Jul 082010

After a class on book proposals I taught recently at The Writing Salon, I solicited feedback from the students. One accomplished author of many books, hard at work on a memoir, took me to task for my negativity.

“My major problem was having to deal with the relentless discouragement,” she wrote. “I realize that you wanted us to have a realistic view of the market.  But it’s difficult for me to write if I become too down about the prospects of publication.  You mentioned that 97% of manuscripts are rejected.  That someone who spent two years writing a perfect proposal was still turned down, etc.”

Ted Weinstein

Yep. It’s true. And it not only came from me, but from Ted Weinstein, the literary agent who came one night to hear the students’  pitches. He began his talk by saying that he usually dissuades people from writing a book, because it’s too hard.

But here’s the thing. You’re going to hear that it’s hard to publish a book these days, that your platform isn’t big enough, that your proposal needs more work. It sounds scarey. That’s okay. The bottom line is that you believe your project is worthwhile, that you have something to say that has to come out.

Otherwise, you might falter, and I think that’s what’s happening to this student. It happened to me, too.  Last year I spent 6 months working on a book proposal for a biography, with two sample chapters. I showed it my agent, who said it was not good enough to interest a publisher. Two days later, I started this blog and put the project away. Later I showed the proposal to Ted, who also wasn’t positive about it. Still, the story nags at me, waiting to come out. I daydream about how to revise it. The next version will be the third. Writing still scares the crap out of me, when it’s something I care about. But that’s often the way it is.

Colum McCann

At the end of an excellent novel I finished recently, Let the Great World Spin, author Colum McCann talks about this fear in an interview. “Vonnegut said that we have to be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down,” he explained. “I think that’s what happened with this book. I saw a big cliff and I took off.”

And earlier, he said this, “…stories are there to be told, and each story changes with the telling. Time changes them. Logic changes them. History changes them. Each story is shifted sideways by each day that unfolds. Nothing ends. The only thing that matters, as Faulkner once put it, is the human heart in conflict with itself. At the heart of all this is the possibility, or desire, to create a piece of art that talks to the human instinct for recovery and joy.”

That’s from an accomplished author who felt the fear and wrote anyway, winning a National Book Award. His message  is to keep going. I’m going to take him up on it.

Share Button

  24 Responses to “Feel the Fear and Write Anyway”

  1. Sometimes, a story must be told. Whether it is *sold* or not is a different matter.

    • Yeah, I guess. I’m just not used to thinking that way. I sold the first story I wrote to a daily newspaper, and I’ve never looked back.

  2. When I interviewed May Sarton years ago, she said when she faced a blank piece of paper each day, a voice inside challenged her with, “What do you have to say that is worth saying?” This doubt could have stopped the author of books like “Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing,” and her wonderful journals of life in New England and by the sea. .Sarton said she would just put on a favorite classical music record and begin to work, worthy or not. . Eventually, each day she would produce something very worthwhile. indeed.. Thanks to her persistence, I have a shelf full of Sarton that continues to enrich me, inspire me.

  3. At least you have the guts to try, to put words down on that manuscript. I just sit in front of the blank screen, too scared to take the plunge. Good for you. Keep on keepin’ on.

    • Oh, how frustrating! You will get past it. Perhaps allow the first draft to be crap. It’s officially called a “shitty first draft,” according to Anne Lamott.

  4. I love to write, but am not an accomplished or published writer…….but, feel that I sometimes have to expose my sole (inner self) on paper. In the past I have thought about publishing a book, but having attended many seminars on publishing while attending the IACP conferences these past 18 years…….I am totally discouraged.
    I have seen editors diminish writers in 2 seconds during a writing session, while the prospective author delivered the “first paragraph” of his/her book, or, the editor was being helpful in embellishing the paragraph that was read…….making it not the authors, but the editors imaginary concept of how it should read….totally missing the idea and thoughts that the author was expressing. I felt very sad for these wonderful gifted writers who were not given a chance to give of themselves. Having listened to publishers and editors for several years now, I have come to the conclusion that most are people who have the technical skills to put proper sentences together, but have little insight into human feelings. Most of the editors that I have met at IACP are very young people who have not yet gathered enough “wisdom” that life teaches as we grow older, therefor, they cannot judge a book by its content, but judge it only by its cover that their design team would execute.
    Our electronic times have changed the publishing possibilities for many, they now publish their books themselves making them very successful authors…….and read by many!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • I’m afraid I was one of those young editors once. I became a newspaper and magazine editor in my 20s, and I am certain I did some of what you refer to. I just didn’t know any better. Plus, you learn that ideas have to fit into a little box, and you try to fit everything in there.

      But now, as you say, Maria, there are blogs and e-books and self-publishing, so authors have more ways than ever to circumvent the process.

      • Dianne………
        we all were young and did not know any better……then………..
        I have moments in my life that I cannot ever turn back….because, of my quick tongue!
        Thank you for your reply!
        I love getting your almost daily blogs……… you are very informative and encouraging!

  5. Yes! Yes! We writers need inspiration, reassurance, and support. No matter how many social networking sites, it’s lonely out here. Perhaps if we remember that the value rests in the telling, the process, and not the publication, we can keep on keeping on. Publication is more than nice but understanding–and the surprise and delight we can sometimes discover when pushing through blocks–is better. I think we have to listen to the voice, or tickle, or itch, or whatever it is inside that dreams.

    • I hope that is where writers find inspiration, Penni. Now we just have to keep it alive.

  6. I was on a panel recently and was asked that’s the number one piece of advice I’d give a young person who wanted to be successful – in writing or otherwise. My answer – don’t be afraid of being afraid. Often times in life, we’re afraid. Of course, there’s plenty of ways we’d rather feel. But the biggest problem with being afraid isn’t the afraid-ness itself – it’s that we think we shouldn’t be afraid, we try to change or fix it, we think we have to figure out how to become unafraid before we can proceed. If you can just allow your fear to be there – fear of the blank page, fear of being rejected by an agent or publisher, fear of being otherwise discouraged, etc, etc – you’ve blown the lid off of what you can accomplish.

    • Well said, Jill. The fear has to be managed. Otherwise there is no hope for us!

    • Diane, thank you for this post. And, Jill, thank you for your response to it. I’m copying your words and sticking them above the computer where I’m writing my book proposal. Moving forward = renegotiating our relationship with panic/fear.

  7. Thanks for this, I really needed to hear this today. And I’m going to check out that novel.

  8. “…stories are there to be told.” And I’ll add to that: I believe that everyone has a story worth telling, it is a matter of undrstanding how to tell it and who you are telling it to and why. How often I get messages from readers and friends telling me to write a book, yet the prospect is terrifying. Up against editors, the competition of everyone who also wants to tell their story, or any story, being unknown and inexperienced, it is all daunting. But I also agree that using this fear and the enormous challenges one faces in just the right way it can work to push you towards that goal instead of pushing you away from it. But no matter what chance I have to ever be published in a million years, I love writing, I love the work of writing, improving, experimenting, sharing and that is the positive side of the whole adventure. So when faced with one blank page and writer’s block or my entire future as a writer, I have taught myself to channel the fears and doubts into something more positive. Thanks for writing this post, Dianne.

    • Jamie, you are most welcome.

      It is easy to feel so insecure and insignificant about telling our own stories, and so hard to have the confidence to move forward. Thankfully, sometimes the words just come out! Those are the good days, eh?

  9. Maybe I am being too much of a cynic here, but seriously?

    I have noticed, especially with the “younger generation” (says the aging boomer) that they have been brought up by parents that never corrected bad behavior, never criticized, always praise, never correct or admonish. As these kids have grown up themselves, they tend to have a view of the world that does not allow for criticism, bad news, or correction, and just get upset at being told negative things.

    Really….get over it. Welcome to the real world. I would think your students should be thankful to have someone who tells them the truth, and paints the real picture. I have been to way too many seminars and classes where the instructor should have been waiving pom-poms the entire time, they were so positive.

    Like I said, I am a cynic I guess, but those kind of presentations, where everyone will succeed and nothing will ever go wrong make me ill!

    I think it’s great that you give them a of reality.

    • Well. It’s a double-edged sword, to be realistic and not squash peoples’ dreams.

      And for the record, the person who sent that comment is a very fit 71 years old.

  10. What a great post. I laughed b/c I sent my proposal to Ted Weinstien and got rejected, but then I kept on writing and sending out more proposals. I think it’s great when life kicks you in the gut sometimes. It makes you lift your head up (hopefully) and dig a little deeper. I know I benefited from all of the rejection letters, b/c when that day came and someone said “Yes” it meant so much more to me because I had to fight for it and conquer my fear of rejection.

    By the way, I agree with Owen. I think too many kids are being brought up in families where there is always praise and “everyone is a winner” and that isn’t the real world. We can all benefit from rejection and be better because of it.

    • And now you will have a gorgeous book soon with a publisher who appreciates you. That is worth everything.

      Agents reject more than 95 percent of proposals, so we shouldn’t feel bad. It’s character building. Besides, I respect Ted and my agent. If they didn’t like my proposal, they had a good reason. I may just go with getting an article published instead so I can get it out of my system. Everything doesn’t have to be a book.

      You agree with Owen? Oh good. I was worried that he was off on a rant.

  11. It’s so true about fear. We ignore it, stuff it, or try to pretend that it’s not there at all. Unless we make friends with it, it can be crippling. I can’t remember where I read this — probably in one of Pema Chodron’s books — but she talked about embracing fear, which I really like. Even more succinct, the Nike ads — Just do it. Love that.

    • Hmm. What happens when you embrace it? Do you spend the day in bed? Would love to know more.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.