The last month has come as something of a shock to my system. Making time to write when all you need to do is write turns out to be surprisingly difficult. There’s always something else that needs to be done, some crisis that needs to be managed. Carving out time for writing is even more important now than it was when I had a day job.
But the reason isn’t a lack of time. It’s fear of failure.
I’ve risked a lot to do this writing thing. Not everything, but enough that failing is a frightening prospect. It froze me in my keystrokes last weekend, and I’ve spent the week since then carefully examining how I normally deal with the fear of failure and looking into how other writers deal with it.
The reality is this: you have face it your fears. No matter how much it hurts if you want a creative career of any kind you have to front up to your fears and punch them in the face.
Awesome picture by Frits Ahlefeldt. Click on the image to go to his public images page.
That’s not always easy though, so here are the ten strategies I’ve found that help me:
This is the top priority for any writer. If you’re a painter, paint. If you’re a sculptor, then sculpt. Nothing makes the fear of failure stronger than stopping, because stopping is comfortable. You can imagine taking risks and doing awesome things in the comfort of your cocoon of nothingness. Writing won’t make the fear go away, but it will help you deal with it.
2. Accept that fear never really goes away, you just get better at dealing with it
Fear of failure in a creative endeavour is oddly similar to the fear of fighting. I’ve done enough in the way of martial arts and door work to know that the rush of fear you get before a fight of any kind never really leaves you no matter how badass you think you are. I spent a long time trying to get rid of that fear, but in the end I learned that all you can do is harness the fear and let it work for you rather than against you. It’s the same with a fear of failure in writing; if you’re scared of rejection then use that to drive you to make your stories better, but don’t let it stop you. Ye gods that was a long sentence.
3. Seek criticism
The first step to dealing with a fear of failure is to find that failure in small doses. Criticism from people you trust is great first step, because not only are you risking being hurt you’re also going to be getting feedback that make your work better than it was.
4. Get over yourself
I wish someone had told me this one when I was younger. It’s all to easy to get into a headspace where you are determined that your work is completely awesome and no one is allowed to change it or reject it under any circumstances. It’s not true, there will always be improvements to be made no matter how good your work is. Relax, accept that editors and agents know what they’re doing. You don’t have to take every suggestion but you do have to consider each one on its own merits.
Once you’re open to the idea that your work can always be improved, the idea of rejection and failure becomes far less frightening as every failure becomes a chance to improve rather than a slight against you.
5. Don’t get too far over yourself
Some writers don’t suffer from special snowflake syndrome, but instead labour under the idea that nothing they do will ever be good enough. I know two writers personally who are far better than I am, but will never see a career until they accept the fact that their hard working is starting to pay off.
Once you have found some criticism, once you know for yourself that a story is as good as it can be, then you either need to put it aside and accept that it’s a step on the road to improvement or submit it somewhere and see if you can get it published. If you never send anything out, you’ll never get anything published.
6. Prepare for success and plan for failure
When you submit a piece of writing, be it a short story or a full novel, you need a plan in place for both eventualities. If you have a plan in place for rejection, and you get rejected, then you’ll follow the plan and get over it. My personal plan looks something like this, at least for short fiction:
1. Receive rejection.
2. Brood for six seconds.
3. Check story and see if it can be improved.
4. Send to new market.
5. Go back to writing.
I’m only sort of kidding about the six seconds of brooding. You do need to allow yourself a few moments to be upset that you didn’t get what you wanted, but you must not let yourself wallow. Wallowing feels good, and you can get stuck there.
7. Fail a lot
As I mentioned above the fear never really goes away but you do get better at coping. The best way to learn how to cope is to fail a lot. You’ll adapt. Once you have some short fiction you’re proud of, send it out. Once you have a novel you’re proud of, send that out too. The more rejection and failure you fight through, the tougher you’ll be.
And you will need to be tough. You’ll need to be tough to resist the urge to lash out online, you’ll need to be tough to get yourself to finish the things you start, you’ll need to be tough to adapt when the industry inevitably changes (again).
8. Reward yourself
Whenever you take a risk, give yourself a reward. Whether it’s time reading your favourite comedy site, some time with a much loved book or a small treat make sure your brain gets a little dopamine hit whenever you take a risk with your work. Don’t use this to try and heal the sting of rejection or failure, you need to get past that without the dopamine hit, but do make sure that you get something for every risk taken.
9. Look for a little inspiration online
There’s a lot of motivation out there. Go looking for it. Definitely go looking for writing specific motivation (once again I recommend the excellent shows I Should Be Writing and Writing Excuses), but don’t discount other sources of online goodness. My current obsession is with a YouTube channel called vlogbrothers. The two brothers involved (one of then novelist John Green, the other musician and general ninja Hank Green) put out videos that are funny, smart, engaging and hopeful. I find after I watch a few of their videos I’m ready to go out and do creative things.
Just make sure you spend more time writing than looking for motivation.
10. Finish things
Not finishing is the biggest killer of confidence I’ve ever come across, at eat for me personally. I didn’t get any confidence with my writing until I learned to push through and get things completed. Some people can edit as they go, but those people aren’t me. I need to get things done and then go back and edit them in order to feel like I’ve done my best work.
The times where I’ve edited as I go I’ve not finished what I was writing because I always ended up thinking it was terrible and stopping. If you’re having confidence issues or if failure as a whole is a fear of yours, let yourself be terrible for awhile just to get something finished and then go back and fix it.
Not finishing things will kill your ability to seek feedback and to send things out to be published. If you take nothing else from this list, then at least take this one point: you will never get over your fear of failure if you don’t finish things. Even if you think it sucks, finish, you can throw it away later but not before you’ve typed THE END.
How do you fight fear of failure? Let me know in the comments.