Writing a Novel is Scarier Than a Bull Moose in Rut

Bull moose

Writing a novel is one of the scariest things I’ve ever attempted.

And I’ve done some scary things in my life:

  • I’ve moved to two different provinces on my own, both times having no prior friends or family present when I arrived.
  • I’ve come face-to-face with a bull moose during rutting season.
  • I’ve spend 24 straight hours in the woods on a fasting solo sit. (The fear in this isn’t possible animal encounters at night, but rather the act of sitting silently for hours with nothing to distract you but your own thoughts.)
  • I’ve risked – and received – rejection asking guys way out of my league out on dates.

Just to name a few.  As my father is fond of paraphrasing from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The brave will only die once.”

There’s nothing inherently frightening about writing a novel.  Lots of people have done it.  Many of you reading this post right now have done it.

And yet, novel writing ranks way up there on my scary sh*t list.  For with the above-mentioned challenges I’ve conquered, they all either ended quickly or grew easier to withstand as time progressed.

But with writing a novel, every step along the way has given me something new to be afraid of that I’ve had to overcome:

In the beginning

Fear: I lacked the skill to do justice to the idea I’d come up with for my novel

  • Solution: According to Canadian short story writer Nancy Lee, “You can’t conceive of an idea you’re unable to execute.  It was your idea!”  Eventually, I realized this isn’t to say said execution will be easy.  Rather, that the same imagination and insight from past experiences you drew upon to dream up the idea will further serve you in turning that idea into a fully-realized story.  For the story already exists inside of you.

Fear: I’d forget any or all of the endless scenes, images, and dialogue of the story unfolding in my head before I got to them in my unfolding manuscript.

  • Solution: I created an outline.  Or perhaps better termed a brain-dump: an 82,000-word mess of half-page length bullets points punctuated with commas, semicolons, dashes.  The only way I’m forgetting this story now is if I get amnesia and no longer remember how to interpret my notes (which, actually, I’m also kinda scared of).

The fearful middle

Fear: In order to make time to write, I’d have to give up other things that are important to me.

  • Solution: Recognizing that this phenomenon isn’t unique to creative people (although it can be particularly hard on them).  All adults eventually come to the conclusion that, according to creativity and business advisor, Charlie Gilkey, “Everything we do comes at the cost of something else we could have done”, and that it’s okay to feel sad about that and mourn what had to be put aside.

Fear: Trying to explain to people what my novel is about.

  • Solution: I’m still working on this one.  For though I’ve written the one-sentence summary of my novel, this sentence is far too long and affected to say out loud.  I need to create a more conversational version of this, and practice until I can recite it in my sleep.

Fear: I’d lose my work in a technological malfunction.

The dreaded blue screen of death.

The dreaded blue screen of death.

  • Solution: I have more USBs secreted around my house and workplace than a squirrel’s cache of nuts in the forest.  And I never leave the house without one on my person.

Fear: Deviating from my outline would lead me to write myself into a corner.

  • Solution: I did deviate, and it was surprisingly exciting!  It gave me the opportunity to experience my own work the way my readers will someday: as a blank slate, and in real time.

To the bitter end

Fear: I was writing too slowly and taking too long to finish.

Solution: Acknowledging that my daily writing time is limited and my “engagement threshold” for writing is particularly high.  This has helped me accept my writing speed for what it currently is, and instead focus on achieving consistent output through good writing discipline.

Fear: As I approached my novel’s end, I’d discover it’s an unsalvageable mess and quit.

This is what happened with my very first novel: I was one page and one chapter from the end and I shelved the whole thing.

For as long as I’ve been writing seriously (nine years now), I’ve never actually finished anything serious – a fact that weighs heavily on me.

But my day of redemption is coming.  Soon.  I recently reached the milestone of page 350, which means I don’t have much more than 50 pages remaining.  It’ll be a tough 50 pages, for I’ve a lot of big ideas to summarize and not much to work from in my outline.

But I’m older, wiser, a better writer, and not so easily dissuaded this time around.  I will finish, despite the fear.  I will finish because of the fear – because the only way to overcome something is to push through it; to, indeed, climb right over top of it and down the other side.

Right into the fears of revision, publication, promotion, and the start of the whole frightening cycle all over again.

Now it’s your turn: What’s scares you about writing?  Or are you cool as a cucumber every step of the way?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

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12 thoughts on “Writing a Novel is Scarier Than a Bull Moose in Rut

  1. I have never really had a fear of novel writing and I think this comes from the belief that I’m the only person that will read what I’ve written. This may sound strange, but once I think other people will read what I write I get very nervous because I feel like I’m trying to please them and not me. Hey – this sounds really selfish! LOL
    Trying to explain what my novel is about causes me the most angst. Those few sentences to sum up an entire novel can sometimes take me as long to write as the novel itself 😦

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    • Nothing selfish about that thinking, Dianne. There’s a quote I heard – I’m not sure by who – that states while in the process of creating your art, it belongs to you, but once you release it into the world, it now belongs to your audience. So you’re in good company thinking the way you do.

      Writing those novel summaries are indeed tough. I actually started creating mine before I even began my WIP, so I too have put a lot of time into it. But it’s the type of challenge I enjoy; as a writer, I always feel like I can write my way out of any problem eventually. Where I’m struggling now is in communicating the summary verbally. Now that is scary, at least for me!

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  2. I think out of your list, “the unsalvageable mess” always lurks at the back of my mind, especially for works that I’ve invested a ton of time into. I’ve only attempted one novel-length project, and even now I can’t fathom going back to review it because of that fear.

    Since I work on a lot of smaller projects, the fear of beginning from scratch is a constant one. It doesn’t matter how polished I got the last piece, I now have to start from square one again. And that can be pretty paralyzing.

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    • Fear of “the unsalvageable mess” is what keeps me from re-reading too much of what I’ve already written of my WIP. As long as I can remain convinced there’s a through line of sense somewhere in there, I’ll keep moving forward with it until I reach the end.

      That said, you should take a peek at your manuscript; you might be surprised at what you find. I’ve read portions of my first, shelved novel, and while parts of it were ridiculous, there was also real potential in there. Definitely a framework from which I could rebuild.

      I haven’t completed too many pieces of writing yet, but I can see how starting from scratch could be scary. Every new beginning begins with higher expectations, both those of one’s audience and oneself. I think about this when I ponder the next novel I want to write.

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  3. I’m not sure what a 24-hour fasting solo sit is, but I think I’d last an hour. No one is impressed by a 1-hour fasting solo sit are they? That’s pretty much my commute every morning. And I’ve been rejected by women who weren’t even in MY league. Does it get worse? Of course, an impartial observer might suggest that I’m not in the league I think I’m in. What’s a little self-delusion if no one gets hurt?

    I’m not sure if I have fears as a writer, other than that my work is rubbish. Well, that it’s rubbish and I don’t know it. If I thought it was bad and people told me it was bad, I’d be like, “Oh. All right then.” But if I think it’s great, and every one else tells me it’s bad… that could be a tough pill. It already happened with my first manuscript, which I thought was intensely dramatic but agents thought was boring and pointless. They turned out to be right. My second one was a super clever page turner full of interesting characters, to hear me tell it. None of the agents I queried turned enough pages to get to the end. One of my beta readers said, “I can’t believe you wrote that.” Ever the optimist, I choose to interpret that wholly neutral statement as praise. Again, self-delusion is wonderful!

    😉

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    • A 24-hour fasting solo sit is pretty much as it sounds: you find a spot in the forest (in my case, it was against a big tree, in amongst its roots), sit there, and don’t move for 24 hours save to go use the bathroom, which doesn’t happen too often because you’re fasting. The first 5 hours were the hardest: during that time, my mind did everything it could to distract me from what I was doing. It was very noisy and felt close to what I imagine a nervous break to feel like. I actually worried I was damaging myself in some way. After that, it got easier. Nighttime was the easiest, as I just slept, and the next morning was amazing, waking with nature, watching it happen before my eyes.

      I often fear that my writing isn’t as good as I think it is, especially with my WIP, which has a big underlying theme and comes from a special place in my heart. But ultimately, I think it’s better to worry your work isn’t good enough than to presume it’s amazing, for the former will keep you trying to improve while there’s no growth or learning in the latter at all. For all that thinking your work sucks kind of feels like crap.

      As for “I can’t believe you wrote that”, it’s all about which word get the emphasis: “I can’t believe you wrote that” = good; “I can’t believe you wrote that” = also good (although still mildly insulting; what – you didn’t think I could?); “I can’t believe you wrote that” = very bad.

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  4. I fancy the solo sit, but with sandwiches and a bottle of whiskey. And I can’t imagine too many men are out of your league Janna 😉
    Like Dianne I’m not scared of writing as I have few expectations. I tend to give it my best shot, say ‘here it is then’ and move on. Probably not the best path to excellence, though I feel that I’m slowly changing.
    Nice post!

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    • I’m starting to feel like a real fraidy cat here; everyone else has only one fear and I have like six! It’s probably good to have few expectations, as there’s nothing to get in the way of just writing and clocking your 10,000 hours to mastery.

      Sandwiches and a bottle of whiskey sound like a lovely picnic on which I’d be delighted to join you, Roy, but not good for a solo sit where the object is empty yourself both physically and mentally. 🙂

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  5. Thanks for sharing this post, Janna. Forgive me if there’s a double entry here – I was asked to login and fell down in doing so; WordPress may have eaten my comment.

    Creative work is always scary because you take something inside of you, do a crap ton of work to get it out, and then put it out in the world for it’s rejection (gulp!) or acceptance (double gulp!). In my experience, most Creative Giants are more afraid of the latter than the former.

    So, for my own job security, I’ll ask that: what happens when you finish the novel and people love it? You’re adept at making workable solutions, so let’s throw that one in the hopper. 🙂

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    • Hi Charlie. Thanks for visiting and for your comment. I really enjoy your blog: I always come away with a new perspective on creativity and output that makes me feel a little less frantic about my own quirks and work habits, so it’s an honour to connect with you in my humble online abode.

      You pose an important question – one I must admit I’ve yet to ponder. I imagine it’s quite common for creatives to bend their heads so low to the actual day-to-day of what they’re working on (and then what they plan to work on as a follow up), they often forget to make a plan for once the work is out in the world.

      It’s probably a good idea for me to work up a few strategies at some point for some possible outcomes: worst-case, best-case, and average-case. And since I’m not exactly the world’s fastest planner (I’m not the world’s fastest anything), the time to start strategizing is probably now. Thanks for the head’s up (see what I did there?) 🙂

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