In case you’re new here, here are the three major areas that get lumped together and called Writer’s Block:
- We have nothing to write about
- We’ve got something to write about, but we can’t get started
- We’ve got something to write about, we get started, but we don’t finish.
Mostly in the mini series so far, we’ve talked about strategies to help with (1) and (2). That’s partly because those are the two areas that I struggle the most with – I know from experience that if I have something to write about, and I get sat in writing chair at the appointed time, then I’ll finish the article or post that I’m writing. Or write the number of words I’ve set myself to write.
And so most of my ‘avoid writer’s block’ strategies deal with those two issues. But I was re-reading The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield two days ago in the dentist’s waiting room and realized that one of the reasons people start their work, but don’t finish is because they are afraid of rejection.
Why Does A Fear Of Rejection Cause Writers To Leave Their Work Unfinished?
Speak to any writer of any stripe and they’ll confidently tell you that they know they’ve got to get their work out there, so that people can read it.
But there’s a big difference between pounding the keyboards to write another article or post and pasting it into WordPress and hitting the publish button.
Or sending a copy of it to a respected blogger as a potential guest post.
Or sending it to a magazine editor in the hope that will be published.
Because then you can get comments on your blog post saying your article is bad. Or the respected blogger will decline your article and not publish it on his blog. And ditto for the magazine editor.
And for a percentage of writers this rejection is personal. And they find it much easier never to finish their work. Or if they finish it, they don’t submit it anywhere. That way, even though they’d never admit to it, it can’t be rejected.
If you ask them about their writing, you’ll probably get a non-descript response like: It’s in the editing queue. Or: I wasn’t too happy with that article, I need to work on it some more.
And A Fear of Rejection is the last desperate trick of our old foe Resistance – and it’s deadly. Because if you’ve got the work written in the first place, you’re so close to the finish line that you can taste it. You can almost reach out your hands and feel the finish tape there, waiting to be broken.
Only writers who suffer from a fear of rejection don’t see ‘Finish’ written in big letters on the sign over the finish tape. They see ‘Rejection.’ And they freeze. And fall at the last hurdle.
Fortunately there are ways to deal with the fear of rejection. In fact, I’ve got three for you.
Dealing With The Fear Of Rejection 1 – Knowing It’s Not Personal
If you submit a piece of writing to a magazine or another blog or website for publication or approval, and it doesn’t get published – so what? Do the editors or webmasters think less of you? Are they going to go to dinner tonight and share the story about how some jumped-up little punk tried to get them to publish a piece of crap in their magazine or on their website?
Dude, the answer is no.
By the time their working day is finished the sad truth is that they’ll probably have forgotten all about you. Because their decision to reject your writing is not based on YOU – it’s based on the writing. Maybe it wasn’t good enough. Maybe they already have 10 pieces waiting to be published on similar topics. Maybe it just didn’t fit the direction they were going in at the particular time.
The bottom line is they didn’t reject YOU. They rejected your writing. Very, very different story. Because your writing is not You. It’s just something you thought up, spent an hour, or 2 hours, or 10 hours working on. And then submitted it where you thought they could publish it.
There are a lot of writers out there trying to get published in magazines, or trying to get guest posts on popular blogs. The law of averages should tell you that you can’t win every time.
Not unless you’re a superstar.
So the first way to deal with the fear of rejection is to recognize that whilst you are putting your best efforts into your writing, that when you’ve dotted the last ‘I’ and crossed the last ‘T,’ the manuscript you send out is not you.
If people don’t like it – that’s OK. Not everyone likes Shakespeare. Not everyone likes Stephen King. Not everyone likes John Grisham. Spend less time worrying about the people who DON’T like it, and more time building an audience of people who do like it.
Dealing With Fear Of Rejection 2 – The Professional Mindset
If you read interviews with any famous fiction author, or their autobiographical writing if it exists, you’ll find – almost without exception – that every single one of them got rejected early in their career
Google J.K. Rowling on the old Interwebz and you’ll find that Harry Potter was rejected several times. Or what about Carrie, the novel that put Stephen King on the road to best sellerdom. Google that and you’ll find it was rejected 30 times. There are other famous examples too – Dune by Frank Herbert, rejected 23 times. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell – rejected 38 times.
But these writers had two things in common – one, they were not personally invested in their book to the extent that their disappointment prevented them resubmitting their manuscript to the next publishing house on their list.
And two, they had a professional mindset. And knew that what Professionals do is to not let a small setback knock them out of the game. The Professional knows that rejection is just one part of the game.
The professional knows that rejection also is the part of the game that happens just before you get successful – no successful writer ever got successful without being rejected along the way. Rejection isn’t just something that happens to a few writers, it’s the entry price that all writers who want to be professional have to pay.
Dealing With Fear Of Rejection 3 – Feedback, Feedback, Feedback
I wrote a book for my how to play bass website in 2009. That book was about Deliberate Practice – the science of getting better (and it’s a science, not an art. And applies to everything.) One of the elements that absolutely HAS to be present for someone to get better at their chosen discipline is consistent feedback.
And at the end of the day, that’s all rejection is. It’s a form of feedback. If you’ve got your ego tied up into your work then you’ll bemoan the vagaries of fate, or blame the person who rejected your work. If you have a professional mindset, then you take responsibility for your work – and look at rejection objectively.
That objectivity leads you to the conclusion that your work wasn’t good enough. That same objectivity can lead you to use that rejection as part of the process of feedback. If you have a dialogue going with the editor, or person who’s rejected your work, then you can ask them what the problems were. What needs fixing? How can I do better next time?
That’s the process all professionals go through, in every discipline, to get better. Whether it’s sport, or music, or writing. One of my favourite quotes about this was by a jazz double bass player called John Patitucci. Now bear in mind that Patitucci is a fiercely committed bass player with a virtuosic technique – and probably ranks in the top 10 in the world (if there was any kind of ranking system).
He was being interviewed about practicing and practice habits, and he said something like: “I spend the first hour of the day working on fixing the holes in my technique.”
Wow! That, my friends, is how you get better at something. And having a piece of rejection is actually a good thing – because it gives you an opportunity to focus in on an element of your writing that’s not as good as it could be. And start fixing it.
Before I close out today, I want to give you a personal story…because it’s illustrative of all the things I’ve been talking about. And shows how I let my fear of rejection get in the way of what should have been a massive opportunity.
A Letter From Harper Collins
Back in the day I wanted to be a fiction writer. And I’ve written scuds of short stories, a few novels, some screenplays, and outlined at least ten more.
Back in the mid 90s I wrote a ‘serial killer thriller’ – you know, Silence of the Lambs, that sort of thing. And I did the standard submission thang, and sent it out to the biggest UK publishing houses.
Now all of them rejected it, causing great the usual amount of anguish and misery. But from Harper Collins I got a handwritten rejection note. (If you don’t know about the publishing industry – most rejections are done by form letter. If an editor actually writes on a rejection letter, you’re doing well).
This handwritten rejection note said something like – and I’m summarizing – : “I do like this. It has a great feeling of having to turn the page and an unusual villain and highly interesting synopsis….but this market is very competitive and Harper Collins are currently not purchasing books from non-contracted authors in this field at the moment.”
The note then went on to say something like: “I do think spending some time working with an Agent could benefit you by not only helping with tightening some of the book elements, but also smoothing the submission process to potential publishers.”
The editor who’d written this then went onto personally recommend three Agents, and list their direct lines, and tell them to use her name as an Introduction.
Now if you know anything about publishing fiction you SHOULD be absolutely and utterly thrilled to get a rejection letter like that. Not only does it point out some areas to work on and improve the manuscript, but you also get a cast-iron introduction to THREE literary agents.
So was I thrilled?
Was I bollocks, as we say on our side of the pond. I threw the manuscript and rejection note into a drawer in the kind of hissy, creative fit that only writers with an amateur mindset can have. How dare they not recognize my literary genius? How dare they not recognize my literary brilliance.
And I didn’t write a word of fiction again for seven years. (What a loser)
Now I’m telling you my story so YOU don’t make this mistake. Your writing is NOT you, it’s merely something you’ve done. If people don’t like it, hey it’s really not the end of the world. The amateur has a hissy fit and doesn’t write for a few years. The professional dusts off the manuscript and sends it somewhere else – and then more importantly, he starts the next piece of work.
The fear of rejection is just about the last play that resistance has in its playbook to try and stop you writing. You get past this, and you’re good to go as long as you keep your perspective, keep stocking your idea bank, make sure you never face the blank page, and maintain your professional mindset.
If in doubt at any time there are the previous articles in the series to refer to. And you absolutely MUST MUST MUST read Steven Pressfield’s The War Of Art. It’s the Bible on resistance and Writer’s Block, and every page is filled with insight and wisdom and written with an unpitying understanding of what it takes to be a writer. Honestly, stop reading, go to Amazon, buy it and read it.
The Next Step
Although I’ve not finished writing about Writer’s Block, I have finished this mini-series for the blog section of the One Spoon website. At some stage in the near future I’ll bundle these articles together – along with several fresh articles – into an eBook.
That will be available here – the easiest way to keep track of it is to subscribe to the weekly newsletter.