Six impossible things


All writers are afraid of something at one point or another.

We are afraid of looking foolish; we are afraid of rejection; we are afraid of overreaching, of not knowing how, of getting it wrong, of not being good enough. We’re afraid of being broke, being taken advantage of, being stuck with something that turns out to be a bad deal. We’re afraid that the idea that seemed so brilliant a week or a month or a year ago is not brilliant at all, only nobody is quite willing to say so. We’re afraid that in choosing to write this story, we’re letting a much better one get away.

Fear is paralyzing. It affects everything: creativity, the mechanics of planning and working and sending things out, even the simple enjoyment of telling a story you really want to tell. Everything is suspended, like hitting a permanent “pause” button on life, because as long as one doesn’t move, none of the things one is afraid of can possibly happen.

But fear is a natural part of doing anything new. Everybody is nervous the first time they exercise a new skill, and triply so if they’re doing it in public. What a lot of folks don’t take into consideration is that for writers, every book is a new thing. Yes, we develop skills over the years, but they’re always being applied to a new story. “You’re only as good as your latest book” is an industry truism, and it’s just as scary a thought for bestselling veterans as it is for struggling mid-list writers and beginners.

I think that a lot of the problem stems from the difficulty of the balancing act all writers face. On the one hand, one must believe in the value and quality of one’s work, else one would never send it out. On the other hand, one must believe that there is room for improvement, or one will never get any better. It’s a teeter-totter, and when it gets out of whack, it’s all too easy to end up in a frozen panic.

The other problem is that writers have a difficult time trusting themselves. We know that the stuff we turn out isn’t perfect; if we didn’t realize that to begin with, our crit groups and friends and editors would straighten us out in a big hurry. We have to know that it’s not going to be perfect and do it anyway. And every so often, the teeter-totter tips and the fear goes up and we stop.

Getting past the fear happens in different ways for different writers at different times. I think the key is to recognize it and admit what’s going on. It’s a lot harder to make excuses about not writing when you’ve taken a long, hard look at yourself and admitted that really, you’re just scared to mess up. Support from friends is vital – the sort of friends who won’t simply dismiss the problem.

Experience helps, too. The first time I had to redo seven chapters of a manuscript, it took me a solid year (after I figured out that was what I needed to do) to sit down and start ripping the manuscript apart, because I was afraid that whatever I came up with instead was going to be even worse than what I already had. The second time, it took me a bit over eight months. The third time, it took about two weeks, and the enormous reduction in elapsed time was due entirely to the fact that I recognized the situation and the feeling, so that I could roll my eyes at myself and decide that it would be silly to waste all that time when I knew what I had to do, and that I was eventually going to do it.

Taking small steps, or even just zooming in on the details, can make a big difference. Yes, I’m afraid my novel won’t be any good, but right now, I just have to think about this one scene, this one paragraph, this one sentence. And then the next sentence…but not until I get to the next sentence.

Which is another part of the trick: setting the future aside. Because the future is what fear is all about – all the horrible things that might happen, that we might not be able to handle if and when they do. Some of them are inevitable – death, taxes, rejection – and there’s no point in worrying about what you can’t keep from happening. Other fears are phantoms. But the only thing any of us can actually do anything about is whatever we’re doing right now this minute.

Not writing a sentence because I’m afraid my novel will end up being terrible, I’ll look foolish, I’ll be rejected…well, that seems like an awful lot to load onto one measly sentence. Sometimes, it really is better to look at the small picture for a little while.

  1. It’s hard to believe you would feel foolish after writing so many books! I remember the first time I took one of yours off the shelf – I was 10 years old and living in Lexington, KY – we had a huge library with a globe in the middle of the children’s section so big that you couldn’t put your arms around the whole thing. Your books caught my eye because I loved dragons, and there were dragons on the cover. I read Dealing with Dragons first (this was maybe 1998? 1997?), and quickly ready the other books in the EF series. I remember asking for a set for christmas, but my parents bought me the softcovers. I found them in the attic the other day and I’m re-reading them as I move my things out of my parent’s house to take my first real job. I just wanted you to know that they are just as fun as the first time I read them so many years ago!

  2. “as long as one doesn’t move, none of the things one is afraid of can possibly happen.”

    And neither can anything else.

    That’s what keeps me going. I may crash and burn (or stutter and smoke a bit, not even getting a dramatic exit out of the deal 😉 ), but if I don’t *try*, failure is guaranteed.

    Which I guess means I’d better quit web-surfing now and go pick a direction to push that stalled scene in chapter 7 in, eh?

  3. Thank you for shining the spotlight on this problem. I think recognizing fear is the first step. Accepting and moving on is the second.

    I think of fear as the silent killer, the quiet doubt that dampens our greatest hopes. I have lost more years of my life than I want to admit, while I was yearning to go forward but restrained by the lie I was telling myself — that my best would never be good enough. Perhaps it was only the realization that never trying would be worse than failing that got me over the threshold.

    There’s always another fear monster to battle, so I don’t worry for challenges, because the obstacles get bigger because I’m getting better.

    So, to your fine article I add, “Amen!”

  4. I experienced the same paralysis with a different sort of project yesterday. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Thank you for this! This is just what I needed to hear today. It’s heartening (if hard to believe) that authors whose work I enjoy as much as I enjoy yours still have to face down this kind of fear.

  6. This is SO completely true and so much what I needed to hear at this point. (I’m a college student, so still practicing, really, but I just let a relatively new friend read something I’d written but not edited yet. TERRIFYING.) And there are so many different types of writerly fear, and once you think you’ve overcome one, another one shows its ugly face. Thank you so much for this post!!!

    I also have a writing question, if you ever have time… I’ve been having trouble with that point in a story from the lead-up to the climax to the aftermath. I seem to be able to set up the beginning-middle all right, even suspense-building, but once I hit the part where all the stuff I’ve been alluding to has to APPEAR, things tend to go over too smoothly and much too quickly, and I think it’s ultimately unsatisfying. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing wrong, but it feels like the story needs an extra PUSH that I don’t know how to give.

    I’ve read all the stuff about there needing to be a part where it all goes wrong, so that you can straighten it out at the climax, but when I do that, usually my characters have this barrage of crazy emotions, listen to someone explain the whole thing (or run around and save the day), and then it’s tidied up and it just feels OFF. It’s weird.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for this.

  8. Fear is a subtle thing as well. You might think that you’re doing something for solid reasons but really they’re just excuses covering up fear…

  9. You obviously wrote this just for me! LOL! It’s wonderful and very, very helpful.

    Write on!!

  10. Hello again. I’ve looked everywhere for a “share” button or a “follow” button and found none. Am I missing something? I tried the RSS button, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

    My best to you!!

    • Beth – The RSS feed supposedly works for other people; I’ll have to check and see if it’s gotten broken somehow. There isn’t anything else unless/until I get the site redesigned. Sorry.

  11. Work – the curse of the drinking class.

  12. You have written exactly what I am experiencing now as I do revisions as per an agent request. I know that if I mess up these revisions, the agent will reject me and that will be that for this manuscript. I’d really like to work with this agent and I love this book. The fear is paralyzing. I’m second guessing every sentence and fighting self doubt every step. It’s hard work to be a writer!

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,