Fear of Writing

This is the usage item that I promised last time: You may remember that I’m working on a book based on the Trojan War. Well, women in ancient Greece lived restricted lives and didn’t go out much. They mostly stayed in the women’s quarters, and I wanted to know if women’s quarters can take a singular verb as well as a plural one, since in my book the women’s quarters are a single big room. According my favorite authority, the blog of grammarphobia.com, quarters in any context is always plural. Weird, huh? So a correct sentence is, as before, The women’s quarters are a single big room. And another correct sentence is, A single big room comprises the women’s quarters. Compounding the weirdness, the word headquarters can take either a singular or a plural verb. We’re deep in the weeds here, but English usage is mysterious and wonderful.

Onto the post!

On December 14, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, So… I’ve been having a problem lately.

I’m kind of afraid to write again. After the epic failure that was NaNoWriMo, I’ve been having a very hard time getting myself to write. It’s not just that I failed, it’s that I feel like I failed so badly. I hate my story, I hate my characters, I hate the idea… but I used to love all of those things very much. I’ve always had a difficult time choosing ideas, but I was invested enough in my NaNoWriMo idea to want to finish it, and to think I actually could.

And I know I asked a question about writing past the beginning, and I still need an answer to that, since I’ve always had that problem. But now I can’t even write anything without thinking I’m gonna fail, and end up ruining a really good story/world/characters.

Any advice on how to get over my fear, and write even when I’m 99.9% sure I’ll fail?

I wrote back, I’ve added your question to my list, but I won’t get to it for a while because of all the excellent questions above it. In the meantime, please put your NaNoWriMo project away and don’t look at it for at least a month. At the end of the month, peek at it. If you still despise it, put it away for another month. Repeat. While you’re waiting, write small projects, like poems or letters to imaginary relatives. Treat your writing injury as you would a sprained ankle. Go easy.

And future_famous_author wrote, If it takes you so long to get back to your NaNoWriMo story that you want to start something new, that could be a good idea, too. And, if you don’t stick to that, try going back to your NaNoWriMo. Maybe all you need to do is get away from it for a little bit.

That was seven months ago, so I just went into my blog dashboard and looked at Kit Kat Kitty’s recent comments, and I’m happy to report that she/you are back to writing. The NaNoWriMo novel even got finished. Congratulations!

I also see that it hasn’t gotten its author’s seal of approval, which may come in time. Or not.

The important thing is to keep writing. We learn when we write, whether we’re working on something new or on a revision.

Writing itself is hard, but it isn’t the only hard thing about writing. Harsh, global self-criticism is the other hard part. I used to paint and draw before I started writing, but my self-attack was so relentless that I stopped eventually, which I talk about in Writing Magic. A book that helped me enormously, which I think I’ve mentioned here, is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser. The author theorizes that the nagging voice in our mind comes from outside criticism when we were very young. That evil criticism worms itself inside us until it becomes part of us. Kit Kat Kitty’s fear may be fear of that inner carping voice.

One remedy may be to put aside the art aspect of writing and concentrate on craft. Let’s compare it with something you know how to do or something I know how to do, and for me, let’s take lifting weights, because I’m mighty proud of my brute strength. Often if lifting isn’t going well, the reason is that I’m not tightening my muscles, or maybe my feet are too close together, or I’m not keeping my chest high. It’s never a failure of character, talent, potential, or even, so far, of encroaching decrepitude.

Same with a piece of writing. Say we think we hate our characters. In the aggregate, that isn’t helpful, so we pick a particular character, our MC, for instance, whose name is Janey. Well, what do we hate? We can list everything we despise. I’ll make up a few items:
• She’s whiny.
• She’s always thinking of herself.
• She doesn’t say anything interesting.
• Janey is a terrible name! She isn’t a Janey!

If we apply the craft approach, we’re in for more lists. Take the first item and the third. Both are about dialogue, though the whiny part can also happen in her thoughts. We look at her dialogue and find something she says that we find uninteresting. We consider the circumstances of the boring remark. Maybe what she said is the best anyone could do at that moment. We think about who else is talking. Is this a conversation with her best friend or with someone she doesn’t know well. Why does she say what she says? What does she hope to achieve? Well, what could she say instead that would work in the situation? We make a list! And we remember that nothing on a list is foolish. We banish fear, because no one is going to read our list, and we aren’t going to judge it, either, for two reasons: because it’s just a list and because we’ve sworn off judging.

We can also ask ourselves what she’s thinking while she speaks. Is she aware that she isn’t adding any excitement? Her thoughts can make her speech less boring. For example, she may be dreadfully shy and wildly imaginative. While she’s saying that the tulip is pretty she can be imagine the flower swallowing her and turning her into a person without a mouth.

Or we can look at her whiny thoughts and speech. We can change these too by listing other options for each example. Sometimes we can simply cut. We can make her self-aware. She can check with a friend to see if she’s feeling too sorry for herself.

The trick is, using craft, we eliminate our emotional involvement. This is just a problem, like a weight-lifting one or a math problem, to solve. When fear, hate, or despair surface, we banish them. We don’t have time for them.

I really do this. Sometimes I question what I’m writing in a discouraging way. Then I get back to my WIP. By now, it’s become automatic. The attack isn’t useful.

As soon as I started writing for kids, I realized one of its advantage over drawing and painting: Writing is infinitely revisable. You can paint over oil and acrylics again and again, but you lose what went before, which you may want to go back to, as I often did. This is why I say to save what you write.

My only fear as I write this is that if you’re learning from me, you may become as slow a writer as I am! Lists take time. Do-overs take time. But I don’t know any other way.

Here are three prompts:

• MC James and his best friend Shinara are FaceTiming about the locusts that have descended on their town and the surrounding farms. They are cracking each other up with a list of the pros and cons of locusts, and neither one is whiny. Write their dialogue. (You may want to Google locusts, because in about two seconds of looking, I found something that could go in the pro column–or in both the pro and con columns.)

• For the fun of it, James and Shinara decide to meet halfway between their two houses, even though they’re not supposed to go out. Write what happens.

• Your MC, Princess Shinara, aka Sleeping Beauty, is the guest of honor at the Sweet Dreams palace ball where she is destined to prick herself. She believes nothing interesting ever comes out of her mouth. Her big worry at the ball is that everyone will fall asleep at the magic moment and wake up thinking how dull she is, and they will dream for the hundred years about the uninspiring, insipid monarch they’re stuck with. Write what actually happens at the ball.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. “My only fear as I write this is that if you’re learning from me, you may become as slow a writer as I am! Lists take time.”

    Oh, I’m sure I’m already MUCH slower! 🙂

  2. Oz copyright question:
    As I understand it, the original book of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is in the public domain, but the movie isn’t, so it’s ok to use things that aren’t specific to the movie (ex, ruby slippers.)
    I don’t see the book mentioning that the Wicked Witch of the West is green, but Elphaba in Wicked is green, and green Wicked Witches are practically standard for cartoons and Halloween decorations, so is it fair game to have the WWotW in my Oz story be green? It’s relevant to the plot, and seems like it ought to be fine, but technically it breaks that rule.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’m not a copyright expert, but I just googled “copyright expert blogs” and a lot of possibilities popped up. You may be able to ask your questions for free.

        I’ve gotten permissions to use material, which I’ve paid for (not prohibitive). Your agent should be able to help you with this and possibly with your questions, too. Gregory Maguire, who wrote WICKED, may have gotten permission to use any movie elements he used. In this instance, it may be better not to have a publisher yet. Permissions are more expensive for publishers, because they’re viewed as having deep pockets.

        Good luck!

        • I think I know a way around it. I want the Witch to be green(ish) due to an illness. Years ago, I got a serious liver problem. My parents realized what was up when my mom looked at me, turned to my dad, and said “Rog, she’s green.”

          I was really more mustard-colored, but the point is, “emerald-green Witch of The West” may be copyrightable, but I’m pretty sure “Jaundiced WWotW” isn’t. 🙂

          • …and I found this, so I think it’s ok: “…The copyright expert had to make sure that the Wicked Witch’s shade of green was distinct enough from Margaret Hamilton’s shade of green. The expert also ensured that the Emerald City was not too close in appearance to the Emerald City in the 1939 film.[5]…
            The Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most iconic villains of modern times. However, the iconic version of the Wicked Witch is Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal in the 1939 movie, which is copyrighted. The character of the Wicked Witch from the book is in public domain, but that version of the Wicked Witch is not even green. Most modern portrayals of the Wicked Witch of the West do make her green, because that is how the public thinks of the Wicked Witch, but they all strive to make her appearance somehow distinctive…”

  3. Pleasure Writer says:

    Completely unrelated to Melissa Mead’s question, but how do you know whether or not you even have talent as an unpublished, unknown writer? I’ve only had close friends read my work, though I’ve been writing for four years now. What I would really like to know is if I even have hope of ever being published. Any thoughts on how to know if I even have potential?

    • Honestly, from what I’ve seen with other writers, “talent” really doesn’t mean much. The things that seem to help most are the ability to think of interesting ideas, accept and learn from constructive feedback, and persist in the face of rejection. And practice beats potential any day. 🙂

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’m adding your question to my list. While you’re waiting, if you’re engaged with your writing, I’d suggest you keep going.

        • Writeforfun says:

          There’s an author on youtube who believes that writing fanfiction is helpful for this when you’re learning to write, because you can post your writing online for wide audiences to read and review. They’ll let you know what they think and offer constructive criticism.

          That said, I’ve never written or posted fanfiction, nor do I plan to, but I thought it was interesting that she recommended this.

          For me, I don’t think I have talent – I just enjoy writing, so I do it. I started writing when I was fourteen or fifteen I think (when this blog was very young!), and rereading what I wrote back then is a little painful because my first books were so poorly written. But I can also see how I’ve improved over the years! Each book since I started has gotten better and better as I’ve learned and practiced.

          You know, I’m actually really interested to read a blog post on this! Because, sometimes I think it’s kind of funny that we worry so much about having talent for creative things like writing. I used to draw and paint portraits for a living; but I learned to do all of that artwork through practice, not talent. Don’t you think that’s generally the case? I don’t think anyone, no matter how talented they are or think they are, can pick up a pencil for the first time and know automatically how to create a photorealistic portrait. I would be tempted to say that if I had any “talent,” I think it was only the love of drawing!

          For that matter, my sister is a concert pianist and harpist who also arranges and composes music, which is another creative discipline; but that all comes from practice, too!

    • You can definitely learn to be a good writer. Everyone has potential.
      I really loved this motivational speech by Brandon Sanderson. He talks about the value of writing whether or not you publish, and setting realistic goals, among other things. Plus there’s a funny parrot. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH9sJrAVeC0
      It sounds like you could use a good writing group. Do you know how to find one? I found mine on facebook, in a group for writers from the same religion. I’ve also met with the local one, though more to socialize than to get feedback. One of my local friends has disgrafia and he still publishes a book each year–he just uses multiple editors to help him.

  4. Fiona Wherity says:

    Honestly, I have this very same problem. I always start writing and then hate it and stop so I get nervous that I’ll never be good enough. My friends and family say they love it, but I feel like it’s their job to say that. I always end up writing and having more ideas for more stories, but then I read an amazing book I love and realize that I might not ever write as well as my favorite authors. I always try though, that’s what really keeps me going, the fact that I might. I might get there. I might finish this book. I might get it published. I just keep hoping. Hoping and trying.

      • Fiona Wherity says:

        Haha, thank you. It also might have to do with the fact that I am still very young and I have very little experience with writing since I am still in middle school and even though I write much much more than my peers I still have not a lot of experience. (Wow I just realized I’m probably a LOT younger than everyone on here)!

          • My middle school writers were all about my pokemon journey, because my parents wouldn’t let me get a Gameboy and play it… so, yeah, I think you’re ahead of me 🙂

          • Fiona Wherity says:

            Haha, that sounds great! My writing differs a lot because I love so many things and have a lot of ideas. I’m just finally writing a book that I hope to get published and I’m farther into it than any other story I’ve written before. So I guess I am off to a better start that other kids.

          • Fiona Wherity says:

            Wow, yeah I haven’t gotten very much done but I’ve finished a few chapters and that’s the farthest I’ve ever gotten in a story. I’m very hopeful about this story.

        • Oh my goodness, I have the exact same problem. I have some older unfinished works that I’m scared to read for fear that I might cringe the entire time. And my family and friends say they love what I write, but I’m always terrified to let them read it.
          Personally, I don’t think age has anything to do with how good of a writer someone is. I completed my first actual novel (well, more of a novella at only 75 pages) back in middle school (I’m 16 now), and it was a huge milestone for me. I suppose an older writer such as Mrs. Levine has had more practice and more life experience to put into her writing, but it’s not helpful to any of us to say that we’re inexperienced or that no one would ever enjoy what we write. If you love writing, that’s all that matters! 🙂

          • True! I do believe that writers get better with practice, but that doesn’t mean our beginning work is all bad or that we should scorn it. That’s why Gail’s “Save what you write” is such good advice.

        • Not *that* much younger….I (hope to be) going into college next fall. When I was middle-school-aged, I’d write a page or so of The Best Story Ever, take a break to eat or sleep…and never come back to it. Then I started sticking my characters into whatever story I was currently obsessed with, and somewhere along the line I came up with my own adventure for them. I’m now about 50k words into the millionth draft (give or take).
          It’s good that you recognize how far you still have to go– that means you’re open to learning. Just keep writing and learning, and you’ll get there! Good luck with your book!

  5. Pleasure Writer says:

    Thank you all so much for your thoughts! I am not a part of a writing group, though I have wanted to find one for a while. I guess I should start looking for one to be apart of. It sounds like it would be helpful. 🙂

  6. This is so relatable! Sometimes I have to write little pep talks at the top of my story documents to remind myself that I AM a writer, haha. “With every draft, you get closer to the truth! With every change you make, your story is purified, refined, honed to perfection! Now go write two paragraphs!”

    Anyone have tips for writing friendly banter? I’m writing a simple conversation between best friends. It’s supposed to be a light interlude in the chapter, sort of funny and casual. I’ve tried basing the scene off of conversations I’ve had, but they’re never as funny on paper as they were in real life. Some help would be appreciated!

    • Something that helps me is talking my way through the conversation before writing it down. I’m one of those people who remembers things or can work their way through things if I say it out loud.

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      Something I’ve been thinking about trying out is writing down different conversations I’ve had and finding a common thread between them. I haven’t tried this yet, but I think it might help. Once you have some conversations down, you can find a common thread(s) that hold them together as funny/unique conversations that could only really happen between the people involved. Once you do that, you can take what you’ve learned and apply it to writing. I’m not sure if this is any different then what you’ve been doing, or if it’ll even be super helpful.
      My friends and I love to laugh at random things. For example:
      My friend’ss sister: Your hair is longer then I thought.
      Friend: See! She complimented your hair!
      Me: That wasn’t a compliment. It was an observation.
      *We debate a bit*
      Me: If I said you killed three people, would that be a compliment?
      My friend: It could be!
      *To be clear, my friend has never hurt anyone and that was a theoretical example*
      That conversation started off with my friend trying to say someone had complimented me because they’re nice and know I have self-esteem issues. However, it devolved into complete randomness that was really funny at the time.
      If I wanted to replicate that in writing, I would start off with a conversation motivated by a character’s strength but have it devolve into nonsense real fast, or something similar.

      • I can totally relate to that. My friend and I also have conversations like that or debates that last weeks over something stupid. These are always funny and realistic in books and make the characters much more likable.

        • This is late, but thank you guys for the help! Yes, I totally see how an element of uncontrolled direction would make a conversation more natural. In my story, the people talking in this scene are both complete nerds arguing about a fictional world, so armed with your feedback, I’m hoping it’ll be easy to spin the dialogue into ridiculousness 🙂

  7. Thank you, Gail! You are always so helpful and also imaginative. While reading your post I’ve got a good idea for a story.

  8. Writing Cat Lover says:

    Great post! It inspired me to write something nice and short for once so I am trying out flash fiction. Also, do you mind if I borrow the names Ledithia from Ceiling Made of Eggshells (I probably spelled that name wrong) and Aurida form Ella Enchanted and Fairest? (I probably spelled that name wrong too) Just in case you were wondering, by the way, I want to borrow only the names and none of the character at all. And also, I started a new blog a little while ago, and I was wondering, does anyone have any tips on blog writing?

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