Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Writer's Insecurities

These questions came to me from a group of writers. Apparently it’s a topic frequently discussed on forums and blogs and I suppose shared anxiously through emails and phone calls. These authors, all agented, wanted to know if I am aware, or other agents are aware, of the insecurities and concerns of a writer. In this case they were specifically talking about those long stretches of silence when they are waiting to get feedback on revisions, waiting to hear that the book is going out on submission or just waiting for a response to an email or phone call.

I think that most agents are aware of a writer’s anxieties and insecurities, it’s probably even easier to be aware now with blogs and the Internet than it ever was before. I know that I’ve learned a lot from my readers and what is posted in the comments. I’ve also learned a lot from perusing writing groups and forums. However, being aware of general writer worries and reacting to them are two different things. As an agent I need to be considerate of the feelings of my clients, but I also can’t assume that all of them feel the same way. What I try hardest to do is be considerate. I try to let my clients know roughly when I’ll get to the material I have to read, I try to keep them in the loop as much as possible on their submissions, and I let them know that at any point if they are feeling insecure or worried they should feel free to get in touch.

The difficult thing about insecurities is that you can’t expect someone else to take care of them for you. We all have them and yes, agents experience times of insecurity too. Who wouldn’t? It’s a business where you fall in love with something with all of your heart and then have to try to find that one other person who feels the same way. That’s enough to make all of us batty.

My suggestion for dealing with your insecurities is to figure out how to calm yourself without making others crazy. Easier said than done, I know. The trick to quelling anxiety is to take control. No you can’t go to your agent’s office and force her to read your material or send it out on submission, but you can talk openly and frankly about timelines. When does she think she’ll have feedback to you or what is her thought on when the submission process will start? Getting an agreement on dates might not necessarily mean it will happen by the date chosen. I know for example there are times I’ll tell an author I’m starting the submission process the next day, only to discover it’s taken me two days just to finalize the query and another day to get my head wrapped around which editors I think would be most enthusiastic about the work. I have no problem with the author checking in though, especially if I had told her I was going to be starting.

I know that some of you are going to immediately chime in about how this is all well and good if you have a good agent who does communicate, but what about the bad agents? We talk about the “bad” agents a lot and we hear the horror stories of those who were lost in piles and never hear from the agents they work with. Those are horror stories and hopefully not as common as the good stories. I got the impression from this group of readers that all were happy with their agents, just anxious, and being anxious about working with an agent certainly does not mean the job isn’t getting done.



Story and Logic Media Group said...

Don't agents shy away from writers who are too clingy?

Rick Daley said...

Timely post, I have an agent reviewing a revision that was on last week's reading pile but I haven't heard word yet. I've been sitting on my hands trying to be patient rather than emailing her asking for status...I trust that she will let me know when she has gotten through it.

That doesn't quell the anxiety, though!

Miriam Forster said...

This is an interesting post to me, because I've been struggling with insecurities all week. It's like being nibbled to death by ducks.

I have them about searching for an agent, I have them about a book that's coming out with a small press, and I have them (ironically enough) about doing National Novel Writing Month this year.

Thanks for verifying what I suspected. Insecurities are part of the process.

AM said...

"It’s a business where you fall in love with something with all of your heart and then have to try to find that one other person who feels the same way. That’s enough to make all of us batty."

I think this statement best describes what’s at the heart of our anxieties.

Writing is unique in that it lacks specific guidelines and measurements that a writer may follow to ensure success. We know that every single person who reads our books is going to judge it, at least to some degree, subjectively.

We face pass or fail decisions at every single step of the publication process from agents, editors, critics, bookstores, and finally, the readers. Waiting on the judgement can be excruciating.

So anxiety is a normal response to being under continual scrutiny, but it’s a reality that all writers must get used to if they want to be published.

JDuncan said...

I can certainly relate to this, though I wouldn't call it anxiety. After the initial excitement of the Call at the end of August, things basically got to be put on hold until the contract is finalized and I get revisions for book one. Was I worried? No. I was ready to dig into getting things done. The contract finally hit my agent's desk a week ago. I'm assuming this means it's now far closer to being finalized. I've not received revisions yet, which while not a huge deal (I'm not on any sort of time crunch right now), is hampering getting going on book two, since I'm not sure if any changes will effect how I plot out the next book in the series.

It'll get there. I knew things would not move quickly. I hold no allusions to speed in publishing. I'd only be anxious if things were putting me under a deadline I couldn't manage. Things will get done when they get done. I just feel like the little kid in the backseat who repeated keeps asking, "Are we there yet? What about now? Now?"

Pam Harris said...

It's ridiculous how insecure I am about my writing! I can have something that I'm extremely proud, but then it gets ripped apart by my MFA professor. There are times when I think I'm only kidding myself--that I wonder if maybe I'm the only one that likes my writing. But then I'll get words of encouragement from a peer and it gets me back on track. I also write a lot about my insecurities on my blog--that seems to help get the worries. Writing as a whole is a very lonely process; venting about your struggles seem to make you feel a tad better.

Anonymous said...

Insecurity, anxiety and constant evaluation of presentation aren't bad things per se. I've been worrying most of my adult life about my writing, so I doubt I'll ever be completely relaxed when viewing it as merely 'product' which must be seperated from myself.

Brilliant post, and one which has given me things to think on. Thank you.

Angie Ledbetter said...

"My suggestion for dealing with your insecurities is to figure out how to calm yourself without making others crazy." Touche'.

Ash. Elizabeth said...

i'm too drugged on from my surgery yesterday to have insecurities, but yeah generally I never have insecurities about my writing. I guess thats why i'm on my third WIP and eager to learn even more about the craft.

Robena Grant said...

I don't think you ever stop learning as a writer, so it's natural that insecurity is part of the package.
I'm sure though, that once you reach a certain level of accomplishment you get to recognize the insecurities as "the jitters" and just move on past them.
I can only hope.

Vivi Anna said...

I go through stages of anxiety.

When I'm on deadline, I hardly talk to my agent, unless we are shopping other stuff or working on other stuff.

But when I'm out of contract and not on deadline, then I'm way more insecure and I do need to hear from my agent a lot, probably too much. :-)

She's great though and has helped me stay calm and focused.

AmyB said...

My way of dealing with anxiety and impatience over submissions is to dive into writing the next book. Then I'm not obsessing about the submissions I have out--and when I do get a rejection, I think, "Oh well, this next book is turning out so much better!"

Mark Terry said...

The more you publish, in general, the more secure you'll be. (With notable exceptions: some writers are just nuts. But then again, out of the general population, that statement still applies). I would say, develop patience and a thick skin. And stay busy, because the more intent you are on other projects, the less you obsess about the ones being read.

Suzan Harden said...

AmyB - Yours is the best advice I've ever received regarding the "jitters."

Mira said...

This is a great topic for authors to talk about.

I'm extremely insecure. I doubt myself at the drop of a hat. I'm sure that won't end if I ever get an agent or get published.

For example, most likely the first time an agent gave me editing notes, I'd burst into tears and lock myself in the bathroom for hours. It would take a whole SWAT team to get me out of there.

I'd be jealous of my agent's other clients. I'd want to call my agent on the phone and ask them if they still like my writing. I'd be like the Verizon guy: "Do you still like my writing now?" "What about now? Do you still like my writing now?"

Now, hopefully, I wouldn't actually let my agent know about any of that, because despite my preference, it's not an agent's job to take care of me emotionally. But, I'm sure my senstivity would not end at the point of publication. In fact, it might increase due to the pressure and the public nature of things.

But that's who I am, and that's cool. The goal here isn't to be a different person, it's to handle your emotions in a healthy way, whatever they happen to be. And if means locking myself in the bathroom for hours, sobbing about how my agent hates me because they asked me to change line 10, then that's the way it is. But that's for me to deal with, not not my agent.

Lisa Desrochers said...

Waiting--for anything--is absolutely the hardest thing. Especially now when we're all used to instant gratification. But, reality is, every step of publishing takes time. I'm a week into the submission process and check my email at least every twenty seconds for some word from my agent.

But, in the end, if your agent has been getting the job done, you just have to sit back, breathe, and trust that they'll keep getting the job done.

Kate Douglas said...

AmyB's right--if you're too busy to agonize over what's happening with a submission, you're going to be more productive as a writer. When I send a manuscript off, I've finally learned to put it out of my mind and start right in on the next project. Otherwise, self-doubt and worry can take over so easily!

Northwriter said...

As a writer you're always going to be waiting on something,a ms with revision notes from your agent, a response from a submission, a marked-up draft from a critque partner, an editorial letter.

Anxiety and insecurity are normal parts of the picture. The same is true in other professions and pursuits. At least with writing you can always work on something else while you wait. That's what I try to do.

Nichole Giles said...

We all have insecurities, often about everything in life. I think that's why Yoga was invented.

Communication is a good thing, too.

pilot said...

Insecurity is a heavy burden…. and will become ominous in your voice. In today precarious publishing market, agents have enough headaches and last thing they’ll be looking for would be an insecure writer.

Anonymous said...

I think of requests for revisions as a way to get the ms just right for the marketplace. I'm eager to publish my novel, so, I see any requested tweaks not as personal criticisms, but as a way of bringing my work one step closer to its ultimate goal: publication.

And, scary or not, if I'm a writer worth my words, I can do this -- further, it's part of the job description.

The way we frame a situation in our minds will affect how we feel about it and the level of our anxiety. At the same time, I do think anxiety and insecurity are part of the package for most writers. If that means it's hardwired into our personalities, and those personalities/sensitivities are the same ones that fuel our creativity and writing, then the answer for us (and to save our agents) is in how we manage those feelings.

Our agents are not our therapists. Good, solid boundaries are important in business relationships. Hopefully, we have our spouses, friends, writing friends and writing groups to buoy us up during those harder periods.

I have two special writing friends whose arms I can collapse into at any time, and without them, I'd definitely be a "crazy writer".

I wrote a post on writer insecurities, which also ties into a book by Susan K. Perry on writers and flow. After reading her book, I was surprised by how many renowned writers feel the same insecurities and anxieties! I'll include the link in case anyone is interested:

Awesome post, thank you for it! The writer's personality is much easier to manage when you know what you're dealing with, and that you're not alone.

Unknown said...

@ Pam Harris

The opinions of MFA professors are also subjective, and should be taken with a grain of salt, just like the opinions of other readers. I know because it's a professor, and theoretically someone who's good at writing, that it's easy to give those words a lot of weight. You'll feel better about what you're doing, though, if you can analyze the feedback you're getting, and decide if it's valid for you or not. You can always learn from looking at the work of other published authors; but speaking from a personal standpoint, I'd be careful about accepting a single person's feedback as any kind of authoritative judgment. My suggestion is: Look at it, evaluate it, and then decide what you want to take out of it.

Sandra Cormier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandra Cormier said...

Darn spelling...

Author anxiety goes beyond submissions.

As an unagented but published author, I worry about my publishers' perception of my writing and my communication skills. I worry about ticking them off if I have concerns.

When other authors in their stable are on bestseller lists and mine is not in spite of great reviews, am I being neglected or do I suck at marketing? Worse yet, do I suck at writing?

I have to put aside my anxieties, refrain from bothering my publishers about distribution and promotion matters, hold back from whining, and work harder to make my next book that much better.

Jane Lebak said...

Whenever I get antsy and want to bug an editor (or, in the past, my agent) I would do so immediately -- but I'd get out the market guide or get online and find a different editor to bug. :-)

Doing that created a steady stream of short fiction and essay submissions and it put that insecurity to good use.

My agent and I also agreed on a once-a-month check-in point so the silence would be easier on both of us.