I first met Gitte through my friend Steve Cameron, but once I realised just how much she had acheived I was amazed that I hadn’t heard her name before. Not only has Gitte made her mark on the Australian scene, she is also hitting some very prestigious US markets and I have her pegged as a big name of the future. I have no doubt that in ten years she will be recognised as an Aussie success story and that I will be able to sit back and nod sagely, having predicted it now! It is always nice to find that people you consider well ahead of you on the writing journey have the same doubts and the same ability to second guess themselves as you do.
The Perils of Second-Guessing
As a low level writer trying to make my mark in the struggletown of publishing, I’m mindful of the fact that I should try my best not to rub editors the wrong way by doing blatantly amateurish things like submitting enthusiastic first drafts and attempting to curry favour with them by inserting cute photos of my cats into manuscripts. Emailing editors who have rejected my masterpieces, either to aggressively question their sanity/right to judge me/literary nous or sobbingly ask them why, why, why didn’t they like my story, is also high on my list of recognised no-nos.
Editors, I’ve been told, remember stuff. Editors, I’ve been told, talk to each other. About writers. The writers they remember. So I try not to be remembered for bad stuff. Which means, of course, that this is NOT a piece about editors. My mamma didn’t raise a fool. No, this post is about a deeper, ongoing psychological problem from which I suffer, a condition it took me a long time to acknowledge and subsequently learn to control. Well, all right, editors do play a small part in my some of my sufferings. But I don’t blame them, honestly. This is my burden, not theirs.
The first part of my problem stems from that fact that I actually read submission guidelines. And not only do I read them, but I strive to abide by them. To the letter. So far, so good, you might think (especially if you’re an editor). Not so, I tell you. Since like many writers, I am blessed/cursed with a plethora of somewhat anal personality traits, if I don’t strictly monitor myself, I can work myself into a particular type of mental twist that is brought on by a severe session of overthinking. The condition is called Compulsive Second-Guessing, and I get it bad. It affects all aspects of my life, but in this post I’ll deal only with how it has shaped my writing life.
You see, the more detailed a publication’s instructions are about content and style, the greater the danger that I will succumb to a bout of CSG. Bearing in mind that editors have memories like elephants, or so I’ve been told, and that I don’t want to be remembered for doing bad stuff, I can start to worry about specifics. I wonder whether my prose might be too poetic for Editor Number One, who often proclaims at great length a preference for plain language. Will hard SF loving Editor Number Two deem my space colonisation epic too soft and soppy? Might Editor Number Three at that notoriously quirky publication find my tale boringly mundane and be annoyed that I had the gall to send it? Could my carefully wrought finale be interpreted as the kind of surprise ending that Editor Number Four so vehemently despises? Will my forest-based tale containing a tiny fly through part for a fairy prove too traumatising for elf-phobic Editor Number Five to think kindly of me? Is there too much blood-letting and screaming for horror-hating Editor Number Six to ever forgive? Will Editor Number Seven, the self proclaimed humour expert, find my jokes flat and publicly mock me? Editor Number Eight comes across as an ailurophobe who will never condone my positive portrayals of felines, and Editor Number Nine’s unmentionable predilections frankly worry me. Finally, it’s a given that Editor Number Ten, who states again and again that only writing of the highest quality should be submitted, will deem my efforts woefully substandard.
Round and round in my head this sort of babble can cycle for ages if left unchecked. Once upon a time, the sad result of my tendency to envisage how editors will react to submissions before I’d even sent them used to be that I continually second-guessed myself into a corner and ended up not sending off very much at all. That is no way to play the professional writing game, where output is everything.
Fortunately, I sold a couple of stories that slipped through my self censorship even though I was certain at the time that they would be rejected, and I gradually came to realise I’d never succeed at writing if I didn’t tackle my penchant for prophesising doomy and gloomy fates for all my stories. I immediately instigated a program of loosening up, which involved obeying submission guidelines to a certain point of obsession, then backing off and throwing caution to the wind. Amazingly, this course of action worked. To my ongoing surprise, I keep selling pieces that I’m certain editors couldn’t possibly be interested in purchasing, and with each of these sales, I better control my egotistical belief that I have the ability to predict how a story will fare before I’ve even submitted it, none of which, as I’ve already mentioned a few times but will emphasise again, is the fault of any editor. Mea culpa completely.
The second part of my second-guessing problem was second-guessing what I could write about. This was easier to overcome, however, simply because I grew bored of repeating certain themes and writing bleak, dystopian SF in the same serious tone. I didn’t want to become a one note writer, but I wasn’t sure if I had more range in me. So I experimented with something lighter that I was, naturally, certain would be dismissed as fluff, and that story made it into a ‘best of’ anthology. I tried outright, outrageous humour and scored my first US publication. I started issuing myself with challenges, initially using themed anthologies to loosen up and have fun, and have ventured from the straight and narrow of traditional SF into steampunk, weird, fantasy, mythology, horror and even mashups. My most recent sales feature krakens, Jazz Age vampires and space travelling werewolves, as well as my very first writing love – bleak, SF dystopias. Who would have second-guessed I had it in me?
By now, hard-hearted souls reading this might be sneering at my condition, but excessive second-guessing can be a real problem, believe me. Trying to second-guess editorial preferences has, in the past, definitely hobbled my writing career. Second-guessing what I can and cannot write has in bygone days limited my scope.
But that’s all behind me now. These days, I just put my bottom on my chair, put my fingers to my keyboard, write diversely, produce as many quality stories as possible, submit widely, and, within reason, leave the sorting out of my work to others, a.k.a editors, because honestly, at this potluck stage of my writing career, I simply don’t have a clue when and where I’m going to make that next sale.
All I can do is try my very best not to second-guess whether or not there’s a professional future for me in writing speculative fiction, and simply forge on into the great unknown.
Gitte Christensen was born and raised in Australia, but also lived in Denmark for 12 years before returning to study journalism at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly and other publications, including the anthologies The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution, The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010, Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations and Return of the Dead Men (and Women) Walking. Three more of her stories are scheduled to appear in forthcoming anthologies (Mark of the Beast: New Legends of the Werewolf and 100 Lightnings). To escape keyboards, she regularly grabs a tent and a horse and goes trail riding through distant mountains.