How to Write Your Novel When You’re Scared

How to write when you're afraid


There are times when you just don’t know what comes next.

For me, I’ve reached that point.

A year ago, I would have felt guilty saying this. Now, I don’t. I haven’t written a single word in my novel since the end of November.

I’ve focused my time and attention on other things like my family and my full-time job. Lately, that’s been my focus. And I’m totally okay with that.

I’m getting to the point now where some of the seasonal craziness is winding down. And I’m realizing it’s time to start writing again.

But I’m scared.

I’m really scared.

I never let it show on the outside, but just realizing that I’ll pick up my novel and start writing again, and suddenly torrents of doubt and fear rush in.

Here are a few of my fears:

  1. That I’ll re-read my writing and realize it’s embarrassingly bad and unusable
  2. I won’t know what to write next
  3. What I write next will come out awkward, clumsy, and forced
  4. I’ll think it’s good, then when I show it to someone, they point out 10,000 flaws
  5. My plot will crumble
  6. I’ll lose heart and leave the project unfinished
  7. Finish the story and realize it’s boring

I believe that if you let fear fester within you without addressing it, or bringing it out into the open, it grows and grows, and sets its roots into you.

And I don’t want any root-setting here.

So I’m addressing this head-on. I know many of you face similar fears every day. Some of you are paralyzed by it. Some of you cope with it.

I’m writing this blog post more for my own benefit.

Sorry.

Feel free to inhale my insight second-hand.

I know that if I expose my fear and force myself to look at the truth instead, I will be able to push forward with courage. There is no such thing as a person who has no fear (with the rare exception of a mental condition or insanity). Being courageous doesn’t mean having no fear, it means doing the right thing in spite of your fear.

So I’m going to address each fear with the truth, and move forward courageous:

  1. If my writing needs heavy improvement when I re-read it, that’s what second drafts are for. And third drafts. And fourth. And fifth. And this could go on for a while. I need to recognize that I will NOT like my first draft when I re-read it, and that’s OK! It’s expected. I need to give myself grace to mess up. It’s impossible to have a wonderful first draft. There will be good components and terrible ones. I just need to winnow away until it looks shiny.
  2. This point is true: I probably won’t know what to write next. That’s also OK! Everyone deals with this. It’s normal. I need to push on. There are some tactics to overcoming writer’s block: review the next plot point, spend time with my characters, free write, and re-read the last few pages.
  3. What I write next in my novel WILL come out awkward because I haven’t written in 2 months. It will take a few days of hard work, but it will start flowing quicker and more naturally the more I apply myself.
  4. I need to realize that it’s literally impossible for all my fears to mutually co-exist. Fear #1 and Fear #4 are contradictory. Yet I fear both. Wow, Ben. You’re a piece of work. My beta readers will point out many flaws, but the main ones I’ll be looking for are story structure, character development, tension, and the like. If any of those are lacking, then I can address them one by one. After all, you can eat an entire elephant one bite at a time.
  5. I already have a plot structured. I can revise it in my second draft. The plot virtually always needs some nudging. Stop being a drama queen, Ben! Don’t expect to be the unicorn of authors and write the most magical first draft ever. Sweat a little, gosh!
  6. This is a very real fear. I like to jump from one thing to another. But if I truly want to finish the novel, I will set up boundaries for myself, challenges, and accountability so that even if I lose interest, I’ll push on. In the end I’ll appreciate it, because the sense of accomplishment will be greater than ever.
  7. Your face is boring. Seriously, this is actually rather easy to fix. If it is boring, then I’ll need to make my antagonist more involved, increase the tension in each chapter, and raise the stakes. Move chapter to chapter until every scene has a healthy dose of tension.

If you have different fears, write them down. Then write the truth down. Some of the fears might be plausible. The point isn’t to hide your head in the sand and pretend it will never happen, the point is to face them head-on in battle.

Fear will never control you.

You will control your fear.

Question(s) of the day: What about writing scares you? Has it been holding you back, or have you been able to push forward in spite of it?

15 Comments

  1. Galen A. Mirate

    January 25, 2016 at 8:09 am

    Good list of fears – certainly universal. As a writer, I can never decide what I fear most; failing – or succeeding!

  2. Great list. I’m “write” there with you. I’m 1/4 thru my rough draft on my sequel. I’m having success with a new method. I have a word count goal for each day. I get there, and I stop. Some days I soar past. Other days I trudge forward word by word. But my brain is in gear when I’m not writing. It makes the “sitting down” easier. (BTW: love how you made such a fuss about getting comments. I read you faithfully. Keep up the good work.)

    • Hey Kathy – ooh, a sequel! Do you feel like the emotional stakes are higher for you to live up to the first book?

      Haha, well I enjoy talking with my readers – like this is your first time commenting, so I’m glad we can connect! 🙂

  3. Part of why I don’t write is that I’ve made the task of completing my novel “too important” to my self worth. So the avoidance comes from that, from wanting avoid that type of self-judgement. It’s like you’re punishing yourself before you even did anything wrong. One thing that has helped, honestly, is to treat it like a new form of athleticism. If you were going to, say, try to become a better runner, you wouldn’t expect yourself to start running 6 miles a day. You start with maybe a walk, you build to a short run, when you’re ready you add small amounts of incremental distance, speed, what have you. The only thing you ask of yourself is to do it routinely. Build on what you’ve already proved to yourself that you can do. So if it’s 10 minutes of writing a day, commit to that until you’ve turned it into an hour. Then keep building until you’ve reached your goal of how many “hours” a day you would like to devote to writing. Word count goals are great too, it depends on how you work.

    • Hi Dani, yeah I have the same struggle. Identifying self-worth with what you do vs. who you are is a dangerous game, and one that I fall into quite often.

      I think about writing in a very similar way: the parallels with fitness are huge. But so many feel like they should be able to run a marathon the first day, when that’s just not realistic. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Ben.
    You can only write when your head is full of your story. So full that it bothers you all the time to get it down on paper. It’s obvious your life is taken up with other things, like your job. Therefore your writers mind is on the back burner. This means patience, start again when your writers mind regains consciousness. Good luck Ben, and keep the faith. Bill. L . Old Author.

    • Hi Derek – that’s great insight, and completely true.

      I do think, however, that many times your mind won’t naturally go back to the story unless I force myself back. If I steep myself in the story and characters again, and dedicate some time intentionally, then after a few days my mind will become feverish to get some chapters written.

  5. Right on time with this blog post. I finished the first draft of my first novel back in July 2015… I’ve done a read through of that draft, and dabbled a bit with the editing, only to realize it needs an extensive amount of revision and restructuring. So, I’ve been floundering since July, began edits, but have mostly let it sit while I focus on the family and the “real” “full-time” job. My fear is not knowing, beyond any doubt, how to fix it. I know it has potential, but with so many options, and wanting to be “original,” I have come to a near stand-still. I plan to work through the fear and fix the draft and it boggy spots, but in the meantime, the “how” contemplation still lingers deep within. Thank you for your blog post.

    • Congratulations on finishing your first draft, Gina! That’s a huge accomplishment! Do you have a writing group or someone who’s a much better writer than you who will be honest with you? If you’d like, you could send it to them asking for their opinion on the top 10 things that need work. From there, you can break down each item and focus on one task at a time.

      I linked to this in the blog post, but this post might give you a couple ideas: http://theauthorsnook.com/editing-your-novel-after-nanowrimo-can-you-clean-the-mess/

      If you have any questions, I’d be more than happy to help! 🙂

  6. Hey Ben, I identify with those fears you mentioned above and I’d add: Actually finishing my manuscript (not that I’m there yet!) because as tough as the writing process is, at least you can see progress, and let’s not forget those moments of electrifying inspiration; the querying process on the other hand, has the potential to be exhausting without any ROI for all your hard work.

    My workaround for this fear is to keep to my writing schedule and actively not think about what will be later on. I’m still writing, so it must be working 🙂

  7. First of all, your face is not boring.

    Now, as for those writing fears…yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I’ve got them all. My fear keeps me rewriting endlessly (58 times for a short story), at which point I hand it over for feedback, get brutal comments, and tell myself I don’t have the thick skin for writing, I should give up the dream and become a stenographer. (Do they even exist anymore?) After I’ve cooled down, I see the validity in some of the feedback, and realize I need to step away from the story for a short period to get some perspective.

    When I look something over after giving it a rest, I’m always pleasantly surprised by how good it is, or at least how much promise exists in those pages. And, I see where the flaws are, so I can work at correcting them.

  8. I also stepped away from writing in November, but to complete another type of project. I was only in the planning stage of writing, and I have similar fears to those you described, but also am on the fence as to whether to continue with the ideas I started planning or to come up with something completely different. Thank you for this blog. It is helpful and entertaining.

  9. The part of writing that scares me is exposing my work to an audience, even if it’s to a few beta readers. I’m afraid of my work being picked apart. For a long time, I was afraid to put my work on a computer. I kept them in a journal, unwilling to share it with anyone. But I came to the realization that if I am going to improve as a writer, showing my work is what I need to do.

  10. There’s this brilliant little book called “Art and Fear” and I find the first 4-5 chapters particularly stimulating. I revert back to it every now and then when I am not writing for whatever reason. It often helps me get the picture clear/ face my fears and deal with them.

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