Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Writers' Negative Self-Talk


I have two dachshunds – Lucy and Bentley. Bentley is five years old and is a sweet, lovable goof who gets into trouble quite often. My wife calls him a “menace without malice,” which is an apt description. Lucy is fifteen. She was a rescue when we got her about a decade ago, and her health wasn’t the best at that point. We’ve taken good care of her since then, but she has enough physical issues now that the vet told us last March that she might have as little as two weeks to live. It’s almost December as I write this, and Lucy is still chugging along, acting like a puppy more often than not (although a puppy who gets aches and pains and needs to sleep a lot). Lucy wakes me up at four a.m. every morning, demanding to be fed, and of course, Bentley gets up too. Once I’m up, I’m up, so after the dogs are fed and have returned to bed to cuddle with my wife, I head into my home office to write. The other day I’d been writing from around 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., when my lack of sleep caught up with me and I began nodding off at my keyboard. When this happens, I have micro-dreams that last only a few seconds until I can force myself awake again. There’s nothing particularly special about these dreams. They consist of strange images and thoughts mostly, stuff that vanishes from my mind the instant I manage to haul myself back to consciousness. But this day, when my eyes closed at one point, in my mind I heard a derisive voice say, Your words are tiny words.


I woke, thought, That was weird, wrote down the sentence in case I might be able to use it sometime, and returned to writing the novel I’m currently working one (another horror/dark fantasy book for Flame Tree Press titled A Hunter Called Night). Unlike my other micro-dreams, I remembered this one, and I thought about it a lot over the next couple days. During the time I dreamed it, I didn’t think the voice was addressing me specifically. It seemed more like it was the voice of a character speaking to another in a story. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if the voice wasn’t my old friend self-doubt rearing its ugly head. Your words are small words.


Regardless of what the origin of this phrase was (let alone its true meaning, assuming it had any), it got me thinking about all the negative things that writers and other creatives tell ourselves. “You know,” I said to myself, “there’s probably a blog entry in this.” And lo and behold, I was right.


The first time I remember encountering the idea of negative self-talk as a psychological issue that could be dealt with was when I read Write for Your Life by mystery writer Lawrence Block. In the 80’s, Block and his wife conducted writing seminars around the country, and Write for Your Life was a self-published book he created to go along with the seminar. I’d read about the seminar in Block’s fiction-writing column in Writer’s Digest, but I was a poor college student at that point in my life and couldn’t attend. I desperately wanted to get hold of the book somehow, but there was no Amazon or eBay in those days, and it wasn’t until some years later that I ran across a copy of the book in a Half-Price Books store. (Block has since self-published a new edition of the print book as well as an ebook edition which you can order here:



Among the many topics Block discussed in the book was the idea of negative messages that writers regularly tell ourselves, and how they could be countered and overcome by creating an affirmation. For example, if your negative message is My characters are dull two-dimensional caricatures your affirmation might be My characters are well developed and interesting. Once you’ve identified a negative message and created a corresponding affirmation, you write the affirmation down in a notebook (or type it) over and over again. You do this each day, maybe several times a day, and perhaps before each writing session. The idea is to replace the negative message with a positive one. My ex-wife is a psychologist, and when I told her about Block’s idea, she said it was basic cognitive therapy. So I decided to try it.


It took me a while to identify a negative statement (or rather select one since I told myself so many), but eventually I came up with I’m not good enough. It was easy to develop a countering affirmation: I am good enough. And I could capitalize am for good measure. I AM good enough. So I did as Block suggested and wrote my affirmation in a notebook many, many times over the course of several days. Did it help? Hard to say. I remember feeling better after my affirmation-writing sessions, but I don’t recall any specific effect on my writing. (I don’t think it made things worse though – at least I hope so!)


You might give Block’s technique a try and see what it does for you. Identify a negative statement you tell yourself about your writing, create an affirmation to counter it, then write the affirmation a number of times before you start writing as a kind of combination pep talk/warm-up. How many times you write your affirmation is up to you. I suggest at least twenty, but maybe no more than a hundred. Don’t waste your entire writing time for the day writing your affirmation!


During my years of teaching writing, along with my years on social media, I’ve encountered a number of negative things people tell themselves about their writing. Let’s talk about the most common, in no particular order.


My writing isn’t good enough to . . .


There are a lot of ways to fill in the blank here. Good enough for people to read it. Good enough to get published. Good enough to help you land an agent. Good enough to make money. Good enough to win awards. Good enough to be adapted for movies or TV, and so on. This negative thought focuses on the perceived quality of your writing (or what you fear is the lack thereof). Your writing is as good as it’s going to get today, but not as good as it’s going to get tomorrow, assuming you keep writing, learning, and growing as the years go by. You need to peace with the fact that your writing probably will never feel like it’s good enough to you. Terminal dissatisfaction is not only normal for an artist, it’s likely one of the main drives that keeps us producing our work. It’s a given that we will die without achieving all of our goals (unless we’re extremely fortunate), and that’s okay. We need to take our writing as far as we can in the time that we have, and in the end that has to be enough, because that’s all we’re going to get.


People won’t like my writing


This is true – but only if you add the word Some to the beginning of this sentence. There isn’t a single thing in this world that is liked by everyone. Hell, there are probably people who even hate breathing and eating and would stop if they could. And the more limited your writing is in its appeal, the fewer the people that will like it. Just by choosing a genre to write in, you’ve narrowed your audience. Not everyone likes romance, westerns, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, and even horror (hard to believe about this latter, but it’s true). Then the specific subject matter might not appeal to certain readers. This story takes place on a train? Ugh, I hate trains. And some people might not like the way you told your story. I just can’t get into first-person stories. There’s way too much description in this book. This is too literary. This isn’t literary enough. Writing is, in many ways, nothing but a series of choices, one after the other, and for every choice we make, some people will respond positively, some negatively. We hope more people will like our choices than not, but it’s guaranteed that at least some won’t, and that’s okay. Not everyone likes Italian food, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the food itself. It’s simply a matter of personal taste. And if people aren’t responding well to your writing because it needs improvement, every day you continue to write will help you improve.


People will think I’m weird


You are weird, and what the hell is wrong with that? Weird to non-writers, anyway. Odds are that to other writers, you’ve perfectly normal. Your family and friends might not understand you. They’re probably not artists, or readers for that matter, and if they do read, they probably don’t read the kind of thing you write. What’s the point of a romance novel? I mean, they all end the same way. We spend a lot of time in our heads (maybe most of the time), and we get excited about stuff that most people don’t. I wrote this really cool descriptive passage this morning, and I debated whether to use a dash or semicolon in one sentence for fifteen minutes, then I said to hell with it and used a colon instead. It worked great! And if you write horror or erotica, people will think you’re a burgeoning serial killer or a ravening sex addict, simply because they don’t understand the difference between imagining something, wanting to do something, and actually doing it in the real world. Whatever. Let people think what they want and forget about them. Being normal sucks anyway.


My writing will get rejected


If you’re doing traditional publishing, you bet it will, and probably a lot (at least when you first start out). If you worked as a salesperson on a car lot, would you expect every potential customer that strolled in to leave with a brand-new vehicle? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d know from your own experience as a buyer of goods that you don’t purchase every item you look at. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything wrong with the item, only that you’ve determined that – for whatever reason – it doesn’t meet your needs at that moment. Same with editors. It’s not personal. The more your writing improves, the more you continue to send the send piece out to editors or agents, the more familiar you become with specific markets so you can more effectively target your submissions, the fewer rejections you’ll receive. And no matter how advanced your writing career is, you’ll still get them (if not as many). Rejection stinks, but it’s part of the game, and one rejection isn’t an all-encompassing statement on your writing or you as a person.


I won’t get any readers


This fear affects those seeking to publish traditionally as well as those doing indie publishing. Once a story or book is finally out, we worry that no one will read it. The truth is, even bestsellers are read by only a small portion of the human race, because most people on the planet do not read for pleasure. The biggest flop of a movie is seen by millions more people than ever read most books. And there are so many other books out there – including ones written by authors long dead – for readers to choose from, that the odds of one of our books being selected are slim indeed. One thing’s for certain, though: If your book/story/essay/article/poem isn’t published, you are guaranteed to get a sum total of zero readers. The better your work becomes over time and the more you learn about marketing your work, the more readers you’ll get.


No cares about what I write


This is kind of true. No one has an intrinsic reason to care about what you write. You have to give them a reason, have to make them care. You can do this through the genre you select, the specific plot of your story, the characters, the style, the pace of the story, the language you use . . . Use any and all the tools available to writers to give readers a reason to give your work a chance. And (as I keep saying) the more you improve over time, the more readers will be drawn to your work.


My writing will have no impact


In the grand scheme of things, like on a universe-wide scale, nothing anyone does anywhere has any truly meaningful impact (unless you’re a cosmic being like Galactus, I suppose). And what sort of impact do you want your work to have anyway? Do you want it to bring about world peace? Unlikely. But your work can change the life of individual readers, maybe only in some small ways but those ways can be pretty damn important. Maybe a story of yours entertained someone for a bit and gave them a break from something hard that they’re currently going through. Maybe your poem made them feel less alone. Maybe your essay inspired them. Writing and sharing your writing is a community-building act. Making connections with our fellow humans is vital for our species and should never be minimized.


I’m just a hack


None of us are likely going to be the next Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean our writing is worthless. A hack is someone who cranks out writing as fast as possible so they can get paid. (There are far easier ways to make money, though, so I don’t know why anyone would choose being a hack as a financially sound career.) And so what if you do write fast and do write for money? Your reasons for writing are your own, and it’s okay if you have different reasons for writing different projects at different times. Sometimes I write for art, sometimes for money, sometimes for both. I’m always writing for myself and readers, though, regardless of the particular project I’m focusing on. As long as I choose to write it and I’m enjoying myself (even if I’m just enjoying anticipating a paycheck), it’s all good. Hack is a meaningless term for me. All it does is tell me that the person using it has contempt for other people who make different writing choices than they would (assuming they write at all). Don’t have contempt for yourself.


I’ll never be able to make a living with my writing


It depends on what you mean by living, but in general, you’re probably right. Very few artists in this world make enough money from their art to survive. They usually have day jobs of one kind or another, or they teach writing (like I do), or they write different kinds of writing at different times. Poetry to satisfy their artistic side, tech writing to put food on the table. Don’t listen to anyone telling you that writers who make all their money from their artistic writing are the only real writers. It is possible to live just off your writing money if you live in an area with a low cost of living and live as simply as possible – and if you don’t mind dealing with the stress of your income fluctuating throughout the course of a year, with no way to predict for certain if you’ll be able to pay your bills from one month to the next. I’ve never had a goal solely of making money from my writing. I’d get bored if all I did was one thing (no matter how much I love that thing), and if I struggled to pay bills each month, I’d be so stressed that I’d find it difficult (maybe even impossible) to write. I love teaching, but I have a day job in order to support my writing life, to ensure that I can continue to write without interruption until the day I die. However you want to (or can) arrange your writing life, as long as it works for you, that’s all that matters.


People online will tell me I suck as a writer


I’ve been lucky. I’ve gotten mostly good reviews for my books over the years and good responses from readers on social media. But I’ve had people tell me they didn’t like my work. The best was an anonymous person who sent me an email that read, in all lowercase letters you write badly. I wanted to reply no, i write goodly, but I restrained myself. I read all the reviews I can find of my work because I want to see if I managed to accomplish what I attempted with a given book. I hope to learn from the reviews and improve as a writer. But if people do give your work negative reviews or trolls harass you on social media, do your best to shut them out. Don’t read reviews, block trolls. It’s your choice how much online suckitude you want to put up with, and don’t put up with any that makes it harder for you to write. And for everyone who posts something negative about your writing, they’ll be someone who has something positive to say about it. Focus on those comments. Do whatever works for you to keep you writing.


I’ll never be published


It’s possible. I’ve known people who’ve tried for decades to publish traditionally and have had made little to no headway. But I’ve known far more people who’ve continued working hard and persisted and who did eventually get published, whether in the small press or in mass market. There are no guarantees that you’ll ever get your work published, and if you do, that you’ll continue getting it published. But there are a hell of a lot of venues available to you to help get your work in front of an audience these days, and one way or another, you should be able to find some readers.


I’m just repeating myself


Maybe you’ve been writing and publishing for a while, and you fear that you’re repeated the same kind of characters, plots, and narrative style in your work. You probably are. These a reason why critics laud first novels and often ignore a novelist’s subsequent work. The first one is new and fresh. The follow-ups are often more of the same, and even if they’re good, they are no longer novel (see what I did there?). Part of this is a natural tendency of artists, but a lot of it is due to consumer culture telling you to put out the same product over and over, to brand yourself as a particular type of writer who writes a particular type of book to make your work easier to promote and sell. If you do start repeating yourself, you can purposely try to mix things up in your work – try a different type of story or narrative approach. Figure out what your most commonly used elements are and consciously avoid them in new work. Years ago, I realized that most of my short fiction occurred on two timelines, the past and the present, and I alternated between past and present scenes throughout the story. Once I knew I did this, I stopped using that narrative pattern in my short stories for years, forcing myself to come up with different ways to organize my stories. Now I’ll use the pattern whenever I feel a story needs it, but I’m careful not to fall back on it all the time.


I’ve plateaued and can’t go any further


I’m going to be 57 in March. I recently spoke with an editor friend about ways to possibly take my writing career to the next level, and he described me as a “reasonably successful author.” Nothing wrong with that, but I do fear that’s as far as I’ll be able to take my career, especially given that I’m no spring chicken. Honestly, I’m a little afraid to try to take my career to a higher level. It’s easier to stay where we’re most comfortable in life, where we feel safe. I’m still going to keep trying, but if I were to drop dead tomorrow, I’d be satisfied with the knowledge that I had the courage to chase my dream and I got as far as I did in the time that I had. How much more can any of us hope to get out of life?


I’m writing the wrong stuff


I think this from time to time. My wife says I go through cycles that last around a year, and at the end of each cycle, I start to think that I’m writing the wrong kind of fiction for my career. Why am I writing weird horror for the small press for almost no money? I should focus on writing tie-ins from now on. They won’t make me rich, but at least they pay better advances and have more readers. There’s no way to advance my career by writing tie-ins. I should write in a more popular, mainstream genre, like thrillers. Fuck it, I should just ghost write for money. It’s not like anyone cares what I write about anyway. I’m tired of writing entertainment-based fiction. What I really need to do is focus on producing more artistic, literary work. I’m sick of writing artsy stuff. I think I’d really like to get back to writing my weird small-press horror. That’s what I love doing the most (I think). And so on . . . Each time I reach another shift in the cycle, it’s a huge existential crisis for me. My wife says it’s just me being me, and she’s right. There’s no way to predict what type of writing will be most successful for you. So much of this business is a complete and total crap shoot. I can tell you to write what you love, write for money, write for art’s sake, etc. But there is no wrong stuff to write. There is no right stuff to write. There’s only what you choose to write or feel drawn to write or have contracted to write at any given point in time. Right now I’m writing this blog. And as I told you earlier, I’m also working on A Hunter Called Night. Today I’ve spoken with two different editors, one about breaking me out as a big-name horror writer (perhaps under a pseudonym) and another about doing a horror-focused media tie-in novel. I’ve also applied to work with a ghostwriting firm because I’m curious what that might be like (and also because my wife and I have spent $20,000 on back surgeries for Bentley this year, and there’s a chance he may need additional surgery on down the line, and ghostwriting pays pretty decently). My agent has well over a dozen novel proposals circulating with various publishers, some horror, some fantasy, some science fiction, some cross genre, some artistic-focused, some pure entertainment-focused. All of this is likely at least part of my I Should Be Writing Something Else cycle. I’ve accepted it about myself, and I do my best not to let it tempt me to abandon one project and go chasing off after another. So far, it’s worked fairly well (although there are a number of unfinished short stories on my hard drive that are likely to stay unfinished.)


I’ll never be as good as That Writer


I don’t remember where I first heard this, but I pass it along to writers whenever I can: Envy is the writer’s disease. One way we learn is to compare ourselves and our actions to those of other people. But when we start to compare ourselves negatively to others, that’s when we can get into trouble. It’s too easy to read something wonderful – a book, a paragraph, a single line – and believe that we could write every hour of every day for the rest of our lives and never come close to equaling it. Or we compare our careers to those of other, far more successful writers. There’s no way I’ll ever be as famous, rich, or well-loved as FILL IN THE BLANK. The hell of it is, all of these feelings are true. We’ll never be able to replicate someone else’s work because we can never be someone else. We can only be us. And we can’t replicate someone else’s career because a writing career is fashioned from a lot of elements – talent, hard work, and luck chief among them. We can hone our talent and do our best to work hard, and we can try to put ourselves in a position where we can take advantage of luck when it (hopefully) arrives, but all of this is still no guarantee of any kind of success, let alone multiple New York Times bestseller, multi award-winning, millionaire-level of success. Learn from other writers, but don’t compare yourself negatively to them. Don’t use other writers’ work as a weapon to beat yourself up with.


I should quit writing


I started writing seriously with the intention of making it my life’s work when I was eighteen. As I said earlier, I’m almost 57 now. I’ve traditionally published over 50 novels, seven collections of short stories, and a half dozen or so novellas. I’ve won and been nominated for several awards. How often do I think about quitting writing? Shit, maybe once a month, if not more frequently than that. So far I haven’t quit, although I’ve taken short breaks here and there over the years. I suffer from depression, and thanks to therapy and meds, I handle it pretty well. I know not to give my depression any more power over me than it already has, and I do the same with my feelings that I should quit writing forever. I wait them out the same way I wait for a storm to pass. It might take hours or days, but the sun will come out again eventually. I also know that quitting is so tempting because it’s 100 percent under our control. So many things about a writing career – maybe most things – are beyond our control, but stopping isn’t. And if we blame our writing – or more accurately, our desire to write – for the pain and frustration trying to establish or grow a career is causing us, quitting is our way of striking back at it, making it pay for what it’s done to us. But it’s cutting off our own nose to spite our face. We’ve taken action! We’ve purged our dark emotions! But from now on, we’re going to make a hell of mess when we have a cold and sneeze. I let myself feel whatever feelings I have about my writing whenever I have them, but I know that deep down, my writing is as important and necessary to my existence as breathing. The only reason I would actually quit is if I wanted to hurt myself deeply and kill off a vital part of myself – and I won’t allow myself to do that.


In the end, be good to yourself


In the end, negative self-talk gives power to our fears and insecurities, and it’s a way we self-harm. Regardless of whether you try to use affirmations to counter negative self-talk or not, I think it’s important to identify and come to terms with the negative things we tell ourselves about our writing. By doing so, we’ll recognize them for what they are when we start saying them, and hopefully we’ll be able to prevent them from keeping us from doing what we love: getting our words down on the page for others to enjoy.




Website Update


I’ve updated the Interviews section on my website with links to articles on writing I’ve recently published, as well as new podcast appearances and other interviews. You can check them out here:


Your Turn to Suffer


My next horror novel from Flame Tree Press, Your Turn to Suffer, comes out March 23rd and is available for preorder.


Lorelei Palumbo is harassed by a sinister group calling themselves The Cabal. They accuse her of having committed unspeakable crimes in the past, and now she must pay. The Cabal begins taking her life apart one piece at a time – her job, her health, the people she loves – and she must try to figure out what The Cabal thinks she’s done if she’s to have any hope of answering their charges and salvaging her life.


Amazon Hardback:


Amazon Paperback: Link still to come.


Amazon Kindle:


Barnes and Noble Hardback:


Barnes and Noble Paperback:


Barnes and Noble Nook:


Flame Tree Press:


Wendigo Tales Vol. 1


My novella, Raiders of the Poisoned Planes, appears in this hardcover anthology. It features stories set in the various Deadlands RPG worlds. My story takes place in the Deadlands: Hell on Earth setting. It’s a weird western yarn in a post-apocalyptic America.


Amazon Hardcover:


Pinnacle Entertainment:


Award News


My novella Some Kind of Monster and my how-to-write horror manual Writing in the Dark have both gotten some recommendations for the Bram Stoker Awards. This is just the first step in getting onto the final ballot, but it’s still exciting. Here are links if you’d like to check out either book:


Some Kind of Monster


Apex Book Company


All formats:


Amazon Paperback:


Amazon Kindle:


Nook Book:


B&N Paperback:


Writing in the Dark


Want to learn how to write horror or improve the horror you already write? Then this book’s for you!


Raw Dog Screaming Press


Both hardcover and paperback:










Barnes and Noble






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