Fight or flight, fear and failure

Do you want to know my number one writing fear? Writing this blog entry.

Ha, ha. I’m mostly kidding. I have panic disorder, so “confronting my fears” is something I do with a lot of preparation and self-care. However, I feel like I might share my number one writing fear with pretty much every debut author who ever waltzed on to the scene, so I don’t feel alone in this.

I’m afraid my book won’t do well. I’m afraid of failure.

That’s it. That’s all.

It’s a lot.

Debut authors have a certain mystique, don’t they? Before your launch date, you can be anything—the biggest thing since Rowling, or the loudest bomb since Battlefield Earth. Unless you’re a celebrity with a rabid fanbase, it’s impossible to tell. Publishers offer deals based on extremely educated guesses involving the quality of the book, the popularity of the author, the zeitgeist upon which the project might be coasting, and a twisty bunch of proprietary math. And unless your book is a runaway success and needs a bunch of new printings, you won’t know how well you did for at least six months (when the bookstores make their first round of returns and decide whether or not to keep your book on the shelves). That’s a lot of pressure, especially for writers who have been dreaming of becoming a professional author since before they knew people needed jobs.

You know. People like us.

Some time ago, I left a job because of some very valid reasons. I was unable to get a new job in my field, and started freelancing again to pay the bills—which is when I landed my book deal. Thanks to a supportive partner, I was able to spend the next year focusing on the contracted sequel. What I forgot, though, was that being an unsuccessful freelancer as well as as-yet-unpublished novelist is tantamount to having gaps in your resume, and once you’re in your late thirties and female, having gaps in your resume is basically career suicide. On top of that, having my wonderful, delightful baby has created yet another gap in my Swiss cheese resume. For me, Architects of Memory simply has to be successful—because, otherwise, what else will I be able to do? Where will I go? Who will I be? How will I support my family?

If my book doesn’t do well—if I can’t sell enough copies to get another contract—I’m not sure I’m going to be able to go back to my other career. I’ll be a failure. A complete failure. That thought is scarier than any vampire or werewolf or zombie lurking in the dark.

Gulp.

But then I breathe.

And breathe again.

One of the best things about treating your panic disorder is that it makes you really good at breathing. It also makes you good at processing, facing, and dumping your fears. Fear is just a response to a stimulus—it’s fight or flight, and the stimulus you’re so worried about is rarely real. I find it helpful to smile at myself in the mirror, and then separate what I can control from what I can’t, then dump the stuff I can’t control off the side of a mental cliff. I remind myself: there’s no rabid monster out to get me. And if I don’t have to run screaming into the forest, I can turn around, take a breath, and make a plan.

When you’re a debut, there are so many things out of your control. The cover. The marketing plan. The needs of book distributors. The similar authors from other publishers that have the same pub date. Other authors that are debuting with you that might have had better this or better that. Oh, also—did you know that in most publishing contracts (and most contracts in general) there’s an Act of God clause? Yep. You can’t control hurricanes or terrorism or wildfires that might have an effect on your launch. I’m already planning on buying copies of the books that come out on Election Day next year, because wow, those poor people.

So, from a person who knows: hands off of the stuff you can’t control. Don’t even try. Close the door. As a bunch of us xennial nerds say, burninate it.

Because there are things you can control. There are a lot of things you can control. You can keep your eyes on your own paper. You have your social media—you can grow your brand there, network with writers and reviewers, or just make the kinds of funny shitposts that your readers like. You can do some of your own publicity. You can seek out interviews and practice for them. And, more than anything, you have control over the most important thing: writing the next book, and the next one, and the one after that, and being prepared for the next adventure. You can remind yourself—as I am reminding myself, because I have been here, oh, have I been here, ask me about Florida someday—that failure’s not the end.

Failure’s a powerful fear. But you don’t have to let it rule in your house. You don’t even have to let it inside. You can slam the door in its face and invite Reality instead. She’s a much more polite houseguest.

Just breathe.

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Karen Osborne

KAREN OSBORNE is a writer, visual storyteller and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny and Fireside. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tor Books.

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