You're not a failure
How to rewire your brain to create healthier thought patterns
It’s time answer another question from our dear readers! This time, @Teresa asked:
Like you, I am writing while caretaking for a toddler (my son turns 2 tomorrow!) and I struggle with feeling like I just don't get enough time. But honestly my biggest problem is just fearing failure! I queried in 2018 and didn't make it. My current book (my sixth completed) will hopefully be ready to query sometime next year. I'm struggling against feeling like the stakes are WAY higher for this one because I've already "failed" once. I don't know where the question in here is -- maybe if you have any tips for developing a zoomed out lens for a book / a particular stage of the journey so it doesn't feel so make or break it?
Thank you so much for this heartfelt question, Teresa. I decided to tackle it this week because it’s something that I can relate to personally—especially right now.
First off: I never seem to have enough time either. My 20 hours/week with childcare just….isn’t enough to feel like I make substantial progress. On anything, honestly.
Today, for example, I was like: I’ll write three scenes!
Lol, nope. 1.5 were completed before I had to shift gears over to Substack. BUT MAYBE TOMORROW. 🥴
Secondly: I am currently on the cusp of starting a new series while watching my previous series backslide into the “poor sales record” spiral. So my goodness, do the stakes feel high for me right now.
And yes, I do know how this might sound to some of you. But Sooz, you actually have books out! You’re a New York Times bestseller, so you do NOT have any idea what it feels like to write books and not get an agent.
But the reality is that:
I have been there before—on submission and unable to get a bite.
And my first series did so poorly that it is out of print now (despite a cover reboot), and the sales are so low I am right on the cusp of having my rights revert back to me.
Then, although Truthwitch and Windwitch did hit the NYT list their opening weeks, none of my books have since. And the sales of the Witchlands series have stagnated so that I am once more in that author spiral my agent and I talked about over here.
This is why the stakes feel high for me right now. They are obviously different stakes than what you are facing, Teresa, but emotionally, they feel the same.
The fact is that we are both afraid our hard work will amount to nothing and that we have already used up all our “chances.”
And I hate to be the bearer of crap news here, but if you’re not already seeing what I’m laying down, then I’ll just say it straight up: these emotional stakes almost never go away.
Sure, I’m certain some authors don’t face the terror of “Am I done for?!” I mean, I can’t imagine Stephen King is afraid he’ll never sell again. But with great success comes other pressures and other stakes to panic over.
That said, I do have a few tips that have helped me over the years and I hope can help you. However, first a disclaimer: like I said in this post on imposter syndrome, sometimes these issues need a therapist to reckon with. So please do not assume I am the final authority on anything!
And always, always remember that these emotional “issues” require constant attention. We aren’t just going to logic our way through feelings. We have to rewire our brains by practicing new thinking patterns.
Now let’s dive in.
Thought Pattern #1: You are not a failure.
I understand why it feels this way.
Oh boy do I understand. Watching my first series fade into oblivion was and still is heartbreaking.
And now, watching that same slow fade happen with the Witchlands—although, admittedly, at not the same scale—is heartbreaking all over again. And frustrating and ego-crushing and generally all sorts of emotions that go along with the word FAILURE.
Oh, gosh. No one wants to read my books anymore? Oh gosh, my sales have stagnated and people didn’t pick up Witchshadow? Oh gosh, I have to do well with The Luminaries or my career could be on the fritz…again?
How can I NOT feel like a failure?
And Teresa, you have queried and not gotten an agent. It hurts. It really freaking hurts. So I absolutely understand why you’re afraid to go through all of that rigamarole again…only to possibly “fail” again.
But here’s the reality: you didn’t fail.
Neither did I.
We did the things we set out to do: we wrote books. We edited the books. We worked hard to make the books as good as they could be. Maybe you couldn't convince an agent to offer representation, but that doesn’t actually mean your book was bad.
And maybe I couldn’t convince readers to pick my books off the shelf…but it also doesn’t mean my books were bad.
What it means is that the market weren’t favorable for us. Maybe you could write a better query letter too, and maybe I could get better shelf space…but even those things aren’t guarantees that will lead to success.
So I repeat: we didn’t fail. Instead, the circumstances within which we tried to succeed just weren’t favorable to us.
Thought Pattern #2: The stakes aren’t as high as you think they are.
This thought pattern actually goes back to what I shared in my recent newsletter on imposter syndrome. It is a technique I learned in therapy to help with intrusive thoughts—and it works really well for catastrophizing.
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