Facing the Fear Monster

- by Susan Lyons

Before I get started, I’d like to say Happy Thanksgiving to all you Americans, from a Canadian who celebrated our Thanksgiving a month ago. I hope you all have a wonderful day with family and friends.

Maybe this is kind of a strange topic for a day of thanksgiving, but I want to talk about fear. Earlier this week I was blogging about writer’s block, and someone posted the question, How do you deal with a fear of writing?

Wow, what an interesting question. I’m not sure I ever actually suffer from fear of writing, but I sure do suffer from avoidance sometimes! Like, I’ll keep finding things to do (isn’t there a load of laundry to be washed?) instead of write. In that case, I just force myself to the computer, set a timer for half an hour and say that I’ll either write or stare at the blank screen for that half hour.

But fear is a different thing. We all have fears, whether they’re of writing or of other things in our lives. Seems to me, if you’re feeling afraid, you need to figure out what “monster” you’re afraid of, and deal with that fear.

Is it the fear of failure monster? Well, you know what? Every writer – and every human being – is going to “fail” over and over. If you put yourself out there, you’re not always going to succeed the way you’d like to. For a writer, we may not sell the book, we may get rejected by the agent of our dreams, we may get a bad review, a reader may write and tell us our work sucks. Is that failure? I don’t think so. It’s a natural, inevitable part of life. Whether it’s a business/career like writing, or something personal like a relationship, things won’t always turn out the way we want them to, and we have to learn how to deal with that. What’s the alternative? Hang back and never try at all? No, sorry, that’s not a good option.

Some of us (yes, I’m holding my hand up) have a wee bit of a perfectionism issue. This is something we really must get over or it can cripple us. The thing is, we’re never going to be perfect. Never. So if our standard is perfection, we will always judge ourselves as failures. What I try to do is flip the perfectionism monster on its head so that it works for me rather than against me. I tell myself that I’ll be a failure if I don’t write any words, but I won’t be a failure if I write stuff that’s bad – because then I have something I can edit. (And every manuscript, no matter how brilliant the writer, needs to be edited.) Remember Nora Roberts’ wisdom: you can fix a bad page, but you can’t fix a blank page.

Then, for some people, there’s a fear of success monster. That’s one I have trouble identifying with. Whether it’s success at a writing (or other) career, success at love, success at baking a cake, how can success possibly be a bad thing? Or is the real fear that, if you succeed, people may look at you differently? If you succeed, will others be jealous, will they bad-mouth you, will you lose friends? Or perhaps it’s a more personal fear: if you succeed once, how will you ever do as well the next time? (Okay, now I’m scaring myself!)

For both fear of success and fear of failure, I think it helps to figure out your “worst case scenario” (i.e., the biggest, ugliest, growliest, most horrible monster you can possibly imagine), and make it concrete, then think about how you’d deal with it if it happened. Actually picture the horrible thing, then picture yourself coping. Chances are, nothing that terrible will ever happen. But if you can imagine dealing with something that bad, then you can cope with the smaller stuff that’s bound to happen. For a lot of us, fear is something huge and amorphous (it’s the monster lurking under the bed), and we need to make it concrete, which makes it more manageable. Take a look at a lovely kids’ picture book on that very subject by my writer friend, Sheri Radford, Penelope and The Monsters (http://www.sheriradford.com/). Penelope can’t sleep because, when she’s alone in her room, a bunch of monsters come out to harass her. How does she finally banish them? By confronting them and telling them they’re not so scary.

Another fear monster for writers is fear of what you’re writing and how it affects you. You may be touching on something that’s very emotional for you. Like an abuse victim writing about a heroine who’s being abused. A cancer patient writing about a character who’s going through a horrible illness. Someone who’s recently lost a loved one writing about a character who is suffering loss. These are gut-wrenching situations, and dealing with your character’s life and emotions means that you can’t avoid your own, so you hurt. If your writing is taking you to painful places you don’t feel strong enough to visit right now, maybe this isn’t the book you should be writing at this time. On the other hand, writing may be cathartic, it may be healing, it may help you come to peace with your own issues. Just remember to be kind to yourself, seek the support of loving family/friends, and, if necessary, get professional support as well.

Another writer’s fear monster is, “I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to tackle this.” You may have taken on a subject or even a technique (e.g., multiple first person points of view) that you’re afraid is beyond you, at least at this stage in your writing career. In this case, I think you must try to be brutally honest in assessing your strengths and weaknesses (and, if possible, get feedback from others who you trust to be honest). You may be good enough to do this now, in which case be brave and don’t let fear hold you back. If you truly believe you aren’t ready to tackle this project, then put it on the back burner until you’re a bit further along in your writing career.

Always remember, emotions carry messages, and there are things to be learned from them. Don’t let the fear monsters overwhelm you. Instead, figure out their deeper message and decide on the most effective way of responding to it. And may you all have the courage of Penelope, to stand up to your monsters and force them to retreat!

How about you? What fears do you have, as a writer or a non-writer? What techniques have you worked out to cope with them? 


  1. Great post Susan–and it’s one I think I’ve managed to overcome. My way of dealing with the fear monster is to tame it with semantics. Change the word fear to challenge. If we treat all of our fears as challenges instead of something to be afraid of, overcoming them is not only easier, it’s empowering. Each new story is a challenge to me, each new character someone who helps me win. And when I’m really stuck, I take a long walk and free my mind of any dust and detritus and come back to my computer, ready to face the challenge again. We can’t let our fears win. That’s just wrong!

  2. Excellent comment, Kate. “Challenge” is a much more helpful word than “fear.” And what a great illustration of the power of words to affect our thinking.

  3. Fear of success is an easy one for me to understand, because I’ve been there. And I can tell you, it’s not actually the success that a writer is afraid of. It’s deadlines, synopsis, edits; ie: the responsibility of being *obligated* to do what you’ve always done for love up until that point where you sign a contract. You no longer have the freedom to do whatever you want. Now you’ve got an editor to answer to, and a marketing department that wants your books to be salable. It’s not just you anymore. Dozens of people are depending on you to churn those books out. Suddenly, the pressure is on and writing is no longer an addiction, it’s a job, and it can be paralyzing. The closer I got to selling to a NY house, the slower I went, until I hit a three-year period where I stopped subbing, almost stopped writing. What brought me to my senses? My daughter. We had a long conversation about fear of success and self-sabotage, and I discovered I’d passed this on to her. So we made a pact. In order to *not* pass this on to my granddaughter, we’d force ourselves to plow ahead no matter what. Shortly after that, I got a great agent and signed a wonderful contract. Now I’m living with my fears and slowly overcoming them. It just takes putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, you’ll get where you’re going.

  4. Wow, Katherine, what an inspiring story.

    That’s interesting what you say about being afraid before you sold, because you knew what it was going to be like. I think you’re rare, and the majority of unpublished authors haven’t a clue. They think that once you make your first sale, life is wonderful, clear sailing, no stresses. When I’ve told writers that the stresses increase once you’re published, I often see a skeptical reaction (like, “oh sure, lady, I wish I had YOUR problems!”). Sort of like telling someone that winning the lottery isn’t al it’s cracked up to be (and yes, I’d definitely like to win one despite the “burdens” it might bring, and I’m definitely glad to be among the published, with all the stresses that’s added to my life).

    My personal take is, it’s tough being unpublished, trying to sell, working on your craft, facing rejection, wondering if you’ll ever make that first sale. And it’s tough being published, and trying to sell another book, working on your craft so each book is the best you can make it, facing rejection, and wondering if you can actually build a career doing this. Life’s just tough!

    You’re so right about not sabotaging yourself, and about the messages you send (consciously or unconsciously) to those around you. Yes, we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. On another blog that I did earlier this week, someone mentioned the great book Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott, on that very subject.

  5. Susan, what a wonderful post! Procrastination is something I’m very good at. There’s always a load of laundry to do. Last spring, I took Laurie Schnebly’s on-line class, Block-Busting: Putting the Joy back into Your Writing. (It’s being offered again this March: winecountryromancewriters.com/workshops.htm), and it was really quite eye-opening as to why I do avoid writing at times. Although it can feel like what we’re doing is self-sabotage, it’s actually more along the lines of self-preservation, what our mind does/says (which can lead to things like procrastination) to protect us from whatever it is we’re afraid of.
    I really like the idea of inserting the word challenge for fear, Kate. Puts a whole different perspective on things. :)

  6. Ros, that’s very interesting what you (and Laurie) say about self-preservation. Of course we’re animals and our first instinct is self-preservation, so whatever we do should be examined in that light. I the human animal face fear, therefore I either flee or fight (yes, once upon a time I did study anthropology and psychology; I should know this stuff).

    “Flight” is expressed in things like procrastination, writer’s block, etc. “Fight” is expressed in things like taking a “I can meet this challenge” approach.

    Thanks for the plug for Laurie’s course. I haven’t taken that one, but I’ve taken another of her online ones and enjoyed it. And that reminds me, another great course is Margie Lawson’s “Defeating Self-Defeating Behaviors” which is offered every January (http://www.writeruniv.com/).

  7. Susan,

    Thanks to published authors such as yourself, I know that my gang of unpublished authors in the northwest are relatively informed, at least to the extent that the signing of the contract is really the beginning, not the end!

    Deadlines are also my fear as I’m on 24 hour call for work – any suggestions?

  8. Julia, I hope we’re providing some reality without totally terrifying you.

    Deadlines are tough, especially when you have work commitments and they’re not predictable like a regular day job.

    One thing I strongly recommend to unpublished writers is to set yourself deadlines (and it sounds like you’re already doing that). You need to believe you’ll be published, and once you’re published you will have deadlines. Usually the author has input on a deadline, and it’s really good to know, realistically, how long it takes you to write a book. For example, I can usually do a book in 4 months, and Kensington is fine with that – but if I know my life is going to be crazy (e.g., October, when I went to 3 out-of-town conferences) then I’ll build in extra time. Of course, things also come out of the blue (like, after I’d set my book deadlines, I was asked to do a novella, and it came in the middle of the books) – so it’s good to be adaptable too.

    So, first have a deadline, whether it’s one the world has set for you (e.g., entering the GH) or one you set for yourself (e.g., finish the book and submit to an editor by X date).

    The next thing I do is a “book plan” that shows where I want to be by certain target dates, in order to be finished by my deadline. I work back from the deadline, allowing the last month for editing (and, ideally, starting the next project, if only in the research and brainstorming stage). So, that gives me 3 months to write a relatively clean draft. And I work with a critique group, sending them work as I go along, so I note the critique group meeting dates and how much work I hope to send to them before the meeting. I also revise after each meeting, so revisions go into my book plan along with new writing. As I work on the book, I keep revisiting that book plan, and quickly know if I’m getting behind – so I can deal with the problem right away (e.g., get up an hour earlier) before it gets serious.

    So, how do you put the book plan into effect? Set a daily target in terms of hours or words that you think will let you produce the number of pages you need to. If you can, try to write every day but I know that isn’t possible for everyone.

    Now, figure out how you’re going to get those hours/pages done. Think about your life (work and other commitments) and your personality. Based on both those things, are you more likely to be able to write in the early morning, during the day, late at night? Once you know that, try your best to schedule regular time (each day if possible, even if it’s only half an hour) and stick to it. And add in extra time whenever you can.

    With an on-call job, you have the advantage of not being stuck in a day job for 7 hrs a day, but the disadvantage of having less control over your schedule. You really have to be flexible and creative about making writing time. If I were you, on days I wasn’t called to work in the morning, I’d try to do my writing first thing, before doing chores etc. If I met my writing goal for the day and still wasn’t called to work, I’d try to do more, knowing that tomorrow I could be working all day.

    I hope this helps.

  9. Great blog, Sue, and one that hits home and resonates all too well with me. Years ago, I read one of those how-to-write-successfully books. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which one it was, but a particular piece of adviced has stuck with me ever since and for more than 40 novels. “Acknowledge that fear out loud.” From then on, whenever I feel it attacking me, I simply phone my sister (or now, e-mail her) and say, “Jo, I’m starting a new book and it really scares me.” She responds usually with something calming and/or silly. It really doesn’t matter what she says. It’s what I have admitted, out loud–that starting a new project scares me. Then, once having stated it, I go on and do the work. I have no idea why this helps so much, but it does. It doesn’t make me less afraid if I say those words to my husband. He, manlike, offers solutions. I don’t want solutions. I just want an audience and that’s what my sister gives me. Other authors might want to try something similar with a person they love and trust to understand. (Or, maybe not to understand, simply to *hear*, to accept your frailties and believe in you anyway).

    On this day the US is giving thanks, I give, as I do every day, to my sister who, like Sue and I celebrated Thanksgiving in October.

  10. Hi Judy! Thanks for chipping in, and that’s really interesting advice. I think a lot of us are afraid to admit our fears – wow, a “fear of admitting fear” monster. Maybe we think, if we tell someone we’ll look weak. Or, if we verbalize the fear we might somehow make it bigger and give it more credibility.

    I like your approach, though. Saying it out loud reminds me that a lot of people recommend affirmations that are said out loud. So, maybe we could try finding a sympathetic ear like your sister’s, and saying “I’m afraid of XYZ but I’m going to treat it as a challenge and forge ahead and do it anyway.”

    And now I’m thinking, it would be interesting if, when we’re in a group with other writers, we all stated a fear out loud, along with an affirmation that we’re going to tackle it. With no-one offering advice, or even responding at all, just listening and accepting. And then maybe at the end everyone could clap for the group as a whole. OK, maybe that’s getting too touchy-feely!

  11. Susan
    I’m finding the information on here very eye opening and your suggestion of making deadlines for yourself very realistic. I’m one of those wait to the last minute girls when it came to writing papers in school. I’m fasinated at how fast you can turn out a story to publish. It has taken me two years to write my first MS and it still needs to be edited about a year and a half for my second one that also needs to be editied. Do we see a pattern growing here yes I think I could use some dead lines of my own.

    I have one question for you and the other authors what is the longest a publisher will give you to finish and submit a book?

  12. Tara –

    Like so many questions in publishing, the answer to this one is, “It depends.”

    First of all, until you’ve sold a novel, you probably won’t need to worry about how long you’ll be given to write the next one. After that it depends on what’s in your contract. That’s the deadline you and your editor agree on during the negotiations.

    If you want to know the most time you can ask for–well, it depends. If you’re a No. 1 NYT bestselling author, you can get more leeway than if you’re a first time author. However, a publisher is not going to want to have too much time between when they pay you your advance and when you turn in the book, because they don’t like to leave their money tied up.

    It also depends on what genre you write in. For science fiction/fantasy, the standard is usually about a year. For romance, it can be a lot shorter.

    How long will the book be? This can affect the time you’re allowed, too. If you’re writing a 60,000 word young adult novel, you’ll probably get less time to turn it in than if you’re writing a 200,000 word saga.

    There are a gazillion factors that affect your question, but the main thing you need to think about is how long, realistically, it will take you to complete a new novel. That’s something to keep an eye on while you’re practising!

  13. Tara, Pati gave you a great answer. I agree with what she said.

    The only thing I’ll add is that you do tend to get faster. In the beginning, you have so much to learn, including what writing process works best for you. For example, some people (“plotters”) work out a relatively detailed outline of the entire book before writing it, which probably speeds their process. The rest of us (“pantsers” – for “seat of the pants”) either don’t enjoy plotting ahead of time, or aren’t able to do it, and we discover the story and characters as we write. We probably need to spend more time editing, as a result.

    In general, over time your first drafts become cleaner, and are often faster to write. Also, once you actually start to make money on your writing, you may be able to make some life-type decisions, like whether to cut down on the day job to allow yourself more writing time, in which case you’ll be able to produce faster.

  14. I love your idea about being concrete, Susan. Visualizing the worst-case scenario and addressing it with plausible, concrete solutions is a great help – I’ve used it with many of my big fears.

    It even helps with the little nagging I’m-not-good-enough-to-pull-off-this-scene fear that leads directly to procrastination

  15. Rachel, I’m glad to hear you’ve found a technique that works for you!

  16. Susan, great topic and some really terrific advice for those of us with big dreams and big goals, but wrestle with fear. I love the advice about setting specific deadlines. For those of us who have experienced failures in the past (and who hasn’t!) and if that is feeding the niggling self-doubt, I’ve found that setting incremental, very achievable goals can really help develop the confidence I need on my way towards the bigger goals. Not to say that this eliminates the fear, but for me, it helps put a muzzle on that voice that tells me, “You can’t…” I can point to a check mark on my goals list, and say, “Yes, I can. I just did.”

  17. I really enjoyed reading this page and a thousand thoughts have passed through the portals of my subconscious and skimmed over a few gray cells collecting bits and pieces to reply with.

    OK–here goes, many great, wonderful and professional writers might not agree, and might not like what I say, but hey, I have no fear. That has never been one of my drawbacks.

    We should encourage bad writers as much as we encourage good writers, (I am in the bad group, but I don’t need encouragement as I write constantly and love it.) Not all writers are born good at writing and not all good writers will be authors, but there are some poor writers that have some great things to say, (I am not one of those either, as I really have my reading family in mind when I write.) I don’t make money writing and that doesn’t stop me, my writing is not earth shaking and that does not bother me. I write for the love of writing.

    I offer a lot of encouragement to my former students and tell them what I have said here, they most likely won’t make money at it, they won’t get a trophy, award or even a certificate, but they will leave something for those who follow and by doing so, they will live longer than the words because we are all a compilation of every word we have ever read, written and spoken.

    My favorite discussion is when someone says, I want to write so badly, I can’t stand it, but I don’t know where to begin. (The beginning is one single word)

    By clicking on my name, you can see some of my poor efforts at writing. I also saw somewhere above where one of the comments spoke to the time it takes to write a paper or book. I can knock out 250 pages in a day or two and then it may take four years for my two editors to give it back. That is part of the fun. Have no fear of writing, the work is not in the writing, it is in all the things you or someone else has to do to what you have written that is work.

  18. Wendy, I’m with you. I can’t believe the satisfaction that comes from ticking things off on a list!

    Dr. Paradise, I totally agree. If a person wants to do something (and it isn’t going to hurt anyone else), then they should do it. If they aren’t particularly good at in the beginning, maybe they’ll improve. Even if they don’t, and they still derive joy from it, then they should keep on.

    We all have to decide to what extent we care about results and to what extent we care about process. I totally applaud the person who loves writing and never cares if he/she gets published. I also applaud the person who loves writing and wants to get or stay published. I’m not so impressed by the person who writes purely for money. OK, it’s a job, and most of us have done jobs we’re not thrilled about just because we need the pay check, but writing (and all creative or artistic endeavours) are ones where I think a sense of joy in the process really counts.

  19. On a related subject, here’s a link to a great post by Jane Lindskold, with comments by her editor, about what happens to your novel after you turn it in (i.e., the production process, the sales process, the review process):


  20. Thanks for posting that, Pati.