Over the weekend, I visited my dad in New York. The trip included fourteen hours of driving along the bucolic highways that inspired the 2015 Tin House essay “On Pandering,” and a trek down the adult-bookstore-and-strip-club-laden stretch of 322/22 I call Truckers Porn Paradise.
To pass the time, I rocked out to my Spotify playlists and listened to podcasts.
The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast belongs on your #mustlisten list. It’s co-hosted by South African writer and writing instructor Bianca Marais, and literary agents Carly Watters and CeCe Lyra from P.S. Literary Agency. The three women read query letters on air, then provide in-the-moment critiques. Most episodes include a thoughtful author interview. They also have segments on helping authors find comps and a more general Q&A.
If you have a question, would like a query critique, or need comp recommendations, you can apply to be a part of the show. If you support them on KoFi, you’ll get access to Carly and CeCe’s critiques, which could help you see how an agent might approach your submission.
As I listened, I tried to spot the problems they’d catch. Their feedback was absolutely spot on. I loved their discussions on over and underwriting, their strategies for pitching multi-POV work, and the way they normalized the struggles we all face. While many episodes focus on fiction, memoirists and nonfiction writers can learn A LOT from every episode.
Here’s the line that came up most often:
Lead with your ambition, not your anxiety.
Leading with anxiety comes in two tight and not-so-helpful packages. In package A, you’re desperate to start your writing career, because publishing your book is taking forever. You’re certain an agent will whip your great idea into a bestseller.
While agents used to provide more developmental edits for writers with promise, most are now looking for near-perfect manuscripts, because that’s what publishing house editors expect. As a result, the editorial dung ball you hoped to avoid is yours to address.
Here’s the solution to package A:
- Be patient with where you are and mind your gap.
- Get beta readers.
- Humbly work to improve your skills.
- Work with freelance editors before querying to ensure that your project is ready to go.
Package B happens when you’ve done your due diligence, but that cricket-worthy period between hitting submit and hearing a response is too much to bear. In the absence of feedback, your mind turns into a bad neighborhood. Hoping to combat your angst, you ask writing friends for feedback. But ninety percent of feedback elicits feedback–not the accolades you were hoping for.
That feedback can produce a knee-jerk desire to frantically revise and then resubmit a more polished draft.
Don’t do this.
When agents and editors receive these emails, they lose confidence in you. At best, they’ll look–hard–for a reason to say no. At worst, they’ll ghost you. Either way, they’ll wonder why you sent time-wasting pages that weren’t up to snuff.
Instead, wait. See what they say. Then learn from the experience.
So, how do you lead from your ambition rather than your anxiety?
- Create a clear why. If your why is to be a bestselling author, then make sure your work is both well written and has mass appeal. If you want to win the Pen Award for literature, ensure every line is a work of art. Knowing your publishing goal will help you understand how high the bar is and what’s needed to cross it.
- Understand the work ahead. Listening to podcasts like The Shit No One Tells You About Writing, Brendan O’Meara’s Creative Nonfiction Podcast, and the many other noteworthy writing podcasts out there. Read the blog posts on Jane Friedman’s site as well as craft and publishing blogs in your genre.
- Identify, celebrate, and harness your strengths within your writing.
- Humbly and compassionately locate your growth edges and then address them.
- Create affirmations around your value, your goals, and the importance of waiting for responses.
- Practice mindfulness or other techniques that prevent your mind from becoming a bad neighborhood.
- Before you hit submit, ask yourself who’s leading–your anxiety or your ambition. If it’s anxiety, wait until it passes.
- Seek the support of your writing community—especially mentors who can both normalize the process and the importance of doing it right. If possible, find someone who can deliver a tough-love talk if your writing isn’t ready for prime time.
- While you’re waiting, write something else.
It’s okay if you screw this up. Making mistakes is how we learn. When this happens, see what you can do to help yourself both recover and grow.
Now that you know my plan for leading with ambition rather than anxiety, what’s one of your leading-with-ambition tricks or tips? Share your answer with me so readers can benefit from our collective knowledge.