Showing posts with label fear. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fear. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 6

Writers: How To Get Rid Of Fear

Writers: How To Get Rid Of Fear

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
—Frank Herbert, Dune

Fear is real. It’s that hard fist that twists your gut, that grabs hold of your heart and squeezes. It’s an elevated pulse and the inability to catch your breath.

Everyone’s number one fear is different. Perhaps you might be terrified by the thought of receiving a one star review. Or of your mother/father/grandmother/child discovering you write erotic fiction. Or of publicly putting yourself out there, doing the work, publishing your writing, and failing horribly. Or ... I could go on forever.

Beating The Fear

Here are a few things I do to deal with fear that work for me:

1. Recognize that fear is an emotion.

Often my fear is just a feeling of untethered doom. I’m not afraid of any one thing, the fear just flows through me grabbing the things I’m currently most anxious about and blowing my natural hum-drum concerns WAY out of proportion.

2. Start shutting off the fear by shifting from emotional mode to analytical mode.

This is true for me: the more fearful I am the less rational I am.

I’ve found that strong emotion and analytical thought don’t happen at the same time. If I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack I’m not thinking rationally and vice versa. Which makes sense. If I’m having a fight or flight response the blood is being directed toward the bits of me that are good at either fighting or fleeing. And, sad to say, none of those bits are inside my noggin.

But it’s often difficult to make that transition from run away emotion to analytical thought. Here are a few questions I ask to help me shake the fear, to help me take back control:

3. Name your fear.

By “name” I mean write it down. Be specific. Often fear is just a feeling of untethered doom, it’s not cognitive at all. Force yourself to pin down exactly what you’re afraid of. What are you afraid of losing? If what you fear comes to pass, what would that state of affairs look like?

Sometimes I have quite literally been afraid of nothing. After writing my fear down I realize that even if it came to pass it wouldn’t significantly damage me or anything I care about.

Keep in mind that fear is a shapeshifter, a chameleon. It’s more of a feeling than a thought. As I said, for me it’s often a feeling of doom that wraps it’s black tendrils through me and follows me wherever I go.

Often we don’t really know what we’re afraid of, or the fear shifts, takes on different forms. Since we can’t pin it down it lurks in our head and takes on innumerable forms.

Fear has physical effects that are themselves harmful. It is very difficult to be emotional—and fear is one of the strongest, primal, emotions there is—and thoughtful at the same time. The very presence of fear makes it more difficult to think clearly.

Fear feeds anxiety. Write down what you’re afraid of, pin it down. Be explicit. Detailed. As soon as you see it you can start thinking about it rationally and the fear will begin to lose its power over you.

4. Do something.

In general, doing something is better than doing nothing, even if that something is simply reciting an affirmation like Frank Herbert’s “I must not fear.”

Do nothing and your fear will probably win. If you do something then the fear might still be there but maybe it won’t. If you keep trying, if you keep working at it, you will find something to banish the fear.

Don’t let fear paralyze you. When that happens the fear becomes an endless loop feeding itself, continually growing stronger as you grow weaker.

5. Do something that will make what you fear less likely.

Do something practical that will mitigate the consequences if what you fear comes about. For example, my number one fear used to be that I wouldn’t be able to support myself with my writing. What did I do when the fear hit? I threw my energy into writing and publishing!

6. How likely is it that what you fear will come about?

My fears are generally rational in the sense that they _could_ happen, what I tend to lose sight of is that it is improbable in the extreme that that exact thing will happen.

When you write down your fear be sure to make it specific. Detailed.

Don’t just write: I am scared I will be a failure.

Write: I am scared that after all the years of work I put into my manuscript, after all the money I spent having it edited, that I will publish it and everyone who reads it will hate it and leave a one star review.

There are LOTS of ways to be a failure and it’s easy to give that fear power if we don’t pin it down exactly what we’re afraid of. After we write it down our rational mind can go to work analyzing it and (this has been my experience) it immediately starts to lose it’s power over me. If that doesn’t happen then I’m usually not being specific enough.

7. What can you do to make the fear less likely?

Fear is often a reaction to change or potential change. Change is scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Often change is both good and bad. The trick is to optimize the good and minimize the bad. Ask yourself: what can you do that would make it less likely for what you fear to come about?

For myself: Write more. Publish more. The more one writes and publishes the better one becomes at both. Professional writers aren’t those who have no fear, they are people who have learnt to write anyway to, as Steven Pressfield says, Do The Work.

8. The worst case scenario rarely happens.

When I’m stressed I imagine a worst case scenario. And that might be okay—after all, it’s not a bad idea to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. What I find I have to keep firmly in mind is that this worst case state of affairs isn’t my current state of affairs _and it may never be_.

I want you to imagine something. Imagine a state of affairs, one not as bleak as the worst case scenario your mind/brain/soul is fixated on. Now realize that this future is possible. Perhaps it is just as likely as the bleak one that has been gnawing at you.

9. Every day do one thing that brings you closer to your goal.

Ask yourself: What could I do that would make my fear less likely to come true?

Every day do something that brings you closer to your goal then write it down what you did in your writing journal. Then, at the end of the month, look at what you did that month.

Look at where you were at the beginning of the month and where you are now that the month has come to an end. Realize that you have made progress toward your goal. Realize that you _can_ achieve your goals!

10. Embrace Failure.

If you’re not failing you’re not trying and if you don’t try you’ll never win. Simple as that. To banish fear we must act. We must fail to win.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

I’m re-watching the TV show Supernatural. I love that show! Though I love the Sam and Dean characters, they aren’t the stars of the show, the monsters are. This is a monster book for writers: Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction by Philip Athans with an introduction from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Wednesday. In the meantime good writing! Don’t let fear win.

Friday, July 22

Never Give Up Your Dreams

Our dreams define us. They make us who we are.

Maybe your dreams are quirky—square blocks that can’t fit in the world’s round holes. That’s okay. They are you. Maybe you’ll use your dreams to create something unique. Or not. Perhaps your dreams aren’t that sort. Even unfulfilled dreams have the power to sustain us.

What Are Your Dreams?

What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a writer … or the President of the United States. Whichever. (In my 4-year-old brain, it didn’t matter in the slightest that I was Canadian!)

When you were a kid, what did you love?

Don’t laugh, but my very favorite thing when I was a kid was the big/towering/huge maple tree in our backyard. I think I spent half my childhood climbing all over it. In my memories it is a massive thing, with boughs the size of a child’s waist.


I went back and visited my old home and—yep, you guessed it—the tree was still there but it was not at all big or towering or huge. But that’s okay, I still got all teared up and hugged it.

Dreams That Can Be Achieved

Some dreams—like my becoming President—are doomed. Sure, I could have changed my dream to becoming Prime Minister of Canada, but it’s just not the same.

That’s not the only dream I’ve had to let go of over the years. Being an astronaut is forever beyond my reach due to, among other things, my propensity to become motion sick if I walk too fast. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

My point is that, while impossible dreams like this are wonderful and lend themselves to the richly textured background of our imaginative lives, they demonstrate that there are two kinds of dreams: those that are physically, actually, possible and those that … well, not so much. And that’s fine. But if your dream IS possible, then what are you waiting for?

Why Our Dreams Fade And Die

There are all sorts of reasons why folks don’t try to fulfill their dreams but I think the most common is fear. To paraphrase Frank Herbert, fear is the dream killer.[1]

Fear of Failure

I think that the number one reason dreams fade and die is the fear of failure. We fear that we’ll start off on some wonderful adventure—we’ll try to write a book, or a short story a week, or we’ll start to save for an epic around-the-world trip—but when all the work is done, when the vacation is finished, all that will be left behind is emptiness. Regret.

The fear is that the book will be panned by critics, or that the short story collection would never sell, or that the around-the-world-trip would cost an inordinate amount of money and all you’d discover about yourself is that you’re a stay-at-home kinda person. Or worse, you could lose all your money and be stranded.

I’m not saying that every single dream you have will come true. I can’t see the future. But one thing I do know is that if one never tries to fulfill one’s dreams then that guarantees none of them will come to be.

You’ve heard it before, I’m sure, but it’s true: nothing risked, nothing gained.

Also—at least this is what I tell myself these days—if one lets fear control them then they will be forever swerving away from things, trying to avoid the bad rather than actively seeking the good. The former is existing, the latter is living.

Fear of the Unknown

Closely behind fear of failure is fear of what we don’t know, of what we can’t predict.

Personally, I hate uncertainty, but if there’s one thing I’m pretty sure of it’s that life is essentially uncertain. Just as you (and by ‘you’ I mean ‘me’) begin to think you’ve got a handle on this whole life thing, right then is when something completely unexpected happens and thoroughly bashes your world to pieces. Welcome to the unknown, please debark in an orderly fashion.

Errr, anyway. Getting back on track …

The key, here, is to take a deep breath and attempt to rationally assess the situation. A friend of mine—he’s a manager in a local high tech firm—once shared the following with me and, believe it or not, it has helped.

3. Ask yourself: If I do this, what is the best that could happen?
Ask yourself: If I do this, what is the worst that could happen?
Ask yourself: How likely is it that the worst will happen?
- Is there anything you can do before-the-fact to prevent the worst from happening?
- If the worst happens, could you repair the situation? If so, how?

(By the way, I know this way of assessing and mitigating risk didn’t originate with my friend, but that’s where I first heard about it.)

If the worst thing that could happen is complete and total devastation—the life-equivalent of a thermonuclear explosion—then maybe back away from that possible dream. Let it go on its way, but release it slowly and hope it doesn’t become startled.

On the other hand, if the worst thing that could happen isn’t very bad at all, or if it is easily prevented, or if you could mitigate the damage if it occurred, then why not try and live your dream?

Fear of Rejection

This is one of my personal boogeymen. What if people read my work and think I’m terrible?!

My rational mind has a reply ready: of course some people will hate your work. That’s inevitable. But, hopefully, some people will love it.

Whenever I see NO one star reviews on an otherwise popular book (say, over 100 reviews), I expect one of two things: first, the book is a classic that everyone agrees is awesome. Second, something is off. It could be that the writer’s friends and extended family have read the book and dutifully left nothing but glowing praise, but those aren’t the reviews I’m looking for. So don’t fear one star reviews! Look at them as weird kind of badge of honor.

Also, a book written for a niche market can easily acquire a lot of one star reviews if read by folks outside the niche. There’s nothing wrong with these people’s taste, the book just isn’t for them. And that’s fine. If your niche readers are as passionate about your work as you are, then you have a real chance of making a go of it.

Persistence can help to drive out our fears. Don’t lose sight of the folks who 'get' your work, who understand you. If your work is selling, then obviously it’s reaching people who appreciate it. Let the haters hate.

* * *

Okay! This article is longer than I thought it would be. I had wanted to chat about tips and tools writers can use to shape their dreams into reality. Perhaps another time.

Question: When you were a kid what did you dream about? What did you want to become when you grew up? Do you have a tip for how to defeat fear and follow your dreams? Please share!

(What follows is an affiliate link. Every time someone buys something after clicking an affiliate link, Amazon gives my site a small percentage of the sale price. This is one of the ways I’m keeping the lights on at I promise I will never post an affiliate link to a product I don’t believe in.)

I love all things audio: podcasts, radio, audiobooks. Especially audiobooks. I’ve used Audible and can recommend it without hesitation. Try it for one month, free!

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1. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Frank Herbert, Dune. The Litany Against Fear.

Thursday, July 2

Be Fearless: Make Your Characters Real

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been overly concerned with what others think about my work, letting it paralyze me at times. This week I want to talk about the importance of knowing oneself and infusing one’s unique perspective into one’s work.

As Grace Paley wrote:

“The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.” [1]

The writer immerses herself in the world to, in part, develop her unique perspective on the world. 

Paley goes on:

“One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over.” [1]

Writers are both stubborn and biased. We have our own questions, our own fears, our own concerns. Certain things mystify us and we are driven to unravel these mysteries even as we recognize the impossibility of such a task.

Paley’s words connected with me like a swift punch to the solar plexus and I realized a truth I’ve been ignoring: each writer’s work is unique because they—a person unlike any other—have given birth to it.  It has grown from the soil of their own concerns, their flaws, their unique worldview.

Creating Human Characters: Letting Your Life Guide Your Writing

This is going to seem like a digression, but hold on. 

I read an inspiring post today, “The Secret Behind Making Me Care About Your Characters,” by Chuck Wendig. In it he wrote:

“When I talk to you about your character, and you start to tell me, “Well, she has to find the DONGLE OF MAGIC to fight the WIZARD OF BADNESS and then she tames HORBERT THE MANY-HEADED DRAGON,” I immediately start to cross my eyes. I emit drool. I have a small seizure and then fall into a torpid grief-coma. Grief over what you’ve done to the human condition.

“And what you’ve done to the human condition is ignore it utterly.”


“A character doesn’t care about the WIDGET OF MAJESTY or the GIZMO OF FLARNIDONG unless those things suit something altogether more personal. Meaning: the character cares most about things personally relevant to the character. Not global, galactic, kingdom-wide concerns. But concerns about that person’s intimate sphere of influence.”

“Characters care about family, friends, jobs, love, hate. If they care about money or power, it’s because they see it as something they need personally. If they have larger, grander principles, those principles must be rooted in something intimate to the character.”


“We don’t sympathize with Luke’s galactic ambitions. We sympathize with him wanting to get off that [...] hillbilly planet. We totally grok him wanting to be something greater than he seems to be — the desire to stop being some blue-milk-slurpin’ sandfarmer and become the last of the Jedi, well, shit, who doesn’t want to accelerate past our seemingly mundane destinies?

“And it’s from this — from the part where the characters cleave to their personal goals, ideas and problems that we see them start to make changes.”


“[W]e look for things we understand. (And here may be the truest exploration of “write what you know” — it’s less about the facts and data and details and more about the authenticity of the human experience that you should draw upon. You don’t know what it is to karate kick a yeti, but you do know what it is to suffer loss and lies, to want love and experience hate [...].”

Although Chuck Wendig goes on to make a larger point about character versus plot, what he says right here, in the excerpts I’ve provided, nicely echoes Grace Paley’s point.

In a way, each of us is trapped inside our own skin, locked into one perspective, one worldview. 

In this light, then, perhaps one of the roles of a writer is to know our own mind, our own questions, our own fears, our own puzzlements, with such thoroughness that we infuse this understanding, this perspective, into our writing. Further, we want to do it so successfully that, for a time, our readers feel themselves transported into another worldview. 

Which, incidentally, doesn’t narrow what we can write about. Just the opposite. By getting in touch with (for instance) our own fear of failure one can craft innumerable believable characters, whether they want to build a rocket to Mars or get through their child’s first day at school.

That’s it! Write your worldview, write your soul. I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!


1. This quotation is from a lecture Grace Paley gave in the 1960s entitled, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything.” The transcript was included in the volume “Just As I Thought.” I came across these quotations on the site Brain Pickings ( Specifically, through an article by Maria Popova, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers.”

Thursday, June 25

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win

It’s said that, at the end of life, what haunts us ISN’T the things we did but the things we didn’t do. 

We can’t do everything in the time allotted to us, but we can do the important things. We can pursue our passions.

I think this is something that we, as writers, need to take to heart. (And by “writer” I mean just that--people who write. One does not need to be published to be a writer.)

For the past while I have deeply regretted letting fear rule me and NOT writing a particular story.

But please don’t misunderstand. There are many reasons to NOT write a story. (Stephen King talks about a few of these in “On Writing.”) Perhaps you’ve only got hold of a part of the story so you need to wait for the rest, for a complete idea. After all, it took Stephen King a few decades to finish the story we now know as “Under The Dome.” And so on.

There are good reasons to delay setting pen to paper. Fear, though, is NEVER a good reason. (Remember: just because you write a story doesn’t mean you have to publish it!)

My Story

Back at the beginning of my journey as a writer, back before I published anything, I had this idea for a story: From the first person perspective, have each of three characters tell the reader about an event that happened to all of them at the end of grade seven. They had been camping in the woods, camping with a fourth person, a person who died that night. Each of the first person accounts would differ and, through those differences, the reader would come to know the characters.

By the three-quarter point I wanted the reader to have formed certain conclusions about what happened that night. 

The last quarter of the story would be written in objective third person (fly on the wall perspective) and would be a recounting of the event itself. Further, the ending would introduce a twist, something that would shatter one of the reader’s fundamental assumptions, but in a way that made sense. 

At least, that was the plan!

Now, I’m not saying this story would have been any good, but I would have enjoyed writing it and, at the very least, it would have been good writing practice.

What Happened

I ended up never writing the story. Here’s what happened: 

A friend asked what the story was about. These days I have a rule: Never EVER discuss a WIP before the first draft is complete. At that time my story was still in the idea stage. Anyway, I told her. 

She said, “Oh no! You can’t do that. You can’t switch the POV from first to third at the end and you absolutely can’t have three different first person accounts.” 

And then she gave me a look that seemed to question my sanity!

Please don’t misunderstand. I now think my friend was correct, having three different first person narrators would have been extremely off-putting for readers (to say the least!). But that was in the days before I knew about free indirect voice. If I had written the story and put it away in a drawer I could have gone back to it as a more experienced writer and turned the first person accounts into third person accounts but without losing the sense of intimacy the story required.

As it was, my fear made me rethink the entire story. Where before I was excited and eager to begin now I questioned the whole enterprise. I spent so much time rethinking the story that I decided I wasn’t mature enough as a writer to attempt the project and put it to the side.

Here’s my advice: Even if you’ve gotten hold of an idea for a story you think you’ll never be able to publish, if it’s in your heart to write it, if you’re passionate about it, then go for it! Write it. 

Nowhere is it written, there is no commandment scrawled on stone tablets, that you have to publish every story you write.

Granted, you might NOT want to take months, or even years, out of your life writing a book length work you don’t think will be publishable. Point taken. But I believe that every longform story--the main plot line at least--can be condensed into a shortish story. Or at least a novella. 

Changing POV

The other day Adam Savage interviewed Andy Weir, author of runaway bestseller “The Martian,” for his podcast. It’s fascinating and I urge you to listen. Anyway, Adam mentions the book has a POV shift from first to third person halfway through!

When I heard that I sat in stunned silence. Now, I’m not saying that just because Andy Weir was able to pull off switching from first person to third that I would have been able to pull it off. I’m only saying that I should have tried. I should have written the story and THEN made the judgement call: Did it work?

As Stephen King says: It’s all on the table. Everything. Try it out. If it doesn’t work then don’t send the story out into the world. That one will just be for you. I’ve got a few stories like that and, honestly, they’re some of my favorites!

In Conclusion

The lesson I’ve learnt (or at least I hope I have!) is: Don’t let fear stop you from writing the story that’s in your heart to write.

I’ve decided I AM going to write that story and, in tandem with writing this blog post, have completed a (very rough!) first draft. Even if the story never sees the light of day, I’m putting this in the win column because I conquered my fear. And fear can lead to writers block--or at least it can if you’re me. (grin)

Don’t let fear get the upper hand. Write the story!

Talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good (fearless) writing!

Monday, August 4

How To Get Over A Fear Of Failure

How To Get Over A Fear Of Failure

Last time I talked about fear of failure. I believe that fear is the number one thing holding most people back, writers especially.

Yes, to be a writer one must write and one must read, but one must do something else as well: one must offer one’s work up to others to be read. (Not everything, to be sure. Sometimes we write a story just for ourselves, or for a friend, or for our family. But I agree with Lee Child that a reader is an essential component of every story. I feel that an unread story is, in some ways, an unfinished story.[1]) 

Today there are more ways than ever to get our work in front of readers. We can send it to book publishers or we can publish it ourselves on places like Amazon and Smashwords and Kobo and iBooks. Those are just a few of the many markets that have sprung up in the past few years. Writers can also--as I’m doing right now--publish a blog post, or serialize their stories through sites like Wattpad.

Many writers are taking advantage of these publishing opportunities. To those of you who are: great! You are doing the work, facing the fear of failure, of rejection, then getting over it, and putting your work out there. When setbacks come--and of course they will; they come to everyone--you brush yourself off, get up, and keep going. Kudos.

A lot of people aren’t like that. It’s not that they aren’t brave, it’s that the sting of past failures, still clear in their minds, paralyzes them; it prevents them from acting and risking failure. And that’s a big problem because to succeed at anything one must risk failure.

The power of writing.

Why do we write? Why do we sequester ourselves from our friends, our families--from the outdoors! From fresh air and family picnics and Saturday night movies and drinks after work with friends. Why do we live like moles in underground warrens--writer’s caves--bathed in artificial light?

Why do you write?

There are going to be all sorts of different reasons but I think that most writers write because they want to create stories that have the power to entertain, that have the power to reach out and connect with the hearts and minds of their audience and make them feel something.

It is a kind of magic. Consider this sentence:

“I’m thinking of a white rabbit.”

And now so are you!

In reading those words, words I wrote, I influenced your thoughts.

People who are both skilled and clever at writing can transform lives and change the course of history.

That sounds like an exaggeration but think how different the world would be without the Torah, the Christian Bible and the Koran. I’m not saying anything about how the world would be better or worse--that’s an entirely different post--but it would certainly be different.

When my father first told me that the pen was mightier than the sword, I scoffed. But swords are wielded by people, and people have ideas and thoughts and beliefs and desires, all of which can be changed by what they read; all of which can be changed by the stories that live inside them.

The stories that live in us, the stories that we tell ourselves, are what shape our lives, are what shape what is possible for us. These stories determine what we will attempt, what we will risk, what we will try.

My point is that, as writers, as creators of stories, we have a lot of power.

To be a storyteller is a heady goal.

And, perhaps for that reason, perhaps because the end result is so potentially powerful, there is a bar to entry: the fear of failure.

The boogyman.

We all fear something (though probably not the same thing!). Many writers, though, have two fears in common:

Writers often fear that not only will their work, their stories, be cruelly rejected but that, as a result, they will be rejected as well. 

The fear is that our friends will laugh at us behind our backs, that our families will be disappointed in us. The fear is that, because of our story’s failure, we will amount to less.

For many of us, this fear has its root in having been bullied. This is the fear of someone tearing us down, ridiculing us, perhaps even beating us up, all because doing so makes them feel good. It is all because diminishing us makes them feel bigger, better.

But let’s examine this fear, let’s shine a light on it. Let’s take an objective look at what failure could mean for a writer.

The upside of failure.

Failure, like death, is inevitable. We will fail at something. Probably many somethings.

Failure can be devastating: 

If brakes fail to work properly, people can die.

If a surgeon fails to hold his scalpel steady, his patient can die.

If a parent fails to care for their children adequately, they can die.

If a writer fails to sell a book--if the book fails--then ... what?

Well, no one is going to die.

(Note: In what follows it may seem as though I’m saying it’s okay to be sloppy, it’s okay to publish a book that hasn’t been proofread, it’s okay to offer a book for sale before the author has solicited feedback from beta readers. I’m not saying any of those things. Every book published should be the best the author can possibly make it.) 

Ask yourself:

What is the worst thing that can happen if you publish your story or send it off to a traditional publisher? 

One thing that could happen is for a reviewer to leave a scathing one star review that goes beyond criticizing the story--which is fair--to criticizing the author--which isn’t fair--and doing so in a way that is intentionally destructive. 

I know a lot of people experienced bullying when they were kids and, unfortunately, even as adults. A person does something someone else finds weird or strange, something that--to them--is objectionable, and instead of limiting their criticism to what you did they criticize you.

Perhaps you’re worried that if you publish a book that sucks that your friends and family--and even complete strangers--will tell you you’re hopeless, you’re a joke, you’re a terrible person. Perhaps you’re scared that you’re going to lose all your friends. No one will like you or respect you or listen to you anymore. 

The fear of being abandoned by those we care about most, the fear of losing all you hold most dear, is often what lies at the heart of the fear of failure. And the fear doesn’t have to be rational. I once watched an interview with a billionaire in which he confessed that he was still terrified of losing all his money and being homeless. As he said this there were tears in his eyes. Is that likely to ever happen? No! But it doesn’t matter. That’s the fear that drives him.

Our fears are often wildly unrealistic. 

For the sake of argument, let’s say you publish--or send to a publisher--a book that sucks. Let’s say you wrote the worst story ever. Yes, you checked the manuscript for grammatical errors but you missed them. To make matters worse, you describe your story as an action/adventure when it’s really a confused romance, and the story question--whether the protagonists will become a couple--is never answered. Or maybe it’s just terribly boring, better than warm milk at putting readers to sleep.

What is the worst that could happen? 

A. Readers download the book, perhaps it was free and they didn’t bother looking at the first few pages. They begin to read, realize it’s a horrible story badly written and either leave a disgruntled review or just close the book and never look at it again.

B. Readers are so upset that they waisted time on the book that they leave scathing one star reviews that skewer not only the work but the author of the work. Not satisfied with this, they stalk the author and leave one star reviews for all her books without even reading them.

If either (A) or (B) happens, so what? (Again, I’m not advising people to publish sloppy work, I’m just looking at a worst case scenario.) 

Chances are no one is going to remember your name (and, if you’re really worried, you can publish under a pen name). I have trouble remembering the names of authors whose books I DO want to read, I don’t have any brain-space left over for authors who I don’t want to read, nor do most people.

(B) is probably not going to happen. I would say you have a better chance of being struck by lightening or winning the lottery. Yes, there are some authors who some people love to hate but these authors are usually successful. I’m writing this post for people who want to share their work with a larger public but who haven’t yet because they are afraid of what the price might be, not those who are experiencing some of the drawbacks of success.

What is the best thing that could happen?

This isn’t at all likely, but look at what happened to Hugh Howey. That sort of success didn’t happen right away, he published many books before he made it big with Wool, a story he thought wasn’t going to sell well. Because of Wool he was able to quit his day job and become a successful full-time writer.

What is most likely to happen?

If this is your first publication and you have no presence on the web then even if you publish an awesome story chances are it won’t sell and you won’t receive any reviews.

If you do have a presence on the web, even a modest one, or if you do some promotion, then you likely will get some downloads and, if it’s a terrible book, you may get a few reviews like (A) above. The good news, though, is that there are many ways to ensure your book is not terrible:

- If you have the money, send your book to a content editor, one you’ve researched thoroughly and who is highly recommended. If you don’t have the money, work out an exchange with other authors who write the same kind of books you do. In addition, you can run your story through online critique groups such as

- Run your story through a grammar checker. I use MS Word. If you have the money, also send your book to a copy editor, someone who can check for grammatical errors and logical inconsistencies.

- Put the story away for as long as you can stand, weeks or months, and then take it out and read it. You should be able to see it with new eyes and decide for yourself whether it is something you want to share with the world.

Note: There’s a big difference between a story being terrible and it simply not being someone’s cup of tea. For example, I could write the best romance story ever written but if a reader hates romance stories they aren’t going to like it.[2]

It’s easy to do something unskilled that almost everyone loves. That’s porn. It’s difficult to do something that takes skill where the possibility of self-immolating disaster lurks, ever-present, in the wings. Writers are those people who find it in themselves to rise from their own ashes and continue writing.


1. The other day I went through a few of my trunk stories. Many of them had been written so long ago I only dimly remembered writing them. I think that when we write a story then put it away for days or weeks or months, or even years, and then come back to it and re-read it we can be almost objective. We come back to the text as a reader not as its creator. Because of this, I think that a writer can be their own reader, their own audience, if they have sufficient distance from the work.

2. There is a reader for every book. Whatever kind of story you write, if you love the story then there are other people who will love it too. The trick is to find them. Further, what determines whether a person can make a living from their writing is how many readers love the kinds of stories you write. I believe that most one star reviews come from people outside a book’s target audience; they come from people who, instead of loving that kind of story, hate it. It is not the fault of the storyteller or the story; the book just wasn’t for them. Given this, if a person (say) makes their work free on Amazon and thousands of people download it, it’s quite likely it will get a few negative reviews--as well as quite a few positive ones. (It’s interesting how writers have the capacity to remember that first cutting one star review till the end of time while completely ignoring all the five star reviews!)

Further reading:

Seth Godin – Full Stop Failure over at Turnaround Magazine.

Photo credit: "First Kitten, First Home" by Laura D'Alessandro by Creative Commons Copyright 2.0.

Friday, May 2

Creativity, Inc: Ed Catmull On Success, Candor And Fear Of Failure

I'm reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull.[1] For me, the most interesting parts are where Catmull talks about failure and how to handle failure. 

Failure is an intrinsic part of a creative person's life, whether they are a singer, a songwriter, whether they play an instrument or write stories. We've all experienced failure of some sort and if there is one thing I believe with all my heart it is that how we handle failure goes a long way to determining whether we will succeed.

In Creativity, Inc. Catmull writes:

"Left to their own devices, most people don’t want to fail. But Andrew Stanton isn’t most people. As I’ve mentioned, he’s known around Pixar for repeating the phrases “fail early and fail fast” and “be wrong as fast as you can.” He thinks of failure like learning to ride a bike; it isn’t conceivable that you would learn to do this without making mistakes—without toppling over a few times. “Get a bike that’s as low to the ground as you can find, put on elbow and knee pads so you’re not afraid of falling, and go,” he says. If you apply this mindset to everything new you attempt, you can begin to subvert the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. Says Andrew: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”


The idea here isn't that one should try to fail--I can picture someone sitting in a bar nursing their third scotch and soda saying, "I'm on my third divorce, whoohoo!"--but that our goal shouldn't be to avoid failure since that path leads to mediocrity. Instead, we should strive to achieve success. 

Fear of failure leads to taking fewer risks and innovating less. Instead, we want our curiosity to drive experimentation. The alternative is to play it safe so we won't fail, but if we look at things that way, if we take "don't fail" as our goal, we'll never do anything brilliant. 

And, yes, maybe we will never do anything stunningly brilliant, but it's a lot more fun to be creative and fail occasionally than to play it safe, never fail, and hate what we do. 

Pixar's Rough Drafts Suck

This line suprised me: "early on, all of our movies suck." That got my attention! Here's the entire quotation:

"[C]andor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing by saying this. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so—to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.” This idea—that all the movies we now think of as brilliant were, at one time, terrible—is a hard concept for many to grasp. But think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise-driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. And this is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process—reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul."

That's courageous! And they've gotten terrific results. (By the way, Maria Popova over at has written a wonderful article about Catmull's book.)

Having planted my feet firmly on the "failure is an agent of learning" bandwagon, I'd like to offer a couple of notes of warning.

1. Pick the right people.

Catmull writes:

"Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be."

I agree! In principle. 

Yes, in the best groups that's true. But I've learnt from experience that humans have good reasons to fear speaking up in groups, to fear sharing the product of their creativity with others. Unfortunately some--whether through ignorance or malice--find glee in ripping the creative efforts of others to painful, bloody, shreds. Don't give them the chance.

Yes, share your creative work with others, but test them first. Don't wear your heart on your sleeve the first time. Get to know your collaborators and make sure they're the right fit for you. A team that is simpatico (and here I'm thinking of writer, beta readers, editor, etc.) is a beautiful thing. One that isn't grinds everyone down. Picking the right people to rely on is key. (IMHO)

2. Don't try to fail.

I know I've said this before, but it's an important point. 

Catmull is saying that you shouldn't aim to avoid failure--you shouldn't have that as your goal--because that's focusing on the wrong thing. Rather, aim for the stars and embrace failure when it happens. 

Of course, if you're aiming high, if you're trying to do things no one else has, you're going to fail. A lot. But Catmull says that's okay. You're learning. Adapting. Evolving. A culture--whether corporate or otherwise--that doesn't foster people who are willing to take risks will never achieve anything truly great. Anything truly different. Why? Because they will be too fearful to strike out where no one has gone before (yes, I'm hearing the Star Trek theme in my head!)

I think Ed Catmull's book, Creativity, Inc. is a must for any creative professional to read, especially the chapters on candor (Chapter 5) and fear of failure (Chapter 6). 


1. Ed Catmull is a computer scientist and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.

Photo credit: "spring in the park" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.