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To Publish You Need to Give Up Control

Control your attitude Brian Tracy quoteRight now I’ve four games and nine short stories under review, that is, a publisher has them on her desk and is considering whether to publish them. Or more accurately: a publisher has them in her slush pile and hasn’t taken the time to go through it yet.

It’s not much but I’m a traditional one-submission-at-a-time kind of guy (that’s suboptimal, but I’ll can of worms that topic for later). I know writers who’ve got literally dozens of submissions out. I know game designers who have tens (game design tends to have a somewhat lower turnover and longer lead times). But numbers aren’t the point. The point is that every writer or game designer, including me, had to do one thing in order to get their works into the hands of publishers:

Accepting a loss of control.

Control is not Perfection

As long as you keep your work to yourself you’ve got total control. You can change it. You can scrap it. You can alter it in any way you choose. But that’s not the control we’re talking about.

The control that keeps people from submitting is the one that says “as long as I don’t show my work it is the greatest work in the galaxy”. That’s right. As long as you don’t show your work, as long as you don’t evaluate it, it’s the greatest piece ever created and no one, absolutely no one can disagree with you.

No one can agree with you either.

Sending out a piece doesn’t change it. It doesn’t do anything to the words you’ve put down. All it changes is you.

Control is not Freedom

You can keep your piece as long as you want. There is nothing and no one forcing you to submit. I have friends who’ve sat on the same game for years, not doing much with it, talking about Kickstarting it or showing it to publishers, but not moving forward. Their need for control keeps them confined to a small, comfortable space. They don’t need to face rejection but neither will they ever move on to the next stage of their careers and skills.

That might be fine for them. It might be fine for you. I know it isn’t fine for me.

Been there, done that. Fear sucks.

See, control masquerades as freedom. You think that as long as you’ve got control you’ve got all of your options available. You can choose the perfect publisher, the one who will love your piece and shower you with praise and money for it.

Not true. Yes, you can chose who to submit to but you can’t know how they’ll react. Maybe the would have been the perfect publisher but then they got a hundred submissions just like yours, picked one and now won’t publish another for some time. Control promises you the freedom to act when in reality it is the wall preventing you from acting. As long as you insist on total control the control you have is worthless.

Control is not Satisfying

Letting go of control Maya Angelou quoteLet’s say that you could control how others reacted to your work. You could choose to have them love it, choose to have them recommend it to all their friends, shout your name from the rooftops (amongst all the Satelite TV dishes if you live in a country that doesn’t have widespread cable). Heck, you could choose to have them give you a noble prize for it.

Would that be satisfactory?

If you’re anything close to normal it’s not (there are some mental disorders, like narcissistic personality disorder and some autism spectrum disorders where it is). You recognize the praise for what it is: empty, devoid of free will.

We humans revere free will. Not like crocodiles who are happy with their meat no matter what. We want to know that our sustenance was organically grown, is chemically free and just possibly will make the sun shine tomorrow. Taking away free will from praise is like a dictator ordering crowds into the street to cheer him. It’s like ordering a child to say “I’m sorry”. It doesn’t mean anything.

We want praise to come freely and justly for works that deserve it. And that requires that we lose the ability to control whether we get it or not. It’s like jumping from a diving tower. It wouldn’t be as exhilarating if someone lowered us into the water by rope.

Accepting Loss of Control

To jump in, to truly fly, we need to accept that we can’t control our fall. Cut the rope. Learn to fall free.

That’s scary. When I proposed my first article I was fortunate to do it to an editor that I personally knew, whom I had apprenticed under and whom I knew liked the type of slightly edgy subject I wanted to write about (web comics! giving away your work for free on the internet! – in 2004 this was news). I didn’t have to jump from a very high tower. And yet I was scared. So scared I waited until the very last moment when I could make the proposal, at the very end of my very last day before the fear of missing out trumped my fear of rejection. I stumbled up to the editor. I gave her my pitch. (I squeaked it out like a wounded bird actually. I must have sounded like I’d snorted helium.) She though about it for all of ten seconds and then I had my first contract.

Fear sucks. Doing something even though we fear it rocks. It rocks when we succeed. It even rocks when we fail because when we overcome our fear we can’t fail all the way. We’ve conquered the fear, accepted the loss of control and that, in itself, is a victory.

Fear sucks. Loss of control sucks. Diving from a tower sucks. Accept it.

I went the long and slow route, building up small victories over time, polishing away my fear with fine grained sandpaper. I know people who go the opposite route, who throw caution to the wind and bash their heads against the problem until their fear goes away. Maybe their way is better (it certainly is faster, if more painful – too painful for me). Either way it’s a way to accustom yourself to the loss of control, to prepare yourself for taking the next step in your career, your dreams.

There is no rope, there is only the short, sharp fear before we hit the water.

And that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover


  • Filip, this is a fantastic study for people who create. Years ago I wrote short stories (horror – my favorite author is Stephen King). While I was writing, and before I’d submit a story I knew that I was in complete control of the story and could do anything I could dream up within the story’s world. That is, until I submitted it. It took quite a bit of courage to send those stories off but in the end it was worth it because I ended up getting published and that feeling was amazing. One of the best feelings ever.

    It’s no different now. Creating the posts and projects we work on can never be truly appreciated if we keep them in.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      Glad you liked it and I totally know what you mean. The moment before sending something in is pure terror for me. Did I format it right? Did I miss something in the text? Am I sending the wrong version? Am I sending it to the right magazine?

      That’s one of the reasons I don’t sim-sub: I made the mistake of sending a sim to a mag that didn’t accept them and kept worrying about it for weeks (until I got rejected – never been so relieved of a rejection before or after). But I’ll have to get over that one too…

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