Monday, July 22, 2013

Guest Post by Nikki M. Pill

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Nick Spill talking about his path to publication here:

You can read Constance Phillips and Jenna Rutland and Joe Konrath talking about their paths to publication here:

You can read Ian Kezsbom talking about Fuzzbomb Publishing here:

You can read Gary Ponzo talk about first lines here:

You can read Chris Everheart talking about technophobia here:

You can read about Joe Flynn talking about his publishing history here:

You can read Richard Stooker talking about bestsellers here:

Now here's Nikki Pill...

In 2003, I did a reading at Twilight Tales in Chicago. A writer approached me and introduced himself as Joe. He said he liked my work and wanted to introduce me to his agent. It’s a vote of confidence I’ve never forgotten. The agent passed on my manuscript, but I picked up Joe’s book WHISKEY SOUR and loved it. I’ve been a big fan ever since, and he’s been a major influence on my decision to go indie. If you want to see how his advice panned out for me, check this out.

I did my psychology internship at hospice, so I’ve had the chance to see the devastating effect Alzheimer’s has on the entire family. (PSA: the single biggest determining lifestyle factor about dementia and Alzheimer’s is exercise, so please hop on the treadmill after you nail your word count for the day). I was thrilled to have the chance to fight the good fight against that disease while getting a chance to guest post on Joe’s blog. I don’t know that I have anything new to say about writing, but as a trained therapist, I can talk about practical ways to deal with your inner critic.

We all need out inner editor to do our best work. We all write sucky sentences, clunky metaphors, and boring dialogue. It’s useful to weed it out in later drafts. When enough stress comes into the picture, though, that editor can become an outright bully -- usually before you start! People with good intentions will tell you to “put it out of your mind,” “stop thinking about it,” “get over it,” or “think positive.” They may tell you that people who give you negative reviews “aren’t worth your time,” so “don’t let them rent space in your head.”

But how?

We live in a culture where self-help gurus make a lot of money telling you to think positive. To replace negative thoughts with positive ones. To Just Be Happy. If it were really that simple -- if you could really just replace one thought with another by using sheer willpower -- depression and anxiety wouldn’t be epidemics in our culture. The thing is, there is no such thing as unlearning. If you ever believe that you’re a bad writer, that neural pathway becomes part of your brain. Think it enough, and it will get as big and crowded as Route 90 in Chicago rush hour. You might learn a more useful skill, but you can’t unlearn the thought.  It’s like learning French and expecting to forget English.

Some people can easily practice skills we call “cognitive defusion” and “emotional regulation.” Most people who grew up with that knack can’t articulate it because it’s just part of their unconscious mental processes. These skills are a bitch to learn later in life, especially if you’re a ruminator and worrier like me!

I hit a nasty rough patch in 2006-2007. I experienced paralyzing fear when I faced the blank white page. Every idea I had was a wretched cliché. Every sentence was stilted and stupid. I could barely skim Joe’s or Elizabeth Bear’s blog posts on writing because I felt like such a fraud. I called myself a writer, but I wasn’t writing. I felt like I’d used up all my good ideas and I’d never turn out anything good again. I would never be as good as China Mieville or Jeanette Winterson. They NEVER had ideas this bad!

I incorrectly attributed this to writers’ block, to a creative failing on my part. You see, the mind is an evaluation and judgment machine. Those skills are great for predicting danger so a species can survive. No amount of positive thinking will replace a sabertooth tiger with a kitten, right? But today, when our mind is attempting to predict and prevent circumstances that cause us embarrassment or pain, we end up in a vicious mental feedback loop. We end up with a long list of situations to avoid, like Going to Parties, Asking People on Dates, or Self-Publishing a Book.

For several years, it wasn’t safe for me to say anything. The abusive person in my life would twist my statements around and throw them back in my face. If something was in writing, this person could pick the statements apart and attribute all kinds of horrible, manipulative motives to me. Of course a blank page was terrifying!

Part of how I dealt with it -- my starting point in cognitive defusion -- is here, with my yoga teacher telling me “it doesn’t have to be anything.” I stopped trying to suppress my inner critic. I agreed with him. “That’s okay. This page can be absolute shit. If Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Bear talk about writing the Awful First Draft, then I don’t have to turn out a perfect first draft. Mine can be awful too.” That enabled me to detach from perfectionism, which was my mind’s attempt to protect me from embarrassment and hurt. Instead of suppressing the thoughts, I just allowed them to exist in a more workable way.

1. Letting go of Unhelpful Stories 
Sometimes critical thoughts come from a distance; sometimes, they clamp on like an awful H.R. Giger alien facehugger. It’s not about some miracle cure so you’ll never be afraid again. It’s about changing your relationship with those thoughts. For instance, I remember sitting in a booth at the Roger’s Park Leona’s, totally stunned that The Tease made it to #5 in free suspense. My boyfriend was grinning ear to ear, and I was sick to my stomach. It had just occurred to me that over 3,600 people had my book. That meant 3,600 people could dislike the book, write negative reviews, and judge me. What was I thinking, publishing a book? Who ever said I could write?

I recognized that my mind was just telling me the same old story, and said to myself, “Here’s the I’m a Bad Writer Story again.” My inner critic’s histrionics sputtered and quieted to a dull mutter, and I had a cheeseburger with my boyfriend while another couple hundred people downloaded the book.

The worst thing you can do is to try fighting the chatter. It never shuts off -- not even for the mental might of lifelong meditators. It’s impossible. Strategies like alcohol or TV can numb them for a while, but they’ll just come back.

There’s a difference between having a thought, holding a thought, and buying a thought. Meditation and yoga can help create mindfulness, but they’re not the only way. Simple, quick, easy mindfulness exercises can train your brain too. So when your critic starts telling you that you suck, hold the thoughts lightly, like a live bird. You are not your thoughts. They are just temporary private events. Notice the thought, thank your mind for telling you a story, and do what is meaningful to you.

2. Take Action
Another important strategy is committed action in service of your values. Many of us make this assumption that someday, we’ll be happy, and then our lives will start. Our life is happening right now, though. The further we get from our values, the less satisfied we are. If you value doing creative things, and your behavior doesn’t line up with that, you’ll experience dissatisfaction. You might even feel like a fraud, as I did. Life is more fulfilling when we act on our values. Feel the fear, recognize that not every thought or emotion is actionable, and take action. No matter what you do, someone is going to criticize you. Do you want your tombstone to honor you as a dedicated writer, loving family member, and loyal friend? Or as a person who successfully avoided criticism?

Some people might use a technique we call “flooding,” which is like getting over a fear of blood by volunteering in the ER for a night. You flood yourself with the experience to desensitize yourself. I prefer a less dramatic approach, especially for projects that take as long as writing. Todd Travis’s recent post is a good example of this. His post talks about the values of bravery, creativity, hard work, and pursuing dreams. He writes about placing a higher value on those than avoiding criticism and avoiding embarrassment. If you keep your values as your North Star, it’s a lot easier to live a rich, full life. 

3. Exposure
My personal favorite technique for big-time worriers like me is making time for it. Give yourself 15 minutes a day to worry as hard as you can. Seriously. Go for it. Freak out about how your book will flop and you’ll be remembered as the Biggest Loser Writer Ever. At the end of those 15 minutes, pick yourself up and get on with your day. Experiment with that -- 15 minutes a day for 2 weeks, even and especially on the days you feel like you don’t have something to worry about -- and see what happens.

If you’d like to read more about this approach, it’s called Acceptance Commitment Therapy. It’s the approach I use as a therapist, and it’s life-changing. I highly recommend the writers Russ Harris and Steven Hayes. I also loved Hilary Rettig’s 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC and Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART. They’re not based in ACT, but they’re great books for writers that align well with the philosophy.

And, of course, you can read THE TEASE, the novel I wrote when I changed my relationship with my inner critic. Anna is a therapist by day, burlesque dancer by night. When a serial killer stalks and murders members of her burlesque troupe, her personal and professional lives come crashing down around her.

As a special thank-you to Joe for encouraging me as a fledgling writer and devoting his resources to curing a devastating condition, I’m having a Joe’s Blog Special. THE TEASE is free today & tomorrow, July 22-23. I hope you enjoy it. 

Joe sez: One of the greatest journeys in life is overcoming insecurity and learning to truly not give a shit.

Of course, that's easier said than done. Remember that being brave doesn't mean being fearless. It means being able to act while afraid.

First comes action, then comes not giving a shit.

My way to combat fear is to do exactly that--to combat fear. To face it, head on. So I'll add Pavlov to Nikki's list of ways to fight fear. 

4. Classical Conditioning
If you want to get over being afraid of something, keep doing it until you're used to it.

We fear the worst case scenario. But once that happens, and we survive, we can become calloused to it.

When I was a wee lad of five years old, the nurse sneezed while giving me a booster shot, jabbing me in my tiny arm with a giant needle three times in a line, powpowpow like a sewing machine.

I was afraid of needles after that. Every check-up was filled with anxiety. The very thought of going to the doctor was enough to make my palms sweat.

I carried this fear with me until I was sixteen, and then I realized what a wonderful opportunity fear presented to me. How many chances do we have in life to truly overcome something? To triumph? To conquer? 

Beating fear was a way to grow as a person. To turn something that made me feel bad into something that gave me strength.

So I went and gave blood. That needle was a helluva lot bigger than a booster shot needle. Plus, my veins are hard to find. You bet your ass I was sweating like a guy on death row sitting in that chair, and when the nurse started digging around for my vein and muttering, "I can't find it" it took all I had to stay completely still.

After a minute of digging, she apologized, pulling out saying it wasn't working.

"Try my other arm," I told her.

More poking and prodding, but she found it. I gave my pint, and got over my fear of needles. Having survived the worst case scenario, I no longer needed to fear it.

Twilight Tales in Chicago was a reading group where anywhere from five to fifty people would gather on the top floor of the Red Lion, an old Irish pub on Lincoln Avenue, and read aloud from their work.

I've heard it said that more people fear public speaking than death. I've always been a pretty good public speaker, but the threat of bombing always weighed heavily in my head, and I'd never bombed before.

So during an open mike night, I read some J. Andrew Haknort poetry. (Haknort is an alter ego who writes stupid, offensive poems, such as: "My grandma wears a diaper, I really hate to wipe her.") 

People who know me well enough to get drunk or stoned with me wind up appreciating the stupidity that is Haknort. The poems can, in some cases, induce hysterical laughter.

Such was not the case when I read Haknort at Twilight Tales. Instead, I induced groans and booing and catcalls to get off the mike.

Maybe I should have. I'd never been in front of such a hostile crowd, before or since.

But I took the abuse. For my entire slot, fifteen full minutes. Watching as people walked out. Enduring the increasingly hateful comments. I kept going, and by the time I was finished I'd been baptized by fire. Since it could never be worse than that, I could handle any public speaking situation that life through at me.

I've bombed a few times since, but not as spectacularly. Now, when a joke or line doesn't work, I apologize for it, promise things will get better, and move on. Nietzsche was right.

But public speaking isn't the biggest fear writers have. The biggest fear is probably bad reviews. Having people hate your work (and even hate you by extension).

Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, critique. Those who can't critique, somehow wind up working for Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly.

I remember the first few major reviews I had. They were so-so, neither raves nor pans, and I was able to cull some good quotes out for my book covers and website. This was before Amazon allowed customer reviews, so printed reviews in self-important rags like PW and Kirkus were very important to authors. I knew writers who would be depressed for weeks because of a bad review, and I sometimes had to numb the sting myself with liquor. 

Then Kirkus hit me with this quote:

"Konrath's prose ranges from careless to wretched."

When I read that for the first time, a dam broke in me, and I began to laugh like a hyena.

Seriously? What kind of self-important little asshat would write something like that? Did his mother not love him? Or maybe dropped him down an escalator as a baby? Was he bitter because he couldn't get laid without paying for it? Did he think trashing an author compensated for having a micropenis? Was he a frustrated writer who couldn't find an agent so he had to vent his spleen on those who could?

I realized anyone who needed to vent hate like that was seriously messed up in the head, and as such I couldn't take it seriously. So I stopped taking it seriously.

At the time I was in an anthology, and was asked to provide a quote for the back jacket copy. I did:

"Konrath's prose ranges from careless to wretched." - Kirkus

Since then, I haven't minded bad reviews. If anyone hates my work, so be it. It just isn't worth thinking about. Hell, it isn't even worth reading.

When I began blogging about self-publishing, I neatly segregated myself from the legacy world. A lot of people still part of that legacy world didn't like many of the things I said, or the way I said them. So I've been the target for a lot of hate over the years. Not just hate of my words, but hate of me, as if these pinheads actually know me.

It's ridiculous. And it doesn't effect me in the least.

If somebody wants to publicly eat a big plate of stupid with a healthy side of envy, let them. I don't care. What Peter says about Paul says more about Peter than Paul. And I truly thank all of my haters for the free publicity they've given me. That's part of the reason I make 20x as much money as they do.

We live in a scary, unfair, unkind world. One where complete strangers get off trashing you and your work. Bad reviews, rejections, boos, ridicule, envy, and hate are things every writer will have to deal with at some point. 

They won't kill you. Trust me. After a while, they become amusing.

Just make sure you have a good support network (friends, family, peers) if things get tough, and remember that were aren't curing cancer or making rockets to send people to Mars. We're entertainers. No book, or person, entertains everyone. 

And that's okay.

And if you do carry a grudge, remember that success is the best revenge. Ten years ago, no writer would EVER publicly denounce Kirkus or Publisher's Weekly, from fear of getting another bad review (or no review at all.) Now Kirkus and PW are so desperate they're charging writers for reviews. It's so pathetic it's hysterical, to see how those who once had power now pander and beg to delay the inevitable bankruptcy.

God, I'll really miss them.

So how do you folks overcome fear?