A Halloween Post: What Scares This Writer


It’s Halloween week, and as this is the season for all things spooky, I thought it might be fun to look at things that scare me.  I’m not talking about big hairy spiders (like the Huntsman Spider in Australia that was in the bathroom one night when I got up to pee — it was sitting on top of the door and when I shut the door, it fell off and landed on my hand.  I jumped up and back — simultaneously — about six feet, screamed like a little girl, and never, ever used the toilet again) or axe murderers (I have no colorful stories about them, though I think that if one fell on my hand as I closed a bathroom door, I’d freak out a little) or Dick Cheney.  No, I’m talking about writer stuff that scares me professionally.  Maybe some of these fears will sound familiar to you, too.

1. What if I run out of ideas?  Most of the time I don’t worry about this one.  I have lots of ideas, enough to keep me writing for the next five years or so. But beyond that, who knows?  I do wonder what I would do with myself if my creative well ran dry — no more ideas, no more stories, no more books.  It’s not something on which I like to dwell.

2. What if my books stop selling and I can’t get publishers to give me new contracts?  This is the big one; the fear that keeps me up at night.  It is for many writers.  Because the truth is, there are no guarantees in this business.  Most of us go through down times in our careers, when trying to sell books to publishers is as frustrating as panning for gold.  You’ve read it here before:  writers are only as successful as our most recent book — if one book tanks the next sale will be harder, and chances are our advances will go down.  If a second book tanks, well, in today’s market that can be enough to kill a career.

3. What if I’m halfway through my newest work-in-progress and the narrative dies on me, leaving me with no way to tie things together?  This one used to terrify me.  Not anymore.  It’s not that I’ve grown out of the problem or that it doesn’t happen to me anymore.  Just the opposite.  It happens with every book.  I’m used to it.  Eventually, I find the narrative thread again, get past the sticking point, and finish the book.  The secrets, at least for me, are a) trusting my idea, and b) listening to my characters. More often than not, my original idea turns out to be sound. And if it turns out that I need to change something to make the book flow once more, my characters will let me know.

4. What if my editor and/or agent hates my manuscript?  I worry about this with every book, though it has yet to happen.  Now, to be clear, I have never once had my editor or agent say “David, this is perfect, don’t change a single word.”  (Boy that would be nice.)  They always have constructive criticisms and suggestions for how I might improve the manuscript.  But they have never said, “Wow, this just sucks.  Scrap it and start again.”  Which, of course, doesn’t mean I won’t worry about this again when I hand in the current WIP.

5. What if reviewers hate the finished product?  I worry about this one far less.  Inevitably some reviewers will hate it; some will love it.  When I was first starting out, I took every bad review to heart, even if the good reviews outnumbered the bad by three or four or ten to one.  Now, not so much.  I know when I’ve written a good book; I won’t allow a book to go to press if I don’t think it represents my best work.  That is the measure I have to use in assessing my writing.  Because pleasing every critic is impossible.

6. What if my next royalty statement sucks?  This is another of those fears that strikes close to home for most writers.  Because nearly every one of us has known the disappointment of a lousy royalty statement.  I work hard to promote my books, and I have tried to accept that there is only so much I can do to have an impact on my overall sales.  There is always one more blog post that I could write, or one more signing I could do, or one more bookstore I could visit.  I can drive myself crazy trying to do everything possible, and I can spend so much time on promotion that I stop writing, stop seeing my family, stop sleeping and eating.  Eventually, I have to say, “Enough.  I’ve done what I can.”  It’s hard, though.  And I still sweat every new statement.

7. What if my newest story/book is rejected?  Relax.  It will be rejected.  Seriously.  And yes, that really is supposed to make you feel better.  Rejection is part of the business.  I have published more than a dozen novels and lots of short stories, and I still face rejection all the time.  Sure it hurts.  But the thing to remember is that rejection is not a verdict on your talent as a writer.  It is not even a verdict on the quality of your story.  Rejection means that one particular editor, on one particular day, did not feel like buying your particular story/book.  That’s all.  Yes, lots of rejections of the same piece may mean that it needs revision.  But even that is not a verdict.  Rejection, in the end, is a negotiation.  The story/book is not working for this person, which may mean that it needs to be reworked.  It does NOT mean that your story sucks.  And it does not mean that you should stick it in a drawer and forget about it.

8. What if I am never published, despite all my hard work and my deep passion for writing?  This is not my own, because I have been incredibly lucky. I know, though, that for so many aspiring writers, this is the big one (as opposed to number 2). I want to give you assurances that your break will come. I want to promise you that your hard work and talent will be rewarded eventually. But there are no guarantees in this business. I’m sorry for that. Truly I am.  Please, please, PLEASE know that we here at MW are pulling for all of you and hoping that your big breaks are just around the corner. That’s why we maintain the site. Until then, BICHOK.  Keep at it.

9. What if someone were to tell me tomorrow that I can no longer write for a living?  For me, this would be the worst.  It’s also never going to happen.  Not because my sales are so amazing that I’ll always have publishing houses beating down my door, begging me to sign contracts.  Far from it.  Rather, it won’t happen because I refuse to give up.  If I can’t sell one manuscript, I’ll write another.  If I can’t sell to a big publishing house, I’ll go to a small publisher.  If that doesn’t work, I’ll self-publish.  Writing is hard, it can be scary, there are so many challenges that we face in today’s market.  But I love what I do and I will not give it up.

So what do you fear?  What is it about writing that scares you the most.  Oh, and happy Halloween!

David B. Coe

23 comments to A Halloween Post: What Scares This Writer

  • Wonderful, wonderful post! Your 2, 6, and 9 are the ones that keep me up at night (often, literally). I’m in the midst of a re-tooling now, making a shift from traditional publishing to a model that relies heavily on self-publishing on a small-press (Book View Cafe) platform. There are things I love, and things that terrify me — even more than I’m terrified of huntsmen spiders!

  • Oh, the fear that I won’t have time to write. Or that my needing to carve out time to do so will hurt/annoy my family when I have to go back to the daily grind. I’m worried I won’t be able to find enough time in the day after work or before it to actually sit down to write between the little’n’s homework, dinner, and other things I need to do around the house.

    I usually don’t have a fear of running out of ideas, but more that I’ll never get to finish those ideas, or that I won’t make anything of my writing before I kick the bucket and all that stuff will be wasted. I’ll probably have in my will somewhere that someone finish any of my works they feel will be marketable. Don’t want my epitaph on my tombstone to be, “well, he tried to become an author.”

    I also have the fear that if I do end up self-publishing those things I feel confident about, no one will read them, or they’ll hate them, or that I won’t be able to get the word out there about them and they’ll bomb. It’s one of those little fears scratching at the door I’ve boarded up in my head, but it still whispers through the crack underneath in tones like spider webs against the skin in the dark.

    I’ve probably got a few more, but those are the biggest.

    Well, back to writing. Maybe I’ll even do a couple more three sentence horror stories today for some fun practice. Just in case you don’t know what I mean: http://www.authordjdavis.com/?p=79 🙂

  • […] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness and several other wonderful writers. Today’s post is called “A Halloween Post: What Scares This Writer,” and it’s about the things that scare me professionally.  I hope you enjoy […]

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I’m with Daniel – fear of not being able to write all of the cool ideas bouncing around inside my head, or at the very least the four or so that are next in line and have been really pounding to get out. Because it’s been taking me *so* long to write this first book (Almost. Done. Editing. Really. Really! (and lest you think it’s just me unwilling to let go of the editing pencil, I’m a chronological editor and I’ve had several chapters that needed full re-writing))

    Partly I have this fear because I’m the sort of person who *can’t* focus all of their free time on writing; my creative energy goes away when I try that for too long. Case in point: m main goal this weekend was to finish re-writing Chapter 20, and I was moving at a blurry snail’s pace. I stopped then and used most of my free time to read a new book. When that was done, I finished re-writing chapter 20!

  • I’m afraid I won’t ever finish a novel again. That scares me to death. I have to finish this story I’m working on because I have a deadline. And it’s Friday. (OMG! IT’S FRIDAY!! Ahem. sorry.) But that scares me. That I won’t get my S#!t together and finish my novel.

    I also always read BICHOK as “Bitch, Ok!” I’m not sure what that says about me. Or if it is inspiring or not.

    And now, I’ve got to go to another meeting. I LOVE academia. Really. And in this meeting, you know what is on the agenda? Planning another meeting. No really. I’m going to a meeting about a meeting. Argh. And there will be debate about the meeting.

    I think I’d add that to my list of things that scare me: Endless meetings. (Which translates to: the bad things about my day job so consuming my life that it kills my ability to do anything else, and it drains me of the good things about my day job that I love, and of the passion to do things outside my day job, too).

  • So as someone who’s naturally anxious, this is a twisted sort of candy dish. Hm, which one do I want today, sheer panic or crippling terror? (Sorry, black humour helps.)

    One that scares me is voice, or lack thereof. What if all my stories come out sounding the same, or my voices are limited?

    Time’s definitely one of my fears, too. That once signed, I won’t be able to write fast enough and the agent/publisher will hate me. Mostly because I took so long to get to where I am now. But I know I’ve grown faster at this, and my skills have much improved. When I worry about this issue, I try to remember that the time leading up to where I am now has all been about learning the craft and pushing myself to get better.

    From your list, 4 and 5 definitely strike me. “What if X hates this?” Add to that “What if I’m not fast enough for their liking?” or “What if I make a misstep and do it wrong?” But it all boils to, “What if they hate me?” I’m trying to get better at this. I’m at the point where rejections don’t make me burst into tears anymore. (Back to the black humour. A few weeks ago I posted to FB, “No cure for a hangover like the bitter cold of waking up to a rejection in your inbox.” True story, though the hangover was slight hyperbole. It just helped to laugh about it. I almost felt guilty about all the condolences I received.)

    And don’t forget impostor syndrome! This past weekend was SIWC. In his keynote, Jim Hines spoke about it. That worry definitely lurks within me. Especially because as part of my pitch preparation, this summer I buckled down and immersed myself in current YA high fantasy. Talk about ego-shredding. But as Hines said, our stories matter. Someone out there wants to read it. So I’m trying to remind myself of my story’s strengths, and how those could even be advantages.

    I also came away from the conference with a steaming pile of fear-of-success worries, but I’ll spare everyone those first world problems right now. 😛

  • Mindy, thank you. Yes: 2, 6, and 9 are my big ones, too. Although not as big as the spiders. Live in Australia for a year, and you get a pretty healthy fear of spiders…

    Daniel, not having the time. That’s a good one. Kind of the opposite of the “run out of ideas” fear. The rest — the ones born of insecurity — I think EVERY writer has to some degree. There’s no escaping it.

    Hep, that’s interesting. If I had my way I would write all the time. Few things frustrate me more than having to give up part of my work day for something other than writing.

    Emily, I understand that one, too. To some extent I have that fear each time I start a new book — “What if this is the one that I can’t finish?” But at least we have SOME control over that one, right. I mean, if we’re determined enough, we will find a way. That’s what I tell myself, anyway…

  • Spiders not so much. Centipedes, yes. Centipedes in the shower stall, YES.

    David, By Jan. 7, I’m releasing my 30th book. I am looking back on a career that is amazing and wonderful and, and … and I am blessed beyond belief. And I still stress about all the same stuff you listed. Especially, well, all of them. Yup. All. Including number 8, because I feel that for all our writers here who are starting a career or writing to start a career. So sadly, while it does get better, my fears never totally go away. That said, it’s been a wonderful ride!

  • Imposter syndrome. Yeah, I should have included that one, Laura. Though a lot of the ones I listed are components of IS. It’s amazing the different fears that each of us faces. And yet, they all boil down to pretty much the same thing: “What if I’m not good enough?” I deal with that one all the time.

    Faith, that is an amazing accomplishment. Congratulations. And yes, boys and girls, she’s right. The fear never totally goes away. Ever. For any of us. There is a silver lining to that, though. The fear keeps me motivated. Seriously. Does it do that for the rest of you, too?

  • The fear keeps me motivated. Seriously. Does it do that for the rest of you, too?

    Absolutely. It always has. As much as it can be soul crushing from time to time, it’s also what pushes me to try harder to achieve my goal. To send to just one more place. To get those extra couple hundred words to finish a chapter or that extra page of edits when I should be starting dinner or going to bed. Because I will not give in to it. As I once wrote: It is better to risk failure by trying than to remove all possibility of success by not trying.

  • OakandAsh

    That Imposter issue is a biggie.

  • sagablessed

    The fear I will die before finishing my stories.

  • My biggest fear is that I’m deluding myself, and I’m not a good writer at all, that I don’t really have anything worthwhile to write about and so of course I’ll never be published.

    On days when I’m feeling pretty good about myself, I switch to my second fear, which is that I’m starting too late in life to really accomplish anything with my writing since I didn’t start until well into middle age.

    I’m also afraid of once again getting so caught up in my day job, and/or so exhausted by it, that BICHOK slips away from me and I never finish anything I’ve started over the years.

  • Daniel, turning that “soul crushing” fear into action is one of the most valuable forms of alchemy we writers perform.

    OakandAsh, yes it is. For more on it, see this post: http://www.magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/more-on-fear-and-writing-part-ii-impostor-syndrome/

    Donald, I don’t know if this is reassuring or not, but of course you will. We all will. There is always one more story to tell. I would rather die with another idea burning brightly in my imagination than live past the point where the ideas have abandoned me.

    Sisi, I would refer you to the impostor syndrome post that I’ve linked to in this comment. That’s what you’re feeling. And you’re never too late in life to write. That’s the glorious thing about this profession. The more you live, the more experiences you have to draw upon and the better your writing becomes. Never finishing anything is a tough one, but keep at it and you will finish. Really.

  • Razziecat

    NUMBER EIGHT. Sometimes #1, but #8…..oh, hell yes.

    And Dick Cheney 😉

  • Vyton

    Great post. Nothing like enumerating my fears to help me feel organized. Really feel like I have all of those that apply to the not-yet-published, including the impostor syndrome (big time), what if they hate me, and of course, starting too late. This is helpful to read about your fears, David, and to see all the comments. Thank you for this.

  • quillet

    #8, oh my lordy, yes, #8. That and the fear Laura mentioned, that I won’t be fast enough. But I second what Vyton said: this helps! Your post and the comments. Thank you for this.

  • Thanks, Razz. Keep the faith, and keep at it. Because the alternative is to give up, which is not really an alternative at all, right?’

    Vyton and Quillet, thanks for the kind comments. We all harbor these sorts of fears, and yes, that is a comforting thought.

  • Pumpkins. Carved pumpkins. Spiders, not so much. I like them. And not finding time to write. And realizing I really suck at planning/plotting. And pumpkins.

  • Megan B.

    Currently my biggest fear is that my whole career will be like performing for an empty theater. I’ve had a handful of short stories published, but aside from a couple of close friends, I don’t actually know if anyone read them, let alone liked them. Seeing my story published is a thrill, but when that high fades I want to at least know that some people (preferably people I don’t know) actually noticed my story.

  • I love this post – helps put a name to so many fears that I have, but didn’t know how to identify. What’s scaring me most right now is that I’ll make the wrong decision and somehow sabotage my career, which is just getting started. I just finished a three-book contract, and … now what? Do I try to find an agent and go the traditional route? Do I go back to self-publishing? Do I stay with my current publisher (if they’ll have me)? Do I change my name and start all over again in a different genre? I’m glad to have so many options … but I’m scared I’ll make the wrong choice.

  • Lyn, your comment was wonderful — cracked me up. Thank you! And if you suck at plotting, then go the pantser route (my recent post notwithstanding).

    Megan, we all worry about this, even after we have books come out. Writing is weird in that it sometimes seems like we send our work out into space — it’s often met with silence, which can be disconcerting, to say the least. I’m sure people saw your stories — you’d probably be surprised by how many.

    Jodi, it’s great to see you here! I would certainly recommend trying to find an agent, because part of an agent’s job is to worry about this stuff for you. We all wind up making a few poor choices along the way — the profession is a lot like life that way. But you’re off to a good start. Looking forward to hosting you here on MW next month!

  • […] First, let my apologize for the site difficulties we had recently.  I had a post up about writerly fears that I removed when the site failed and moved to another blog.  You can find that post here. […]