I know a demoralized writer. [Note: This is a composite portrait, though everything in it is fact based.] Said writer had written a number of good novels for a small house, then landed a two-book contract with one of the Big 5. The first book came out to mostly positive reviews, but not massive sales. The second book had to build on the first and make some serious money to justify the advance. The author worked really, really hard on this novel. It was in a popular genre, had a good title, and a great cover. The writer did all the right things marketing-wise, too.
But the book didn’t hit it big. It got a large number of 2 and 3 star reviews (some 1s as well, but those seem unfair, which is usually the case with 1s). Suffice to say, this has ended the professional relationship of said writer with Big Pub.
This writer has not written anything since. I have suggested the indie route, but this writer does not have the desire to learn a whole new set of tasks. It appears this career, until further notice, is over.
Another writer I know of was given an insane advance and a two-book contract back in the wild 90s, when such deals were not uncommon.
The first book, a thriller, was put out with a big marketing push from the publisher. I remember seeing the book featured prominently in the window of a Barnes & Noble. The bio on the dust jacket described said author as the next big name in action thrillers.
Well, the book tanked. Had it been even a moderate hit, there’s no way it could have sold enough copies to cover the advance.
When the second book came out, the publisher gave it no support. I went to the same B&N to find it. It was not prominently displayed. Indeed, I found only one copy, spine out, in the thriller section. This book died. The author, someone told me later, had fallen into the abyss of strong drink.
For a writer, demoralization is always lurking, waiting to be a soul killer. We can’t let that happen.
We’re talking here about the mental game of writing. (Someone should write a book about that.) It’s every bit as important as the craft. Without the right brain settings our writing will stall, drift, flame out or otherwise suffer. All writers must be ready to meet the challenge of demoralization.
The main cause of which, the philosophers and theologians tell us, is expectations unfulfilled. We set ourselves up to desire a result, and want it so deeply, that when it doesn’t happen devastation is inevitable.
Buddha figured this out and proposed a solution: get rid of all desire!
The Stoics, on the other hand, accepted that we all have desires and dreams and worries and fears. Their key to happiness is learning how to focus your thoughts only on what you can act upon, and forget the all the rest.
As Prof. Massimo Pigliucci puts it in his course Think Like a Stoic:
The Roman writer Cicero explained the Stoic position by considering an archer who is trying to hit a target. The archer can decide how assiduously to practice, which arrows and bow to select, and how to care for them. They also control their focus right up the moment they let go of the arrow. But once the arrow leaves the bow, nothing at all is under the archer’s control. A sudden gust of wind might deflect the best shot, or the target—say, an enemy soldier—might suddenly move.
Hitting the target is what you’re after, so it’s what you pursue. But success or failure does not, in and of itself, make you a good or bad archer. This means that you should not attach your self-worth to the outcome but only to the attempt. Then, you will achieve what the ancients called ataraxia: the kind of inner tranquility that results from knowing you’ve done everything that was in your power to do.
For a writer, then, what is out of your control is how your book does in the marketplace. What you can control are your work habits, study of the craft, and interactions with editors and beta readers. On a daily basis, it’s you and the page. You control what words you put down, and how many.
When the book is published, you control what marketing methods to pursue. You can spend money on ads, put out the word on social media, notify your email list, and beg your mom to buy copies for the entire extended family for Christmas.
But after that, it’s out of your hands. The Stoics would say: Don’t give any thought to outcomes. Eradicate such musings from your mind as a good gardener kills weeds.
I learned this lesson years ago. I won a literary award, the Christy. It was the first year of the awards, so I had no expectations. Thus, I had a good, relaxed time at the banquet, and winning was frosting.
The next year I was a finalist again, but this time I was all hopped up on really wanting to win again. That’s all I thought about in the weeks leading up to the banquet. My stomach churned at the dinner, and not because of the rubber chicken. When I didn’t win I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. This feeling lasted a couple of days.
And then it occurred to me that this was a useless and stupid way to feel.
So I went back to the wisdom of the Stoics (one helpful book is The Stoic Art of Living by Tom Morris).
Cut to: Fifteen years later. I was again up for an award, this one from the International Thriller Writers. I did everything in my mental power not to think about it. When I did, I noted the thought and immediately replaced it with something like, “Stop it!”
My wife and I went to New York for the convention and the banquet. When the finalists in my category were announced, I noted that I was pleasantly serene. Epictetus would have been proud!
When my name was called as the winner, it was an unexpected gift, which is the best kind. All the more because I hadn’t been knotted up with expectations.
I offer this example simply to illustrate that you can control your thoughts. It takes practice. It takes many times when you think, Oh, here’s a thought. Is it about anything within my control? No? Then get outta here! (See also this stoic article.)
So to any demoralized writers out there, if writing is still something you want to do (and, deep down, you know that it is), then do this: keep showing up at the keyboard. Dive bravely and daringly into the daily page. Get lost in the telling of your tale. When you start to think But what if this isn’t good enough? or What if this doesn’t sell? or What if I’m just a talentless doofus? give yourself a quick kick to the cerebrum and write some more.
Do this over and over, and soon your brain will get the message and make it a habit. Demoralization will lose its power over you.
You’ll be a writer again.
“Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you.” – David Eddings
“I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable….If I write rapidly…I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” – Stephen King, On Writing
All of you have faced demoralization at one time or another. How did you handle it? Any advice for a demoralized writer?