Getting Beyond “Yes or No” Thinking in Writing, Part One

In last week’s blog post I talked about dealing with rejections by stopping the thoughts that it is personal (aka “My writing sucks”), permanent (“I’ll never sell a story”), and pervasive (“I’m a loser”). Some of us like to call these negative thoughts “the problem of the three p’s.” And they are a problem, because they create a feedback loop that sabotages the ability to keep submitting and also makes it difficult to focus on craft skills.

This week I want to dig deeper into what can be done to shake “the three p’s” off, and introduce the idea of what I like to call the “maybe spectrum.” Too often knee jerk thinking is binary–it’s “Yes or No,” “Up or Down,” and “This or That.” Reality is often much blurrier.

The techniques I’m about to discuss can be used not only with rejections, but with any pattern where writers are noticing self-sabotaging thoughts going on. I’m just going to focus on rejections because it’s an easy example that typically causes a lot of pain and annoyance for writers.

Ready? Let’s go.

Taking It Personally (aka “My writing sucks”)

First step, write the negative sentence down.

Second, strike out any personal references–I, me, my, myself, etc–in that sentence.

Now, rewrite the sentence. In this case, it would become “This story sucks.”

Considering that writers are the worst judges of their own work, I now ask, “How do you know for sure?” It may well be that 99% of the time, the story does suck, but at least 1% of the time it might just be repeatedly rejected because has a strange voice. So now you should change the sentence to, “This story probably sucks.”

Welcome to what I like to call the “maybe spectrum,” that fuzzy area between “Yes” and “No.”

Which brings up another point–if you haven’t reached pro level in your craft knowledge, you probably won’t be able to tell if there’s a problem with the story no matter how many times you reread it. And showing the story to other beginning writers also probably won’t help, because they’re in the same boat as you are and are going to have an instinctual urge to rewrite your story in their own voice. However, if there are pros in the writing group, they might be able to help.

Showing the story to a group of avid readers might help, though they won’t be able to tell you how to fix it.

So, under the “This story sucks” sentence, you could then ask yourself, “Are there things I need to study or do to figure out what is going on here?”

Oftentimes if a writer is unpublished, that writer is better off going on to write four new stories instead of trying to rewrite the old one because so much more will be learned in writing the new stories.

Also, like any other field of endeavor, if you want to be the best, you need to study with the best. Look around and see if writers whose writing you love teach a class, write books about writing, or lecture at a conference. And if that means having to get a on a plane to fly cross-country to study with them, do it. Also, if you want to make a living writing fiction, you need to study with writers who make a living writing fiction.

Seeing It as Permanent (aka “I’ll never sell a story”)

First step, write the negative sentence down.

Second, strike out the “never” or “always” that makes it a negative sentence. Because really, how do you know for sure? If you’re able to predict the future at 100%, you’re wasting your special predictive skills by doing fiction writing–you ought to be working for a policy institute that studies future trends. They need you.

Here’s the deal. If a writer tells himself too many times that “I’ll never sell a story,” sooner or later he will come to believe it and stop submitting work. Also, this way of seeing the situation blinds the writer to what is going on around him.

A better tactic would be to say, “This story is looking like it’s a hard sell. What is going on here? Is it a craft issue? A market issue? Productivity problems? Burnout?”

Maybe it’s a craft issue and he needs to go study with some great writers to get better. Or maybe the market for novellas has gone away and he’s going to have to self-publish them instead. Or maybe he’s only writing one short story a year, so the odds of a sale are extremely poor. Or maybe he’s just burned out in his stories because he’s trying to please every imaginary reader and editor in his head. But the only way he’s going to figure this out is if he asks the questions in the first place.

Again, we’re back on the “maybe spectrum.”

Seeing It as Pervasive (aka “I’m a loser”)

I consider this attitude so deadly that I don’t want you to even write it down. And actually, if this is a reoccurring thought for anyone reading this, please seriously consider doing cognitive therapy for a few months to get this destructive thought train to stop.

What makes this thought so nasty that the rejection of a story turns into a self-judgment on an entire person’s life.

Even if it turns out that a writer has no talent for fiction writing, that does not mean those hours while she wrote were wasted. Writing can be a hobby just like painting, and a way to grow as a human being for it pushes one to pay close attention to the world. Also, I’ve met too many people who see fiction writing as the only kind of writing to do because they crave fame or money–it might very well be that non-fiction, memoirs, poetry, technical writing, etc. is a happier fit.

People like to fantasize about fame and money as a fiction writer solving their problems, but in reality if they achieve success their problems will just get more numerous and bigger since fiction writing is a business. Don’t believe me? Go read articles about what happens to lottery ticket winners.

Another point I’d like to make is that failure in one endeavor can result in skills that lead to success in another. Too often the dichotomy of “winner” and “loser” in people’s minds makes them forget about this. The mistakes teach us so much, if we’re willing to learn from them.

People tend to be too fond of slapping labels on themselves. “I’m a _____.” But in reality, we are many many roles at the same time, and have the possibility of discovering new ones to take on if we’re willing to do so…if we’re willing to risk making mistakes.

Remember, each of us has within ourselves an undiscovered country of possibilities.

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Thanks for reading. I had fun writing this at the airport while waiting for my plane flight–it made the time go much more quickly than usual.  Next Monday I’ll go into more depth about trying to look for wriggle room in publishing situations that seem to be one of “no control.”

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