To all the Charlie Browns out there

JA Konrath wrote an excellent blog on April 23, about how writers should exude confidence:

We all have lapses in confidence. It’s human. But if you want to have a writing career, DON’T SHOW WEAKNESS IN PUBLIC.

Charlie Brown isn’t a good marketer. Sure, we can all identify with being the loser. Especially if we’re at a signing and only one person shows up, or if we get dropped by our publisher, or if we don’t win that big award we were nominated for, et cetera ad nauseum. Writers are magnets for bad luck. And publicly denigrating ourselves may get us a measure of sympathy.

Unfortunately, sympathy doesn’t sell books. Stephen King is not a bestseller because people feel sorry for him. King is a winner. Winners tend to keep winning. He knows it, and the world agrees.

The secret to being a winner is confidence. Since most of us lack in this department, being sensitive artist types, we have to learn to fake confidence.

Of course he’s right.  And I guess I’m pretty good at faking confidence.  But the truth is, I’ve always felt like Charlie Brown.  

The publishing industry excels at making you feel like a loser.  Although I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of success, the journey to this point has been a gantlet of nasty reviewers and rigid bean counters and grumpy readers wielding clubs, ready to whack you over the head.  So it’s no surprise that any writer who’s had a slow climb to the bestseller lists (it took me till book #10, if you count my romances) will arrive at that destination called “success” feeling a little bruised and very uncertain about how long she can stay.  And feeling uncertain, too, about whether she deserves to even be there.

Joe Konrath described a panel where one writer essentially admitted that he was a loser and that no one would want to buy his book.  There were times when I could’ve been that writer, but thankfully I resisted the urge to blurt out how much of I loser I was. 

Loserhood isn’t just about book sales, either.  It’s about who gets the media attention, who gets the extravagant praise, and who gets asked out for drinks.  When everyone is fawning slavishly over author XYZ, and ignoring you, well — the result is a whole room of writers who feel like losers. 

I suspect our industry is particularly tough on egos.  Part of it is just the sheer odds against anyone getting published.  Years of rejection prime you for disappointment. Then when you finally get published, you’re facing a new set of odds against your book being a big success in the markektplace.  I’ve read that about 300,000 new titles are published every year.  Many of those are self-published books, but still — the competition is staggering.  Then your book comes out and suddenly everyone’s a critic.  A bad review in the local newspaper gets seen by all your friends and relatives.  A bad review on Amazon gets seen by the whole world.  Yeah, okay, so you’re a published author.

You still feel like a loser.

I have a feeling most writers feel as unsure of themselves as I do. The industry almost forces us to feel that way.  But Joe’s right – part of our job is to exude confidence and success. 

So fake it.

24 replies
  1. SongDragon
    SongDragon says:

    And that right there is why I will probably never try to publish. Faking confidence in person is beyond me. I can hide behind any number of words, as long as I’m online or writing a letter.

    In person I’ll find the nearest person I know and hide with them or near them for the rest of the time.

    I don’t know if it is possible to always fake confidence, though I agree with you, Dr. Gerritsen, you have to at least seem confident to ever get through it…

    I’m glad I’m not alone, but I’ll stick to being an engineer or architect or artist.

    ~SongDragon

  2. lynnegriffin
    lynnegriffin says:

    Tess,

    I often wonder if I’ll ever be satisfied with my successes as a writer. Then I wonder, if I ever feel truly satisfied, what in goodness name would I write about?

    By the way, I love your blog; my friends at The Writers’ Group and I have nominated you for the Thinking Bloggers Award. Visit our site for details.

    Lynne
    http://www.WritersGroupBlog.blogspot.com

  3. struggler
    struggler says:

    Yet another interesting post, and that’s partly because I’m from across the pond in Britain where for some obscure reason we seem to support the losers and ridicule the winners. This applies in all walks of life, not just writing, but in the USA things are (on the surface) the mirror reverse in that when an individual or a team gets to the top, the nation generally celebrates that success and respects the hard work it took to get there. That’s my impression, anyway….maybe underneath that surface there’s jealousy and resentment, I don’t know, but as one who particpates in writers’ forums/blogs on both side of the great divide, the impression I get is that a would-be writer such as myself will get friendly camaraderie from my fellow losers when I explain how useless I feel, yet if I announced “YES! I’ve DONE IT!” the reaction would be a lukewarm and polite ‘well done’ which would last five minutes before the key topic on the forum has swung back to someone’s sick pet cat and an emotional trip to the vet that day. In Britain high-profile writers seem to hide behind their success and rarely ‘mix it’ with their fans and forum members, yet over on the other side writers such as Joe Konrath provide endless and valuable insights into what it’s like ‘on the street’ as a published author and in a practical and usually uplifting way he offers advice and guidance for those way down the food chain such as little old me. Confidence is such a precious commodity in life, both privately and professionally, and if I could buy some, I would. In the meantime, I get a lift every time I hear from you, Tess, I think it’s wonderful the way you interact with your fans and raise always-relevant and sometimes sesnsitive topics here on your blog.

    All I can say is – don’t change a thing, you’re doing everything right.

  4. Tess
    Tess says:

    Struggler,
    I think you have a point there, about differences between the two sides of “the pond.” It does seem that Americans love winners. But I find my sympathies always go with the losers.

    There was an article in the US press recently about how Kate Middleton (Prince William’s girlfriend) was doomed not to be his bride because she wasn’t a blue blood, and her flight-attendant mother used the unfashionable word “toilet,” which William’s snooty friends ridiculed. That just made me disgusted. And, it seemed, the average Englishman’s sympathies were with the non-blue bloods.

    While I do think Joe’s point (about not acting like a loser) is a good one, you also raise a good point — that it’s not good to blow one’s trumpet too loudly, either.

  5. Patricia Wood
    Patricia Wood says:

    This couldn’t be timelier (am I inventing words again?)
    In about three months my debut novel LOTTERY will be released. My ARCs just went out last week. I am waiting for reviews.
    My agent has warned me that some people will not like my “child.”
    Others have said “be strong” and Tess your post is right on.
    This business is so subjective. Each book has an audience and detractors. I have to remember that and not react. Just move on and interact with those that want to read my work.
    Thanks for another great post.

  6. SongDragon
    SongDragon says:

    Well, leave it to your sister to tell you when you’re definitely being a loser and have made a lame posting to a blog you love. Above post was definitely written before coffee.

    I don’t know. I like winners in theory, but when I meet them I don’t seem to relate to them very well.

    Then again one of my best friends (whom I know has felt like a “Charlie Brown” character many times in her life) became a big fish in a small town during high school… And if I hadn’t known her well I would have thought her snobbish and popular. However she always expressed all her fears to me, and so we stayed best friends, though on stage she shows tremendous confidence and utmost poise, even trying to beckon me over to introduce to strangers.

    I guess looking at it from this side it just seems like too much work to be liked as a winner.

    But, Dr. Gerritsen, you’ve always seemed extremely confident and capable, so you have certainly succeeded in looking the part… Even if, as you seemed to hint at, we all have a bit of Charlie Brown in us.

    ~SongDragon

  7. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    Ahhh, the ol’ Demon of Self Doubt. Yes, I know him well. After a bad writing day, or a bad review day, he’ll climb on my shoulder and whisper evil messages of self-loathing in my ear. He shows up at book signings and workshops as well but sometimes can be pushed away with a glass of wine 😉

  8. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    Tess- to me you’re no Charlie Brown- you are all little Red Hair girl. We love you. And to Patricia- I’ve heard so much about your book The Lottery- I CAN NOT wait to read it.

  9. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    If I’d read a post of this nature five years ago, while in the middle of my first novel-writing attempt, I would have been dumbfounded. I would have imagined that ANY publication, ANY success, would guarantee impermeability against those evil critics, beancounters, and readers.

    Which is why I’m fascinated, now, in how much my perspective has changed as I’ve advanced past each gatekeeper in this process.

    While my upcoming debut, SOUVENIR, was not quite the million-dollar buy that Tess’s first thriller was, my contracts are generous; with that comes higher expectations–from the bean counters, from the critics, from the readers-to-come.

    Not everyone will love my novel, and as Tess has often lamented, some readers are sure to misread or misinterpret or simply object to elements in the story. So I’m doing what I can to steel myself against attacks. I’m anticipating the possibility of lukewarm reviews. I figure lowering my own expectations is the best defense against hurt and disappointment.

    Interestingly, none of this lessens my hope that the novel will be widely loved and very successful!

    I’ve always loved Charlie Brown, but would much rather hang out with Linus or Schroeder or Lucy!

  10. Irys9
    Irys9 says:

    i havent written much since high school, but when i did most, i remember how some people would like my poetry, and some had nothing but negativite cooments to say. It’s part of the old saying, you can please some people some of the time…. i say as long as you are pleased with yourself and your efforts, that you have expressed what you want the way you want, if people dont appreciate it, it’s their loss.

  11. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Whenever I feel afraid,
    I hold my head erect,
    And Whistle a happy tune,
    So no one will suspect I’m afraid.

    Great advice, Tess. And don’t forget everyone: they can’t read your mind, so just keep on smiling sweetly . . . no matter what.

  12. maatlockk
    maatlockk says:

    i know what that feels like. i keep thinking that i’m ok when it comes to writing, and that i nailed my last essay assignment, but lo and behold, the world falls down around me when i got an email from my lecturer, saying that he’d recomend that i’d see the people at the learning skills department for help…

    and here i thought that i had done a bang up job. it sucks to feel that way. i can’t imagine what you go through, tess, when you get a wave of reviews.

    i don’t think i can fake confidence. whenever someone tells about the flaws of my writing skills, i just feel like i want to drown, or hide in a hole or something. it hurts to hear it even if its honest (though sometimes its just them trying to push my bottons).

    i still love reading your books, tess. i’m re-reading my entire collection of your books, and i’m anticipating the new one. hope to see it in the nearest bookstore soon so i can squeal like a kid again.

    best of luck
    -izat-

  13. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    The Irish are generally a nation of begrudgers so you can imagine how winners discussed! I think confidence is one thing, but it can easily be or be misconcieved as arrogance. This is where things can get sticky. Personally I prefer modesty rather than uber-confidence, but that’s probably because I get rather intimidated in a room full of confident writers!

  14. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    Fake it? Okay, I might be able to do that. Or … when I’m published, how about I hire a confident, self-assured, beautiful actress to play the part of me? She can do my signings, my speaking gigs — all those things that make my stomach hurt 🙂

  15. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    Optimistically speaking, ..should I ever have to accept awards for any of my writing in the future….I will have to make my speechs short and sweet, because I’ll be too busy fighting back the tears of the projects journey from beginning to end.

  16. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I really think the old saying is really true in this case… be confident, not cocky. I like to know that someone has faith in his/her work, but am really loathe to read anyone who thinks their you-know-what doesn’t stink.

    For instance, I am part of a writers group, and everyone brings in their work to be read aloud and critiqued by the group. There are two people who always start out with an “I know this is really bad,” or finish off by saying, “Let’s hear how bad it was…” You know, things like that. That really puts me off.

    Now, to be blunt, one of them SHOULD be saying that, but obviously we don’t say that to him. The other, though… Sometimes I just want to hit her upside the head or shake her, all the while saying “Why can’t you see how GOOD you are?!” It’s really very frustrating.

    So, I think it is good when a writer exudes a bit of confidence in his or her own work. If an author doesn’t have confidence that what they have written is worth the time of day, then why am I going to bother reading it?

    I just wanted to also mention that I am new to your blog (I actually met you at the Globe Talks event in Boston, and in Gary Braver’s class at Northeastern a couple years ago), but find your entries very intriguing as a writer myself.

    I was reading some of your past entries (the one about “When should I publish?” in particular), and was wondering about your thoughts on this… Another writer, Piers Anthony (fantasy/sci-fi) says that the success of a book is largely in the hands of the publisher, based on a combination of the promotion and number of the first print-run. His reasoning is that, the lower the print run, the bigger chance that the book will sell out and leave a great demand, but by the time more books are available, people have forgotten about the book and moved on to something else. What do you think? Are publishers just scared to invest in new/unknown writers?

    Thank you!

    ~Kyle

  17. Robin
    Robin says:

    Sorry, I know I’m late with this comment.

    Ironically, when my husband was in Army basic training, the drill sergeant often referred to him as “Charlie Brown.” Actually, he referred to him as “You Charlie Brown-looking MFer.”

    I guess it’s not as meaningful without the whole story — my husband had a rough upbringing, but suffice it to say he persevered and went on to be an officer — while attending medical school.

    Recently, I heard a quote again, which I had heard before, but had forgotten.

    (Roughly): “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t; you are probably right.”

    ~~Henry Ford

    Thanks for this post, Tess.

  18. Amy MacKinnon
    Amy MacKinnon says:

    Tess, Charles Baxter was the keynote speaker at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference this weekend and his speech was titled, “Losers.” I immediately thought of this post and even told him about it. I’ll send you a copy as soon as it’s transcribed. Before you read it, find yourself a comfy spot and a box of tissues. It’s comforting to know both of everyone experiences the same pangs.

  19. Mia_King
    Mia_King says:

    Tess, GREAT post!

    I waffle between two opposing schools of thought:

    1) People want to know writers are human too, that they can relate to them and that we’re fallible and insecure and paranoid as much as the next guy (although, by nature of the fact that we’re writers, we’re probably much more). Faking it seems like we’ve left our integrity in the toilet – why not be honest about it?

    2) Nobody likes a whiner or a loser (I had a friend who kept telling that to her son – it always made me cringe). Unless you are REALLY funny about it, like Anne Lamott funny, in which case you come across as a winner pretending to be a loser, or a loser who’s since become a winner (and you can too!) and is just commiserating with the masses.

    My thinking now is to not feel the need to share every detail of your personal life with your readers, unless that’s what your book is about – it’s not a therapy session, it’s a reading/signing/promotional tour. Focus on the books, on what does go right, on what you love about the process. If you start going negative, you’re digging a hole that’s hard to crawl out of.

    So, unfortunately for me, I might be whining one day and then feeling like a million bucks the next. I’m working on it.

    I think one of the biggest challenges for writers, too, is that when they do get praised, we tend to brush it off (okay, some of us don’t, but most of us don’t know how to deal with it so we play it down or even go negative on ourselves). We want to qualify our success so that people aren’t misled (“Yeah, it’s doing all right …”). My God, we published a book! And it’s selling! To complete strangers! How amazing is that? Own it, celebrate it, and, if you still feel like a loser (because really, will one or 10 published books be enough to erase a lifetime of negative thinking?), fake it.

  20. galaksi
    galaksi says:

    I am so happy you have posted this blog, Tess, because I would love to write my first novel and exude confidence at all times; if I can.

  21. Diana Celesky
    Diana Celesky says:

    I agree – sometimes we have to fake it. Some days we’re spot on and the confidence is there, but other days life hits us along side the head and we need a boost. I’d rather associate myself with happy, confident people than sad, angry people without confidence. Fake it til you make it and it will help turn the tide back in the direction of confidence.

  22. martykihn
    martykihn says:

    There’s too often a weird inverse relationship between confidence and talent. To me it seems obvious you’re one of the best – if not the very best – popular fiction writers around. I’ve felt that way for years. I’d expect you’d be the last person to have self-doubt. Meanwhile I know plenty of people who think they’re geniuses; enough said.

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