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.