They’re All Going To Laugh At You!: 5 Ways To Overcome Anxiety While Writing Your First Novel

I’ve slowed down on the freelance work.

Okay, slowed down is an understatement, it’s basically come to a standstill because being a full-time, stay-at-home dad is pretty much my profession at this point. Not that I’m complaining, I love taking care of my family, but the thing is writing 60,000-to-100,000 words a month is close to impossible when you’re chasing around an 8-month-old. And although I’m not hitting the same numbers I was before our bundle of awesome was here, I still have ample time to write, but now I can choose what I want to work on as opposed to taking anything I can get my hands on.

So what I’m choosing to write are columns and reviews (of course), and I’ve gone full bore into finishing my first novel. Now, I’ve written novels under different pen names, so I know I’m perfectly capable of churning out a 90,000-word book. But the thing is, what I’m writing will be under my name, and that—believe it or not—completely turns my stomach.

Seriously, it gives me panic attacks.

And I know I’m not alone on this. Virtually every writer I know—both young and old school—suffer from the same anxieties about writing a book. It’s a common affliction among the creative, and if you don’t suffer from the shakes, chances are you’re either a sociopath or a complete genius. (By the way, Sunshine, you’re not a fucking genius. You’re just a crazy shitbird). But if writing a novel is something you absolutely have to do, I’ve discovered a few ways to muscle past the lizard brain of anxiety and keep putting words down on the page.

So let’s get started with this little listicle, shall we?

5) Admit That You Suck

You know who sucks?

Colson Whitehead sucks.

So does Paul Tremblay, Roxanne Gay, Chuck Palahniuk, Jeff VanderMeer, Cormac McCarthy, Lidia Yuknavitch—all of them suck.

And you definitely suck.

But then again, so do I. I probably suck more than anyone I just mentioned and every other writer on the planet for that matter. I suck so bad that I don’t know why I’m even bothering to write a novel, because absolutely no one is going to want to read it let alone buy it and publish it.

By the way, all of the writers I just mentioned, they think they suck, too. Every time they stare at the blinking cursor of an empty computer page or a blank piece of paper, the self-doubt of sucking wiggles its way free. For some, it might just be for a second, a fleeting moment of doubt. For others, it might take months for them to shake it off and get moving.

Sucking is the biggest roadblock every novelist faces. It doesn’t matter what phase in the process you’re at, whether you’re 10,000-words in or 70,000, the idea of whether what you’re writing is good enough or not is always there whispering in your ear, and it’s never, ever going to go away. So the thing I figured out is to just accept it and live with it. Because the fact is even though I want people to read what I’ve written, I’m really not writing for an audience. I’m writing a novel for me. I’m writing it because I want to prove to myself that I can do it, and all I can hope for is that people will care enough about the story I’m telling.

And if they don’t, well fuck it, I’ll just write another one and see what happens.

4) Write Something Else

I like writing columns and reviews because it gives me something else to think about other than the novel. They’re usually a lot of fun, plus I get free books, so it’s kind of a win-win. The best thing about columns and reviews is that they’re quick and don’t really take much effort other than sitting down at the computer. Best of all, I’m not having to plot and constantly refer to my outline or sit and do heavy revisions that cut 5 or 10,000 words from my manuscript.

Blog posts and flash fiction functions in the same way. It’s painless and it takes you out of the little universe you’re creating for an hour or two and manages to keep the creative juices flowing. Now don’t go and start writing a novella or anything like that, because that shit’s just way too much work. More or less, keep your eyes on the prize, but realize it’s more than okay to take little creative breaks as long as you’re remaining creative.

3) Get The Fuck Up And Do Something Else

This is an easy one for me because I always have something else to do. Dishes, laundry, bathrooms to clean (yeah, I do my best to avoid that one), floors to mop. I’m even getting into the whole exercise thing (mostly because I don’t want to be wearing a muumuu at my oldest daughter’s graduation). The thing I’ve discovered over the past couple of years is that you need an active body to maintain an active mind. So if all you're doing is sitting down at the machine night-after-night, staring at the cursor for a few minutes, and then go fuck around on Twitter and Reddit for the next two hours, there’s a better chance than not you need to get up and do something else for an hour or so to get your juices flowing.

But be forewarned (and this is from experience), going and doing something else other than writing can be just as addictive and distracting as screwing around on social media. Once again, keep your focus on your project while you’re at the gym or scrubbing the dishes.

2) Write Every Day … Kinda, Sorta

I love this quote from Donald Ray Pollock:

After my second book came out, I didn’t write much of anything for probably eighteen months. I spent four or five months working on a house my wife and I had bought, and it just got easier and easier not to go to the desk. That turned out to be a big mistake, mainly because I had such a hard time getting started again. But I did learn a valuable lesson: Don’t stop.

It’s an easy one to do, stopping. Pretending that you're too busy to ever sit down at the machine or crack open a notebook. I’ve been there more times than I can count and chances are I’ll be there again. And sometimes, you really are too busy. You’re working doubles at the dayjob, you’ve got kids screaming in your ear while simultaneously trying to eat your face. But the thing is, eventually all the things that prevent you from writing become habit, even when the things that were stopping you become a thing of the past. And at that point, there’s a better chance than not the idea of sucking has wormed its way back into your head.

It’s a vicious cycle.

The practice I’ve adopted for avoiding the too-busy-to-write syndrome is something I stole from Matt Bell. What Bell does is no matter what, he’ll open whatever he’s working on even if he doesn’t feel like writing, read through what he wrote the day before, and then make a change to the manuscript. He then saves it, closes the document, and goes on his merry way.

This method has worked wonders for me. There are days when my youngest daughter never stops moving; she is perpetual motion personified, and I have to be there to direct the chaos that is her grasping 8-month-old hands. By the time she’s finally in bed, I’m wiped out. All I want to do is kick back in the recliner and listen to some music and read. But before I indulge myself with an hour or two of relaxation, I crack open my tablet, open my manuscript, read what I wrote the night before, and then make a change. Sometimes, I only write 50 words and then I’m done; other times, I end up cranking out 2500 words. It’s a solid system, and if you’re having issues getting yourself going, give it a try.


1) Repeat After Me: No One Gives A Shit. Absolutely No One.

Philosophically, I’m pretty much what you would describe as a nihilist. (Yes, you can go ahead and picture me as Uli from The Big Lebowski for the duration of this column). I more or less believe that nothing really matters. But because nothing matters, you can basically do whatever you want with your life. You can accomplish anything and be anything you want to be, including being an artist. The thing is, though, no one really gives a shit if you’re an artist. Sure, maybe your wife or husband or parents think you and your work are the bee knees. But everyone else, they just don’t give a fuck. This, of course, can lead to creative ennui and the self-righteous bitterness that usually accompanies it. The bitterness then inspires bitching about the path you chose, which then leads to bringing the creative process to a screaming halt.

Personally, I think this quote from Werner Herzog sums up how I feel about artistic bitching perfectly:

Quit your complaining. It's not the world's fault that you wanted to be an artist. It's not the world's job to enjoy the films you make, and it's certainly not the world's obligation to pay for your dreams. No one wants to hear it. Stop whining and get back to work.

No, no one cares that you’re a writer or a painter or a filmmaker. But it is your job to make people care. Long story short, you have to be a bit of an optimist to write a novel. And I know, I know, most of us deep down are miserable assholes and it’s easy when you’re in the middle of a novel to become a whiny little bitch. But you have to muscle through it, even if it doesn’t matter to anyone but you.

Anyway, these are just a few of the little things I do to keep my juices flowing and it’s been working out fairly well. I’m 47,000 words into my first novel and if the world doesn’t completely crush me under its heels over the next couple of months, hopefully I’ll have a first draft wrapped up by Christmas.

All I can do is keep loving what I’m writing and hope someone other than me will love it back.

Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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The Dark Lord's picture
The Dark Lord from The Void is reading The Book of the Dead September 26, 2016 - 1:11pm

Excellent column! I got very similar advice from a friend of mine about a year ago when I decided to try to write my very first novel (said with all the exuberance of a foolish, naive child).

If I could add anything, in my very limited experience, it would be to try to find some sort of masochistic pleasure in failing. Or, to bastardize something I heard one of my favorite podcasters say, “We all fail; the key is to keep failing upwards.”

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