Fear is not something often talked about in conjunction with writing. But after receiving (yet another) partial manuscript request from an agent today, fear is very much at the forefront of my mind.
When I was starting out writing, I was always hysterically happy about partial or full requests. Someone likes my work! Lots of requests mean it’s a matter of time before representation, right?
That’s what everyone around me said (and still says), but in my heart, I don’t believe it’s true.
I’ve had about 50 rejections on this manuscript, and about half of those have been based on partial or full manuscript rejections. Agents are only human, and they make requests and scrutinize manuscripts with their own kind of jaded cynicism.
If you kick a dog in a cage enough times, the dog will cease being vicious and simply become apathetic and afraid, a state of affairs known as ‘learned helplessness’. Learned helplessness is caused by a combination of pain and the inability to escape that pain… and unpublished writers are, quite literally, powerless in their dealings with agents and publishers. We can’t set deadlines without being thought of as rude. ‘Wannabe’ writers are regularly mocked by industry professionals on social media, sometimes deservedly, other times not. You can’t call, you can’t make any demand. You submit and wait anywhere between two weeks and two years for confirmation that your work is worthy – or more often that it ‘doesn’t grab me enough for me to work with it’. It is painful. You can’t tell them why they’re wrong. That’s ‘unprofessional’. It is a system purposely created to disempower. I now expect punishment, so whenever an agent emails me back, I don’t get excited: I cringe.
This isn’t leading into some kind of pro-self publishing talk, either. Self-publishing is just as fearsome. It is the ultimate gambit. Your book can be the most amazing thing ever written, but you are tossing your glass of champagne into a sea of piss. Maybe it’s 1/4th champagne, but no one can tell unless you point to the patch where your book is and scream ‘look!’. I have decided to self-publish this first manuscript, and while I am excited, I am fearful.
Being looked at is frightening. Not being looked at is frightening. This paradox is one of many that we contend with as authors.
I remember reading a variation of this quote in a Harry Potter book when I was in my late teens. It’s the only thing that ever really stuck with me – the notion that courage is persisting through fear, not the absence of fear. I grew up thinking that brave people were fearless, but they’re not. They are afraid and do it anyway.
I think all writers have to be pretty brave, by that standard.