parts of our brain literally can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction. (Here’s the easy proof: Have you ever been scared by a movie? Sure. And yet, in the middle of the film, if someone were to stop the projector and asked you, “How was this created, and is it real?” you’d answer, “Those are actors, on a sound stage, surrounded by a crew of technicians, being filmed as they say lines written by someone else. It’s complete fiction.” And yet… a good horror film can scare the crap out of you. Because that emotional-response part of our brain believes what gets fed into it, and responds accordingly. Without regard for the “truth or fiction” aspect of it… assuming it appears enough like truth to not throw us out of the story.)
So, on some level, parts of our brain tend to believe what we put in front of it. Which is why visualization is now an integral part of virtually every serious athlete’s training… if for no other reason than the pragmatic fact that it just works. Same for self-talk or affirmations or anything else of that nature.
Just recently I heard a best-selling author describe—in a podcast—her little informal writing group’s methodology. In brief: the writers (all novelists) bring a couple of pages from their WIP, they read them before the group, the group responds with positive feedback, and… that’s it.
No “Here’s what’s not working” or “Here’s what I would have done” or “Why did you do this?” or “Instead of doing that, why don’t you…” or critical commentary at all. After describing their method, she laughed and said, “I know it sounds silly, but it works.” It didn’t sound silly to me at all… it sounded brilliant. These aren’t beginning writing students (in need of the fundamentals), these are experienced novelists. Who have figured out that the most pragmatically useful thing to them—in the middle of drafting a novel—is simply holding the belief that they’re doing good work. Period.
Sure, there’s always a time and place for looking at things with a critical eye. But in the middle of the slog, thinking that all this work is worthwhile… that it’s adding up to something good and special and valuable… is critical. Otherwise you’ll likely never finish. Because it’s hard to do good work if you don’t believe that you’re capable of doing good work.
And if you don’t think you can do it… you probably can’t. Because you’ve convinced that part of your brain where emotional decisions are made that you can’t do it.
But what if we did the opposite? What if we fostered an emotional belief, deep inside, that we were capable of good work, if only we applied ourselves to the point of completion? The odds of us finishing at all—let alone producing something good—just went up exponentially!
It’s not some woo-woo mystical thing. Yes, you still have to have the goods (and/or do the hard work of turning the not-so-goods into the goods, which is how virtually all writers do it). But that can come after you’ve finished the initial marathon of getting those 100,000 words onto the page. In the middle of the march, you need to believe that you can do it.
When people talk themselves down, I sometimes say, “Be careful what you say, because someone’s listening… you.”
There’s a fascinating little story around the shirt in the photo (which was given to me back when my first novel was published). I’ll let you deduce your own version of it (and put it in the comments if you like) because (a) you’re a writer and that’s what writers do, and (b) I don’t want the synchronicity of it to detract from the overall message…
To wit: How you think about yourself—and your work—matters.
Don’t stop believing!
Many of us have certain things we like to do while writing, or maybe it’s a certain place or a favorite sweater or certain music or snacking on certain foods or… (Personally, I can’t write without some sort of beverage—usually caffeinated—sitting next to me.)
I suppose you could make the case that a writer should be able to write anywhere, at any time, while eating/drinking anything… or nothing, and while listening to anything… or nothing, and while wearing…. you get the point.
I humbly disagree. Or at least, I don’t think the best way to approach an act of creativity is to force it under unfamiliar circumstances.
I have a theory that humans enjoy having certain things or conditions around them while doing creative work because these familiar things—these rituals—prepare the mind for whatever comes next. They serve as reminders… they say to the brain, it’s time to write (or paint, or exercise, or eat, or sleep, etc.). Or maybe they simply give us the message, This is a safe place… it’s okay to relax. Like a child having their favorite stuffed animal when going to bed.
Or maybe just having the familiar is good because it’s, well… familiar*.
[*My wife used to have a watch which—for some inexplicable reason—always started beeping at 8:00 a.m. Even with the alarm mode off. Every time it happened, we’d look at each other and laugh. “It must be eight o’clock!” She finally replaced it… and immediately missed the friendly little “enjoy your morning!” reminder. So instead of getting used to a correctly functioning watch, she set her new watch to alarm each morning at 8:00. Just this morning, we were most of the way through our weekend long run and feeling a bit pooped, when it went off. We both laughed and said, “Must be eight o’clock!” and got a little lift from the friendly reminder. I mean, why wouldn’t you want that?]
So if there are certain things that make you feel creative or mindful or relaxed or just plain happy… don’t be afraid to incorporate them into your writing routine, regardless of the location or circumstances. We might have to get a little creative or be a little flexible, but there’s usually a way to make it work.
Example: my favorite thing to listen to when I write is… nothing at all. Not that I don’t love music. Actually it’s the opposite problem—I get involved in the music to the point of distraction. Same with nearby conversation… I find myself actively listening (as writers do), trying to make sense of it… trying to fit it into some sort of story line. But sometimes I like to leave the confines of the quiet office and venture out among the rest of the human race. Like at, say, a nearby coffee shop. So I bring my silence with me… in the form of earplugs. It really helps with concentration to be able to block out most of the outside noise.
(Some people use earbuds and leave them unplugged, which both blocks some sound and gives the impression you probably don’t want to be interrupted. And of course, if you can’t write without your death metal blazing away, crank it up and crank out those words!)
I also like those coffee shop paper cups, and I used to take them home and drink coffee in them during writing sessions until they fell apart (usually within a few days). I finally broke down and bought the reusable plastic version. So now—assuming I don’t come too far out of my writing-induced trance and actually look around the room—I can sort of maintain that coffee shop vibe when I’m chained to my office desk*.
[*Speaking of coffee, my wife isn’t the coffee hound I am, but I’ll occasionally make her what I call a “sidewalk latte” as a mid-day pick-me-up. Just a really small straight latte, maybe with a biscuit. The first time I did it I put a tiny spoon next to the small cup just for fun—like at a sidewalk café—even though she doesn’t take sugar. But from then on, I have to include that demitasse spoon. Because it gives her a certain vibe. Which I guess is the whole point of this post…]
So whatever it is that gives you that “I’m in my comfy place, ready to create” vibe, I encourage you to lean into it. Being creative is hard enough (especially this year) and anything we can do to help send an engraved invitation to the muse is definitely worth doing.
Once upon a time I managed to land an agent with my OBFN* and he dutifully shopped it around. After it had made the rounds at most of the bigger houses (some nibbles and close calls, but no solid “yes”), I asked him how I’d know when it was time to pull the plug. He said, “You’ll know it’s time when you just don’t want to do it anymore.”
[*Obligatory Bad First Novel]
At the time I thought that was sort of a glib answer, but I eventually came to realize the absolute wisdom of it.
In theory we can agonize over it indefinitely, but in reality it’s a self-solving problem. As long as you have the belief, desire, and energy to continue shopping the project, you’ll keep shopping it. At some point, the desire fades and/or you direct your energy elsewhere, and you eventually stop shopping it. In many cases (including mine) you end up writing something new, and you focus your energy there instead. Which may be a good strategy regardless, since it’s likely to be a stronger manuscript due to you having the experience of writing the previous book. (Again, in my case, it was. I put the painful lessons I’d learned from that first failed manuscript to good use with my second one, and ended up placing it.)
All of that’s fine, and in retrospect finally quitting on that first book and trying to write something better was the right choice for me (although it sure felt crappy at the time). In fact, I’d venture to say we all have projects, either whole or in pieces, sitting abandoned on a hard drive somewhere. Or maybe stripped and sold for parts (which is another post). Bailing on those projects is painful, but part of the bigger process. Sometimes we have to let things go so that we might move forward.
I think we can all understand that. But sometimes, we might reach a point where we just want to stop writing entirely. Which—while being a different thing—is also understandable. Sometimes a break is the best thing for us, especially if we’re using it to recharge and not as avoidance. (I used to work with a coach who, in the middle of leading an intensive group workout, would sometimes call out, “Take a break if you have to, but not a vacation!”)
Stopping is not quitting. Stopping with the intention of never re-starting is quitting. There’s a qualitative difference*.
[*While in NYC a dozen years ago to run the New York Marathon for Exercise the Right to Read (a charity my wife and I started to help raise money for school libraries and to buy books for underprivileged children) we were also able to catch the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which happened the day before on a course that consisted of several laps around Central Park. That was both an inspiring and tragic race, with many takeaways. One of the most instructive things I saw was late in the race, when one of the runners near the front of the chase pack pulled over and grabbed the chain link fence next to the path. “Oh man, he’s done,” I thought. I mean, why else would you stop running late in a closely contested race? But he wasn’t done. He clung to the fence, took a few deep breaths and stretched his leg, then pushed off and got back in the race. And finished in the money—somewhere in the top ten.]
But maybe you’re not talking about bailing on a particular project, or even taking a break from writing. Maybe you’re contemplating quitting altogether.
First things first: If you want to quit, you’re absolutely free to do so*. At any time. And you owe no one any sort of explanation or apology.
[*Assuming nothing under contract, of course.]
I could say lots of encouraging things, all of which I fully believe. I could tell you that “failure” is what “success” looks like from the middle of the process (which I’ve experienced firsthand more than once), and that virtually every published author I know swam through a lot of mud before finding clear water, and that collecting rejections is absolutely part of the game. (I’ve got quite the collection myself, and my wife faced rejection for almost ten years before a single “Yes!” wiped out all those “No!” responses and she went on to publish thirty-plus books—and counting—with a major publisher.)
I could also tell you that your sticking point is likely either a process issue or a writing issue, and either way, it’s likely fixable. (Which is pretty much the entire reason I host this blog.) You might consider getting some help… some coaching… some outside input… to give you the “second set of eyes” that can be so critical in finding areas for improvement with either your writing or your shopping process.
I could say all that, and more. But I also know that feeling like you’re beating your head against a stone wall without even a glimmer of a crack can be daunting. Maybe to the point of wanting to stop. Maybe forever. And if so, I’d be the last person to judge you for it.
But maybe the thought of officially “quitting” depresses you, leaving you stuck between two bad choices.
So maybe don’t look at it that way.
Maybe look at it as a trial separation.
Maybe try it for a while, and see how you feel.
If you try it and you’re still good with not writing after several months, then you probably have your answer. If the relief—or the feeling of freedom or just the extra time for other pursuits—from not writing is worth more than the value you get from writing, then you may have made the right choice. If so, good for you, and best of luck at whatever’s next.
But if not… if after a while you find yourself unexpectedly mulling over plot points and thinking of settings and—most especially—creating characters that you care about… that feel real to you, then there’s no law that says you can’t go back to writing.
Remember: Home is the place where—when you knock on the door—they have to let you in.
You can stop with a project that’s not working for you.
You can take a break from writing if you need to.
You can quit altogether if that’s what’s best for you.
And you can always go home again.
But it should be your choice, for your reasons.
I think there are two fundamental truisms regarding writing:
1. You should never write because you feel like you have to, and…
2. You should only write because you feel like you have to.
These may seem self-contradictory, but writers will understand...
I think it’s important to take note of—and to celebrate—the little victories*. Including those in your writing life.
(*The ones that mean something to you, I mean. I’m not always a big fan of participation trophies, especially for kids. Not that participation isn’t a good thing—it’s usually the best thing—but kids generally know the score. Literally as well as figuratively. I remember when our youngest was in a “no score” beginner basketball program. The theory: the kids play, they have fun, no one keeps score, and they’re all happy when it’s over. The reality: they all keep score on their own, and it freaking matters to them. Once after a game I told him, “Good game!” and he looked at me like I was an idiot. “What are you talking about? We lost, eighteen to eight!” **Storms off to retrieve his juice box and Lunchable**)
But when you have a real victory—no matter how small—I think it’s good to commemorate it.
When our oldest was a cub scout they had a little pinewood car derby. The kids all started with identical blocks of pine and they carved, sanded, assembled, weighted, tuned, and painted their cars. Other than discussing the importance of aerodynamics and reducing friction (he was a science guy even back then), I mostly just made sure he could use a power sander without hurting himself then let him get to it. He was pretty meticulous about the whole friction thing and on the night of the derby—after an hour of thrilling elimination rounds—he took first place. He was super excited about winning. Afterward, I was expecting some sort of trophy or plaque or whatever (these things always have trophies) but there weren’t any. On the way home I could tell my son was a little disappointed, but he didn’t say anything about it. So I went out the next day and got him one. Nothing fancy—just a basic little trophy with a race car on top and the words “First Place” on it.
I didn’t get it so he would have bragging rights or anything (bragging wasn’t really in his personality, regardless). I got it because I think it’s good psychology to commemorate the little victories we occasionally have. It’s also nice to have a tangible reminder of the occurrence, so that afterwards when you look at it, all the good, fun, validating feelings you had at the time come back to you, reminding you… Yeah, I did that!
In the writing world, these sorts of things come along all-too-infrequently. Even for the successful writer, a new book deal or a new release or hitting list or winning a big award doesn’t happen every day. Or even every year. And for those of us still upward bound on the ladder (i.e. virtually all of us) they happen even less often. So celebrate them.
You don’t have to wait until the final end-goal is accomplished, either. You should celebrate the steps along the way. These may even be more important to recognize, because they’re the type of accomplishments that don’t usually garner outside kudos. (No one’s going to buy you an ice cream because a well-respected agent requested the first three chapters of your manuscript. So do it yourself.)
Some little-recognized-yet-important milestones that warrant a celebration…
You finish the first draft of a manuscript. (I told a writing friend once that I’d finished a first draft—he was basically a wise old cowboy type—and he said, “I’d think that might make a man want to open a can of beer.”)
You finish all your revisions/edits/polishing and—for the first time—you think it’s finally submittal-ready. (This is a big one, as the most important precursor to publication is a strong, finished manuscript.)
You do all your research and make a first-round list of agent candidates who represent works like yours, then you write/revise/polish your query letter and send it to them. (Oh yeah! Beer me! I put hope in the mail!)
After a number of rejections, you get a request for a partial. (Yay! Someone’s reading! This calls for chocolate!)
After even more rejections, you get a request for a full. (Yes! More hope! We press send and get ourselves a mocha!)
I’m not going to follow this all the way to, You hit list, win a Pulitzer, and get your own imprint… all within the same month. Not just because those things don’t really happen outside of the movies, but because that’s precisely my point: if we wait until “The Big Win” to celebrate, most of us are going to be waiting a long time without commemorating all the incremental victories along the way.
So don’t wait. Start now. Look for interim accomplishments that are steps along your path and give yourself a pat on the back for making that next step.
The events certainly don’t need to be tied to the specific path of publication, either. If they further your writing knowledge, skills, or talents in any way, they’re candidates for celebration.
Take a class on any aspect of writing? Celebrate!
Teach a class on any aspect of writing? Celebrate!
Present at a school, library, or writer’s group? Celebrate!
Publish an article in a magazine? Celebrate!
Write a piece for someone’s blog or podcast? Celebrate!
Interview someone for a magazine, blog, or podcast? Celebrate!
Get interviewed by a magazine, blog, or podcast? Celebrate!
Self-publish your book? You’re a hero—celebrate five times! (Because you’ve just been an author, editor, art director, publicist, and sales manager!)
Along with everything else, it’s good psychology. There’s nothing like a little positive reinforcement to keep us going. (And if you’re in need of external recognition, this can also serve to tip off your friends. “What’s up with all the wine and chocolates?” “Oh, that…?” *looks down shyly* “…I just finished final revisions on my contemp romance.”)
So yeah, recognizing and celebrating those steps along the way can give us the motivation we need to keep going along a path that is otherwise filled with way more rejection than acceptance. And besides, who doesn’t need more wine and chocolate in their life?
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.