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July 25, 2018

5 fears holding you back from writing your book (or finishing any creative project)

Ask a Metalhead, Creative Rebel, Writing Runes

writing fear

writing fear

As a kid, I remember being praised for my writing and drawing and creative ideas. On a few occasions, I was invited to the front of the class to read out a story. When I was fifteen years old, my English teacher assigned a project to write a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ story and my haunted house tale ended up having the length and complexity of an actual tale. She wrote me a note saying I should consider becoming a writer. At senior prizegiving, my art teacher suggested I go to art school.

I was lucky. My parents, teachers, and friends lifted me up and supported my creativity. I can’t imagine not doing this without that support. But even with that support and reassurance, I’m plagued by doubts and fears.

Fear seems to go along with a career in the arts. We live with a constant stream of fears and negative self-talk running through our heads. What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t pay the bills? What if I fail? What if I succeed? What if everyone hates me? What if I lay it all bare and it blows up in my face?

I’m no different. I’m terrified every time I release a book or publish a blog post. The day I hit the button to launch the Only Freaks Turn Things Into Bones Kickstarter I was a total wreck – cold sweats, jitters, the whole deal. I thought everyone would think it was dumb, that no one would back it, that people would mock me about the subject matter (“she’s so lame!”), that I’d fall on my face.

But I still did it.

Because the alternative to facing your fears is even worse – sitting at home, not doing anything, wondering if you could have done it if only you gave it a chance. Honestly, that’s what I’m afraid of more than any of the below fears.

If you’re trying to push through your fears so you can keep going with your book or other creative projects, then this article might help. I’ve compiled some useful techniques you might be able to use to get shit done even when you’re afraid. I hope you find it useful.

Fear 1: I’m never going to be as good as <insert famous and awesome person>, so what’s the point?

Here’s the thing. No one starts out being Stephen King. Or Agatha Christie. Or J. K. Rowling. Not even J. K. Rowling started off as J. K. Rowling. There was a time when she was ordinary old Jo, furiously scribbling stories on the train while she fretted that she’d never been as good a writer as JRR Tolkien.

When I first started writing. I wanted to be China Mieville. I wanted his career, his book sales, his invitations to speak about interesting things at literary events. The fact that my work wasn’t up to his standards kept me tweaking it for years longer than I perhaps should have.

I’m never going to be the next China Mieville. There’s only one China, and he already exists and probably doesn’t want me inhabiting his body. But I can be the best damn Steff Green / Steffanie Holmes out there.

I think that’s even better.

What to do if you feel this fear:

  • Stop comparing yourself to others! Their journey is not your journey. You’ve got your own voice and your own stories to tell – as soon as you start trying to ‘be’ someone else, you cease telling your own stories.
  • Remember the 10,000 hours rule – you probably will need to spend 10,000 hours just practising your craft if you want the equivalent of a masters’ degree in it. The writer you’re comparing yourself to has probably done much more than their 10,000 hours.
  • Study the masters and learn what you can from what they did and didn’t do. Turn your fear into a learning experience.

Fear 2: All my ideas are dull and pointless and have been done a million times before. I’m such a hack.

Often this comes about when you read something by someone else which incorporates some of your ideas. You think, “well, they’ve already done it, so I’ve got no chance.”

There are no original ideas. Do you think J. K. Rowling was the first person to set a book in a magical boarding school? No. In fact, that was part of the reason for her success – she tapped into an existing literary tradition.

The idea is less than 0.0001% of what makes a successful book or project. Even if your idea is total crap (which it’s not), how you choose to express it will be what defines your project.

You have lived an interesting life. You have your own unique experiences that you bring to your work. You have a voice and a style that’s 100% your own. That’s what readers fall in love with – not your ideas, but your execution.

What to do if you feel this fear:

  • Tell yourself it doesn’t matter how many times something has been written, you’ve got to tell it your way.
  • Remind yourself how often you buy or read books on the same subject. I’ve read hundreds of books on the writing craft, and I keep reading them, even though they have the same basic idea. I’ve read countless detective stories set in old English houses – same idea, but the execution keeps me guessing.
  • Keep your ideas secret. I usually won’t talk about my story concepts with other people during the early stages. I find I can’t express them to others as well as I can to myself, and if someone tells me it’s crap then I might start doubting it. Hold these close and nurse them until they grow into something wonderful.

Fear 3: People will read it and tell me it’s terrible and I just can’t deal with it.

Can’t you?

I fully admit that sometimes hearing negative criticism of your books is hard. It takes 10 amazing reviews to delete the damage in your heart done by one negative review. It’s hard when you pour your heart and soul into your creative work to hear someone tear it down.

But that’s on me – I don’t have to read the reviews. Usually, I don’t. I suggest you don’t, either.

Rejection is part of life. It will happen to you. You don’t have to go looking for it, but you need to find ways to cope with it.

Have you never gone to flirt with someone interesting, only to be rebuffed? Have you ever suggested an idea at an office meeting, only to have it shut down?

Sometimes people are mean, or unintentionally hurtful, and that sucks and I wish things were different. But you control how you react to their comments. If you let that one rejection stop you from flirting, or suggesting improvements, then you’re going to miss out on a whole bunch of awesomeness.

Don’t let your fear of rejection stop you putting yourself forward – there are way too many amazing things that come to those who are bold. Trust me, I know :)

What to do if you feel this fear:

  • Keep a file on your desktop of all the nice and supportive things people have said about your work. I put all my fan mail in mine, but you can put reviews, feedback from teachers or mentors, or even just a supportive comment from your spouse. Any time you’re afraid of rejection or you feel you can’t do anything right, read this folder. It’ll lift your spirits.
  • Remember you don’t have to please everybody. It blows my mind there are people out there who don’t like Iron Maiden, but it’s true. Do you think Bruce Dickenson is out there trying to change people’s minds or crying into his cereal? Nope. In the same way, not everyone is going to like your work. You’re not writing or creating for everyone. Someone saying they don’t like your stuff is someone who’d never be part of your audience anyway. Find your people, and focus on creating for them.
  • Don’t read your reviews. That’s actually okay. I try not to read my reviews – good or bad. They are not for me. They are for readers.

Fear 4: I’m terrible at marketing myself.

You have to stop thinking ‘marketing’ is cold calling random people and asking them to read your book, or working some kind of social media wizardry. It’s not this mystery talent some people possess and others don’t. You don’t have to be an extrovert to promote your work. When I market, I:

  • write a newsletter to my readers who’ve signed up to hear news to tell them I’ve got a new book out.
  • write a blog post about something I’m interested in, like my one last week on priest holes.
  • ask a question or post a game in my Facebook group.
  • Book a promotion slot in a discount newsletter to introduce new readers to my books.
  • Tell people about my books if they ask me at a party.

Once you’ve got the newsletter/blog/social media set up, doing that stuff is pretty easy. There are lots of things you can learn to improve your marketing, but the basics are simple. Just let people who are interested know. You don’t have to be some kind of wizard.

When you have something you’re excited about, none of this seems like work. And it’s not bothering people. It’s not harassing them. When you sign up for a newsletter for your favourite shop, do you groan every time you get an email that they’re having a sale? Hell no, you throw your credit card at the computer and scream, “Just take it all! I don’t need food, just give me the pretty BlackMilk!” (Maybe that’s just me?)

Realise this – real people feel that way about your books or your art.

What to do if you feel this fear:

  • Change your attitude around payment and earning money from your art. You are entitled to ask for money for your work. People choose whether they pay because they want to consume your art. It isn’t charity. It’s entertainment.
  • Focus on learning one new skill at a time. First, you need your art. Then, a website. Then, a mailing list, then social media, then getting the word out in different ways. Looking at those together feels overwhelming. But you don’t have to do them at once – pick one, get it done, learn all you need to learn, then move on.
  • Ask for help! You never what hidden skills and kind people lurk amongst your friends and colleagues. My first web designer came from my network. Friends have helped me man stalls at events and spread the word about my Kickstarter. You don’t have to do everything on your own.
  • Treat marketing not as ‘I’m trying to sell stuff’ but ‘I’m building a community.’ Give your readers awesome stuff. Talk to them about their lives. Be a friend. You’ll find it much easier to market yourself if you consider marketing ‘being nice’. People buy from artists they like.

Fear 5: My work isn’t perfect.

This is one of my biggest fears. I’ve spent most of my life trying to ace every test, get as close to 100% as possible. I got 98% on a history test once and I was angry with myself because the one answer I got wrong was so obvious.

I’ve learned that if I want to finish things and move forward and actually have a book to put into people’s hands, I had to let go of this desire for perfection.

I wanted to be a working writer more than I wanted to be perfect.

What to do if you feel this fear:

  • Consider a pen name. One thing that released me from this desire to be perfect or to be a certain kind of artist was to publish my first romance book under a pen name, Steffanie Holmes. Because no one knew it was me, it totally freed me from the pressure to be a certain way. It turned out to be a great thing, as the name took off and I sheepishly had to admit to everyone that I’d actually been writing these smutty books that were doing quite well.
  • Notice – and celebrate – the imperfections in others’ work. I find it freeing when I read a bestselling book and notice typos or errors. It reminds me that readers don’t look for the same things us authors do. If the story is great, they forgive so much.
  • 95% is great. I find it will take me just as long to get a piece from 95% to 100% as it does to go from 0-95%. That’s why I release at 95% and focus on the next work. Nothing sells your last book like writing your next book.
  • Throw yourself out of your normal routine. Shake things up and try new things. You’re an artist – don’t be afraid to get messy and experiment.

Do you experience fear when you’re trying to create? What do you do to push through?

I also wrote another essay on fear, which is very personal and has some more advice. You can read Fear and loathing and squirrels: what to do when you’re scared shitless


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