Why You Should Be Writing Scared

Why You Should Be Writing Scared

It’s my belief that writers should be writing scared pretty much all the time. In fact, a constant state of terror would be optimal.

When you sit down at your desk and extend your hands to your keyboard, a little tremble should shake your fingers. Your heart should be pounding just hard enough that you find it a tad difficult to draw that first (or second or third) breath. A little dryness of mouth, a little dampness of face, a little quiver in the abdominal region—these are the symptoms of sheer, unadulterated panic.

These are the symptoms of a good writer.

Why Writing Scared Is Such an Important Part of the Process

At first glance, this might seem like I’m spouting so much craziness. After all, fear usually isn’t something one cultivates, much less enjoys (unless, of course, you happen to be a bull rider or an Xtreme skier or an African lion hunter).

Very likely, you chose the role of writer so that you would be able to narrate safely from the sidelines without any worry about facing gut-clenching, shiver-inducing nightmares up close and personal. But I’m here to tell you that if you ain’t writin’ scared, you ain’t pushin’ the boundaries.

Nim's Island Jodie Foster Gerard Butler

Black Hawk Down Josh Hartnet Ridley ScottWhenever your comfort zone starts getting too comfortable, it’s a sure bet you’re no longer challenging yourself. Writing scared means pushing yourself to the limit, tackling projects that look unconquerable, and always forcing yourself to go just a little bit farther than you think you’re capable of going. In the May 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest, Mark Bowden (author of Black Hawk Down) wrote:

I’d also advise writers to always be working on the most ambitious thing they’ve ever done. If you do that, your skills will consistently improve.

How Far Are You Pushing Your Comfort Zone Right Now?

When it comes to writing I’ve got the wanderlust. I’ve no interest in visiting territory I’ve already covered. I want to journey on, see new sights, discover what’s over that next horizon. With every new project I begin, I make it a point to push myself to new heights.

I want each story I write to be completely different. I want to meet characters I’ve never met, not just rehash the old standbys. I want to tackle themes that are always a little bigger than what I already have a handle on. I want to attempt narrative feats that seem all but impossible at my current skill level. Life’s too short for me to run in circles chasing my tail. That might be comfortable; it might be familiar; but it’s not it’s not exciting and it’s not challenging.

How to Write Through the Fear to a Better Story

Crime and Punishment Fyodor DostoyevskyDon’t get me wrong. Despite all that nice adrenaline, being scared isn’t very much fun. It’s easy to be assailed by doubts and insecurities. It’s even easier to make excuses. Well, Dostoevsky could get away with writing a dark novel with a rambling, insane hero… but he was Dostoevsky!

Every time I reach the middle portion of a novel, I go through a terrifying sinking spell in which I’m absolutely, one hundred percent, dead-to-rights certain I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But even as I’m wandering around in search of someone who can perform the Heimlich maneuver on me when I start choking, I also keep writing—and challenging myself—and rewriting—and growing.

By the time I reach the end of the novel, I’ve not only learned how to swallow, I’ve also written a story that—although still a long ways from perfect—is better than anything I thought I’d ever be able to write. That’s a cycle of fear that’s most definitely worth repeating.

As I sit down at my desk to begin what will be my eighth novel, I have every intention of pushing the envelope as far as I can. And I have no doubt whatsoever that I will spend most of the winter and part of the spring in abject terror. If you see a writer running around with bloodshot eyes and hair frizzed out on end, it just might be me. Or—if you’re lucky—maybe a second glance will show you that the wild-eyed writer is your own reflection in the mirror.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you writing scared? What has you scared in your current project? Tell me in the comments!

Why You Should Be Writing Scared

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. What an interesting thought! I always assumed that the more I wrote, the more comfortable I would get in putting the words to paper. I must say, it is a little unnerving to think I should always feel the fear. I don’t know that I WANT that! lol

    Great post!

  2. When I write, I never think it’s as good as everyone else thinks it is. That makes me work harder not just thinking my work is “good enough”. It’s sort of like what are saying!

  3. Oops…sort of like what *you* are saying…lol 🙂

  4. Hmmm… A post most interesting!

    I don’t know if I’ve ever ‘written scared’. I know I’ve been in the position of writing something I’m not certain is going to come together, or I feel that the characters aren’t believable, or something of that nature, but never have I sat down and gone, ‘oh, crud. What am I about to do? What makes me think I can write this story?’

    It’s a good thought, though. If you’re scared you’re not going to pull it off, it does stretch you. But, stretching’s good. God wants to stretch you to become a better person, a better writer. 🙂

  5. Oh good. Because I have been writing scared now for about a month. I thought there was something wrong with me. But the memoir I am trying to shape into something has taken on a life bigger than me and it is as if the MS is waiting for me to grow as a writer so it can be finished. I am scared. I want to pull this off, and I feel very very inadequate. Writing scared is like standing on the edge of your dreams with your toes hanging over the very edge of who you are and what you are capable of. I push myself every time I sit down to write. Now I see I am on the right track. Thanks Katie. 🙂

  6. I am both scared and anxious. Fear of writing the truth of the heart which leads to anxiety as my hand hovers over the publish button! And as for my own reflection…yes that is my favorite part about writing, getting to know the person within and awakening my unconscious self.

  7. @Sherrinda: Yes, it is an unnerving thought. But it’s also incredibly exciting – a definite adrenaline rush when you find the courage to dive right in!

    @Sarah: I believe it’s always a good sign when we discover we’re our own worst critics. It means we’ll never settle for mediocrity.

    @Liberty: The thing about writing scared is that you may be teetering wildly through the whole creative process – but once you’re finished, the jubilation is only magnified!

    @Tabitha: Well, not that anything in this crazy writing life is necessarily “normal” – but my personal experience leads me to believe that writing scared is not only a normal thing – but a very good one!

    @Annie: You nailed it. All growth has to come from the truth of the heart, and growing enough to recognize that truth inevitably leaves stretch marks.

  8. Wow. A terrifying idea (heh) but also an interesting one. Although I enjoy occasionally writing for its own sake, without any fear at all, I think you might be on to something as far as pushing ourselves as writers.

  9. I don’t think you *always* have to be writing with fear and trembling. That would be exhausting and probably zap all the fun. But that scared feeling is always a good thing to have in the back of your mind.

  10. Most of the fear (and other emotions) I feel while I’m writing comes from the characters: I think how they must feel as they face whatever comes into their lives, and I feel a little of it myself as I write it.

    But my greatest fear came after the writing was done…when people were buying my books. It struck me one day that I was handing customers pieces of myself…that anyone who read one of my novels could see into my heart and soul…and a sudden terror overcame me at that realization.

    It’s a good thing I’d sold a good number of books by then. I knew it would do no good to change my mind and stop dispersing the pieces of me at that point…the cat was already out of the bag.

  11. The very fact that we must pour ourselves into our art – and therefore expose ourselves to others – is a frightening business, particularly since so many authors are introverted types who prefer their privacy anyway.

  12. GREAT post. So true!! I often find myself losing interest in an author after they become very well known, because they stick only to their comfort zones and their work becomes stagnant. Terribly important to remember for us!

    (and incidentally, I’m terrified coming into NaNo. Good? You bet!)

    Thanks for posting!

  13. Excellent point. One of my chief complaints with a lot of genre fiction is its lack of risk taking. Settling for the same ol’, same ol’ just isn’t good enough.

    Glad to hear NaNo’s got you scared stiff! Good luck with it!

  14. Great post – I guess I am doing something write, because during my current round of rewrites I have been completely scared that I just have no idea what I am doing at all!

  15. Yep, definitely a good sign! Just hang in there and keep plugging away. You may end up with something brilliant!

  16. Very appropo post today, Katie. I’ve never thought of it as “writing scared,” but I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone several times in my career (oh, um, well … make that several times in my LIFE!)

    I was out of my comfort zone last year doing Nano 2008, and against late last March when I launched my website and my blog. Both have met with minor success, though I’d like to see more. (My ego talking. :-D)

    ~ VT

  17. We all like to stick to our comfort zones – after all, they are comfy! But I like the saying, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

  18. I’ve just begun reading your book, Behold The Dawn, and I’m hooked big time.

    You are an amazing author. You certainly know how to use all the proper techniques to create a fine piece of work.

    Your choice of words to form your sentences, the length of your sentences, the clarity with which you describe actions…I could go on forever…

    I am in awe of you.

  19. Shaddy, if I had an award for people who make my day, you’d have a shelf full of them by now! I’m so happy you’re enjoying Behold!

  20. Yay! I love it!!!

    I was pretty much scared during the entirety of my first novel.

    “What the heck am I doing, God?” was my constant prayer-question to Him.

    Who was I to write about spiritual truths as they related to me and our culture?

    I still feel that way every time I write a blog post. I’m scared that I won’t be able to write anything worth value. But, God is so good! The Holy Spirit writes with me, urging me in His direction.

    I write for God with a faint scent of me — an aroma pleasing to God!

  21. I hear ya! And I really like what you said there in that last line. Writing for God “with a faint scent of me.” Sounds like a good plan to me!

  22. Where’d you get that picture of me?

    I feel like I’m going to throw up every time I hit “publish post” on my blog.

    And now I’m starting a book. I may have to set up shop in the bathroom.

    Sandy

  23. If that’s you, then you’re quite the cutie!

    The good news about all this terror is the publishing part gets easier with time. At least, it has for me.

  24. Hey, I think I saw you on the street the other day – the wild-eye writer! 😉 LOL Good post!

  25. Ah! You caught me! :O

  26. Great post – thanks! I absolutely believe I have to keep biting off more than I think I can chew if I’m going to keep improving. And at the moment, I’m in that horrid what-the-hell-was-I-thinking middle part of my WIP. Great fun…. Brings to mind the expression “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. 😉

  27. None of my stories has killed me yet, so I guess I’m on the right track!

  28. Inspiring post! I regularly feel like this, but need reminding that this is normal in a questing writer. In fact, just last night I had an idea for a novel I really want to write – the kind of big idea that could keep me gainfully occupied for multiples of months, but I need to learn such a lot in order to do it. But your post has reminded me that I’ve felt like this at the beginning of many a project. So thanks for a timely helping hand.

  29. Glad the post was a boost in the right direction! Isn’t it amazing how easily we forget in between projects how scary writing is?

  30. I have the scared part…not sure if I have the writer part in me. In fact, the more I read about authors the more I feel like I’m not a writer or have the stuff to be one. lol. Well, I suppose that may have something to do with having books in my head and outlined but not written.

  31. I have the scared part…not sure if I have the writer part in me. In fact, the more I read about authors the more I feel like I’m not a writer or have the stuff to be one. lol. Well, I suppose that may have something to do with having books in my head and outlined but not written.

  32. Do you know what the only qualifier for being a writer is?

    Writing!

    Don’t worry about “measuring up.” Just write – and study – and learn – and grow – and have fun. The rest will fall into place in its own good timing.

  33. Good observations!
    Academy award-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis once said in an interview that the only projects he’s interested in taking on, are ones where he’s pretty sure he has a good chance of failing at.

  34. Jim Arnold says

    I’m scared half to death that I come across like I don’t know what I’m talking about. The strange thing about that statement is that I spent 20 years in the military and I’m writing a military story.

  35. Anne Kaelber says

    I’m currently drafting the first novel in what (I hope) will be at least 13 books. The series arc involves a war as well as some pretty challenging background mythology. As if that’s not quite enough, one of the main characters in the first book is an author, who is unaware that some of her dreams are prophecies — and they always come in threes: past, present, future — and she uses these dreams in her writing. I’m so tied in knots, questioning if I can do this! But, oh how amazing it will be, if I can pull this off! *chug chug chug* I think I can! I think I can! 😉

    Anne.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Katie Weiland understands me, even when no one else does. In her upcoming book Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration, Katie quotes this excerpt from her blog post “Why You Should Be Writing Scared“: […]

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