The Sophomore Slump

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I have a confession to make.

For a great many of us who aspire to create art of all kinds for our living, there’s a horrible malady that strikes the minute we experience any sort of success. It doesn’t show on the outside, nor does it respond to any treatment. Yet it’s debilitating in a way that would rival many of the most vicious diseases that exist. It’s the plague of self-doubt. Self-doubt happens to the most outgoing, confident people. You won’t be able to tell from looking at or talking to the person, but it’s there, hiding behind the happy smile. For writers, it’s the worry that what we wrote isn’t good enough. It’s bad enough that we feel that way when we’re still trying to break in, but lot of times it doesn’t go away with the first sale. It expands like a giant stinking bubble, surrounding us with the poisonous notion that even if we somehow managed to sell a piece, it was only a fluke, or someone at the publisher’s must have made a mistake. And since we’re writers, we can come up with some pretty bizarre explanations for how such a crazy error as our success might have happened. Me, for example…one of the reasons I chose my agent was because she had a great many personal friendships with important people in publishing, contacts that would serve us both well. She has a close relationship with my editor at Tor. Up until the day Mad Kestrel was actually on bookstore shelves, I couldn’t help torturing myself with the thought that the only reason I got a contract was because my editor was being kind to my agent. A ridiculous idea, especially if you have even the barest understanding of how publishing works, yet I was able to nearly convince myself.

Which leads to my confession. I spent most of last year (and a decent chunk of this one) lost in the fear of the sophomore slump. All too often, a writer’s second, or sophomore, effort fails to live up to the standards of the first effort. If I was sure that my first success was all some sort of accident, imagine how easy it was to believe I couldn’t make lightning strike twice. It took me a hell of a long time to finish Kestrel’s Dance, not because I naturally write slowly (which I do) but because I let myself slip into the mire. I questioned every word I put on paper, despaired that I was telling a decent story, and put off writing new chapters because the fear of finding out that it had all been a mistake or that I couldn’t write anything else worth reading was too much to bear.

It’s a hellish mindset to be stuck in, and believe me, if you’re there right now, you have my sincere sympathy. I don’t have a solution for you. I’d love to tell you something inspirational and uplifting, but this is a confession, so I have to be honest. Every solution is different. But the important part is in recognizing the slump so you can dig your way out. Pay attention to your thoughts. Are you telling yourself that you’ll get to the writing tomorrow, that the errands are more crucial today? Are you waiting for a storm of creativity to explode in your brain? Do you look at the short story you sold to a small press magazine and think there must have been a mistake? You’re probably in the muck. Get out. Get out right now, any way you can. The thing that finally pushed me to finish Kestrel’s Dance was not fans and friends asking me and encouraging me, nor the worry that the market might forget my name. It was, at last, something very elemental. I woke up every morning and told myself that the only way I was going to be able to afford to send my son to college was if I kept writing and got the damned thing sold. One of the first lessons we learn is that writing for the money of it all is a bad, bad idea, but in this case, it was the only encouragement that worked. It was about as much fun as whipping myself every day with a cat-o-nine-tails, but it got me moving, forced me to put my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard. Now that Kestrel’s Dance is turned in, I’m still using that metaphorical whip to get the new book written. The thrill of the new book is there, yes, but the push to write it down instead of just letting the thoughts stay locked in my head seems to come from that primal place still. I’m slowly starting to believe that I can do it again. Every day is a little easier, with every page I’m a little closer to trusting myself like I used to. Maybe one of these days, after five or six books, I’ll stop believing that it’s all an accident.

Okay, confession over. Now you know. And I have another book to work on. College is expensive.

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17 comments to The Sophomore Slump

  • You really can do it! It was not a fluke! You are, by all that is holy, a writer. I knew it the first time I heard you read a piece. And I cannot wait to hear that KD sold!

    Hey Mr. Editor? Hurry up! The fans are waiting!

  • As insanely hard as it is collectively to finish a real novel, secure an agent, and sell the book to a publishing house, I’d say you’re definitely not a fluke.

    All you need to do now is BIC and get that material in front of somebody else with unbiased eyes.

    Rock on!
    -NGD

  • Unicorn

    Yeah, you can do it, Misty! Kestrel’s Dance sounds fascinating. Love the title, by the way.
    Unicorn

  • Boy, Misty, is this true! It affects me differently, but the impulse is the same. I don’t find that it stops me from writing, but it strips my confidence completely. Not a day goes by that I think everything I’m doing (and have done) is trite, worthless crap. It’s agony. Because of the constraints imposed by my non-writerly life, I have to take the oppertunity to write when I get them: forcing myself to crank stuff out in protracted sittings where my words per day goals get unreasonably high. Every day ends with me convinced that nothing I’ve put down is worth a damn.

    And you’re right. There’s no easy solution. Even after a book has been approved and published, I stress about it, waiting for the Emperor’s new clothes moment when everyone turns and points, laughing their asses off at me and what I dared to offer as literature. This is why I’m so grateful when I get positive reader feedback by e-mail etc. It’s always a surprise.

  • Great post Misty! I think one of the things so hard about writing is the feeling that we’re all adrift in our own worlds — sharing feelings like this is what brings us all together and makes us realize we are not alone (esp in our feelings of self doubt!).

    I struggled massively with my sophomore book and in the end (for me) it sort of came down to a fairly dismal thought: I could either not write and not give it my all in which case I was fulfilling the idea that I had only one book in me or I could write and trust my critique partners and editors to help me make it the best book it could be and we’d see what happened. And if that book failed… I could keep going or give up.

    Whenever I get caught up in terror over the current book I’m working on, I try to remind myself that it’s a marathon not a sprint. It doesn’t always help, but I do pat myself on the back for trying :)

  • Whenever these fears poke me in the back, I try to remember that most people fail because they don’t dare to try. It’s better to put your work out there, whatever may happen, then not try at all. And if that doesn’t work for me, I usually then adopt an “F— them all! I’ll finish this thing just to show them!” attitude which also is a great motivator! 😉

  • Misty> Thanks for such an honest, real post. I know I’ve felt that way (grad school was an exercise in “I’m an impostor and someday, they’ll find out!!”) and I still have days when I think I’m kidding myself about being a writer, or a scholar, or a teacher, and that people who say good things are really just being “nice.”

    I’m looking forward to Kestrel’s Dance. I really enjoyed the first one! And, yeah, college is expensive, so write. :) I admit, the idea of having just a bit more income is part of what makes me sit down and write (or edit, or create query letters, or whatever). It can’t be the sole (or soul) motivation, but it is a real motivation.

    Stuart> I love that approach! That’s what I try to remember when I get ready to send stuff out!

  • Misty,

    *big hug* Glad to hear things are going better for you.

    I get that fear sometimes, in a different way. For me, it’s the crippling, “I’m not good enough and everyone’s just humoring me and this is all a joke and even if I do convince an agent and publisher to take me on it’ll be a huge flop and get only bad reviews”. It’s held me back from submitting, and in the case of rewrites of my WIP, from finishing. Thanks for sharing that. It reminds me that I have to keep going, and I have to try, because how else will I know?

  • Hi Everyone! *waves* I’ve been out for awhile, but I’m back now.

    Thank you for this post, Misty. I think misery loves company, because I’ve been fighting this for the last couple of months and it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. Not that I’ve published anything, so it’s not the sophomore slump…it’s just a lack of confidence in my work right now. Sometimes I read through my stuff and all I can think is “crap crap crap”. For me, it’s been my sister that has kept me going. She keeps asking me for new chapters or the revisions of old ones. Thank God for family (sometimes).

  • Oh, my dear, you are most certainly A Writer, and a damn good one. I know this feeling intimately. My first agent was a former publishing exec who was friends with, wait for it, Tom Doherty. And so I always assumed that he was the reason I sold my first book (and second, and third) and that it had nothing to do with any talent I supposedly had. These doubts die hard. I have a dozen novels in print and half a dozen short stories, and I still spend half my time feeling like a poser, a hack, wannabe who just got lucky, slipped through the cracks and has been writing on borrowed time ever since. The feeling never really goes away. But I figure that if, for reasons beyond understanding, they’re going to be careless and foolish enough to keep giving me contracts, I’ll keep on writing.

  • Wow, guys, thank you for all the nice things you said! I swear I didn’t write this to fish for compliments, and I am awed and grateful for your responses.

    Let me tell you, one thing that rattles me is when I go to a con and talk to other published writers, people who are supposed to be my peers, but they all sound smarter and more sophisticated than I could ever hope to be. I listen to them in panels and I think, “I have no idea how to match that level of grownup-ness!” *laughs* I guess the important part is that no matter whether we’ve published ten books, or one, or none, we all have to be supportive of each other. So thank you all for having my back, even if we’ve never met in real life. You know where to find me if you need the favor returned.

  • Oh Misty! I am with you here too! >>people who are supposed to be my peers, but they all sound smarter and more sophisticated than I could ever hope to be.

    I always feel like an imposter!

  • Sarah

    May I join the chorus? Because I certainly recognize the disease. It’s those midnight heebie jeebies, the agonizing slump at the computer staring at a blank screen, the decision to watch 10 hours of MacGyver and regrout the bathroom rather than face the horrors revision or of even rereading what I’ve written. Yup, know the feeling well. (And yes! Mad Kestrel is a blast to read. It’s currently helping me through one of the worst bouts of bronchitis I’ve had in a long while.)

  • It’s currently helping me through one of the worst bouts of bronchitis I’ve had in a long while.

    *laughs* I wonder if I could advertise it as a holistic remedy now?

  • Young_Writer

    Misty and Faith, I feel like an imposter here. (Due to age and skills). But the information here is too valuable to pass up, and the people to kind/intelligent.

  • Beatriz

    Joining the party late, I know.

    Misty says: Let me tell you, one thing that rattles me is when I go to a con and talk to other published writers, people who are supposed to be my peers, but they all sound smarter and more sophisticated than I could ever hope to be.

    I have one word for you: zeppelin.