Business Musings: Fear And All Writers (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 7)
Here’s the toughest post and the easiest post at the same time.
Because we writers are a fearful bunch.
Maybe it’s because we live in our heads all the time. We make things up for a living, so that habit bleeds into our lives. Most of us keep that part of ourselves under control. We manage to walk out the door every day, without encountering an axe murderer or an alien in search of our leader. We might have an overactive imagination, but we have an outlet for it, one we use on a daily basis.
It doesn’t matter if we are writers striving to succeed in traditional publishing or writers who work 100% in indie (self) publishing, we all have fears to climb over when it comes to craft.
And, it seems, once we conquer one fear, another arises.
Early on, before we have an audience, we write for ourselves. We write for the fun of it. We don’t care if someone else wrote a similar character. We don’t care of our plot is reminiscent of the last novel we read. We just write and explore and have a good time.
Then we share our work and people start to comment. A good half or more of those comments are negative. Another quarter are politely unenthusiastic. And we start to doubt the veracity of the remaining quarter. Did they actually like it?
So some of the fun leaches out, and in its place, critics take root. On some level, we all want to be popular. We all want others to like us. And since our work is an extension of us, we want everyone to like our work.
Or to love it. Or to praise us as the best thing since sliced bread.
We start seeking outside help to become more popular (or as many of us say, “to get better”) and somewhere in that effort lies an unspoken choice: We have decided, for better or for worse, to put our work out into the world.
After all, we could have continued to write for ourselves. Filled hundreds of pages with musings and stories and lovely characters, all for us only. But nope, those of us who actually have writing careers now crossed some kind of barrier and headed out into the real world with our fiction.
And invited in fear.
The fears are legion.
In craft they often are:
- Am I good enough?
Never mind that we don’t know what good enough is. Most of us haven’t defined it for ourselves. And we’re inconsistent about what “good enough” is in our reading choices, because some of the authors we love are really crappy sentence-by-sentence writers (but great storytellers) and others are terrible storytellers (but oh, can they write a lovely sentence). If we’re pressed to define good enough, we don’t usually put it in craft terms, but business terms: Am I good enough to be published or Am I good enough to be a bestseller or Am I good enough to win this award. And that, my friends, leads us down that slippery slope where we lose everything we loved about writing in the first place.
- No one’s ever done this before.
Yay! But in traditional publishing, that’s a bad thing because they have no idea how to market it. In indie, it’s a good thing, but writers are terrified because they’re alone. Often writers who do something different start a cool trend…and wouldn’t you like to be at the cusp of a trend rather than the tail end of it? (And note, once again, all of these are marketing concerns, not craft concerns.)
- This thing I’ve just written reveals way too much about me.
Well, everything we write reveals something about us, but we’re never sure what that is. Just like everything we discuss and the way we discuss it reveals something about us. Just like the clothes we wear and the places we live reveal something about us. The sad secret about this is that most people don’t care enough to look at the reveal…even if they understand it, which most of them won’t.
- If I write this, everyone will hate me.
That sentence comes from somewhere deep, usually in childhood, where we learned about forbidden topics. That’s one which requires a lot of work, just like its corollary, You can’t talk about that.
Much of what we write about isn’t usually discussed in polite company. But you’re not going for polite company. You’re going for an intimate relationship with someone you’ve never met, a reader, who reads your words in private and has their own private thoughts about whatever you wrote. Think not of that reader, but of your inner reader. How would you have felt if you read a book on this topic? Thrilled? Excited? Understood?
- I can’t write about that.
Sure you can. Most likely, someone else told you that you couldn’t write about that. Ignore them. They’re wrong. In this modern world of publishing, you can write about anything.
Of course, you could have written about anything in the old world too, but not have had it marketed in “prestigious” places. Some topics relegated you to the drugstore shelf or the back room at some kind of shady business. Heck, I used to get the sf and mystery digest magazines in a dusty store off the beaten trail that had porn magazines in the back and D&D dice up front. (Yes, I’m that old.)
Clear the critic. Write the book. Anything really does go in 2021.
- If I write something that different, my readers won’t read it.
Yeah, they might not. They might give you a one-star review because this is the first non-series book you’ve ever written.
First, this is a marketing concern.
Second, this is a problem you trade up for. Remember when you would have been happy to have readers?
Third, if your current readers don’t like it, too bad. You’ll get new readers. Honest, you will.
Finally, the readers found you because you followed your own muse. Trust that.
- 1,000 other such sentences
Truly, there are as many fears about craft as there are writers. You have yours, and I have mine. And sometimes those fears grow worse the more successful you are. You start playing it safe, which is not why you became successful in the first place.
It’s also not why you write.
Allowing fear into your craft shuts you down. Your critical voice tries to do that all time, anyway, and the fear comes out of your critical voice.
The example I use with my students is this.
When you’re a toddler, you want to do everything. Toddlers are the most vulnerable creatures on the planet. They put anything they find in their mouths. They run into traffic because it looks like fun. They touch hot stoves and slice their hands with knives and jump off tall shelves (that they shouldn’t have climbed in the first place).
Toddlers explore and giggle and have a great time, until they injure themselves in terrible ways.
Parents exist to prevent their children from dying. Otherwise we would procreate and move on, like turtles or fish. But no, we’re there to make sure our little progeny make it to adulthood.
So when their kid is a toddler, parents mostly say, “Get that out of your mouth!” “Don’t touch that!” “Stay beside me and hold my hand.” “Don’t go there.” “Put your clothes back on!” and a variety of other such sentences, often in the same half hour.
Parents put that critical voice in your head when you’re a toddler to keep you alive. So all of your critical voice choices feel like life and death, even when they aren’t.
Because you’re not a toddler anymore.
Although, if you let yourself go as a writer, you probably feel like a toddler. As a writer, you want touch that hot stove. Hell, you should touch that hot stove. And run into traffic. And peel off those uncomfortable confining clothes.
All those things that make you presentable and safe within society should vanish when you walk into your writing office.
The critical voice has no place there. Go into your office and have fun.
Be a toddler, which means focus on the now, which is the writing.
Let all those business concerns, all that marketing, all those publishing rules, go away. They belong to the future.
When you write, you write.
Have the kind of fearless fun that the littlest of children have.
That’s who you are as a writer, underneath the do-nots and should-nots and the what-ifs.
Keep that little person safe in your writing room. Let that little person have fun.
Your writing will improve. Your willingness to write will grow.
Your fears won’t entirely go away, but they will ease.
Fear kills fun.
And writing should be the place where you go to have fun.
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“Business Musings: Fear and All Writers (Fear-Based Decision-Making 7),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / red2000.
[…] if you’re still afraid to put yourself out there, check Kris Rusch’s latest post on fear and all writers. I still struggle in finding my bookshelves on the various retailers because I don’t follow […]
‘No-one’s ever done this before.’ That one is my undoing. I find it impossible to sidestep the mashing of genres and tropes because that’s what I want to read. It gets me a small group of fans and an enormous number of normals who go, ‘uh?’ I’d like to think something I wrote would break out one day and earn me something … hell, just breaking even would be nice … but I know it isn’t going to happen. So I need to let that go accept that in my genre, humorous science fiction fantasy (but not romcoms with dragons or in space just stuff with jokes) it’s going to be more like 50 books to 20k.
The other thing I loved is what you said about sucking the fun out of it. That is so spot on. I am trying to stop looking at my sales figures and attempting to analyse what parts of my marketing work and what doesn’t. It isn’t easy because I used to do marketing for a living so I enjoy it, but there is a lot going on in Real Life right now so there isn’t time to do both. I’ve been alternating, but I’m not sure it’s the way to go. I should probably just stick to sending out my mailings, writing my blog and writing more books. There’s always this received wisdom, ‘it gets easier after you’ve written x books’ but x books is a moveable figure – usually calculated by taking the number of books I have written and adding about 25% of that number on top. I probably shouldn’t even bother marketing my books until there are 20 or 30 of them, except they are completely invisible unless I do the odd thing here and there because, it being humorous stuff, the only sales I make are the ones I go out and find.
It did make me feel better reading this though. It’s hard to chill but it’s also very important and I doubt I’m the only one who loses sight of the fact this is meant to be fun sometimes.
A great post! And the very next site I looked at took me here…
Oh, I love that! Thank you.
I put all those critical voices and Imaginary fears to work. I make them earn their keep if they want to stick around.
I’ll get trapped in a bizarre Imaginary fear, my mind running in a squirrel cage, living that Imaginary fear over and over.
If I want to get rid of that Imaginary fear I write it down.
My mind runs faster than I write. The act of writing, trying to put those Imaginary fears down on the page, frustrates my Imaginary fear causing it to vanish in disgust, “Oh, never mind,” and then I’m free to move on.
I’ll write an essay, or a chapter capturing every detail — at least try — and that Imaginary fear collapses in a page or two. If not, then I have a story written.
BTW, Hitchcock made his living turning all of his Imaginary fears into stories that he could turn into TV episodes or movies.
THIS. Hell, I even fear that I won’t be able to put my fears aside. Sheesh. Thanks for encouragement, Kris!
Interesting thing about the revealing too much. I’m seeing a therapist to work on my anxiety and fear (terror, actually) and she wanted me to write a grief journal after I lost my heart dog. I chose instead to write a new series, where grief is a large part of what the main character is dealing with. The therapist read the book, knowing I wrote it to work out my grief, and still couldn’t find me in the characters. She asked which ones I identify with the most (and she understood that writers use parts of themselves to create characters) and was surprised when I told her. Even people skilled in deconstruction can only guess where the writer is in any given story. And for myself, I find that when I dare to be honest in my writing, the characters and their reaction to the events grips the reader far better than anything else. For me, honesty in front of the keyboard levels up the writing.
(Fear) “In craft they often are: Am I good enough?”
I feel got at. Kidding. It’s my fear, I own it. I’ve been working to kindle my inner creative child after years of abusive re-writing. It’s slow going. I’m trying to create times for fun things. Slowly, I’m enjoying doing stuff again.
Thanks to both you and Deam.
Of course you can Write About That. That’s what pen names and fiction are all about! Perfect masks for perfect truth…