Cheryl St.John: Pushing Past Fear to Try Something New

As authors, we are asked a lot of questions, not only by readers, but by those who have a desire to write a story. At every  book signing at least a few people will ask how to get started — or how to overcome fear so they can start.

Fear often holds us back from trying new things.

In one form or another fear is the number one culprit that keeps us from going after our dreams. Fear is often insidious, disguised as procrastination or poor time management, but it can be debilitating in any form. Figure out first exactly what are you afraid of.

Give that fear a name

For the beginner: Are you afraid of trying to write because you might find out you’re not very good at it? Are you concerned you might give it your all and never get published? Recognizing that something is holding you back is a huge step. Now take another one and figure out exactly what it is you’re worried will happen.

The first thing a beginner writes won’t be publishable. Neither will the first book, most likely (okay it does happen) and maybe not the second. But you will never learn, you will never grow, you will never know that you can, until you put the words on the paper. It took me a long time to figure this out, so if I can teach you this and it sticks, I’ll consider my job done: They are only words. You can write more.

Repeat it: They are only words. If they’re not great, you can toss them out and write more. There are plenty more words where those came from. Thousands, millions, in all sorts of combinations and patterns. You don’t have to get them all right the first time.


Whenever a new member joins my RWA chapter or my critique group, I understand their nervousness. I was in their shoes once. I make it a point to tell them: We all started out in the same place. Years ago my brother knew I was writing, and he brought me a newspaper article of a published author whose husband had been transferred to the air force base in my city and she was starting an RWA chapter. I’d never heard of RWA. I was too inexperienced and uncertain to even call the contact number. Another year or more went by and one of the chapter members was featured in the Sunday paper. My brother brought me that one, too and said, “You have to get with these people.”

It took me weeks to get the courage to call. And when I did, I got an answering machine and hung up without leaving a message. I felt completely out of my league. I knew I’d be stepping into a world of English majors and professional people, and I was just little old me making up stories on my old Selectric typewriter.


Well, I finally did it. I made the call and left a message. The woman called me back and she was warm and welcoming and delightful. I went to my first meeting with my knees knocking and learned everyone there was someone like me – someone just making up stories for the pure love of it. It was months later when I finally showed a manuscript to that founding published author and she Xed out page after page and wrote “nothing happening” in red in the margins. That hurt. She also showed me the things I did well, and showed me how to change and fix and rework the story. She was the first person who said to me, “You can do this.” Her name was Diane Wicker Davis, a warm Southern lady who mentored other writers and shared her knowledge. She passed a few years ago and everyone who knew her remembers her laugh and her encouragement.

I pushed on after her critique, learning, studying, rewriting, until a few years had slipped by and a stack of rejections had piled up. I can remember becoming frustrated and being so hungry for someone to tell me I could do this thing.

No one can tell you whether or not you’re going to sell a book, publish fifty more or be a success. As much as we’d love for there to be, there’s no writer’s crystal ball to foretell the future. We all wonder if we have the stuff it takes. As beginners we wonder if we have an inkling of talent. Once other writers and readers validate our talent, we still wonder if it’s good enough, if we have what it takes. It’s good to acknowledge that we don’t know it all and to have a desire to learn and grow. But sometimes doubt holds us back. We shoot ourselves in the foot by creating and feeding feelings of inadequacy, by being unwilling to stick our neck out there and show our work. Submission requires opening ourselves up to criticism and rejection. I know a few writers who don’t even submit for fear of rejection.

Confidence comes with practice and with maturity.

Consider an athlete. He might have a desire to run a hundred meter race. So he goes out and gives it a shot, but he doesn’t do very well. Why not? He didn’t practice! He didn’t study how other runners achieve endurance through diet and exercise. He doesn’t know how good he really is until he’s trained by learning all he can, eating properly for energy and muscle and all that — and after he’s ready, after he’s prepared, stretching to limber up and then RUNNING. Then running again and again and again until he’s fast and he knows he’s fast, and he’s ready to compete.

In many ways submitting a book is a lot like that. Your manuscript will be compared to all the others that cross an editor’s desk. It will be scrutinized for its ability to make the publishing house money in the marketplace. The only way you can have the confidence to know you’re submitting something with a chance of making it past that test is to learn your craft and practice, practice, practice. Work at writing and work at it until you get better, until you hit your personal stride.

Sure, sometimes self-doubt is much deeper, it’s inadequacies we’ve carried with us from childhood and relationships and past hurts and experiences. But there’s help for those things, too, in recognizing it and getting help if need be and working on it. You’re a valuable person. You’re worth it. You deserve to give yourself the gift of improving yourself and reaching for your dream.

What else holds us back?

Fear of Embarrassment
Honesty time. This is actually your pride getting the best of you. We all had to start somewhere. We all wrote crap when we first started–well most of us anyway. When babies first learn to feed themselves and walk, we don’t make fun of them; they don’t know any better. You didn’t get on a bicycle the first time and smoothly take off.

Training wheels aren’t embarrassing to a four-year-old. Why do we think our first attempts at writing are humiliating? You have to be willing to make mistakes.
You have to be willing to be bad. You can fix bad. You can’t fix nothing.

Sometimes we’re just our own worst enemy!

Fear of Failure
What if I do the very best I can, give it my all, and fail? Failure means to fall short; failure is a lack of success. This is where your thinking needs to change. Set realistic goals, which is another entire subject. If we go back and look at the realistic goals we planned for ourselves, we can see where we didn’t fall short in our commitment or resolve or our mission. If you take the steps you planned to reach your goal, you succeed in doing the things that are within your control. Taking that action reduces fear and increases your options. Since failure is defined as an omission to perform an expected action, you haven’t failed if you’ve taken the steps to reach your goal.

Failure is not in being rejected; it’s in not taking the steps.
You can succeed by changing your thinking and your self-defeating behaviors.

And here’s the question I’m famous for asking. I ask it of myself and then I ask if of others who hesitate: WHAT IS THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN?

Okay, people, we’re talking about writing a book here, not jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle. The worst thing that could happen?

Your first three chapters could suck bilge water and need to be thrown out. Remember, I said there are more words where those came from.

It could take you three years to sell a book once you know how. This is my story – is it so bad?

You could write four books over twice as many years, not sell a one and give up. So? You met wonderful people, you had a great time, you learned a lot, and you stayed out of the casino. What was the worst thing about that?

I’m giving you things to think about. I’m asking you to face your fears. I’m suggesting you take steps to put doubt and lack of confidence under your feet and stomp on them a few times — then don’t pick them up and resuscitate them!

Fear is a lack of knowledge. Learn all you can about yourself, about how you work and the things that get you motivated or the things that hold you back and then take the menace out of them by taking positive action to put them behind you.

Do things differently to see better results.

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15 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: Pushing Past Fear to Try Something New”

  1. Can’t believe nobody has commmented. It’s 9:30 west coast time. IT’s CINCO DE MAYO everyone! OK Cheryl, I am stll struggling. I actually have one story with an agency. After spending time doing three different writing courses, I thought I was hot stuff. Not really. My words were OK. It was the structure of the page that wasn’t good enough, with one group. It was my wording, with another. But I have not given up. My stories are good. I just have to figure out how to make all the words go together for the next editor to like. Then I think about my schooling. If I had gone to college, would that have made a difference? A lot of doubt, but I have sucked it in and continued. One of these days I’ll be out there. I’m not quitting. Thank you for the confidence builder.

  2. Great post, Cheryl. I wish iI had read it about 45 years ago. I loved to read and made up stories all the time. When I was in grade school, I would tell my siblings stories at bedtime about my exploits with Peter Pan. They couldn’t have been too bad because they were always asking for more. In high school, I started to write a book. Come to think of it, it was a western historical. I am the oldest of 6 and have always been different from the rest in what I like and do. There was the typical oldest child pressure to “set the example” and always be perfect.
    At any rate, someone found my writing. When I came to the dinner table, everyone had a grand time tearing it apart word by word. How stupid could I possibly be to think I could write. Whether it was any good or not wasn’t the point. Needless to say, I never tried again except for school papers. I never stopped making up stories, they just stayed in my head. I know they just didn’t know how to take someone who wasn’t following the cookie cutter path for women in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Someone interested in Freedom Riders and the Peace Corps. Someone who challenged the status quo. It was such a great time for women to get into careers and do things formerly reserved for men, but it wasn’t always appreciated.
    I know how very important a little bit of encouragement and guidance would have been. The desire to write got pushed way back where it couldn’t tempt or hurt. Even if it hadn’t turned into a viable career, the comradeship and interaction with such great people as authors would have been more than worth it. Yes, I know it is never too late, so maybe some day. Sorry for the long rant. Your post will be such a great boost for those who want to follow their dream of writing. I hope they will take it to heart.

  3. Thanks, Cheryl, this is such a great post. I love your question “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” I thought of that when I sent a manuscript off to a publisher the other day. What? They could say, “No.” Well, it happens. And then I pick myself up and write something else.

    I was so scared when I started my first book. I think I stared at the computer screen for an hour before I typed the first line. Then the words flowed and I was in heaven. Of course, I had to delete everything I’d written because it was horrible.

    That first step is a doozie, but well worth it.

  4. Great post, Cher. You said it all. I agree with Kirsten, the best question is “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” I remember even big name authors at RWA national and chapters saying they’d been rejected like everybody else and guess what? They didn’t die LOL.

    Good one. oxoxxo

  5. This was a great post Cheryl. I enjoyed reading this and its got me thinking about trying to give writing a try again. A couple years ago, I was thinking about writing children stories and I did try to join a place that dealt with children stories, but I didn’t past their entry questionnaire. After reading this, I am going to try and find the time and give it a try again. I know my writing skills aren’t the best, but I figure that will improve.

  6. Cheryl, your blog describes me perfectly. Fear so often holds me back and keeps me from reaching my potential. Sometimes it’s fear of succeeding. Each time a story of mine comes out I wonder if I can do it again or not. And stack on an award or two and the fear really takes over. I wonder if I can match those high expectations or fall on my face.

    Love the covers for your upcoming books! Very nice. I can’t wait. They should do well.

  7. Mary J. I know just how you feel about your STORIES.
    I used to say, “I love the stories I’m telling, I’m just not telling them good enough.”
    Just keep writing. Keep learning. If ever there was a business where it’s true that it’s 1% inspiration an 99% perspiration–it’s being a novelist.

  8. Cheryl,

    I love this post!!! It is so true. Fear can rule you if you let it. If you want to become a writer I would suggest to find a mentor. I have one finally and she has helped me to grow so much with my writing.

    There has be times I wanted to give up on my writing but my family would not let me. My book Native Spirit just got its first review on Amazon from a reader and it made me cry.

    I love to write and the classes that I have took from you helped me a lot. I put sticky notes everywhere and read them daily, with positive thoughts like you said and it does work

    Thanks Cheryl

    Walk in harmony,

  9. Mary J, I don’t know anyone who went to college to be a fiction writer. I didn’t go to college period. I was raising a family when I was in my twenties. Don’t cut yourself short.

    My best advice to you for improvement is to keep writing. The more you write, the better you get, the more comfortable you grow with your voice. The more you read, the more you learn about what you like and don’t like and how the techniques all come together. Pick a couple of authors you admire and study their work.

    One of the best things you have going for you is your determination to stick with it. Writing takes sacrifice and dedication. Those who succeed are the ones who are determined to learn and grow and are willing to make the sacrifices it takes.

    I like your attitude.

  10. Thanks Cheryl and Mary C. I totally appreciate your inspiration. Reading is what I like best. I read A LOT.
    I will continue on the path I am on and chug away. My writing has improved with everything I have done, so in that way I am progressing. Just have to keep the faith!
    Thanks again, to both of you.
    Mary J

  11. Patricia, your story had me in tears. It’s inconceivable how anyone could tear down a young person and dash their dreams. Unfortunately, that’s probably a scenario that has played out more times than we know, to many aspiring writers–and those with other ambitions where the income isn’t guaranteed. You can’t take writing to the bank for a good long time.

    Please DO start now, writing anything just for yourself and to make yourself happy.

  12. Thank you for an inspiring post, Cheryl. I did go to college but the only writing class I took was Freshman English. The real writing happened 20 years later, when I was ready in my mind and heart. I still have well-meaning people ask me if I have to hire an English major to correct my manuscripts.
    Congratulations on your Rita nomination. We’ll all be pulling for you and Mary.

  13. Kirsten, I ask myself that question often…and occasionally ask it of the kids to encourage them. Fear is always about something that hasn’t happened yet. Considering the worst that could happen puts it into perspective.

  14. LOL, Tanya! That’s right; they didn’t die.

    Becky, I am so excited to hear that you’re going to give it a shot. keep us posted!

    Thank you, Linda. I’m especially fond of Her Wyoming Man’s cover. Eventually I’ll have all the states covered, eh? lol

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