The Halloween season is upon us again, a time to celebrate the spooky in all of our lives. Time to dig out your favorite short story by Poe, Lovecraft, Bloch, or King and read it by candlelight with “The Monster Mash” playing in the background. Time to print a hundred copies of your best kids’ story in miniature and hand them out with the candy. Time to dress up like what scares you most and wander around town in search of your favorite treats.
More importantly, it’s time to think about what scares you as a writer. Your fears about your writing are some of the biggest challenges you will face in your career. This is especially true because sometimes we dress those fears up like something else.
To help you recognize your writing fears for what they are, we’ve found the most common. We’ve also made a list of things they dress up as for Halloween (and the rest of the year). We’ve also found a few Jedi Writing Mind Tricks (™) you can use to shout “BOO” at them and make them run away.
Here they are.
1. Fear of Rejection
This is the same fear you felt the last time you chickened out on asking somebody for a date, and it’s not without a grain of truth. Being afraid of rejection is like being afraid of getting punched in the nose. Both hurt, but sometimes you need to risk it to accomplish what you need to accomplish.
This is especially true for writers. If you want to get published, you will be rejected. A lot.
It’s just part of the process. Sometimes it will be for good reasons (see below). Sometimes it will be for bad reasons. Sometimes you’ll never know the reasons, and other times you’ll get rejected for a tiny mistake like addressing a letter to the wrong person.
Fear of Rejections often dresses up as various species of perfectionism. Your piece needs one more draft, one more edit, one more polish, before you’re ready to send it out. And after that, you notice one more thing. Then you have an idea you simply must add. And then it needs another edit….
Scare this fear out of yourself by doing exactly what scares you. Repeat it over and over again till it doesn’t scare you anymore. Boxers aren’t fearless about getting punched in the nose because it doesn’t hurt them; they’re fearless about it because they know exactly how much it hurts, and they know they’ll survive it.
Just stare this fear in the face and experience the worst for as many times as it takes to realize the worst isn’t all that bad.
2. Fear of Not Being Good Enough
“I’m too old to write.”
“I’m too young to have anything to say.”
“The publishing industry doesn’t want my voice.”
“Nobody reads what women write.”
…and other species of that sentiment have killed too many wonderful writing careers before they had a chance to get started. It’s a pervasive fear, based on rumors and appearances about how publishing and writing “really work”…usually perpetuated by people who have no inside knowledge of the industry or the craft.
Most fears on this list have some kind of truth at the bottom of them (that’s why they’re so scary). But this one is baseless. Walk through Barnes & Noble and check out the author bios. People of all ages, all nationalities, all gender identities, all religions, all whatevers are on those shelves. You are not too ________ to write.
Fear of Being Too __________ can sometimes dress up as other opportunities—that’s where you find other things to do with your time, other passions to jump into because you don’t want to be disappointed. It can also dress up like anger or resentment toward successful authors who aren’t like you.
Scare this fear out of yourself in one of two ways. That walk through B&N can work for a lot of people, but sometimes folks need a little more. For that extra support, go find a writer’s group or even a small press dedicated to helping writers just like you. It doesn’t matter who you are, there’s one out there that’s right for you. Find your tribe and both get and give courage from the camaraderie.
3. Fear of Criticism
This is a close cousin of fear of rejection, but it bites deeper and happens (for many) later in the process. We fear rejection because we don’t like to be told “no.” We fear criticism because we really don’t like being told “no, and here’s why.”
Also like rejection, criticism is something you will have to get used to as a writer. When you ask your beta readers for their thoughts, those thoughts won’t always be how brilliant you are. When you send your work to an editor, she will have specific changes for you to make. When you get an agent, and get published, both of those steps will include other critiques. And after you get published will come the one-star reviews and snarky tweets.
Writers swim in a sea of criticism. It’s part of the job.
Fear of Criticism most often dresses up as criticizing yourself. When you email your latest story to your writing group along with a list of what you already think is wrong with it, you can see this fear hiding just around the corner. When you won’t send it out at all because you think it’s not good enough to share, that’s fear of criticism holding you down.
Repetition is, once again, the key to scaring this fear away. Simply force yourself to put the work out there. If it’s great, you’ll hear good comments along with the bad. If it needs work, hearing the criticism and acting on it is how you will improve as a writer.
A second defense against this fear is keeping a security blanket file. That’s a Word document where you’ve copied and pasted the very best reviews and comments people ever made about your work. When fear of being criticized gets too big, or you’re smarting from a particularly bad review, open it and read the nice things until you feel better.
4. Fear of Success
Okay. Fear of Success isn’t unique to writers, but it impacts us as much as anybody else. It’s a weird fear, but well-documented and pretty much universal.
In fact, Fear of Success is itself a fear disguised as something else. Fear of Success is fear of change. If you become a successful writer, you’ll leave your job. You’ll be responsible for and empowered about your life in ways you never were before. You might get a new house, or travel more, or spend more time with your kids. Your whole life will be different a year after you really make it as a writer.
That sounds great, and it is great. But people fear the unknown, and that fear can sabotage your work towards that new and better life.
Fear of Success most often disguises itself as procrastination. If you find yourself hitting your Netflix queue when you should be writing, or dropping balls you don’t often drop, or not answering emails that are key to moving forward…you might be suffering from Fear of Success.
Planning is the antidote to Fear of Success. Coincidentally, it’s also one of the key components to success in any endeavor. If you plan your route to success as a writer, you will be simultaneously planning for those unknowns that drive this fear. Shine the light of preparation on your future as a writer, and that dark unknown becomes well-lit and welcoming.
5. Fear of Inadequacy
This is my biggest writing fear personally, and the fear of many writers.
It goes like this:
“What if I’m not good enough to get published?”…then… “I’m published, but what if I’m not good enough to be widely read?”…then… “I’m widely read, but I’m not writing anything literary”….then… “I’m writing beautiful literary work, but it’s not about anything important” and on and on it goes.
No matter how successful you are as a writer, you will experience a lingering fear that you’re faking it. That you’re a hack. That you should be writing at another level. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King both feel this fear. So does Quentin Tarantino. So did Poe and Steinbeck.
This fear sometimes dresses up like the other fears on this list, but it doesn’t really need to because—and here’s the best and worst about this fear—it’s a legitimate concern you need to live with.
Because here’s the truth: You should always be improving as a writer.
However good you are, it’s not good enough. No matter your income, awards, accolades, or reputation, the next sentence you write should be better than the one you wrote before it.
And that’s the way to beat back this fear. Keep improving as a writer. Keep reading, and writing, and getting edited, and reworking, and learning, and taking classes. Keep pushing your boundaries. Keep writing the story that scares you. Keep getting better.
Because once you embrace improvement as a core part of your process and life, the need to improve stops being a fear and becomes a fuel.
At the end of the day, what scares you has to be less powerful than your desire to succeed as a writer. When all else fails, sit down in your chair. Put your hands on the keyboard. And repeat the words one great writer put down about dealing with being afraid:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death….
For more on how to overcome challenges and make your writing dreams come true, check out these articles: