As a tutor on the Writing a Novel course, I get to speak with students in the online classroom on a regular basis, and I’ve noticed one theme that comes up time and time again: coping with THE FEAR of actually starting your novel.
Or at least, experiencing paralysis during the process, in the form of writer’s block. Will your writing be good enough? What will others think of your story? Is this a waste of your time? Maybe it’s all rubbish and a stupid idea anyway…
It’s not about you
It’s easy to worry that THE FEAR is something that only you feel because you believe you’re somehow lacking as a writer, and subsequently spiral down a hole of self-doubt.
Please believe me: nothing could be further from the truth. Every single writer on the planet has felt it at some point or another – usually more often than not.
If you want me to tell you how to overcome writer’s block, well, I don’t have a definitive answer for you. I’m sorry to break the news to you that THE FEAR never goes away.
Even once you get published it will still be hanging around, whispering insidious thoughts in your head. The trick is to ignore it, keep your head down and write anyway. Don’t let it get the best of you, and prove yourself wrong.
As I mentioned to one of our students, it can be quite useful to imagine your inner critic as an annoying, yowling cat — and when you’re trying to get your first draft down, grab it by the scruff of the neck and escort it gently but firmly out the door.
This wonderful analogy came from my author-friend Inbali Iserles a year or two ago.
I was confiding my usual first-draft anxiety to her and she shared how she copes with her own — between us we’ve written 60 or 70 books, but that doesn’t change a thing.
There’s a time to scrutinise your every word, and that isn’t now. Your first draft is the time to play, explore and give yourself creative freedom.
When I was starting out as an author, I had no idea that even established authors regularly feel this way.
– Lee Weatherly
Sharing your fear
The same goes for submitting your work for others to critique.
When sharing your work, you can feel incredibly exposed, and though I hope that on courses like Beginners’ Fiction and Find Your Writing Voice the group’s supportive atmosphere means that this is made easier than sending it out into the blue, you’ll never lose that sense of vulnerability about showing your writing to someone — least of all when you’re published.
When I was starting out as an author, I had no idea that even established authors regularly feel this way — well, at least until I worked as an assistant at a literary agency and started dealing with authors on the phone.
I still recall a conversation with an angst-ridden but very lovely Hugh Laurie, who was working on turning his novel The Gun Seller into a film script and fretting greatly over it.
I was inexperienced and had no idea what to say to him, but he just seemed to need to hear some soothing words (as do we all!): ‘Don’t worry, everyone feels this way, you can do it.’
To a certain extent, THE FEAR is a very healthy sign. It means you take your craft seriously, that you realise writing is a craft, that you’re willing to work hard at it and improve.
– Lee Weatherly
All authors feel it
To a certain extent, THE FEAR is a very healthy sign. It means you take your craft seriously, that you realise writing is a craft, and that you’re willing to work hard at it and improve. Just don’t let it overwhelm you, and try to turn that anxiety into something positive to spur you on.
It may also bring some comfort to know that those writers who are sure their novel is awesome and that they’re fast on their way to the bestseller list are almost always the ones whose work has the furthest to go.
Working at that literary agency is probably what gave me the courage to become serious about my own writing and to start submitting.
It made me realise that authors aren’t geniuses with divine abilities, but just talented people who work hard — and, very frequently, they’re also people who tend towards insecurity about their work.
Writing is an intensely personal pursuit and we can often imagine that if our writing isn’t perfect, it’s a reflection of ourselves.
Being a writer means constantly striving to improve – which means constantly doubting yourself, even as you try to stifle that doubt and put words down on paper. You’re telling your greatest truth even though you’re afraid. It’s an act of bravery, and nothing less.
So, please, don’t worry. Everyone feels this way. You can do it.