Saturday, June 27, 2015

Learned Helplessness

Most of my inspiration for this post came from a video on this topic ( that impressed me when I first saw it.

Here are the basics of what it’s about. The term “learned helplessness” was coined during (or after?) an experiment with dogs, a pretty cruel experiment. Two groups of dogs were given shocks. One group could not avoid them, the other group could jump over something and get away. After that session, both dogs were permitted to get away, but the first group did not do it! They had “learned” to be helpless. Only after lifting those dogs away at least twice, were they able to unlearn the behavior.

There’s much more to the video, but I’d like to use this part and relate it to two aspects of mystery writing.

First, our characters. We can use this knowledge to understand why abused women and children don’t escape their environment. They’ve been well taught that they can’t get away. If you ARE writing characters in similar situations, this gives you what you need to know to portray their plights realistically.

Second, we, the mystery writers. We’ve been given a certain amount of learned helplessness, too, Another part of the video deals with people and their roles as employees or managers. We tend to stick to our roles. The writers write. Only a few years ago we were completely dependent on agents and publishers. The employees, not the managers. And not in charge of our future. If we want to go that route, we still are.

However, many of us have learned to take advantage of opportunities that weren’t there those few years ago: small press publication and self-publication. None of us are dependent on agents or big publishers any more unless we wish to align with them. We have almost too many options! It’s hard to choose which route to follow. (I won’t go into it here, how I’ve followed all the routes at once. That makes me either ambitious or insane. Sometimes I don’t know which.)

We can not only choose how to get our work published, we can choose who to market it to and how to do that. We can hire a publicist or do it all ourselves. We can use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, giveaway contests, giveaway strategies, conferences, writing organizations, webpages, blogs, newsletters, and probably some other avenues I’ve left out.

Of course, no one human can do all that AND write more books. And stay sane.

But all we have to do as writers today is decide our path and follow it. We don’t have to wait for someone else to grant us permission.

The video ends with this quote, so I will, too.

Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

All pictures from


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

You must keep on going on. At least that's what I do.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for commenting, Marilyn. You're right--around the roadblocks or over them, but onward.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Kaye. Having so many options can be overwhelming, and the best cure for being overwhelmed is to lie down in the middle of the road and/or get out your laptop and check Facebook... Well, all right, not the cure, but at least a tiny temptation. Do you think it's easier for writers who're just getting into the business and never experienced the old ways of doing things? (I'm not sure which category I fall into; I arrived when the business was in total chaos.)

Kaye George said...

That's a good question. I came in as the earth was shifting beneath our feet, too. I struggled for a few years trying for an agent, but when the gates opened, I went for small press, then the agent came later.

I would guess that it's harder for the old school writers, but I may be very wrong about that.

Morgan Mandel said...

Persistence is the name of the game.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for the comment, Morgan. That's the necessary ingredient, all right.