“Nothing will stop you from being creative as effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”
How’s that for a piece of insight from a highly creative actor and writer? Fear is an enormous barrier, a hindrance that some of us never seem to move past. It doesn’t just affect newbies writing their first few stories. It can strike a writer at any time, at any stage in a professional career.
Let’s say you’re inspired by a new plot idea, one that excites you. As you plot it, however, doubts creep in. Is this plausible? Yeah, seems to be. Can I do it? Not sure, but I think so. Has anything like it been done before? Not that I recall. Is there a market for it? Uh, maybe not. Should I try it? Probably not. Why did I think it would work? No editor is going to buy this. Better put it aside for now.
How many good story ideas are lost forever because we’re afraid to write them? If they’re new and truly different, they don’t fit the market. And so we back away. Or we follow editorial hesitation and abandon what might make us a star.
Every huge hit or new genre in commercial fiction begins because a writer dared to be different.
Tom Clancy was an insurance guy that channeled his obsession with all things military into a novel that he wrote in his basement in his spare time. It was an era when the U.S. military was understaffed and underfunded. It had acquired a reputation for ineptitude. It was struggling and unappreciated. But Clancy dared to be different. He admired our people in uniform and wanted to celebrate what our military did right. Whether he ignored his fears or was unaware of the market, he wrote The Hunt for Red October and pushed it into the market in an unconventional way. It worked. The military embraced it first, then President Reagan read and praised it. Which meant every CO of every American military base read it. Word of mouth spread to the general public, and Clancy’s career was launched.
Jim Butcher admired the novels of Laurell K. Hamilton back in the fledgling days of urban fantasy. He wanted very much to emulate what she was doing, yet he came up with his own unique spin by inventing a wizard private detective. He combined noir mystery with fantasy, and forged a successful path for himself.
Alexander McCall Smith spent many years living in Botswana. After returning to Scotland, he created a female detective called Precious Ramotswe, the first lady PI in her community. Her cases are entwined with philosophical musings and ethical dilemmas; that, plus the African setting, are unlike anything else out there. Smith’s fans are now legion.
If any of these authors had allowed fear or doubt to hold them back, think of our loss.
I realize a lot of writing advice–mine included–focuses on the market, its ever-changing trends, and what editors or readers want. That’s necessary but writers also have to be willing to take risks and write what lies inside them. It is never easy. It can be downright scary, but even so, we have to trust ourselves and our innate story sense.
As for fear of the writing itself … years ago, I tried to coach a student with considerable talent, but she had made up her mind that every word she wrote had to be perfect. She was determined that her “first novel” be of bestseller quality. Now any writer should know that a first draft is a rough draft. It’s not precious. It’s not perfect. It will undergo many changes, tweaks, or rewrites before it’s ready to put before the public. Stubbornly, however, she clung to her fear of failure. She clung so hard that she could not accept constructive criticism or feedback of any kind. She wrote one chapter and quit, driven away by her fear of writing anything she perceived to be a mistake.
My view is, how can you ever learn or improve if you’re afraid to make mistakes? You have to try, fall short, try again, still fall short, keep trying in new ways, until you master it.
Years ago, I watched my small puppy try to climb the back porch steps. He happened to be a problem-solving breed, independent and stubborn. He made up his doggie mind that he would climb those steps. But his legs were too short. He could stretch enough to place his front paws on the bottom step, but he couldn’t wiggle the rest of himself onto it. So he would jump and jump with his hindquarters, to no avail. Except the following week–still trying–he got a hind foot on the step and was up. He had grown a little bigger and a little stronger. He immediately reached for the second step of three, and fell through the gap in the boards. Once he regained his breath from that thump, he went at it again. My point is that he never gave up until he mastered those steps. He was not afraid to fail, and he stuck with his objective until he achieved it.
When doubts sprout in your mind like weeds, what is their source? Is it the voice of some family member that has mocked you for even daring to dream of writing? Is it a memory of someone in a critique group that brutally eviscerated you in front of everyone? Is it your own inner critic at work–tearing you down psychologically before you have a chance to try?
Who–and what–holds you back?
And when–and how–will you break free?
As Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously said in his first inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”