How long have you been thinking about writing a novel?
For many writers, it’s been years, perhaps even as long as they can remember.
Why haven’t you written your novel yet? Or, if you started once, why didn’t you finish?
What stopped you before — and how can you break through that barrier now?
[This is an excerpt from How to Write a Novel by Joanna Penn, available in ebook, audiobook, paperback, hardback and workbook editions.]
Here are some common reasons:
- I’m overwhelmed with too much information. It’s too complicated.
- I don’t know enough. I don’t know where to start.
- I don’t have enough time. There are always more important things to do.
- I’m worried that I might not be good enough. What if my writing is terrible?
- What if I fail? I’m going to look really stupid and I’ll be embarrassed.
- It might be a waste of time.
- I don’t have any ideas.
- I have too many ideas.
- I want to write something but I don’t know what.
- I got lost in the plot, and couldn’t turn my thoughts into words.
- I have a terrible draft, but I don’t know how to finish.
- Someone told me my writing was terrible (a teacher, an editor, a friend, a loved one) and I can’t get past that.
- I keep starting and then running out of steam, so I never finish.
Whatever you’re feeling, you’re the only one who can work through the obstacles and shift your mindset.
You have to want to write your novel.
You have to be determined to finish it.
It’s time to overcome those issues and make it happen.
The rest of How to Write a Novel will help with the practical side, but let’s tackle some of the possible barriers right now.
“I don’t have the time.”
The COVID-19 pandemic changed so much for so many and reminded us all that life is short.
Memento mori. Remember, you will die.
If you don’t write your novel, will you regret it?
If yes, then make the time.
“There are years that ask the question and years that answer.” —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
For more practical tips, check out Productivity for Authors: Find Time to Write, Organize Your Author Life, and Decide What Really Matters.
Self-doubt and ‘comparisonitis’
Self-doubt is part of the creative process. Most of us think our writing is terrible at some point, and most of us compare ourselves to successful writers and find ourselves wanting.
In my early years of fiction writing, I attended ThrillerFest in New York and listened to a panel with some of the biggest names in the thriller genre. Lee Child, of Jack Reacher fame; David Morrell, who wrote First Blood, which became Rambo; action-adventure writer Clive Cussler; R.L. Stine, who has sold over 400 million books; romantic suspense mega-bestseller Sandra Brown; and others. All of them career authors with decades of experience, and all multi-New York Times bestsellers.
Someone in the audience stood up and said, “I feel like my story is no good. How can I get over that?”
All the writers on the panel nodded and said a variation of, “Every time I write something, I think it’s a pile of crap. Every time I put a book out, I wonder whether this time they’ll find out that I am some kind of fraud.”
All writers experience the cycle of self-doubt, but the successful ones learn to live with it. Career authors understand it’s part of the creative process and don’t let it get in the way of writing and finishing their books.
“Bad writers tend to have self-confidence while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.” —Charles Bukowski
Fear of failure
Fear comes from that ancient part of the brain that protects us from lions and bears and physical violence, but also from the things that might harm us psychologically. If we avoid them all, we will never be hurt.
Fear around writing can feel just as serious as any other kind of fear, but you have to decide whether it’s worth facing.
What is failure for you?
Not finishing the book? Not getting an agent or a publisher? Self-publishing and not selling anything? Getting bad reviews?
You don’t have to face any of these if you don’t write. Only you can make that choice.
“The life creative is never—ever—lived without frightening, intoxicating risk.”—David duChemin, A Beautiful Anarchy
Fear of judgment
What will people think of me if I write this?
Will they hate me? Or think I’m weird, or disturbed? Will they cast me out and say horrible things about me? Will I get reviews that will break my heart?
This is definitely something that comes up for me, and it results in self-censorship because you will struggle to write what you really want to write.
It took me four novels to stop self-censoring. Desecration was my fifth novel, and it’s the one that reveals a side of me I had kept hidden until then. It released me.
It takes time to chip away at the layers we protect ourselves with.
But that’s okay.
The writing process works its magic — word after word, day after day.
How can you tackle these fears?
You can prevent the fear of writing something terrible from becoming a reality by improving your craft and using a rigorous editorial process. But you also need to accept that fear is part of the creative journey. If you don’t feel it, perhaps you’re not writing what’s truly on your heart.
You can also write under another name if that helps. I love writing fiction under J.F. Penn, although it is hardly a pseudonym. It’s pretty obvious that it’s me, but it separates my self-help, upbeat, positive side from my darker, more contemplative novelist persona. Using a different name might help you manage the fear of judgment; it’s a common approach adopted by many authors.
You can find more help in my book, The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey.
Questions for you to consider — feel free to leave a comment below
- How long have you been thinking about writing a novel?
- Why haven’t you written your novel before? Or, if you started, why didn’t you finish? What stopped you — and how can you break through that barrier now?
- Are you going to finish the novel this time?
[This article is an excerpt from How to Write a Novel by Joanna Penn, available in ebook, audiobook, paperback, hardback and workbook editions.]
Top image generated by Joanna Penn on Midjourney.