“I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.” Stephen King
Clearly, if Stephen King still suffers from fear of failure, then it will never go away and we're all in good company!
Fears are generally about yourself or about how others will receive your work.
This is an excerpt from The Successful Author Mindset. Available now in ebook, print and audiobook formats.
Here are some of the fears and thoughts that might come up around failure.
- I can't finish writing this book. I'm a failure before I've even started
- I finished my book, but I've failed to make it live up to what I wanted it to be
- I've failed to get an agent or a publisher
- What if no one buys my book and it fails to sell?
- What if my book gets terrible reviews?
- What if my friends and family hate it, or are offended or angry?
- What if it makes no money and I've wasted all this time and energy on something pointless?
Your definition of failure will also depend on what your goals are.
As your career develops, the stakes may be higher, but equally the sense of failure can be deeper. I know authors who have had multi-six-figure publishing deals and then have felt a failure when the book didn't sell well enough to justify that advance. Others that had movie deals where the movie was never made, or even worse, was a flop.
A new writer on their first book might consider getting any advance or even just a movie option to be fantastic, but our definition of success changes over time and so does the perception of what constitutes failure.
So what does this fear feel like?
The physical experience of fear hasn't changed since we were running away from predators and living in caves. Of course, if we ‘fail' as writers, no one's going to die, but that doesn't change the physical manifestation of fear or anxiety.Here's one of my own examples from public speaking, something that authors often have to do as they become more successful, and which is a very common fear around failure. Ultimately, you feel you might ‘fail' because you won't be able to speak, or you'll make a mistake and people will think you're an idiot, or they will laugh (at you, rather than with you!)
“I was about to speak to over 300 people in a venue that was new to me, and there were people in the audience that I wanted to impress. Ten minutes before my talk, I went to the bathroom for the third time, my stomach churning. I took a couple of painkillers to stop the stress headache getting worse. I sprayed on extra deodorant, as I was sweating more than is considered lady-like. My mouth was dry so I kept sipping water, exacerbating the need for the bathroom. My heart pounded in my chest as I redid my makeup. I took some deep breaths and walked back to the conference center, singing in my head to psyche myself up. I smiled and walked up on stage.”
I am pretty confident these days speaking as a non-fiction author, but ask me to read a passage of my own fiction aloud and I crumble. I still tend to refuse, as the fear is so great, something I need to tackle as my own career progresses.
The physical experience of fear or chronic anxiety can include:
- Stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and frequent urination
- Excess sweating
- Heart thumping and pulse pounding, vision may narrow
- Headache, feeling faint, shortness of breath
- Problems sleeping, repetitive negative thoughts
Not a lot of fun!
If you're getting these symptoms all the time, then definitely see a professional. But if you experience them as part of your author journey when you come up against situations you fear, I'd say this is entirely normal.
Some anxiety is a reality in any part of life, and so you have to find ways to deal with it.
The experience of fear is often worse than the actual event and if you are never afraid as a writer, then you are never challenging yourself. No one will die because you received a scathing review, or the only person who reads your book is your Mum, or you speak at a festival and people walk out.
Think about the reward beyond the fear.
People might love your book. You attract new readers. You get paid for your creativity. Awesome!
It's also a good idea to reframe the fear. Because, actually, no one really cares what you're up to. People are bound up in their own worlds and the gossip will move on within a few days, whatever happens.
You can't expect the writer's journey to always be trending up. Like life in general, there will be highs and lows, failures and successes.
Get past the fear and back to the writing.
“You only fail if you stop writing.” Ray Bradbury