Overcoming Writing Fears

Katy and Donna have done a great job of articulating some of the fears that grip us all when it comes to writing for publication.  Fear of failure is one I've struggled with, and it can loom so large that it can stop you in your tracks, making you second guess every sentence, every word, every choice in your novel.

Ironically, the fear is most gripping when I've already failed.  When I've submitted something I think is ready, only to find out it needs significant reworking or even a rewrite.  If you've ever gotten a revision request, an edit letter or a critique, you've probably experienced this fear on some level.  In each of those moments, I've been able to see what wasn't working in the manuscript, once it was pointed out, and I agreed with the feedback.  That didn't make things better.  It made them worse.  I could see exactly how something I once thought was good was really not quite as good as I'd thought, and it made me question everything.
 And I mean everything.

When I sat down to tackle the revision, I was terrified.  Paralyzed.  Gripped by fear.

 But somehow, I worked past it.  Through it.

I'm still not entirely sure how I did it, but here are some things that definitely helped me stare down my fears and defeat them:

1.  Read Books that Have What Your Manuscript Lacks

Once I knew what my goals for the revision were, I put the computer aside and went to the bookstore.  I asked friends for recommendations  of books that had what my manuscript was missing.  I went back to some of my personal favorites.  And I read.  And I read.  And I read.   When I read something that really stuck with me or that did something really well, I analyzed the pages to try to figure out how the author used language, voice, plot, or character to bring the story to life.  This is a bit like reverse engineering, and it's not an exact science.  For books with really tight plots, I actually graphed out the scenes so I could see the plot trajectory and figure out the pacing.  For books with really great chapter endings, I studied each one and tried to figure out what made them such page turners. For books where I was fully invested in the romance, I tried to analyze what it was about the characters or their situation that made me care about them. 

2.  Study Craft

This is different than studying other books.  For me this meant searching out blogs with writing tips, books and workbooks that focused on the areas I needed help with.  Remember the week I blogged about sequences and setpieces this spring?  I knew I needed to replot my story, and I was studying plotting techniques.  Just writing those posts cemented some basic plot structures in my head and helped me get going forward. 

3. Brainstorm

Take some time to free write ideas for chapters, scenes or plot twists.  During my craft research, I came across the index card method of brainstorming scenes.  It provided a quick way to plot an entire novel in a day.  It goes like this:  take a bunch of index cards.  On each one, write one sentence to describe a scene that should be in your story.  If you're struggling, start with the big scenes, the inciting incident, the turning points or reversals, and the climax.  Keep writing things down, until you have at least 50-75 cards.  Now pick out your four major scenes and place them at the bottom of a cork board in order.  The first one is your inciting incident or point of no return and marks the end of Act 1.  The second on is probably your Act 2 climax, usually some sort of reveal or turning point.  The third is your Act 3 climax, usually a big reveal or reversal- possibly your character's darkest hour.  The fourth is the end of Act 4- the climax of your book and its resolution.  Now use your other cards to fill in between the scenes.  Add new scenes where there are gaps that need filling or as additional scenes occur to you.  Voila!  You have the outline of a book.

4.  Outline and Plan Your Revision

Now that you've brainstormed plots, scenes or even new characters, come up with a plan for incorporating them into your story.  Now is a good time to think about how these changes will provide your book with the missing ingredients.  Don't be afraid to borrow a well done narrative structure or cool literary technique from your research.  That's what all that research was for!

5.  Find Your Happy Place

Now you open the manuscript.  The  curser blinks up at you and reminds you that you've already tried and failed at this. Blink, blink, blink.  Yeah, that curser has no conscience.  You are feeling the weight of that edit letter/revision request/critique on your shoulders.  You can feel it laughing as you draft that first crappy sentence.  You must find a way to get past it.  For me, getting past it involved plugging in my ipod, putting on my playlist and just typing.  At first, I was frozen and my writing was stiff and scared.  But a strange thing happened as I kept writing.  The more I wrote, the more I forgot to be afraid.  Occasionally a character surprised me with something wonderful, and I gradually forgot that I suck.  Eventually, my happy place found me.  Oh yeah, working on my manuscript is my happy place.  Whew, fear almost made me forget.

6.  Go Off Book

You've got an outline and a plan for revision.  That's great.  Now put it out of mind and only look at it if you get blocked.  That's right, throw out all that careful planning and start writing.  Your brain will remember the important parts on its own.  But now that you're off book, your subconscious will open up and you'll be free to come up with new, even better stuff, all while still on the right path.  My favorite scene in this novel is one that came out of nowhere while I was revising.  The characters really connect emotionally, and it makes me believe in their eventual relationship.  The book needed this scene, but it wasn't in my outline. 

7.  Forget Everything 

Don't worry about all those craft tips while you're writing those new scenes.  Craft is a tool for revising.  When you're writing new scenes, stay in the moment.  There's no need to choreograph conflict or action.  Let them happen naturally.  You can always change it later.

8.  Channel Your Inner Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison looked at failure this way: "I have not failed, I have found 10,000 ways that don't work."  That's all writing failures are:  experiments that don't work.  Experiments that lead you to the one way that does work.  No writing time is wasted.  You'll learn something every time you put words to paper.  Whether its a discovery about a character's real motivation, a snippet of dialogue that works perfectly in another scene, or just what it is that your story doesn't need- you're that much closer to getting it right.

In the end, I'm still afraid.  I can't stop the fear, but I can write through it.  And so can you.

What do you do to get past the fear?


I have a very overbearing Inner Critic that makes it difficult to free write a story. I think it's one of my more powerful manifestations of my insecurities. I think once I can wrangle that pilgrim, I'll be lot better in dealing with my fears.

One of my temporary fixes is to focus on the things that were pointed out as things "that worked". I can review those things, compare them against the things that didn't and sort of reverse-engineer a repair for the scenes that just didn't make it to par. Occasionally, I get brave enough to scrap a whole scene and start over with the corrections in mind so that it comes out better. That tends to put a nice muzzle on my fears.

I eat chocolate. It doesn't always work, but it makes me feel better. And actually, I do several of the things you've listed here, but only after that paralyzing fear has eased up a little. I'll be coming back to this one, Talia, I'm sure...

Angela, you can focus on the positive? I am in awe. I've done the scrapping scenes. In both books I've finished, I've ended up scrapping at least half the manuscript. It's a wonderful feeling when you come out the other side with something better. But- SCARY!

Katy, I'm with you on chocolate. Probably a little too much.

What a great post! I'm bookmarking it, because I've been there many times...

Deadlines usually punch the fear out of me, because I don't have time to be afraid. I've figured out that the tighter the deadline, the better my work.

Unfortunately, that means a lot of writing in the wee hours and messy housekeeping... :-)

Yes, chocolate definitely helps. Also humor. Sometimes it's fun to write parodies of my own scenes, just to get laughing and having fun again.

Post a Comment

Grid_spot theme adapted by Lia Keyes. Powered by Blogger.


discover what the Muses get up to when they're not Musing

an ever-growing resource for writers

Popular Musings

Your Responses

Fellow Musers