You’re never truly ready
Some thoughts on trying new and scary things
My kids have been in school for about a month. This is an especially big milestone for my little guy, who started Kindergarten this year. After just a few weeks, he’s already well acquainted with our morning routine, he’s making friends in the classroom, and boy has he conquered those steps on and off the bus.
But on that first day of school he seemed so small to me. His backpack looked massive on his tiny shoulders, and as I waited to send him off, I was hit by an overwhelming rush of emotion… At how scary new experiences can be at his age. How big the world was compared to his lived experiences so far. How he wasn’t ready to start this next phase—he couldn’t possibly be ready—and yet, he was.
This experience—being not ready and definitely ready at once—is evergreen. We face it multiple times in our life.
You’re never truly ready to face a new experience. It’s new! How could you be ready for it? No amount of research or planning can truly prepare you for the real thing. Heading off to college? Starting that first job? Having a kid? Writing a BOOK?!
None of us know what we’re doing. We’re figuring it out as we go.
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Sometimes, you just have to start
For years, I wrote the opening chapters of novels, then promptly quit. I always wanted to be a writer, but most of my childhood, college years, and early twenties were spent typing out a couple chapters and then saying, I’m not ready to write this / I don’t know the world/plot/characters yet / I need to plan more / I need to think more / I’m not good enough… and on and on.
There was always an excuse.
When I finally finished a first draft, nothing had changed other than the fact that I refused to let myself quit. I still wasn’t truly ready to write a novel. I had no clue what I was doing. I could have used more experience under my belt. But that’s the thing with experience: you only earn it by putting in the work. You become experienced by doing the thing.
So I wrote that first novel, and I still remember the feeling that hit me on the other side. I literally sat back from my laptop, and thought, Huh. I did it. It was super hard, but also kind of fun, and really rewarding. And then after a pause: I bet I could do it again.
There are different kinds of ‘ready’
There is a huge difference between being ready to try something and being ready to master it. I think we often get hung up on that distinction. Or at least I do. I often want to be really, really skilled at something before I jump into it. Otherwise people might see me fail. And that’s uncomfortable.
But you don’t have to be an expert to start. You just have to be ready to try.
If you want to complete a marathon but don’t actually run, you wouldn’t start your training with a 20mi jog. That would be ridiculous and, let’s face it, dangerous. But you would be ready to start somewhere. Say, a walk around the block or a lap around a track.
Similarly, if you want to publish a book but have never drafted one, you are not ready to start querying agents. But you are ready to start drafting on your own computer. (I’m giving you permission to start. The nice part about writing a book is that it hurts literally no one. It’s just you and your words.)
Getting published, however, means involving other people’s time: critique partners and agents. Hopefully editors. Eventually readers. So yes, that requires a different level of “preparedness.” Sometimes you finish a draft (or partial draft) and end up reflecting on what you’ve written and deciding it’s not quite ready. (Projects often move to the back burner, so that you can brainstorm more or develop things better. And this is fine, it’s part of the process!) Other times you are proud of the book, revise it, and end up even prouder, in which case, great! Now you might be ready to start querying.
My point is that where you start will vary depending on your goals and experience.
I think this is what I realized about my son as he climbed onto that bus the first day. Of course he wasn’t truly ready. He didn’t know all the things an elementary school kid knows. But he wasn’t supposed to. He was ready to start. He’d had a few years at pre-k and he was emotionally and mentally prepared, and so the time had come to start learning and growing in the Kindergarten setting.
No one is a master of something out of the gate. No one.
We have to find where to start, then we begin, and we figure the rest out along the way.
I’ve never felt truly ready
If you’ve been with me from the start (or even for just a few years) you know that I tend to jump genres. When I debuted (with a dystopia), I was terrified. I had no clue what I was doing. I leaned on the knowledge of fellow author friends, because everything was new to me that first year—book events and speaking engagements and self-promo and how publishing is structured and works. I wasn’t ready. I was SO not ready. But I did it, and as I worked on the trilogy’s sequels, I found them a little less intimidating, because I’d done it before and now had an idea of what to expect on the business/industry side too.
But after that trilogy was complete, I wrote a western and found myself feeling unprepared all over again. I wasn’t a historical fiction writer—I wrote dystopia! Could I actually do this? Maybe I hadn’t read/written enough of this genre to try. (I started and did it anyway.)
Then I wrote a sci-fi horror. (I didn’t feel ready. I did it anyway.)
Then a middle grade fantasy. (I’d never written middle grade before. I did it anyway.)
Then a dystopia again.
I wrote a bunch of projects in between all these novels and following my most recent release, but not all projects go on to meet readers. And even though I know that it’s just business, any time something doesn’t sell, I hear a really ugly voice whispering insecurities in my ear. A voice that makes me feel not ready.
Today, I’m working on something new—something I have barely spoken about publicly because I’m afraid to jinx it. I’m a little terrified of this project, because I once again, do not feel prepared. (New genre. New audience.) And there’s that voice in the back of my head saying mean things like, You are not qualified to write this. It’s new and big and scary and different—maybe because you’re not ready.
But we’re never truly ready, right?
I’m as ready as I can be. And that’s enough.
Please do the thing
If you are a writer who wants to be published but don’t feel ready, please do the thing anyway. Without a doubt, there are people out there who are definitely not ready and they are doing it confidently.1 So why not you?
Please know that I am not advocating that you try to publish the first thing you ever write, nor am I advising that you email agents without researching how querying works.2 I’m just pointing out that many people do do those things.
So if you’re sitting at your computer, toiling away at your story—a story that you’ve received feedback on and revised—and you’ve studied story/craft a bit, and researched agents, and have a basic understanding of how publishing works, and you want to get published? You are ready enough to try.
It will still be scary, and doing the thing doesn’t guarantee success, but you’re as ready as you can be.
Be brave and take that next step.
Until next time,
Erin Bowman is the critically acclaimed author of numerous books for children and teens, including the Taken Trilogy, Vengeance Road, Retribution Rails, the Edgar Award-nominated Contagion duology, The Girl and the Witch’s Garden, and Dustborn. A web designer turned author, Erin has always been invested in telling stories—both visually and with words. Erin lives in New Hampshire with her husband and children.
This is the Dunning Kuger effect, which “occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. By contrast, this effect also causes those who excel in a given area to think the task is simple for everyone, and underestimate their relative abilities as well.” [via] When you’re a novice, you don’t know what you don’t know.