What to Do When First-Chapter Fears Paralyze Us

 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I recently started writing a new book (a historical that releases next fall). As I was writing the first chapter, I experienced an almost paralyzing fear.

It was a fear that raised its ugly serpent head and hissed in my ear:

"Can you really write this story?"

"What if you don't have what it takes?"

"Will you be able to convey all that you hope to?"

"What if readers don't like these characters or this story?"

The doubts and insecurities followed me relentlessly through those first chapters. Even though this is the twentieth full length novel that I've written. Even though I've tackled difficult historical time periods (some even more so). Even though I've handled equally important subject matter.

The honest truth is that no matter where we're at in our writing journeys, whether on the first or fiftieth book, we all face first-chapter fears. The key, however, is NOT to let those fears cause us to freeze up, close up, or give up.

I've now reached the one-third mark of this newest book. The story is unfolding and sweeping me along with it. I admit, from time-to-time that ugly serpent still raises its head and whispers insecurities in my ear. But overall, the fears are mostly behind me.

How can we push through fears and insecurities that arise as we write our first chapters? Here are a few of my strategies: 

1. Stick with the story even though you feel like giving up.  

Don't give yourself an out. Don't even consider for a moment that you won't write the book. In fact, give yourself a deadline and tell yourself that you will persevere no matter what, that you don't have a choice.

Even on my worst of days, I give myself daily word count goals. I force myself to keep working no matter how I feel. I base my writing on a conscious decision to show up with or without the desire to write. With or without inspiration. With or without fear. I write no matter what.

 2. Write anything to get something on the page. 

You don't have to know where you're going next. You don't need to have everything figured out. Just start putting words down. Say anything, even if it seems stupid, even if it may not particularly fit. Once we release the words, eventually our creativity comes out too. Spilling words on the page loosens creativity.

I experienced this in a recent scene I was writing. I didn't know where the scene was taking me. I wanted my hero and heroine to say goodbye to one another, but I didn't know how. So I simply started writing, whether it was clichéd or not, I put it down. And as I did so, the scene began to shape itself into something unique with a fun interaction. Write first. Creativity follows.

3. Always remember that your first attempt doesn't have to be perfect. 

Nothing is ever carved in stone in the first draft. You can always go back and tweak the opening. In fact, you may need to go back to rewrite the opening altogether. That's okay. Sometimes we have to write a crappy opening in order to get the story flowing. And once the story is flowing, we're then able to go back and re-create a better, more fitting opening.

During the self-editing stage of my last book, I ended up cutting 10k out of the book before I sent it to my publisher. Then during rewrites I cut and changed even more. It was much easier for me during the editing phase to stand back, to view the book objectively, and to chop what didn't work. If I keep that philosophy in mind while I'm in the first chapters of a new book, I'm better able to persevere when fear starts to paralyze me.

How about YOU? Have you ever been paralyzed by first chapter fears? What helps you persevere?


  1. Writing those first few words, first sentences, first scene is one of the hardest things for me to do as a writer. I never like my first scene. I write and rewrite until I'm somewhat satisfied but still don't love it. The fear that it isn't good enough is always there. And it certainly doesn't help when we hear over and over how important that first scene (and even first sentence) is when trying to hook a reader. Knowing that a reader may potentially put the book down and give up all together if the beginning isn't good enough is a daunting notion.

    But I do exactly what you said - write no matter how bad it is. I repeat over and over to myself that it doesn't have to be perfect, it can be edited and rewritten later. A bad first draft is better than no first draft.

    I'm glad to hear even seasoned writers have a hard time with this, that I'm not alone. A general rule that I try to follow is to have the hero and heroine meet as soon as possible, in the first scene preferably. I feel like this gets the story going quickly. Of course this isn't possible for every story, but I remember reading a book where the two main characters didn't meet until halfway through the book and I thought, no, this doesn't work.

  2. Jody,

    A great post. Thanks for the reminder.

    As writers, we all too often fall victim to fear and then let it determine what we do with our writing talents.

    Fears about inadequacy are a constant companion. They periodically raise their heads throughout the writing process--sometimes even after a first draft is successfully completed. They always say the same thing.

    "This is trash. Who do you think you are, trying to be a writer?"

    Fortunately, the tips you shared in this post work at all stages of the writing process.

    Thanks again and best wishes,


  3. I'll admit that I am plagued by this pretty badly. However, I have found something that works for me. I pick a scene from the book that I have already planned out (no matter where in the story it is) and write THAT- then I go from there.

  4. Great advice, Jody! I especially loved this:

    "You don't have to know where you're going next. You don't need to have everything figured out. Just start putting words down. Say anything, even if it seems stupid..."

    I used to be frozen by the desire to get everything planned out perfectly before I started writing. I'm still a planner, but I've learned that there comes a point when I just have to make myself sit down and write. Usually most of the "tangles" work themselves out as I write. The ones that don't, I take care of during the revision process.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  5. Hey, Jody! Your point 2 is the best one. First Chapter Fear is just another form or Writer's Block, and the only way to counter it is to put something -- anything! -- down on the page. You can always fix it later, but you can't fix a blank. And sometimes the BLEAH! you put down sparks an idea that takes you somewhere you didn't expect, but that turns out pretty cool!


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