Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Fear Not! by Jess Riley

This posting cycle’s theme is “transitions,” and my first instinct was to write about the tectonic shift reading and the publishing industry as a whole is experiencing. Because it’s a hell of a transition! But then I remembered one of the writing rules I try to stick to—don’t always go with your first instinct. So, inspired by the fact that my favorite holiday is just around the bend, I’m going to write about fear.

No, not the Lily Allen song, though it is a good one.

What are your characters afraid of? What are they running from, chasing, wanting more than anything in the world? What are they terrified of losing? Of gaining? Fearful characters are fun to read about because they panic, they make bad decisions, and we lose ourselves in another world worrying about what’s going to happen to them next (because it’s not happening to us).

And what are YOU, the writer, most afraid of? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the blank page pretty intimidating from time to time. But don’t be afraid—remember what Anne Lamott said about shitty first drafts, and give yourself permission to write the most horrific, soul-curdling, spine-tingling first draft in the history of the world.  Your first pass doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, if you think it is, it probably isn’t, so find someone who won’t blow smoke up your ass to help you turn that accidental nightmare into a dream.

Even when you have a finished, polished manuscript, the fear can still be paralyzing. What if you sign with a bad agent? What if he or she can’t sell it? If it sells, what if you’re orphaned or the publicist forgets to send out your ARCs? If it isn't selling, how do you know when to release it yourself? (And what if you screw THAT up?) What if people hate it, give you all one star reviews, what if Michiko Kakutani sues you for emotional and mental distress, what if your family disowns you or begins referring to you as She Who Shall Not Be Named? Or worse—what if nobody notices at all?

(Um, it’s important to mention here that these are just examples. Maybe. )

Okay. Take a deep breath. Step away from the chocolate-covered potato chips. Or not. Now that we’ve laid out the worst case scenario, remember: it’ll never be as bad as you can imagine.  A little bit of fear can be healthy, but too much and you’d never leave the house. You’d never crack that blank page, push through the gritty middle, or give your characters any resolution at the end (and THEY’D be living in perpetual fear on those pages….which sounds like an interesting concept, actually).

So, fear. Flip it the bird. Beat it into submission. Own it. Embrace it, make it work for you, raise a glass to it. May I suggest the following classy beverage dispensing system?

Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways and the forthcoming All the Lonely People, which wasn't that scary to write.


  1. Jess, I love Halloween, too. It's interesting the parallels between a writer's fear and giving our characters fear. As writers WE have to overcome and change sometimes, too, including letting the fear take a holiday at so many steps in our journey to publication and beyond. They say, "have a thick skin," but it's always easier telling someone else that than when it's our OWN skin. :) And those beverage dispensers rock.

  2. Thanks, Malena! Channeling our own fear into our characters' situations is definitely the way to go. Now if I could just figure out the formula to make it stick every time. :)

  3. Loved the beverage dispensers, Jess, and your post as well ;). I wish fear weren't such a huge part of the writing experience but, you're right, sometimes we just need to push through it... Congrats on your upcoming release, too!

  4. Yes! I definitely know all those fears you mentioned! I think writing is a scarier-than-usual profession because there are so few guarantees. It's what makes the highs so high and the lows so prevalent (and low).

    Great point, too, about figuring out what your characters fear and exploiting it - for good, of course! It really gives you so much room to torture them and make them grow, doesn't it?