Dry Spells Perspective #1: Bev Katz

photo credit: Claudia Osmond

Dry spells. Well. I’m kind of an expert. I’ve had so many long ones, I hardly remember how to type. But I will try, because this is IMPORTANT. Settle in, lovelies—this is a tale. A tale followed by a very lecture-y, Lessons Learned section. (You’re excited, right?)

So. I published my first novel, a romance, just before I got pregnant with my first child. What great timing, thought stupidly naïve and optimistic twenty-something Bev, who promptly left her full-time, in-house editing job and planned to get a book published every year…


I did leave my job, but couldn’t get another book published for the life of me.

I realized I’d used that first book to process some of my own life experiences (though of course, the thing morphed into something completely different during the writing process) and it seemed I couldn’t just pump out stuff I wasn’t feeling. Okay, I told myself. Think about what you really want to write, and wait until you’re inspired.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Like, for years. Meanwhile, I published a writing-related zine and took on freelance editing projects while being a fulltime caregiver to my two adorbs children.

Finally, ‘chick lit’ (ugh, still hate that handle) became a thing and I was inspired again. Funny books about relationships! Sign me up! I got one published by Harlequin’s ‘Flipside’ imprint.

Which promptly tanked cuz suddenly there was too damn much chick lit on the market.

More waiting.

Then I became inspired by the MG and YA books my kids were reading.

And I wrote I Was a Teenage Popsicle. Which landed me an agent and sold quickly in a two-book deal to a big house and was optioned for film and television. (Note: it sold to a YA imprint, which required me to hit a certain word length. This will become important later. There is no test.)

The sequel, Beyond Cool, tanked. Sequels are hard, y’all. But actually, the entire MG/YA market was tanking cuz it, too, had been flooded after Harry Potter.

I did manage to sell a book about a teen genie to a large German publisher, but it didn’t sell in North America.

And of course, nothing came of those TV options. (Except a season-long gig as a writer on somebody else’s show. Which I wasn’t very good at.)

It was at this point I realized that what I’d tried to establish as my ‘brand’ (funny and contemporary with a sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal twist) probably didn’t play to my strengths. I’d never been a huge sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal reader, though I did love some offerings in those genres. Like many MG/YA writers back then, I think I’d just been secretly hoping to pen the next Harry Potter. Really, I just wanted to tell stories about people and families and relationships—the stuff of everyday life—in my own funny-but-not-funny way.

It actually took me several years to reach the above conclusion. Once I did, I started writing again with baby steps. Some short stories. I thought the first few were really good.

Then, of course, I shot myself in the foot by thinking I could create a connected short story collection for the YA market. Connected YA short stories weren’t actually a thing, but surely I’d be the exception! *Sigh.* Of course, the stories I wrote to fill out the book were crap, so naturally, nobody wanted it. (Also, connected YA short story collections turned out to definitely not be a thing.)

Another long wait.

Then the American election happened. And I rage-wrote a book in three weeks.

It was short and funny, aimed at the MG market. No padding for length this time.

It got a few rejections, but then it sold. To someone who has asked me for more books!

Short, funny, contemporary MG. It’s taken me decades to realize that’s what my long-form stuff should be. (In fact, I’ve rewritten the Popsicle books as MG books AND THEY’RE SO MUCH BETTER! As I said earlier, I really struggled to hit the YA length in those books, and always felt bad about padding them. I hope to get them republished as MGs.)

I’ve also realized–weirdly, now that my kids are grown–that I desperately want to write short, funny picture books. A couple of them are currently going through the acquisitions process at a big house. The editor there likes my style, too, and has invited me to send her more.

I’m under no illusions that it will be smooth sailing from here on in. But I do know now that a long dry spell–or two or three or four–will not end a career.

Here are more Important Lessons I’ve Learned:

This writing thing isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a business of highs and lows. The highs are very high and the lows are very low. Long dry spells—whether externally or internally induced–are, in fact, the norm. You’d best get comfortable with that.

Have a backup. Most of us cobble together a living with a combination of writing, editing, and teaching gigs, and we also try our best to get paying speaking engagements and grants. Honestly, if I had to do it over, I’d have never left my full-time editing job. Once out for a certain amount of time, I couldn’t get back in. I tried. I now tell young writers—especially young women writers—to never, ever leave their jobs!

It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to not write every day. Currently, the conventional wisdom seems to be that you aren’t a real writer if you don’t put your butt in the chair every day and hit a certain word count and blah, blah, blah…

Eff that. Putting my butt in the chair every day just resulted in piles of crap that didn’t sell. What works for me is waiting until I’m inspired to write something. (I can afford to wait because I have a backup—a now very successful editing business. Again, HAVE A BACKUP! AND DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB!)

Finally, you do you. Write to your strengths. Take the time to figure out what you’re meant to write. What do you like to read? What do you feel passionately about? What lessons have you learned in your life that you’d like to impart in a book? (PSA: Do not write hammer-over-head, obvious message-y books. Kids hate those.)

I’ll end now. Even though I could do this all day. Suddenly, it seems I have a lot to say…


BEV KATZ is an editrix and author whose hobbies include dancing, hiking, and smashing the patriarchy. Her upcoming middle grade novel Who is Tanksy? comes out in Fall, 2019. More about Bev at http://bevkatz.com/

Rejection Perspective #3: Joanna Karaplis

Rejection… from the other side

photo credit: Silk Kaya

If you’re a writer who’s submitted your work to publishers, odds are you’ve received at least one rejection letter. Maybe it was a short form letter signed “Editorial Department.” Or maybe you lucked out and got a longer letter, signed by a real person, with constructive feedback and the invitation to submit your work again in the future. But no matter what form it takes, rejection is rejection — and it can sting.

I’ve received my share of rejection letters, but I also started my career on the other side of that relationship — as the person doing the rejecting. So let me invite you behind the curtain as I talk a bit about what it’s like to be entrusted with evaluating unsolicited manuscripts at a publishing house.

Before you read on, a few things to keep in mind:

• During my time working in the book industry, I worked at four different publishing houses. This post consolidates my experiences across them all.

• I focus on printed, unsolicited submissions because they are (a) the most common and (b) the type of submissions I dealt with most frequently. Many publishers do not accept unsolicited electronic submissions, and some don’t accept unsolicited submissions in any format. Also, you will likely have a completely different experience if an agent is submitting on your behalf.

• I switched industries five years ago, so (a) some publishing houses may have changed how they do things since then and (b) I cannot help you get published, sorry!

• Finally, my experiences are just that — personal experiences, not objective truths.

OK, let’s dive in! Journey back with me: I am in my early twenties, and the most junior person in the office. I am bestowed with the weighty responsibility of reading hundreds of manuscripts and deciding which (if any) should be brought to my editor. Here are some of the things I learned:

There are a LOT of unsolicited submissions

I don’t think most writers who send in their work imagine the number of unsolicited manuscripts piling up at any given publishing house. Even the smaller houses I worked for were getting around five to 10 manuscripts or more per week, which adds up to 260–520 per year. I’m sure larger houses receive thousands per year.

Reading unsolicited submissions could be a full-time job, but it’s not

Given the volume of manuscripts publishers receive, they could easily hire a full-time employee (or several!) to read them all and respond. However, that would be expensive, and the return on investment would not make it worthwhile — very few manuscripts get published (though some do!), and of those, even fewer go on to be blockbusters (this is true of all books, regardless of their path to publication).

This means that generally, it’s a relatively junior person — a publishing assistant, editorial assistant, or even an intern — who gets the first shot at reading unsolicited manuscripts, and they fit this in on top of their other job duties.

When I was working in this role, I was given a lot of trust and responsibility. If I rejected something, no one else in the company would ever see it. And if I found something I liked, I brought it to my editor to read. Now, editors are notoriously overworked; despite their job title, they spend their days doing pretty much everything but editing, and then go home to spend hours actually editing. So if I was going to take up my editor’s time, I had to be really sure that I had something worth pitching. It was always easier to find a reason to reject something than a reason to invest in it, which brings me to…

You need to make a good impression quickly

When I was trying to fit in 30-60 minutes a day to go through the pile of submissions, I had to be as efficient as possible. There simply wasn’t time to read each one thoroughly, especially if the publisher committed to responding within a specific time frame.

Things that caught my eye:

• Strong writing, in both the (short, to-the-point) cover letter and the submission

• A solid, interesting, original idea

• Previous writing credits (highlighted in the cover letter or a C.V.)

Things that ensured a form rejection letter:

• Weak writing (typos, grammatical mistakes, bad punctuation, etc.)

• Unoriginal idea (“hey, this is just Harry Potter set in space!”)

• Material that was a bad fit with the publisher (erotica for a children’s publishing house; poetry for a house that publishes only non-fiction; etc.)

It’s a huge compliment if you get a personal rejection letter…

The vast majority of unsolicited manuscripts receive a form rejection letter. So if you get a personal rejection letter, it means that your work caught someone’s eye. Take it as less of a “no” and more of a “not yet” or “not this one.” If I was moved to write a personal rejection letter, my main aim was to encourage the writer not to give up.

… but don’t go overboard

Generally, you don’t need to acknowledge a personal rejection letter. If it was sent via email, you can reply with a quick “thanks for taking the time to respond!” Otherwise, wait until you have either revised your rejected manuscript based on the feedback, or have a different work ready to submit. Then you can address your submission to the person who sent you the rejection letter, and remind them about your previous interaction. (“In May 2017, you rejected my novel Kindling Flames, but encouraged me to submit future work. I have enclosed Petra and Paddy, a coming-of-age story about a shy nerd and her talking dog.”)

This should go without saying, but please don’t write back (or worse, call) to argue that your work shouldn’t have been rejected or to demand a further explanation. You will make the person wish they’d sent you a form letter instead, and they will avoid future submissions from you.

I was always anxious about signing my name to a rejection letter for this very reason: sometimes, it was seen as an invitation to question my decision or ask me for much more detailed editorial feedback. I understand the thirst for constructive criticism, but you’ll have much more success hiring an editor to help you improve your work than trying to get those services for free from someone who (a) does not have time, and (b) is likely not an editor anyway (more like aspiring editor, in my case back then!).

And don’t ask for your manuscript back

Every now and then, I’d get someone asking me to mail back their manuscript, even if they hadn’t included a large envelope with enough postage to do so. Once, someone had enclosed an appropriately-stamped envelope, but their manuscript had been recycled by mistake — they were livid, and convinced that I’d stolen their work and was planning on publishing it and keeping all the profits. Please believe me: if your work gets rejected, the publisher will recycle it, not secretly publish it. Promise.

So, to wrap up

You probably already know this, but getting traditionally published comes down to a combination of luck and hard work.

Sadly, the luck part is out of your hands. It’s about your timing, and how your work aligns with the person reading it, the publisher they work for, and what’s already out there in the market (or currently under consideration). You can’t predict all those factors, so don’t stress yourself out by trying.

The good news is that the hard work part is the bit you can control. So start there: write your story, research publishers and their submission guidelines, find an agent if you want to skip the unsolicited submissions pile.

Rejection will happen, but it doesn’t need to be the end of your journey to publication. Keep writing, keep submitting, and keep improving. And treasure those personal rejection letters — at least until the publishing offers begin to flow.

JOANNA KARAPLIS started her career in the Canadian book publishing industry, and now works in internal communications. She has two published works with McKellar & Martin Publishing Group: Fractured: Happily Never After? (2010) and Chester Gets A Pet! (2016). She is originally from Vancouver and now lives in Toronto with her husband, son, and cat. You can find her at http://www.joannakaraplis.com

Rejection Perspective #2: Josiah DeWit

The room is dark. A single light shines down on me. A second party sits alone in the corner, barely illuminated.

Photo: Silk Kaya Photography

“But you still love me, right?”

I reply, “I do, but to be honest, I don’t have a clue why.”

“I’m irresistible.” The figure’s head tilts upward.

“You could say that.”

“You’ll never reject me.” It gets up onto its knees.

I turn away from it. “Whatever.”

“You need me.” It approaches ambitiously.

“Maybe… But it’s definitely not mutual, apparently.”

“What do you mean? How could I exist if it weren’t for you?”

Lips protruding as I exhale loudly I say, “Maybe. We need each other.”

“But what’s getting to you? I can tell that something is eating you. What’s eating you my friend?”

“It’s just that…” My nostrils flare as my head tilts toward the floor. “ I thought you’d… I thought you would get me there.”

“Get you where?”

Sheepishly I state, “You know. Closer to my dreams.”

“Ah. The D word.”

“Yeah, the D word. I said it. My dreams. And don’t hold it against me for having them. Everyone has them.”

“Oh, I don’t hold it against you. I just wonder what they have to do with me.”

“I created you…”

“For? For getting you closer to your dreams? Your ambitious goals of being world renown? Of being forever loved and remembered?”

“The way you put it is…” I shake my head. I know what it is saying. But I can’t acknowledge that it is indeed selfish of me to expect anymore of it or its existence. “The way you put it makes me sound…”

“You need more, I know. I am not enough.” It starts back towards the corner until I speak again.

“It’s not like that! You ARE enough… but still. It would be nice if you didn’t cost me so much.”

Turning its head back to me in curiosity it asks, “How exactly am I costing you?”

“Hours and hours of time, for one. And the energy. You know, like brain power. It takes brain power… and… and… innovation. Innovation isn’t exactly a renewable resource.”

It takes a strong stance toward me. It huffs its chest and says, “That’s on you, pretty thing. I never forced you to use those resources on me.”

“No, you didn’t. But you were very enticing.”

“Was I enticing? Or was what you thought you could get from me enticing?”

I hush it. I don’t like where it is going. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I? Don’t I know that you wanted to impress others with me? Maybe a pretty girl or two? Didn’t I know that?”

I cut it off. “You could say that. But what does that have to do with anything?”

“Or how you wanted to be famous? How you wanted riches from me?”

“Hey, at this point I’d be happy just to make a meager living. I don’t need those things anymore.”

“Alright. I get it. You’re not satisfied. It’s not enough that you have me.”

Incensed and ready to stake my claim I raise my voice and say, “You’re right! I’m not satisfied. You could at least give me something to live off of. How else could I invest so much in you?”


“My dreams? Hah! Those are far gone. I’m 33 now, lest you fail to tell. I spent a good 18 years with you hoping you’d give me something. And here I am with nothing to show for. All those hours, days, months and years for what? Just to have you sit here arguing with me?”

“I guess I was not enough.”

I did not let up. “No, you weren’t! I put all I had into you even when my friend told me to give it up.”

“But you didn’t listen to them.”

“A lot of good that did me. Then I sent you to the record labels.”


“And I only heard back from one.”

“What did they say?”

“They said the cd didn’t work.”


“Snap is right.”

“So what did you do? Did you go store to store to share me with them?”

“No… I didn’t do that. But I did play on the streets. Sold some cds out there.”

“You must have really made an impression.”

“Actually, I think they only bought my cd’s because I had crutches with me. That was right after I’d taken off my full-leg cast.”

“Alright. Air it all out. How salty are you?”

“I had bandmates who threw me to the curb after I asked them to practice more. I had online collaborators who played along for a song or two, until they found all that guff too time-consuming. I had a youtube channel with nearly a thousand subscribers only for new videos to get only 20 views!”

“And you want to put the blame on me? All that weight of rejection.”

“I spent the better part of a year writing a novel only to have all the publishers reject me. I self published two books and who gave them a look? No one but my mom”

“Blame me if you want. But you’re still here. And you’re still with me.”

“That’s true, though god knows why. It’s not like I still believe in the dream.”

Dream enters with its nose turned up and its chest puffed out. “What’s this I hear about not believing in me?”

“You heard what I said.”

“You think I give my time to just anyone?” Dream chuckles dismissively.

“Screw you. I oughta…”

“You oughta what? Face it. It didn’t matter how much time you spent with Art over here. If you wanted me, you should have done more with me. You should have given your soul to me.”

“Screw you.”

“Art over here isn’t even my friend. If anything, we’re contrary.”

Art purses its lips and frowns. “You’re what he wants. He’s just using me to get to you.”

“No, it’s not like that,” I protest. “I was just hoping that you both would come along for the ride.”

“Looks like you’re missing the point,” Dream says, smirking.

“Yeah, he really is,” Art chimes in.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“He really needs to appreciate you for what you are,” Dream says to Art.

“He doesn’t want me. Maybe I should just leave?” Art says.

I hunch down and put my hands on my knees. I breathe deeply and exhale loudly. “You know, even if everyone else rejects you, I still love you, Art. I don’t want you to leave me.”

“And what about this guy? Do you need him?” Art points at Dream.

“Dream? Naw. You’re enough for me.”

“Good. What are you doing now then? Get back to work.” Art says.

Dream leans in and gives me a kiss, “I know you want me, but you don’t need me. Maybe I would just get in the way of Art here. So let’s keep it simple. Let’s just make it you two. And if I pop in some time, well, enjoy my presence while you can for I am fickle and fleeting.”

“I get it. I’ll get back to it.”

Art smiles. “I knew you would be faithful to me.”

“Like I ever had a choice,” I say as I pick up my ukulele.

JOSIAH DEWIT enjoys writing and composing music. He also does, on occasion, contribute instruction in the English language to non native English speakers whilst living out his years in Thailand with his beloved wife, Nok. He is in favor of putting pineapple on pizza. You can find some of his work on his youtube channel at www.youtube.com/soulofbass

Rejection Perspective #1: Cheryl Rainfield

photo credit: Claudia Osmond

Rejection Hurts. So How Do Writers and Other Creatives Deal With It In A Healthy Way?

Rejection hurts. If you get enough of it, it can eat away at your self-esteem, your confidence, even your sense of place in the world. Most of us try to avoid or minimize the rejection we receive—which, according to author and hypnotherapist Marisa Peer in her Ted Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeDt9dgFXFk), may be a primal instinctive need because when humans lived in tribes they couldn’t survive unless they were connected to each other. We still need people, and we still dread rejection. But dealing with rejection is part of the life of a writer.

I think rejection hurts even more when it’s about something we put our heart and soul into—it can feel like rejection of our deepest self. And many of us writers and creatives already carry emotional wounds that drive us to write—childhood bullying, abuse, neglect, or just being seen as different or other because of the way we see the world—all forms of rejection. So the added layer of publishing rejection can add to or trigger our existing wounds.

Yet we keep subjecting ourselves to potential rejection, over and over again—from editors, agents, and even negative reviews—that can feel like an attack on our soul. So why do we do it? Because we have the need to share our stories with others, to have a voice and be heard, and when we finally get that, it can outweigh all the publishing-industry rejection we’ve received. But getting there can be rough. It’s so important to hold on to hope, and to not give up on your publishing journey.

It took me more than ten years and hundreds of rejections to get SCARS published. I had done my research and knew that it could take a while, so I was mentally prepared for some rejection. The rejections hurt, but I knew I needed to let myself take a day or two to deal with how I felt, and then get my manuscript back out there, as well as listen to any feedback editors gave me and weigh whether I should use their suggestions; keep getting feedback from other writers; and revise my work. But as the years went on and I received more and more rejections, they started to wear on my self-esteem and my soul. I felt hopelessness and despair, and wanted to give up. I’m glad that I didn’t. Evelyn Fazio, my editor for SCARS and HUNTED, plucked SCARS out of the slush pile, and I’ll forever be grateful to her for that. Around the same time that I got the contract for SCARS, I also got a contract for my hi-lo YA novel The LAST DRAGON from Paul Kropp at HIP Books. It was validating—after ten years of rejections, I had finally broken through.

Getting those book contracts brought me such happiness. But receiving letters from readers telling me that I’d helped them to stop cutting; to talk to someone for the first time about their self-harm, abuse, or being queer; or even to keep from killing themselves brought me even more joy (and continues to). I would never have had that experience, never been able to help people on such a large scale, if I’d given up at my first fifty rejections, or even the first hundred.

I thought that once I got published I wouldn’t receive any more rejections (cue hysterical laughter), but that just isn’t true. I know enough now not to give up, even when I feel like I want to. But sometimes it’s still hard.

So how do we as writers deal with rejection in a healthy way? Here’s what’s helped me:

  • Don’t give up. If this is your dream, if you NEED to write and get published, keep submitting your work. You can’t get published if you don’t send it out.
  • Get feedback on your manuscript, weigh what works for you and what doesn’t, and then revise. If you’ve received a lot of rejections, it’s important to get feedback from other writers you trust. Sometimes your manuscript or your query isn’t quite ready to send out; it may need more editing. But once you’ve received feedback and polished your manuscript, if you really believe in your piece, then send it out again and keep sending it out.
  • Remember that every rejection is subjective—it’s an opinion based on that editor’s or agent’s personal experiences, taste, and what they think will sell. A rejection may not have anything to do with how good your writing is. In other words, just because you get a rejection it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with your writing. It just may not be the right fit for that editor, publisher, or agent.
  • Remember that you only need one yes. All the rejections you’ve received up until now won’t mean anything once you get that acceptance letter or phone call.
  • If you’re receiving personalized rejections where the editor or agent comments about what they liked in the story and what didn’t work for them, then you’re close/r to getting an acceptance. Editors and agents are inundated with submissions, and for them to take the time to comment personally on your manuscript and mention what they liked means it stood out from the thousands of others. Keep submitting your work.
  • Keep hold of WHY you write, what drives you to write, and what gives you joy from writing. Remind yourself of those reasons; they’re important.
  • Commiserate with other writers. Talk about rejection. It helps to know that we’re not alone, that other writers are going through or have gone through the same thing.
  • Read stories about famous authors or some of your favourite authors who received rejections. It can help to see that they, too, received rejections, which in hindsight may seem laughable. For instance, CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL was rejected one hundred and forty-four times before it was published; ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE by Robert M. Pirsig was rejected one hundred and twenty-one times before it was published; THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett was rejected sixty times by agents before it was accepted; and one of my favourite books A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L’Engle was rejected twenty-six times before it was published. Even HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE by J. K. Rowling was rejected twelve times before it was published! These are all highly successful books that multiple editors rejected based on their own opinions, taste, and experience. You can read more examples here: (https://lithub.com/the-most-rejected-books-of-all-time/)
  • Recharge your creative and emotional batteries. If rejection is wearing at you or interfering with your writing or your submission process, do things that help you remember why you love writing. Re-read one (or many) of your favourite books; this can help you fall in love with writing again and feed your creative well. Or you may need to do something separate from writing and reading, something that makes you feel happy and alive. Do something fun. Connect with people you love. And then come back, refreshed, to your work.
  • Hang on to the positives you’ve received about your writing. If you’re not yet published, think about feedback you’ve received in a writing critique group or from a fellow writer. If you’re published, you can also re-read a favourite reader letter or review. We all need encouragement, especially in the face of rejection, and positive feedback can bolster us to keep moving forward.
  • And, of course, always work on improving your craft. That will help your work stand out from others. Read as much as you can—both fiction in your genre and outside of it, and also writing technique books. Some of my favorite writing technique books include: THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby (I use it to help plan every book I write); the entire A BUSY WRITER’S GUIDE series by Marcy Kennedy; WIRED FOR STORY by Lisa Cron; THE EMOTION THESAURUS series by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi; and many more.

Following your passion can bring you fulfillment and a sense of rightness in doing what you were meant to do. I feel so much happier and stronger since I got published. I’m glad I didn’t give up, and I hope you don’t, either. Keep moving towards your dream.

CHERYL RAINFIELDis the author of the award-winning SCARS, a novel about a queer teen sexual abuse survivor who uses self-harm to cope; the award-winning HUNTED, a novel about a teen telepath in a world where any paranormal power is illegal; award-winning STAINED, about a teen who is abducted and must rescue herself; as well as two hi-lo YA novels THE LAST DRAGON and WALKING BOTH SIDES, and PARALLEL VISIONS. Cheryl Rainfield is a lesbian feminist, incest and ritual abuse survivor, and an avid reader and writer. She lives in Toronto with her little dog Petal.

Cheryl Rainfield has been said to write with “great empathy and compassion” (VOYA) and to write stories that “can, perhaps, save a life.” (CM Magazine) SLJ said of her work: “[readers] will be on the edge of their seats.”

You can find Cheryl on her websiteCherylRainfield.com

or her blog http://www.CherylRainfield.com/blog,

on Twitter:http://www.Twitter.com/CherylRainfield,


and FaceBook:http://www.facebook.com/CherylRainfield.

Art & Fear Perspective #4: Ishta Mercurio

photo credit: Claudia Osmond


Such a small word — only four little letters. But it’s so big, it’s bottomless.

There is so much fear around making art. So many questions and doubts that stem from a place of fear:

What if this is bad?

What if it’s good, but nobody finds it?

What if people find it, but they don’t like it?

What if people hate it?

What if my words are met with indifference, which is even worse than hate, because at least if they hate it, I got them to feel something.

Even worse than that: what if, in a year or five or twenty, I look back on this and I realize that *I was wrong*?

What if I write this today, and everybody says I am wrong tomorrow?

What if writing isn’t even what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? What if there’s some other, untried thing out there, at which I would be effortlessly brilliant? (Okay — not effortlessly. But maybe it would, at the very least, be easier than this. Maybe it would at least pay the bills.)

What if, what if, what if. Fear, fear, fear.

And that doesn’t even get at the existential questions that keep me up at night, the figure-eight loop of self-doubt and then doubting the self-doubt, and then doubting the doubting of the self-doubt, around and around, over and under forever.

If I’m wrong but people love it, does that make it right?If I’m right, but people hate it, does that make it wrong? And anyway, if people hate it, why bother?

What if this is all a waste?


Recently, I had to make a decision. It was a “Do I or Don’t I” decision, the kind of decision that I knew would carry Consequences, but the consequences were hard to determine ahead of time. Fear weighed heavily on both sides of the scale.

If I did nothing, the result would be the continuation of the status quo, which was rather terrible to begin with.

If I did something, well. What was the worst that could happen? (Reader, the worst that could happen was that I would never be published again.)

And as I was contemplating this awful decision, things were happening around me: things that were out of my control, but that had a shape, the shape life takes when it’s falling apart a little bit. Crumbling at the edges, and loose at the joints.

And I thought, “Well… It looks like this is the direction things are going to go anyway. What have I got to lose?”

And I let go.

I let go of hope, a little bit. And in letting go of hope, I also found freedom from fear.

I don’t generally recommend nihilism as a healthy lifestyle choice, but in those moments of paralyzing self-doubt, it saved me. Because when nothing I did mattered, I could do anything. I could try that ambitiously great thing, because if it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t matter. Even if it did work out, and in that working out it still didn’t matter on the grand scale of things, I would end up in the same place by doing as by not doing, so WHY NOT DO? We are but specks in the great cosmos that is the Universe, after all. Our time here is short, but while we’re here, we might as well make the most of it. Nihilism turned toward darkness is a dangerous thing, but nihilism turned toward the light can be freeing.

The key was in letting go of hope only enough to embrace the possibility that if the worst happened, I would still be standing. It is in this place, at the nexus of nihilism and hope, that creativity is most free. It is in this place that the question ceases to be, “What if this goes horribly wrong?” and becomes: “Who will I even be if I don’t at least try to find the words to tell this truth?”

That big fear that this isn’t the thing I’m supposed to be doing with my life is nothing against the bigger truth that my life, like all human lives, is small, and who I choose to be within it is the only thing I can control.

And so, for today, I choose this: this pen, this paper, these words. This is who I am. This is my truth. And in embracing this truth, I leave fear behind.

ISHTA MERCURIO is the co-author of Bite Into Bloodsuckers (published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside) and the author of Small World, forthcoming in spring 2019 from Abrams Books for Young Readers. She currently resides in Ontario, where she grows vegetables, films and photographs insects, and collects stories. Find her at www.ishtamercurio.com 


Art and Fear Perspective #3: Anna Humphrey

Writing in a Big Loud Voice

For me, writing has always been closely related to fear. Specifically, a fear of being noticed, and by extension, being judged.

I was a super-shy kid, who grew into a timid teenager, who became an apprehensive adult. I have close relatives who barely heard my voice before my 20s. But even though I didn’t speak up, from the time I could put pencil to paper, I was never silent. When I wrote, I had a big loud voice.

It started with a grade school play.

I was in second grade and we’d just finished putting on the Christmas pageant. Something about Santa Claus and a train. I was too meek for a speaking part. Instead, I rang a bell in the back row of the chorus—but I remember being wowed by the script. How could a pile of papers turn into sets, costumes, lights, characters? A whole story-world on stage?

It wasn’t long after that that my teacher, Mlle Desmarais, caught me writing a script behind my math book. Luckily, she understood quiet kids. Instead of scolding me—which would have made me fold inward like a dying leaf—she asked me to finish it later and bring it to show her. Then she went one big step further: she had the class put it on. That changed my world.

It wasn’t a great play: basically a rip-off of the Grinch who Stole Christmas, but about Easter, and in French. But there were costumes brought from home. There were sets painted on butcher paper. A few classes of big kids even showed up to be the audience. “Le Grinch de Pâques” came to life, and I didn’t need to say a word out loud to make it happen. From then on, writing became my way around fear.

Eventually, I found myself naked on the page.

I was lucky to go to an arts high school with a creative writing program. Bit by bit, along with a small group of peers, I worked up to sharing my writing and letting myself be seen and known through it—although I still didn’t speak much, except to close friends.

Then toward the end of high school, I entered a writing contest for teenage girls. It was a big one. The winning entry would be published in Chatelaine Magazine. The topic was body image. I remember sitting in my bedroom working on my submission, wondering what would happen if I dared to write about myself as honestly as I could.

My piece was called Self-Portrait of an 18-Year-Old Girl, Inside Out. It was an essay about my body as I saw it—all of it. I wrote about my breasts with no regard for who might read it. I talked about salsa dancing with a Latin boy who helped me see how beautiful I could be when I moved. I confessed to starving myself on a diet of plain rice. I talked about a sexual assault I’d never told anyone about and felt deeply ashamed of. I won the contest, and it was both thrilling and terrifying.

I opened myself up to criticism.

It was more terrifying than thrilling, to tell the truth—which was maybe why I eventually moved on to the safer-feeling ground of fiction. At least that way I could hide behind the characters and pretend that the things that drove them didn’t also drive me. All the same, the fear didn’t leave.

Writing is a very private activity; publishing is intensely public. I was 29 when my first book came out. I’d poured years worth of time and all of my heart into it and now there it was—finally on shelves. I waited to be judged. And I was judged.

There’s a graph you can watch on the Amazon author’s portal that shows your sales hourly. I hovered over it for weeks, feeling my self-worth surge and fall with each spike and valley. There are websites where you can find reviews written by readers. The first one I ever saw gave my book one star, with a comment “Don’t bother.” Some reviews were kinder—even glowing. (I don’t remember much about those ones.) Others said it was okay, but they didn’t like a certain character or the ending. I doubt it occurred to any of those reviewers that the author would read their opinions—or care—but I did care. Deeply. And I felt gutted, personally insulted, and lost. I really wanted to quit.

Writing has brought me full circle to face my fears.

But, eventually, a funny thing happened: I’d been judged through my writing, and some people found my words lacking, and some didn’t… but I didn’t stop doing it. In fact, I couldn’t stop. Writing had become my way of life. And although being judged brought me down low, it didn’t push me all the way under. After awhile, I stopped checking those websites and watching that graph. I learned I couldn’t please everyone, and that was okay. I was never meant to.

I’m learning why speaking up matters.

These days, I’ve been doing school visits and public presentations. It doesn’t come naturally. My inclination is still to hang back and stay silent… but an unexpected thing happens when you write books for kids: people assume you’ve got inspiring things to say to them. The first few times I stood at the front of a room full of students, my heart beat double time. I felt like an imposter.

But gradually, I’m finding my way. I don’t try to hide who I am. I tell the kids about being shy; the story about the school play and Mlle. Desmarais. I talk about how writing gave me a voice. I try to show them that I struggle, just like them.

I don’t always know if I’ve managed to reach the quiet kids in the room, but yesterday, just as I was leaving a class, a little girl in a pink dress tugged at my sleeve. She spoke so softly. Even though I could see how much courage it had taken her the first time, I had to lean down and ask her to repeat what she’d said. “I like writing stories too,” she whispered, then she hugged me. It was one of those moments of connection that can be few and far between as an author, but I know now: it’s worth walking through my fear a hundred times over to reach another kid like that.

ANNA HUMPHREY is the author of several books for young readers including the Clara Humble series, Mission (Un)Popular and Megabat (forthcoming from Tundra Books). She lives with her family in Kitchener, Ontario. You can find her at www.annahumphrey.com

Art and Fear Perspective #2: Kate Blair

Art and fear are inseparable. If you aren’t at least a little afraid, you’re not pushing yourself to where you need to be. Art is taking risks. Art is sharing, and art is exposing yourself. Art can help you face your fears, it can help you to work through them, and come out the other side.

I’m going to a book club filled with friends soon, to discuss my first novel, Transferral. Obviously, I’m scared as to whether they like it or not, but my fears run deeper than that. All writers know that when you write, you’re spreading your thoughts – conscious and unconscious – all over the page. You can’t help but reveal your hidden biases, your secret beliefs about how the world works, and how it should work. You’re inviting someone into your head and letting them have a walk around. What if they are disgusted by what they find in there?

Or even worse, what if no one cares? What if you spend years writing your next book, produce something that resonates with your soul, and no one wants to publish it? I remember, when I started writing Transferral, after failing to sell my first novel, my father said to me “Oh, are you still doing that writing thing? Don’t you think you’d be published by now, if you were ever going to be?”

I was tempted to give up. I was embarrassed that I’d spent so much time writing with nothing to show for it, nothing that anyone else wanted to read. It is easier, safer, not to invest yourself, not to throw yourself into something. You can’t fail and humiliate yourself if you don’t try. But you can’t succeed, either.

You can’t avoid fear. It will always be a part of your mental garden. It’s a weed that springs up all over the place – a prickly, painful thing to confront. Sometimes you’re too tired, too overwhelmed to deal with it, so you let it have a few inches. But it grows quickly. It fills the space around you with barbs and thorns. It can shrink your life down to a tiny sliver, a corner that you’re afraid to step out of.

This happened to me, after having my children. The weight and terror of being responsible for them caused me to retreat. I went from being someone who traveled the world alone and wasn’t afraid to jump out of a plane to someone who was terrified of taking my kids to the park down the road.

Writing helped me face those fears. Tangled Planet, my second novel, is all about fear: the fear that my protagonist feels for the new planet she has arrived at, and the end of her old life. I wrote it because it felt like I was also adjusting to a new world, a world where everything looked familiar, but held unseen risks; so that’s the problem I put in front of my protagonist. Making my character wrestle with the fact that that complete safety does not exist helped me to do so, too.

Fear is the key to writing your best stories. What terrifies you? What is the one thing that you cannot look at without flinching? That’s what you should stare down, and stick to the page. That’s what you should struggle with, until you find an honest answer – not a convenient one.

You must not look away. As I said, you’re letting your readers into your head, so you’d better have something worthwhile to show them. When you face your fears in your art, you’re inviting your audience to do the same. You owe them honesty and truth. Good art is a sword you can share, one we can all use against the encroaching fear.

Writing is terrifying, but so is life. They work well together.

KATE BLAIR is the British-Canadian author of Transferral, a Young Adult novel about an alternate version of the UK where criminals are punished by having the diseases of the innocent transferred to them. Transferral was optioned for television and nominated for the 2017 MYRCA, Snow Willow and Sunburst Awards. Kate’s second YA novel has just been released in Canada and the US. Tangled Planet is about the crew of a generation starship who have just reached their destination, only to find that a killer may lurk in the alien forests of their new home. You can find her at http://www.kateblair.com