This is the first time I’ve talked about writers and mental illness—or, writers and the various mental traps that can get in the way of publishing success and happiness. It doesn’t matter how smart or successful you are in other parts of your life. If your writing is important to you, and you’re not getting what you want with agents or publishers, it’s easy to lose your @#$%. I’ve seen it with some of my coaching clients. Everything is going great until they get unwanted feedback from agents. Or, they get a lack of feedback from agents. It can be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde moment where the “good” author suddenly morphs into a mouse or a monster.
I know it’s hard to put yourself out there as a writer, especially if you’ve put hundreds or thousands of hours into your craft. Or, if you’ve put hundreds or thousands of hours into dreaming about how it might go when you start querying agents. If your book is about you or your life (e.g. memoir) the experience can be even more dramatic and emotional. That’s why I try to be patient, understanding, and kind when things like that happen with my coaching clients.
Being aware of the mental traps below can give you the edge you need to achieve your publishing goals. But it will also help you better enjoy your journey on the often-long-and-winding road of publishing. And, in some cases, it could save your life–or the life of someone you care about.
Read this article, then share it.
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“Cognitive Errors” for Writers and Mental Illness
Listed below, you’ll find the most common “cognitive errors” that slow down and sometimes stop writers in their quest for an agent. I’m sharing them with you for four reasons: 1) What you think is just as important as the quality of your writing, pitch materials, and pitch strategy; 2) Anyone can stop (or at least minimize) inaccurate or self-destructive thinking if someone helps them see it and shows them how to do so; 3) I’m concerned about the number of suicides being reported in the media; and 4) I’m uniquely qualified to talk about writers and mental traps, and writers and mental illness.
No, I’m not a psychologist. However, that was my plan and main area of study before I entered the publishing industry. And I’ve spoken with thousands of authors as the former owner of a literary agency; the former Marketing & Licensing Manager of a well-known publisher; and, an author coach for the last 8-1/2 years. That experience has taught me a few things. When I was new to the publishing industry, I was almost entirely focused on authors’ books and pitch materials. Now I now know that those things aren’t all that matters.
The mental part of publishing is equally important.
That’s why, as a coach, I do my best to help good authors see that they also need to: a) believe in their writing; b) believe in my experience and process; c) be committed; d) stay committed; e) stay focused; f) stay realistic; g) stay coachable; h) stay positive; i) deal with their fear of failure or success; j) correctly interpret agent feedback, or the lack thereof; and k) hold themselves accountable.
Not every author needs help with all those things, but I’ve never met an author who didn’t need help with at least one of those things.
So, let’s get to it.
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Writers and Mental Illness – The Traps
The following mental traps are based on scientific research, my degree in psychology, and—most of all—my experience observing and coaching authors who are struggling with them. Of course, I’ve struggled with, and continue to struggle with, some of these traps as well. We all do. So, I, too, am constantly on the lookout for, and battling, some of the self-destructive tendencies listed below.
How many of them apply to you?
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9 Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
1. The Easy Illusion – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You believe getting a literary agent should be easier than it is, or that it should happen faster than it’s happening. You can get caught in this mental trap for multiple reasons: 1) You’ve been successful with other things in your life that have been difficult; 2) You haven’t done many, or enough, things in your life that have been extremely competitive or difficult, so you don’t have realistic expectations about the amount of focus, discipline, and effort it will likely take to succeed; 3) You believe that when things are “aligned” or “meant to be” in life, that they should “flow” and be fairly easy or effortless; or 4) You believe getting an agent should be easy because you feel (or you feel you know) you were born to write your book and have it published by a publisher. That belief or “knowing” might be even stronger if it’s supported by a “divine belief” that God or “Source” called you to write your book or guided its development.
I’m not going to quibble with an author about whether their writing is divinely inspired, but, if you’re one of those people who’s constantly saying “when” I get a literary agent instead of “if” I get a literary agent, read this article about Knowing vs Believing. I also want to caution writers who believe getting a literary agent should, or will, be easy. It’s hardly ever easy. Read this article titled Lazy-A*s Authors Don’t Get Agents, this one about How Some Authors Incorrectly Look for “Signs” They’re On the Right Path, this one about The Number of Queries You Might Have to Send Out to Make It, and this article about one of my clients who signed with a top agent after submitting more than 600 queries. Even if you’re one of the fortunate few who will find it fast and easy, it’s best to make peace with the idea, before you start trying to get an agent, that it probably won’t be fast and easy. Thinking this way doesn’t mean you’re negative, “lacking faith,” or “manifesting misfortune.” It means you’re wise, and much more likely to get published.
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2. Mind Reading & Jumping to Conclusions – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You assume you know what a literary agent is thinking, without sufficient evidence. This can happen for multiple reasons as well: 1) You’re getting a lower than expected, or a lower than desired, response rate to your submissions to literary agents; or 2) You’re getting rejections letters, whether they’re form letters or personalized letters, with critique comments or suggestions. It’s extremely easy in such moments to form incorrect conclusions, and doing so can be destructive, especially if your creative-writer-mind leaps to incorrect conclusions or imagines the worst. Read this article about Literary Agent Feedback, this one about Literary Agent Rejections, this one about Why You Should Sometimes Ignore Literary Agent Rejection Letters, and this one about 5 “Stupid” Things Literary Agents Say and Do.
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3. Emotional Interference – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You allow your feelings to take over your thinking and actions. In other words, you don’t let your feelings, instincts, and intuition to inform your decisions. You let those things make your decisions. You might even work yourself up, subconsciously, whipping yourself up into a frenzy, part of you thinking that if you’re that emotional and that upset, your emotions must be right.
That’s not always true, and that’s sometimes dangerous. Your feelings are important, but they shouldn’t be the main factor–or the only factor–influencing your perception of reality. Otherwise, for example, if you start feeling paranoid that literary agents are out to get you, conspiring against you, or blackballing you, and you feed into that fear, you’ll eventually convince yourself agents are after you–and you’ll quit.
Or, if you start feeling sad or depressed because you’re not where you want to be yet in your publishing career, and you keep feeding into negative emotions surrounding that fact, you’ll eventually convince yourself that your publishing life is a disaster–and you’ll quit. What you feel is important, but what you think should be just as important. And your thoughts should be based on reason, reality, and facts about the publishing industry.
Not fears, fueled by feelings.
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4. Minimization – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You minimize the value or your work and accomplishments—or the work and accomplishments of others on your “team” such as agents giving you feedback about your book, all literary agents, the publishing industry as a whole, your coach, your editor, etc. When you get frustrated or afraid, you might find yourself lashing out at yourself or those who believe in you and want you to succeed. You might put yourself down or question your ability. You might also put others down and question their ability or commitment. Try to catch yourself when this happens if it’s a trap you’re prone to fall into. Then have a conversation with yourself to put things back in their proper perspective.
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5. Blame vs Accountability and Personal Responsibility – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You don’t take enough responsibility for the state of your current publishing situation. It’s understandable that some authors get angry after investing a lot of hope, heart, and possibly hundreds or thousands of hours—and, in some cases, hundreds or thousands of dollars—trying to get an agent, publisher, and book deal…only to feel like they’re coming up short of what they hoped or believed would happen.
No one wants that.
But there are only two choices when something like that happens: 1) Blame someone else; or 2) Take responsibility and ask yourself—or someone else, who might be able to help you get to the next level—what you might do next to get to the next level.
It’s as simple (and complicated) as that.
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6. Catastrophizing – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You obsess about the worst possible scenario and convince yourself it’s going to happen. I’m guilty of this one myself and I really have to work at it. Why? Because I really care about my coaching clients, and I take a lot of pride in my work as a coach. That means I worry a bit too much at times that my clients might let the mental traps in this article get the best of them and their dreams.
Catastrophizing is a mental distortion where an author essentially makes mountains out of molehills. It’s where you blow things up in your mind and make them a lot worse than they are. It’s good to imagine the worst-case scenario in a situation and prepare for it. That can actually be a strength. Just make sure you don’t dwell on that worst case scenario and let it drag you down or turn it into reality.
If you inflate a challenge or obstacle enough in your mind, guess what? You’ll eventually make it so big that it will be impossible to overcome. If you catch yourself catastrophizing, remind yourself the terrible thing you’re thinking about that might happen is definitely possible, but it isn’t probable. In another words, just because the thing you fear might happen doesn’t mean it will.
So, don’t spend every moment acting like it will.
Doing so will make you miserable, it will make you miserable to be around, and it can stop you in your tracks.
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7. The Entitlement Illusion or Delusion – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You convince yourself you’re going to get published, or, at least, you convince yourself you should get published because your writing is publication-worthy, or because others have said your writing is publication-worthy. If you find yourself falling into this trap, remind yourself that you might be right. But, you might just as likely be wrong.
Life isn’t fair.
Some books that don’t deserve to be published by major publishers are published. And, some books (a lot of books) that deserve to be published by major publishers aren’t published. There are many reasons for this: 1) The staggering number of authors trying to get published, meaning agents and publishers get about 1,000 times more submissions than they’re capable of representing or publishing; 2) The very subjective nature of what makes one book vs another one more likely to have success; and 3) Personal preferences and biases.
Notice I didn’t say anything above about personal connections or referrals. Read this article about Literary Agent Referrals to see why referrals don’t matter.
If you find yourself falling into this trap, turn it into a positive. Remind yourself that life isn’t fair and the best books aren’t always the ones that get published. Then start focusing more time and energy on what you can do to educate yourself or get the support you need to give yourself an advantage (through articles, books, classes, seminars, workshops, critique groups, an editor, a coach, etc.
That’s what pragmatic people do.
They don’t surrender to their emotions and dwell on how hard or unfair things are, or how they wish things were different (at least not too much). Instead, they look for opportunities to improve their position. A good book and/or a good heart aren’t always good enough. Sometimes, often, actually, someone isn’t just going to hand you something you want.
You need to be committed and find a way to take it.
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8. All or Nothing Thinking – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You decide you’re going to stop writing and/or not publish at all if you don’t get a top agent and a major publisher. I understand, respect, and admire this commitment to going big…and believing in the value of your writing. However, it’s a tragedy to me when authors allows this mental trap to keep them from sharing their work with the world.
Listen, you and I are not masters of the universe. We might be brilliant at what we do, but not every author is going to get a top agent, publisher, and book deal. Not even those who work closely with me, over a long period of time in coaching. So, don’t think yourself (or me) a failure if you don’t make it with the first book—or any subsequent book—you try to get published. As one of my clients once told me, we can be good, but we’re not God.
If you get to the point where you no longer want to pursue trying to get a literary agent, there’s still hope. You can shift gears at that point and start going directly to publishers. Small- and medium-size publishers who don’t require an agent. Legitimate publishers who print books and get them in bookstores. Smaller but traditional publishers who don’t charge authors money, who, therefore, are good at selling books because, if they don’t, they’ll go bankrupt.
And, if you’re not successful with that, either, you can/should ultimately self-publish. At that point, you can/should feel good about doing so, knowing you gave yourself the best chance going traditional. At the end of the day, at least from my perspective as a fellow writer, I always say it’s better to have small audience than no audience at all. So, please don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get a top agent, publisher, and book deal.
Yes, you should be fully committed, but don’t destroy yourself or release the fury of your disappointment on someone else if it doesn’t happen the way you think it should.
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9. Focusing on the Negative – Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
You filter out the positive and, instead, focus on the negative. If you’re constantly framing everything in your mind in terms of things that are wrong or can go wrong, it will eventually cause you to start thinking nothing is ever going to go right. And, guess what? From your perspective, nothing will go right.
The best way to avoid this mental trap is to stay conscious of it and focus on all the things that are working. Read this article about The Most Important Decision You’ll Ever Make As An Author, and this one, which will also help you Stay Focused on the Positive. Look for the good, and, if you know you’re doing everything you can to increase your chances of reaching your publishing goals, surrender your worry to the universe.
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Mental Traps for Writers and Mental Illness
I know it might not be easy to admit you fall into one or more of the traps listed above, but I hope you’ll admit it anyway. Maybe not to me, or to anyone else, but to yourself. That’s the first step toward keeping your mental monsters in their cage and under control. I actually keep a printout of cognitive errors—like those I listed in this article—in my office. I look at the list at least once a week to help me stay conscious, positive, and productive.
Remember, it doesn’t matter how smart or successful you are. You’re a human being, and it’s easy, because you’re human, when you have challenges, especially unexpected challenges, to dive down into one of those dark and dangerous rabbit holes in your mind. And, if you’re not careful, you’ll never come out. Or, at the very least, you might give up on your writing–or start hating it. And, your cognitive errors might lead to a serious mental disorder or mental illness.
I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my coaching clients if I believe they’re approaching what seems like a particularly dark, destructive, or dangerous place: Talk to someone: a friend, a therapist, a priest. Someone. Anyone. It’s okay, and it’s expected, for many authors to be introverts. Just don’t spend all your time alone. It’s not healthy. And, don’t let your mind rob you of your success or happiness.
if you’re interested in learning more about “cognitive errors,” type the phrase into Google and you’ll find a lot of helpful resources. And, if you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, read this article about how to get help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, the International Association for Suicide Prevention, and Befrienders Worldwide which can provide contact information for crisis centers globally.
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Question or Comment About Absolutely Anything, Including Writers and Mental Illness?
Click here to see The 50 Questions Authors Ask Most (along with answers to the questions) and/or post your question or comment. Click here to see our Guide to Literary Agents. And, click here to see some of our best tips to help you Find a Literary Agent and/or Get a Literary Agent.
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