When I was at the Nebula Awards weekend last month, I was on a panel about dealing with discouragement. While preparing for that panel, I thought a lot about that topic, so I thought I’d share some of the ideas I came up with, only some of which actually made it into the panel discussion.
I think just about every writer deals with discouragement in some form or another, and at every stage of his or her career. When you’re just starting to write, you may be discouraged about being able to find time to write or struggling to get all the way through a book. Later, you may be discouraged about your work being rejected. Once you’re published, you can get discouraged by reviews, by the way the publisher treats your book, by sales figures, by the kind of recognition (or lack thereof) you receive. That’s why it’s important to learn and practice good coping skills so you can turn your discouragement into a positive force.
One thing to know is that it’s okay to be discouraged and even angry. The trick is to channel it in a more positive direction rather than letting it fester and become a negative force on you and your career. Eat chocolate, rant and rave a little, throw a beanbag at the wall, vent to your friends. However, do all this in private. A social media meltdown could come back to bite you. It may be a turnoff to industry professionals who may want to work with you in the future, and you don’t want readers or potential readers to think of you as an angry whiner. That doesn’t mean you have to always be Little Mary Sunshine, but you should probably think about and process your discouragement before expressing it publicly rather than ranting out of pure emotion on a public stage. I would also caution you to not get too physically unhealthy in your emotional coping strategies. A little chocolate or a drink with your writer friends is one thing. Drowning your sorrows in alcohol isn’t going to help matters. You also don’t want to stay angry and bitter without moving forward because that will affect the quality of your work — and your life.
Once you have the raw emotion out of your system, you can get more analytical. What, exactly, is it that’s discouraging you? Write it down and try to get to the core of it — I’m struggling with the middle of the book, which feels boring; I can’t seem to get beyond the form rejection stage; my publisher did absolutely no publicity for my last book, then blamed me for the bad sales; I’m getting horrible reviews.
Now identify the factors that you can control and do something about. You can’t change what publishers do, what reviewers say, how agents perceive your work. But you can change what you write, how you write, how much you write, what professional activities you participate in, how you promote yourself, etc. So, for example, if you’re getting nothing but form rejections, you can try writing something different — maybe there’s not much of a market for what you write — or taking some workshops to try to improve your writing. You can get into a critique group or find a critique partner to get some feedback on your work and see if you can identify what might not be catching editors’ or agents’ attention. You can go to conferences to network with people, maybe get some face-to-face pitch sessions so that you can get some up-front feedback if it’s what you’re writing that’s being rejected, or you may get a more personalized response that identifies what it is in your writing that isn’t working. Develop a plan based on things you can control and do something about to address the source of your discouragement. Set goals and targets that you can measure, and keep track of your progress. That not only puts you on a path to correcting things, it makes you feel more empowered, which makes you feel less discouraged.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of things you can’t control, and that becomes more true the higher you go up the career ladder. You can’t make publishers decide that yours is the book they want to promote, you can’t make reviewers review your work and like it if they do review it, you can’t make your book get nominated for or win awards, you can’t make readers buy your book and tell others about it. How do you deal with it if the source of your discouragement is something you can’t control? I think this is where positive anger comes into play. That’s using anger as a motivation to persist and improve. Even at this level, the things you control are still the same. It just may take a lot more work to get enough change to make a difference, and it will take a lot of motivation to power through. If you’re not getting a push from publishers, what it takes to get it is a book that makes everyone in the publisher excited about its potential, or else a track record of steadily rising sales that makes the publisher feel like this can be the book that breaks out. That means working hard to find the right concept, executing it brilliantly, maybe some networking to build support and establishing a professional reputation. That’s possibly even more difficult than writing a first book, and you’re going to need all your righteous anger to fuel you and remind you that you need something too awesome to be ignored. It may help to have a motivational mental image. I’ve joked about what I’ll demand when I ride into New York at the head of my conquering army, with maybe a few dragons circling overhead, but that mental image does spur me to get back to work when I’m ready to settle for “good enough.”
I think the worst way to handle discouragement is to focus on the things you can’t control without having any kind of plan in place to deal with the things you can control. Then you just have that free-ranging disappointment and anger, that sense that the world is out to get you. I find that it really helps to dig into what’s causing the problem I’m having and what I can do about it, then focus my thoughts and efforts on what I can control.