On Writing and Fear

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Recently the question “How do you overcome a fear of writing?” was asked in one of the writing communities I belong to. As the thread expanded and writer after writer weighed in with advice and encouragement, I was fascinated to observe writers in all stages of their careers pipping up to share their fears and how they struggle with and conquer them. It was also interesting to note that while debilitating fear froze several writers, it wasn’t ever the act of writing that caused their fear. No one is afraid of writing, of putting a story on a page. No, the fear might stall the writing, but the fear almost always has another source. Here are several of the common fears I observed and where they tend to fall in a person’s career.

Fear of failure: For many writers still struggling with their very first work-in-progress (WIP) the fear they expressed centered around failing to write the book or of the book being a failure. “What if I can’t  finish?” and “What if I suck and I’m wasting my time?” were the two most common expressions of this. If fear and doubt stalls the writing (or revising), failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the same time, running away from writing can become a type a flimsy shield, after all, one can’t actually fail if they weren’t really trying in the first place, right? (Not a good mentality, by the way.)

Fear of rejection: The fear of rejection probably goes hand and hand with failure, as a rejection is often (wrongly) interpreted as a failure. I’m seperating it because people who become crippled by fear of rejection tend to end up in three camps. On one side you have the endless revisers who work and rework a manuscript but never feel it’s ready to submit so never send it out into the world. (These people might even  have a desk drawer full of manuscripts which “just aren’t good enough.”) The fear of rejection stops them from ever moving forward in their career. On the complete opposite side, there are those who are so afraid of rejection that they never even attempt to get traditionally published and just go ahead and self-publish (short changing themselves on the possibility of bigger and better things.) Then there are those in the middle who do submit their work, but as soon as that first rejection arrives, they walk away from the manuscript and sometimes even writing itself because they don’t want to be rejected again.

Fear of success: Wait, that can’t be right: fear of success? Yes it’s true. Some writers approach rejection as the given. They are expecting ‘no’ it’s that ‘yes’ that is scary as hell. Why? Because they fear that everything will change once they have a yes.  There will be deadlines and editors and suddenly a hobby becomes a job.

Fear of disappointing: Now this fear isn’t talked about much because it is primarily a fear that appears after a writer is published and is busy working on the next project. As ‘professionals’  out in the public eye, published writers often feel the need to put on a brave face and show no weaknesses. But the fear is there (trust me, I struggle with it myself.) So what is fear of disappointing? It is the fear that a writer will disappoint her agent and editor (who were clearly crazy when they wanted her previous book) and disappoint all the readers who liked the book(s) before the current project and of course the next book has to be even better than the one they liked and . . . (insert dizzying amounts of self-doubt.) The more successful the previous book was, the harder the next book tends to be as that fear of disappointing everyone grows.

Wow, so that is a lot of fear and covers the full spectrum of the writing career. And it doesn’t even cover fears about the market, economy, bad reviews, etc. The good news is, few writers will suffer from all of these fears. The bad news, most will fall prey to at least one. So what do you do when fear catches you like a deer in the headlights and the thought of opening your manuscript makes you want to run away and do chores you normally abhor just to avoid having to write?

Well, here are a handful of suggestions:

  • Don’t dwell on the fear but replace those negative thoughts with positive mantras.
    “I’ll never finish/sell this book” or “What if everyone hates this book and never wants to read anything else I write?” won’t help you accomplish anything. If you find such thoughts creeping into your head, stop, take a deep breath, and tell that voice “Yes, I can write this book, and it will be the best book I’ve ever written.”
  • Give yourself a nice pep talk. You might give this pep talk  when you first wake up in the morning, telling yourself that you’re going to accomplish great (but realistic) things today or/and when you approach your manuscript. Keep things positive and the fear will have less room to take root and spread.
  • Write for yourself first. When you’re working on that first draft, write the story you want to tell the way you want to tell it. Pour yourself into it, ignoring everything else. Later, once the words are on the page and you’re ready to edit, you can worry about the market, what your dream agent/editor is currently looking for, or what your readers expect. If you carry all that with you initially, it will weigh you down, stifle your creativity, and give fear plenty of room to play havoc.
  • Writing is a business that requires a thick skin. If you’re afraid of rejection, find someone you can trust to give you an honest opinion of whether a book is ready to submit. If it is, get it out the door. Then forget about the submission and start working on something new. When those first rejections come in (and they will, that is just part of publishing) don’t take them personally. There are many reasons work is rejected and it doesn’t mean your writing is awful. While it could be that you need to work on your craft more, it could also be that the agent/editor just took on a similar book, didn’t connect to your book (but someone else will), didn’t know how to sell the book, or even was just having a bad day when she looked over the query/synopsis/pages–whatever you sent. Also, remember that even the biggest names out there started at the bottom and most could wallpaper a room with the number of rejections they received.
  • Don’t stop writing. It’s easier not to write, especially when fear makes you dread opening your document, but taking a deep breath and writing through it is the only way to move forward. Butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard will get the book done, edited, and out there, and then there is nothing left to fear (at least until you start the next project.)
  • And I already mentioned this, but it is the most important so I’ll repeat it. Always remember that you CAN do this. Stay positive, believe in yourself, and get back to writing.

Are you or have you stumbled into a pit of fear while writing? How did you cross that hurdle and start working again?

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15 comments to On Writing and Fear

  • Vyton

    Kalayna, this is a very helpful post. My main fear is of forgetting the fear that the manuscript is not any good and then of being over-confident and submitting it too early or — even worse — getting way over-confident and self publishing. Fear at the tertiary level is that the first draft was the best and I’m following a downward spiral with each successive draft. Other than that, I think I’m in pretty good shape fear-wise.

  • I fear rejection in all things. I fear not being good enough in all things. This, of course, carries over to my writing. Most of the time, I feel like a fraud in the writing world because I know that I’m not on the level of others. Sigh, I am attempting to overcome these things by writing the best book that I can and not comparing myself to others. That is easier said than done. My goal is to finish this revision and submit. I will likely need a good bottle of wine and a large group of friends surrounding me when I get that inevitable rejection letter.

  • Really great post! I think I’m in the fear of success–I have no idea what I’ll do if someone says yes… I’ve failed enough times at enough stuff at this point that, eh, rejection happens. Failure happens. If I can’t get back up again, then it’s time for me to quit. So I get back up again. 🙂 (That’s not to say that rejection doesn’t suck and hurt, mind you.)

    Right now, though, my problem is that I’m getting tired of working on my story. There’s football on. And hockey. And I’ve got an episodes of Dr. Who, Body of Proof, and Private Practice on my DVR. (Shush! I like cheesy medical soap operas!) And so I need to refocus and do the hard editing–the tiny tension increasing stuff that Donald Maas suggests in his “Breakout Novel” work book. And that stuff is hard work, man. Not the fun world building and stuff. Just the nitty gritty hard work. But if I don’t do it, it don’t get done…

  • Oh great post! Do you remember that childhood story about the Little Engine That Could? Yeah, that was my mantra for the first decade of my writing. “I think I can. I think I can. I know I can. I know I can!” I would actually say it aloud to get me to my chair and the PC booted up. Then it would change to, “Please God, just help me do this! I can’t! I can’t!”

    Once I was writing, I was mostly okay, except for the 3rd book under the Gwen name. I spent hours talking to the agent getting help in so many areas. I was pathetic, and am not ashamed to admit it. I did finally manage to get the book done. The little engine that could, did. And I guess for me, that is the answer. BIC. It overcomes most everything.

  • MaCrae

    I have all of those and more. I think my biggest one is called “Fear of Translation”. The translation of the scene in my head to a scene on the page and everything I’ve been taught about writing worked in. Most of the time, the scene get lost in translation and I’m left staring at a garbled splatter of words on the page that crushed my hope that this awesome scene in my head would turn out great. My biggest fear is that when I’m finally done trudging through my rough draft, I’ll look at it and go, “This is wrong. This isn’t at all what I thought it would be. This is horrible.” Even for a rough draft.
    But despite that, I Butt-in-chair and say “No. I’m a writer and I’m gonna tell this story right, even if it kills me!” And cage that horrible monster even though it shouts soul-piercing, self-confidence shattering words at me every time I tap at the keyboard. Grr.

  • Razziecat

    I’m afraid that my creativity will dry up. That I’ll get stuck and won’t be able to get going again. I’m also afraid that I’m too old now to succeed, that I lost all those years when I wrote so little and didn’t try to advance. Then I remind myself that nothing, nothing feels as good as writing; I must write, I have to write, I can’t imagine not writing. And the ideas do keep coming; currently I’m fighting off a “new shiny” that’s distracting me while I prepare for NaNo, and I have a bunch of other things to develop. I can’t get those lost years back, so I have to make the most of my time NOW.

  • Vyton, I’d put money on the fact that the first draft was NOT the best draft. While it is possible to over revise and edit the creativity and voice out of a novel, that typically doesn’t happen until the book is revised to death. Even the best writers have to revise before a novel is ready to be seen by others. If you feel like the book is getting worse as you revise, you’re probably just a little burnt out and the ‘new’ has worn off the book as you’ve read over it several times. If you put it aside for a while and came back to it with fresh eyes, you’d likely be surprised at how much you’ve improved it.

    Vikki, rejection always hurts, but you can’t take it personally. They aren’t rejecting YOU, the project just isn’t right for that person at that particular moment. Don’t ever let a ‘no’ stop you.

    Pea faerie, success can be terrifying. I never had major issues with ‘no’–I expected ‘no’ so I wasn’t disappointed when one arrived–it was ‘yes’ that sent me into a whirlwind of emotions (both good and bad). I think fear of success is a cliff you have to jump off of and hope to land somewhere soft. Just remember that you CAN deal with whatever comes your way after the ‘yes’ arrives.

  • Faith, I remember the little engine that could! Great role model (if you can consider a train a role model. ^_^ )

    MaCrae–oh, *hugs* on the ‘translation’ fear. Getting what you’re experiencing in 3D surround-sound in your head into words on a page is hard, but you can do it! Good work locking away that doubt-spouting monster and practicing BIC.

    Razzicat, I was about to say only the dead have no chance to succeed, but then I thought about the guy who wrote the Girl who Kicked the Hornets nest and realized that sometimes being dead isn’t that big of a stumbling block. ^_~ Anyway, what I really mean is that you are never too old–no one asks you to list your age in a query letter. And you’re right, you can’t get those years back, but like you said, you can make the most of now. As far as ideas drying up? I think all writers secretly fear that one, but I’ve yet to hear of a writer who ever actually ran out. As you said, shiny new ideas are always popping up. Best of luck with NaNo!

  • Fear of the Publishing Industry Realizing that they’ve made a terrible mistake and shouldn’t have ever published my work in the first place. Also known as “Imposter Syndrome,” it is something almost every professional writer I know wrestles with at least on occasion. I’m no different. Thanks for a well-timed, thoughtful post.

  • MaCrae

    Thanks for the hug! I couldn’t have described “3D surround-sound in your head” any better! (Sometimes I even make up music, ^.^) BIC is probably one of the hardest things for me to do because (don’t skewer me for saying this) I don’t feel “in the mood” or “inspired”. I swear I have ADD and sometimes it takes me longer than I would like to get to my computer to write and by that time I’m already distracted again. But sometimes BIC fixes everything! Sometimes I hammer away at the keyboard and go, “Did I just write that?” BIC to the rescue! *pictures a superhero cape*

  • Lady Ash

    Fear of Finishing

    I actually looked at this problem in myself over the past year. I still haven’t really found a way to combat it, but I really appreciate 1. not being alone and 2. suggestions for moving forward.

  • David, I’m constantly waiting for all the other authors to realize I’m a hack and don’t belong. ^_^

    MaCrae said: “BIC to the rescue! *pictures a superhero cape*”
    See, I now have a visual of that, and it’s not pretty as the first word in that saying is Butt . . . LOL

    Lady Ash, I can totally understand your fear of finishing. You’re right, once you finish, you have to go to the next stage. But you can do. Believe in yourself and your story and keep pushing along!

  • MaCrae

    Kalayna said: “See, I now have a visual of that, and it’s not pretty as the first word in that saying is Butt . . . LOL”

    That made me laugh so hard! Now I have this image in my head of a flying butt in a chair. Ha ha! With a cape!

  • For me it was a nasty mix of all of the listed fears, amounting to second-guessing myself and worrying that I’m still not good enough to submit my work. What helped me get over it was that about a week and a half ago I realized that I’d been dithering and I had no excuse.

    Then in sword class a few nights ago, I had that reaffirmed when my combat partner told me, “You keep gaining [control of] my sword but you don’t strike.” So I’ve got this list of a few more fixes I need to make to the WIP for clarity and completeness, and once those are done I’ll be sending it out.

    I feel so much better for having realized this.

  • Thank you so much for this. It’s really one thing to know the fears in your head and another thing to see them typed up on your computer screen. At points, I feel ALL those fears, and rarely I can sometimes just sit down and write away without thinking about them. I hope to take these suggestions to heart and put the fears in the back of my mind.

    – Ali