Advice: “I’m afraid I’ll mess up.”

Recently, I was talking with an author whom I greatly respect. Seriously, this lady is awesome… I’m not gonna say who she is, though.  During the conversation, I asked her about the status of her new book, and she confessed that her progress had slowed badly, and she in fact had not gotten anywhere…

“Why?” I asked.  “Is something wrong?”

And then she said it:

“It’s because this story is so grand that I’m afraid I’ll mess it up.  I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice.  I’m afraid that my writing style will get in the way.”
(this is why I haven’t named her.  Naming names might embarrass the poor woman or make her look bad, and she’s fantastic)

She then proceeded to explain how she would write a few thousand words, but then get frustrated and delete them, only to start the cycle over again.  So the following info is condensed from things I said to her, with specifics removed (and cleaned up to look less like a Facebook conversation and more like, y’know, an advice column).

And there you have it.  “I’m afraid I’ll mess it up.”  I know you feel this (if you’re a writer).  I know I’ve felt it.  I know that, most likely, when Moses started chiseling out the good old Book of Genesis, he said the same thing.  Though he probably said it in Ancient Hebrew or Egyptian, and then he turned a river into blood or something.  I’m not Moses.  I’m just a nerdy author dude sitting on the couch with a cat sleeping on my elbow.

Ahem.  Anyway, as to the advice I gave on the subject at hand:

In college, how were you with deadlines?  If you were awful, then how are you at your job?  If you’re lazy, please bear with me and pretend to be responsible.  As tough as a project is, whenever it was due… you did it.  Even if you end up messing up, something got done.  As hard as it was, you did your job.  Even if you were afraid of messing it up, you turned in that paper.

When you’re under stress, you tend to forget certain fears – and it’s the same way with writing.  This is why NaNoWriMo is such a fantastic tool – it gets us would-be “writers” to turn into real authors.  Is a lot of NaNo work drek?  Well, yes.  But the point is, it gets the ball rolling.  Most people who want to write freeze up at the starting line because it’s hard, or because they’re afraid of failure.  But the thing is, we all run into difficult projects that terrify us, but we make the conscious decision to do them anyway.  Writing is… exactly the same.

With my writing, OF COURSE I always have that fear.  I’m afraid that I can’t do it right, and that’s what held me back for years.  But when push came to shove, I did it anyway, and BAM!  John Morey, Author of Vintage Soul (this will mean something soon, don’t worry!). I’ve said it before, writing takes practice, just like everything else. I never thought I could do snappy dialogue or a fight scene, but those two things have turned into my specialties.  Because, nervousness and self–doubt notwithstanding, I lowered my head and charged into the fray. Sure, I’ve had to practice and learn and get better, but… ah ha ha ha, that’s the point!

“But I don’t know where this story is taking me,” a certain somebody said.  “Just when I think I know, I realize something new about it and have to rewrite.”

Well, if that is the case, maybe you need to change how you structure a little bit.  Most writers tend to fall somewhere within the spectrum of planner-vs.-pantser – i.e. planning everything vs. flying by the seat of your pants.  Pantsing is amazing.  I can’t pants.  I have to plan what I’m doing… to an extent.  Sometimes, I need to see how things flow while I write, and even though I still stick to my outline certain things like the choreography of a fight or the flow of a conversation pretty much happen as I write them.  I learned to give myself the flexibility when things kept turning out too rigid.

And if you’re a pantser, but you keep stumbling over yourself, it my help to begin injecting some planning.  No, you don’t have to outline everything, but get some key points down – where it begins, where it ends, and major steps along the way.  Treat it like professional wrestling:  Most pro wrestling “scripts” really just give introductory dialogue, the winner and finishing move, and then a few key moments during the match.  The rest is improvised.  But if you know which direction to run, you can take any path heading that way and feel much better than just wandering aimlessly.  Essentially, do some dot-connecting.  Build a framework.

And yes, I understand that this may not work for everybody – you might find it impossible to plan at all.  If so, I still encourage you to lower your head and charge in, writing furiously.  The point is to be productive.  If your current method is not producing, find a new one.  If you are having trouble finding a new method, keep searching or refine your old one.  Don’t give up until you start producing.

“Every time I write a scene, I get disappointed in it and tear it down, only to start over again.”

When you build a house, do you meticulously build each wall one at a time, complete it, and then move on to the next?  or do you build the framework first before filling it in?  Your first draft of a novel is just that – the framework.  Now, maybe you nail your frame so awesomely that it’s pretty much done, or maybe it’s a rickety skeleton held together by duct tape and prayer.  If so, then at least you have that framework up, and you can start filling it in.  Building around it.  Replacing the rickety parts.  Turning it into a solid house.  If you really, REALLY feel that you just wrote some garbage, you could delete it and start again, but I would advise you to kep going, at least until you’ve set some stuff up after.  You will have time to come back and fix it later, but doing so is much, much, much easier when the rest of the draft is in place.  Change it from knocking the whole thing downa dn rebuilding to demolishing a single wall.  Even if your first draft sucks, it is a lot easier to fix a sucky draft than to build a masterpiece from nothing.

“But my muse isn’t obeying me!”

Ah, see, there you go.  Your muse isn’t obeying you.  Then discipline it!  You know, spare the rod, spoil the muse… and don’t freak out, I’m not talking about beating your kids.  You can ground your muse or put it in the Naughty Chair or have a talk with it or whatever, too.  The point is, the so-called “muse” is just a part of you.  It’s your creative instinct. And you have to keep it under control if you want to write.  It’s just like anything else:  A matter of self-control.  If you want to be an author, then writing is your job.  This doesn’t mean that you have to pull eight-hour days every day, but that when you sit down to write, you sit down and right.  Do your job.

And yes, you will have slow days.  I have ’em, too.  You will have doubt.  Yep.  You will write trash.  But the thing is, when you train yourself to actually do your job, when you take control of your muse, when you plan or plot or pants in whichever way is best for you, then you’ll actually produce something.  You will build that house.  You’ll renovate it.  As big and scary as it is, which is scarier?  Botching a draft and having to revise it, or never becoming a writer in the first place?

And whoever you are, if you’re reading this, then you’re probably the kind of person who could use some of the advice, much like my author friend – who related to me in a later conversation that she was feeling better, so don’t worry about her.  But it’s something that everybody experiences.  Writing is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.  And hey, I love seeing successes.  You can do this.  Trust me.  No matter how difficult, the challenge isn’t more than you can bear.


1 thought on “Advice: “I’m afraid I’ll mess up.””

  1. Pingback: Advice: “I’m afraid I’ll mess up.” | Tammy J Rizzo

Leave a Comment