On Writing,  publishing

Official Approval Fear

Did I Get it Right?…

What a stupid, silly, useless question when it comes to writing stories.

And yet…

That one question covers some of the largest fears that fiction writers have. I got some of these expressed in the questions from last week. Thanks everyone.

So let me see if I can make some sense out of all this…

—Wondering if they got it right (fearing that they didn’t) makes beginning writers often spend thousands on book doctors or some other editor term, almost always from a person who has never published a word.

—Wondering if they got it right (fearing that they didn’t) makes beginning writers rewrite the same thing over and over and over even though they don’t know any more about what works the fifth time through as the first time.

—Wondering if they got it right (fearing that they didn’t) makes beginning writers listen to people who pretend to know what they are doing yet have never published a thing. You know: English teachers and peer workshops.

—Wondering if they got it right (fearing that they didn’t) makes beginning writers think that selling all rights to some publisher and being taken care of by a publisher and an agent is better than learning the business and keeping control of their own work.

What Exactly is the Fear?

Every day in this world people face all sorts of horrors, from war to hunger to tragic death. And everything else you can imagine. It’s a pretty  nasty world out there right now.

But not one writer has ever been able to explain to me why made-up fear works so powerfully in fiction writers. (And please don’t try because you will only be making excuses for your own fears and I have honestly heard them all.)

Let me be blunt: If you write a short story or novel that doesn’t work, no one will come to your home and shoot you. No one will take your family away. No one will torture you or even take your money or your home.

If you write a story that doesn’t work, nothing will happen. NOTHING.

No one will buy it, no one will laugh because no one will have read it. (Readers are not stupid. They rarely spend money for stories that don’t work. And if they do, they just don’t finish them and move on.)

So in other words, no one will care.

Once you get past your ego and realize that one fact, you will be free.


Completely free from all of these fears about writing I mentioned above and many more.

Of course, if you feel like that if you practice and end up writing a novel or story that doesn’t sell, you have wasted your time, then you have other issues. Other major issues.

Number one, you don’t understand practice. Number two, your stories are too “special” and if you keep that up, you will grind to a halt quickly.

Some Personal Information

I used to have all the fears, for the seven years I was lost in rewriting and not selling. I used to think my stories needed to be polished, even though now looking  back, I just laugh because I didn’t know anything about storytelling.

But I thought I did, damn it.

Yup, just like every other beginning writer. I thought I knew, yet at the same time needed the feedback, the pat on the head, the feeling that after five rewrites I was getting closer to the true story.

During those seven years I was deathly afraid of sending out a bad story. I have no idea what I was afraid of, but it worked and kept me from sending out much of anything.

When I adopted Heinlein’s Rules, I also adopted the attitude that I would believe every story I sent out sucked.  I decided to leave it up to the editors and readers to tell me the truth with their money.

Now, forty years later, I have put out there on the market upwards of 600 plus short stories, over three hundred, maybe four hundred have been published. But those other two hundred… well… I’m still here and not one of those stories ever came and shot me.

Anyone out there remember any of those bad stories I wrote and never sold?

Of course not. Shows how silly that fear is.

I have written and published now well over 150 novels and over 200 books with name or pen name on the cover. Some of those media novels sucked. In fact, one book in the game Unearth has half of my book mixed up with another writer’s book. It is unreadable. And it has my real name on it.

Did it kill my career, did I get tossed in jail for writing such a stinker? Nope, I’m still here. Because no one read that book, or the book I wrote for the horrid Madonna movie. Or a couple of the ghost novels I wrote.

If some poor reader was unlucky enough to try to read any of them, they quickly forgot them because the story didn’t work. Especially the one with all the chapters mixed with another writer’s book.

I trust my readers.

Let me be blunt: Beginning writers are always worried about hurting their careers, their reputations, when the truth is they have no career or reputation.

So how do you stop the fear?

You are human. You don’t.

But you give it no power by understanding it is not a real fear.

And you work at replacing the fear with belief.

A simple belief…

Right now you are best writer you can be at this point in time.

Believe that, keep practicing and sending your work out, keep learning everything you can learn.

Understand that the more you write, the more you learn, the better you will become.

But right now you are the best writer you can be.

And that will be better than the writer you were a year ago, if you are doing things right and writing and learning.

And it won’t be as good as you will be in a year if you keep learning and practicing.

Imagine how much more you will know and how much better a storyteller you will be in forty years…

My suggestions to control this fear…

Step One: Keep EVERYONE out of your writing. 

Maybe have one first reader to help you find typos and such, and a copyeditor for typos after it is ready to go to print. But DO NOT let them touch your writing, your story. Get militant about it.

Get angry about it. It is your writing, DEFEND IT.

Step Two: Keep EVERYONE out of your writing. 

Do not read reviews, do not ask some book doctor for advice. Do not ask fans for feedback.

Learn craft and business, but only take in what sounds right to you and ignore all the rest.

Step Three: Keep EVERYONE out of your writing.

And that includes your critical voice. Write the story or novel from the creative voice, cycling, writing clean, fixing mistakes as you go along, so that when your creative voice is done at the end, the book is done.

Then tell your critical voice to leave it the hell alone and get it out to readers.

The fear in writing, all fears in writing, are fake fears, designed to stop us from writing. Keep learning, believe in where you are at with your writing at the moment, and let it fly.

And without fear, trust me, telling stories is a ton more fun.


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  • Victoria Goddard

    The way you said this reminded me of a discovery I made in my twenties about feeling appropriately dressed for occasions–another stupid thing I used to worry about. I realized that I wasn’t worried about my close friends, precisely because they were my close friends, and I wasn’t worried about total strangers, precisely because they were total strangers.

    No, I was worried about my acquaintances. They’re the people you see often enough to recognize, but who don’t actually know you, and who therefore are the ones most likely to be judging based off of appearances and individual acts or events. People you work with, or study with, or see regularly for one reason or another that is separate from being friends.

    I think the fear of failing as a writer is (for me at least) very similar. I’m not very worried about what my friends think; they know I am working on my craft, that I do not think this is the be-all and end-all of my existence, and they are gentle because they also know that I care very deeply about my stories and my work. I’m not very worried about what total strangers think, just honoured if they happen to read my stories (and utterly delighted if they happen to be the right audience for them). But I do occasionally find myself worrying about what my parents’ friends, or my old university colleagues, or customers at my day job, or people I know through community activity, think about my books. Especially since most people do not read my type of fantasy, and so have no idea of the genre conventions or expectations or my audience.

    Identifying the fear has helped me to take action. If I have done my best, and am happy with the book representing where I am right now (something that took me a while to get to), and am moving forward, then I can look them in the eye and no longer fear their judgment and social humiliation for putting out a flop, whether in their eyes or anyone else’s.

    It also helped when it occurred to me that the reason an acquaintance might go look at my book is (a) they like the sound of the book itself, (b) they think it’s really cool that someone they know has written a book, (c) they want to support me, (d) they’re curious. They are not in fact going out to judge my soul and find it wanting because there is a typo, which is what it sometimes feels like.

    • Corrie

      Wow, is this ever the truth. I hadn’t articulated it so clearly, but it is entirely my acquaintances that fuel my stupid “But what’ll they think?” fears. Close friends and strangers are fine. Human pride is such a weird thing.

  • Kristi N.

    Fear is strong because we are unconsciously practicing being afraid and being a failure. When we get into a new situation or learn a new skill, do we remember how we aced something? Nope. We remember how we failed. One of the tricks to combat this is to be consciously aware when we are afraid or worried about failure. Stop. Trace it back to the source. Replace it with the memory of a success. Build that memory with all five senses–the more realistic you can make it, the stronger it becomes. It doesn\’t matter what the memory is. It could be a bunt laid down in front of home plate, or a home made jump cleared with your bike or a highest score on a test or even a tied shoelace–anything where you felt the exhilaration of succeeding deep in your bones. Keep substituting that memory and soon you will fall out of practice of fearing and worrying. Will you still fear? Yes, but it won\’t have the same power over you because you\’re no longer quite so good at it. Practice the good, not the bad. Practice who you want to be, not who you are afraid of becoming.

  • Marion

    This paragraph speaks volumes: “Let me be blunt: If you write a short story or novel that doesn’t work, no one will come to your home and shoot you. No one will take your family away. No one will torture you or even take your money or your home.

    If you write a story that doesn’t work, nothing will happen. NOTHING.

    No one will buy it, no one will laugh because no one will have read it. (Readers are not stupid. They rarely spend money for stories that don’t work. And if they do, they just don’t finish them and move on.)”

    And this will be placed in my office. Thank you, Dean.

  • Rob Cornell

    There is possible cure (or training wheels, maybe) for getting through these fears. I’m still contemplating it for myself.

    Pen name.

    You have nothing to lose under a pen name. You can write all the horrible crap you think you’re writing (even though it probably isn’t) and publish it under a pen name. The erotica writers do this (for different reasons, but the concept is the same). You can write and release without a single thought.

    Now, technically, I write under a pen name, but it has pretty much become the name I use everywhere except when signing checks or filling out tax forms. And I have books that sell moderately well under this name. So I’ve been falling for these fears all over again lately. After all, I have a “reputation” to protect (ha, ha)!

    So I’m thinking about writing a bunch of stuff under a name no one has heard about. Then not even worry about any of it. I’ll still write under my current name, but maybe some of the fearlessness from the pen name will leak over into my main name.

    Or do you think this would just be a crutch and not work in the long run?

    • dwsmith

      Rob, you stated the key… you have nothing to lose under your own name. So why bother with a pen name if you don’t have to beyond real world issues of you being a doctor or something.

      The fear of loss, which is all bogus in fiction writing, is where the problem lies. When you ask yourself what you really could lose, the problems just sort of wash away because the answer is always nothing.

      As the old cliche has said a billion times… You never lose by doing, you only lose by not doing.

  • Isabo Kelly

    Really been enjoying all these posts, Dean. Thanks!

    The link between these irrational fears and making the writing special seems pretty strong. I know when I stopped making each new book, each new release a big deal, I dumped a lot of my “did I get it right” fears (as an overachieving teenager I had the did-i-get-it-right problem deeply ingrained; still struggle with it and not just with writing).

    It also seems like the traditional publishing industry feeds these fears–first by making a release “special” because if the book doesn’t do well (according do some arbitrary bean counters estimation of what “good” is) in the 1st month it’s considered a flop, and then the practice of cutting or not contracting writers whose numbers aren’t “good enough” (I ran into that problem personally). This gives fodder to a writer to think their entire career lives or dies with each release. You’ve proven it’s a silly idea, but a lot of writers without your years of industry experience still seem mired in that thinking. Even if they’re indie and don’t need to worry about “being contracted”. I’ve seen published writers pass that fear on to new writers when talking industry stuff, too. Maybe that’s part of why it’s such a hard fear to dump even though it is ridiculous.

    Just a thought. Thanks again for all these posts!

  • Anthony St. Clair

    Hell yes. As my own process evolves i am thinking about this a lot. I have some feedback loops and have been grateful–they caught dumb crap I missed, but with each story there’s been less of that.

    I would add one other thing, but it’s for the writer. It doesn’t always have to matter, and it doesn’t have to be asked.

    Instead of the writer asking if they got it right, I ask myself one thing: does this do what I wanted it to do?

    They could be emotion conveyed or story arc or whatever. For me, when I plan out a book I also plan out what that story means to me in one sentence and one word. I set up each part of the book to work toward that. When I finish the rough draft, I see more and more that I care only about whether or not I believe the story accomplished what I wanted it to. If the story is true to that intent I boiled down at the outset, then we’re good to go. Copy edit, proof, format, go.

    My hunch is that each completed story is taking this framework from external to internal, and I’ll need less and less of it as I go.

    I like having that check on my intent. Not niggling over 50 rewrites or teeny details. Just giving myself a yes or no–does this story so what I want it to do?

  • Carradee

    You’ve just described my reasoning behind my own approach to writing. There’s only such thing as failing to do what I intended, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I sometimes wish my subconscious/muse wasn’t drawn to making things quite so convoluted or dark, but I’ve taken to shrugging and accepting that it’s the sort of writer I am, at this point in my life.

    But that’s also why, when I teach folks grammar and word use stuff (like the way “bring/take” and “come/go” are affected by point of view), I tell them that the lessons are to help them improve the next thing they write. I also identify the item or three that would do them the most good to focus on. A lot of newer writers seem to focus on a particular style because they’ve been told it’s easy, but their writing demonstrates that another style would be easier for them and help them learn to avoid particular issues they’re prone to.

    That method worked for me. As a newbie writer, my default was “I’m not sure where to go from here. [tosses in a new character or point of view]”. The result was messy and confusing—and I come up with pretty convoluted things, anyway. (In hindsight, I’m actually kind of impressed at teenage me for managing to keep things more-or-less comprehensible.) To force myself to learn and come up with other ways of working out problems and of relying on the characters I already had in a story, I started writing with limited casts of characters and/or first person. (I eased myself into it.) I spent some years as a hobby writer where that was my primary approach.

    I’ve since come back to also using third person and multiple points of view, when a story warrants it. Since I’ve already practiced the limited point of view and character set, it was (and is) so much easier to practice other aspects of the point of view.

    Ultimately, your core point seems to be “trust yourself and your instincts”. Am I understanding that correctly?

    Double-checking because I’ve had some stories that I revised in the sense you advise against, where I cut them apart and restitched them back together. And I’ve timed myself working on various projects, in various stages. Following my instincts on if something warrants tossing vs. surgery always ends up faster to produce and better (per readers) than trying to force a particular method. While I’m inclined to think that it’s a matter of how I view story and the parts to it (as pieces of a malleable puzzle), I don’t want to assume.

    Hope you’re doing well!

  • Mike Southern

    This line:

    “Right now you are best writer you can be at this point in time.”

    is exactly what I needed right now. Thanks, Dean.

  • Maree

    I think this something all beginners have, no matter what the discipline. When you’re new at something you want to be led, to be taught. to apprentice to someone.

    How do you know how to be better unless someone teaches you?

    I think I am lucky in that I couldn’t afford most of the stuff people are hawking on the internet, and instead I started following blogs and reading a lot of books. I saw a lot of contradictions, which gave me confidence to discard the advice that didn’t fit, and I gradually realized that most of the people offering to ‘help’ me for a few thousand dollars are no more experienced than I am.

    I am lucky I suppose that I come from a production background, (blue collar work ethic isn’t such a bad thing!) so I believe mastery can only be gained through practice. I already knew that you can only really own a skill if you’ve done it lots of times, so it seemed logical to apply that to writing when other advice didn’t seem to fit the way my mind worked.

    And I’m finding that the official approval I am now seeking is from the editors of magazines, and I don’t care much about the advice of newly minted experts.

  • Jason M

    I always think of Janet Fitch when I think of fear. Author of White Oleander and Paint it Black, both excellent literary novels, if you like that kind of thing. One was a successful movie.

    She hasn’t published a book in eleven years. She’s probably frozen with fear that she can’t duplicate their success. I calculate that if her next book is 60,000 words, like her previous, and if she works Monday to Friday every week, with two weeks’ vacation… then she has written a whopping 24 words a day. That’s about two words per hour. Even Stephen Hawking writes faster than that.

    Fear keeps us from being professionals. She needs to admit that at this point, she’s a hobbyist.

    Me, I’m juggling work on four different projects today — editing a book on opioid addiction, two academic textbook writing projects, and a sci-fi novel that is due soon. Plus I have a two-hour session with a tutoring student. I feel **really** successful, on my terms.

  • John D. Payne

    >>Some of those media novels sucked. In fact, one book in the game Unearth has half of my book mixed up with another writer’s book. It is unreadable. And it has my real name on it. Did it kill my career, did I get tossed in jail for writing such a stinker? Nope, I’m still here. Because no one read that book, >>

    Is this the one?


    • dwsmith

      Well, if that doesn’t teach you a lesson about the stupidity of reviews, nothing will. That book is completely unreadable. My book was supposed to be in the past and the first book. It got mixed every other chapter and out of order with the other book set two hundred years later. And called book #2. And it has four stars. (LOL!!) And wow, it is collectable.

      And the vaulted traditional publishing quality showed through on this one. (grin)

      Guess I should dig out a couple copies and sign them and sell them for a bunch, huh? Too stupid for words.

        • dwsmith

          Shows how really sad and silly reviews can be. Anyone who really cares about the validity of reviews just needs to read those. (grin)

        • dwsmith

          Yup, and I have no opinion one way or another of the book I wrote. But I can have an opinion of the screwed up publishing and including only half my book and half of another book I had nothing to do with.

          Come on, John, imagine that happening to you on one of your books… Go ahead, imagine it. Would you even survive it?

          • John D. Payne

            Okay, yeah, that would set me back.

            Hey, would it be possible (leaving aside whether it’s advisable) for you to publish your original version at this point– leaving out the other chapters written by the other author? Or is that door forever closed because it was a work-for-hire?

          • dwsmith

            I’ll get it back in about twenty years with copyright reversion and will do that then. The other author never wrote another novel it hit him so hard. Killed his career.

            And what is really stunning for all the people out there who believe in traditional publishing. They screwed this up because of an angry employee who was getting laid off. He destroyed about forty books like this, not all media, and most went into print without being caught. And Pocket Books DID NOT REPRINT the books correctly. They just shrugged and went on. We didn’t even get an apology.

            Wonder why I got disgusted at traditional publishing as the years went on? (grin)

  • J. D. Brink

    This reminds me of the one big regret I have in my published work thus far. (And hopefully “ever”.)
    I had written a novella and hired two folks to read it for mistakes and feedback. One of them said, “I kept expecting So-And-So to become the monster.” So I thought, “Hmm, gee, that’s kind of a cool idea…”
    And I rewrote the ending and a major scene to make that happen, and then published it.
    I had apparently forgotten (or just did not have enough confidence in the fact) that the whole point was that So-And-So was NOT the monster. He was just an asshole–I mean, flawed human being. That was the whole point! That we were all capable of being monsters without needing to be possessed by one.
    Now I regret that that story is out there, re-engineered to meet some stranger’s expectation rather than sticking to the better theme I had intended from the start. All because I didn’t have the confidence to stick to my own story.

  • Corrie

    Thanks! I know you’ve written about these excuses a lot, but somehow hearing it again during a low point is particularly helpful! It IS very freeing to recognize that I have no reputation or career to lose at this point.

  • Sandra

    Wow, this is mind-blowing.So many give advice opposite to this, but you are so right. Confidence=boosted.

    After my first book, I sent it to an editor. The editor took forever editing it and then sent it back with a “kind” note saying what would be best for me is not publishing this book and going back to school. Instead, I ignored her… and I published it… and it’s doing GREAT. I’m making money and everything! It’s pretty much always on some amazon best seller list or another, has great reviews and a great star rating.

    Basically, everyone has their own mindsets and agendas. I will never understand why that woman said that to me, but I will always be glad I chose to ignore her. I now only let my dad do a quick edit as he is the only person I trust.

    • dwsmith

      Wow, Sandra, congratulations on ignoring the stupidity and sticking with your vision. That is a rare thing and I really appreciate you sharing that. Thank you.