Friday, September 22, 2006

The Five Habits of Highly Neurotic Authors

Admit it---if you write for a living, or strive to write for a living, you're probably a basket case.

Part of the problem is that writing is such a fickle profession. It's impossible to break into, with a tremendous failure rate.

Another part of the problem is that artistic types tend to be right brained, which means they are moody at best, psychotically bi-polar at worst. Selling your art comes with a lot of egotistical baggage, some of it good, most of it bad.

Here are five traits I've noticed in writers. Do any of them describe you?

Depression - Rejection hurts. It never stops hurting. Unfortunately, rejection is a part of the business. Being told that our work and our efforts aren't good enough can really play hell with the healthiest of egos. Especially if it is long term.

My Advice - Allow yourself to hurt. Go ahead and get down on yourself. Commiserate with friends. Stay in bed. Drink too much. Then move on. Never dwell for more than a day on being rejected. Instead, jump back on the horse and try again. I've heard JA Konrath was rejected 450 times and had 9 unpublished novels. If he can do it, so can you.

Insecurity - It's easy to believe that you aren't good enough, that you'll never succeed. After all, the odds are against you. Why even bother finishing that book? It won't sell anyway. Besides, your mother/spouse/teacher/writer's group told you it isn't any good. It's best never to submit anything. And if you are published, it's best to never promote yourself. Because, ultimately, you're just going to fail.

My Advice - Confidence isn't the absence of insecurity; it's never allowing insecurity to prevent action. It's never easy to show people your story, or speak in front of a crowd, or give an interview. But that doesn't mean the world has to know. You can fake confidence, and no one will know it isn't the real thing. And, strangely enough, faking confidence usually leads to real confidence, and there's really no difference between the two. Be the person you want to be, not the person you fear you are, and you will become that person.

Obsessiveness - Of course you check your Amazon ranking four times a day. Of course you torture yourself over how soon you should send a follow-up query to an agent or editor you haven't heard back from. Of course you Google yourself. Of course you travel everywhere with a laptop/Blackberry/PDA/Cell phone that allows you 24 access to the Internet so you can see if anyone has responded to your comment on Backspace. This is your career, and you're entitled to obsess about it--even if that obsession turns you into one of BF Skinner's pigeons, pecking at a lever hoping for a treat.

My Advice - I spent two months on tour, with limited email access. I survived. Cut the umbilical cord and realize that your career will continue without you watching over it every second of the day. Not every person who talks about you needs a personal response, and a few jackasses writing snotty reviews on Amazon won't hurt your sales. Walk away from the computer every once and a while. You'll feel much better.

Egomania - At one point or another, we all feel very good about ourselves. Maybe it's after writing something we love, or getting a good review, or signing a contract, or seeing our name in print. Beware the sense of entitlement that can piggyback on this pride; the feeling that good things are happening because you truly deserve it, or because you're better than everyone else.

My Advice - Chances are, if you're an egomaniac, you don't know it. Some signs to watch out for are:
  • In conversation or correspondence, the topic is almost always about you.
  • Anyone has ever called you 'smug,' 'condescending,' or 'unsympathetic.'
  • You believe that your success has nothing to do with luck.
  • You know that you're better than other writers.
  • You truly believe your way is the only way.

If you find yourself thinking or acting like this, plan on quickly losing friends and having the world collectively cheer when you fall on your ass. Don't confuse confidence with cockiness---people respond to humility much more than they resond to superiority.

Obliviousness - None of us are born understanding the dynamics of writing and publishing. We often do the same thing over and over again, hoping for different results. We refuse to listen to the advice of others. We have goals but haven't fully thought out how to meet them. We think that publishing is something that it actually isn't. And we hope it will all work out anyway.

My Advice - Learn all you can about the craft and business of writing. So many writers I meet, even bestselling pros, are amazingly naive, and content to stay that way. You're not doing yourself any good with your head in the clouds. Figure out how the industry works, and where your place is within it. Set attainable goals. Expect reasonable results. Try different things and learn from your failures and successes. Ignorance isn't bliss---it's death.

Speaking of learning about the business, MJ Rose's Buzz Your Book - The Class is starting soon. The online, one-on-one, marketing class MJ created with Doug Clegg is back due to popular demand. One time only in 2007 from Jan 8 to Feb 18th. It's for all authors who want to augment their publisher's efforts with grassroots marketing. Class size is limited. Visit for information.


Jana Oliver said...

I have instructed close friends that should I ever display overtly arrogant tendencies they are to b*tchslap me. So far they've not had to deliver on that request, but I'm sure the day is coming. We all get full of ourselves from time to time. The key is to remember we're only as good as our last book.

Stacey Cochran said...

Great stuff, Joe.

I'm gearing up to my biggest agency query this year (and ever, really). 450.

I have the address labels ready to go, the envelopes, stationary. the query letter, and I'll be spending the next few weeks stocking up on the necessary 900 stamps.

If I'm able to achieve this (and I think I will be), it'll bring my total up to about 750 agency queries sent out this calendar year.

Guess who inspired this?

Michelle Rowen said...

Great post. :-)

Okay, I'm not an egomaniac (yet) and I'm definitely not oblivious. But I am depressed, insecure, and obsessive. Go me!

Mark Terry said...

"You can fake confidence, and no one will know it isn't the real thing. And, strangely enough, faking confidence usually leads to real confidence, and there's really no difference between the two. Be the person you want to be, not the person you fear you are, and you will become that person."

In other words: fake it 'til you make it.

Mark Terry

Anonymous said...

You smug, condescending bastard!



Anonymous said...

I agree with David except I would add the adjective "hairy" some where in the sentence. And perhaps obnoxious.

Jim Born

Anonymous said...

Can I add one on to Egomaniac? Last night I attended an Author Reading, an author I really looked forward to seeing. When I arrived fifteen minutes early, the room door was open and I heard him say, "Oh, now the people are coming." I asked if it was okay to come in - "Yeah, sure," was the response. "But we aren't starting for fifteen minutes." I acknowledge this information with a nod.

I sat there listening to the author fidget with his PowerMac slide show, complaining that the image projected onto the screen wasn't matching his LCD monitor. At 4:30, I politely said that with the old projector that the site has offered, he won't get the same quality on the screen that he sees on his Mac and that he's kinda wasting his time trying to get the old plug to perform. "I believe I can do better," he tells me. The photos looked fine on the screen, he wanted them *perfect*.

So another fifteen minutes goes by, he says not one word to the full room audience. With all his futzing around he's now got his slide show going backwards and he's freaking. A site rep approached him and offered to apologize to the gathered audience for the techincial difficulties so that he could begin his presentation. The author then argued with the rep for five minutes over this and so, I left, walking past the table just outside the room with stacks of his books for sale.

At some point, whether we're a businessman on the road, or an author displaying our own photography, we must "deal with it." Believe me, people were there so much more to hear what this guy had to say, than cast a critical eye to the photo display on the screen. And to not even acknowledge a twenty minute waiting audience. Bad form.

I hope you don't mind I post this example, long example - but it reminds me of the guy you saw sitting at a table in the bookstore, surrounded by his bookstacks, waiting for "his customers" to find him. I can appreciate the author last night wanted his photo quality to be high, but really, ya gotta roll with it, and work with what you got for the sake of your waiting, and potential, customers.

Anonymous said...

I took MJ's class and I found it to be a great help. It helped me get some focus.

Allison Brennan said...

I'm not too obsessive, but I have been known to check my rankings and google myself. I'm down to once a week . . .

I don't get depressed generally, so never had that problem. Ego? Maybe a little, but no sense of entitlement. Lots of rejection early on helped keep the ego in check. I was oblivious for a long time, but I'm learning.

However, insecurity is a HUGE problem with writers and it was my greatest impediment to selling. Insecurity is basically fear--primarily fear of failure. I never finished hundreds of books I started over the years. I wasn't serious about my writing, but more than that, I never thought I was good enough.

I still have problems with insecurity. Fear. I have three more books coming out next year and I worry that they're not going to be as good as the last three. A good friend of mine, a mentor of sorts, tells me that this is normal, that most writers try to make the next book better than the last, that we constantly push ourselves, but always have doubt that we'll never be better than the last book.

As long as you're writing and moving forward, the fear can be healthy. You just can't let it defeat you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reality check, Joe!Always a good run-up tp Bouchercon, which certainly features all kinds. Stacey, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Hope it's not in bad taste to put in an unabashed plug for MJ Roses's BUZZ class. I took it three and a half years ago, BEFORE MJ hit the big time, and BEFORE I had the delightful good fortune to meet her at a con. Just stumbled on it, actually. My lovely and talented (TM) wife had had the good fortune to have her first mystery published and, in the dark vastness that was the pre-Newbies Guide to Publishing era,I wanted to help out on the marketing side.

BUZZ was a REVELATION; lean, mean and useful, and the price was certainly right. If my own experience is any guide, it is one of the most useful resources a new author without a marketing background can have. Five stars. Do sign up before it's full. If a virtual class can BE full...

thewriterslife said...

I loved this. I took a week's vacation and went to the Smoky's. No computer. No laptop. And the only blackberries were on the trees. Did I miss it? Did I scramble to the nearest library to find an unused computer? Nope. We obsess too much, but it's the name of the game. But, we need to get out once in awhile, and smell the roses. Good post!

Aimlesswriter said...

Hmmm, I'll have to count my rejection letters (which I keep in a Micky Mouse can) and see if I'm up to 450 yet....

As for ego??? If I got an agent who could sell my book I'd probably grovel at his feet.

Anonymous said...

So...some of those 450 rejections were professional?

Stacey Cochran said...

Thanks, Ross. Should be hopping for a month or two with that many queries going out.

The most queries I've previously sent out at one time was 97. However, I did that by hand-addressing the envelopes, which took a long time.

Now, I have all the agents' names and addresses on an address label Word file.

This calendar year I've sent out 174 agency queries for Claws, as well as 44 queries to editors. This is in addition to 72 agency queries sent out last year for the same novel. I also sent out a batch of 52 agency queries for another novel Maggie Redcrest this year, and I've sent about a dozen for another novel The Colorado Sequence. This last batch has been more selective, sending to agents I've met or chatted with. But they've all rejected it.

It's The Colorado Sequence for which I'm going to do the big sending sometime in the next month or two.

The key to achieving a mass mailing like 450 literary agents is the address labels. If I had to hand write the addresses on that many envelopes, it would take about 5 days working 6-8 hours each day.

Now, that I know how to achieve a mass mailing, I'll probably do it for every novel forward.

As for ego, I don't even know what that means anymore. I'm currently writing novel #10. I've been doing this pretty much full time without a single professional sale for about seven years.

My wife still loves me, we've got our first kid on the way, and I'm a happy guy. I guess that means my ego is in tact.

Hell, I don't give a fuck anymore. I just want to get published, and I want to sell that book to readers like no one has ever seen.

Dr. T. Dorionne said...

There are times when, I swear, I've got "insecure" and "obsessive" down pat with a good streak of depression.

The trouble is, these qualities aren't very much fun to have (or be around). What generally works for me to get me out of my neurotic writer's funk is to remember how much fun it was when I used to write as a kid--it was like exploring a whole other world, watching the walls between me and this other world fall down, and I wasn't neurotic about it back then--I just wrote for myself, for fun.

In other words, I think it's good to get back to whatever attracted you to writing in the first place. And you notice how many times I used "fun" to describe what the writing process should be? I mean, if it's not fun, then what's the point of being a writer? If you're gonna be miserable either way, you might as well be an accountant.

Anonymous said...

I am highly neurotic extravert....but I am not a writer in a sense that I write books but I am a programmer.

Much like writers,some highly neurotic self-taught programmers like myself, constantly plagued with inefficiency in one's abilities.

One take home mesage I got from this post was "don't let insecurity prevent action".

Amber Dane said...

Thank you so much for this post, Joe.