Great SF authors share their biggest writing setbacks — and how they triumphed

Any time you read a terrific science fiction or fantasy novel, you're witnessing a great victory. Every writer faces armies of doubts and difficulties. We're at WorldCon, where many of science fiction's greatest authors gather to share ideas and war stories. So we asked some of our favorite writers what their biggest writing setback or stumbling block was, and how they overcame it. Here are answers from Connie Willis, Jo Walton, John Kessel and seven other fantastic authors.

Top image: Cover detail from Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty Seventh Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois.

Connie Willis (To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout/All Clear, Doomsday Book)
I think my biggest stumbling block as a writer was my own self doubt. I constantly was feeling like, "I can't do this, and nobody wants me to." And every single rejection slip seemed to come at that, you know. I was working by myself without any contacts with other writers or other people in the business. So I would just get so discouraged and I would sort of stand in my own way.
How she overcame: Not that I am urging people to be cocky or anything, but just sort of ignore all those "I'm not good enough" and "I can't do this" and "I'm a huge failure" [messages]. Writers just need to ignore that, pretend it doesn't exist, and move on.

James Patrick Kelly (Burn, James Patrick Kelly's Strangeways, Wildlife)
My biggest stumbling block was [that] I really learned to write from [the] Clarion [writing workshop]. I graduated from Clarion, and there was no writer's workshop. I had total writer's workshop withdrawal. I just couldn't write — well, I could write, but I couldn't understand how to rewrite without that workshop feedback... It was sort of hard to write, do a draft, and then not figure out how to finish the story.
How he overcame: Ultimately what happened was, I started some workshops, and my friend John Kessel started a workshop. And that sort of got me back on track.

John Kessel (Corrupting Dr. Nice, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories)
I don't know if this is a stumbling block, but I had a real setback when I won a Nebula Award for the first story I ever had nominated for a Nebula, in 1982. And you might think that was a good thing — and it was a wonderful thing, I don't regret it a bit. But I was sort of discombobulated by it. "Now I won a Nebula Award, I'm a Nebula Award-winner. Oh gosh, what am I going to write next? It's gotta be different. It's gotta be really good." So I was just frozen up for a year and a half.
How he overcame: I realized it didn't matter. Nobody was going to read what I was writing. (Laughs). No, [I realized that] no-one would care. They wouldn't remember who won the Nebula a year and a half [ago].

Jo Walton (Among Others, Farthing)
Mine was when my first husband told me that my writing totally sucked and wasn't worth a damn. And I believed him, because I was 22 and I was in fact pretty bad. And I didn't write anything for another seven years. So I stopped. People tell you that you've got to keep writing and you mustn't stop. But I stopped writing, and then when I started again, I was better.
How she overcame: You can stop, you can start again, because I did. I definitely was better. Objectively, I was better. I was practically publishable when I started writing again. When I look at the things I wrote before, they were just tosh. I did in fact write a lot of nonfiction in the in-between time. I edited an events guide and wrote editorials for it, and those got better as time went on. And I was online, and I was writing and I wrote role-playing stuff. But I wrote no fiction, and almost no poetry. And it was all backed up. When I started writing again, I was at a nearly good enough stage. And it's possible that if I'd kept writing when I was 22, I would have been published before I was, but I don't know.

Catherynne M. Valente (Palimpsest, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Deathless)
The economy crashed in 2008 — you might remember that — and I couldn't sell a book for a good long time. Had novels, sending them out, nobody took them. I really thought it was over for me. I only had three books out, and I was pretty much ready to pack it in.
How she overcame: I did a [crowd-funded] novel called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, before Kickstarter was a thing. And it came out in print, and made it on the New York Times [Bestseller] list, and saved my entire career. So that was pretty much the bottom for me, and ended up saving me.

David D. Levine (Space Magic, "Tk'tk'tk")
My biggest stumbling block has been simply making the time to write. I know I should. I actually want to. But somehow or another, there's always something else to do. There's always another cat to wax, or dog to vacuum, or something. And so just actually sitting down and putting the words on paper is my biggest writing challenge.
How he overcame: I try all kinds of techniques to fool myself. I have a star chart that I put up stars. Or I offer myself some kind of reward if I write every day or something. And like any other reward thing, it lasts for a while and then it loses its effectiveness. And then I have to find some other bribe to force myself to do it. But I know I'm not alone in this, because I once visited Robert Sheckley at home. And tacked up over his writing chair was a promise to himself that if he didn't do so many thousand words by a certain date, he would write a letter to his most hated political opponent — the worst Republican you can imagine — he would send him a donation, along with a letter of support. And he would do this if he didn't get his words in for the month. I was actually kind of pleased to see this, because it indicated that even Robert Sheckley had difficulty making the words.

Daniel Abraham (The Long Price Quartet, The Dragon's Path, Leviathan Wakes (with Ty Franck))
The biggest stumbling block in my writing career was the 15 years of failure that came before I sold anything.
How he overcame: Mostly I overcame that by getting to a place where I looked on it more as a game I was playing with the post office. It's like ping pong, where I send something out, get it back, send something out. And I started to enjoy that process for itself, and not think about the fact that it was one failure after another, after another. Put that aside. Fifteen years, not selling a damn thing. I started young.

Rachel Swirsky ("Fields of Gold," "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window," Through The Drowsy Dark)
Sometimes I have problems where I get into a mode where even just looking at a page on a screen makes me panic. And getting past that is a really intense thing to do.
How she overcame: I use relaxation techniques. And one thing my therapist said to me was — and this is so corny — to think of my writing as what I could give to the world. That actually made me calm down. Not like, I had to perform for something. But just like, this is what I do in the world. And that was useful.

Gwenda Bond (Blackwood)
I got an agent in 2009 and we didn't make a sale until early 2012. That's a pretty nerve-wracking thing because you think she'll fall out of love with you. And you just have to keep writing books and not be married to one project.
How she overcame: At a certain point, you just kind of get zen about it, and realize you have very little control over the market, and who's buying what when. And you just have to write what you have to write. And trust the person you're working with to get them out there.

Eugene Fischer (Strange Horizons, Asimov's Science Fiction)
My biggest stumbling block becoming a writer was actually deciding it was an acceptable thing to do with your life. I started writing while I was busy getting a degree in physics, and thought I was going to be a physicist. But started to be way less interested in that than in making up stories about what I was learning. And for a while, I had serious personal debates about the personal ethics of, "I feel like I could be one of those people advancing the forefronts of human knowledge and studying science. Isn't that a more meaningful contribution than making up funny [stories]?" So it was actually a process of coming to terms with, "But I want to do this more, and that's okay."
How he overcame: I guess I eventually decided that being good at something didn't mean you had an obligation to actually do it. I guess I decided that being a passionate person creating something is a meaningful way to contribute. You don't have to maximize along the axis of what contribution would be the most good for the most people, you actually are making a contribution by being a passionate person creating things.