Tag Archives: Learned Helplessness

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.