Hard Core Writer Fear: How to Talk Yourself Off the Cliff

Recently I finished reading through the Galleys for The Doctor’s Lady (releasing in Sept.). Review Galleys are usually sent to the author after all the in-house editing has been completed. The author is required to read through the manuscript one last time to accept the changes that have been made.

The author can also do some editing, but usually only minor tweaking. Since the book is moving down the pipeline at a fast speed toward publication, the Galleys have to be back within about a week’s time. They’re in hardcopy format (at least with my publisher). And any changes have to be made in a colored pen in the right margin. The Galley stage isn’t the time to do any major overhauls.

I’ve gone through Galleys before and should have expected my reaction. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the absolute fear that came over me as I combed through my manuscript. Various thoughts filtered through my mind over the week, growing into near-panic by the end of the book:

“Who wrote this garbage? A two year old?”

“I can’t believe how amateur this sounds, all the stilted words, clunky sentences, and repetitions.”

“The plot is boring, slow, and choppy. And the characters are completely unlikable cardboard cut-outs.”

Finally, the cacophony of distress turns into one last long wail: “I wish I’d never written this book. Everyone is going to hate it.”

And that’s when the truth comes out. I’m afraid. Of failing.

I want others to like what I write. And perhaps the fear of failing is even stronger with this set of Galleys on my second book than it was on my first book. I’ve learned what it’s like to have reader/reviewer feedback (both good and bad). And I’d really like the positives to outweigh the negatives.

That’s only natural. As writers we want our words to resonate with our readers. We want to connect with them. If we didn’t, we likely wouldn’t pursue publication. Instead we’d write for pure personal satisfaction and nothing more.

We need to please our readers. We should want to give them the most satisfying reading experience possible.

But that desire to please the reader often leads to fear. What if they see my mistakes? What if they don’t like the story? What if they fail to fall in love with the characters?

We’ll all face fear—whether that’s during the query stage when we cringe every time we open an email, wondering what agents will say (if anything). We whittle our nails away to nothing while we wait for publishers to make decisions on our proposals. And with each book we publish, we hold our breath as we read each review, bracing ourselves for the worst and hoping for the best.

In handling my recent attack of fear, I tried to talk myself off the cliff with these reminders:

Let fear push us to work harder. A healthy amount of fear is a good thing. It keeps us from getting too proud or over-confident. Fear can motivate us to work even harder on the next book.

Don’t let fear paralyze us. We have to remind ourselves that perfection is not possible. Do the best we can, then let go. We can’t let fear stop us from finishing the story, sending the query, or letting it go public.

Stay self-confident. If my next book doesn’t resonate with readers the way I hope, I can still be proud of myself for working hard and doing all I possibly could.

In our desire to please the reader, we can’t forget to please ourselves too. We won’t be able to please everyone. That’s why it’s so important that at the core of what we write, especially during the first draft, we find pleasure in the story. If we’re not deriving joy from the story, then why are we writing?

What about you? Have you experienced any hard core writer fear? How do you talk yourself off the cliff?

*Photo credit: flickr by mikeyx1212


  1. Wonderful post. I've had that same feeling reading my own galleys. Actually, ARCs for Darkfall are being sent out now and I do have that fear everyone will hate it. That usually lasts until reviews start coming in and I see they *don't* hate it. Sometimes that fear makes it hard to focus and work on the next project. I keep thinking about what I could have/should have done.

    For me, I just try to take a deep breath and remind myself I did my best and it's now out of my hands. Some folks will love it, others will hate it, but that's going to be true no matter how well I wrote the book. Whatever I feel I could have done better, I make notes and make sure I address that in the next book.

    If it's really bad, then I do something that makes me feel like I accomplished something. I read old fan mail, work on the blog or marketing, look at other ideas in my file and flesh something out.

  2. It's good to know even published writers go through these same fears.

    I go through this all the time, and fear of failure is a major issue for me. Everyone in my family wants to know when I'll be published, and no one seems to get what a long process it is, not to mention how difficult.

    Fortunately, I've got a great best friend and critique partner that I can trust. I know she wouldn't invest the time in me if she didn't think my writing was strong. She's a reading/writing professor, so I value her opinion. When I hit these walls, I remind myself of her words, and just tell myself to look at how much my writing has improved in the last year.

  3. Jody, your second book is going to be even more amazing than the first!!

    I'm constantly telling my kids that if they do their best every time the step on to the pitch for soccer or the diamond for baseball, or every time the sit down for a test at school, then they've done the job they were meant to do. I try to translate this to myself as well. If I try to give my best effort every time I set out to write, then my best will have to be good enough. My best is all I've got.

  4. Oh dear, I know what you mean. I'm about to go through the same process, always hate it. I'm frozen rigid. Really, how old am I? You think we should know better by now.
    You make a good point, let's not forget the pleasure of writing. What would be the point otherwise?
    Best of luck

  5. Great post Jody,

    This is something that i work on daily.

    My motto is you can't write better if you don't write.

    A terrible first draft can be sculpted into a wonderful piece. This is MUCH better than a draft where you gave up because it was getting to hard and you thought it was crap.


    Thanks again for you posts Jody

    sarah ketley

  6. I can't imagine the absolute terror that must be like. Exciting too. But I'm like that without galleys. One day I love my story, the next week I hate it.

  7. First of all, you made me laugh. Secondly, you are a great writer who fine tunes everything, so take a deep breath and enjoy.

    Fear definitely takes over my mind at times. It's there for a reason. We just need to decide the best way to handle it.

  8. I'm on my fourth novel, plus a novella, and that fear is still there - it almost paralyzed me with this latest book, to where I would stare at the page --all these voices in my head; I'd never had that happen before, as I don't believe in "writers block" -- finally I had to stomp over my fears, drown out the voices (even the really great ones!) and write from my heart and gut.

    Wonderful post as usual!

  9. Hi Jody,
    I'm doing revisions on book 2 so I've only been through the galleys on book 1. It's easy for me to get caught up in "not good enough syndrome." But I try to remember that if we get too perfectionistic we paralyze ourselves and cannot write at all like a well known general market author did for awhile, and I love her writing and she's back at it. Prayer and acceptance of ourselves as non perfect human beings is all we can really do to continue doing what we love. There's no way we can make everyone happy so we should write as well as we can and let go and let God. Can you tell I'm giving myself a pep talk here too? :)

  10. Releasing my first e-book next week. For husbands. About sex. I'm most definitely in the fear stage. Praying my way through it (and counting on a heck of a lot of other people to pray too).

  11. Oh sure, I've felt the fear.

    I truly believe that the writers bound to make it are those who feel that fear, but learn ways to conquer it and move forward.

    I am so thankful for your vulnerability and humility in this post. It is one reason I will keep coming back here. You are the real deal, Jody and I've enjoyed celebrating you on the path ahead!

    ~ Wendy

  12. "I’m afraid. Of failing. I want others to like what I write." You've hit the nail on the head, as they say. No matter how driven I am to write or how great the euphoria that accompanies each finished piece, I'm a kid who needs approval....This blog gets printed—in large print—for posting on my writing board! Thank you.

  13. If I start to get emotional about some part of the writing process I try to bring out my inner secretary. Meaning, I do my best to look at editing, submitting, etc. as a mechanical chore. Put myself in the role of the secretary taking care of business for her boss. That helps, but never really erases the fear.

  14. Recently I went through a phase of wondering what I was doing thinking I could write novels, because I hadn't read this or that book on craft or had not been to this or that conference, and so on. I turned in a manuscript and waited for the dreaded "revision memo" and fretted how I would find time to rewrite. Then came the editor's response. She loved it. Truly loved it. No revision memo, just a few points of clarification--and this was from a well known, experienced editor. I realized I had let the experience of other writers and their journeys cause fear in my own. Let's not forget to recognize and receive moments of affirmation in our battles against fear.

  15. Your post really resonated with me today, Jody. I, too, have that inner need for approval. And what has hit me hard over the last month is (as odd as it may sound) good reviews on my latest release.

    Sounds crazy, right? But when I read good reviews on the book that just came out and I see readers mentioning specific things they liked about the book, I start thinking about my current manuscript (which is nearly completed) and all the ways it doesn't measure up because it doesn't have those same elements.

    The only thing that gets me through is the thought that just like a mother loves each of her children equally even though they are all so different, hopefully my readers will love this next book as much as the last, despite it being different. It has its own unique strengths that are loveable. It doesn't have to be the same as the last. In fact, if it was, readers would get bored.

    I still get nervous and fret, and hope my first readers - my editors - will see it as loveable, too. Once I have their approval, the confidence creeps back in.

    Writing is such an emotional journey, isn't it?

  16. Jody, thanks for sharing this. It speaks to the issue that all writers have this fear - published and unpublished. And that fear never goes away, it just needs to be managed so we dont become paralyzed. We are all in the same boat.

  17. Have I experienced writer's fear such as you describe? At every step with every book! Actually, it begins even before the book is under contract, when I read through what I've written and wonder how any editor could ever buy it.
    I've been on the ledge so often that they have a plaque with my name on it there. I'm pretty sure it goes with the territory--but it doesn't make it any less frightening.
    As always, thanks for your candor in sharing.

  18. Oh, do I have a severe case of writer's fear right now. I'm terrified while my manuscript is being sent off to publishers. What if they hate it?

    Then I just signed with a completely wonderful agent who loves my book, and I'm looking at my current MS going, "Can I do it again? I thought I could, but what if I can't."

    Yes, lots of hard core writer's fear for me right now. My sanity through all this has been much prayer, a wonderful husband, and lots of play breaks with the kids.

  19. This is totally, completely relatable. Thank you for being honest. But have faith in yourself, I think its like looking at yourself in the mirror. We're our own worst, most mean-hearted critic and see things nobody else notices or cares about.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  20. I understand your fears, Jody, but I've read The Doctor's Lady, and I feel certain readers will love it. Sure, it's not like The Preacher's Bride, but it's not supposed to be. It's a different story. And it's good!

    I laughed when I read this line: "The plot is boring, slow, and choppy." Um, no. Your stories are so filled with action and emotion I read with racing heart and baited breath most of the time.

    I relate to your fears, though. As you know, I battle doubts daily. You've given great tips for dealing with them. Thanks.

  21. Great post and tips, and I can relate!

  22. I would probably beg somebody to read my galley for me, then change my mind and read it myself, all the while feeling nauseated.

  23. I experience fear every single day! It's strangely comforting to know that multi-published authors still have fears also. Thanks for your honest post.

  24. Should have added: To deal with an insanely hardcore bout of the fear earlier this year, I worked through THE ARTIST'S WAY with a great group of people. Wonderful experience that gave me tools for dealing with the struggle on a broader level.

  25. Ah yes, it's what my DD called the Abyss of Suckitude in one of her blog posts. We're still at the pre-pub stage and we try to do our very best writing and revising, only to re-read and moan, "It sucks! Did I really think it was going to be publishable?"

    It would be so easy to sail off that cliff (or toss the ms off it) and leave all the anxiety behind, but there is that persistent writerly voice inside my head that reminds me even if I abandon each novel there will always be another demanding to be written.

    Thanks for this great post. Every one of your reminders is crucial. I think I'm in a "write it and then hide it" stage, but the only remedy will be to write the best story I can, and then trust supportive critiquers to help me know when it's ready for public scrutiny.

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  27. yep, I'm about to the point I know I'm ready to submit things which makes me want to quit. My hubby says, "What? You've worked the last several years for this and before you get rejected you want to quit?" Yep, don't want to fail.

    What has gotten me through? Another quote from hubby, "You can't quit, I didn't live through three years of a messy house for nothing." :) I guess I owe him to at least try and fail.

  28. I'm standing on the cliff. Last night I prayed- harder than I have in a while.

    I prayed that God tell me what to do about my manuscript, it's been two years and I need to feel finished.

    The cliff is a scary spot. Then I remembered the scripture, if I ascend into Heaven thou art there and if I make my bed in the lower parts thou are there."

    Thank you Jesus.

  29. Hi Everyone!! Sorry I haven't commented yet today! I've been reading your comments as they've come through, but I've also been tending to a baby squirrel that we're attempting to save (fell out of a tree in our yard).

    Thanks for all of your encouragement! It's so good to know that I'm not alone in my fears, that we're all in this together! :-)

  30. I loved your first book and can't wait for the second.

    We're human. Fear of failing is a part of that.

    The book will be a success, no doubt.

  31. Thank you so much for your candor and reality check. I am a first time author. My book 1000 Mitzvahs will be out in November. Since I have never gone through this writing/publishing process before I was afraid to voice exactly what you spoke about while reviewing my galleys. I wanted to literally scratch out every other sentence and re write. I am so glad to know that this is normal. Thank you, thank you for voicing what obviously so many of us feel. Look forward to reading more of your blog soon.


  32. Love it! Thank you so much for posting this. I really want to write and publish a book. I know that I am scared. Sometimes, it is hard enough just to write a blog!!

  33. 63k into fifth book, and I'm completely terrified that I HAVE NO PLOT or turning points and I have no idea what the black moment will actually be or when I'll get to it. First drafts terrify me. (I love editing, and I have to admit I love the galley phase -- it's an awful feeling, knowing you can't change much, but also a freeing one, I find.)

  34. Thank you for such a wonderfully honest post. What you've so eloquently verbalized, I think we've all felt at one point or another (or multiple times), whether in rereading our own material (did I really write that?) or reading someone else's material (I'll never be able to write like that!). Thank you for some reasonable and rational strategies to manage that fear. Fear can keep us sharp and push us to do better... unless it stops us completely in our tracks.

    I know The Doctor's Lady is anything but garbage and I'm very much looking forward to its release!

  35. I was extremely nervous (call it terrified) to read through the printed copy of my memoir when it "hit the market." I was afraid something egregious might have slipped through, either on my part or the part of my editor/publisher. But when I saw the cover in my hand I gasped. And when I began reading the book, I thought, Wow. This did turn out well. They did a great job. And so I feel happy now and proud.

    I'm sure your second book is going to be as good as or better than Preacher's Bride, which I loved!
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

  36. Does any writer NOT have these fears? If they do, then they're probably not growing as a writer. I experienced this editing my novella, but it had to be done. I'm sure I'll feel it again when my galleys come back. How do I deal with it? Prayer between each panic attack! And Ben and Jerry's Chubby Hubby always helps!

  37. If you are a writer you have fears. It is just natural. Sometimes you can get overwhelmed thinking about the task in front of you. My advice, just start somewhere. Get the juices flowing and trust that you can do a great job.

  38. Thanks for this post. Writing fears have kept me paralyzed for a couple of years. I am no where near where you are. I've had a couple of blogs that I have deleted. Recently, I have had some encouragement to share my writing. I've been reading your blog. Very excited about digging in and learning. I have some ideas for fiction, but not sure I could pull it off. Your blog is a great resource.


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