Monday 25 July 2016

How not to choke as a writer

by Paula Harrison

A children’s writer encounters many obstacles on the way to publication - learning their craft, understanding the children’s book market, finding an agent and publisher who love their writing. Before reaching publication, many of us believe that once we find that Golden Ticket marked You Have Got a Publisher, the journey is over and we will simply float away on a fluffy cloud into a blissful published heaven.

The truth is that the obstacles remain after getting published and at times they can be even harder than before. Sustaining a writing career is not easy. There’s (rightly) a lot of excitement about debuts but each writer only gets to be that freshly-discovered talent once. As we forge a writing career, we start worrying about new things. Are our books  being packaged the best way possible? Are we out promoting them enough? Are sales good? What do the reviews say? And all the while we try to remain true to our creative vision for our new story.

Each time a story goes to an agent or publisher, we open ourselves up like a target. There’s nothing that hurts like the arrow of rejection from people that know what they’re talking about. All of us know that shrinking feeling inside if someone tells us they are not interested in our stories. Having sold more than a million books, I know I’m far from saying goodbye to the experience of rejection. It will happen again either by agent, publisher or reviewer. It’s probably one of the few certainties of my life as an author.

As creatives, we feed our experiences and emotions into our work. So how do we stop that shrinking feeling from seeping into our writing. When that ‘no’ leaves us feeling so small, how do we prevent that smallness getting on to the page.

How do we manage not to choke?

For a long time, I’ve thought that the psychology of writing fiction is similar in some ways to the psychology of succeeding as an athlete. We produce something from nothing and pour it on to an empty page. We have to believe our story, why it needs telling and that we have the power to do that well. Instead of facing another tennis player on Centre Court Wimbledon, it’s our own self-doubt on the other side of the net. It’s a match that we keep playing over and over, each time we sit down at the computer.

So here are ten top tips to keep self-doubt at bay: 

1.    Remind yourself you’re not alone. You’re reading this blog so you’ve completed that step – well done!

2.    Be bloody minded. I don’t know about you but I’m quite good at this one. Do I think the last person who turned me down has no taste? Damn straight! ;)

3.    One door closes and another one opens. Before getting published, I got down to the last 3 writers who were considered for writing a chapter book series by Hothouse Fiction (a packager). If I’d been picked to be the final writer, I’d have been writing under a pseudonym instead of finishing the story that got me published under my own name.

4.    If you feel like you’re getting nowhere, re-define what success looks like. Writing 200 words is a success. Editing one chapter is a success. Being an author is a marathon not a sprint. Celebrate each thing you’ve achieved even when they’re small. Write them down to remind yourself what you’ve done.

5.    Different agents and editors have hugely varying tastes. Not everyone will like your story and that’s OK. It may be that they are one of the (deluded clearly!) people who won’t appreciate what you’ve created. This happens to all writers. Look at the 1 star reviews for the Harry Potter books on Goodreads as proof.

6.    Admit that some drafts of a book – even some whole books unfortunately – are bridging moments where you needed to work on your craft and improve. You have more than one story in you, don’t you?

7.    If other people’s success is distracting you, turn off social media for a while. Be happy for them from a distance. Send positive vibes and reward yourself with a Kit Kat. Your turn will come.

8.    Believe in what you’re writing during the first draft but let your inner editor out when you redraft. This isn’t the same as telling yourself none of it is any good! Consider joining a critique group and if you develop a good critiquing relationship with another writer – nurture it. People who can give you helpful feedback are like gold dust.

9.    Remind yourself why you’re writing THIS story. Immerse yourself to the point where the story is the real world and the real world is just pretend. This is what I love about writing first drafts. It’s waking-dreaming. Find music/  pictures/ places that take you there. (I refer you back to my post How to thrive on deadlines and Kathy Evans’s excellent post What if I just don't feel like it?)

1. Find writing friends to share the highs and lows AND HANG ON TO THEM FOR DEAR LIFE! (I refer you back to Jo Wyton’s excellent post The Importance of a Good Network )

Being a writer, you’ll start to see the seasons turn in your creative life. Winter will come (yes Jon Snow) but after winter comes spring. I wish you the best of luck. Now I’ll get back to eating that Kit Kat!

Paula Harrison is the author of The Rescue Princesses series, the Red Moon Rising trilogy and the Secret Rescuers series published by Nosy Crow. Her new book Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes is coming in September 2016 from Scholastic.


  1. Great tips, Paula. I think my favourite is number 4. I reframed success a while ago and focused on learning something with each draft. It made me feel a lot better about my work and I had a much better attitude with fewer emotional ups and downs. Thanks.

  2. Thanks so much for this list. Yes, number 4 is my fave as well. :)

  3. Thanks guys! It's a long and rocky road. We have to support each other and make the journey that little bit easier.

  4. Thank you for the encouraging words. I've been known to follow tip #7. I love my fellow writers and are so happy for their successes. But sometimes my writer's ego uss those successes to magnify my failures, and a social media blackout helps until I regain my footing.

  5. Thankyou, Paula! Given that living the creative life is often a bit up and down, it helps to have a grounding (yet inspiring) list. I do love a list.

  6. So many things in this post chimed with me (and not just at midnight).

  7. Paula, coming to this late but oh boy, this sure resonates. I wonder sometimes why I picked a profession that has rejection as its constant. Know ye, my unpublished colleagues, that the rejection you may be experiencing now is good training for the rejection you are going to experience after publication! You are one of the hardest working authors I know, Paula, and you deserve every success. We've got your back!


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