When Fear Strikes the Hearts of Writers

Posted by on Oct 28, 2014 in Blog | 3 comments

When Fear Strikes the Hearts of Writers

By Kathryne Squilla

For the past year, I’ve been watching a dear friend of mine write her second YA novel.  She’s by no means an inexperienced writer, having published two non-fiction books and many essays. Her first YA novel is in production. She is one of the most disciplined and productive writers I know.  Earlier this year, she finished her first draft of the new novel, and then promptly completed the second draft. After sharing her work with a few trusted readers, she revised yet again.  At that point, she believed she had a book her agent would love unconditionally.

He did love it, but not unconditionally. A major plot line bothered him and one of the two main characters just didn’t thrill him in the way he felt he needed to be thrilled in order to effectively sell the novel. He brought in a trusted editor who agreed and recommended major cuts.  I mean, MAJOR cuts. They wanted my friend to lose almost half of the book – to take out the character in question entirely — and then rewrite with a new focus in mind.

Needless to say, my friend had a lot of soul searching to do, and potentially a whole new book to write (or half a book anyway).  She loved her character, and so did many of her readers.  I felt her pain; to cut away all that work in one fell swoop! Ouch! And yet, ultimately she decided to go ahead with the revision. She could see how their view of the novel, combined with her vision and hard work, could result in something truly special. She is still at it, but just this morning she told me that she thinks she has only about 50 pages left before she is done with this draft, hopefully the last draft, though there are no guarantees on that.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend’s journey. In addition to being editors and publicists, we are also writers. I, myself, am working on a novel – when I can, anyway.  And although I have not yet completed my first draft, I am already dreading the second. I know this is silly. After all, as writing instructors love to say: writing is revision.

I was recently at an event where the writer, Anne Lamott, read from her latest book of essays. Someone later asked her about her tips for writing fiction. She said the secret is to give yourself permission to write a really “shitty” first draft, and then do the real work in the editing process. As an editor, I know this to be gospel – I’ve seen books transform from dull to radiant in the later drafts. Yet, as a writer, I cringe at the thought of highlighting some large section – perhaps an entire chapter – and hitting that delete button.  (I have another writer friend who pastes all of her major cuts into one master document of deleted sections because she can’t bring herself to erase them completely. She calls the document, The Prose Graveyard.)

In making cuts, it helps to think of the bigger picture, the strength of the novel as a whole, as opposed to some little flourish at the sentence level. That sleek metaphor I thought was so clever when I first wrote it isn’t worth keeping for a section that I can now see does nothing to further the novel.  As Faulkner says, “kill your darlings.” Oh, but its tough! It’s so very tough.

I take courage in stories like that of my friend. If she can do it, if Anne Lamott can do it, if hundreds of writers can do it, so can I, so can you.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there is a physiological term for fear of a second draft?

Kathryne Squilla is a writer and an editor at LWS Literary Services.


  1. Excellent discussion of the fear factor, Kathryne. Thanks. Are you accepting referrals for editing fiction books through LWS? Occasionally, they come my way. Please call if you’d like to discuss how we synchronize. 520-615-7910. I specialize in editing nonfiction.

  2. Kathryne, your editing made my book much stronger and tighter. In the process, I had to kill many of my darlings. Ouch. I too have a graveyard for early drafts and chunks that hit the cutting room floor. I was certain I would need them, but in fact I’ve never looked back at most of them — and now I can’t even remember where those painful cuts were made. Thank you for your faith in me!

  3. Kathryn
    I enjoyed our recent talk.
    I have lost your contact info. Could you send it to me at editor@barbaramcnichol.com
    Many thanks.

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