Monday, 10 January 2011

The Ladder of Fear

It’s incredible how much fear and trembling is involved in building a career as a writer. The trick, I suppose, is to use that fear as fuel to drive your creative engines, but surely even glass-half-full people spend days chewing on their own souls. In fact, I'm told that even the most successful novelists never quite step off the top of the Ladder of Fear.

The first Rung. You really want – no, need -- to write, and you even have a story to tell, but you don’t yet know if you are capable of completing something the shape and scope of a novel. I let self-doubt like this keep me frozen on the first rung for years. It was here that I hid behind the fact that I was an illustrator (“we don’t DO words, okay?”) so that I could postpone the potential discovery that I was incapable of doing the thing I really wanted – no, needed – to do (chew, chew, chew…)

The Second Rung. I sometimes think half the blogosphere is comprised of people stuck here. This is the place for those who have completed a first draft or three, but now have to face the considerable challenge of wrangling and revising and cold-sweating it into shape in order to win an agent/publishing deal, despite nagging self-doubt, a demanding day job and a steady rain of rejection. As is well known, getting beyond this is about ten times harder than writing the damn stuff in the first place. The ground is littered with broken dreams and empty wine bottles, but at least you don’t have to stand in them.

The Third Rung. Here’s where people who have publishing deals end up, twitching but probably half expecting the fear to ease up from now on. Only it doesn’t. Because despite having a measure of acceptance, not to mention industry professionals to guide you, bad books still get published, and what if yours is one of them? What if you get horrible Amazon reviews? Or worse still, what if you don’t get reviewed at all?

This is where I am, tormented by the fear that come 2012 my name will be very publicly stamped on a block of 80k words that right now I can hardly control, let alone judge. I do know that there are good bits, but I also know that good bits just aint good enough. Nobody wants to actually eat the Curate’s egg.

The Fourth Rung. I can actually see this from where I cling, and I can well imagine that having to write a second book that matches up to the first (in only a fraction of the time) must be pretty scary. And I can also see how the aviator who crashes is worse off than the aviator whose plane is still on the runway. But I can’t quite feel this fear yet. It belongs to someone else. Though it is waiting for me.

The Fifth Rung and Beyond. Having got published will you manage to stay published? Will you earn enough to keep writing? Will you match up to your ‘earlier promise’? Or will you write something foolish on your blog and ruin your reputation? Or perhaps you'll just swallow a poisonous toad and die before you can finish your breakout novel? God alone knows, and maybe he’s even up there somewhere, but from where I stand the ladder disappears into the clouds and I can’t see much. Except, is that a Nobel Prize for Literature falling my way? Or just a stick of dynamite? And is that Neil Gaiman I can see, trembling fearfully as he reaches rung fifty-seven?

(chew, chew…)


  1. I love this phrase, "chewing on your soul." I'm definitely guilty of that one. But, I'm trying to make some changes so I do more learning, reading, and writing, and less chewing.

  2. But life is supposed to be perfect after you get the book deal!


    That is why Harper Lee might be the most brilliant writer who ever lived. She wrote one of the most beloved novels of all time, and then never wrote again.

  3. Been reading Dante?

    I don't drink the falling down water, so no chance of me cutting my feet if I fall from the ladder whilst aiming for the rose of paradise!

    Very good points, Thomas. Thank you.

  4. There are that many rungs? Sheesh. Still, life would be boring without something to aim for. It's good, in a way, that there's always one more rung ...

  5. Thanks, Anita. Don't chew too hard:)

    Hi, Natalie. Yes, perhaps writing a good one and then quitting while you're ahead is the answer.

    Thanks, Rachel. Who's this Dante geezer then?

    Thanks, Simon. This might be what they mean by feeling 'all rung out'.

  6. BRILLIANT post Thomas, I've been hanging on for dear life between rung 2 and 3.

  7. Sod the ladder. Take the elevator.

  8. Thanks, Faye. Yes, ladder metaphors are not a precise science. There must be a lot of people managing to cling on between the rungs. Good luck!

    James, I find your comment most uplifting!

  9. Good point James! or perhaps one could use a grappling hook and a piece of rope? That would be a bit 'Batman' though - and with an elevator we could arrive serene and unruffled at the very top.

    (Thanks for the luck Thomas!) :)

  10. My soul doesn't taste all that good. But I keep on chomping, like a child chewing their hair. Maybe I can grow a bezoar and sell that instead of a book? ;-)

  11. Polished up I'm sure it'd be lovely, Nick, but I'd rather read one of your novels:)

  12. Oh, I think you are so true in what you say! It's good to hear it from someone who has been there.

    I've been pubbed a thousand times over as a journalist, and it is a hard job to get, but NOTHING compared to getting fiction published.

    I'm so in awe of you, and anyone else, who can finish a novel, never mind get it published.

    Listen to the greats, like John Irving, who tells you, he would not be published today. No sense getting into why. But it's a horse race, as far as I can see.

    But, my bets are on your horse, Thomas!:)

  13. Maybe I'll just add another wine bottle to the pile. Red or white?

  14. Kate, your ladder climbing prospects look rosé to me...


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