She says: “I need help finishing this manuscript. I’ve been working on it, off and on, for almost four years. I don’t know where to go next.”
What she means: “What if I suck? What if no one reads my book? What if I’ve wasted four years on this already?”
He says: “I’ve never written a novel before, but I have this great short story that I want to develop into something. It started as just a few hundred words and I’ve developed it to about 2,000. But now I’m stuck. I’m not sure what to do. I really want to write this, but I’m pretty much convinced nothing more can be said.”
What he means: “What if I suck? What if no one reads my book? I feel stuck and blocked and have no idea where to turn.”
She says: “I’ve always had this idea to write fiction. For the last 20 years or so, I’ve only done non-fiction and deadline writing, but I’ve harbored this dream of penning my own novel. Recently, it’s been bugging me deep down that I haven’t done something about this. But I have kids and a husband and a full-time job. I’m just not sure I will ever have the time to write what I want to write.”
What she means: “What if I suck? What if no one reads my book? What if I actually follow up on my lifelong dream and it turns out to be a disaster?”
Whoa. I’ve been there.
Fear is the voice in your head that lies.
“Putting yourself out there could be embarrassing,” it says. “If you take time to follow your dream, it could be a complete waste of time. Other people in your life might be unhappy if you’re not as available for their needs.”
Fear – albeit ridiculously normal – sucks.
In 2001, I took my first reporting gig at a prominent newspaper. I was in the midst of a divorce, raising an infant, miles from family and friends. The stress of a dissolving marriage with a tiny baby is more than enough. Add that I was nearly a decade older than my Ivy League colleagues and, in my eyes, lacked the experience and skills, and I was downright terrified.
Fear convinced me that my boss was sure to discover I was a fraud, that I couldn’t write. And then I would lose my job, my house and possibly my ability to take care of my son. What’s more, I allowed those thoughts to bind me so tightly, I couldn’t write a word without deleting it five times before committing to it.
I messed around with my words and my self-confidence so much, my work became garbage. It was under-reported. Details were missing because I spent more time dealing with the fear of writing than I did on my job of reporting.
It did not get better with time. A few months in, I became paralyzed, completely blocked – desperate to do my job and simultaneously scared to death of actually doing it. Every day, I expected to be called into the corner office and fired.
I earned my BA in journalism in 1995, and had hopes of reporting for a living since I was a teenager. I’d dreamed about this job for almost 15 years. I knew my anxiety was holding me back. But I didn’t know how to fix it.
Then the strangest thing happened. The fear bottled up inside my gut turned into complete and utter indignation. I got real.
The job I wanted – talked about, envisioned and ultimately begged for (that’s another story) – for more than a decade was in my lap, as though someone had hand-delivered a pretty pink box with everything I ever wanted inside. Yet I was letting my fear take it all away.
I was going to write. I was going to feel the fear and do it anyway. Even when it meant taking notes during an interview with a particularly powerful politician while my hands shook. Even when it meant knocking on the door of a woman whose car collided with her boyfriend’s, instantly killing him. The higher the stakes, the better. I became known for thorough reporting and exceptional deadline writing, the very skills I struggled so much with in the beginning.
What I inadvertently learned was a quirky, yet universal thing about fear: The only way out is through. I was good enough. Smart enough. Talented enough. But it took the risk of losing my dream job and my lifestyle before I would examine those fears in the light.
And it wasn’t that scary after all.
You can do this.
It’s so easy to get stuck thinking in terms of how things should be. Of how we want to be perceived. No one gets married planning for a divorce later. No one takes a job expecting they can’t do it. But when the shit hits the fan and the pressure explodes all over you, remember you still have total control. You choose how to respond.
Forget everyone else. You want to write? Then write.
You don’t need help to become a writer. You’re either literate or you’re not. What you need is a boost in confidence. You need to believe in yourself.
What if I suck? What if no one reads my books? What if I do it wrong?
The beauty of writing is you cannot do it wrong. Even when you jot down complete and utter crap, you’re teaching your brain to develop creative muscle and training yourself to say what you want to say. That’s HUGE. That is saying yes to your voice. And that is more than most people do in a lifetime.
Think about how incredible it would feel to write that novel, short story, or thing you’ve been dreaming about writing for as long as you can remember.
Fantastic. Beautiful. Purposeful. Vital.
• • •
If you want help polishing a manuscript or breaking out of your writer’s block, check out my four-week writing course, or contact me for a consult.
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Fear is basically a combination of two things: not knowing the outcome and not believing in yourself. And that’s exactly why I launched this site – to show you how to write on your terms and to boost your confidence.
Writing can be scary. But so is ignoring the little voice inside you that screams to put pen to paper. So, I’ve got a present for you all you dreamers in hiding. If writing is what you truly want to do …
Here are six (6!) things you can do NOW – this second – to get your writing unblocked and the words flowing.
• Just write. Write what pops into your head. No hedging. No second-guessing. Absolutely no editing. Write song lyrics or spell your name backward if you have to. Write complete and utter crap. Incomplete sentences. Stuff that doesn’t even make sense to you. Play with words. It doesn’t matter if you come out with nothing you will ever use in a manuscript or story. The point is to get you in the habit of allowing yourself to say whatever you want to say.
• Brainstorm around one phrase or even one word. Let’s pretend one of your characters has rough hands. Why? What kind of work makes the hands rough? Outside in the cold? Inside working on machinery? Are they dirty hands? Is the character worried his love interest will be offended by his hands? Show us what his hands look like? Hard like the pads on a dog’s feet? Chapped? Are they meaty palms or thin, long fingers? Fill a page about those hands with all manner of adjectives to describe them. Later, you can choose what you actually use in your work.
• Break it down. Avoid thinking in terms of word count, chapter breaks, pages, etc. You will quickly overwhelm yourself. Decide which section of the overall manuscript you want to work on then concentrate only on that piece. If your character is at the beach, show me the beach. Where does the sun set – east or west? How cold is the water? Is the sand soft and warm, or hard and sharp with broken shells? Is it day or night? Is it crowded or empty and why? Assume nothing. Cover all six senses with description (see, hear, feel, taste, smell, touch). You’ll be surprised how fast new ideas, characters, scenes, will crop up for your story.
• Be as specific as you can. Good writing is detailed. Those details bring readers into the story so deep, they get lost. As writers, we love this. We want to create real life. If a man is standing at the door on page one, I want to know what kind of door, what color, what the doorknob looks like, if it creaks, how big it is, which way it swings open, and how often that door is used. Will you use every piece of that detail in your final manuscript? Again, it doesn’t matter. Until you know the story, you cannot tell the story.
• Research. This is a biggie. Sometimes, writers get caught up in writing “just enough.” We are practiced in the art of being concise. Expanding on what we believe to be a complete thought or scene can appear futile, a waste of time. Not true. Writing more than you need is necessary when you’re blocked or stuck. Let’s say you already filled a page with description of your character’s hands and decided he’s a mechanic, but you don’t know where to go next. Tell us what kind of mechanic – does he work on cars or even planes? Then look it up. Find out what those people do all day. The chemicals they are exposed to. The tools they use. The environment they work in. The stress level. Examine the names of whatever machine parts they work on. Will you need all of this for your final manuscript? Not the point. The more you know about your character and his environment, the easier it becomes to tell his story.
• Tell story across your hand. In elementary school, teachers tell their students to count each part of a story on their fingers. 1 – He woke up. 2 – He got dressed and had breakfast with his step-sister and father. 3 – He went to school and got in a fight. 4 – His teacher called his parents and he got in trouble. 5 – He made amends with the boy he fought with and his teacher and parents by X, Y, Z. The next step is to write each section on its own blank sheet of paper. In this instance, the top of the first page would have one sentence: He woke up. Next, the student will fill that page with nothing but description of that character waking up. It’s ridiculously elementary. Yet this method allows the writer to break up his story into workable chunks. The single sentence at the top of the page helps to keep the writer focused and prevents him from becoming overwhelmed.
Remember: Create first. Critique later.