The secrets to overcoming fear so you can write your novel

We’ve all been there. You’re staring at a blank screen, your cursor blinking mockingly, as you struggle to convert the story in your head into engaging, eye-opening, heart-pounding literature. But nothing happens. How do you make the words flow?

We’re going to let you in on a little secret.

At the core of writer’s block is fear. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s hard to know where to begin because you can’t shake that worry of what if this sucks? It can feel like the entire world is watching over your shoulder, itching to judge you if you write something cheesy. 

Those of us who spend too much time on the Internet may experience this on an even deeper level. We’re so used to comment sections filled with disapproval and mockery—not to mention comedy that is entirely based on making fun of people’s honest intents to follow their passions. 

It’s hard to get out of that mindset, but while you’re in it, it’s impossible to write. Everything seems wrong and bad because, well, all we experience is people complaining that things are wrong and bad.

How can you write freely with all that weighing on your shoulders?

First, get some privacy

Remind yourself that no one else has to see your first draft. It’s only for you. Lock it away in a drawer or protect the file with a password if you have to. The important thing here is to convince yourself that no one is judging you. 

But what if you’re the one judging yourself? What if you’ve internalized all that negativity and now you’re stopping yourself before you start?

There’s a trick to unlocking that too. Think of the worst book you’ve ever read. Really think about how much you hated it. Crappy characterizations, convenient plot twists, clunky writing… and that still got published. Your book can’t possibly be worse than that. If that author could attain success, then so can you.

Still feel awkward? Okay. It might be time to step back from the sources of unhelpful criticism in your life.

Next, ditch your standards 

Criticism is only constructive if it points you toward steps to improve. It’s not supposed to shut you down entirely. As The Oatmeal said, “Art is not born in a vacuum but it’s not born inside a tornado full of shrieking trolls either.” It may help to steer clear of comment sections and comedy videos that are based entirely around dragging down other people’s artistic attempts. 

Surround yourself with positivity you find sincere. See if you’re inspired by upbeat music or the kind words of friends or an anime character insisting they’ll never give up. Positivity exists in the world. Find it. Then go write.

Remember, what you’re creating now is only a first draft. It’s okay if it’s not perfect. Don’t expect it to be. As Salvador Dali said, “have no fear of perfection, you will never reach it.”

So don’t hold yourself up to impossible standards. They’re not pushing you to be better; they’re stopping you from starting. Concise advice from cartoonist and author James Thurber: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” 

So have at it. If you like what you wrote, great, you can polish it in the future drafts. If you hate it, you can use the editing phase to transform it into something else. But you can’t work with a blank page, so put some words on it.

If that doesn't work, block out the fear with timed writing

When spec fic writer Ray Bradbury was just starting out, he had to rent time on a library typewriter. That meant whenever he was stuck staring at the keys, he was losing money—a true horror for any starving artist. Bradbury used that stress as motivation to write, write, write. 

So if the positivity pull factors don’t work for you, try a push factor. Use something like timed writing (or Write Or Die, if you’re hardcore) . Whatever it takes, get it done. Focus on the doing, not on the thinking, so upsetting thoughts can’t sneak in. And it’s okay if your draft sucks—that’s what editing is for.

That method must have helped Bradbury quite a bit because, well, look at his writing career. But also, he’s known for this profound but simple writing advice: Rather than trying to write a whole novel your first time out, just write a short story.

Write one per week, and at the end of a year, you’ll have fifty-two short stories. After a year of novel writing, you’d have one story, and it probably wouldn’t be that good, but after a year of short fiction, you’re bound to have some gems.

Whatever it takes, just get it done. Don’t give insecurity the chance to drag you down.

Finally, write for yourself

It can also help, as you’re writing, to remember your first audience. That is, yourself. You’re not writing a first draft to appease anyone else—not your critics, not your fans, not the horrifying void that is being an unknown on the Internet. Those are all challenges to face later in the game. Right now, you are your only audience. 

Let that be your guiding star.

Think about why you’re writing this story in the first place. Do this for the character, or for the world you’re exploring, or for the core truth you need to speak. There’s a reason you want to write this book. Let that fuel you. 

Children’s author Judy Blume said of being your first audience, “when I’m writing a book, you can’t think about your [public] audience. You’re going to be in big trouble if you think about it. You’ve got to write from deep inside.”

Writing for yourself first is the key to authenticity—and to breaking through writer’s block. So do it. Jump in. After all, take it from someone who knows what’s scary. As horror master Stephen King says, “the scariest moment is always just before you start.”

If you’re past the fear, Writer’s Block can also be your subconscious telling you you’ve made a mistake somewhere in your story.

Try The Smash Writer’s Block deck to uncover what went wrong and get your story back on track.