Lots of people want to write a book. Of those people, a certain fraction feel capable of writing a book. A smaller fraction still actually do write a book. And the smallest fraction of all publish their book to a professional standard.
So, the question arises: what is it that causes people to drop out at each stage of that progression? What stops aspiring writers from becoming actual writers?
There are lots of possible reasons, of course – life being a complicated business – but many of them turn out to have one big cause. The elephant in the room. The shadow looming over your dreams. Fear.
When we begin any big project that has emotional and psychological importance we meet resistance. At its root, that resistance is a subconscious mechanism for protecting us from fear; an attempt to persuade us to not confront the difficult, intellectually and emotionally demanding task we have set ourselves, and instead to seek some nice comfort instead. Like ice-cream. Or Facebook.
Starting on a manuscript is a laborious task, and we’re wired to avoid those. But even beyond the inherent miserliness of our brains, the inhibition we feel when contemplating our goal of capturing the dazzling ideas in our minds, organising them into words, and typing them all down in the right order so that other people can share our mental brilliance, is seriously formidable. It’s no wonder we lose fellow travellers along the way.
At one level this analysis seems too simplistic. We think we know what fear is: the acute stab of anxiety that alerts us to danger – the gut-clenching dread when we hear an unexplained bump downstairs after dark. That’s obviously not the same sensation as trying to stir ourselves to get the hell off YouTube and do some damn work. But fear can be insidious, shifty, crafty. It’s not always straightforwardly spooky or urgent. There are lots of ways that fear can rob us of motivation and energy, lots of types of fear that can keep us from taking action.
Let’s take a look at some of them, stare them in the eye, and pretend we’re brave.
Fear of the magnitude of the task
It’s just too much. There’s no way you’ll reach the end without faltering, and God knows life is so busy already. I mean, just think about how much there is to do, how many words you’ll have to write. And all the planning and editing and… where should you even start?
Better check Twitter again.
Fear of failure
Maybe you do start. You feel the muse is with you, you have the perfect First Sentence, and so you hammer away at the keyboard, slipping into flow state. Bliss!
After a while, of course, fatigue sets in. The flow stalls, and you can’t find quite the right word. You’ve done OK though, eh? A good start. Pick up again tomorrow…
But tomorrow brings doubt. What if no-one else likes this? What if you can’t pull it off? You should spend more time honing your craft, because your first draft is littered with cliches and clumsy sentences; undeniable evidence of your amateurishness. In fact, now that you think about it, you’re not even sure you believe in the story and characters yourself, so why would anyone else? You definitely need to think about it some more. You’re not ready. Why carry on unless you’re sure you can finish?
Fear of poverty
It’s very hard to make a living from writing alone. It’s definitely possible, but you need real grit. Patience, perseverance and craft are essential, but not enough. You’ll also need good fortune and good timing to land a publishing contract, or business nous if you take the authorpreneur route.
Meanwhile, a steady job with a steady paycheck is what’s feeding you (and your family if you have one), and keeping everyone housed, clothed, and healthy. Total commitment to craft is the surest way to succeed as a writer, but commitment doesn’t pay mortgages.
Fear of selfishness
Maybe you do have a spouse, and a family; dependents. They need your time, and your attention, but you need time to write. Can you really justify spending hours improving your craft, writing on spec, getting nothing but a trickle of small wins, when there’s laundry to be done, and children growing fast who want you to focus on them? Aren’t you stealing time from your loved ones? Maybe it would be better to hold off on those dreams for a while until everyone is grown.
Fear of exposure
Writers tend to be introverts, amazingly enough. It turns out that people who are happiest when hidden away, ranging widely in their rich internal worlds, tilt towards introversion. Readers, meanwhile, exist out there in the real world.
There comes a moment in any writing project where the ideas you have expressed transition from your personal secret to a creation that is sent out in public. With your name on it. All those ideas you care so much about, revealed to the world for scrutiny. Anyone could read it, and find out what’s been going on in your head! For many introverts this moment of exposure is awful to contemplate. It’s like being naked in public.
Fear of humiliation
You know what else is out there in the real world? Judgement. Sending your book into the world doesn’t just invite exposure, it also invites criticism. For writers who entangle their sense of worth into their skill as a writer, this can be harrowing. Maybe nobody likes your book. Maybe you get terrible reviews, biting criticism and mockery. Maybe – and this can be even worse in some ways – you get nothing. No response. A book that launches into silence, then sinks without trace into that sad mass of unloved books by writers desperate to express themselves to an indifferent world.
Fear of success
This is perhaps the most subtle and surprising fear. Maybe you will succeed, publish your book, and sell enough to make good money and feel it’s been valued by readers! Now what? You’ve done it. The long-nurtured dream has come true, and life will never be the same again.
You can’t hold that old dream inside as a warm comfort anymore. Your fantasy about launching a career as a writer no longer has all the latent energy of Promise, it’s now Real, and done. At that point you will also discover whether being published has transformed your life in the way that many of us hope it will. Do you actually feel transformed? Has pride and validation made you happier and at peace? Or – much more likely – will you still be the same you, but with a published book.
Fear of success also encompasses all the crazy, irrational fears that some deep part of us frets over. What if I’m too successful? What if I lose my privacy? What if I get deluged by mail? What if I can’t cope with the pressure of agents and publishers pushing for my next bestseller? What if I embarrass myself at the Booker ceremony?
An internal dream of future success is motivating, fun, hopeful, and safe. Success takes that safety away.
Fear of the unknown
Finally, mixed into the fear of success is the fear of moving into a new stage of life. Now you are a published author, you will have to cope with new experiences, new pressures, new expectations. Maybe you will have to go outside your comfort zone and speak in public at a book launch. Or travel to London to have a meeting with your publisher’s advertising team. Or get approached by aspiring writers and asked for advice on how you Did It.
Change brings uncertainty, and that brings fear of the unknown. Do you really want to expose yourself to that?
How to win
So, that’s a slightly depressing catalogue of fears, but there is a silver lining at the end of it all. One of the guiding principles at the Book Stewards is: focus on what you can control. Fear may seem insurmountable, but it’s not. The trick is to avoid the trap of thinking that first you will overcome the fear and then you will write the book. It doesn’t work like that. You will always be fearful, it’s a fact of life, a state of being. The trick is to learn to work regardless of the fear. Accept it, acknowledge it – even do some deep work into trying to understand where it’s coming from and what it means about who you are – but once you’ve accepted it, keep writing anyway.
That’s the only way anyone ever finishes a book.