Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fear of Finishing

There are lots of different kinds of fear. Some are obvious and visceral (like spiders) others are more subtle. One of the craftiest fears I've come across in my own writing experience is the fear of finishing. This is different then fear of success (that's a whole different can of worms).

Fear of finishing begins for me in two different places in my writing process. The first is near the end of the first draft. I'm coming up to the climax. I know exactly what to do and where to go. And my writing drops to a crawl. 50 words one day. 100 the next. 20 the day after that.

Why? It's not writer's block. I know what to write. I can see all the way to the end. At first I tried to tell myself I just loved the story so much that I didn't want to stop writing it. I was lingering in the story like two lovers unwilling to part.

That's a bunch of $&#@.

I was afraid. If I finished the story then I would have to actually look at it and see if it was any good. Even if I think it's a good story, there's always that little voice in the back of my head that says that I'm just fooling myself. The story actually sucks and I'm one of those poor schmucks that just can't tell that they're writing is rubbish.

But(!) if I never finish that first draft, then I don't have to look back over what I've written. And even if I do I can justify any bad parts that I find because "I'm still working on it". You don't judge a sculpture before it's done, so I don't have to really look at this until it's done... which will be never if I'm not careful.

The second time I'm struck with fear of finishing is after I've trudged through the desolate mire of rewrites. I'm going over the whole book with a fine toothed, adverb sensitive, comb. I've rooted out all the flat parts, killed my darlings and fleshed out my characters nicely. I'm almost done... and it strikes again. There’s just one more thing that needs fixed. One more check through that I need to do. When people ask if I'm done I can tell them "Almost, but I need to fix one more thing...". And even if I do let someone see it, if they don't like something about it I can pull out my shield of "Well, I'm not quite done with it. I was going to fix that part."

It's a cheep excuse, but one that is easier to cling to then facing the fact that maybe someone wont like what I've written. Maybe I've made a mistake. Maybe I'll fail.

But(!) if I keep finding one more thing, if I keep stalling and putting off then I'll never have to face rejection.

The problem: if you never take the chance at being rejected, you will never be accepted. The fear of finishing is really the fear of messing up, the fear of someone not liking our story (and, in extension, us).
"It's better to hide." The fear it will tell you. Better to wallow in unfinished pages. "It's too dangerous out there. Don't even try. You'll regret it."

The thing is, that's a lie. I've spent months (if not years) stuck in an "almost finished" Purgatory. I will argue that it's worse then out right rejection. The fear will latch on to you, sucking with a thousand tiny mouths until it drains you of all the confidence you had or will have. Then you become susceptible to the bigger lies.
"This really does suck."
"It's not worth it. Just toss it in the corner and forget you ever tried."
"You’re always going to fail. Go back you your grey little life and never try to achieve anything ever again."

The only way to break this cycle is to face our fear head on. Face it down, open the curtains and let in the sun. I won’t say that facing the fear will make it go away. It won’t. It will growl and bare its teeth and you'll have to hit it over the head with a stick. But that is the only way to break free. You have to put yourself out there. Take some of the blows. It's the only way that you will ever reach any kind of success. Any kind of completion.

Once you break free of that fear for the first time it's like seeing the sun after a cold dark winter. The first time someone says they really enjoyed reading your story. The first good review (from someone who isn't blood related). Then you understand that all that pain of pushing through the fear was worth it. And all that hiding you did was really killing you.

Now all that being said, there is wisdom to getting your story the best it can be before sending it out to the world, but make sure you are really bettering the book and not just stalling. If you catch yourself saying things like "Just one more rewrite" or "Just one last thing needs fixed." Think back, have you said that before? If so then you're stalling and letting the fear win. Set yourself a deadline and stick to it. Tell a friend and make yourself accountable to them. Then when the time comes, send your story out. Be brave. Don't back down.

There is a sun above the clouds if we can just push our way through the storm.

Stock photos: hisks, robby_m - sxc.com


  1. Great post, Griffin! I agree with it all. It also helps me when I realize that there will be people who don't like my book. That's okay. Others will. :)

  2. Great post. I know a few writers who let the fear consume them. It is horribl when it happens. Look forward to more posts!

  3. Yeah! Just what I needed to hear today. I just sent in a full request only to find out that the editor has left the company. I was actually relieved because that means I can go back and do more stuff to the manuscript, only to get stuck in exactly the situation you're describing.

  4. Thanks guys! Glad it helped you :-)

    @ RebeccaZ - What? There are crazy people who DON'T like your book!? How could they? :-O