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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, May 27, 2012

How Writers Can Learn to Cope: 6 No-Fail Strategies for Achieving Mental Toughness

Thanks to all of you who voted for our blog in the Association of American Publishers and Goodreads Independent Book Blogger Awards. We made it to the Finalist list for Best Publishing Industry Blog. 10,000 people voted in a field of over 800 nominees. The winner in that category is the uber-awesome Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware, so we're in some pretty impressive company. Congratulations to Victoria! 

Also: Ruth has some HOT new covers for her books. Check them out in the sidebar.

Writers don’t tend to be tough people—but unfortunately, we’re in a tough business. We’re by nature a sensitive lot.  We’re more tuned-in than most people—a necessary quality for our craft.  But being open to stimuli also means we’re more open to hurt. How do we cope?

It’s a lot like learning to play guitar. You’ve got to build up some callouses in order to play in the band. The callouses are as important as learning to play the right notes. And you have to build them slowly--there are no shortcuts. That’s one of the reasons a first time writer shouldn’t immediately jump into the publishing fray. 

It’s not just about learning to write well. It’s about learning to fail well. (See my post on “Three Questions to Ask Before You Jump on the Indie Publishing Bandwagon”.)


By Ruth Harris

These are a few of the everyday, predictable set-backs that each and every writer is guaranteed to face:
  • You ARE going to get terrible reviews.
  • You WILL be rejected by the editor who “loves” you and your work.
  • Agents WILL diss you.
  • The book of your heart—the one you worked on for ten years—won’t find any takers.
  • Not even if you buy it a gorgeous cover, get lavish praise from famous writers and celebrities, self-pub it and give it away free.
  • No one wants it, no one “gets” it, no one—except you—gives a damn.
  • Yes, it can be lonely out there. Not to mention miserable. And depressing.

Unfortunately, it’s part of the job. Comes with the territory. Better get used to it and better figure out How To Snap Back.

That’s where mental toughness comes in. Not tough like Clint Eastwood packing heat and snarling, “You feeling lucky, punk?”

But tough like the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, the best reliever in baseball.

The New York Times explained:

“If a thick skin is the most important attribute a baseball closer can have, then Rivera is made out of leather. He holds the record for most career saves, has won five World Series titles and is thought by many to be among the most mentally tough athletes in baseball history. Nothing sticks to Rivera. Poor pitches are forgotten immediately, crushing losses go out with that day’s sweaty jersey. Rivera, long the Yankees’ safety net, is a master — the master — at moving on.”

The mental toughness that makes Rivera “the best” is a necessary quality for relievers—and for writers. If you get blocked or stymied at rejection, if you melt into a tearful/incoherent puddle at every bump and bruise, you need to develop a much tougher attitude.
The qualities I’m talking about include:

whatever the it is: your editor leaves & your book is stranded/orphaned, your agent fires you, your publisher goes bankrupt and everything you looked forward to—the ads, the TV appearances, the reviews, the copies in stores—ain’t gonna happen. No way Jose.

Solution: Think like Mariano. You blew the save? You gave up the game-winning home run? You walked in the winning run? In Game Seven of the World Series?

Remember the old Bud ad: Let it go, Louie.

One way or another, you need to regain your focus and move on: write the next book, think of a new ending for the old book, revise, rewrite, redouble your efforts.

2)  TENACITY & FLEXIBILITY. Call it stubbornness or stick-to-itiveness but, if you think you’ve got a good idea, don’t give up. If your book doesn’t work as a mystery, maybe it will if you write it as a comedy. If your screen play doesn’t find a home in the movies or tv, maybe you should turn it into a novel—which is exactly what Lee Goldberg did. (He's the creator of the great TV series Monk--A)

In his essay about the writing of KING CITY, recently published by Thomas & Mercer, Lee, details the long, obstacle-strewn path that led—finally—to success:

“KING CITY began as a TV series pitch that I took all over Hollywood four or five years ago. It generated some interest but ultimately didn't lead to anything.  So I put it in a drawer and moved on.”

But the idea nagged at him and Lee didn’t give up. He rewrote, revised, cut, expanded, outlined—and then he did it all over again. You can read his detailed account of the process here.

3)  FOCUS.  Mental toughness also means the ability to concentrate and to lay down rules.  Mariano Rivera did not allow himself to be distracted by crowd noise, an umpire’s bad call, shouted advice from leather-lunged fans or all the woulda’s-coulda’s-shoulda’s. Laser-like, he concentrated on the next pitch, the third strike and the last out.

Nora Roberts takes a similar approach: She was quoted as saying that her family knows that when she’s working, there are only two reasons to interrupt her: “blood or fire.” She’s one of the world’s best-selling writers, the author of 200 books and someone who obviously has a few good ideas about productive working conditions!

4)  MISTAKES, BAD DECISIONS & TUITION. Not someone else’s screw-up but your own. 
  • The terrible contract you signed. 
  • The agent-who-couldn’t-sell-Gone-With-The-Wind you chose to represent you. 
  • The undercapitalized small publisher who disappeared in the dead of night. 
If the cost of your own poor judgment is financial, think of the price as tuition.

You’ve certainly learned something, most of all about yourself and also about the sharks and incompetents to beware of. The cost of that expensive knowledge is financial loss. It’s the tuition you paid to learn a valuable lesson.

5)  HUMOR. Sometimes all you can do is laugh it off. Definitely a sign of mental strength. As a friend of mine—she’s a bestselling writer—once said when a guy she wasn’t even that crazy about dumped her: “Sometimes you can’t even get what you don’t even want.”

Black humor works wonders so don’t forget that looking through a noir lens can be a jolting brace of reality-adjustment (aka mental toughness).

Analyze the problem rationally and figure out coping strategies. You’ll feel much better.

Cozy mystery author Elizabeth S. Craig explains: “I’ve gone a step farther, too. Besides looking for data from reader emails, I’ve sought out and read my stinky reviews online…and analyzed them for a common thread. When I saw something mentioned repeatedly, I made a note of it. It’s not too hard to get past any hurt feelings when you’re being analytical—easier than it might seem, actually.”

Bottom line: Don’t wallow. Analyze!

Winston Churchill, who led England to victory in World War II, knew something about mental toughness: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Also from the Brits: Keep calm and carry on.

You’re tougher, more resilient and flexible, more able to laugh at yourself and the world around you than you might think. After all, as Carlos Castaneda said,
 “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

What about you, scriveners? Have you been able to develop mental toughness? Do you have any tricks to share with your fellow writers who might not have been around long enough to build those callouses on their souls? 

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Elizabeth's advice is perfect! I did just that with my first book - looked for the common threads of what I did wrong and used my second book to improve.
Humor is also an excellent way to handle it. I mean, what else are you going to do - cry?
And congratulations on being a blog finalist!

May 27, 2012 at 10:06 AM  
Blogger Kamille Elahi said...

OMG! A blog finalist?! That's awesome! Congrats!

Thanks for the advice. I know this is a very lonely place to be but I think I'm getting there.

I think number 5 is the best way to get through it. Laughter is the best medicine!

One teacher told me that if a rejection does hurt, "pretend it never happened and keep on looking forward"

I don't know if it's good advice or not but I guess it's a coping strategy. That advice has gotten me into trouble before though :(

May 27, 2012 at 10:11 AM  
Blogger Vanessa Kelly said...

Great blog, Ruth! I swear, it is 90% about mental toughness in the publishing game. When I experience a set back, I generally allow myself several hours to rant and rail about it but then that's it. Even if I still feel like crap, I pretend I don't. Pretty soon, that feeling turns into reality.

I also find that the best cure for rejection is to get the bit between my teeth and say, "I'll show those a**holes, and I sit down and force myself to write one thousand words. Getting new woods on the page is the best antidote for most writing ills.

May 27, 2012 at 10:23 AM  
Blogger Vanessa Kelly said...

Sheesh. New words, not new woods!

May 27, 2012 at 10:24 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Alex—Thank you. Elizabeth's advice is about using your brains to fight back. Never a bad idea!

And humor, of course. The blacker, the better. At least to my taste.

Kamille—With practice, you'll get there. Publishing will definitely give you many opportunities to practice!

I disagree with the "pretend" strategy because the next time—& we all know there's gonna be a next time, don't we?—you won't have even the beginning of the necessary callouses Anne refers to.

Vanessa—LOL I agree. Mental toughness even beats talent. Seriously. I know really talented writers who get so beaten down by publishing, they give up. It's sad & it's the reason Mental Toughness really really matters.

You are sooo right! Getting down some new words is the best Eff You in the world for writers.

May 27, 2012 at 10:37 AM  
Blogger Vera Soroka said...

I'm trying to get a tough hide on. I have not published yet. I am planning on self publishing. It makes me nervous sometimes given what I write(gay erotic romance) and I feel I might shock too many people or something, I don't know but it's what I love to write so will go a head and let the chips fall where they may.

May 27, 2012 at 10:52 AM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

I think too, Ruth, that as one matures, the things that pricked us when we were younger, don't even faze us anymore. A broken heart, a broken fingernail, they come, they go. We cry and get over it. The more mature we are, I think, the easier it is to let it go.

Rejections, bad reviews, bad agents, all fodder for the soul. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

I'm sure in my writing career I'll have many more rejections, many more bad reviews, but so what? It doesn't make me a "bad" writer, it just means that those people are obviously wrong about my writing. (Black humor does wonders.)

May 27, 2012 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Vera—If you feel apprehensive about the possible reaction to your work, is there any reason not to use a pseudonym (at least at first)? A pseudonym would give you a protective shield & might make it easier to write & publish.

Anne—Couldn't agree more. Experience is an excellent teacher.

Furthermore, they're more than "wrong." They're flipping idiots. And full of sh*t besides. Anyway, what do "they" know? lol

May 27, 2012 at 11:25 AM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

It is easy to get discouraged if you don't have a good attitude about the process. Once in a while I watch Idol and Face Off and a couple other reality shows that where talented people put themselves under extreme scrutiny. I admire their courage.

Being a published author is no less a tough business. Gotta remember, everyone who made it started out in the same situation; a writer with a story to sell.


May 27, 2012 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger Charley Robson said...

Thanks Ruth! I love the ones about moving on, and laughing it off - and especially the analysing one. Turning a bad experience into something constructive is probably, to me, one of the best ways to move on from the rubbish. Otherwise, you will mope. And that will suck.

Awesome post - thank you! :)

May 27, 2012 at 12:59 PM  
Blogger Leslie Rose said...

Every writer should give acting auditions a whirl to grow a thicker skin. There's nothing like walking in front of a table full of people staring at you that say, "Oh, God no," because you have the wrong "look." They send you packing before you even whip out your brilliant Shakespeare monologue.

May 27, 2012 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

Congratulations on being a finalists :):)

Thanks Ruth, this is exactly the type of advice we need ... I love the examples and relate to the sinking depression and the humor.

I might think of this writing thing as my mothering skills. I wasn't too sharp when they were in diapers, got a few gray hairs but was not as clueless by the time they were in high school, really got the hang of it when they were in college and survived to have a a few laughs when I became a grandmother. Oh, I get it now. Kids are work. Love it, don't give up ... laugh, cry and then wait for them (stories) to grow up and give you "perfect" grandchildren, multiple book deals :)

May 27, 2012 at 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Susan Tuttle said...

Awesome!! congrats on being a finalist. What an honor, and so well deserved!

As for developing calluses, nothing helps me more than a good critique group. Once a piece has gone through the group at least once (usually twice with rewrites), I've already heard all the negatives, found ways to deal with them, rewrote and improved, realized that everyone has an opinion (!), and gotten lots of support along the way.

As for the rest, I find chocolate helps. Lots of chocolate... And working on more than one piece at a time. So when one doesn't "make it," I am already invested in the nexxt one, which just might. Keeps hope alive and my eyes on the future, instead of the past.

May 27, 2012 at 3:31 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Donna—You've pointed out one of the definitions of courage. Perspective and the long view are essential. You're right, everyone starts out the same way and everyone who makes it, makes it via a different route.

Charley—Thank you for the kind words. All of these techniques have worked for me—the problem is picking the right one at the right time. A matter of trial & error.

Leslie—Fantastic! Actors have it much rougher than writers. They get rejected face to face & in person. We get a crappy letter or rejection form or just nothing at all. Still, as rejection goes, preferable to the ego crushing auditions actors have to deal with.

fOIS—Great analogy! Thank you! And, of course, explains why so many of us are grey. Or bald. lol

Susan—Thank you! Yes, a good critique group will do a great deal to help you figure out the problems, then the solutions.

Working on more than one piece at a time is excellent advice. If one gets bogged down, then just turn to the next. You feel productive and, when you return to the first piece, you often discover that whatever was bugging you has somehow disappeared.

May 27, 2012 at 5:02 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Thanks for the mention, Ruth. I love your advice here. I've found that hurt feelings don't get me anywhere but if I can turn bad reviews or rejection into something productive, it's not so bad. It's a tough business and a tough hide is necessary, unfortunately.

May 27, 2012 at 5:15 PM  
Blogger Patricia said...

We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong because it takes the same amount of effort for either of them. I LOVE THAT. I'm never going to forget that line.

May 27, 2012 at 5:47 PM  
Blogger Fiona Ingram said...

Thanks for this fantastic advice! I have been feeling very "what-the-hell-am-I-doing-this-for-ish?" for a few weeks now. Recently a hugely important Brit literary agent rejected my work. So, why am I upset if rejection is the name of the game? Because THEY asked to read it, in fact they approached me. I did what everyone said I should not do...anticipate the yes. It was good advice but the rejection came as a blow. Not sure why because I have had naysayers before. Anyway, this post has really perked me up. I keep remindng myself of all the best selling authors who started out feeling with many rejections and problems.

May 27, 2012 at 11:28 PM  
Anonymous Portland Search Engine Optimization said...

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May 28, 2012 at 6:28 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Elizabeth—I loved YOUR advice—It was one of the thoughts that helped inspire the theme for the blog. Using your lousy reviews in a productive way is really really helpful— a way to actually learn something, to turn a negative into a positive & in the process mend ruffled feathers & hurt feelings. A perfect example of creativity.

Patricia—I agree. So simple yet so true. Nothing short of brilliant!

Fiona—In Dr. Harris's opinion, you're upset because you're human & you're feeling jerked around. Who the h*ll knows why they wanted it & then decided they didn't want it? The brutal, real truth is that REJECTION is part of the writer's job description. You have to learn to deal with it one way or another. That's why Mental Toughness is as important for writers as for actors & relief pitchers.

My earlier post on rejection might offer a bit of non-alcoholic, non-fattening relief:

May 28, 2012 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger christine A said...

Congratulations on being a finalist! Very impressive and well deserved. Thanks for this great post. We do need to be reminded that the much longed for road we have chosen is a tough one. But...what ya gonna do? When you have a creative spirit you must create. I also do fine art and used to own an art gallery. Had to turn down many artists. I knew my rejection of them was not personal or the final word on their talent so can feel that way about my own rejections. Not personal and never the final word.

May 28, 2012 at 9:00 AM  
Blogger Tasha Seegmiller said...

Holy cow, talk about a great post to read when first finding your blog. This is amazing advice! I look forward to what else you have to share.

May 28, 2012 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Christine—thank you for the kind words. You last thought should be displayed prominently on every writer's wall: Not personal and never the final word.

Tasha—Welcome! So glad you found us & we look forward to your future comments.

May 28, 2012 at 10:54 AM  
Blogger Alicia Street said...

Fabulous post, Ruth! You are your usual brilliant self. And do I ever know what you're talking about. This is one post to archive and check regularly.

May 28, 2012 at 6:52 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Alicia—Thanks! Hope it helps because whatever I "know" about mental toughness I learned (& relearned) the hard way!

May 29, 2012 at 5:21 AM  
Anonymous Dana Taylor said...

Hi Ruth-- Great words of wisdom. I like to think of this whole publishing thing as a Great Game and I'm playing for the fun. If it isn't fun--but becomes soul crushing, what is the point?

Dana Taylor

May 29, 2012 at 12:25 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Dana—You're right: fun is essential. Important to keep in mind or, as you say, the whole endeavor is pointless.

Also important to remember that fun is a crucial aspect of creativity.

May 29, 2012 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger Meghan Ward said...

I love Elizabeth Craig's advice to analyze bad reviews for common threads. I do that with rejections from agents.

I feel like I have a tough skin already, but time will tell once my book is published. I can imagine how painful negative reviews must be, especially for a memoir, and I am not looking forward to that!

May 29, 2012 at 10:13 PM  
Blogger Tracy said...

Congrats on being a finalist! This blog deserves every single kudo it gets. :)

And great post on what it takes. I'm all about point #2: Be as strong and sure as an oak, and flexible as the willow. ;)

May 30, 2012 at 7:47 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Tracy—Well said! In fact, perfect!

May 30, 2012 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Laura Pauling said...

Love this! I love the part about being analytical and how to approach the next book or the next effort differently!

May 30, 2012 at 5:46 PM  
Blogger Christine Monson said...

This advice came at the right time. I feel much better. Thank You, Thank you, Thank you...

May 31, 2012 at 5:18 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Laura—Thanks! Being analytical about harsh reviews really does help break through the negativity & transforms it into something positive & useful. Maybe Freud was on to something!

Christine--So glad I reached you at just the right moment so thank YOU!

May 31, 2012 at 7:00 AM  
Blogger LK Watts said...

A brilliant piece of advice! I had a rather difficult childhood, I'll spare you the details, don't worry, but I often think that's had an impact on my attitude to life now. Sometimes I'll see people tying themselves in knots about trivial matters and I wonder how they'd ever cope with life's bigger problems. As the old saying goes: 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'

May 31, 2012 at 8:00 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

LK--Definitely agree with 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'
Will also add that Practice Makes (almost) perfect.

IME as you go along in your career, you will get much better at dealing with the setbacks & reversals. You will learn to cut those suckers down to size.

May 31, 2012 at 10:48 AM  
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June 2, 2012 at 11:25 PM  
Blogger Sandy Nathan said...

Great article. I'm going to memorize it as soon as I finish posting this. There's another way to handle the pain of the writing life––distraction. I've gotten myself a boyfriend (or am in the process thereof). Yes, I am extremely married and plan on staying that way. My prospective boy friend is 58" high, has blond hair, and the cutest little hooves. He's adorable. After sitting in front of my computer since 1995, publishing 6 books, achieving moderate success, and watching my hips spread beyond alarmingly . . . (Do you think the pain in my hands is carpal tunnel? I suspect so.) I had a huge personal breakthrough and decided to go back to what gave me pleasure during the first half of my life––my horse. We're going shopping this week. If blondie doesn't work out, I can always look for a brunette or redhead. I may still write. Well, actually, I started writing "The Horse Book" that my agent ordered me to write years ago. When I didn't right then, the agent dumped me. Always remember, your horse will never dump you, unless he does. His won't be metaphorical.

June 3, 2012 at 10:01 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sandy--Ruth's suggestions are so very helpful, aren't they? Congratulations on your new romance. I'm sure he'll help your hips and your carpal tunnels. Have yourself some fun. The best medicine of all!

June 3, 2012 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris / Michael Harris said...

Sandy—Two other things about horses: 1) A carrot will shut them up & 2) since they haven't read 50 shades of Grey, they're not confused about what a whip is for.

June 3, 2012 at 10:51 AM  
Anonymous T.K. Marnell said...

Unfortunately, no matter how much you think you're prepared for failure, you never are until it actually happens. When I self-published my first book, I told myself I had realistic expectations. I didn't expect to be a millionaire or anything; I just wanted a thin trickle of sales each month for pocket change that could potentially grow into a career. But when the dismissive reviews started pouring in and I made only one or two sales in the first few months, it was tough. More than tough. My SO literally blocked LibraryThing on my computer for a while.

And then when you think you've gotten used to it--you've taken every punch anyone could throw--someone comes up with another one. I never expected to see just as many refunds as sales. I never expected to be down-rated by people who dislike the entire genre, and then leave positive comments about the quality of writing. I certainly never imagined that anyone would deliberately make an Amazon account to leave a single one-star review of my book and basically tank it in Britain with one blow (and yes, four months later, it's still the only review they've written).

When I publish my next one, I'm sure I'll have to take swings from directions I didn't even know existed. Don't listen to anyone who says that all you need to do to be successful is to write good books. It's 99% luck, and you have to work your butt off to hang on to that last 1%. I don't know why writers are stereotyped as artsy and wishy-washy; we need skins of steel to survive.

June 5, 2012 at 4:39 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

TK--This just came through and I had to respond right away. You sure had more than your share of "toughening up" lessons all at once. Sorry you had to go through that. Unfortunately, it's the negative people and the "insult ferrets" who go out of their way to write awful reviews, and people who love your book somehow never find the time to leave a couple of lines of positive feedback. I love your last line. It's so true!

June 5, 2012 at 9:18 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

TK—You're right. It's a helluva lot more than "just" writing a good book & I agree that luck (which is uncontrollable & capricious) is crucial.

I was just watching the Tsonga-Djokovic tennis match (French Open). Novak was down 2 sets & 15,000 French fans were screaming for Tsonga but, in a five setter, Novak played gritty & came back to win. In the post-game review, he was asked: Where did you get the mental strength? He replied that 1) it was years of experience & 2)learning to control his nerves.

I was thinking about this post as I watched the match & listened to the interview, then came to my computer to find your comment. What Novak (a bright guy) said seemed relevant to your comment. Athletes & artists do need "skin of steel" as you so succinctly put it. It's developed over time and no one is saying it's easy or that it feels good. It feels horrible many times but it's absolutely essential if you want to pursue your career.

At least writers can curse, rail & fume in private. At least we don't have 15,000 fans screaming in support of some other writer!

June 5, 2012 at 11:49 AM  
Blogger Jaison Black said...

I absolutely love this post. I'm releasing my first novel later this month and have been reading every post you've made on this blog.

I have printed this out and will be reading it every day as I brush my teeth and prepare for the day.

August 15, 2012 at 5:09 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Jason—Thank you! I'm delighted you're finding my blogs a help. I can write them only because I've been through it all—more than once!

Congratulations on your new book & the best of luck with it.

August 15, 2012 at 10:30 AM  

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