Image: Matthew Loffhagen
I have a question for you. It’s one you may not have asked yourself, but it’s important, and it may reveal the exact reason why you haven’t achieved success yet. It could tell you why you can’t quite finish that first draft, why you haven’t got around to editing or redrafting, or why there isn’t some agent or publisher out there clutching your work, knowing it’s going to be the next big thing.
It’s not an easy question and answering it might be a little uncomfortable, but the good news is that you don’t have to share the answer with anyone else. Be warned, though, that once I ask, you’re not going to be able to hide from your answer. So, if you’re ready, I guess it’s time to ask…
Are you really trying to succeed?
The world’s easiest question
The answer’s ‘yes’, right? Of course it is – every author knows how much effort it takes to write. Choosing to sit down and put words on the page is occasionally easy, but mostly it’s an arduous slog; certainly not the kind of thing you do if you’re not really trying to meet your personal goals, be that publication, a competition win, or just a great story.
Here’s the thing, though – without really knowing it, you may be giving less than your all. Many, if not most, authors struggle with this to some degree. It’s a problem we don’t really talk about, and yet confronting it may be key to your success.
So, let’s ask the same question again: Are you really trying to succeed? Is every part of you engaged in that slog of writing, editing, rewriting, sourcing criticism, sending out your manuscript? Or is part of you holding back? Is some secret hand laid on top of yours, dragging you away from really committing to success?
Some authors can answer quickly and easily – of course they’re really trying to succeed. But hidden among them are those who know that, actually, they could be doing more. And even knowing that, they don’t know quite why that’s true. Well, let’s look into it.
The fear of failure
For many authors, it’s a matter of fearing failure. Once you finish writing the story, or editing it, or once you send it out, it’s ready to be judged, and that can be terrifying.
This isn’t some minor, butterflies-in-your-stomach issue. As novelist and poet Erica Jong points out, it can take years off the life of your career.
I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged… I had poems which were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.
– Erica Jong
In fact, Jong gives an optimistic account – the account of someone who’s over her fear. There are plenty of authors who will never truly strive for their goals because it’s so scary to fail.Are you so scared to fail that you’re not truly trying?Click To Tweet
Not only that, but artists are in a terrible position in terms of motivation. I’ve written before on how writing is seemingly designed to prevent results – writing a book, especially your first book, is a task performed for people who aren’t waiting on the result and are putting no pressure on you to deliver. It’s little wonder that the prospect of failure can be so debilitating when it’s up against a deadline that can be moved back again and again and again.
This type of fear is often coupled with denial – explained away as perfectionism or growth. They’re good reasons, if they’re true, but they mask a barrier that may never go away on its own. If you’re an author who started writing when they were a teenager and still hasn’t truly tried to publish anything, or someone who bookmarks writing competitions knowing they’ll never remember to enter, this may be you. Or maybe this isn’t you, and you have exactly the opposite kind of problem.
The fear of success
Does anyone really fear success? Isn’t fear of success just being worried that you’re not all you imagine you could be? In short, no – our minds work far differently than we imagine, and some authors are genuinely paralyzed by how scary it would be to succeed.Can you really be scared of success? Many authors are.Click To Tweet
After all, success comes with a lot of responsibilities. It presents challenges and needs time, effort, and skill to maintain. Not only that, but what will others think? Will the friends and peers who love a struggling writer show the same level of support for an author who’s made it big? How will family react to a competition win – with the appropriate praise, or a gut-clenching lack of support and/or approval?
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
– Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love
Yet again, it’s something that can always be achieved tomorrow, so why not put it off? You know the answer, of course – tomorrow never comes.
The fear of progress
What if you finish your book, publish it, and then realize you could have done better? What if you’ve used up your best ideas at a point in your career where you can’t do them justice? Worse than that, what if your beliefs change, and you’re stuck having committed to something that just doesn’t represent you anymore?
This is an incredibly justifiable fear – if your ideology and craft don’t evolve as you write, you’re doing a poor job. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re right: you probably can make a piece of writing better if you wait a little while. The question, of course, is how much better you can make it, and how long that ‘little while’ is actually going to be. Your writing journey will never stop, you won’t wake up one morning and think, ‘Oh, I’ve reached the peak of my powers’ – as I’ve said before, you’re never going to catch that tortoise.
The fear of failure and the fear of success deal with possibilities, but the fear of progress is almost certainly going to come true. So, what can you do about it? The only answer is to keep replying to yourself – don’t make one project better and better, but keep producing better and more evolved work. Spend an idea and you’ll find another grows in its place, more complex and fully realized for the work you’ve now put in.You can’t change your mind after you publish, but you can write something new.Click To Tweet
Even if you don’t love everything you write, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth writing – your earliest work will still chime with some readers, and even if you end up hating it, it’s a stepping stone to something you’ll love. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series spans over forty novels, and while it’s a matter of opinion, most would agree that his early works have less of his signature voice and are generally poorer than his later work. It took book after book for Pratchett to find his pace and voice, but once he did, he made it count. When you write them, your worst books will be 100% of your output, but that number dwindles to almost nothing the longer you keep writing.
Facing your fear
Some of you will have no use for this article, but others will be waiting with bated breath for the solution. Unfortunately, there’s no single way to start really trying to succeed. All you can do is recognize that there’s a barrier in your way and start interrogating your actions – are you holding back on editing/sharing/publishing because you need to, or because it means you don’t have to confront the success/failure/progress you’re subconsciously trying to avoid?
Remember, you’re sneaky, and there’s no-one better equipped to trick you than you. Maybe your book isn’t ready for the next step, maybe you really are too busy, but maybe even that’s a smokescreen – do you have a realistic timescale for what comes next? Have you really thought about how you’re going to achieve it? Because that’s the kind of thing you do when you’re really trying to succeed.
I won’t tell you that failure isn’t possible, or that success won’t be a burden, but I will say that the barriers described above can rob not just months, not just years, not just decades, but your entire career as a writer. That’s a tragedy worse than anything else you might encounter, and while it might take a lot of effort to uncover and confront your personal barriers, it’s definitely worth the effort.
It’s something you’ll have to work through for yourself, but a good place to start is taking the writing process out of your own hands. Schedules, plans, and groups can help with this, and you can read 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book and Why Joining A Writing Group May Be The Best Thing You Do All Year for useful advice. If, on the other hand, you’re only just beginning to confront your fears, Here’s How A Tortoise Can Help You Finally Finish Your Novel and How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published can help shed some light on the types of behavior that indicate you’re holding yourself back.
Are you someone who’s avoiding truly pursuing success, someone who got past this problem, or someone who’s only just discovered this may be an issue in your life? Comment below, and discover just how many other authors are in the same boat.