In For Writers, Writing

Getting past your doubts as a writer means going for big goals even if you’re not sure that’s a reasonable thing to do. Here’s how.

I have done a lot of work throughout my life on trying to see the glass as half full, but, when I’m honest with myself, I have to admit I’m a pessimist. I don’t take pleasure in negative outcomes, but, after an early life with a lot of chaos, pessimism almost feels like savvy to me, a way of staving off the shock of getting hit by the inevitable oncoming train. It’s probably not conducive to happiness, and it can sometimes close me off to unexpected delights, but I’m of an age that I know who I am and who I am not.

Despite this, I am probably one of the most radically persistent people you could ever meet.

At first blush, it seems incongruous. Pessimism is associated with passivity, with “why try when it’s not going to work anyway.” We’re told it’s the great, bright optimists who inherit the earth. Well, guess what, folks: success doesn’t have to be just for them, and we don’t have to turn into something that we’re not, or fail. With a few mental tricks and simple redirection, you can be who you are and develop an unstoppable persistence.

If you’re an optimist, may the heavens bless you. If you’re always looking up to watch for the piano hurtling toward you, not to worry. You can work just as hard as optimists to achieve your goals.

Here are some of my tricks.

  1. Notice the stories. The first step is realizing what you’re telling yourself about your endeavor. If you’re writing a query, are you thinking, “Well, what’s the use? I know the odds of getting an agent are really low.” If so, just note it. Don’t beat yourself up over it, since that just adds negativity to negativity. Begin to observe how your self-talk affects what you go for and what you think you can (and can’t) achieve.
  2. Master the art of “what if.” I spent a lot of time trying to train myself to think the hopeful thought first. To a degree, I’ve achieved it. But not entirely. I still just know it’s all going to go to hell in some deep part of my bones. So, where you can train yourself to think the happy thought first, go for it. Where the dismal one is the first to pop up, learn to quickly tack on its opposite. “Sure, it’s possible that editor is going to really hate my book. But, obviously that editor buys a certain number of books each year. What if one of them is mine? Why not?” Learning to acknowledge that the odds may be long but you still may luck out is a lot easier than being completely rosy about it.
  3. Play the numbers game. One way I’ve learned to push my “I just know this is not going to work out,” to the side has been asking myself how many attempts I think it may take to achieve a goal, then doubling or tripling that to an almost ridiculous level, and committing to myself to not stop trying until I reach the high number of attempts. For example, if you’re querying, you might do a little research to find how many rejections it took for your favorite authors to get an agent. (It will almost always be in the double digits). Then double, or even triple that number. Use the high number as a mark of your commitment. If the high number is sixty, don’t tell yourself, “Wow, I stink so much I have to get turned down three times as much as {fill in name of favorite writer}.” Tell yourself, “I am so committed to my goal, that I will go above and beyond what even the most successful have done.” It’s a slight tweak, but it can take you a long way.
  4. Be delusional. Okay, not delusional delusional, but totally unrealistic. Instead of shrinking the size of your goal to something you think won’t make you doubt yourself, make it bigger instead. Because, here’s a secret: you’ll doubt yourself regardless. New York Times bestsellers and award winners doubt themselves regularly. So instead of telling yourself that maybe one day you’ll publish a story, tell yourself that you are probably going to end up on the New York Times bestseller list with your awesome novel. When you go for a bigger goal, you take bigger chances. Even if you don’t quite get to that Holy Grail, you’ll get a lot further than if you kept yourself small.
  5. Let go of outcome. Easier said than done, I know. If you approach it like a meditation rather than a goal to reach, you’re more likely to get there. Every time you find yourself anxious about, “I am never going to get an agent/sell my debut/sell my seventh book, etc.” remember there’s really no way to know just how far you’ll go. Life is curious and winding. Sure, maybe it won’t be you, but, really, why not you? In acknowledging that all kinds of unlikely things are possible, you can feel freer to let go of trying to predict what any specific outcome will be.
  6. Do the work. Being delusional, or trying time and time again doesn’t mean you’re absolved from doing the hard work. Here’s the reality: if you haven’t gotten an agent/sold a book/published an article, it may just be because you’re not ready. Because you need to polish your work, or take a workshop, or hire an editor. Not because you’re not good enough, but because there’s still work to be done. Embrace the work, learn to love the work and not make it a referendum on your worth and talent, and you won’t lose steam.
  7. Double down after every setback. I got the first agent I queried on the first novel I wrote. Fairy tale, right? I parted ways with that agent (amicably), and got a superstar second agent in my first round of submissions for my next marketed novel. Also fairy tale, no? Except, here’s what that story omits: in the six years between the time I got my first agent and my second, and in the five years between the time I sold my first book and my second, I wrote four full novels and five partials, none of which my first agent would go out with. After we parted ways, I queried with two of the complete novels, all to crickets. I developed a habit called “revenge queries,” which meant that for every rejection I got, I sent out two more queries. I read good novels and books on craft, I organized a writers’ group. I wrote yet another novel. And, through some mix of improvement and hitting on something at an opportune moment, I got the agent of my dreams. All because every time I had a setback, I came back stronger.

I am no paragon of positive thinking. In fact, there’s some fraud factor in even sharing this, because who am I to give advice on getting past your doubts as a writer, when I haven’t really gotten past mine? Except, here’s the thing: I’ve been deep in that pit. I’ve seen it all look dark, and seen the odds look insurmountable. And yet I persisted, doubts and all. That’s how I know you can, too.

Read more on the how-to of revenge queries: click here.

For more how-tos and thoughts for writers: click here.

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