Taking the Longview

Opposites Attract (my attention): I read two blog posts yesterday morning that stayed with me. Do yourself a favor and go read them both. The first was an excellent post about fear, aptly titled What’s the Worst that Could Happen? by my friend and fellow writer Lisa Ahn. In it Lisa relates how her mother used to try to allay her fears by offering her the title’s query. But, as she relates: “It turns out this is not the best coping mechanism for a child with an adroit imagination. My ‘worst’ is always catastrophic.” I’m the same. I’m not claiming my imagination is as adroit as Lisa’s, but I can come up with some pretty bad stuff.

The second post was Thinking A Career, by Steven Pressfield. In his post, Pressfield makes a marvelous case for keeping a positive perspective on our potential. He says that our muse has plans for us, and that the future exists for us as writers in the form of a shelf full of our books. He asks if we’ve heard ‘the call,’ as in the invitation to our own Hero’s Journey. And he asks if we are doing everything in our power to bring our ‘work-in-potential’ into material form. I believe I have a shelf full of books, and I consider it my solemn duty to strive toward bringing them into material form.

The two posts are quite different, nearly opposites—one a witty take on the power of our imagined fear fueling our writing, the other an almost mystical take on the power of staying optimistic about the future of your work—and yet both resonated for me, and led me to this post.

Imagining the Worst—A Specialty: Lisa’s post reminded me of one of my most powerful fears. I’ve always had a fear of heights—at times it’s been near debilitating. Between my time in the business world and devoting most of my energy to writing, I did quite a bit of carpentry. It started with the building of my own house, which I’ve already written about here. As you can imagine, framing a multi-story structure, or doing any job on a rooftop, is damn difficult for a guy with a fear of heights.

I remember when I framed, sheeted, and shingled the backside of our two-story garage (the top half is our guesthouse, or FROG—free-room-over-garage). The drop to the ground is only about twenty or so feet. It wasn’t the highest work I’d done, but just below it, about where a falling object—say a person’s body—would naturally land, is a wooden fence (see picture). When I did as Lisa’s mother advised, and imagined the worst, I pictured falling backward, landing with my back (or worse–we won’t even talk about a straddling landing) hitting the fence top. Then I easily conjured an image of myself laying there with a broken back. Of course in my imagined scenario I’d be paralyzed, so there would be no way to dial a cellphone for help. And so on. Imagine yourself there, and let your own fears run wild if you dare. Might I suggest the addition of a wandering bear or wolf pack?

Good-To-Go With Vertigo: So you might be asking yourself how I did it. The secret will sound pretty simple. Forward focus. It’s more like a philosophy than a way of seeing with your eyes. It involves more than simply not looking down. Whenever I was on high, I focused all of my attention on each and every movement needed to get the job done. I’m not talking about big stuff either, like ‘today lay and nail the plywood sheeting onto the rafters.’ I’m talking, ‘put your left foot there, now your right there; now put your weight on your left hip; now reach to your tool belt, get out a hammer and a nail; now drive the nail into this corner of the plywood, etcetera, etcetera.’ I know it sounds cumbersome, and it was, but it got the job done each time. By truly focusing my all on getting each step done, I didn’t have the time or attention to be diverted to imagined paralysis or wandering wolves (no, we don’t actually have wolves or bears in our woods). And each day I survived added to a small store of accumulated confidence—until the next roof job, where the process starts over again (damn it!).

Fear and Self-Loathing in Rewrite-ville: Turns out I’ve got some pretty powerful fears regarding my writing, too. Fear of rejection is the most obvious. It can be difficult to share something so personal, let alone offer it up for subjective judgment by the world at large. And it only gets worse, I know.

Turns out that the farther you go in the process, the deeper you must ask yourself to go. During the rewrite process, in order to make your work the best it can be, you have to dig deeper, for the darkest stuff inside you. The deeper and darker you go, the more dire the obstacles for your characters, the better the work—the more likely you are to succeed. As sure as you ratchet up the fear and peril for your characters, you are ratcheting up your willingness to lay your own deepest fears and most hidden inner demons on the table… For all to see! Ironic, isn’t it?  

I’ve been navigating the angst-inducing publishing minefield in the same way I approach carpentry on high. Taking it a step at a time. First draft, check. Rewrite without knowing what you’re doing, check. Find a group of beta readers, done; try to respond to their feedback, got it. Write query letter, check; submit work—scary, but okay. Rejections all around *Cue cartoon deflating balloon sound-effect*

Okay, what’s the next step? I know, write another one—a prequel (okay, that step was mostly avoidance, but it turned to be helpful, and at least it kept me writing). What else can I do while writing prequel? Hire a pro—very scary, but did it! See? Step by step, inch by inch.

From Baby Steps to Big Ones: I just shared the last manuscript of the trilogy with my fabulous development editor, Cathy Yardley of Rock Your Writing. Some of my deepest, darkest stuff, the toughest to share, is in book three, and I feared the worst. But you know what?—I survived. She didn’t laugh at me (I don’t think) or tell me it was awful or that it would never work or that I had to change any of the major elements. She told me it needs work (quite a bit). But that should’ve been a given, right? In fact, she singled out some of that very deepest, darkest stuff as being some of my most effective writing. Go figure.

My point is, the farther you go, the bigger the steps, but the more you gain of that accumulated confidence with each one. The next steps for me are big ones—a major overhaul of the opening of book one, an accompanying rewrite (all to dig deeper and go darker), and then resubmission. But I’ve been up on this roof for a while now. I’m still scared, every day, but I’m feeling pretty good about my footing. I can allow myself to glance up and see the peak ahead. This job’s nearing completion. I’ll have to start all over again on the next one, but those are steps I can’t focus on yet.  

Taking the Longview: Some of you might be wondering what all of this has to do with Pressfield’s ‘career-in-potential’ advice. A funny thing happens after you’ve been on the roof for a while, after you’ve accumulated a small reserve of that confidence. You can start to look around, and enjoy the view. It’s still scary as hell to look straight down. It can take you right back to imagining laying down there with a broken back, unable to dial your cell. But as you near the peak, you can take the longview. You see things from a new perspective. From where I am now, thanks to the encouragement of my tribe, the affirming praise of some of my beta readers, and inspiration and instruction from pros like Steven Pressfield and Cathy, I can even see the shelf that will someday hold my books, which I can imagine more clearly than ever before.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever fully defeat my fear of heights. But I know I can keep my fears at bay well enough to enjoy the views from wherever I am on my climb. And the higher I go, the more lovely the view.

And you? What are your fears? Does imagining the worst help you deal with them? Do you have a coping method or mechanism? Have you accumulated enough confidence to take, and enjoy, the longview?

35 comments on “Taking the Longview

  1. I have a heart-stopping fear of heights. It’s so bad just looking at a step ladder makes me break out in a sweat. I spent the summer after I turned nineteen in Utah and went rappelling. I was fearless then, and stupid. We didn’t go with professionals and I nearly plummeted four-hundred feet to my death. True story. I went down the last few hundred upside-down. That incident changed my life.

    I suppose I use the bludgeoning technique to see me through my fears and angst. I get tired of my own internal whining monologue and give myself a stern lecture. A ladder is not the sheer face of a cliff. If my book does flounder, it’s not being twenty-two and raising two girls on my own. Only then, can I use the method you discussed- baby steps.

    Like you, I do it for the longview. I climbed rocks with my family at The Garden of the Gods for the pleasure of seeing beautiful scenery. I keep writing because I feel other stories within me, waiting for the chance to line up on my bookshelf.

    Great post, Vaughn. 🙂

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    • OMG! How harrowing, Tonia! Your fall is my worst nightmare come true. I suppose once you’ve taken on such a meaningful challenge as single motherhood, showing your scribblings to the world is small potatoes. I can only imagine the perspective one gains, being responsible for something so precious.

      So glad you enjoyed the post, and you’re still enjoying the longview, my friend. Thanks!

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      • I didn’t mean to say this writing stuff and fear of rejection is small potatoes. What I’m going through now is very much like the fear I felt each time before I gave birth. How painful is it going to be? Should I ask for narcotics? Does anyone really have to look at it(lol)?

        But, again like giving birth, I know there will be that one peaceful, joyous moment when I hold it in my hands and all is right with the world. Right before the figurative stinky diapers and spit-up commence. 🙂

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      • It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? You have to appreciate the joy before the inevitable stinky diapers. I’m feeling a bumper sticker idea there. Thanks for clearing that up. 🙂

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  2. Really good post and I’m proud of you! This really connected with me on a couple of levels. As a writer, especially one that isn’t published yet, I understand the fear of rejection! Oy!

    I also used to be extremely shy, didn’t even talk to my close family much. I love music, but the before every performance, no matter how small, I would get ill. During the performance, I would shake and almost blackout. I still get nervous before performing or speaking to a group, but with repetition it’s managable. I try to perform some kind of solo at church every month or so. The turning point for me was teaching daycare. Day after day I had to entertain 2 and 3 year olds. You can’t have any inhibitions!I found that the wackier I was, the more they loved it. It helped me to break out of the formal social convention “shell” we’re all taught to have. I’m happy to say that I’m still wacky-wonky.

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    • First off, YAY! Valerie was able to comment!

      Wow, I can only imagine how entertaining a room full of kids day after day would not just crack that shell, but shatter it! I’m proud of you, too! I know how much your music means to you, so good on you for staying with it through the fear. I know you’ll defeat your writing fears just as adeptly, Valerie.

      Oh, I’m just so glad you persevered and commented! Thank you, thank you! 🙂

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  3. jinkwillis says:

    Vaughn! You write the most heart-filled posts!♥ I’m up on that roof with you–just like I’m rooting for you down here in the middle of re-writer’s woes and reaching out my crumbled little story for someone to love it. I have an awesome feeling you’re going to be a great writer and your books will overflow from the shelves of many! HUGS!!!

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    • Oh Jink, you always fill my heart right up! I know your so-called ‘little story’ is far from crumbled, and that you will triumph in your rewrite. Anyone who exudes caring and love as you do is bound to succeed at this gig! Thanks and hugs back, my friend! 🙂

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  4. Wow, Vaughn — Thanks so much for including me here!

    I love how you combine my crazy fears with Pressfield’s idea of the “longer view”. And I’m definitely going to adopt your strategy of Forward Focus.

    I think we’re in similar places right now, doing major overhauls after a series of rejections, getting ready to dig deeper and then send it all out, yet again. Scary stuff. I’ve been stuck in what Pressfield calls Resistance. I’ve been very adroitly putting off the novel in any way I can. Ugh! I’m going to give myself until September to finish up a few stories, and then I’m going back to this mess of a book, one foot and nail and board at a time. Thanks for the inspiration.

    As a side note, I like what Pressfield does in that post with the Hero’s Journey, the Call and the Refusal of the Call. Elizabeth Grant Thomas also wrote eloquently about the hero’s journey this week in a post called “Letting Your Eyes Adjust to the Dark.” Here it is: http://www.elizabethgrantthomas.com/2012/08/14/letting-your-eyes-adjust-to-the-dark/

    At least we’re all in this together, right? Oh, and after reading Cather’s My Antonia, I have to say this — there’s ALWAYS a pack of wolves. Always.

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    • My pleasure on the inclusion, Lisa–thank you for getting me thinking (it’s becoming a habit of yours 😉 ).

      Digging deeper can be scary, but I’m starting to acclimate. Elizabeth’s adjusting eyes is the perfect companion to the concept! Thanks for the link. You’re so right, that it’s so much easier and more fun being in this together! I haven’t read My Antonia, but I’ve been fueled my fears of wolves with local author Larry Massie’s stories of Michigan in the 19th Century, thank you very much. 😉 Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment, Lisa!

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  5. I have a zillion fears – some logical, some illogical. The one that bedevils me the most is being buried alive, whether in a coffin, under a pile of debris that is close to my face, or just in dirt. I even have anxiety attacks in the middle of the night if I get too hot. I blame a CSI that Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed. It’s his fault.

    Anyway, I do actually have the main character in my story have claustrophobia. It was supposed to have a larger impact to the plot, but it ended up being a nice way for her and Arden (male love interest) to connect. When I wrote the scene where she has to go into an underground cave system, I definitely felt it. I hope readers will too.

    Great advice about forward focus. I use it to get through distasteful things I don’t want to do, but have to. It’s amazingly effective. Wonderful post as always!

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    • I’m not exactly claustrophobic, but caves definitely give me the willies. I’m sure I’ll be feeling it. I’m really looking forward to reading! 🙂 Tarantino must have his own deep-seated buried alive fear (remember in Kill Bill?). Lisa’s right, there’s great fuel for our work in our deep-seated fears.

      I’m glad you already use Forward Focus, and that you enjoyed the post, Lara! Thanks!

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  6. Heather Reid says:

    Each and every post gets better and better, Vaughn. Why did it take you so long to start blogging? I am in serious awe of your skills and so greatful to be able to read about your experiences.

    I’m not afraid of heights. I LOVE them. I’ve always been a climber, my mom chasing me from every nearby tree or ladder when I was little. I do, however, have an unatrual fear of roaches. Seriously, I freeze and start shaking when I see one. I actually feel sick just thinking about it. It’s the one fear I can’t seem to get over. Although I did kill one with an entire bottle of hairspray once. I felt a bit sorry for it when I was done, but I can’t stand the sound they make when you crush them either. *shudder*

    As for writing, I’m afraid every day. Even more now that I’ve signed a contract. I put lots of pressure on myself and I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Not a good combination. I fight this the same way you do, step by step, word by word. I set goals and work to them. I try to block out the negativity in my head by tricking myself into thinking nobody is watching. I’m writing for myself, as Mr. King says, with the door closed. Who cares? Nobody knows what I’m writing this very moment is actually crap. Most days it works, but not always.

    Thanks again for such a wonderful post. I know you have an amazing career ahead of you. A longview with lots and lots of books on that shelf.

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    • High praise, coming from a blogger I love to read, Heather. Thanks!

      From heights to bugs, eh? I totally understand being creeped out by the crunch, but seems like a entombing them in hairspray isn’t exactly an economical remedy. 🙂

      I’ve definitely been spinning lately, due to the pressure I’m putting on myself to get this opening right. I can only imagine how it would ramp up with the added burden of deadlines. I love King’s concept of writing with the office door closed. Which reminds me, it’s about time I reread On Writing. (P.S. I am 100% postitive what you’re writing is NOT crap, but I’m glad you are finding a way to cope.)

      So glad you identified with the post, Heather! Thanks for all your friendship, encouragement, and support!

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  7. ddfalvo says:

    FROG! Does it come with grog? lol. Some day I’ll have to find out. 😛

    On a serious note: “I focused all of my attention on each and every movement needed to get the job done.” Yes. That’s exactly the right prescription– focus forward, one step at a time. Such sage advice!

    I climbed out of a porch window when I was 2. For some reason I thought I could drop to the backyard but the closest landing was a set of concrete cellar steps, 20 feet below. I hung, whining, for five minutes while my mom thought I was crabbing for a nap. When she finished her task, she came out and puzzled over my absence until she saw ten fingertips clutching her side of the framework. Why didn’t I call her the moment I was in trouble? A voice inside me warned I needed every ounce of energy to hold on, and a scream or a yelp would cost more than I had.

    Despite the young age, I remember this clearly and feared heights for a long time after that. lol. Someday, I’ll use that experience in a novel.

    Writing is like that, too. You’re out on a limb, scared as hell, wanting to yelp, but that inner voice is right there, telling you to focus, that you *can* do it– you just need to hang on with all that you have.

    You do have a shelf of books! And I believe in them. 🙂

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    • Just for the record, the FROG does come with a well-stocked mini-fridge and wine rack. It’s waiting… 🙂

      OMG, I love your dire baby Harold Lloyd exploits story! I can so perfectly picture those ten little fingers clutching the window frame. It’s hilarious now, but I can only imagine your poor mother’s fluttering heart afterward. You’re right, it’s great fodder for story.

      I’ll try to stay focused forward, but I so appreciate having friends like you I can give a little yelp to once in a while. My tribe has a wonderful way of talking me back down to firm footing again! Thanks for everything, D. You’re the best! 🙂

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  8. karenselliott says:

    I have a fear of heights. I have a fear of crowded elevators. I have a fear of self-publishing. I have a fear that my son will grow old and not remember me. Ack! And then I remember all the people that do find interest in me, that read my short stories and poetry and blog; I remember internet friends like Vaughn and Kat and Angie and Shawn and Heather and Susannah and TM and JJ …. and oy! I have more confidence now than I had two years ago (or two weeks ago).

    Like

    • First you got me grinning, then you got me nodding, Karen. I am in such a better place now than before I met all of you wonderful writerly tribe mates. And I also agree that it just keeps getting mo’ betta–better now than two weeks ago, etc. Thanks for everything! 🙂

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  9. I am so weird. I have to be the only writer in the world that only imagines two or three novels sitting on a shelf with my name on it. Heck, I’m be happy with just one. Not that I’ll ever stop writing but just to have one amazing book would mean everything to me.

    I love how you dig deep even in your blog posts. You keep writing and I’ll keep reading. 😉

    Like

  10. mapelba says:

    My fears? I fear spiders.

    More immediately I fear dealing with the edits that my novel needs. Just a few days ago I got back notes from the person editing my novel. They are good notes. Not because they say my novel is perfect–it isn’t obviously–but because they tell what is wrong so that I can fix it. And I’ve been staring at the manuscript for days doing nothing. I feel like my heart is going to collapse in on itself.

    I fear that my publisher is going to look at my rewrites and realize that she can’t really publish my novel. And I will have to tell everyone–no, I’m actually not going to be published. Or the publisher will publish it and no one but no one will read it. Or it will still be awful.

    It is surprising how terrifying it can be to get what you want.

    I am very good at imagining the worst thing. It’s a skill our writing needs, isn’t it? But maybe not our sanity.

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    • Marta, this comment moves me so much. I really feel for you, and so know the feeling of having an awareness that something must be done but feeling almost paralyzed. Days go by, and you scold yourself for the inaction, and yet you still aren’t sure what it is that can be done. I can only imagine how much greater the pressure is in your circumstance.

      I’ve been given and read some very specific and wonderful advice regarding this rewrite of my book one opening. And I’ve even started it–twice. Nothing I’ve been doing, or thinking seems good enough. I’ve had a few epiphanies, but they don’t solve the big issue–getting an opening that will draw readers/agents/editors into the story faster and more effectively. I had the heart collapsing feeling too, of late. I think it’s part of what led to this post. I knew it had to do with my fears and the expectations–both my own and those of others. It’s why the two posts featured spoke to me.

      Anyway, something happened after I published this post. I had a scheduled phone conference with my editor Cathy (mentioned above) to discuss the revisions. I had worked myself up pretty good. I had even considered changing some of the personality aspects of my MC. She let me vent, blathering on about all these dramatic changes I was considering, for like ten minutes straight (no exaggeration). After I was done she told me to take a few deep breaths. Then she patiently explained how I’d given myself ‘the crazies’ as she aptly calls them.

      She went on to tell me the things that she liked about my old version, and about my characters. She painstakingly walked me through the story elements to show me that I didn’t need to change the heart of the story or the fundamental traits of the characters. These were the things that were working–the things she and others have already told me they like about the work. It doesn’t need a major overhaul, it needs tweaking–bringing the elements of story into focus up front, showing what is at stake in a more urgent way, etc. I had worked myself into believing I had to change everything, and nothing could be farther from the truth.

      Anyway, my head’s still spinning a bit, but I feel sooo much better today. I’d be willing to guess your editor might tell you the same. What they fell in love with, and wanted to publish, is the heart and soul of your story and characters. And that’s all YOU! They want YOU, Marta. And nothing that you do now is going to change that. Hugs and good luck!

      Like

      • mapelba says:

        Thank you for the thoughtful reply. Yes, I’m good at giving myself the crazies. It’s like I take two crazy pills and call my neurosis in the morning. But like you saw on facebook, things are a bit better. At least under moderate control.

        Like

  11. katmagendie says:

    I can tell you- even after four novels and a novella published, I still deal with fear of failure and rejection! Yeah. But, if I turn my head slightly to the right, I see my books on my shelf next to other authors’ books – I can remember when that was only a dream, so I try to enjoy that moment, those moments. Having a contract on this next book should make me go “ahh, there, I’m okay” but instead I think “what if what if what if!” So I work on those “what ifs” and try to enjoy all the moments, the journey of discovery. Despite the fear, it’s the best job ever, the best life.

    The fear is an equal trade for the outcome.

    Like

    • Great gods of thunder and mercy, Kat, but you are an inspiration–to me and to everyone in our tribe. Your work is so powerful and yet so approachable; so homey and comforting and yet so poetic and literate and savvy. And you’re the same. I’m so proud to call you my friend, and to have you in my life. You’re like an old buddy I can share insider-ish laughs with, a wise mentor figure, and a guiding light all at once.

      Thank you, for reading and for the insightful comment, but also for the laughs and for the inspiration.

      Like

  12. Suzanne Buller says:

    Wow, after reading everyone’s fears I actually feel “normal” for feeling my fears and insecurities. I fear that I might not find my voice in writing, I fear that I am not good enough i.e. who do I think I am for thinking I am capable of putting pen to paper and actually have someone like it!!! When I took a couple of writing courses, the teacher would give me some excellent comments about my work. I felt great – for a little while – until I read the other students work. Then all my self-doubts reared up like ugly monsters.

    Thanks for the great post. I will re-read it whenever those doubt monsters show up.

    Like

    • Oh, I’m so glad we could make you feel ‘normal,’ Suzanne! We writers are quite a bunch, aren’t we? I swear, every writer I’ve gotten to know, pubbed or not, literary or genre, acclaimed or struggling, has all had at least moments of feeling the same as you (i.e. Who am I to be thinking I can write something others should bother to read?).

      Thanks for stopping by and for reading and commenting! I’m so uplifted to know it will help you keep the ugly monsters at bay. 🙂 Feel free to stop by anytime!

      Like

  13. Please tell me you wear a harness, Vaughn! There are options to paraplegia.

    Note to self: stop nagging hosts or commenters about safety practices. It’s hardly endearing.

    You’re taking the Kaizen approach to your carpentry and your writing, I’d say. Tolerable babysteps, only looking as far ahead as is necessary to make a difference. Not psyching yourself out. I do these too, and sometimes they even work. 😉

    Like

    • I’ll take your nagging of the host as well-indended and caring, Jan. And since I honestly believe you care, I won’t tell you whether or not I wore a harness in the past. Know that, because of you, I would sincerely consider it if the occasion arose again.

      I read Deming years ago, and while we were running our business, we did our best to implement his approach to systems analysis and their constant improvement, so I think Kaizen will always be a part of my philosophy for life. You’re right, sometimes it even works. 🙂

      Funny how all these posts (your WU post and Marta’s plea on the WU page) seem sort of interrelated. I think you’re right, that the coming end of summer has us all in feeling transitional and a bit off kilter. Here’s to firmer footing moving into autumn!

      Like

  14. Story Addict says:

    What a great post, Vaughn! So awesome that you got an editor’s opinion on the whole trilogy! And very interesting that she found your darkest stuff the best. I’ve found similar stuff in my writing and reader’s reactions. To the point where I have to think: What’s the matter with you people?? Haha. I guess the more you dare the more empowered your writing becomes. As for fear of heights…I’m more afraid of falling, but I think that’s kinda the same thing. I’m good with being up high. Once I look down…my stomach goes plop, lol.

    Like

    • Great observation: the more you dare the more empowered your writing. That stomach plop, or worse, is the thing I hate. I made the mistake of taking a helicopter tour of Maui with a friend. That was enough plops to last me a lifetime! 🙂 Thanks so much, Margaret!

      Like

  15. Nicole L. Bates says:

    We are told to live in the here and now, right? Therefore, in general, that’s when I like to see things happen…here…and now. 🙂 My main coping mechanism is forging ahead no matter what happens but in looking back I’m thankful that I’ve been forced to wait. I have learned so much, and I’ve had time to reflect on the story, on what I want it to convey, and I think when the time comes I’ll be more equipped to deal not only with the positive but the negative that is sure to come.

    I’m impressed that you were able to overcome your fear of heights to reach the peak of that roof. Gazing out from the apex of your brilliant writing career will be even more breathtaking.

    Like

    • Nicole, you make an excellent point about the delay being valuable. I think back to when I thought the trilogy was ready, and all I’ve gained since, in knowledge of craft, insight into the work, and the connectivity with others (the gaining of a likeminded tribe). Heck, I’ve even gained resiliency to negativity (well, more than I had). I can see that it’s all been for the best.

      Thanks for an thoughtful and lovely comment! Your determination speaks not just to a willingness to keep trying to get published, but to making your work the very best it can be. I can see nothing but breathtaking heights for you, too. 🙂

      Like

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