Category Archives: Submissions block

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.

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.”

Dealing With the Shock of All Those “No”s

Fiction writers and salespeople have more in common than they realize. Just like doing cold-calling in sales, the journey to the first sale by a fiction writer goes like this:

“No, no, no, no, no, no, …” (typically this part in parenthesis has about 40 to 500 entries of No) “…, no, yes, no, …”  (more “No”s) “…, no, yes,  no, …” and on and on and on until the writer either 1) stops submitting work to editors, 2) quits, or 3) dies.

Every once in a while, fiction writers will encounter another writer who got a “Yes” the first time a story was ever submitted to an editor.  Rare, but it happens.  For a few seconds there’s a strong temptation by everyone else to hurl their pens at that person.  However, the profession of fiction writing is so rough and tumble that at some point that writer will get a long streak of “No”s that will balance out that easy “Yes” earlier on.

In last week’s blog post on “Fiction Writers and Learned Helplessness,” I did a thought experiment where I compared the submissions process to sticking your hand into a box where one of three things happened: 1) you got an electric shock for “No,” 2) nothing happened for the situation of no response, or 3) you got injected with an opiate for “Yes.”

I mentioned some of the mind games–such as setting up a scoring points system for submissions, or having a friendly competition with other writers to gather the most rejections–that fiction writers play to keep writing and submitting despite the frustration of getting a heavy flow of “No”s.

In this post, I want to explore some of the mental techniques that can be used to keep going.   These techniques are based on ones covered in Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s book Learned Optimism that were developed by studying groups that had to deal with a high flow of “No”s, like salespeople.

A writer who has a pessimistic mindset that sees each rejection as permanent (“I’ll never sell a story”), personal (“My writing always sucks”), and pervasive (“I’m a loser”) is going to have a hard time of it on the journey to that first “yes” from an editor.  I ought to know, since I’m a pessimist by nature, and had to teach myself not to talk to myself constantly in a defeatist manner.

The good news is, one can change how one reacts to rejection.  Let’s take the above three thoughts in order and explore how to do that.

Seeing rejection as permanent (i.e. “I’ll never sell a story.”)

Whenever the word “never” or “always” shows up in a negative thought, consider it a red flag.  Sure, the negative thought might be accurate, but the operative word is “might,” not “is.”  Too often, negative self-talk turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If I’m constantly telling myself “I’ll never sell a story,” I’ll lose the motivation to keep writing and submitting my stories, and this negative thought will in time become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Also, another fallacy in this negative thought is the assumption that one’s writing cannot improve.  When I had doubts about my craft, one of the best decisions I ever made was to find teachers whose writing I admired and go study with them as a student.

Seeing rejection as personal (“My writing always sucks.”)

Here’s another case of leaping to a negative conclusion when a “No” is encountered.  Here’s the ugly truth about the slush pile–the editor may have been in a bad mood or exhausted that day, and decided to do automatic form rejections for everyone in the slush pile regardless of merit.

Beware of the usage of “my” and “I” in a negative thought about rejections.  There’s a big difference between saying, “This story sucks” vs. “My writing sucks.”  The second is much nastier in the self-inflicted attack.  The first will keep you calm enough to be able to look over your writing and learn from mistakes.

Seeing rejection as pervasive (“I’m a loser.”)

This is where the negative self-talk gets really ugly.  A writer gets a rejection, and immediately jumps to treating the rejection as a commentary on everything that the writer does (including non-writing activities) and who the writer is as a human being.   Please don’t do this–repetition of the “I am a loser” mantra will sabotage morale and motivation.  Again, it’s an attitude that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy and makes it impossible to learn from mistakes.

So, that covers the problem of the three p’s (permanent, personal, pervasive) in dealing with rejections.  Also, finding ways to laugh at the whole submissions process helps a great deal–whether it’s writing a story that makes fun of it all, telling jokes, or throwing darts at rejection letters.  Try different tactics, and see what works.


I find I have more to say, and next Monday I will talk about some of our perceptions as writers of what we can and cannot control in publishing.  We often see things as “Yes or no,” “Open or shut,” and such, when the reality is more complicated than that.   There are mental techniques that can be used to brainstorm ways to try and gain more control of  a situation.

I will be on business travel, but will do my best to get internet access to post next Monday.


Fiction Writers and Learned Helplessness

I guess I should first state who I am.  I’m a neo-pro fiction writer, though I’ve been friends with various writer pros since 2003.  When it comes to indie and traditional publishing, I play “both sides of the street” and intend to continue to do so.  So the whole indie vs. traditional mindset distresses me when I encounter it, since I do both (depending on what is best from a business perspective for my writing career) and I have no desire to choose sides.

The following essay is about fiction writing and learned helplessness, and does not cover non-fiction. Non-fiction is a different critter, and I won’t be writing about it.

I. A Rapid Rate of Change in Publishing Technologies

Unless you’ve been living like a hermit, you are already familiar with the technology upheavals going on in the publishing industry due to the breakthroughs in e-readers, POD, and distribution systems to readers.  I have no interest in repeating what everyone else has already covered.

I used to work in the software industry as a software tester (the fancy term was Quality Assurance Software Engineer), and so to me the changes happening in publishing are exciting and make me feel nostalgic.  Upheaval is the norm in software.

But that sort of upheaval–fueled by rapid technology change–was not the norm for quite a long while in publishing, and so it is causing a lot of stress and strain in everyone, including fiction writers.

And when people get stressed or scared, a few are going to lash out.

We’re going to continue to witness outbursts of irrational rage from some in traditional publishing at indie writers over the next few years. Indie writers, in a sense, are a “personification” in many people’s minds of the publishing technology upheavals going on.  When one can’t stop the technology changes that frighten one from happening, it can feel good (for a little while) to vent rage on those who are taking advantage of the opportunities made available by the changes.

But rage won’t slow the changes down; in the end, it will seriously hurt those who give in to that emotion, for it distracts them from coming to grips emotionally and mentally with the events that have occurred.

As for those indie or hybrid traditional/indie writers who find themselves facing an irrational outburst from someone about indie publishing, my advice is to not take it personally.  It’s not you this person is actually angry at, it’s the technology you represent; you’re just a convenient verbal punching bag.

And it’s not only indie writers who will get attacked…it’s going to go both ways, traditionally published writers are going to have to continue to deal with enraged outbursts by some indies, and I’ll explain why later.

If you want to read more about how technological change can cause industry upheavals, there are great books like Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado by Geoffrey A. Moore, The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen, and Management Challenges for the 21st Century by Peter F. Drucker.

But there is an interesting psychological twist going on that these books don’t cover–a twist that I think it is important fiction writers think about as their industry goes through a fast technological change.

II.  The Psychology of “Learned Helplessness”

I want to switch gears to psychology, so that everyone will understand what I’m getting at when we get to Section III.  I’m going to discuss learned helplessness; if you don’t know what I mean by that phrase and want to understand the nuances of what I will be writing about, follow the above link to Wikipedia, read the article, and come back.

So, to quote the Wikipedia definition, “Learned helplessness…means a condition of a human being or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected.”

I first heard about learned helplessness several years back when I went to a world-class workshop taught by researchers from the University of California  at Santa Barbara.   I was trying to learn ways to help my son after his autism diagnosis.  One of things they taught us was how to recognize when we were unintentionally teaching our kids to be more helpless than they had to be.  They also taught us about how to recognize learned helplessness in ourselves–as parents we’d been faced with a situation (often for years) of our kid having a childhood medical condition where neither the cause nor the cure were known.

Let me give you a personal example.  I discovered to my horror at that workshop that my husband and I had inadvertently sabotaged our son’s ability to learn how to speak.  Due to his disability, speaking was extremely hard for him to do and so he seemed mute, and we’d gotten in the habit of anticipating what he wanted and giving it to him before he even tried to ask for it–we were accidentally teaching him that language was unnecessary.

It has been found that those humans who interpreted what happened to them as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”) were most at risk of developing a helpless mindset and later depression (go read Learned Helplessness by Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier, & Martin E. P. Seligman if you want to learn about the research studies in depth).

III. Fiction Writers and “The Submissions Box Experiment”

If you read the article on learned helplessness, you already know about the experiments in which painful random electric shocks were given to a subset of animals and they couldn’t stop it from happening.  Then that subset would be put in an experimental situation where they could stop or get away from the shocks, and the greater percentage wouldn’t even try to do anything.  (Yeah, I know, reading about those poor animals was distressing for me too.)

Lately I’ve been lying awake at night, thinking about negative random shocks and fiction writers.  Let me give you an example:

The Submissions Box Experiment

Here’s a red box I’m holding.  It’s big enough that you can put your entire hand in it while holding your submissions package.  You’re going to shove your hand (holding the package) into the box, and one of three things is going to happen to you:  if the answer is “No,” you get a painful electric shock; if “No response,” nothing happens to your hand; and if “Yes,” you’ll be injected with an opiate.

And you’re going to have to stick your hand into that box over and over and over again for as long as you want your writing traditionally published.   The shocks will probably decrease in frequency, but they’ll never completely go away–there will always be a random shock now and then.  And a few shocks will be more painful and longer than others, because every once in a while a writer gets an editor who will call or write to vent about how your writing in the manuscript is crap.

Sounds like fun, right?  Right?  Hey, why are you backing away?

…. I contend that the mental games that fiction writers have developed like “The Race” (where points are awarded for the number of submissions out and the goal is to get as big a number as possible), competitions to see who can get the most rejection forms, and “a short story a week” are coping mechanisms for fiction writers to be able to keep putting their hand back into that red box.

Such coping mechanisms are especially critical for beginning writers.  Most of the stories I’ve heard from other fiction writers about their first sale have involved 50 to 500 rejections before that first “Yes.”  I’ve also heard as low as 1, and as high as near 2,000.  The games help writers keep writing and also provide a way to cope with the pain of “No” until a thicker emotional skin develops.

The submissions process I described above is simply a business sales issue, and yet it can feel very personal to the writer involved.  For a few fiction writers, it begins to feel like the deliberate infliction of pain by those in traditional publishing.

There will continue to be writers who go through “The Submissions Box Experiment” and come out the other side feeling like they’ve been deliberately hurt and humiliated.  Some will become indies, and a few of them will have outbursts of irrational rage at people in traditional publishing. Again, this is just personification at work.

IV.  More Random Negative Shocks in the Publishing Industry

Okay, right here and now as I type this, I’m going to see what other random negative experiences I can up with that fiction writers go through that they typically have no control over (note, there are almost always exceptions to a lack of control):

— A major distributor goes out of business, triggering a collapse in the distribution system
— Genres go through boom and bust cycles
— Your publisher goes into bankruptcy
— A big publisher takes over 90 days past the contract deadline to send out the royalty checks
— The agent or editor who opens up your submissions package is in a foul mood and is going to reject everyone that day out of hand
—  Your novels earn out their advances, but you get dropped by your publisher anyway
—  The publisher gets bought by a bigger company and things go downhill
—  Your editor quits, so your novel gets “orphaned”
—  A major terrorist attack or war happens the month your novel is released, so sales are much smaller than usual.
—  You get caught in a “death spiral” with a major bookstore chain–they order 10,000 print copies, and 8,000 sell; so for your next book they order 8,000, and sell only 6,000 since there was less in stock in the stores, and onwards and downwards….
— The editors love your book, but sales & marketing hates it because it isn’t an easy sell, and so stalls on agreeing for an offer to be made.  Once the offer gets made over sales & marketing’s objections, they do the bare minimum they can get away with on your book
— The publisher decides to publish your novel “dead”
— The book cover artist’s work stinks and the copy editor is incompetent.  You didn’t hire them, so you can’t fire them.
— A reader has decided to stalk you
— The reviewers are angry about your impressive sales numbers, so they decide it’s time to rip you to shreds
— The publisher has decided to up the reserve against returns deduction for all writers due to the bad economy
— Your publisher prices your e-book so high that it’ll barely sell

Etc. etc. etc.

There have been actions that traditionally published writers brainstormed to do to help minimize the impact of not having control of certain factors (for example, writing under pen names in different genres can help protect against genre busts).  With indie publishing, some of the factors listed above will come under the writer’s direct control.  But a couple of them are beyond our control no matter what we try in either traditional or indie publishing.

V.  The Unintended Consequences of Lack of Control

So, now we have this major upheaval going on in publishing, and self-publishing has gotten a lot cheaper and a lot easier.    Everything is great, right?  All fiction writers are thrilled about being able to choose between indie and traditional publishing depending on the project and their career needs?

(Crickets chirping.)

Yeah, okay, so there’s a lot of fear and rage out there right now.

There’s bleak joke I was told by a fellow parent in the disability community about learned helplessness that I’d like to share:

The Doorman, the Lady, the Boy, and the Chauffeur

A doorman saw a limo pull up to his hotel.   He opened the limo door to help out a middle-aged lady, while he saw the chauffeur get out and open the other door to lift out a disabled 10-year-old boy.  The chauffeur carried the boy on his back through the hotel’s doors, and the doorman noticed how withered up from disuse the boy’s legs were below his shorts.

The doorman said to the lady, “It’s a shame your son can’t walk.”

The lady said, “If all goes well, he will never have to.”

….Let me tell you something.  Do you know what the boy’s reaction is going to be when the grandparents gain custody of him from his mother, and he goes to a physical therapist for the first time in his life?

Fear and rage.  Because change is scary and can hurt, and so we try to avoid it, even if it is going to help us to be able to walk someday.

If the physical therapist is smart, there will be a favorite kind of toy at the session for the boy to play with as soon as he begins to cooperate on the first leg exercise.  So the outburst is likely to last only a few minutes at most.

Unfortunately, too often writers have to flounder around and figure out things on their own with no physical therapist in sight to help.

There will be writers (unpublished or traditionally published) who will unconsciously try to replicate the experiences of traditional publishing when they indie publish because that’s the only model they understand and feel comfortable with. They will unconsciously try to give up as much control as possible to others (e-distributors, e-packagers, cover artists, readers, reviewers, agents, peer writers, etc.) because that feels the most familiar, even when it makes bad business sense to do so and isn’t necessary.

And there will be other writers (unpublished or traditionally published) who will experiment in indie publishing and push the envelope as far as it can go to see how much control and do-it-yourself they can take upon themselves without capsizing. There will be cases where someone takes on too much and barely gets any writing done.  There will be cases where someone rejects help or a business deal that could have led to big things.

We will see disputes erupt within the indie community between these two mindsets.  But the pain we go through will make it possible for the next generation of writers to be freer as artists in ways we can’t yet imagine.


Tuesday Note:  I’ve gone and written a new post to try and explain the differences between “delegating work” and “abdicating control.”  Just because a writer has someone else do something, doesn’t mean that person is showing signs of learned helplessness.  I’ve written a rather goofy story, “A Tale of Two Heiresses,” to try and explain the difference between the two mindsets of delegation and abdication.

Website Additon of “Help With Writer’s Block” page

I’ve created a website page that has links to the posts that are most focused on dealing with writer’s block and other creative blocks. Over time I’ll add to it, and add links so it can work as a resource page. I want to do this as a way to start “paying it forward” for all the help I’ve received from other artists.

Working on a Problem Changes Everything

I used to have what I nicknamed “submissions block.”   I wrote, but I had a near phobia about submitting my work to editors or letting readers see it.  To help deal with that problem I started this blog back in the fall of 2008.

And over time, this blog helped me deal with that borderline phobia and move past it.  I began to submit my work to editors, and let readers see it.   I’ve also been getting feedback behind the scenes these past few months from some of the best editors in my genre.  As a result of all this work, what I need from this blog is changing.

I’m getting very close to being published.

So the focus and format of this blog will change over the next six months.  I will continue to try to post on Sundays, but the topics will probably expand beyond writing subjects.   The appearance of the website will also change.

I’ve really appreciated the emails I’ve received offline from readers of this website this past year.

Tiny changes over time can change a life beyond recognition.  I am no longer the writer I was back in 2008–I’ve come a long way since then.  I still have a long way to go, but I’m unstuck and moving faster and faster each month.