Nothing to Lose: 3 Steps to Beat the Writer’s Biggest Fear

Being an author isn’t just about writing and publishing and selling books. It’s about mindset. It’s about desire. And it’s about conquering the fear of losing everything you worked so hard for. The fear of losing the joy.

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A good friend wrote her first novel around the same time I wrote my first. She’d had a lot of fun writing it, and when she was finished and found that it was good, she’d decided to self-publish it. Fortunately, she came in during that golden age when self-publishing was shedding its stigmas and the Kindle was turning e-books into a cool commodity. Like me, she soon won the attention of a publisher, who offered her a contract and re-issued her novel. It continued to do well.

However, she has yet to publish a second.

The most common misconception people have about authors and publishing is that everyone has a Stephen King or EL James level of success. They think we become instant millionaires, quit our jobs after we sign the contract, and live free and clear.

The truth is that the majority of authors sell fewer than 10,000 units per year. We keep our day jobs. We raise families and struggle to make ends meet while we also carve out time to write the next novel, and the next. Even with four or five books under our belt.

I was one of the lucky ones. For the first five years since resigning from my teaching position, I’ve been able to make a living. But I confess: were it not for my husband, I would have been pounding the pavement for additional employment this year. And that’s with 10 books and seven translations. My husband tells a similar story: “I used to say I was an author who occasionally worked a pipeline job. Now I’m a pipeline worker who occasionally writes novels.”

I thought it would get easier. It seems to be getting harder. And I had to come to terms with that this year.

As for my friend, I totally get where she is coming from. And I think many authors, in one form or another, have been where she is. Like her, writing my first book was fun. I spent more time writing it than any other novel to date—not only because I was teaching a full course-load, but also because I was under no pressure to publish. Thus, I could revise it, share it with critique groups, and revise it again. Faking It had already been two years old when I started querying literary agents. It was four years old when I first self-published it. Five years old when it hit the big time. And six years old when it was reissued and hit yet again.

When I’d first self-published it in paperback, I’d sold less than fifty copies in six months, and thought that was a terrific start. When I uploaded it to Kindle and sold 73 copies in the first month, I was ecstatic. (I sold only 12 the second month.) Every sale was a celebration. Day by day, I continued to promote and sell it, all while writing the second novel, and starting the third. And still enjoying the process.

In short, I had nothing to lose. Neither did my friend with her first novel. Or my husband with his first. Which made their successes that much more exhilarating.

But after the success—after that first contract, when now you’re tracking more than sales and rankings, your outlook changes.

Because now, there’s a demand for a second novel. And a third and a fourth. A demand for better numbers. And more followers. And you need to get it done and published as quickly as possible to keep up the momentum and not to lose your followers.

And there’s the magic word again: lose. Because this time, you have a lot to lose. And if you did quit your job, then you have even more to lose.

Suddenly, 72 sales per month is nothing to celebrate. It’s something to lament, to worry about, to lose sleep over.

Suddenly, you’re in the business of writing and publishing. And for some, that’s when it stops being fun.

Being an author isn’t just about writing and publishing and selling books. It’s about mindset. It’s about desire. And it’s about conquering the fear of losing everything you worked so hard for. The fear of losing the joy.

So how do you maintain the joy and relieve the fear?

By knowing what you want.

It’s OK to keep writing books as a hobby. It’s OK to publish them on your own time and schedule and appreciate every sale you get.

It’s OK to stop at one book and appreciate the ride it took you on.

It’s OK to want more success, and to set goals and make a plan to achieve them.

It’s OK to want to maintain the momentum.

As long as that’s what you want.

And as long as you also remember why you started writing in the first place.

You started writing because you enjoyed it. Because you loved the process. Because you loved the escape. Because you loved the story you were telling, and the characters that came into your life, and the conversations they had. You started writing because you couldn’t not do it.

Because you had nothing to lose.

And the mindset to maintain, difficult as it may be, is to act as if you still have nothing to lose, even if you have everything to lose.

So how do you do that?

 

  1. Gratitude

Give thanks for every book sold—even if you’ve only sold one per month. Give thanks for the reader who took the time to post a review, even if it was unfavorable. Give thanks for the reader who took the time to write you a personal note of thanks, telling you how much they loved your book. Give thanks for the fun you had when you wrote it, for all those who helped you birth it—editors, beta readers, distributors, friends who told their friends to buy it.

Gratitude is the reminder of why you keep doing what you do. What’s more, gratitude keeps the worrying at bay, because gratitude also keeps you in the present moment. You don’t judge how well or poorly it’s doing, whether it’s better or worse than your last book, whether it’s better or worse than someone else’s book that is selling more. You simply appreciate what it is, where it is, how it is, and that it is.

 

  1. Positive Aspects

 When I fear loss, I begin listing all the positive aspects of my current situation, such as:

I’m not at the place where I need to look for additional employment. Even if I was, I know I will be OK because I can keep writing if I want to.

I’ve already had the kind of success many writers dream of and beyond what I imagined.

I am paying my bills each month, and I have a beautiful home in a lovely neighborhood in a majestic part of the country. But I also know how to live in a two-bedroom apartment if need be.

I remember that the most important thing is to live joyfully, regardless of which form that takes.

Positive aspects pivot you away from worry to better feeling thoughts, including gratitude, and help you see your situation in a different, better perspective. As Wayne Dyer says, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

 

  1. Affirmations

Affirmations keep you aligned with your desires. I always structure mine in the present tense:

I am making a sustainable living as a full-time novelist.

I am a thriving author who publishes and sells books.

I give thanks for every sale and every reader.

It’s fun to be a writer and an author.

I bring joy to everything I do.

In fact, one of my repeated affirmations is Jerry Greenfield’s (of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame):

if it's not fun graphic

You’ll be surprised as the pressures begin to melt away, or, if not disappear altogether, diminish greatly, freeing you from the fear that is stopping you of writing your next book, or moving forward in a way that is in alignment with what you want. It’s all about breaking free of that fear. It’s all about the mindset.

What is The Writer’s Habit?

Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

Knowledge, Skill, and Desire

It took me at least seven years to finish my book The Writer’s Habit. I knew I wanted to write a book predominantly for aspiring novelists using a rhetorical approach rather than a literary one. (That is, focusing on elements like audience, purpose, genre, stance, and style rather than plot, theme, symbolism, climax, and exposition.) That’s not to say one is better than the other. But, given my training in rhetoric and composition, it made more sense for me to approach novel writing from that perspective.

What I struggled with, however, was how to put the information together in a way that neither felt too textbook-y nor too I’m-trying-to-be-OnWriting.

It wasn’t until this year, as I was finally finishing the book, that I found the angle, the way to tie everything together. I had unearthed my copy of Stephen Covey’s renowned The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and read the first pages as a refresher. Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

And so, I organizing the book accordingly.

Knowledge (what to do)

In this section, I give a basic overview of the definition of rhetoric, its origins, and how to apply the rhetorical situation. I also discuss into writing for audience (and when to ignore them), writing what you know (and its sometimes misunderstood meaning), and the assertion that “writers write.”

 

Skill (how to do it)

Here is where theory meets practice. The most comprehensive section of the book, I introduce the craft of storytelling in which I feature these key components: narration and description, intention and obstacle, story structure, character development, dialogue, and setting. Many of this blog’s future posts will highlight lessons or features of each.

Additionally, I discuss the writing process, including drafting, organization and arrangement, stylistics, revision, and editing.

As with music and sports, the more you practice, the better you get.

Desire (wanting to do it)

The more I speak to aspiring writers, the more I believe that desire is what holds many of them back. And it’s not necessarily that they don’t want to do it, it’s that they’re afraid to do it. They’re afraid of not having the time, not being good enough, or old enough, or young enough, or rich enough, or smart enough, and so on. They fear failure. They fear success. They’re unwilling to persist. They’re unwilling to learn. They’re unwilling to commit. I say that not as a judgment, but as the reaction to that fear. I’ve been there, if not in the creative or the writing aspect, then certainly in the commitment as an entrepreneur.

This section of the book also touches on the business of being a published writer. I’ve learned even more since publishing The Writer’s Habit, and I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.

Desire is the aspect of The Writer’s Habit that I tend to be most passionate about (although I definitely geek out when talking craft, process, and heck even just simple rhetorical situation stuff). And you’ll see why when I begin unveiling the online courses.

Overall, I aim not to teach writers to write, but to develop and master the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire so that writing becomes a habit, regardless of the scope. And what I love is that its lessons are quite versatile.

Moreover, I don’t want to only share my successes, but also my mistakes. Like anyone else, I’ve made them, and I’ve come to see them as necessary stepping stones on the path toward actualizing my goals as a writer and an author.

 

The bottom line: I want The Writer’s Habit—and this companion blog—to convey the joy that is inherent in my writing as well as my process. Joy doesn’t necessarily mean the happy-feel-goods. Writing—especially as a job and a profession, can be arduous or laborious at times. In fact, sometimes it can be downright tedious and discouraging. But I can think of no better gig than one that allows me to use my imagination, connect with readers and other writers, and navigate through this life journey with humor, depth, and wordsmithing. I’m a lucky woman.

 

 Activity/Discussion: Do you see writing as a habit? How do you combine knowledge, skill, and desire? Do you think you need more practice or development in one of those components? Please respond in the comments!

Have you seen my author website? I invite you to visit and sign up for my author mailing list. You can also sign up here for The Writer’s Habit mailing list!

the writers habit cover

5 Helpful Tips to Make Your Author Blog Effective

I was trying so hard to win readers with gimmicks that I didn’t think about what they really needed or what was of value to them. I may have had a purpose in terms of gaining more readers and, eventually, more book sales, but the blog itself still had no clear purpose. It had no theme. It had no rhetorical situation. And I had no fun with any of it.

I’m a published novelist. So what do I blog about?

Confession: I’ve been asking that question for ten years.

Since 2007, I’ve been trying to figure out the purpose of my author blog, what it was about, and whom it was for. In other words, I’ve been trying to figure out the rhetorical situation.

In the early days, before I published my first novel, countless articles about publishing told me I needed a blog—more specifically, I needed a “platform.” In the dating world, it’s known as “putting yourself out there.”

Yeah, I hated that expression with a passion when I was single.

In the world of authors, it meant building a following of readers so that when you submitted your manuscript to literary agents or editors, you could assure them that your books would sell, that you already had a tribe who loved your words and would read anything you published. And if you self-published, you already had a prime selling location: your blog.

It was way easier to do this if you were a nonfiction author with a specific product or idea you were writing about, such as dating or how to self-publish a book. If you wrote novels in a specific genre, such as science fiction or chick lit, you could possibly draw on related topics, such as Star Wars or the five best date outfits. But for most people who wrote fiction, they were kind of adrift.

In a way, blogging as a novelist is much like rhetoric in that it’s a subject that encompasses all other subjects.

And something happened. The Internet became saturated with blogs. And social networking took over. Suddenly everyone was way more interested in the photos of your snickerdoodles than in the ramblings of your mind. Digital publishing was the other game-changer. Your success as an author relied on the perfect synchronization of writing a good novel, digitally publishing it, selling it cheaply, and social media spreading the word for you. That’s certainly how it happened for me.

The blog became irrelevant. Or so it seemed.

My blog went through several incarnations. First, I thought it was for writing teachers. Then I thought it was for writing students. Then I decided to make it for novel readers—specifically, my novel readers. But I still got stuck. Who were my readers? Why would they want to read my blog? What did I have to say that was of value to them? What topics would I discuss? My writing life? My Duranie life? My single life, and now married life? And even if yes to all of the above, why?

My blog floundered. I wrote inconsistently. Scatteredly. When I felt like it or had something to say that was longer than 140 characters or a Facebook post.

Late last year, as book sales plummeted, I panicked. I needed to win back my readership and, more desperately, my royalties. So I started reading everything I could about content and social media marketing. And what kept coming up? Blogging.

And yet, when I asked my author friends about it, they were all in the same boat I was. Having already established their readership through book sales, they either no longer had the time or saw the point of blogging, except maybe a guest post around the time of a book launch. Even the blog tour lost its appeal. As my friend and fellow author Tyler Dilts said, “It seems very 2007 to me.”

Nevertheless, I tried to resuscitate my blog. I tried to establish multiple series: A Year With Nora Ephron. Ask the Author. 7 Things.

Meh.

Some of my most popular posts had been about my relationship with my husband, back when we were doing all the really romantic stuff like falling in love and long distance dating and getting engaged. So I tried writing about those things again.

Crickets. Now that I was married, it was anti-climactic, like when your two favorite characters in your favorite TV show finally get together, and the ratings drop.

Something was missing from all this blogging: joy. And, to an extent, authenticity.

And here’s the irony about trying to build a following: you have to do it without making it your primary goal. It’s kind of like when writing your first draft, you have to ignore your audience.

I was trying so hard to win readers with gimmicks that I didn’t think about what they really needed or what was of value to them. I may have had a purpose in terms of gaining more readers and, eventually, more book sales, but the blog itself still had no clear purpose. It had no theme. It had no rhetorical situation. And I had no fun with any of it. I saw it as time-consuming, directionless, and ineffective. And I gave up on it yet again.

When I took Jeff Goins’s webinar (which persuaded me to sign up for his Intentional Blog course), a lot of participants had the same question: I’m a fiction writer. What do I blog about? It’s still a tough question to answer. But after taking the course and thinking closely about rhetorical situation, here are the five things I think you need to do in order to answer it.

 

  1. Get very clear about why or if you really want a blog.

Do you want one because someone influential said you need one? Will it somehow supplement your novels? Would it support or showcase your worldview? Is it a way to connect with your novel readers? If so, in what way?

If the answer is I don’t know, then I recommend you not start or continue with a blog. Ditto and especially if the answer is because I’m supposed to. That’s never been a good answer to anything.

 

  1. Create value.

If you’re certain you want and need an author blog, then the next thing to determine is whether your blog has value. Are your readers learning something? Are they being entertained? Motivated? Inspired? Are they getting something for free, like a new short story every week? Or maybe they’re sharing one of your passions, like books or music, something that is a staple of the novels you write. Whatever it is, your readers need a reason for visiting your blog post after post, week after week, especially given that they’re bombarded every minute with news feeds, articles, images, videos, ads, and more. Something has to be in it for them. They need to feel appreciated. Validated. Thought of. They need to be treated like a guest in your home or a customer in your store. For so long I had failed to do that. I had thought of them as means to an end. So, so wrong.

 

  1. Narrow and clarify your focus.

In order to give your readers something of value, you need to think of what you want to say and to whom. In other words, you need to focus on a particular theme or worldview. Here’s what especially tripped me up when it came to identifying myself as a novelist and my blog for readers of my novels. What the heck did I have to say? Hadn’t my novels already said it? Isn’t that why I wrote novels in the first place?

Here’s an example. The theme that most often occurs in my novels is authenticity. Yet, I wasn’t sure how to express that as a worldview, or how to approach it in terms of subject matter or posts. Moreover, I didn’t know if I wanted to. (Funny, as I write this, I’m getting ideas now. However, it’s still not exciting enough to officially take my author blog in this direction. Yet.)

 

  1. Love it.

And while we’re on the subject of authenticity, no matter what you write about or why or for whom, you need to love it. Love your subject. Love the act of writing. Love your readers. Love the connections you’re making. Love the message. Love the meaning. Love the purpose. Otherwise your readers will see right through you.

I had no love or desire for my author blog anymore. And when I came to that realization, I knew for sure it was time to let it go indefinitely. It wasn’t easy to do so, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

 

  1. Focus on one reader.

Finally, when it comes to determining your audience. Rather focusing on the hundreds of thousands of readers you want to attract, instead, take a page out of Mr. Rogers’s playbook and concentrate on one reader. When I watch Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, I feel like he’s speaking to me and me alone. Even now, as an adult! That’s because when he looked into the camera, he didn’t imagine himself talking to scores of children; he focused only on one child. I take this same approach when writing my novels. First and foremost, I always write for me. But I also envision one intended reader, usually someone I know. Even now, as I write this post, I have a reader in mind.

Bottom line: It’s OK to come to the conclusion and make the decision to be a novelist without a blog. I understand the fear of doing so, especially when everyone is telling you this is what you’re supposed to be doing. But here’s the thing: if it can’t serve your readers, then it can’t serve you. Moreover, to quote Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream fame, “If it’s not fun, why do it?” But if you become clear on your rhetorical situation: your purpose, audience, topic, and approach, and you love just about every aspect of it, then blog away.

 

Activity/Discussion: Do you have a favorite novelist who blogs regularly? If so, what does s/he blog about? What keeps you coming back to it? Can you identify their rhetorical situation? If so, in what ways are they achieving it? I invite you to share your answers in the Comments.

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