April 7, 2011

The Psychology of Writing, Part 2: The Shock Box

If you missed it see: The Psychology of Writing, Part 1.

Writer L.M May just did a fantastic blog post titled: Fiction Writers and Learned Helplessness.

In it she  talks about some of the psychology behind what is happening in the writing world today with the indie vs. traditional publishing camps.

The whole post is great, and well worth reading, but I want to focus in on one aspect.

But first, go read it now. I’ll wait…

I want to focus on the “Submission Box Experiment” she presented. In describing what happens to a writer when they submit something for traditional publishing she comes up with a metaphorical red box that you stick your hand into every time you submit a work. If you get a “no” back from the editor, the box delivers a shock; no response from the editor, and the box doesn’t do anything (and you are left wondering and anticipating); a “yes” delivers a pleasure inducing opiate.

There is one response she missed. It is the “I enjoyed reading your story but ______” response. The “but” being along the lines of: “your ending completely sucked”; “it has been done a million times”; or the nebulous “it didn’t quite work”.  (And yes, I have gotten versions of all those.) That response delivers both the shock and the opiate, leaving you in a very strange manic-like state.

I am calling this metaphorical contraption the “Shock Box.” Because, for me and most new writers, that is what it does most all of the time.

I would like to briefly note that all of this applies to any artistic/creative endeavor that has a “gatekeeper” system.

So how do you deal with that? I mean imagine it. You are a beginning writer and as you submit (more than likely) you are subjected to shock after shock, no after no.  Over and over.

And that is often all the feedback you get, the painful “no”. No advice on how to improve, just the sting of knowing it wasn’t good enough.

The first time I got the nerve up to put my hand in the box, I got the shock (predictably), and stopped writing and submitting for more years than I would care to admit. And, admittedly, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing; I just knew that I had: 1) actually finished a story and 2) that story moved me and was hugely cathartic to write; and 3) was the very best I could do.  Was my response realistic or reasonable? No, but we are talking about human psychology here.

But, if you’re going to make it, you keep going. You put up with the shocks, try to become immune to them (although you never will, not completely), and as L.M. May described, you develop coping mechanism.

Some of the coping mechanisms she mentions are:

…. 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.

Stephen King famously impaled his rejection letters on a spike in his office–clearly a coping mechanism appropriate for Mr. King.

Here’s a few more not-so-constructive ones that are pretty easy to fall into:

  • Believe that no one understands you, and no one “gets” your art. Let your ego run away with you and fully embody the “misunderstood artist” archetype.
  • Demonize traditional publishing and go indie-only. (Where you will have to confront the specter of no one buying your self-published story. Yeah, that could hurt too, because at first you will be learning a new skill-set and not know what the hell you are doing).
  • Keep writing, but stop submitting.
  • Edit your stories to death, trying to make the perfect–whatever the hell that is–so that your production basically dries up.
  • Give up.
  • Drink.
  • Give up and drink.

So my advice? Just keep writing and submitting. Make up any constructive game you need to get through the shocks. Have faith, your skin will grow thicker (if mine has, than I believe that yours can).

And find an audience that likes your stories, even if it’s just you, or your wife, or your mother, or your dog.  Actually your primary audience has to be you. It has to be. Yup, I am telling you to write for yourself. Because if you don’t love the stories you write and the characters you create; if you aren’t moved by the words–how the hell are your going to stick you hand in that box time and time again and get shocked over and over? To keep writing, it has to server you at a very primal level.

So, write something, submit something, and stick your hand into that box. You’ll survive.

Don’t miss: 50 Rejections and Counting and The Psychology of Writing, Part 1.

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Robert J. McCarter

Robert J. McCarter is the author of more than ten novels and over a hundred short stories...... learn more

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