Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 2): Fear (Established Writer Edition)

Business Musings free nonfiction On Writing

I’m writing these posts in no particular order, just as the reasons come to me. And honestly, they’re everywhere.

Because of last summer’s move, we reorganized our books. We are in a smaller space than we were in Oregon, so we got rid of a lot of our books—the ones we didn’t need for research or the ones we liked, but didn’t love.

Now, we’re left with the ones that are actual favorites. It’s rather interesting to both of us to note how our tastes change over time. Dean got rid of works by a writer whom he once loved, but who became a factory, writing with others whom Dean didn’t like as well, and that colored his entire attitude toward that writer.

I got rid of over 100 romance novels because I either couldn’t remember them or they no longer spoke to me. That still left me with a rather large collection. Every time I look at them, I feel inspired, which is why they’re still in my life.

The hardest thing, though, the saddest thing, to me anyway, are the writers whose work just stops. Not because Dean or I got tired of reading them or the writer veered into territory we weren’t interested in. But because something got in the way of the writing.

We discussed one writer recently who was badly—and I mean badly—treated by Bantam Books. That highly acclaimed writer hasn’t written anything that I know of in the past five years or more. They could still sell books traditionally to a smaller company than before. They also have a wide open short story market. But I’m pretty sure that what happened at Bantam, which isn’t something I’m able to discuss, literally broke their spirit.

And, as an older writer, they didn’t feel like they could pivot into a world of publishing that is strange to all of us.

That conversation with Dean, combined with sorting and refiling all the books, and a line in an article I read some time ago about Liz Phair combined into this post.

First, the little passing remark from a reviewer about the musician Liz Phair.

I was reading the July 2021 issue Entertainment Weekly. I turned to an article on Liz Phair’s newest album and realized I hadn’t thought of her for years. She’s not a personal favorite, so I was aware of her work, but not following it.

My sense of Liz Phair, really? was an accurate one, though, because, it turns out the new album, Soberish, is her first in eleven years. She hasn’t been idle. She wrote a book, wrote for television, and did a variety of other things.

But she hadn’t produced an album in quite a while.

In the middle of the article, there’s this analysis:

Phair recorded the new album with Brad Wood, the engineer and producer who helped bring her ’90s albums to life. Their pairing is even more ideal three decades out; they’re not afraid to take chances, like starting a big comeback album on an uncertain note, as Soberish does when Phair asks “Is something wrong?”

The part that struck me is this: they’re not afraid to take chances. And, the reviewer, Maura Johnston, seems to believe this is because they’re not afraid because they’ve been in the business for a long time.

That might be true. It might not.

Because what I see from writers who’ve been in the business for a very, very long time is a lot of fear. (I wrote a long series in 2021 on fear. Here’s where to start.)

When you get burned the way that the Bantam writer above got burned, the natural human response is to try to prevent that from ever happening again. Some writers prevent that by refusing to work with that company or editor, or these days, by publishing indie.

Others stop writing altogether to prevent that kind of problem.

And then there are the writers who are on the flip side of the badly burned problem. Sure, they’ve had serious and frightening setbacks, but they’ve also had so much success that they’re afraid to mess with it.

The phrase we use in our house is that they’re “protecting their lead.” I learned it from Dean, and he initially used it to talk about tournament golf (which he used to play). A lot of players end up in the lead after 3 days of play because they were playing loose or freely. And then, they wake up on the final morning and become cautious.

They’re protecting their lead, and it often leads to failure, because golf courses, like life sometimes, require a certain style of play. If you change your style of play midstream, you’ll probably tamper with your success.

The writers who protect their lead write the same thing over and over and over again. They read their reviews, know what’s expected of them, and try to deliver it. I just read a book like that from a writer whose work I used to love.

Lately, his work has shown the tendency to write what he’s known for, which is (in some circles) twists and plot surprises. Those things only work when you’re not expecting them, and he’s been putting them into his stories like tinsel on a badly decorated Christmas tree. I hope he gets past it, I do, but I suspect he’s afraid of losing his success, so he’s trying to replicate it, rather than let the stories flow the way they want to.

No one can accuse Liz Phair of writing or even doing the same thing over and over again. So she’s been in a thirty-year habit of writing what she wants, of being herself.

The review ends like this, which, I gotta say, as an older woman with a long career, I find slightly offensive. (I have no idea how old Johnston is, but I assume she’s not in her fifties.)

Here’s what she said:

Phair has left multiple indelible marks on rock over her 30-year career, and her legacy can be heard all over best-of lists. But with Soberish, she’s asserting herself as far more than a heritage artist; she’s still working on her craft, honing it and imbuing it with the wisdom she’s accrued as a rock star, a woman, a mom, a lover, and a person living in an increasingly off-kilter world

I know Johnston meant that final paragraph as a compliment. I also know that, by referring to heritage artist, she’s referring to the very phenomenon I cited above—that tendency to play it safe, to perform the old hits or record something that sounds like them.

But some artists—Phair, Prince, and others—never do that. It’s part of their legacy. We shouldn’t expect older writers, musicians, actors or anyone else to become heritage artists just because they’re over fifty.

The artists who have long careers constantly work on their craft. They might be afraid—hell, they might be terrified—but they step beyond it.

They might have always been afraid. That’s something I learned much too late for my own music career. I had (have) stage fright when I perform off a prescribed text (musical or print). I have a terrible fear of screwing up.

I had no idea until I was in my fifties that there are performing artists (actors/musicians) who vomit repeatedly before going on stage because their stage fright is so bad. These are people you’ve heard of and, if they could overcome that, they often overcome the bad breaks that hit all of us during a career.

They know how to overcome fear.

Fear chews at you, though, and some artists don’t even realize they’re experiencing it until it overwhelms them. They become that proverbial frog in a pan of water on the stove, not realizing they’re going to boil to death until they can’t ignore the pain any longer.

Then they quit or stop trying or figure they’ve had a good career, so why mess with it.

Why? Because their voices are unique, and those voices shouldn’t be silenced because of fear.

It’s easy to say, but very hard to do. And sometimes going around the fear takes a determination that all but the most stubborn of us lack.

Sometimes the only way through the fear is with help—either from others who have gone through something similar, or from therapists who know how to mitigate pain from old patterns.

It takes work of a type that this blog can’t really address except to point out the problem.

Fear destroys careers. It destroys careers before they even start (which is the attitude post I wrote previously) and it can destroy careers midstream in the ways I discussed above.

As I said in that first post in this series, there are a million ways for writers to fail. Fear will find a way to silence many writers’ voices without the writer ever really acknowledging why.

If you’ve been writing for a long time and have slowed down or even stopped, and haven’t realize analyzed why, a good first start is to ask yourself what you’re afraid of. You might have to type out a list of things. Be honest. Be brutal.

Figure out if those fears are real (fear of losing income because of a new direction) or if those fears are old tapes (fear of insulting a parent—who died years ago). Then figure out if there are solutions.

Because, writers, we all have to work through this. We get cautious as we get older. That’s because of experience. We learn what’s good and what’s easy, and what our bodies can and can’t do. Sometimes that’s good (I’ll never run a 5-minute mile, but I can speed up a little, if I want to), and sometimes that’s not healthy at all. Experience can make us lazy. (Tried that 25 years ago; it didn’t work. Well, maybe it’ll work now).

They say that with age comes wisdom. As I’m aging, I’m not seeing a lot of wisdom in me or in my colleagues. What I am seeing is experience. We recognize patterns and how things happen, and we know a lot about a lot of things. That looked like wisdom to me when I was a punk kid, but it’s really just been-there, done-that.

I had never really realized until I got older what a challenge it is to keep challenging yourself. Challenging yourself is reflexive when you’re young, because the world challenges you. You don’t have the experience or the wherewithal or the ability to see what’s ahead. You don’t understand that what you’re going through is something that every other college student or 20-something will encounter.

But as we get older, we set up our lives to prevent as many life challenges as possible, knowing that others will come our way (like the deaths of family and friends). We try to insulate ourselves from the worst of life—not that it ever works. Something will always cut through those defenses, as we all learned in 2020. Only a handful expected a pandemic, and they worked in virology and pandemic prevention.

The rest of us were going blithely along in our lives, not prepared at all for the sudden hard turn away from that particular future.

I think the pandemic laid bare just how little control we have over our futures. That doesn’t stop us from trying to control our futures, I know, but that realization might help with the fear that has stopped many of us from continuing with good careers.

Here’s the thing, y’all. None of us, not a single one of us, has the career we expected or, in most cases, the career that we had planned. Many of us don’t have the career we wanted either and for a lot of us, that career no longer exists. (In that, traditional publishing’s bestsellers and awards aren’t the be-all and end-all of publishing any more. The publishing world many of us grew up in is not at all the publishing world we live in.)

It’s hard to accept that. It’s even harder to understand what it means, especially when it comes to the fears that try to stop all of us.

I think the best way to deal with fear is to acknowledge it, recognize it for what it is, and then figure out a way around or through.

If around or through doesn’t work, that usually means that something a bit more deeply rooted is going on. It means that outside help is warranted.

And that’s okay.

I’d rather have a long career where I continue to challenge myself and learn things than to write the same old thing over and over and over again. So that protecting the lead thing would never work for me. I’d have to pull the plug on my writing—or write a lot of other kinds of books under a lot of pen names, like Dean Koontz.

Our writing careers are all different from each other. So are our fears. We have to learn to grow one (the career) and overcome the other (the fear). We have different journeys.

But it’s good to know that we all experience fear related to our artistic careers. I actually think some fears—particularly around craft—are healthy. They mean I’m challenging myself.

I don’t think a “heritage” career is what most of us want. We want to be as creative and original as we can throughout our careers.

That means overcoming fears, especially as we get older.

That means trying, no matter how hard it seems.

That means finding a tiny bit of courage, each and every day.


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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part Two) Fear,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / rogistok

8 thoughts on “Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 2): Fear (Established Writer Edition)

  1. I used to work with another writer co-writing a project. I had some craft problems that I was, at the time, completely unable to fix. So I had fear of my own that I would never be able to write a novel. I jumped into the co-writing relationship because of my fear and crashed into his.
    I didn’t know that’s what it was until many years later when Dean pointed it out to me. Cowriter and I were fine while we created the story.
    But then as we got close to finishing the book, he started dragging his feet. It was pretty subtle. I picked up on it, but I wasn’t really sure what was going on. It showed more when we started doing queries. He wanted to network with the agents in person (not where we live!). Many rejects, and a critique group’s comments, and we went back to the drawing board with a new book.
    I’d learned enough writing the first to push for getting the next one done. Noticed the foot-dragging showing up sooner. Still didn’t understand it.
    Suddenly, one day at lunch, he launches into this rant that I was running right over him. Very angry. I didn’t know where it came from, wondered if I’d done something, then dismissed it. I knew I hadn’t. It was him.
    It got worse. We’d had an agreement not to bring one subject up. He brought it up and used it to attack me. This man I’d known for 10 years turned from a nice guy into nasty and ugly.. The closer we got to finishing the story, the worse it got.
    Every time we wrote now, he wanted to “fix” the first chapter. “Something is wrong with it.” So, I’d say, “What’s wrong with it?” I was agreeable to making sure everything was in line with the story. But then he would say “I don’t know,” He only fiddled when he touched the chapter.
    I kept asking him what was going on, finally asked him why he was sabotaging the project. He insisted he wasn’t.
    We did get the book done. By now, I felt like I was the only one participating in the project. We had a full out to agents (got rejected) when the whole relationship fell apart. I had to walk away from that manuscript. Hardest thing I did.
    Years later, he called me. Like nothing happened. Odd call. Told me he had an agent. Seemed almost like he was bragging “See? I got one. You didn’t.” I congratulated him. Contacted me again by email. The agent wanted revisions to the story. He didn’t understand what they were asking for. It sounded like depth, so I referred him to the class, told him the basics of what he probably should do if he had a deadline. Resurfaced later with another call, asking why I had called him (I hadn’t). Then he asked about publishing indie (guessing the agent fell through). Offered him some general advice, He still hasn’t published anything.
    Fear really does bad things to you. It caused me to make a lot of bad decisions. It kept him from getting anything out there.

  2. My lack of sales has translated into ‘I will write what I feel like writing as well as I can”–I have very little time to promote as a caregiver and my household income is ok, so I only work on writing as well as I can, while still telling the story I want to tell. 7 books so far, and this next one will probably be split, as I’m at 45K and see a whole lot of outline ahead of me. Or maybe it will be One Gigantic Book, though at that size I’ll feel free to chop out a lot of deadwood. But I know where I’m going.

  3. Then there’s the fear of your own voice, that if you don’t do something they way others expect it, you’ll be rejected for who you are. I have sold exactly one short story in my life. (To be fair, I haven’t really tried that hard to sell them.) The thing that sticks out for me is that the one story I did sell was purposely written in a style that I don’t particularly enjoy but I thought it was what the particular genre anthology would be looking for. And now I’m afraid to submit stories in my own voice because the only story I sold was in a fake voice and I don’t really want to get rejected again for being me.

    It’s not rational, but then fear never is.

    So, now, I write in my own voice, but just for myself.

  4. In the Robert Plant box set, Nine Lives, there was a DVD interview with Plant. He pointed out when he started his solo career after Zeppelin, that “He was free to fail.” I watch that interview many times a year.

    This interview from Austin City Limits captures the way to have longevity, around 4 minutes.

    They have to be far more interested and occupied than the casual listener. ‘Cause you guys just tune in now and again to what we do or what somebody else does. But the people right in the middle of it all — you can take it or leave it — but for us it’s crucial that we…. That you can smile through it and your shoulders are big and you go back into that gift that the gods gave you.

    Robert Plant Interview on Austin City Limits

  5. Nice post. Some creatives repeat what made them successful and that is close to sitting in the rocking chair and waiting for the hearse. At least they are doing something, rocking back and forth, rather than keep blazing new trails.
    Thanks, glad you and Dean are not like them.

  6. I keep a Fear Journal.

    I know when I don’t use my good time well, that I’m afraid of something.

    I head off to the Journal, and write until I figure out what it is this time – old favorite, new fear, something odd. So far, it has always broken the logjam by pulling out logs until it clears.

    I used to resent the time it took; I don’t any more. Having a way to deal with it – which starts with identifying if I’m overwhelmed by something, or the something is unpleasant – keeps it from blocking me for too long (learned from Lakein’s How to get control of your time and your life, which got me through my thesis years ago).

    I try to laugh at myself after the old favorites, learn something from the new and odd.

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