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Fear Factor

By Sally Stich

A conversation a year ago with a writer friend from Philadelphia sticks in my head. We are having lunch in Denver, where she is scheduled to do a short gig on one of our local newscasts. I ask her how her writing is going. “You know,” she says, “I did a business plan which was good, but then realized 99% of the ideas I had in my idea file didn’t fit my plans and goals.” In the blink of an eye, she adds, she was consumed with fear, convinced she was becoming a has-been.

Of course, her story has a good ending. Fear could’ve paralyzed her; instead it propelled her to finding ideas and markets in line with her goals. But her story makes a point many of us writers can relate to: our chosen profession is rife with terrifying moments-some personal, some not, but all scary. An editor who praises our words quits and we’re left with a new editor who already has a stable she loves. (Will I ever sell to that magazine again?) Several of our great ideas are rejected over and over.(Have I lost my mojo?) An editor with whom we thought we had a great relationship suddenly stops returning our calls. (What did I do to offend her?) And sometimes all of these things happen in a 30-day span.

Yeah, yeah, you say, that’s life in the sales world. But what we’re selling is more closely tied to our egos than most products. If a new editor replaces an old familiar one, if an editor suddenly ignores us, if our ideas don’t work (or don’t seem to work – we all know there are a variety of reasons for rejection), we can’t help but take it personally. Desperation, a second cousin to fear, is rarely far behind.

And yet, endemic though it may be to our profession, perhaps fear is there for a reason – if we use it properly. A friend of mine got an assignment for a short piece for a knitting magazine she’d been trying to conquer. Her success headed south when she turned in the piece only to have the editor say, “I’m so sorry I just found out another editor assigned a similar piece and we already accepted it.” Personal? Hardly. Unfair? Definitely! Unusual? Not as unusual as we’d like. Her emotions fluctuated between anger and desperation. “I’d been trying for a year to crack this market and at first, it seemed impossible and then it happened, and then it blew up in my face,” she says. But two weeks of wallowing in desperation mixed with a healthy dose of anger took her to new heights. “If the idea was so good that they’d already assigned it, I figured I’d try their competitor – an even bigger better paying market that I’d always considered out of my league (fear again!),” she says, “and, guess what? I sold it!”

Successful writers use fear-and desperation-as a motivator (after licking their wounds, of course). They know that part of being in sales means accepting rejection, being ignored and having their product changed at times until it’s unrecognizable. They also know that when things seem bleakest, it’s time to stop wallowing and start moving.

That’s perhaps the biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful writers, besides good ideas and good-enough writing. Successful writers use fear to their advantage. Just as my friend did an Internet search for markets in line with her new goals and sent out fifty letters of introduction (and heard back from 8), so must any of us who wants to avoid being a has-been use the fear factor to keep us afloat.

Why? Because let’s face it, the alternative is paralysis or really bad  decisions. I’ve talked to writers so desperate to make a sale to a particular market, they negotiated horrendous deals. I’ve also talked to writers who, in the midst of slow times, became paralyzed ,reciting a mantra of controlled terror. “Nobody will ever buy from me again,” they moan, “My ideas just don’t work.” “Snap out of it!” I want to say.” An editor can smell fear a mile away and it never enhances a negotiation.”

So, how do I factor fear into my chosen profession? After 20 years of periodically going through the usual routine (“I’ll never sell another story, ” “I’m a lousy writer, ” “My ideas suck,”),I turned fear into my pal. When I found myself feeling complacent a few years back, wondering if I’d ever write a story that was more than just a paycheck, I took an assignment from an editor for whom I’d never written about a topic on which I knew nothing. Talk about fear! But I loved every minute of it. The element of terror kept me on edge. Maturity kept me from destroying myself. (After all, the worst that could happen would be that my story was rejected. I could finally live with that.) And for the first time in a long time, writing was actually fun. Well, not fun fun, but a challenge worth getting up for each morning.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do something that scares you every day.” It’s without doubt, the best antidote to complacency and a great way to keep us at the top of our game-even in the midst of being ignored, rejected and rewritten.

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