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The Fear of Breaking Things

Today is the first day of Fall term at my community college. While the faculty and students are dragging themselves zombie-like through the campus, groaning about how hard it is to come back to school, I'm celebrating. When everyone else comes back to work, I can finally put my feet up.

Summer is the craziest season for people who work behind the scenes in higher education. As soon as the graduating students finish posing for pictures in their caps and gowns and the faculty turn in their grades and head for the bars, the staff left behind lock the gates and say, "They're gone! Quick, finish all the projects!"

My department schedules the big projects over the summer for two reasons. The first is that when nobody's around, we don't have emails titled "HELP!!!" coming in every hour. But the second, and more important, is that when we build things, we break things.

Every time I develop an application or web feature, I break it a thousand times. I often break everything my project touches, too. I regularly crash the entire library website and/or catalog with some silly syntax error (in a test environment, of course). Even after a project has been tested backwards and forwards and declared error-free, the implementation of it is often disastrous. So we work over the summer, in the middle of the night, and over weekends, when we can burn everything to the ground and build it back up before anyone notices.

If you're afraid of breaking things, it's impossible to become a good programmer. The same can be said of writers.

The fear of breaking things will kill your stories in the womb.

When I took a drawing class last winter, my instructor said the students who are hardest to teach are the perfectionists. Every term, she has some students who are terrified of putting charcoal to paper, because they might mess up. They take a long time to draw a small part of the composition, like one eye of a portrait. The eye doesn't look quite right, so they immediately erase it and draw it again. And again. And again. They don't finish their assignments on time, get frustrated, and drop the class, saying drawing is "too hard" or they "just don't have the talent."

We all know aspiring novelists like those art students. I secretly call them "chapterists." They never write whole novels, only the first chapters of novels. They'll write one to three chapters and show them to friends or post them on critique sites. When the feedback is less than glowing, they'll instantly give up writing the book. Or they'll tweak that first chapter over and over, never moving on to the rest of the story.

We also all know people who don't even make it to the first chapter. They say they have a fabulous novel or screenplay in their heads that they've wanted to write for years. They'll talk about their stories with great excitement. But when you say, "That sounds awesome! You should write it! Like, now," they avert their eyes. They say, "Oh, well, maybe one day, when I have the time...."

Why do people do this? Ann Patchett explains it like this.

[A] book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can't think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It's not that I want to kill it, but it's the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I'm left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That's my book.

The invisible force that prevents many people from writing, and prevents the chapterists from becoming novelists, is the fear that these fabulous ideas in their heads, these glittering dream books and movies, will turn into sludge as soon as they're realized.

The fact is, nothing written down in any language can fully capture everything about the idea it's attempting to convey. People don't think in words. We think in pictures, sounds, and physical/emotional sensations. To transfer our ideas to others, we have to translate them into a linear string of written characters and hope that when people read them, they'll experience the same pictures, sounds, and sensations we do.

So writing always requires compromises. We have to pick and choose which aspects of our ideas to write down based on what can be conveyed in a clear, concise, and interesting way. The work will always be stressful and the final result will always be a little disappointing. Sometimes it will be very disappointing, if it turns out the story you imagined doesn't work well in written form.

The fear of disappointment is understandable, but it's also irrational. What's the worst that could happen if your finished story is less awesome than you'd hoped? You'll feel ashamed of your inadequacies? You'll have "wasted" a few months of evenings that you could've wasted zoning out to Keeping Up with the Kardashians instead?

Honestly, not trying at all is much more embarrassing than trying and failing. Would you rather tell your friends and family that yes, you did write that book, but it's terrible, or would you rather tell them you gave up because you were afraid of murdering your twinkling butterfly of an idea?

The fear of breaking things will prevent you from improving.

One small step up from the chapterists are the drafters. They complete messy first drafts of novels, then come up with dodgy excuses not to clean them up.

"The first draft is my true voice. Rewriting would suck all the spontaneity and personality out of it!"

"This one famous writer says you should never revise your work."

"I need to publish this now and start the next book, or I won't make any money. That's the reality of the business."

All of these can be translated to mean, "I'm insecure about my writing abilities, and I'm afraid if I touch this draft, I'll break it."

Have you seen this commercial for Luvs diapers?

The first half sums up how drafters feel about their baby novels.

Writing a book takes a lot of work, patience, and persistence. A writer can spend many months or years crafting her masterpiece. Because this masterpiece was so gosh-darned hard to finish, she'll be very proud and fiercely protective of it. She'll feel like it's a delicate miracle that will die a horrible death if anyone so much as pokes at it.

When Sweetie suggested that I rewrite a character in Bubbles Pop, I shed many tears and inhaled many Oreos. (Then I rewrote the dang character.) Whenever I critique the first novel of another writer, I put all of my comments in the nicest and most playful way possible, but the reaction is always hyper-defensive regardless.

"No, I'm not going to change even one word of this sentence. Every grammatical error in it is necessary."

"No, I can't cut out the boring prologue. It's impossible to convey the same information any other way."

"I don't see anything wrong with hopping heads five times in three sentences. That's my style. You're just not used to it."

To my shame, the first two I actually said to other people during the Bubbles Pop days. The third someone else said to me. He truly believed that readers should change the way they read to suit the way he writes, not the other way around.

Resistance to editing comes from many different fears: the fear of confronting your weaknesses, the fear of conceding control of your baby to other people, and the fear of committing to even more months of arduous work.

But I think the biggest is the fear of messing everything up. The first step of rewriting is deleting. Pressing the delete key can feel like removing a block from a Jenga tower—you expect the whole thing to come crashing down at any second. It won't, though. A story is an abstract thing. You can rip as many holes into it as you want and patch them up at your leisure; the other pieces aren't going anywhere.

The fear of messing up also causes many writers to avoid trying anything new. They refuse to read widely (or even narrowly), because they're afraid other authors would "influence" their own fragile voices. They refuse to try writing in different styles or genres or forms, because they're convinced they'd be horrible at it without even trying. They vehemently refuse to try self-publishing, or they vehemently refuse to try traditional publishing, for reasons that are a lot more emotional than logical. So their careers and their skills stall as they write the same stories over and over, too afraid to leave their familiar bubbles.

How do you get over this fear?

Many bloggers have addressed this topic before me, but usually their conclusion is, "You have to get over it. The only way to finish a book is to sit down and start writing." Which is perfectly true, but also about as useful as Bob Newhart's advice in this MADtv sketch.

If conquering the fears holding you back were as simple as "get over it" (or "STOP IT"), nobody would stay in an awful job or a rotting relationship. Everyone would follow their dreams and we'd live in a happy Disney universe filled with music and rainbows.

Since it's not that simple, here are some tricks to help you (and me!) "sit down and start writing."

Remind yourself it's just a draft.

A lot of people fear starting a novel because they feel immense pressure to write, as Anne Pachett put it, "the greatest novel in the history of literature." Worse, they feel like they're expected to write this work of staggering genius on the very first pass.

I blame two sets of people. First, I blame the K-12 and college teachers who evaluate students through in-class essays and written exams, conditioning us to believe a first draft is a final product that represents a writer's innate talents. Second, I blame the writers out there who preach that editing is artistic sacrilege, and that the rambling nonsense that flows from their fingers onto the blank page should be published as-is.

The first draft of a story is just that: a draft. Definition: "a preliminary sketch, outline, or version." Synonyms: "plan, scheme, design." It is a rough mock-up of your final product, not the final product itself.

When I took that drawing class, I was scared of making the first mark, too. The big paper cost some $2 a sheet and my art skills were a little below the level of a sixth grader's. Then my instructor introduced us to the miracle of scrap paper. Instead of starting on the big paper right away, she told us to first draw the compositions in sketch books, or on the backs of class notes and printouts. When I knew it was just a draft on cheap paper, and nobody was going to see it but me, it was much easier to draw uninhibited. I'd practice that way until I felt comfortable enough to start on the final drawing.

So if the blank Word document terrifies you, remember that you're just scribbling on scratch paper. If you write something truly awful, you can simply throw it away. Nobody will ever know.

Reward yourself for writing. Don't punish yourself for not writing.

A piece of advice I see a lot is to "hold yourself accountable" by publicly recording your progress on a blog or forum, or by telling everyone you know that you're working on a book. Then you'll feel pressured to deliver, and you'll force yourself to sit down and write.

My advice is the opposite: don't say a word.

Don't tweet your daily word counts. Don't join groups of writers who judge each other based on how quickly they can churn out pages. Don't talk about your project to any well-meaning acquaintances who will "help keep you on track" by demanding regular reports.

Putting yourself under social pressure like this doesn't address your underlying fear of writing. It only buries that fear under even stronger fears: the fear of looking like a lazy good-for-nothing, the fear of disappointing your friends and family, and the fear that your life-long dream will vanish into dust because you veered briefly off schedule.

Forcing people to do things out of fear never ends well. Instead of threatening yourself with public shame when you don't write, why don't you motivate yourself with rewards when you do write?

My personal rewards system is very cheap and simple. I have a whiteboard above my desk where I write the chapters of my WIP with red Xs next to them. When I finish a chapter, I erase the red X and replace it with a green check mark. I get a thrill every time I look up and see those green check marks. When I finish the book, I get to replace that last red X and see a whole column of green!

Kagemusha Inventory

If green check marks don't excite you (though I don't understand why they wouldn't), you could come up with other ways to reward yourself when you make progress. For example, pick something expensive that you want but don't strictly need, like a new computer or a fun vacation. Every time you finish a chapter, squirrel away a fraction of the cost. Do it even if you're not 100% happy with the chapter. Then if you get discouraged and start dragging your feet, remind yourself that even if you write a sucky book, you still get to go to Hawaii. You can turn it into a less sucky book when you get back.

Break up the huge task of writing a novel into smaller chunks.

Once I read a blog post from an author who said the idea of writing a whole novel was terrifying, but she could trick herself into starting one by committing to only "the first 100 pages." She would tell herself she's not actually writing the book, she's just writing a rough 100 pages for her agent before she starts the real thing. Those 100 pages always turned out to be the real thing, and she'd be halfway done by the time she officially "started."

Like most people, I procrastinate if a chore or project seems too big and daunting. Writing a book seems like A Big Deal. Writing a trilogy or series is An Even Bigger Deal. But if you break it down into smaller tasks than "write a whole dang trilogy," it becomes much more manageable.

Here's my general plan for writing my next three books, which are more like three acts of one book.

  1. Find popular books in the genre. Read them and take notes.
  2. Write very rough outlines of the three books (settings, characters, major plot points, beginning/middle/end arcs).
  3. Write a detailed outline of book one.
  4. Write the first draft of book one. Revise along the way as needed.
  5. Let book one rest, then show to critique partners. Revise based on feedback.
  6. Repeat with books two and three.
  7. Let all the books rest, then revise and polish them as a whole.

Within the "writing" bullet points I'll break it down even further. One day I'll focus on finishing one scene, the next another, until I can change one red X to a check mark. As long as I focus on one check mark at a time, I won't freak out so much about the enormity of the whole.


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