How I killed the man without fear (and why)

AKA "Writing Without Fear - A Bad Idea"

In a comment on my most recent #FridayFlash, "Bones Don't Burn", there were a great many terrific comments, but one by pegjet really struck me. She said, "You are fearless with new styles of writing. I admire and envy your abandon." I've been thinking about that comment all weekend.

I don't think of myself as a particularly courageous writer. I've worked at the fundamentals to become technically competent - worked harder than some, not as hard as many. Once you have confidence in your ability with the mechanics of writing, that makes it much easier to focus on the creativity.

When I first started writing, I did it fearlessly because I didn't know what I was doing. I thought everything that came from my pen was golden - what was there to fear? Eventually, I learned enough about writing to understand the true nature of what I'd been writing, and became horrified at just what I'd been inflicting on my friends and family. I realized how far I had to go before my writing would be worth reading; I became paralyzed by fear, thinking I'd made a HUGE mistake in ever even trying to write fiction.

That state of affairs lasted a while, until I decided to stop trying for genius and strive for competence instead. Talent is an in-born asset: you have either a little or a lot. Competence, even mastery, though... that's different. Anyone who's willing to put in 10,000 hours of practice can get good enough to let sheer technical mastery fill in the gaps where talent leaves off. Powers of observation, rigorous drawing of connections or oppositions, workman-like construction of plot elements - all of these can be taught and practiced.

I have a general idea how much writing talent I possess, but I'm certainly no stranger to hard work. Intelligent effort and focus in acquiring and mastering new skill sets in an old song for me. The thing is, the key to true mastery is to switch up what you do, to not let yourself get complacent or self-congratulatory. A carpenter who's learned how to make a great table is a novice all over again the first time he tries to make a china cabinet.

I'm pretty up front about why I switch genres and styles. When you set yourself a challenge, there's no guarantee that you'll write something good. The only thing you can be sure of is that you will have the opportunity to learn something about your craft.

There are plenty of writing exercise books to choose from. I don't mean writing prompts; fun as they are, they won't impose restrictions on you that force you into unfamiliar territory. I mean, write a story that is only dialogue, or write and re-write the same story three times, first from the perspective of the woman, then from that of the man, then from that of the lady next door eavesdropping through the air vent. These stories are hard to write, but worth the effort.

May my muse save me from being a fearless writer! The day I go back to writing without fear is the day I've stopped exploring the reaches of my ability, stopped trying to improve. Is that courage? The willingness to risk putting out a clinker when something doesn't work? It's the only way I know to get better. To date, I've written about 200,000 words of fiction. Eventually, I hope to write so well that the question of innate talent vs. acquired skill becomes irrelevant. That's the writer's Turing test: is he an extremely talented writer, or merely supremely skillful?

Some people have twenty years experience. Other people have one year of experience, repeated twenty times. The difference is self-examination, and a continual effort to improve.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. Nice post, Tony - I'm in the same mode of learning through exploration. You take a lot of chances which is the great thing about your writing. It's always something new. That's the best way to push the limits and see what you're capable of!

  2. When I release a new story into the wild I imagine it has to be like a known band releasing a new album. Will people dig it? Should I have done a solo effort instead? Good article Tony.

  3. Great post Tony! I'm very much in the learning phase at the moment. I've written about 125,000 words of fiction and I use my flash to explore different POV's and genres. I love writing flash, but I have a lot of learning to do before tackling my next manuscript.

  4. Thanks for sharing your insights, Tony. I am especially interested in your suggestion of writing the same story from three POVs. I might do that with my most recent #FridayFlash. I imagine I'll end up with three very different stories and stretch my skills while I'm at it. ~ Olivia

  5. I admire your brute honesty about your innerscape. In a way I wish I'd known you when I first started writing three years ago, simply because of your honesty and your willingness to push boundaries.

    At the moment I am chipping through a sci-fi story which scares the living pants off me. It took me two weeks to get the guts to put down the first couple of words down - something which never usually happens to me. I know this story is big, I know this story is important and I know this story mashes together genres I don't feel confident in... but as Carrie mentioned to me last week... some stories just don't go away. They demand to be told.

    What helps me deal with the fear isn't just writing (and doing it often so the fear doesn't become paralysing), but being surrounded by supportive and encouraging friends.

    Carrie also mentioned the known band, new release and I definitely identify with that. Having been around for a while now, and known for various projects I feel as though there is a certain expectation when people arrive at a story of mine... and I find that difficult to deal with. Obviously I could just be paranoid, but I feel as a writer there is a degree of expectation that you grow, mature and hone your craft as time goes by - what I may have published three years ago just wouldn't make the grade today.

    Plus - a little fear is good to get the adrenalin pumping - to be at the page alert and full of hot blood!

    As always - though provoking post. Why Landless is always my first port of call when I have a spare moment to go to BlogLand.

  6. Keep at it, Danielle!

    Olivia, I think I got that one from one of the (ahem) many books on writing I have on my shelf. Exercises like that truly do help you to appreciate and understand the power of different points of view. Once you've tried them, you won't make POV errors anymore, and you won't be limited just to boring old 3rd person omniscient.

    Let's see, Jodi, three years ago I felt my 2006 NaNoWriMo was essentially complete at 50,890 words. I just had to "fill in some bits". The fact is, I wasn't this honest about my writing three years ago. I had to let go of that false certainty that the simple act of putting words onto the page was enough.

    Once I freed myself from that comforting fallacy, and allowed myself to face the (admittedly terrifying) possibility that I was a babe in the woods who used passive voice and too many adverbs, I could start to go forward.

    there is a certain expectation when people arrive at a story of mine... and I find that difficult to deal with

    Make it so that the only thing people expect of you is quality. Not within-a-certain-genre, or strong-woman-as-lead, or at-least-a-bit-of-sex, but simply high quality writing. Shoot for that, and you'll please yourself and them. Like PJ and Carrie say up above, you've got to take chances.

    I'm glad you like to come here, Jodi. It makes me thing I'm doing something right. 8-)

  7. I have no hang ups about genre or any of that... it is keeping the quality high week in week out that freaks me out. And some weeks I'd rather not post a story because I feel its too weak and not what readers expect quality-wise.

    But I have to say... I always get floored when something I think isn't the best gets high applause... so perhaps we're not the best ones to judge the quality of our work?

    And I have to comment - becaue I forgot earlier - that POV exercise you mentioned - I did it in a writing workshop a few years ago and I loved it. Especially when you're asked to do the POV of someone you didn't originally figure into the scene!

  8. Tony, I still never underestimate the value of getting the words on the page. Once you get them out, that's when you can count the adverbs and quash passive voice. It's difficult for many writers to do what you did, realizing the work doesn't end when you type "The End." I still long for magical first drafts.

    I just opened a few files and did a Word Count. I'm a little horrified by how many words I've written. It's my passion, but jeeze.

    Personally, I'm a fear monger. I don't stir fear in others; I horde it for myself. You've now got me afraid that I don't experiment enough. There could be more variation in my literary fiction, the Horror isn't hard enough, could have streamlined this and tributarylined that - oh crap, I've got X years of doing the same thing! There'll be no convincing me otherwise, just as there's no convincing me that my first drafts are anything but terrible, that I can't edit enough, that the jokes aren't clever enough, that the tension isn't tense enough, that clerverness is covering a lack of something else, that there's too much dialogue/description/exposition/action/plot/thematics and not enough dialogue/description/exposition/action/plot/thematics.

    How did you kill your Man Without Fear? I need to kill mine. He's always taunting me - he knows exactly what I'm afraid of.

  9. Wow, John, lots of fear in your comment. Excellent!

    The Man Without Fear whom I killed was myself as a neophyte writer. I had to kill him to make way for Terrified Tony, who then subsequently gave way to More (But Not Entirely) Confident Tony. In that sense, Tony Noland is dead. (I borrowed that bit of sophistic legerdemain from Obi-Wan Kenobi's explanation to Luke about how his father had "died". Cute, eh?)

    I can't tell if you're kidding or not when you say that you're afraid you don't experiment enough. You cover a lot of ground in your work, but only you can know if all of that is still safely within your comfort zone.

    For anyone who's not sure how to get out the edge of the map, out to where there native talent and inclination has never taken them, there are books that can offer exercises, but one approach is pretty universal. If there are comfortable little touchstones that you ALWAYS use in your work, try writing one without them. For example, one of the things you're known for is that many (perhaps most) of your stories are quite funny. Could you write a bleak story, one that moves the reader to tears? It would mean forgoing humor, even as an offhand aside. Could you inspire? Frighten? Your story "Bad Penny" is great; it hits hard at a difficult and sad life. It's also rather funny in spots. Can you write stories that aim at other emotions, stories that contain no leavening humor at all?

    Maybe you already do all of this in work you sell or post elsewhere. Maybe it's your day job to write stuff like that. Maybe you have a drawer full of humorless angst pieces and have decided it's all crap. I don't know.

    What I do know is that even if this is something that is done purely as an exercise, never for public consumption, stretching like that almost always gives you more tools in the toolbox for writing what you want to write.

  10. Hey Tony. I knew that your Man Without Fear was your old self. But my Man Without Fear is a projection of an unattainable somebody who really does know everything and won't help me. In Star Wars terms, like if Yoda quit giving swamp classes and became a snarky late night TV pundit.

    I'm not kidding when I fear about experiments. My rational conclusions are that I do experiment enough: I write more daily humor because that's what I want to give the world, but a percentage of the BM's are straight serious, and half of my submitted short stories at any given time are unblinking Horror. My fears, those controlled by the Man Without, are irrational ones about missing something I cannot recognize, something essential that all good writers have. The Man Without won't tell me what it is.

    Did you think parts of Bad Penny, Life One were funny? I'm curious which, if you don't mind popping over and dropping a comment on it.

  11. John, I think writing is like any other endeavor. Even with consistent and dedicated effort, once you've applied all the knowledge you have, you reach plateaus of development, where all the additional effort doesn't move you much. As much as I dislike the cliche "take it to the next level", that's exactly what needs to happen.

    I used to be really down on coaches, mentors, advisers, etc. I figured I could do what I needed to using my own smarts to figure it out. I've come to see the value of these people because they can offer new perspectives, make suggestions that I wouldn't have thought of. It's not necessarily that they know MORE than I do. Sometimes they just know DIFFERENT STUFF.

    A couple of things occur to me when I consider your elusive, taunting, evil Yoda. There are a lot of people with lots more experience, who do actually know way more than I do. These people will never help me because they have no idea who I am, will never meet me or interact with me and they have no reason to either help me or hurt me. I have no reason to fear or hate these people.

    In contrast, what's troubling about the image you offer is that your evil Yoda seems to know you, and seems to have a vested interest in NOT helping you. Moreover, it seems to be important to him that you be AWARE that he won't help you, teach you the secret handshake, etc.

    That means that this guy will NEVER be of any help to you. Not as a goad, not as a standard to meet, not as a puzzle to be unraveled. To be honest, he sounds like someone who's not going to be pleased even if you write a best seller.

    Whoever this guys is, whatever or whoever he's a metaphorical stand-in for, the only thing that can be done is to call him out on it, if only in your own mind. See the truth about this source of fear and anxiety, and in so doing, defang him. Leave him by the side of the road and let him snark as you drive away. Years from now, no matter where you are on your writer's road, he'll still be snarking, but at least you won't have to let it distract you.


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