One million words later, I still fear publishing

publishing fear

By Mars Dorian, {grow} Contributing Columnist

He said, “At some point in your life, you have to ask yourself: are you a doer, or are you a talker? Because nothing is cheaper than talk, and nothing more priceless than action.”

It’s the beginning of a novel I’ve written, the ninth so far. I started writing stories about four years ago and unleashed a volley of words only matched by the rapid fire of an assault rifle.  Ratatatataata– about a million words in 36, and when I say a million words, I literally mean a million. My writing software, Scrivener, reminds me of that number every time I open it.

That’s the cool part. The bad part is I haven’t self-published a single word of the million. Which seems pathetic, especially since I’m preaching Seth Godin’s “Ship-It” gospel in every other blog post.

Truth is, writing blog posts and illustrating client designs is one thing, a full-length novel is another.

Especially if you write it in a foreign language (German is my mother tongue) and want to make sure it’s the crème de la crème.

It’s as if the lizard brain is lurking behind my back, about to ram my head into the desk when I want to finally publish my story. Shouting at me, “No, it’s not good enough, rewrite ! Edit ! Write the next story !” Argh. I know it’s only in my head, but in the twenty-first century, emotional labor is the most challenging.

So far, I’ve wanted to publish each story, edited it to death, and then dropped that mess of a wordpocalypse into the abyss of my hard disk drive. Telling (lying to?) myself that the next one would be better. Unfortunately, nine full-length novels and four years later, I’m still enslaved to that way of thinking.

Why? Because of the ever looming F-Word.





Your brain is the greatest horror writer in the world. It creates worst-case scenarios that never happen, and probably never will.

In my case, it “tells” me the horror stories that could occur once I publish my book.

Ugly stuff, like a one star review because a reader found too many mistakes.

Hate mail from angry folks who thought my story wasted their precious time.

Or how about low sales that turn my books into bona fide digital dust collectors?

The list doesn’t end here, but at some point, you have to deal with these challenges. One way of accomplishing this is a method I’m using to try to deal with this myself.

Short-term goal: good enough.
Long-term goal: never good enough.

Meaning, “good enough” is the modus operandi for now.

Similar to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in the startup world, you create a product, e.g. a blog post, a book, that “works” at its core, but doesn’t come with special features. Once you ship it to the world, you ask yourself how to improve, or how to create a better product the next time. But only AFTER you’ve shown it to the public.

This way, you actually gain either money or at least insights from your customer, because a creator without a consumer is useless. If you keep focusing on the next big thing instead of showcasing the previous one, you end up with potentially amazing ideas and products the world will never get to see. I see deterrent examples of that destructive habit every week, heck, I see it happening in my own family.

My mom’s been working on a children’s book ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. She left the East and settled down in the West of Germany. She is determined to display her intense past in an illustrated story for the young and old alike. Last time I checked, *cough* yesterday *cough,* she was still working on it, a frightening 20 years later. Maybe she should rename her children’s book The Neverending Story.

On the web, the fear of failing, especially the fear of criticism, hits just as hard as in offline life. Our clients, or readers, may sit oceans apart, but their presence can be felt in every thought. It mingles with the voice of being never good enough. With the method mentioned above, I try to trick my own lizard brain so that I can finally publish my first book.

What are you doing to combat that fear? How do you stay productive?

Mars Dorian describes himself as a creative marketeer with a moon-melting passion for human potential and technology. You can follow his adventures at Original illustration by the author.

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  • Mars, I always enjoy your content on here but this was an absolutely brutally honest and valuable piece! Thank you for being open and sharing your struggles yet also your fight and desire against the Lizard.
    As for advice that has worked for me? I’ve been rejected and built up fear so many times in my life and nothing has happened…a few years ago I finally said the end with it! Ship when I’m ready to ship, create when I’m ready to create and help others, and go with it!

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  • I actually blogged about this here on {grow} (What Keeps Us From Making Our Mark). The thunder clap for me was reading Louise Plummer’s essay, “Fear, I Embrace You.” She gave it as a talk at a women’s conference a long time ago and it was later included in her Thoughts of a Grasshopper, Deseret Book, 1992. What really hit home for me was her comment that most of what fear FEELS like dying, but won’t actually kill us.

    I just published project #17 this last week and yeah, every one is scary. Because some people will dislike it enough to review it, the lack of stars isn’t fun. But so far bad reviews have not killed me. I try not to see them when I’m writing, because they can bruise the muse. But there was a blog post I read maybe a year or so ago. It suggested we look up our very favorite book ever and read the reviews. It’s pretty eye opening. It’s also true that not everyone likes chocolate or bacon, so…

    In Plummer’s essay, she talks about the story of Icarus and how flying toward the sun, feeling the warmth might have been worth the fall…

    And you know what? When you get the great reviews and many stars, it is worth it all. When you know that something you wrote connected with an actual reader so much that they went into Amazon and reviewed it? Totally worth it. So my advice is to embrace the fear and go for it. 🙂

  • What got me over a big hurdle was when someone said to me…after I lamented that “it had all been said before”…
    “but not in your voice”. I, like you, am on the path to publishing: but writing every day is where I’m at this moment. Cheers! Kaarina

  • I am in a similar place as you! I haven’t written 1 million words, only a measly 70,000 but still it is a very scary thing to think about unleashing to the world. In fact the first time I went to read what I had written I was afraid and almost didn’t. I was afraid of my own opinion!

  • Yeah, I get that. You’re so emotionally attached to your own writing, it’s hard to let it go and consider it from a detached perspective. That’s why is vital to have read by trusted person and/or editor.

  • It’s true, voice matters, even more than pure content at this point. I believe the voice is the true reason why people come back to check out content – it’s what emotionally attracts us beyond the info. Good luck on your writing – I hope you publish it someday 😉

  • Kristine Allcroft

    As my dissertation adviser used to remind me: done is better than perfect!

  • Hey Mike,
    yeah, maybe it comes down to experience that tells you when something is good enough to ship. But in order to build that experience, you have to ship first, heh. A devil’s circle.

  • Thanks for that advice, Pauline.
    The ‘bad’ reviews are unavoidable – and you’re right, they won’t kill you. It’s the anticipation of pain that makes me (and most other folks) hesitate. I like your example of Ikarus enjoying the flight before the fall, as in living for the moment and not worrying of where it leads to – after all, you can only do your best and then see how the world reacts to it.

  • I think that is very important. Sometimes they see something so obvious.

  • Thanks @marsdorian:disqus, and same back at’cha 🙂

  • That’s true, but I fight that even more with my lizard brain! But when you start to get uncomfortable you start growing.

  • New perspective is never a bad thing, as long as it’s a trusted perspective I guess! Sometimes it’s a little scary though!

  • Great post! Two things come to mind when fear pops up around publishing something creative.

    1. Anne Lammot – basically everything she’s ever said about writing. Bird by bird, shitty first drafts, etc.

    2. Ira Glass’ amazing diatribe on creative work:

    “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

  • So true Mars! If you asked my wife she thinks I ship too early…if you ask me I think I ship too late. Knowing that you are doing it with the best of intentions for clients and the world though is all we can do at times!

  • Hi Mars – I am not a novellist, but I do recognize the fear. In my case, it’s public speaking. I hate public speaking, and no matter how hard I try to perfect my preparation, minutes before I have to go on stage (sometimes even days) my body screams to ditch the whole plan and run. And I’m sure that if I could, I would. The thing is: I can’t. Because it’s part of my job, I’ve made a promise, a deal, people are waiting for me to go out there and do my thing. I can’t back out.

    And I think that is where the solution might be. If I look back on my speeches, there’s usually plenty of things I’ve could have done better. I’m my own worst critic. Fortunately, my audience is a lot more lenient. But I would, of course, never have found out about that if I had bailed.

    The thing is: I chose to put myself in that predicament. Because I had a choice. They asked me if I was prepared to do this. And while every fibre in my body screamed no, I said yes. Because I knew that the fact that, at some point in time, I would actually have to, no going back, was the only way for me to ever get this thing done. And I wanted it done. I felt the need to conquer that fear.

    Quite honestly, it has not really helped me conquer that fear at all – I still get the shakes before I have to go on. But at least now I know. The method is very effective. So what I would recommend is this: commit. Cut off your escape lines. Call a publisher, invest in whatever it is you need to do to get this thing out there in such a way that when push comes to shove, you can’t back out anymore. Say A to the world, instead of only to your private pc, and they will force you to say B as well.

  • But in “anticipating the pain,” you can miss the great reviews of people who like what you wrote. What is it about us that causes us to anticipate the pain and not the joy? Hmmm…

  • Thanks for that, Volkert. I think public pressure is powerful. If many people know, especially the ones you care about, you don’t want to disappoint them and look like a fraud. I’m going to tell my best friends / family and set a deadline.

  • Mars, this is a fascinating post. I’ve gotten really into lean analytics and the MVP model, and in the last 3-4 months started thinking about it in relation to my creative stuff too – including a novel that I’m working on.

    There’s a post by Air BnB’s Brian Chesky on Medium from a few days ago that I think complements your point…not going to post it here b/c the title is “Don’t e.f.f. up your culture” but it’s easily searchable. Anyway, one of the things I thought about after reading it was that we talk about building culture as this kind of collaborative, external thing between people, but we are also engaged in building culture in our own heads. That’s huge when you are a creative, because you are only as good as your imagination. For me that means stretching a lot, and asking questions about how I come to believe in what I believe in, and what the lightest, flexible framework I can have for my life and work would really look like. It’s helped a lot with writing a book and professionally, too.

  • Here’s some good news: most self published fiction authors don’t gain any traction until they have published 8-10 novels. Also, publishing frequently seems to help. So, you can look at having all those words on your hard drive as a strategic decision. You can plan to release them a few months apart and get a nice snowball effect.

    You may want to read Write. Publish. Repeat. It’s an awesome book and may give you some confidence. Another couple of resources you might enjoy is a community on Google+ called the Writers Discussion Group, and one that I own called the Writers’ Critique Group. You would be most welcome in both communities.

    One other thing that might help is to get yourself a few beta readers. Choose people who will be honest but not brutal and who enjoy reading in whatever genre or category you write. I’d be happy to read one of your works if you want. Just send me an email at [email protected].

  • Patricia Bleck

    I can relate to this fear Mars. I have heard that great authors have sometimes described writing a novel as “painful”. For me, getting started on writing projects is the hardest part. Write your novel-it will be great! Just do your best and create a deadline so that it must go out and give yourself a reward for meeting it.

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