#ROW80 check-ins, creativity, the writer's journey, writing process

Facing the Fear Monster in Our Writing Careers

Over the past few days, a feeling has been creeping into my life that I don’t much care for. It’s a feeling that any artist is familiar with: A sinking sensation in the pit of our stomachs, a feeling of panic that creeps through our entire bodies and pounds in our temples.

Mine started late last week. I’d just finished a writing session and was standing in my bedroom when, in a moment of dread, my inner voice woke up as if from a nightmare. “This book we’re working on,” it immediately said, “No one is going to publish it. I mean, it’s a romance and the main characters spend too much time apart.” With that all-too-familiar knot in my stomach, I plunged into a moment of panic. Would editors be dismissive? Would readers be disappointed?

Fortunately, this isn’t my first manuscript; and this wasn’t my first moment of sheer, overwhelming panic. This feeling of apprehension is a real part of the writer’s road. Maybe it’s even a healthy part, once we learn how to deal with it.

First, I had to realize why the Fear Monster had chosen this particular moment to rear its ugly head…

I’m nearly finished with a paranormal romance novella. It’s not my first project, but it is my first one as a full-time writer. Before, I had the constant pressure of writing articles for the magazine I worked at—but I also knew that once the article was finished and on the page I could move on. Somebody was paying me to write, and there was a kind of freedom in that–a built-in market, if you will, for my words.

Now, I’m on the open road all alone, and while it feels good to be cruising along and taking any side roads or shortcuts that catch my eye, there is a fear that comes with that freedom.

If I’ve learned one lesson so far, it’s this: That fear is both necessary and natural.

Fear can be a motivational tool to help us write the best books possible. If fear tells us our setting is lackluster, our dialogue is flat, or our characters aren’t motivated enough, we can use it to grow as writers. We can spice up our setting, learn to write snappier dialogue, or plunge deeper into character development.

My fear came from a real place; my plot breaks the mold in some ways. That doesn’t mean my manuscript is doomed. I’ve still got a three-act structure; I’m still armed with my trusty beat sheet. The story still meets the key reader expectations for its genre—it’s just that my characters are taking a rather unconventional path toward meeting those expectations.

So, my fear wasn’t unwarranted. And the fact that the Fear Monster reared its ugly head right as I was about to finish my first project as a full-timer was no coincidence. I’ve taken a road filled with uncertainty—a beautiful, exciting road, to be sure, but still an uncertain one.

Once we realize that fear is a natural part of the creative process, it’s easier to grapple with.

We can take a deep breath, acknowledge it, stare it down. We can even learn from it. We can use it as a tool to take our writing to the next level.

I’m writing this because I think that as writers we’re sometimes convinced that we shouldn’t be afraid, or that we should ignore our fears completely, or that we’ll one day outgrow them, the way we no longer believe the dust bunnies are really monsters under our beds or that the sound of branches scraping the window is really a werewolf pawing at the glass.

Truthfully, I don’t think we ever completely outgrow the Fear Monster. We just learn how to talk to it, how to tame it, how to harness its doubt-inducing presence and use it to our advantage. We can experience fear without being paralyzed by it. We can walk through the shadow of our fears instead of running away.

The moment we learn to do that is a huge moment of growth for us as artists. I’m still working on that novella, and when the time is right, I’ll seek input from my critique partners and beta readers about the plot and genre. I also realized that I’ve read a few romances that took a similar path and turned out to be wonderful reads. Knowledge is a great antidote for fear.

So is support. I voiced my concerns on Twitter, and a couple of fellow writers chimed in with words of wisdom and support. And I’m still working, so the Fear Monster didn’t stop me in my tracks the way it might’ve a couple years ago.

Midweek ROW80 check-in

1.) Wrote 1,670 words in my WIP, “Good, Old-Fashioned Magic.”

2.) Reading to hone my craft: Making progress on this front, though I’m a little behind where I thought I would be this far into Round 1.

3.) Blog on Wednesdays and Sundays: On track to meet this goal this week.

4.) Checked in on Twitter every day this week. I haven’t checked in on WANA Tribe yet.

5.) Comment on 5-6 blogs per day, Monday-Thursday: On track so far.

6.) Super-secret project: I’ve come up with a few ideas for posts to write this week, but haven’t actually set pen to paper (or fingers to keys) yet. So, not much progress there.

What about you? Does the Fear Monster ever show up when you’re working? What does it say? How do you face it? How are your writing goals coming along this week?

A Round of Words in 80 Days, founded by Kait Nolan, is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. And, it’s a blog hop! Click here to cheer on fellow participants.

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the writer's journey

The trouble with being a perfectionist

Are you a writer-perfectionist? Here are some ways that I knew I was:

  • I had to ask one of my bridesmaids for a pen five minutes before I walked down the aisle because two sentences in my wedding vows were “redundant.”
  • I once copyedited the text on a napkin. That’s right, a napkin. (I resisted the urge to tell the waitress, “Do you know there’s a typo on your napkins?” But just barely.)
  • I develop facial tics when I find errors or formatting inconsistencies in my work post-publication.
  • I have trouble letting go of work because it’s not as good as it can be. Nothing is ever “done.”

It’s almost a joke that, when asked by an interviewer what we consider to be our greatest weakness, many of us respond, “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” That’s usually followed by a laugh and a look from the prospective boss that says, “No, seriously.”

We often equate being a perfectionist with being a hard worker and having high standards. Neither of the latter two is a bad thing. Making a career as a writer, deciding that, in fact, this isn’t a hobby but a genuine and feasible vocation, is hard work. It’s not for the faint of heart. And readers, editors, and agents will have high expectations for our work, so we need to hold ourselves to those same standards.

But sometimes perfectionism is an excuse. We keep piddling with a work revising and revising and revising, until our brains seem to be made of Jell-O or we feel like a dog chasing its tail. We don’t query agents, submit to editors, or even send work to beta readers or critique partners because the WIP isn’t the best it can be. Or maybe we do share it with our trusted critiquers, but hold off on sharing it with the larger world. Is it really perfectionism that’s holding us back? Or is being a perfectionist really a stand-in for fear: fear of success, of failure, of being judge?

WARNING: Unnecessary, crazy-making perfectionism can lead to hair-pulling, premature wrinkles, and a general sense of angst.

Here are two scenarios in which perfectionism stood in the way:

One of my friends is working on her thesis. She spent years working on it before finally sharing it with her thesis committee, holding off until the very last minute. Why? Because when she writes something, she wants it to be perfect. I urged her to just write a crappy first draft and then revise, but every page she wrote, she revised as she went. It took her longer to write this way, in my opinion, because she constantly had to switch roles from writer to editor, back and forth. Being a perfectionist meant she took the long route.

I was once charged with writing an article about our university’s role in the wine industry. A lot of higher ups were very excited about the article and had high expectations. I’d written for a few issues of the magazine, but this was the biggest project I’d worked on to date. Deadline arrived and I had a ton of quotes and background research, but no finished product. I was frozen, paralyzed by the thought of disappointing readers and my bosses. Finally, a friend told me, “I think if you settled for what you consider to be mediocre, your standards would still be five times higher than most people’s.” Huh. Her words allowed me to let go of expectations and just write. And you know what? To this day, I’m proud of that article and consider it one of my best. I gave myself creative freedom and wrote a strong, engaging article. My department VP even gave a rave review—and he’s not someone who doles out compliments easily.

Perfectionism can be the mask worn by plenty of other creatures. It can really be self-doubt, or it can be that we’re not sure how to proceed. We allow ourselves to get lost muddling through details because the big picture or the next step overwhelms us. In short, perfectionism can be procrastination. And procrastination can be fear in disguise because, let’s face it, it’s easier to admit that we’re lazy than it is to admit that we’re scared.

Overachievers will always be overachievers. And there’s nothing wrong with high standards–as long as they don’t prevent us from writing, finishing a manuscript, sending it to agents/editors, or even posting on our blogs. Not even the best book is “perfect.” A book can be riveting, suspenseful, well-crafted, engaging, provocative, excellent–an all-around great read–but it can never be perfect.

Somewhere inside of us lurks a a perfectionism beast. If it escapes from its cage, it can slow us down or, even worse, derail us. I’m starting to learn that if left untamed, this creature can, at the very least, be a one-way ticket premature wrinkles and stomach ulcers.

How do you confront your inner perfectionist?

writing process

How DID Stella get her groove back?

In the fall, I turned my attention to teaching, to helping others become stronger writers. My days were full of day job No. 1 (PR-type writing) and teaching: meetings, conversations with students, photocopying, and long rounds of e-mailing. My nights were full of lesson-planning, lecture-writing, creating assignment sheets and tests, and, because I teach an upper-level writing course, lots and lots of grading, writing line edits and comments until I thought my hand might fall off. And you know what? My students make it worth it. When I bring that kind of dedication, I see confused students find a voice, I see strong students grow stronger, I see my enthusiasm reflected in their eyes and their work. And that makes the late nights worthwhile.

What suffers, though, is my creative work. I worked on a few small projects, but I wasn’t able to finish anything. By the end of 2010, I felt drained. Even though I accomplished a great deal (I wrote about 2/3 of current WIP), it didn’t feel that way.

So now here I am, with a semester off from teaching, ready to throw myself back into my novel with all of the energy and passion that I did last summer. But picking up where I left off isn’t as easy as I had hoped. And that feeling, that sinking feeling of being stuck, it’s starting to get to me. I’m writing slowly, but I feel disconnected from my work and my characters. I worry a lot, about not being able to get to where I want to go–to finish this story, to write the next one, to reach the level of writing I want to reach. Thoughts of finding an agent and becoming a published writer leave me dizzy. So I’m trying to live for this scene, this day, this moment. But I can’t shake the gnawing feeling in my gut that I’m spinning my wheels.

But I don’t give up writing. Maybe it’s one of those “If you build it, they will come,” scenarios. If I keep writing, the muses will tiptoe in the door. If I put my fingers on the keyboard, the story will begin to seep out of me. If I sit in that space each day and just keep writing, the characters will start telling me their stories again.

So writers, we all get stuck. Do you ever struggle with getting back into a story once you’ve left it for a while? What helps you get back into the swing of things? How do you get back into the groove of the story?

Writing is not an easy profession, especially when you’re starting out, when you’re writing a story you don’t know if anyone besides your crit group will ever read. I just have faith that the story is an end unto itself, that it’s finishing the story, not publishing it, that matters. Writing a fantastic story, one that sings on the page, even if it takes me years, that’s the goal. The other stuff will come later.

I know the passion is there, simmering beneath the surface. The key to writing, as we like to say, is just to write. But how do you get back to the story when you just feel STUCK, when you’re writing but you feel removed from it and it doesn’t seem to get you (or the story) where you need to go? Writers, I’m curious about your personal experiences with your own stories. Any thoughts?