The Thing That is Holding You Back

I got a DM from a writer friend yesterday that began ‘Got my first form rejection. Stung less than I expected…’

This has happened, in one form or another, many times in conversations with other writers. It’s a specific person in this case, but it could have come from just about anybody. Because everybody is scared of something.

That’s normal.

Putting yourself out there in any way as a writer is an intensely personal thing. It’s like, ‘Oh, hey…I put my heart and soul into this thing. Here…tell me what you think about it. No big deal. Judge me. No, not just my writing. Judge my worth as a writer. Hey, while you’re at it, also judge my worth as a person, and you know, maybe comment on every decision I’ve made in my life.’

That’s what it feels like. Because that’s what you put on the page, right? It’s not just words, it’s you. You put everything into it. So it comes as a bit of a disconnect when the other person reads it and all they see are words. Maybe they like them, maybe they don’t. Probably somewhere in between.  That doesn’t make it any less frightening, though.

Fear itself is not a bad thing. Why do we feel fear? It’s a natural response designed to protect us. Not to over-dramatize it, but the reason you’re afraid of heights…it’s because falling off a building hurts! . And that same instinct…the one that protects us from getting hurt…affects our writing. Maybe it keeps us from taking the step we need to take next, because hey, if I take that step and I fall down, it might hurt.

Yeah. It might hurt.

Then again…it might not.

Or more likely, it will hurt, but not as bad as you thought it would. Have you ever watched a baby that has just learned to walk, and they fall down? There’s this moment where you watch them and they are looking around, and their little baby brain is processing whether they should cry or not. You can almost see the thought process. It’s like, ‘Boom. Oh…I fell. Maybe I should cry. Hmmm….is anybody looking? Yeah, I guess I’m not hurt. Maybe I’ll cry anyway.’ They either cry or they don’t. Then they see a butterfly and remember why they were walking in the first place, and they get up and chase it until they fall down again.

I have some bad news. The fear doesn’t go away. You might learn that the thing you were scared of doesn’t really hurt that much. Good for you! You’ve overcome it. Time for the next step…sorry…this one’s scary, too. Maybe you finally got the courage and put your pitch out there for #DVpit. It took a lot, taking your work and exposing it out there on the big bad internet for everybody to see. And maybe you got a few likes from agents. Yay! Now all you have to do is research them, prepare the materials that they want, and send them.


Back to our baby analogy: Congratulations on learning to walk! Here…let me put you on this bicycle.

But the news isn’t all bad. You see, that fear…it’s a liar. It’s a very persuasive liar, to be sure, but your brain…the part of your brain that keeps you awake at night worrying about things…it’s lying to you. Let’s use the #DVpit example, where some agents liked your pitch:

Lying Brain: These agents don’t really want to see my materials. They don’t know how I write, and if they knew, then they wouldn’t be asking. I’m not that good, and if I send it to them, then they’re going to know that, and I’m going to be exposed as the fraud that I am. They’ll probably tell everybody, and then the entire world will know that this intensely personal thing that I’ve done is worthless. I will be branded with a scarlet letter F for failure, and my picture will forever tell everybody everywhere that I am a horrible person who doesn’t like donuts. And who doesn’t like donuts? Okay…maybe our brains digress.

The Truth: Agents are busy people. If they favorited your pitch, they do want to see it. There are no pity requests. Nobody has time for that. That agent has seen thousands of queries, but they put a heart on your pitch because they want to see one more. It’s what they do. Maybe they’ll like it, maybe they won’t. But they hope they do. And if they don’t, they’re going to send you a rejection, and it’s going to sting. And it’s going to bring you back to what I said at the beginning of this piece:

‘Got my first form rejection. Stung less than I expected…’

Look around you. Everybody feels fear. Right now, there’s an author out there and she’s made it big. Her book releases from her dream publisher next month! She’s overcome the fear, and she’s done the thing, and OMG look at her cover, it’s gorgeous, and she’s got it all and everything is perfect for her and she must be so happy and it will never be that way for me because I suck.

Whoa. Lying brain turned that dark in a hurry, didn’t it? Because it is a lie.

You know what that soon to be debut author is really thinking? Oh, shit. In four weeks everybody in the world is going to be able to read my book, and people are saying how much they want to read it.  They don’t know how I write, and if they knew, then they wouldn’t want to read it. I’m not that good, and now everybody is going to read this crap I’ve made, and I’m going to be exposed as the fraud that I am…

You see how that works? Fear is a tricky little bastard. It’s like the villain in a horror movie that won’t stay dead. Say it with me:

Fear. Is. Normal.

You know what I did when I was querying the book that got me my agent? I was frightened to send the query out, because people might say no. And for me, I’m fine with the no, so it wasn’t about that. But there aren’t a ton of agents who represent what I write, and with every no, that was one more step toward the end of my road. And I put a lot into that book, and crap, I just couldn’t go write another one if this one failed, and I’m never going to get an agent and everybody is going to know I’m a fraud.

So I did my research. I drafted my emails to those agents. And I left them there, formatted, all pretty and revised and perfect, sitting in my draft folder. Just sitting there. I didn’t hit send. At one point I think there were probably five or six in there at once, each addressed to a different agent. Then, at some point later when I was feeling a particular way–kind of a ‘screw it, what do I have to lose moment– I just went through and hit send on all of them. And they all got rejected. The one that I sent to Lisa? One morning I noticed that she’d just re-opened to queries, and I thought to myself ‘hey, what do I have to lose at this point?’ Didn’t even think twice about it. Just formatted it and hit send. That was February 1st. I signed my agency contract on March 3rd.

And I guess that’s the lesson. At some point, you just have to do that thing that scares you. Maybe it will sting. Maybe it won’t. But the odds are, it won’t sting as much as you thought it would. And when you’ve done it enough, you get used to it, and all of a sudden that thing that scares you isn’t that scary anymore. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s frightening every single time, and you have to push yourself through it every. Single. Time.

If that’s the case, then do it. Every single time. Do the thing you need to do to get past it. Because it’s holding you back.

Look, I’m not saying that if you overcome the fear you’re going to get an agent and everything is going to work out for you. It might. It might not. What I’m saying is that if you don’t overcome the fear, then it 100% won’t work out for you. The agent isn’t going to find that query in your drafts folder.

In the case of my friend from the DM…she’s been revising her book now for a while, and it’s really good. She’s done the work. It’s the best book she can write right now, and people are really going to like it. When agents read it, it’s going to be in the top 5% of things that they’ve read this year from new writers. I know this. She knows this, too, because I’ve told her, even though her lying brain won’t let her believe it. And it might work out, it might not. Agents can’t sign the top 5% of things they read. They might not even sign the top 1%. Is this particular book in that top 1%? I don’t know. The writer doesn’t know. But she’s done all she can and it’s time to find out.

So ask yourself. What are you scared of? What’s holding you back today?

And more importantly, what are you going to do about it?

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About Me

I am a Soldier and a Science Fiction writer. Usually I write about Soldiers. Go figure. I'm represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency. If you love my blog and want to turn it into a blockbuster movie featuring Chris Hemsworth as me, you should definitely contact her.

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