Becoming a Fearless Writer
All of us struggle with fear. It’s natural. Rejection is painful, so we want to avoid it. As a writer, avoiding that fear usually means reducing the number of submissions we make, or submitting only to “safe” markets. Ugly reviews are painful so when we try to avoid that pain, we shy away from controversial content. Failure hurts, so we self-sabotage to avoid going far enough to fail. We pick the place that feels the most comfortable and camp there even if it means we cannot grow. But giving in to fear is truly the only way to ensure failure. If you do not try, you cannot win and you cannot grow.
So as we’re working on goals, let’s tackle fears. Since fighting something tends to require identifying it, the first step for us to take is to name the things that scare us most as writers and give each fear a closer look. Here are some common ones. Which apply to you?
What If I Don’t Have What It Takes?
Sometimes younger writers come into the field with a considerable amount of self-confidence. They have been told by teachers that they are talented and they feel ready to tackle writing for publication based on pure talent. But then rejections begin to roll in (as they do for most of us) and that confidence collapses on itself.
For older writers, these kind of doubts often revolve around things like education or even youth. I know one older writer who is terrified of being her age, as she believes writing young adult novels won’t work for older women. Combating this kind of fear requires recognizing where it’s originating (what exactly do you worry you lack? Talent? Skill? Youth? Education? Connections?) and then researching to find out if that really is a valid worry.
If your fear is that you don’t have enough talent, you probably have plenty, but what you might need is more skill, which requires work, study and practice, and all of those things are available to you. If you’re worried that you’re too old, spend some time researching authors writing the sort of books you want to write. Sure, many of the ones frequently photographed may be young, but you’ll find older writers in every single genre.
Ultimately, what sells a book is the quality of the book. A book that blows a publisher or agent away won’t be turned away because the author isn’t young enough or pretty enough or whatever appearance thing worries you. Publishers push whatever they have available, so if you look like a model, they’re going to put your picture out there, but ultimately, they know that books sell because the content catches the public’s interest and give the reader an enjoyable and unforgettable ride.
What If People Laugh at Me?
We don’t all have supportive family and friend groups. Honestly, my family hasn’t always been overly supportive of my writing (though most didn’t have the nerve to actively laugh at me. I’m short, but I’m fierce) so I can understand a worry that you’re simply giving them fuel to say snotty things. Even supportive families can have false illusions about how quickly success normally comes and support sometimes fades a bit in the process.
The truth is that any risks we take in life come with the possibility of failure and unpleasant remarks. But all of us have taken risks at some time or others. It’s hard to live a life without risk. But if your goal is truly to only do things that comes without risk or ridicule, writing might not be your best option. Even if you become a bestselling novelist, and your family is thrilled by the money coming in, some people out there will say mean things about you.
So, now is a good time to decide that you write because you’re a writer and everyone else will either get on board or not, but you’ll still be a writer. Once I made that choice and refused to be moved from it, that’s when I began to succeed more steadily. And the surprising end result, some of the folks who most often criticized my writing choice got on board enthusiastically. They don’t read my stuff, but they like telling people that I’m a writer.
What If The Game is Rigged?
I’m constantly amazed by how many people believe that publishing is a rigged game, that publishers only want best sellers, or that you can only get published if you have enough connections, or that you must have enough social media connections to be published. None of those things are actually true, though all have a kernel of truth hidden inside (sometimes hidden fairly deep).
The big publishers, the ones that only accept agented works, do tend to go for books that smell like they have a strong potential to sell lots of copies. The biggest publishers have high expenses, and need to sell many books to meet those expenses and to turn a profit. So the biggest publishers will sometimes be shy of books that seem too niche (books that will appeal to only handball enthusiasts, for example) or books that have qualities that the publisher worry might affect sales (too quiet, too slow, too controversial, too hard to market).
Still, big publishers also like having books that win awards and those books are often quiet or controversial or hard to market, so a tendency to shy away from some kinds of books doesn’t make a hard and fast rule. An incredibly well-written slow novel with gorgeous language might lure a big publisher to take a risk.
And big publishers aren’t the only publishers around. Independent publishers are often more daring and smaller publishers sometimes pride themselves on making space for books that will appeal to under-served audiences (even big publishers are becoming more open to this). Not being published by the huge publishers might actually be better for you or for your book when you find an independent publisher who loves your book and is willing to get behind it in a big way.
So what about social media? Is that a realistic fear? Some publishers really like to see social media involvement by their writers. Some care a lot less. But if you have a book that blows the publisher away, they’ll simply encourage you to become more social media savvy and usually help you along the way a bit. If they want to publish the book, they don’t want to see if fail. The means writing a great book will basically trump all the other worries. You may have to make wise choices in matching your great book with the right publisher (which will take more research. I know you may be a little research weary, but I promise it will be worth it). If you make the effort it will pay off in the long run.
What If I Can’t Afford It?
Sometimes writers feel pressured to invest a lot of money they cannot afford in their writing. Conferences and workshops and writing classes can be expensive. If you can afford them, they can also shave time off the process of being published (sometimes years), but they aren’t the only way to reach success.
Personally, I come from poor people, and I started off my career as a poor writer, but now I have over 100 books that were published by a variety of publishers. I’ve also written for magazines, for websites, and even for a toy manufacturer. My writing journey took a LONG time because I couldn’t afford to give it money, I could only afford to give it time (and sometimes not a lot of time per day or per week or even per month). I had to be stubborn, and I had to prioritize my writing in the moments available, but I got there. You can too.
It is important to understand that if you cannot spare the money to help your career along, you’ll need to be more stubborn, more perseverant, and much more patient than someone who can take the classes, attend the conferences, and do the workshops. It’s hugely helpful to get the kind of professional feedback that is available in those kinds of settings. But don’t let anyone tell you that there is only one way to succeed, and it involves spending a lot of money. There are many ways. Don’t give up. You can find yours.
But Others Always Seem to Do Better!
This one is tough. I love my fellow writers. I do. I invest time and effort into helping along the careers of other people, and I want them to succeed. But, I’ll be honest, when I’m in a slow spot or a dark place at the time when someone I’ve helped along gets some fantastic news, a tiny, tiny part of me is jealous. Most of me is thrilled, but there’s a grumpy person in there who wants to win all the time. I don’t like her, but she’s there.
Jealousy is natural. It’s unpleasant, and we often don’t like to admit it happens, but it’s natural. It’s also best not to feed it. You’re not being left behind. We all take this journey on a different path and with a different time frame. My successes won’t coincide with everyone else’s. My dark moments won’t either. But I work hard to keep my eyes on my own path to lessen the urge to feed that jealous brat who lives in me.
Be a Fearless Writer Anyway
Ultimately I believe the world is improved by all of us. The broad expanse and variety of works published offer readers so much, and I want that to continue. I want us all to rise. And when I get a case of “why not me,” I’ll refocus on working my goals and remembering my successes, because I’m not being left behind. I’m moving forward on my own road. And so are you.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.