Monday, January 01, 2007

Fear of Success

A friend and I were talking about what makes writers tick (or not tick, as the case may be.) One thing mentioned was fear of success, and whether it engenders writers' block. As writers, many or even most of us worry about what will happen if we don't make it. But the flip side of that is what will happen if we do.

Yesterday, I was reading Laurell K. Hamilton's blog. Some people had come to her site and done some Laurell bashing--on her forum, mind you! Her forum, not theirs. How rude. She mentioned that they hated her and hated her books. Sheesh. Hate is a pretty strong emotion to waste on people you don't even know and books you could just as easily set aside with no harm done. But what really stuck in my mind was that one day if I'm very, very lucky, that type of bashing could be directed at me or my books. Wait. What did I just say? That's right, I said if I'm very lucky. No, of course I don't want to be bashed or flamed online or otherwise. But the idea that everyone will love my books and no one will hate them is just unrealistic and more than a tad shortsighted. If I'm remotely successful, bashing is bound to happen sometime. It's better that people either love or hate an author's writing then that they're merely indifferent to it. If they just go "meh," turn away and shrug, that could be a much worse sign then if they get excited and buy dozens of books just so they can stage a book burning. What, you think I'm kidding? I heard that actually happened to J.K. Rowling. The story is that every time a group buys a bunch of her books to burn, her sales take a leap upward. Even if that's just an urban legend, I love it. We should all be so unpopular! Does the idea of being a target for flames scare some writers off? Maybe. Probably. It's not inconceivable that some writers are shy enough or sensitive enough that they'd rather write in obscurity indefinitely than expose their work to the flamers. And that's okay. Can't say I blame them. However, I obviously don't belong in that group or I probably wouldn't have written this paragraph.

What else can we turn over and examine? What about marketing? I've talked to some writers who hate the idea of touring and promoting their books--not because of the time or money it takes, but because of the public appearances. "I'd love to be published, but I hate the idea of having to dress up and do book tours and talk to all those strangers, etc," is a common theme. Well, sure, talking to people can be intimidating, especially if an author is shy and meeting strangers isn't his strong suit. Not every school kid wants to get up in front of the class and give his book report, and some never get over that fear. But hey, there's a reason TLC's Clinton and Stacy have a TV show that teaches people what not to wear. Shy humans can be taught! All the necessary book- and self-marketing skills can be learned. Groups like Toastmasters can help. Style guides help. A great haircut and some new clothes can work wonders. But yeah, I can see where shyness might overcome the desire for success in some of our writer colleagues. I feel for them. I hope most of them don't let it hold them back, but I know that some will. Good luck to them anyway. I try to look at it as putting on a hat. Today, you have on your writer hat. Tomorrow, you might put on your schmoozing hat, or your pitching hat, or your marketing hat. Dress for the job you want. Look the people in the eyes and smile. Like chocolate against dementors, it helps. It really helps.

One last fear topic for today. Fear of being a one-trick pony. That may be the worst fear of all. Let's say you had a little success. First book was published, you won an award, maybe you had a great sell-through. Now looms the big question. Can you do it again? Would it be better to go out on a high note and never write again? For some, maybe. For some, the possibility of not being able to live up to high reader and publisher expectations may be a crippling problem, especially given the midlist crisis that many writers face. Yeah, I said midlist, not midlife, but the symptoms are similar. What if all that you stand for, all that you believe in and all that you've built suddenly fails in the pressure cooker of today's market and you're forced to reinvent yourself right in the middle of your, career? It happens all the time. Perfectly good authors get dumped due to bad sell-through, and as I've seen several authors explain in their blogs lately, sometimes the career is dead before the author even hears the rattle and wheeze. For some people, the pressure to recreate former or current success might be too much.

Certainly, it would be easier to leave off while you're ahead. That way, there's no Book Two for Amazon readers to cite as "disappointing," or bad sophomore sales numbers for editors to frown at and then decide to take a pass on the option for Book Three or Four. But the old cliche "better safe than sorry" just doesn't play well in my head. No risk, no gain. Book Two is always going to be a risk. But so is every subsequent book, no matter which number it is. And you can't possibly hit on target every time. If you do, you're golden. I salute you. But if you finally do write the book that bombs, don't throw away your keyboard! If the phoenix can rise from the ashes, so can an author. If one idea doesn't suit, another will. I have to believe that. It's not the rose-colored glasses talking, I swear. It's just that the only guarantee in this business is that those who don't chase the dream won't ever catch it. And I can't help myself. Yep. That's me.

And these are my thoughts on this New Year's Day, 2007. Ask me again a year or so after I've finally caught that elusive success. See if I've thrown it back in the pond and gone off to hide in the closet. I'm a little precognitive, so I feel safe in saying that no matter what might be in the closet, it won't be me. I'll still be out in my office applying fingers to keyboard, still cranking out the stories in my head and trying to pawn them off on all of you who care to read them. I guess I'm just stubborn that way.

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