Posted by on Mar 15, 2007 in finishing fiction, writing as therapy | 5 Comments

When you can’t finish your story because you’re afraid …

Well are you? Fear comes in two basic forms – performance anxiety and subject anxiety. The first is the fear of failure, or even, the fear of success! Suppose you finish it and send it out and everybody hates it? Suppose you finish it and send it out and somebody publishes it?

In the first case, join the club!

Every writer has to come to terms with rejection. Scott Fitzgerald was told by one publisher that The Great Gatsby would be publishable ‘if he only lost that Gatsby character’. You can google for yourself and find hundreds of writers who were rejected thousands of times before they broke through. You are not alone in your fear, nor in the experience of being turned down. The best way to deal with this fear is to network with other writers and see just how commonplace it is to be turned down.

If your fear is that you will struggle to live up to being a published writer, well, there are plenty of those around to look at too. Harper Lee, for example. She had one great book in her – and what would the world be like without To Kill A Mockingbird? Maybe you only have one good story in you, but you’ll never know until it’s out of the way, giving a chance for the next one to take its place. If this is your fear, then you need to accept that success is not a badge, but a process – and the process teaches you how to cope with each stage.

Subject anxiety is something else. Very often, a writer will simply not be able to write past a certain point in a narrative because the subject matter frightens, disturbs or otherwise blocks them. We all know that key aspects of our lives and our beliefs shape our fiction – take a look at the works of any major writer and you’ll see the same themes emerging in different forms: for Dickens it was poverty, for Coetzee it’s identity, for du Maurier it was the nature of deception that shaped all her work. These key themes are both the wellspring of our personal beliefs, and the scaffolds around which doubts, fears and bad memories cluster like noisome corpses. Writing them out is good therapy – but good therapy does not necessarily make good fiction. To overcome this kind of fear, separate the two. If you feel this is your problem, try writing about that subject every day for a couple of weeks, not as fiction but as free writing. Start your day with a ten minute exercise in which you write down everything that comes into your head in relation to that theme. Don’t censor yourself, and don’t share that material with anybody else. Often you’ll find that once self-expression is established, fictional expression is much easier – and you’ll feel you’ve conquered a small demon.


  1. Vanessa G
    15th March 2007

    Another fear, a persistent companion to this writer.

    That even when you’ve achieved something OK, there’s a voice in your head that sneers and says ‘its a mistake. A one off. You won’t do that again.”

    How do you cope with that one?

    advice gratefully received


  2. Tribeless
    16th March 2007

    Don’t know what Kay will say, Vanessa, but that one just sounds like a confidence issue, best put to rest by simply carrying on writing, and repeating the success you’ve felt from time to time. I’ve had that feeling also (but not enough, if I think about it). Plus, and I note this from my experience on an arts/writing forum I belong to in New Zealand, perhaps letting your perception of what others think about you affect you overly much? I don’t know if this is connected to your feeling, but that is part of the problem with low confidence. Yes? No? Maybe?

    Mind you, I was starting to sweat when Kay brought in the notion of ‘performance anxiety’, but then remembered this blog is about writing 🙂


  3. P. A. Moed
    18th March 2007

    A great post.

    The negative voice is something I struggle with too–as Vanessa describes it. My only solution for it is to neutralize it–I acknowledge it’s existance, the possibility that it’s right and then I move on.

  4. Linera Lucas
    29th March 2007

    I really resonated with Subject Anxiety. Thanks for this very useful exercise.

  5. Kay Sexton
    30th March 2007

    Linera, I hope the exercise works for you – let me know!


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