Writers’ blogs tend to be places where we reveal all sorts of insecurities, and like most insecurities they’re often rooted in fear. I’ve written about fear before, in the context of being brave enough to write things that are visceral and disturbing and more compelling to readers than when writers play it safe. I’ve also written about writer’s block before, and how it can sometimes result from choosing the wrong project, wrong voices, or wrong approach for your story. But sometimes writer’s block is directly rooted in fear, as I discovered when a problem with a recent WIP hit me right in the face.
Writing is a pretty ludicrous business. You work alone with minimal feedback, but that’s only half of the process of art, because then you have to throw your completed projects out into the world where an audience can participate in their half of the creative process – the interpretation – and that’s something you have no control over. Add in the chaos of the modern publishing industry, where the best you can hope for in most cases is a really long tail, and you’re essentially only as good as your next project. Which means most authors – okay, me – face a whole load of extra fear: the fear that we’ll (I’ll) never finish another project again.
This is ridiculous, of course. I’ve completed plenty of projects, and despite the fact that in every single case I felt similarly convinced that I would forget how to write or I’d run out of words or the world would end or something before I could finish writing, I finished writing anyway. There were a few misstarts that really needed to be abandoned until I could fix fundamental problems, but I’ve finished more stories and novels than not. But fear isn’t about being logical, it’s about being ridiculous.
So a couple of months ago I sat down to write a story that I’ve had kicking around in my head for a very long time. This story – the working title is Mirror – is largely about the eponymous main character, who has either a magical or a technologically-induced ability to uncover deception in people she looks at, depending on whether I was approaching it from a fantasy or science-fiction angle. To give her something to do, I had to face her off against someone who has something to hide, and this is what caused the delay in writing the damn thing. I had to find the right character to play her against, someone who was not only interesting but who wouldn’t overpower Mirror to the point that she turned into a minor and passive figure. I actually committed her to paper, along with a character who seriously overpowered her, about five years ago. I knew I’d gotten off track so I put the story away until I could figure out how to fix it or approach it differently.
What happened a couple of months ago was that I found the right character to pair Mirror with, and a compelling theme to weave in, so I sat down and gave the story another try. It came out to just under 1000 words. A neat piece of flash, and an interesting experiment, but not quite right. I tried it again and doubled the word count. Still not quite right. I let it sit for a while longer, then took another stab at it a few weeks ago. I wrote an opening scene that set the stage for a more fleshed-out story that gave equal time to both characters, making room for each one to be interesting without overpowering the other. Cool, I thought. Then I got TOTALLY STUCK.
Why was I stuck? This is the part where I have to admit that much of my writing, in its earliest brainstorming stages, starts off looking like fan fiction. In my defense, I’ll point out that no writer works in a vacuum: we’re always inspired by what we see around us, otherwise we’d have nothing to write about. I don’t think I’m the only one who reads or watches something and says, “That’s awesome, but what if I did it differently…?” The character I created as a counterpoint to Mirror this time is a riff on this guy.
Now here’s the problem, and here’s where the fear kicked in. This was my fourth attempt at writing this story. None of them had worked out very well, and I had no reason to think it would work this time, either. Never mind the difficulty in finding a publisher, assuming I ever did finish it, or finding more than a handful of readers if I end up self-publishing it. The fear of not finishing the story became so overwhelming it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: I didn’t finish it. I spent weeks avoiding the story, instead returning to some of the source material and reading it obsessively. It was a good read but it was terrible for my project. My riff on this character absolutely sucked by comparison, I thought. I was never going to finish this story.
But this still isn’t rational. I’m not actually writing fan fiction; I was writing a story of my own (loosely inspired by other material), if I would just get back to it and let the characters be themselves. I couldn’t do that, though, until I finally admitted to myself that the reason I was avoiding writing was because I was so scared I wouldn’t finish writing.
Last week I vented about this to a (very patient and understanding) friend. That night I jotted down notes for finishing the story. It took me a week before I had the time to sit down and write it, but once I did, I banged it out in two days. Complete at 4700 words.
I probably shouldn’t crow about this success too much; I still have the editing process to get through, and I’d like to pass it by a beta reader or two before sending it to markets. The story might end up not being as shiny as it seems right now, in the glow of actually finishing it. But it’s an absolutely perfect example of how fear can get in the way, and how looking that fear in the eye can get you past it and let you get back to work.