The Facts vs. The Story You Tell Yourself
As an agent, I spend a lot of time talking writers through the obstacles and difficulties — both tangible and emotional — of a publishing career. We’re constantly making important decisions together and solving problems.
One thing that persistently thwarts a writer’s ability to stay positive and optimistic is the tendency to see a set of facts and then construct a “story” from those facts — a story that isn’t objectively true.
Like a set of blocks that can be used to build an infinite number of structures, a set of facts can be interpreted in numerous ways (although with the facts, some interpretations are correct and others aren’t.)
Here are some examples to illustrate what I mean:
Fact: An unpublished author has been querying agents for a couple of years with no success.
Story: “I’m a terrible writer and will never be published.” Alternate story: “The publishing industry is full of idiots who can’t recognize a good book.”
More positive and probably truer stories: “I haven’t yet hit my stride as a writer,” or “I haven’t yet found the right outlet to publish my work.”
* * *
Fact: A published author is notified that their publisher doesn’t want to renew their contract.
Story: “My writing career is over.”
A better story: “It’s time for me to talk with a trusted adviser (my agent), see if we can identify the reason for this change, and come up with a new plan for continuing my writing career.”
* * *
Fact: An author has received news from the agent that a publisher has agreed to buy their book; but a month later, there is still no contract.
Story: “The publisher is going to change their mind! I’d better panic!”
The true story: “Publishers sometimes take an unreasonably long time to generate a contract, and once the agent receives the contract, the negotiation process can take days or weeks. There is no reason to panic. It is exceedingly rare for a publisher to make an offer on a book, then pull the offer before contract.” (In fact, I’ve never once seen this happen.)
When faced with a set of facts, we tend to tell a story that’s negative rather than positive. Perhaps we’re trying to keep from getting our hopes up.
We also tend to construct a story that confirms something we already believe — or at least suspect is true. Since virtually all writers suspect they’re no good and will never find success in publishing, be aware that your tendency will be to create a negative story that confirms your probable lack of success as a writer.
The fact vs. story test can be applied to countless situations. If you find yourself frustrated about the path you’re on or something that has happened, simply ask yourself: What are the facts of this situation? And what is the story I’ve constructed? Could there possibly be a different story that is more true than the one I’m believing?
If you find yourself making up a negative story because you honestly don’t know a truer or more positive story, take the time to think about it, ask questions, do some digging and try to find a better answer.
What false stories have you constructed for yourself lately? What were the facts that led you there? What’s a better story you can tell?
It all depends on the point of view. Very beautiful. Thank you.
Brian Vickers Girlfriend
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Writers, don’t create self-fulfilling prophesies with your doubts. I struggle with doubts, too, of course–But I rather remain positive, even if my hopes are diminished slightly from time to time. This is another Great post, Rachelle. Thank you.
[…] I frequently reflect in my mind about how the search for an agent and the goal of publishing batters the self-esteem quite successfully. Agent Rachelle Gardner reminds me of the more rational voices in my head as she talks about The Facts vs the Story You Tell Yourself. […]
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[…] The Facts Vs. The Story You Tell Yourself (on publishing and being a writer) […]
Story: I have failed to establish a writing habit so many times in the past, mostly due to the feeling that competing demands on my time were more important – This time won’t be any different.
Fact: This is a different time in my life, I have fewer demands on my time and attention than any time for the last 27 years and I am ready to make writing a priority in a way I haven’t since I left school. This time it feels different, and there’s no reason why I can’t succeed.
I am a first time writer. I do not have a job so I have no money to pay for professional opinions. I have no experience in this enormous world of Publishers and Agents, so I try to read as much as I can; but, the more I do, the more I feel lost. I wrote a query letter sent it out to about 30 agents and counting. I got declined by all I have heard from. I have no idea if my writing is boring or just all around sucks! I feel like I should throw in the towel. Can anyone tell me how to get an agent to accept me as a client?
[…] On writing overload? Jami Gold has tips for recovering from writing burnout. Charlotte Rains Dixon shares the essential conditions for writing success; and Rachelle Gardner shows us how we might be stressing ourselves out by interpreting the facts into an incorrect fictional story we tell ourselves. […]
A great post again. Thank you, Rachelle.
Fact: I am a published author whose debut novel has been doing well but I desperately want to find an agent. I had sent query letters out a couple of years ago but had no success.
Story: I’ve waited too long to get an agent and now it’s too late!
A better story: It’s never too late to get a agent, I just haven’t found the right one yet. Now that I have a publisher I should try again as I’ll have a better chance of finding an agent.
I saw your article the other day and it made my day. Here is my contribution.
Fact: Someone left a negative review on my book on Amazon saying I’m a bad writer
Story: They must be right. Who am I to think I can write a decent book? Everyone is probably laughing at me right now
Truth: Look at all the people who have taken time out of their day to tell me they loved my book and how much it inspired them.
Its so easy to get discouraged as a writer. Thanks for your post.
You pretty much covered all my scenarios in your post. I’ve been waiting for over a year to hear back from my publisher after signing the contract. I will now assume that I will hear from her in the next three years. You might enjoy Kris Kahr’s post at Pen and Ink.
I find her scenario to be accurate right up until the letter S. I am putting S, V, and Y on my favorite dreams list.
Fact: I don’t write every day like my fellow writers.
Story: I’ll never be able to accomplish anything because I don’t eat, sleep, breathe, and drink writing.
Better story: I am me, not them. I have a full time job and have to help my family out–I just can’t make a daily commitment at this time. I may not be physically writing every day, but I am devoting time to my writing career daily and keep my stories and essays in my thoughts. I will achieve my goals by following my individualized path. Plus, I don’t get burnout and writer’s block isn’t as serious of a threat.
Great perspective that resonates with my life coaching clients. I’ll keep this in mind, not only with them but as I pursue my own writing adventures. THANKS!
Great post Rachelle. How true it is that we can make up what we don’t know to be fact and it can really hurt us.
When I was 10 years old I sang in the Music Festival, but did not win. I was devastated and for years I believed I could not sing. Many years later I came across the adjudicators comments which were completely positive – “beautiful little voice” ‘carries the tune so well’ etc. I’m still trying to get used to the idea that I can sing!
Story: I’ve sent my MS to an editor and an agent, both who requested it and haven’t heard back yet. They hate it and can’t be bothered to let me know
Facts: They haven’t gotten to it yet because the holidays put them and their work behind schedule.
I love the way you call it story, because that’s what it is. Truth: we writers are in the business of creating conflict and suspense while we hope for happy endings. Sometimes, you just have to role your eyes at us (behind your hand of course) and let us work through our drama. It could make us a boat-load of money on the next great novel.
Thanks, as always, for the encouraging reality check.
[…] Gardner (@RachelleGardner) has an interesting take on The Facts vs. The Story You Tell Yourself regarding some of the tribulations of the traditional publishing world. And while self-publishing […]
[…] http://rachellegardner.flywheelsites.com/2013/01/the-facts-vs-the-story-you-tell-yourself/ […]
So much truth to this, both in publishing and outside! Assumptions are rarely truth and can get one in a heap of trouble!
We all make them though, whether we say them aloud or not.
What gets us into trouble is when we ACT on those assumptions before we get the true story.
Fact: I keep zooming past self-imposed deadlines to submit my first novel to an agent.
Story: It’s not ready yet. I will never get this manuscript polished enough. If I submit it now, it won’t get a second glance. Why bother anyway? Never in a million years will I become a master at writing a compelling, publishable story.
A better story: The more I learn and the more practice I get, the better my writing will be. At some point, I need to let go and get this novel out there to an agent. Then move on to the next one. I can only learn by tenacious doing.
Letting go is what I need to do to!
I like what you said: “At some point, I need to let go and get this novel out there to an agent. Then move on to the next one.”
This year, I’m learning when to “let go” of my manuscripts, and stop editing. Done. Move on!
In my opinion, writers, especially novelists, are imaginative by nature. Add to that our, ahem, talents (real or imagined) for storytelling, it would make for quite a hyperbolic ado about things that are ordinarily plain and dull and possibly normal.
Fact: I’ve been working on my books for a long time.
Story: This is taking forever! There’s no end in sight! Why bother? What if no agent cares about my whatever-story-this-is? What if nobody shows up at the book signings (cue Parnell’s video with sound effects)? What if the sky is really falling sideways! What if the chicken’s cousin doesn’t know which road to cross? Aargh!
Truth: Writing takes time and work. As long as it doesn’t go past the deadline, I still have my day job (just in case), and I’m where God has placed me, there’s no reason to panic. I can tell myself: Now get thee back to the MSS!
Well! I wrote and published few children and YA books in French. I translated them in English. I was excited. Friends and non-friends read these stories and they all told me that they have to be published… my heart was filled of joy. But a dramatic event happened — I was victim of a violent assault — and it broke my life and… my dream.
Now, I am destitute, can’t go for self-publishing and surely in fear…don’t know how to… get an agent for a regular publisher.
BUT… with this dramatic even, I surely have a lot of new stuff to write another book.
So, for 2013, my resolution is: write, write, write and publish… but I feel a bit… paralyzed. Reading you give me courage 🙂
But how good is a story without CONFLICT and DRAMA and RAISING THE STAKES with heightened EMOTION? Drawing conclusions based on facts seems boring.
Thank you for the post. I’m going to use it as part of my presentation on obstacles writer’s face.
I had a fabulous author agree to read my manuscript-someone I admire very much. Now, I’m having trouble sending it. I know it doesn’t approach his work in quality. I’m afraid he expects more. In short-I’m a chicken. (But I will send it.)
I had stopped reading publishing blogs for the time being, so I find it ironic that I randomly decided to read this post, as well as another one that expressed a similar sentiment about false notions of what constitutes success. The story I’m telling myself today is that I needed a reminder that negative stories are not necessarily true, but interpretations of facts that may not be correct. Thanks. I’m trying to stay positive.
Great post. I’ll tweet this & included in one of my upcoming writer tips entries on my website blog.
Well-stated post, Rachelle. Good day for it, too. Got a rejection this a.m. at 7:59 – nice way to start a Monday, huh?
They say learn from your rejections. Well, I know that in any walk of life I encounter, if I have to reject someone’s professional proposal – be it a job application or a pitch for a new office supply vendor – I won’t do it first thing on a Monday morning. Very bad form!
Interestingly – and this is 100% honest – one of my first reactions was that I wanted to come on your blog and thank you for the advice that you give to a lot of writers that you will never make a dime off of. Like any business, I suppose, there are people who are about the dollar, and people who understand that success in any business is really about people.
Fact: Got a rejection letter from an agent first thing on Monday morning
Story: The hundred concepts that go through your head about why that agent is wrong
The true story: This particular agent might not have understood what’s important to me in business anyway
Nah, you didn’t get a rejection; you got a response! A response!
Someone knows you are out there.
How fitting that I should follow Beth Vogt, who speaks truth into my life when my inner voice wants to tell lies about my writing. We give our characters lies they believe about themselves as part of their emotional journey and character arc. The reader can relate to that because of the lies we all tell ourselves.
Rachelle, Thanks for a great reminder to look for the real story!
This is so wise. I write grants at work and have (had) a pretty fantastic batting average. But on a recent project that should be easy to fund, I’m striking out. The temptation is to say I stink at grant writing. A better story is to recognize it’s a down economy with fewer grants being awarded. And maybe God has a funding plan that’s better than mine!
What “they” say about me is right.
What “they” say about me is absolutely, positively wrong. Why the heck am I even listening to them, much less engaging in a conversation with them.
Sometimes, the wise move is not to engage the foolish.
Well said, PJ.
The false story? That I’m done my research. The truth? I need to make sure I’ve got everything I need, because there’s no going back once I have this baby in print.
Thanks for this, Rachelle! I’m a fan of practical solutions to real problems I face as a writer. Keep ’em coming!
Thanks, Rachelle. It is too easy to imagine the worst. I will change my self-talk.
Oh man, Rachelle. This is SUCH fabulous post! And it applies to so many situations even outside of publishing. In recovery, this idea comes up quite often–and the way you handled it here, gently and wisely, encouraging readers to see the story… Brilliant, my friend. You are such a gift to this world. H
My new positive story: To be successful, you are going to have to court rejection this year-live a bit outside your comfort zone.
On second thought, courting rejection is only needed to get me off the starting block. Once I hit my stride – in anything-the falsehoods or rejections fall away. So, what is the magic for hitting your stride? Telling yourself factual stories.
Well said, Cherry!!!
I’m glad you’re hitting the track, Cherry!
Thanks for making me think about my stories and my truth in a new way–very timely going into 2013 with new objectives and energy. Your blog is a good reminder for me to stop every once in a while and use this concept to determine where I really am rather than where I’m telling myself I am. Thanks!
My biggest failure AND success is with the mirror. I know objectively I’m a healthy weight, about 23-24% body fat, but every time I turn on the TV or look a picture of a famous person, I feel fat. I know I’m not, and I don’t engage in unhealthy eating behaviors to obtain a skinniness that would be unnatural for my body, and I remind myself time and time again that Hollywood is promoting an unrealistic image of female beauty. That’s my win. But I still wince when I look in a mirror and think about how much wider I am than the women who are considered model-worthy, and still get the gut feeling that I’m not attractive, although I don’t even find bone-showing skinny to be attractive in other people (just the opposite, in fact!). That’s my fail.
My gut lies to me. And no matter how often I set it straight, it refuses to listen.
Fact: I met with an agent in September, who called me and wanted to meet with me (I did not query this agent). During the meeting I gained alot of good encouraging feedback. I was told I’d get a phone call after the meeting to talk about the next steps.
Story: I was scammed. I was only asked to come to boost attendance at the conference. She didn’t really mean any of what she said to me.
Fact: She called me. She is a very reputable agent. She wouldn’t just “blow smoke” to increase attendance. I have to be patient. This process can sometimes take time. I was one of many she met with that weekend and each person’s project is different and will require different plans of action. It may take her awhile to get to me. That doesn’t mean she didn’t mean what she said about my writing.
Well, that was easier to type than to believe.
This is so good, Rachelle. I need to remember there is usually more than one story. I definitely need to keep an accurate perspective, and you’ve reminded me that I need to look beyond the story that most easily comes to my mind to the truth, which is almost always a different and better story.
This is good.
I’ve fabricated a novel of lies in my head. Maybe that’s why I’m passionate about digging deep and fighting those lies.
Always searching for the better story.
This is so encouraging! Thank you, Rachelle, for your insights and positive message.
Another super post, Rachelle! I’ve been in Scenario #2 at a time in my life when I didn’t have time due to family circumstances to forge a new path for my career. What a difference it makes to have an agent able to walk an author through that valley! To modify a line from an old television commercial: A good agent? Priceless!
I love your voice of reason!
I’m going to be speaking Truth out loud to myself. 🙂
My creative self can be pretty good at coming up with scary scenarios. Over the past few months, I’ve been training myself to do the opposite.
Running too late this morning to share, but had to acknowledge what a great post this is. Totally true, and with a strong solution as well. Thank you!
Fact: You have red pen on so many pages!
Truth: If it’s bad, I don’t mind going back to the drawing board. Many moons ago I couldn’t say the same. Growth is necessary and there are many paths and I’ll travel each one required.
Truth: “I get knocked down, but I get up again” as the song says. A perseverant spirit is crucial. When I found out what ‘indefatigable’ meant, I really liked it!!
I try to leave the storytelling to the blank page. Give it to me straight – I’m done deluding myself. If it’s a no, it’s a no. If it’s bad, it needs attention or scrapping. Some things are a matter of taste, so perspective is required, but there’s no point in delaying the process by excess falsities. Shaken but not stirred 😉
If it’s bad, it can only get better.
Fact – I’m not getting as much metalworking and welding done, as quickly as I’d like
Story – I’m getting lazy
True story – I broke my hand, and badly damaged the tendons therein. When you wake up every morning with your right hand balled into a fist that takes half an hour to manually unbend, something’s not right
Okay, yeah, sometimes it takes a while for the penny to drop, eh?
Oh no, so sorry! Sometimes the working with the hands (or the long meditative walks) are what it takes to keep the story straight and positive. So, the silver lining here is, uh, well, you can type with one hand-I completed the last semester of college that way.
So sorry. Have you tried the free speech-to-text programs that some sites have? I know Word has one.
The trick with those is to realize you need to say the whole sentence so the program will know whether to use their, they’re, or there.
Once I learned that, things went more smoothly. This would be a good time to work on your writing. Try my website if you just need to laugh. It’s funny.
And sometimes someone needs to take the penny away and replace it with a rock so you get the hint faster???
Yes, the hand is in bad shape, but I can promise I don’t know anyone with more guts and determination that you.
Ouch times two. I pray your hand heals soon, my friend.
Speedy recovery. Hands are indispensable for sure.
Rachelle, you are like ‘the light in dark places where no other light shines.’ It’s the niggling fear of the unrepresented and unpublished writer which stems from vaguely trying to justify spending all free time writing that for me, this morning, was just leading to ‘what on earth am I really doing here?’
Fact: I’ve been writing my novel for eighteen months and the one before that for four years. The previous one is resting in a deep drawer; I know what needs to be done to it one of these days. I’m in the process of preparing to submit this one, but still revising and not sure if it’s time to just go for it or not.
Story: I’m never going to get any further than this and I’m wasting all my free time (of which I have so little) writing.
True Story: I’m still finding my writer voice and I need to ignore those around me who don’t write and don’t understand the passion. I am ready to submit and if this one doesn’t grab the imagination of an agent – I’ll write a better one. My ambition is to be published; my motivation is to tell stories and write them down more fluently every time I sit at my laptop Just Before Sunrise. 🙂
I totally get your “story”. Knowing it one day will be ‘unwasted’ keeps you going, right? 😉 You’ll get there. Just keep swiming, just keep swimming…
In an interview, Maxine Hong Kingston said she took about 10-12 years on most of her books. She switched to poetry in one of her recent manuscripts so that she could cut back on the time it took her to complete it–it took four years.
Guilty. *hangs head in shame*
Thanks, Rachelle. Bookmarking this for when I need to set myself straight.
Lately is not so entertaining as my wild ideas of two years ago, but I’ll stick to the question. 🙂
As of late, I’d reached the conclusion that my writing was not interesting because no agents were looking beyond the queries. My daughter, a marketing major, said, “Dad, ninety percent of your books are great, but you put too much information in the first chapter. Trim those and people will get beyond them to your stories.” Then she added, “Your first chapters don’t even sound like the rest of the book.” Really? Whoa. I looked at them through her eyes and she was right. I’d tried to sound “literary” in my first chapters and wound up sounding like a professor. My voice kept silent until chapter two. Lesson learned.
Thank God for daughters! Come to think of it, my son(s) can spot a faulty story I am telling myself a mile away too:)
Kids are good about that and usually quite savvy.
Smart girl, it’s nice to have fresh eyes in the house, especially from someone who loves you.
Very true. She’s not an editor, but she knows marketing and what grabs attention.
Your daughter is brilliant.
You are a wise dad because you are willing to listen to your daughter.
In journalism, I learned to cover up the first 2-3 paragraphs of an article I’d written and start reading from there. That’s when I finally started to write the story I wanted to tell. Someone once referred to those first few paragraphs as “coughing up a hairball.” I only wish I’d written down the quote.
So … yeah. Your first chapter? It’s a hairball.
But then again, so is mine many times.
What a catty thing to say. 😀 Good analogy, Beth. Only thing to do with a hairball is clean it up.
My dad’s a poet and I can’t count how many times I’ve helped him revise so that the wording is “just right.” It takes a lot for a father to take advice from his daughter, but daughters have the most loving reasons for providing constructive criticism. 🙂
Maybe it’s a coincidence that I’m a Marketing major as well…
Fact: I’m doing a lot of revision before I query, and in this time I have seen multiple writer-peers draft, revise, and start seeking representation.
Story: “I’ll never get there. I should be querying by now, too.”
True Story: I’m a different person, with a different project, at a different place in my writing life. I’m doing what I need to do by making sure I’m ready to query before I start.
Wow, that felt good. Thank you for this post.
Great blog. Ive revised my WW II novel a bunch of times, sent it to twenty agents, got some interesting responses, and got very discouraged. You’ve given me the impetus to get it out there again! Thanks.
I hope you haven’t changed the ending. 🙂