Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

When just write is not enough

By Emma on May 6, 2013

Last year I met three different people at conventions who had written somewhere between 10 – 30,000 words of their first novel and stalled. Each of them enthused at me about the idea, each of them asked me how to write more.

At the Sci-Fi Weekender in March a man directed a question to the panel I was on which turned into a short fret about how he’d been writing the same short story for ten years and still hadn’t finished.

A little while ago I got a message through my website from someone who’d given up their job to work on a novel, researched for seven months, wrote eight pages, then took another job that came up.

I’ve seen tweets along these lines fly by and I’ve overheard conversations at conventions and geek-meets saying the same kinds of things.

It’s often accompanied by desperation, a hungry search for the solution that all these published writers must have found and just won’t share.

I used to feel that way. When I was desperate to write a book – hell, to write anything creative let alone a novel – I imagined that there was some kind of secret, some special thing they knew in their special club. Something I wanted so badly it hurt.

“Just write.”

That’s what is said time and time again. Interviewer: “You’ve written ten novels. People like them. What’s the secret, Bob?” Author Bob: “Just write. Arse, in chair, write.”

I’ve read this and nodded in agreement. Yep. I’ve written six novels now and about ninety short stories. The only way to do that was sit down and write. Obviously.

No. Not obviously.

I think it’s easy to forget what else has to happen for that book to be written, something I don’t see a lot of writers talking about in the same breath as stating “Just Write”. When you’re struggling, when you’re trapped in procrastinating behaviours and feeling utterly wretched about the book not coming out onto the page, when you hate yourself for playing another level of a game instead of writing, when you stand inside a book shop and burn with the need to have the book in your head on those shelves instead, being told to sit down and write means nothing!

It’s like someone telling me to stop worrying when I’m trapped in an anxiety spiral. It’s utterly useless. I’m in another state, trapped in thought processes which make the prospect of stopping worrying ridiculously out of reach.

So, what else has to happen?

Those people I met, the man I got the message from, the countless people out there either unable to start or getting stuck a few thousand words in, are all (I believe) suffering from the same problem:


I think that’s what really stops someone from just sitting down and writing. I’m not saying you have to be without fear to write – hell, I’d never have written anything if that was the case! The key is to understand that fear and work out how to write despite it. That took me a long time. I remain anxiety ridden and gently terrified of everything, but at least I can write through it. Most days. Sometimes the demons are stronger than I am and writing is impossible. Then I have to go back to the basics, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.

Before I go any further, here is a disclaimer: I am not an expert. I can only talk about what I have experienced. I hope it helps you, but we’re all special snowflakes and you might have other issues and needs than I can address here.

Step the first: Acknowledging the fear

Fear is an insidious little bastard. It hides behind things, it tricks us into thinking things are important when they’re not, it makes us believe things about ourselves, our world and other people that are complete bobbins.

Fear can even let you feel – perhaps even be – productive, whilst all along stopping you from progressing. I’m thinking about the chap who researched for seven months and didn’t write the book. I could be completely wrong, but I suspect that researching felt good. It was necessary, no doubt, but all that time, with no job to get in the way and no substantial progress made on the novel? That makes me think fear got in the way.

I suspect fear is behind this because I do it myself. I get caught up in researching details (my catnip is researching locations) and if I don’t take care, that can eat a whole day without the scene being written.

You see, researching is feeding the bit of the brain that’s excited about the story. In our mental sandpit which is safe and full of toys, we can lovingly absorb all those shiny details and embellish that embryonic story idea without sullying it with the clumsy written word. That’s why the fear wants to keep us happily researching and building in our minds: to protect us from the horror of imperfection.

I’ll come back to that idea – for now, I want to say that if you’re repeatedly procrastinating, if you’re constantly giving up on books and starting new ones, if you’re researching for months on end and not actually writing the book, you need to acknowledge that you are afraid and that fear is keeping you trapped in that behaviour.

Step the second: Hunt down the roots of that fear

You could skip this bit out. I think I managed to make progress in the early days without necessarily understanding where all the fear was coming from. However, I do think it’s a good thing to try and figure out, if only to be better at the next stage.

I’m not talking about getting a therapist. I am talking about a bit of navel gazing. The book “The Artist’s Way” helped me an awful lot, but does require commitment to be effective.

Possible roots, off the top of my head, can vary from being ridiculed for any signs of creativity, receiving poor criticism of early work, perfectionism (I really will get to that one soon, I promise) and a dozen other types of damage acquired over the years. It all gets tangled up in self-esteem issues, lack of confidence, lack of self-belief and all kinds of other malarkey too, which really doesn’t help.

It may not seem important to dig about in our memory and remember our first ever English teacher crossing out a lovingly crafted story with red pen, but it can help later. Trust me.

Step the third: Negotiate with the fear

So you can do this in a number of ways. I am quite insane, so I talk to it, but if that’s not your style, that’s cool too.

The thing to remember is that, deep down, fear serves one purpose:

The Fear is always trying to protect you.

If you can work out what it’s trying to protect you from, the negotiations can be much more successful. If you’re afraid that people might read it and say horrible things about it, then you can challenge that by saying that some people will hate it, but that won’t kill you. And some people might like it.

If that doesn’t work, you can say, “Okay fear, right now I’m writing a first draft. I promise that no-one else in the world will read it, because it will suck so much, it’ll leave angry red marks. Okay? Now back off and stop making me think I need to check Facebook again.”

The reason childhood hurts can still have so much power over us is that we were children when we suffered them and so couldn’t apply adult understanding and perspective. We may still be terrified of the red pen experience, deep down. If we go back and think it through as an adult, that hurt can be reframed and lose its power.

Step the fourth: Keep reminding yourself that writing the book is not anything else

If you sit down to write the immediate result is not going to be:

People hating you
People noticing you
Validation for all of the years of being a bit weird
The solution to all of your financial problems
A sure way to get laid
So much success you have to hide from the paparazzi
A way to stick one in the eye of your English teacher/ mother/ sibling / [insert other person who has ever doubted your ability or ridiculed you]
The completion of a masterpiece

All it ever can be is:

Writing one word after another until there are sentences, then paragraphs, then maybe, eventually, a first draft.

I’m thinking again about the man who wrote in, who quit his job to write a book because he had an idea that seemed good. It might have been the best idea for a book in the world. That’s irrelevant. The thing is, as soon as he gave up his job to focus on it, that book had a whole heap of additional significance associated with it. His spouse probably wondered how it was going and I would hazard a guess that he felt pressure to show something coming of it. Writing that book was no longer putting stuff onto a page. It was something that ultimately had to justify a change in lifestyle, a reduction in income, evidence of hard work and maybe a whole tangled mess of a statement about success and all that other awful stuff that we humans get all screwed up about.

Step the fifth: Make peace with the fact that what you write will suck

That first draft will be shit. In fact, the first 250,000 words or so that you write with any kind of effort are likely to be shit. Sorry. That’s the way it is.

Knowing this helps to combat that perfectionism thing – yes, I have finally got to it.

Perfectionism is the Fear’s favourite coat. When we have *that* idea, the one that makes us desperate to write, it is perfect in our minds. Then there’s the awful moment when you try to make a narrative, when you try to write down a world that brings other people in to share it with you.

You have to let go of the idea that you can create something as perfect as that in your mind. You might get close, but in the process of really writing a book it will evolve and mutate and that’s okay.

Really, it’s all going to be okay.

Step the sixth: Acknowledge that this is hard, but ultimately you have to step up

When we hear authors say “Just write!” it sounds so easy. The weird thing is, it is. But only when you’ve got enough understanding of your own fears that you can get out of your own way. Be gentle with yourself when you ask what you are scared of, but be firm and truthful too. Cut yourself some slack and create imperfectly. But at the end of the day you do just have to stick two fingers up at the Fear and just write anyway. That’s what I do. I hope this helps you to do the same.

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{ 14 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. This is a brilliant and very helpful post! 🙂 I think people tend to use the ‘you either write or you’re too easily distracted by other things to be a writer’ idea too often, which just doesn’t take things like fear into account. Great tips for overcoming it too!
    Victoria Hooper recently posted..Showcase Sunday #17

  2. This IS brilliant, heartfelt, and extremely brave and honest. Well done, EM
    Paul Weimer (@princejvstin) recently posted..I will be at CONvergence. And on panels, even!

  3. Anne Lyle says:

    For me it wasn’t fear per se, so much as the assumption that if I ran out of ideas after a few chapters it meant that the concept wasn’t strong enough to sustain a novel. That if I had enough inspiration, the story would just…happen. Of course it didn’t. Instead I flitted from story to story, convinced that the next one would be The One. I have a box full of novel beginnings under my bed…

    I needed to learn to dig deeper, find the conflict and emotional arc that would lead my characters to a satisfying conclusion instead of wandering around for 20k words before giving up and going home. Write an outline and fill it with fun scenes so that I had no excuse to abandon the story. Learn how to take a train-wreck of a first draft and turn it into something readable, maybe even publishable (thank you, Holly Lisle!).

    It took a long time but when I finally got there, all those years of fiddling with opening chapters paid off because I’d already learnt how to write serviceable prose. I just wish I’d worked out a lot sooner where I was going wrong!

  4. Tony Noland says:

    It’s a sad and sobering day when you realize that your writing isn’t nearly as good as you thought it was. That’s the fearful point at which you either resolve to get better or to chuck it and go back into the cave.

    Getting past the point of thinking that your writing will NEVER be good enough… that’s another hard moment that comes later down the road.
    Tony Noland recently posted..Tenth Doctor: the Musical

  5. Sarah E says:

    Thank you so much for this beautifully honest and helpful post! Exactly what I needed to read right now. I am going to try the negotiation out loud and see what happens.

  6. Jo Hall says:

    Brilliant post, Em! I think we all have Fear that needs addressing ever now and again 🙂
    Jo Hall recently posted..Airship Shape And Bristol Fashion – Anthology now open for submissions!

  7. Very thoughtful post, Emma, and I agree with much of what you say. I also think this is where social media, writing groups, and forums can often have a detrimental affect and encourage the fear. Specifically in terms of comparisons. I see almost daily good news from one author or another getting an agent, a book deal, making ‘x’ amount of sales etc.

    It’s natural for one to compare one’s success, or lack of it, to those that are all around us, and this only compounds the fear and self-doubt as we’re often comparing a rough, unpolished draft to something that has gone through the publishing system and come out like a gem at the end.

    One thing that I’ve done over the last year is to try and train myself to be single-minded. To almost learn not to care and just write. I’m not sure being too critical or objective of one’s work is always a good thing. It can lead to that comparison/fear cycle and halt a project in its tracks.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that of my various publishing acceptances, every story was written with an attitude of not caring too much and just focussing on writing the story and submitting come what may. This isn’t to be confused with not caring about quality, but just not getting so anal about it one ends up with analysis paralysis and never submits a story because of some thinking that it’s not good enough—that’s the decision for an editor I feel.
    Colin F. Barnes recently posted..Anatomy of Death (Hersham Horror Books) – A Review

  8. Very insightful post! It describes something that I have wrestled with, but Not Often Enough. I came across your post through Zite (a free app that offers up interesting articles on all sorts of subjects). I gave your post a Thumps Up. I have come to your website to find out what else you write. I have never read Urban Fantasy, but recently at the AWP in Boston heard several speakers mention Urban Fantasy, so now I may investigate…While my interests may lie for the most part in writing as a naturalist, I believe that subject matter is all interconnected in the grand scheme of things. Thank you for your wonderful post. It was comforting (perhaps an odd thing to say, but that’s how I felt after reading it!). best, Elizabeth

  9. hi Em
    i met you in Bristol Library on Sunday and read this post. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. At least i know what i’m dealing with now.

  10. […] this interesting article that I would be worth checking out. When just write is not enough | Em's place It basically addresses the advice to "Just write" isn't as easy as some people make it […]

  11. Hi, Emma –

    First-time reader of your blog here: what you wrote here touched me on such a personal level that I linked to your blog post in my post today. As a four-time novel-writing failure, you have described exactly how I felt, particularly in regard to having the “perfect idea” and feeling like my clumsy writing is doing it no justice. It has always been easier for me to just give up and allow my story to remain perfect and beautiful (yet unwritten) in my head, but no more.

    Excellent post – I will definitely be back. 🙂


  12. I’ve written seven commercially published, moderately successful books, all delivered on or near their appointed deadlines, and I am STILL struggling with this as I embark on a Daunting New Project. So it isn’t just beginning writers who have to face the Fear and figure out how to move past it, and it isn’t just beginners who find that people who opine “Just sit down and write,” and “There’s no such thing as writers’ block” are supremely unhelpful.

    So thanks for this dose of insight – it was a reminder I needed just now.

  13. THANK YOU. I have needed to hear this for the past six years at least.
    rockinlibrarian recently posted..Doin’ What I Do and Getting Paid for It

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