Write Like No One Is Reading

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by Julie Frayn

My fingers fly across the keyboard, dialog flows, characters evolve and grow minds of their own. Then they lead me somewhere a little …. um…. dirty.

A line of dewy sweat jumps from my brow. I dip my big toe in, but snatch it back. The water is too darned hot. I dive in again, my heart beats a little too fast. Type, type, type. Delete, delete, delete. Self-doubt overtakes my mind and embarrassment pinks my cheeks.

I think I need a shower.

Why are my characters doing this? Did I really just write that? Is that even a real body part? My hand flies to my mouth, agape at one sudden and horrific thought.

“What if my mommy reads this?”

The first sex scene I tried to write played out something like that. By the time I was done, I’d toned it down, used metaphors and euphemisms. In the end, the story lacked spark. It lacked realism. It kind of sucked. All because it needed sex, and I was too afraid to open the bedroom door and let the reader peek inside. The truth? I let fear win.

Writers face many fears. It can paralyze a writer before they even put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Fear of success, fear of failure, and one of the biggest fears – fear of the reader. What if I offend someone? What if they think I’m nuts, or stupid, or that I’m writing about me shooting heroin and prostituting myself and murdering my husband?

We write about some pretty gritty stuff – sex and violence and love and hate and loss and joy. A veritable roller coaster of emotion and circumstance, some easily imagined, some kind of horrific, and some just a tad wacky. But if fear wins, if readers never see your words, then what is the point of writing at all?

While the fear of failure still pokes me in the ribs now and then, the fear of being read has melted away. And with that thaw, my writing grew in leaps and bounds. It became more vivid, brave, raw. And that is a very good thing.

Last year I was invited to write a personal post for Rachel Thompson. Her only requirement was that I ‘dig deep.’ So I wrote about my relationship with anorexia. I had written about it before, but when I reviewed my original essay it was obvious I’d cleansed reality. It was nice. It wasn’t the whole truth. So I shoved it aside and started over. What resulted was an honest, brutal, and not particularly flattering look at a time in my life that I am not proud of. A time that shaped me, not just physically, but emotionally and health-wise for years to come. Here’s the thing – that piece received the most positive feedback of anything I’d written before. Why? Because it was brave.

So when you sit down to write, set the reader aside. Write like no one is reading. Be brave and “write for the jugular,” as my excellent editor, Scott Morgan, says. Not everyone will love the result – it’s impossible to please the whole world. Brace yourself for criticism. But prepare for praise too. And most importantly, praise yourself. It is amazing what can be accomplished when we set aside the fear.

Julie Frayn pens novels and short stories that pack a punch. And a few stabs. Her work has won two gold medals in the 2013 Authorsdb cover contest, and the Books and Pals 2014 Readers’ Choice award for women’s fiction. A bean counter by day, Julie revels in the written word. When she is not working or writing, she spends as much time as possible with her two children (grown adults, really), while they still think she’s cool. Julie’s novels include Mazie Baby, It Isn’t Cheating if He’s Dead, and Suicide City, a Love Story, in addition to one short-short story collection, A Trilogy of Unrelated Shorts. You can learn more about Julie on her website and her Author Central page.

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49 thoughts on “Write Like No One Is Reading”

  1. Great post. Digging deep and being honest is essential to writing. Readers connect with honesty. When you whitewash it, it puts up a barrier between you and your reader and you really don’t want that barrier in your writing.

  2. Excellent. Writing for the world you’re seeing or the character is whispering (sometimes shouting) about, is always the best advice. Makes it so much fun.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Ey. Yes, they shout, they wander, they do their own thing. And I love them for it! Often the characters know better than I do what’s best for the story.

  3. “What if my mommy reads this?” Loved that… when I started writing my story, I felt no fear until I tried to hit the “publish button.” I agree, be brave, something we were not used to being in public. So glad you found your “brave button.” Excellent piece, Julie.

  4. I agree, Julie. I know that my writing flows better when I’m not thinking about who might read it and be horrified or offended or both. 😀

    1. Thanks, Lynne. I’ve come to realize that no matter what I write (or don’t write), someone will be horrified or offended. Now I just have fun with it and push my own limits.

  5. Great advice, Julie. Keeping our readers in mind is healthy–But! If we don’t write what the character and plot demands as their due we shortchange our talent and craft. And our readers.

  6. Nicely said, Julie. Another fine IU article. I take away a little something from every one of these, and this one’s about to be Twitterized. Hmmm, is that kind of like being immortalized? Be brave. Okay . . . I can do that! Thanks, Julie.

  7. I worry about my mommy reading my work as well – and my daddy – specifically because I write memoir. I try to be compassionate and fair, and make it clear that the writing expresses my experience of them; it is not God’s Own Truth. But such subtle distinctions are not always appreciated. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers last year, and writing about how this has affected our family (http://paulareednancarrow.com/2014/05/04/puzzles-the-slammers-cut/) has been very helpful to me – and seems to mean something to others. It is very unlikely that they will ever see this writing; my dad is still trying to figure out the difference between a fax and the World Wide Web – but I still feel some guilt because I know they are both very private people. A different reason for fearing disapproval, and I’m not sure it’s brave to ignore it, but I push on anyway. Because writing is what I do..

    1. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year also. It’s hard to watch the changes, though I do write down some of it because despite all the bad, some of the stuff she says is pretty funny. Or maybe scary. Dad is almost 20 years gone and Mom won’t see any of my writing. She is too afraid of ‘the evil internets’ to read the blog, and thinks she has read all of my novels, including the one I published years ago (that one is just in her head) – in reality she’s read none of them, and I doubt she would like them much. I am writing a novelized version of their lives – because I can’t rely on her facts, and there are just too many blanks to do it memoir-style. I hope she would approve. But I’ll never know. I’d say writing your reality, which is a tough one with what your mom is going through, is very brave. Push on indeed…

    1. My daughter reads (and loves) everything I’ve done. My son won’t touch it. Read about sex that HIS mommy wrote? Horrors! 🙂

  8. Julie, I laughed a bit as I read your article, thinking about my own writing habits. For the first draft, I write from the heart, letting it all pour out. When I finish the book, I’m exhilarated–for about ten minutes. I know that several major revisions and edits lie ahead, and my hardest work is yet to be done. The important thing, though, is that I got the story down–imperfect as it is. After I’ve indulged myself as a writer, I keep my reader in mind, hoping to recreate the best novel I can.

    1. I am exhilarated at the end also, not only because the first draft is done, but because I love the editing process. That’s the time to perfect it, as you say, make it the best you can. It’s the first draft where bravery is most required. Just getting it done, down on paper, to a place where you can take the time to edit. That’s the key for me.

  9. Excellent article. While I agree in principle, it’s very hard to be so searingly honest when you are juggling a full time job where the ‘powers that be’ might not appreciate that honesty.

    1. I suppose that depends on what you write. Except for my blog, I write mostly fiction. My boss and a few board members have read my work. So far, so good… :). I separate my 9-5 accountant persona from my writer-self and just go for it. Of course, I’d never write anything negative about my workplace or my employers/co-workers. That’s not brave, it’s professional suicide.

  10. Excellent article, Julie, funny and wise. I’m another one whose dad has dementia so I know he won’t read anything I write now. He was so proud of me being a writer but I don’t think he ever read anything I wrote other than my journalism. I think I self-censor quite a bit because there’s stuff I probably wouldn’t want my son to read – or my husband!

    1. Thanks, Mary. I know Mom and Dad are proud, even if they don’t know what I’m up to. I keep telling my son to separate me as mom from me as writer. He can’t do it.

  11. Great stuff, Julie. My soon to be published work has a fade-to-black sex scene or two. Both my daughters (in their thirties) went, “Ick, Yuck, Eeew!” and turned green at the very thought of dad writing that–stuff. Good job they’ll never get near the original version, which was closer to phew than eew!

    1. Thanks Pete! My next one has that too, but it’s not fear. it’s because the sex is between my parents. I grew up across the hall from them. I’ve had quite enough of their sex. 😀

  12. Great post, and very true. I see myself as a sweet, empathic person who wouldn’t hurt a fly…but I wrote about psychopaths. I suffered agonies the first time I sent that story out to my beta readers. I was terrified they’d stop talking to me. As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune – “Fear is the mind killer”. 🙂

  13. Sounds like we’re similar. I can barely squash a spider, and am happy and easy going. But in my fiction I kill folks in wonderfully messy ways, and subject my characters to all manner of addictions and abuse and peril. People I’ve known for some time get quizzical looks and say they had no idea I could even think of things like that. Perfect!

  14. Hi Julie,
    I love this post. Your advice is so perfect. Sometimes the writing process is scary, but at the same time it’s so freeing when you let yourself ‘just write’. I think about this a lot when I’m writing my blog posts. There’s so much more I want to say… Granted it’s a different format than a book, but none-the-less sometimes you just have to put it out there and see what happens. Nice piece of writing here and terrific advice! Thank you.

    1. Hi Nancy! Sometimes I think writing for a blog, especially one as personal as yours, requires even more bravery than for fiction. With fiction it’s you, but not really. Your blog is you and nothing but you, no hiding, no camouflage. And congratulations on the book 🙂

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