You know that moment halfway through a sentence when a sour taste creeps up the back of your throat? Is it the coffee and candy straws you ate for breakfast making an unwanted reappearance? Nope, it’s that crusty slimeball of awfulness I call Dr. Dread.And no, he’s not a delicious combination of Jamaican seasonings, but he is a real jerk. I’m talking about fear.
It’s the same thing author Delilah Dawson describes as, “that point around halfway through every book at which I fear I have lost whatever magic and skills I’ve ever possessed, and I worry that I will never finish the book, and that if I do, it will suck. I’ve come to recognize it as the Soggy Middle Syndrome…” (from Why We Should Write What Scares Us by Heather Webb).
I love that! I wonder if it has anything to do with the terrifying soggy bottom of Great British Baking show fame. No matter what name you give it, fear for writers comes in a few predictable varieties:
- It Must Be Mass Hysteria, aka I’m a Fraud!: Remember all those years spent hunkered down over your laptop, typing stories you were certain nobody but your dog would ever appreciate? Well, now all that’s changed. Very Important People in publishing love your book. They cried so hard when they read it that someone in the office next door had to come check on them. That means you’ve made it, right? You’ve achieved the dream that was so gargantuan you never really believed you could wrap your arms around it. There’s no way, after such phenomenal praise, you’d ever fear Dr. Dread’s evil machinations again! Except…remember the Salem witch trials? How seemingly sane villagers executed 25 people, all because some teenagers said they’d been cursed by witches. It wouldn’t be the first case of mass hysteria. Maybe all those people who said they loved your book, your agent, your editor, your editor’s boss, are descendants of those same easily-swayed Salemites. Maybe you are a descendant of one of those executed witches, and it’s not your writing they’re in love with…it’s your incredible witchy powers. And once the spell wears off? In steps Dr. Dread to tear up that fabulous book contract and set fire to your dreams.
- Does This Career Make Me Look Stupid? (aka Dream Denial; generally this comes before Mass Hysteria): Until recently, I would never tell people that I wanted to be a writer. This intense passion I spent hours on each day never came up in casual conversation. No one but my dog knew about the anguish, the triumph, the false-starts, those perfect one-liners. Why? There’s nothing more depressing than admitting to a room of people that you’ve dedicated your life to an impossible dream that will almost definitely end in failure. It takes guts to say that you want to be a writer when you have nothing in your inbox but rejection letters. Some of your friends and family will admire you for chasing your dreams, but is that pity lurking beneath their tepid smiles? Wouldn’t it be better to pretend you’re already living out your ideal life (in the form of your day job), to give in to the crushing hand of Dr. Dread, rather than risk looking like a pathetic, naive amateur?
- These Expectations Are Killing Me. Okay, so you dared to dream. You wrote something. It sold, for more than you were expecting. Now it’s time to sit down and write that second book. The one Very Important Publisher has already agreed to pay for. No pressure, right? Or maybe it’s not those expectations you worry about, but the ones you create yourself. Will I ever be able to capture this fabulous vision in my head on paper? Even if I finish, will it be good enough to sit on the shelf next to the authors I idolize? Will I make back my advance, get good reviews, sell in foreign markets, make so-and-so list, be hunted down by torch-wielding villagers? Will anyone in the world actually go to the store and buy my book?
These are just a few of the intrusive thoughts Dr. Dread uses to taunt us creative types. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Fear and self-loathing are persistent visitors in the lives of every writer, so here are a few tips I employ to battle Dr. Dread:
- Go for a jog. There’s nothing like the physical pain of running after weeks spent hunched over a computer to distract you from nagging self-doubt. Later, when you’re icing your back and wondering how your hamstrings could have shriveled into leathery strands of beef jerky, you won’t feel so bad about your work in progress (WIP). In fact, all that pain medication you’re on will probably leave you feeling downright giddy.
- Take a break. You know the saying, distance makes the heart grow fonder. It works for creepy former boyfriends, and it’s even more effective when it comes to your WIP. Stop beating your head against the edge of the desk and put that manuscript in the metaphorical drawer. Write something else for a while. Better yet, finish an entire first draft and then come back to your WIP with fresh eyes. Chances are, the specter of Dr. Dread won’t loom as large as before, and you’ll find yourself saying those beautiful words, “Hey, this is actually really good!”
- Kiss your dog. If you have a dog, then you know with absolute certainty that there is someone in your house who loves you unconditionally, no matter what derivative, amateurish garbage you’ve convinced yourself you’ve written. Give the pup a smooch and remember: dogs are better than people, so why are you listening to Dr. Dread (or your own screwed up inner monologue) anyway? Trust that your dog knows best.
- Read that section in Stephen King’s memoir where he talks about all of his rejections. Or any story about big-time authors getting told, “Sorry, buddy, better luck next time.” Because seriously, there’s nothing better than reading about that unlucky editor who turned down Harry Potter and secretly thinking, yes, someday they’ll tell this story about me! (Try LitRejections for an extensive list of best-sellers that were initially rejected)
- Watch something cathartic. I would recommend Buffy, but maybe that’s just because I’m obsessed with demon-fighting librarians. British murder mysteries will also work. There’s nothing like watching a pair of smartly-dressed detectives sip tea while the bodies pile up. It reminds you of the things that are really important in life, i.e. not being strangled, poisoned or otherwise horribly murdered.
I hope you find a few of these tips useful in battling your own inner demons, whether they go by the name Dr. Dread, Sir Soggy Bottom or some other equally maleficent moniker. Oh, and if you have any of your own tips you’d like to share, please let me know. I’m gonna need ’em.