5 Ways to Combat Author Anxiety

It turns out Author Anxiety is a Thing. It’s not just me.

I discovered this on the eve of publication of my debut novel, DECEPTION ISLAND, when I was silly enough to Google my shiny new title. Up popped a Netgalley reviewer live-tweeting as she read it. Only she was hating it—pulling it apart chapter by chapter.

brynn-kelly-author-writer deception-island-book-cover

Column by Brynn Kelly, author of DECEPTION ISLAND
(June 2016, HQN Books). Brynn is working on two connected
novels. Brynn has a journalism degree and has won and finaled in
several prestigious writing and journalism awards, including the
Golden Heart, Valerie Parv and Pacific Hearts awards. She’s
also a best-selling nonfiction author in her native New Zealand.
She is repped by Nalini Akolekar of Spencerhill Associates.
Follow her on Twitter

I’d had loads of great reviews—in Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, RT Book Reviews, on dozens of blogs—but this one hobby reviewer withered my fragile confidence. It was the intimacy of it. I could see what she looked like, I could see what page she was reading, I could certainly see exactly what she thought of the story. And I couldn’t stop refreshing. Because I’m an idiot.

I’ve been a journalist for two decades and I’ve published a bunch of nonfiction books, so public criticism is nothing new. Why, then, did this rattle me?

I did what any 21st century dweller does when faced with a 21st century dilemma. I Googled. And I discovered I wasn’t alone. Not only is Author Anxiety a Thing, but it’s such a Thing that, yes, it deserves initial caps. I set out to find a remedy before this vile feeling paralyzed me from writing another fictional word. In the interests of author solidarity, I’m sharing five of my best cures.

1. Find perspective

Many years ago, to finance my journalism degree, I worked as a TV publicist. A fun job but intensely shallow. (Ask me anything about “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place.”) Even so, like all jobs, sometimes it got stressful. The most important lesson I learned from that two years was from a boss who was fond of saying, “It’s entertainment. It’s not f***ing brain surgery.” Same goes for my novel. It’s a romantic thriller. It’s not important. My bad day at work is when a reader isn’t entertained or moved and I lose that reader. I’m not a doctor who has lost a patient or an air-traffic controller who’s lost a plane. The worst-case scenario? This novel tanks, everyone forgets about it, and I write another one.

2. Embrace imperfection

Don’t tell my publisher this, but DECEPTION ISLAND isn’t perfect. There, I’ve said it. What a relief. I could have spent three decades rewriting it and it still wouldn’t be perfect. There’s no such thing as perfection in creative endeavor. At some point—usually when a deadline hits—you must step away from your manuscript and say, “There, it’s done. It’s the best I can do right now.” That book has become your past, not your future. It’s not even your present, anymore. The only thing that remains wholly in your control is your next book.

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3. Get productive

If I read a bad review, suddenly I don’t feel like writing. But you know what? A good writing day blows away my doubt and fear. And studies into motivation have found that the muse kicks in after you begin a task, not before. Don’t feel like writing because someone just told the (virtual) world that you suck? Open your WIP and start somewhere, anywhere. Tinker with a paragraph you wrote a year ago, write a random exchange of dialogue, change the font. Just. Start. Your brain will light up, the motivation will come and the angst will evaporate.

4. Log out

Only one thing will make you a successful novelist: writing novels. Let the virtual world live without you—especially if it drags you down. Forget the rules that you must regularly post on social media and engage online. If bad reviews on Goodreads or Amazon discourage you, don’t read them. If you can’t help flicking onto them—because validation is addictive— but you hate yourself for it, get a productivity app and block those sites, and any others that routinely make your heart soar and sink. (If a review falls in a forest…) Ray Bradbury once said: “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” And if you just want the boost without the pain? Ask a friend to email you only the great reviews, in a monthly digest. It’s not a cop-out. It’s sensible.

5. Escape

If that sniping little head of yours is not a pleasant place to hang out, get out of it. Do something immersive: play a card game with your kid, see a movie, whack a tennis ball around a court. When you return, you should find your mind is a more agreeable—and productive—environment. Keep it that way by throwing a little love into the world to offset the negativity. Tweet an author about how much you enjoyed her book—because she may be feeling Author Anxiety today, too.

How do you deal with anxiety and fear? Share below.

——————–

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23 thoughts on “5 Ways to Combat Author Anxiety

  1. gonehindi772

    Thank you Brynn for your article, “5 Ways to Combat Author Anxiety”. It’s just really awesome how you are previously successful in an earlier career but have toiled away with incredible effort and over much time to write a suspense romance thriller novel. You landed an agent and published your first book. And you still had time to write and post “5 Ways” to help newbies and older want to get published writers working on their writing projects. This really keeps us going, keeps us moving forward towards whatever success we might be able to achieve. It’s just amazing how helpful and encouraging the gals and guys of the Writer’s Digest crew are in their articles, books and punchlist checklists for every aspect of what a writer needs to know, and what they need to do to learn and be successful in their craft. I am older (65) and am working on an impossible 18 short story collection with multiple challenges. What you write helps me deal with the difficulties I encounter. I’ve met a lady who writes screenplays and another lady, who is a single mom, who has decided to write a novel and get it published. I have let them know about the writers’ advice available through Writer’s Digest posts and books. The advice you offer helps immensely. And perhaps many successful authors are way too busy writing, promoting and blogging to get their work out to readers to even have the time left over to advise new writers. I am going to buy and read “Deception Island” because I think that if you help us in our efforts than we should return the favor. Thanks again.

  2. gonehindi772

    The best way to combat author anxiety is the advice, write what you care about most. And that can be anything! Anything! The point being you are writing at your strongest when you do that. Writers are often very different from most other people yet a successful book must connect with a majority of most other people. Most other people have diverse never quite the same mental interiors that also have mental gatekeepers that either yes or no anything trying to get past the mental gatekeeper. Brynn’s writing seems to have tried to cross past a particularly nasty mental gatekeeper residing in the poor wretched soul of some luckless reviewer’s brain. It said “no” when most of the other gatekeepers said “yes.” That “no” goes on the bottom in the back of the largest closet or in the circular file. Not every good book or film is well received by everyone. But if it is your best effort about what you care about most, it doesn’t matter, it will get through. No author needs the approval of all or particularly important mental interiors. Example. R. Balki wrote and directed an incredible gender inequality Hindi language romantic comedy that featured a complete gender role reversal at the highest corporate level. It is brilliant. It very sharply gives the anatomy of gender inequality through a romantic comedy. One reviewer wrote something like, “apart from the whole clever gender thing, what does this film have?” That reviewer was trying to make something brilliant into NOTHING. Newspaper reviews Indian Express had it 2/5 but Times of India had it at 4/5. Was the Indian Express reviewer actually watching that film or did he really want to see some other film? But Balki’s film reached enough viewers. Completed on a budget of $3 million U.S. dollars, it earned $15 million! So many many people all over the world saw the film and will come back to see Balki’s next film. So I think it is very possible that Brynn’s book will be read by a lot of people who will return to read her next book. Take solace in that if she wrote about what she cared about and did it well, that one antagonistic reviewer is meaningless no matter how important in the trade. The hostile mental environment folks are kuchnai in Hindi which in English means “Nothing.” Also a literal translation of kuchnai is “happynot”. Don’t let the kuchnai HME’s get you down. Write what you care about most for no anxiety and be well on the way to both success and “happy.”

  3. Emmett

    Even though I’m still working on my first manuscript, I already feel Author Anxiety; it’s a well-established part of my life. I fight it by trying to remind myself that right now, I’m only writing for myself; nobody else matters, not other opinion has weight, because right now the catharsis is mine to experience. When I get finished and am ready to publish, I’ll tell myself that I’m not writing for the people who don’t like my book; their opinion can help me see legitimate flaws in my craft and story structure, but I am not trying to please everyone. I can’t be expected to write a book that appeals to everyone’s tastes, and I refuse to let myself set that goal for my writing, much less allow someone else to. I write so that someone, somewhere, can escape where they are right now and realize they aren’t completely alone. If my writing only ever matters to a few dozen people, but I have an impact on their lives and outlook, that’s good enough for me. It is my profound privilege as a writer to lead someone the chaos of my protagonist’s situation and come out the other side as a different person; my aim is to transform the three of us, and if I succeed in that even once, I have found success as a writer. Of course I’d love to be noticed, to find my work displayed in a bookshop window or on someone’s bestseller’s list, but fame isn’t my goal, and the approval of everyone who reads my book is not necessary for me to feel like I’ve accomplished something.

    Now I just need to keep reminding myself of that.

    1. Brynn Kelly

      Emmett – Oh, man, I LOVE your attitude. I might just clip that and keep it. You’re dead right, and it’s something to keep in mind wherever we are on our publishing journey. We must always write the story we believe in, as we see it – otherwise it’s not going to ring true, and we probably won’t even finish it. Yes, we can — and should — listen to feedback and use to it improve our work where appropriate, but the vision and drive will always be ours, and we can’t let outside forces dull it. I wish you every success.

  4. cjthe1writer

    Brynn, appreciate you sharing your own fears and doubts with us — and risking it (once more). This is a post I’ll keep under my pillow (well, maybe if I had it sooner, I wouldn’t be up at 4 a.m. reading this!). My favorite tip was “let the virtual world live without you” for a while. Too much time investing in “promoting” and building a platform (something touted heavily in nonfiction publishing). Since writing book proposals is part of my business, I’ve come to realize that the madness of being on Twitter, Facebook, etc., has been sucking precious time from my own novel. Thanks for the sanity. Pure Heart, CJ

    1. Brynn Kelly

      That’s so true, CJ. It’s so hard to find the balance — especially with non-fiction, where arguably your platform is more important — but it must always tip in favor of the writing. And the sanity! It’s easy to spend all our time looking outward, but our real journey as writers is on the inside. Thanks for the comment, and all the best.

  5. JOHN T SHEA

    Let’s face it people! All those nasty reviewers are secretly in the pay of chocolate companies plotting to make us all miserable so we’ll buy more of their products.

    Now where did I leave tonight’s modest ration of just ten big bars?

    1. Brynn Kelly

      You’re welcome! Yes, I think the moment I realized that fear was a completely normal and common reaction was the moment I started to overcome it. It’ll never completely go away, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. It’ll keep me pouring everything I can into my writing, to always make the next book better.

  6. Quillitout

    Great points! Anxiety is one giant ball of a self-deprecating prophecy…and lord knows there are so many critics out there to boot, and while we yearn for our readers acceptance we often lose sight that the answer to our “perfection” lies directly within the brutally-honest reviews of others. However in dealing with it, I find diverting my mind to something else really releases the chaotic-critic stirring inside, and sometimes generates a new idea. Allowing the pallet to savor on a rich piece of milk chocolate does wonders as well! 😉

    1. Brynn Kelly

      Yes, it’s a case of finding that balance between being open to learning about your potential mistakes, so you can grow as a writer and continually improve, and protecting yourself so you don’t lose the desire to write. And I’m sure there’s some science somewhere verifying that chocolate can give us that leg-up to get through episodes of self-doubt! Whatever works!

  7. Tara Sheets

    So glad I’m not alone in feeling this way! I especially love the tips you give on how to help overcome Author Anxiety. It’s going to be a huge battle for me not to dwell on reviews when my book comes out. I’ll definitely be keeping your tips close in the coming months. Thank you so much!

    1. Brynn Kelly

      Thanks, Tara. It’s very healthy that you’re self-aware enough to know that you’re likely to struggle with reviews. That way it won’t take you unawares. I guess we all have to keep in mind that each review is just one person’s opinion, neither right nor wrong, and it’s all those differing opinions that make the world such a fascinating place. So embrace them–the good and the not-so. (But you don’t have to read the latter if you don’t want to.) Sending you good wishes!

  8. Priscilla Oliveras

    I had the same question as Seana: Does chocolate count?

    My debut novel won’t release until October 2017, yet when I think about reviews my insides quiver with anxiety. Thanks for the ideas on how to combat them. I’ll probably spend from now until next October adding to the list so I’ll have NO excuses for letting the nerves get to me because I’ll have multiple ideas to help me calm them. 🙂

    1. Brynn Kelly

      I’d be interested to see what strategies you come up with! It’s a great idea to have some remedies pre-prepared. Though I think I would have prepared the wrong ones – the experience was so different from the one I’d psyched myself up for! It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about my second book, which is out in June 2017. I’ve heard from other authors that the anxiety doesn’t go away, but they find better ways of dealing with it.

  9. Seana Kelly

    Brynn,

    Great list! Is chocolate a bad answer?
    I’m excited about publishing next year, but dreading the reviews that don’t just say the book sucks, that innumerate ALL the perceived ways in which the book sucks. I can’t imagine how someone live-tweeting their hatred must have felt. I take that back–I can imagine it and it’s horrifying. I might have to follow your suggestion about having a friend read them for me. I know I won’t. I know myself enough to know I’ll fixate on every comment, good or bad (especially bad) until I learn not to flipping look at them!

    1. Brynn Kelly

      Chocolate is always an excellent answer! And, of course, for every negative review, you’ll get loads of good reviews. The trick is to (somehow!) not let the negative review carry more weight than it warrants. Sadly, the negative reviews tend to be the ones that stick to us, even if they’re a tiny fraction of the overall feedback.

      You’ll make it through like I did – with the support of good friends 🙂

  10. DonDeBon

    I find that writing itself is the most helpful method. And of course not watching social media. An author is left torn though, we want to be in touch with our readers and know what they are saying but that can also drag us down. It is difficult to find a “middle of the road”. However, I think the suggestion of asking a friend to compile it for you is about the best I have heard. The trick is finding a friend that is willing to do so.

    1. maureenw@maureenwixon.com

      To those chocolate lovers, the answer is Yes! My anxiety heightens daily as I even imagine the comments on any controversial piece I am writing even before I have found a publisher. Connecting to others who share similar angst is the foundation of my nonfiction book which includes baking (and for me, the call to chocolate is intoxicating). Writing this is the my heeding resource #3!

      Does anticipating critical and even cruel responses prepare one or simply drag down your day! I will follow the guides, prepared, and baking mindfully.

      1. Brynn Kelly

        Maureen – Yes, that’s an important point. Author networks are vital to surviving the publishing journey. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be published without the support of mine, from critiquing and industry advice to hand-holding and kicking my butt when I need it. The number of times my writer friends talked me down from the edge of the cliff when my debut came out… I would recommend any aspiring author to start searching for a like-minded group, locally or on the internet.

    2. Brynn Kelly

      DonDeBon – Yes, it’s so tricky to find that happy medium when it comes to feedback. With Goodreads or Amazon, you can filter your reviews so you only read those of three stars and above. I find that gives enough of an indication of the strengths and weaknesses of the work, without having to subject oneself to the soul-destroying one- and two-star reviews! (Could you find a fellow writer who would be willing to compile your reviews in exchange for you compiling his/hers? That’s what I might do when my next novel is released next year.)

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