Being a writer is scary.
What? you say. All you do is sit in front of a computer and type out a story. What’s scary about that?
It’s because of the Monster. Let me take you on a little trip behind the scenes.
Let’s say I have an idea for a story. I make notes, think about it, dream about it, talk it over with Bobby and with fellow writers, until the idea is solid enough to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Only then do I sit and start to write.
I get wrapped up in this story. The characters become real to me. Their progress and success—or failure—matters to me. I care about them and what happens to them. That’s my job, because if they aren’t real to me, they won’t be real for you. I know what each character looks like, what food they like for breakfast, what their quirks are, their strengths and weaknesses, what kind of shoes they prefer, whether they have family and what those relationships are like or how they’ve shaped the character’s present and personality. I must know as much about them as I can so that I can bring them to life on every page.
In this first draft, the world in which the story takes place may be flat, or colorless, or uninteresting, as long as the main thread of the story is captured accurately. If my story is flash fiction, I might finish it in a day or two. If it’s a short story, I might be finished in a week or two. If it’s longer, or if it’s a novel, it could take weeks or months. (I’m not counting NaNoWriMo, where writers push themselves to write 50K words in 30 days.)
At this point, I’ve invested hours and hours of time into these characters, this world, this story. Once it’s done, I let it sit for a few weeks to “cool off.” When I pick it up again to re-read it, the narrative should be fresh to me, so that I can see it with clear eyes. In this second run, I add details, character nuances, world descriptions, enough to fill my reader’s senses. I mark errors or plot holes for later revision. I subtract things like bits of dialogue or narrative that don’t actively feed the story in some way or details that conflict with how a character would look/act/speak/think. I read it through once more, give it one more polish, then I sit it aside for a few more weeks.
After a third read-through in which I tweak any remaining glitches, I reach out to my beta readers for their input because by this point, I can no longer see the story objectively. I can almost quote the first line of every chapter or tell where you are in reading the draft just by having you quote a single line of narrative to me. It needs fresh eyes. I give them a reasonable timeframe to read and make comments, and a deadline when I need it back. Then I move on to something else and try not to obsess about how my baby is faring in the hands of others.
By the time I get the beta copies back with input, I’ve gained a little distance and can read their comments without crying (mostly). But I listen/see every suggestion, every “correction,” every comment, and consider them all. And after I give myself a week or so to let them settle in my brain and see all the connections between what I’m trying to achieve with the story and what they actually got from the story, I’m ready to make semi-final edits. After another round of this, and a “final” proofing/editorial overview, the book is ready to either query or self-publish.
How long did this take?
That depends on the writer. Some take years to bring a book to market, while others write and publish multiple books each year. The point is not so much the time (though that does factor in, too), but the quantity of *me* that goes into each work. Whether it’s flash fiction, short story, novelette/novella, or full-length novel, I’ve sweated over every work-in-progress. I’ve bled my soul and my heart into each one. I’ve wept for those characters, or celebrated with them, felt their pain and their joy as if they are real. Because to me, they are.
Where is the fear in all this, you ask? Where is the monster?
That comes next. When I send my baby out into the world to try and find an agent or publisher or short-story market that will love my baby as much as I did, and who will want to give it the best placement they can. This is when the monster awakens and begins to nibble my toes, its fangs filled with noxious uncertainty that can, if left unchecked, cripple a writer. Because even if every literary agent in the world represented my genre (they don’t), their numbers are finite. We writers, on the other hand, are not. We multiply, and multiply, and each of us writes story after story after story because we can’t not write. Sending a manuscript out into the querying/publishing world is a leap of faith. Scratch that—writing a book at all is a leap of faith. Trying to find just the right agent or publisher is, for some of us, like trying to hit a one-inch bullseye on a target ten miles away. (Or at least, it feels that way.) Most of us get only rejection after rejection, or (worse) no response at all, which only feeds the monster.
After working in the writing community for a few years, I know this is to be expected. It’s part of the writing/querying ouroboros that every writer taking a traditional publishing route knows all too well.
So? you say. Self-publish the darned thing if you want it to get out there so badly.
Okay. Let’s look at that option.
Where do I even begin the learning process for something about which I don’t even know what I don’t know? The monster whispers doubts ‘neath my desk, like what if I do all this research, learn to self-publish, pick a format, and draw up a plan, and the book comes out and is now available for sale—how do I get it in front of the people who will want to read it? Marketing is yet another whole new learning curve. Standing in that daunting shadow when I don’t even know what shape a marketing plan will take is intimidating, to say the least. By now, the monster is big enough to bump its back against the underside of my desk.
I am fully aware that there are tons of blogs and podcasts and online classes to help me learn all this. And I have complete faith that I can and will learn and do it successfully, even while I tremble in the face of this seemingly overwhelming task I’ve taken on. (How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.)
Still, the monster points out all the ways my plan could go wrong, reminding me that even if I do everything right, I’m taking a risk. What if no one likes my book? What if every review is a horrid, one-star thing consisting of two words: “Don’t bother”?
I know. I know I’m being ridiculous. But this monster, composed of fear and doubt with a huge dollop of imposter syndrome, lurks under my desk, emerging to loom over my keyboard every time I write, its insidious subversions biting at my confidence whenever I dare to feel brave. And I’m not alone; these are worries that many writers, especially new ones, will recognize. We pour our hearts and souls into these creations and hang our spirits on their outcomes. The fear of being shredded in the process is very real.
I’ve just finished the first draft on another manuscript as part of the 2021 NaNoWriMo drive—drafted 57K words in 30 days and went on to add another 23K in the following 11 days—and that book is now in its initial cooling-off phase. Believe me, there was smoke coming off the pages by the time I typed “The End.” This will be the third book in a trilogy I started in 2008. Yep. Thirteen years ago. I penned another novel manuscript (during 2019’s NaNoWriMo) which is unrelated to this series. I’m still querying that project, though since it’s about a pandemic (you read that correctly; I wrote a novel about a pandemic two months before we had a real one), I’m not getting many nibbles from the queries I’ve sent out. The monster has a lot of opinions on why. Even though I’ve managed to publish a handful of short stories since 2018, it’s hard to not be afraid of rejection.
I plan to self-publish this trilogy, and maybe even my pandemic story (which I believe would find a great readership, if I can ever get it out there), despite the monster and that frightening mountain of Things I Don’t Know about how to make that happen. Because if I don’t, those characters I love so much may never see the light of day. And maybe that is the biggest fear of all.
So, the next time you see the writer in your life—whether it’s a loved one, a close friend, an acquaintance, or someone you meet at a book-signing—remember what they went through to produce that work. It was so much more than just typing words on a page.