When to leap before you look

It is conventional wisdom that in most situations it is wise to look before you leap. Imagine hiking along a trail and coming to a gully filled with a swift moving creek. If you simply kept stride and jumped across, you may only make it halfway, or you may land on a river stone, twisting an ankle, or the opposite bank may be sloped and muddy causing you to back slide into the water. Now if you pause at the edge of the trail and assess the distance, the conditions, and the landing zone, you would be able to make the best decision possible on how to handle the situation, be it turning back, finding a bridge, or running and long jumping the creek and landing in a reasonably safe spot. In this example, common sense should prevail to prevent delays, wet clothes, injury, or worse.

However, when is it not only permissible, but recommended that one approach a situation in a less cautious manner.

When is it a good idea to take that leap with little or no thought or preparation?

What we are really talking about here is taking risks. And what type of risks do readers and writers take? Well, not usually the physically dangerous kind. Although our characters may charge headlong into battle against a mighty gorgon wielding only a longbow and twin dirks, we typically do not. If you have done this, please let me know how it turned out.

I suggest we look at risk taking not as a blind leap but more of a calculated effort. Writers by nature tend to be thinkers and often think so much that indecision creeps in like a scorpion, stinging us into a paralysis of sorts. So let’s look at the usual writing risks and discuss how to overcome them.

1. Writing – The risk here is that you will spend time writing fiction that could productively be spent elsewhere. My advice, don’t write instead of working to provide for your family. Write in addition to working to provide for your family. If you have important obligations within your family, don’t neglect them to write. Most aspiring and many published novelists keep their day jobs and still produce and sell. Reduce the risk and find a good a time to write that doesn’t interfere with the other important aspects of your life. Warning, don’t rank writing so low on the priority list that you’re not writing at all because you are trying to stay current on seventeen TV shows.

2. Writing well – The risk here is that the writing produced isn’t very good. And for most beginning writers, that will be true. As with any skill, it must be used and developed with mistakes made to get any better. I read somewhere that it takes approximately 1 million written words for a writer to achieve a level of expertise that is considered professional and publishable. Reduce the risk of poor writing by writing a lot and persisting through the challenging learning curve. Expect obstacles and frustration but work through them. If not, you risk giving up on writing and that would be unacceptable.

3. Selling/Publishing – This is where the risks for a writer create the same type of fear or exhilaration that a physically dangerous situation may create for an extreme sports junkie. For writers, the risk is facing rejection and that is one of the hardest things to bear. We may take it personally and question our writing ability and our place in the literary world. How to overcome? If you have achieved a level of proficiency to where your work is of high caliber, has been edited and beta read and is the best possible version of your story, then the bigger risk is that it will collect dust in your office, or remain a file full of bytes, never seen by anyone. Again, after tens of thousands of word and countless hours, would you be content to let your story mothball? Unacceptable. So, the lesser risk is facing rejection. We all know the story of how Sylvester Stallone faced hundreds of rejections for the Rocky script before finding a home where he would also be the lead actor. His career took off from there and it was because of persistence and believing in his work. This is the key, believe in yourself, learn to write at a professional level and the risks are minimized.

Now let me share two recent writing risks I’ve taken to prove that I take my own advice. First, this blog. I had never considered starting a writing blog until I read a post at Suite101.com explaining why novelists, even aspiring ones, should start a blog. I read it, thought about it a bit, and then one Saturday, logged onto WordPress.com and started posting. For those of you who know we well, this was definitely a leap. I didn’t research for weeks on blogs and blogging and what I would say and would it be worth anything. If I had looked first, I may still be researching the best approaches to blogging, getting lost in the sea of endless tips available on the web.

My second leap, if you will, is joining an online writer’s group. I subscribe to a newsletter from a prominent fantasy author who is sponsoring a forum for virtual writer’s groups. My instinct was to wait and see, watch and learn, think about it, blah blah blah. But, my awesome wife, who knows me too well, said to just sign up and do it. So I did. And I’ve found myself a very active member of the group and have made some new acquaintances in the writing world. Is this a real risk? It is only a risk it that I’m facing the unknown and stepping into the darkness. This is my first writing group of any kind and I have no idea what to expect. But, I think the greater risk again is missing out on the feedback and the camaraderie that comes from working with peers to support and guide writing careers. Writers may work alone, but we do not and should not dwell on an island.

It takes discretion and good judgment to know when to look first and when it is okay to leap first. It is my belief, that as writer’s we can and take more risks with our writing and our careers. We should not vacillate or hesitate too much or we risk missing opportunities to learn and grow as writers and eventually to match our stories with an eager reading audience.



5 responses to “When to leap before you look

  • Leanne

    I agree that writers shouldn’t be averse to taking risks, and I’m also starting to push myself more in the area. My biggest risk of late has been signing up for a creative writing course, something that I was deliberating over for weeks (probably down to fear of the unknown, of being back in the classroom again and of worrying that I’m simply not good enough), but finally decided to bite the bullet and go for it.

    As writers we all need to take leaps of faith sometimes if we’re going to progress, otherwise how can we complain if we don’t amount to anything? Nothing ventured nothing gained. Then we just have to hope that it’ll all start to pay off!

  • Nate

    I’m also a believer that taking risks is an important part of success. I tend to be an over-analyzer in a lot of decisions that I make. But I’ve found that there’s truth to the saying, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

    At times when I’ve been faced with analysis paralysis yet had the courage to plunge ahead with boldness, I’ve found that many of the decisions that seemed so difficult to make in the planning stages became much clearer and easier to make later on.
    Similarly, when I’ve cast aside feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure, and have taken on a challenge boldly, the task became less and less daunting along the way.
    I have a mentor who taught me, “you have to know that you made the right decision with the information you had at the time.” Sometimes you can’t have all the information up front. I agree with the idea in your post that this shouldn’t necessary mean a refusal to decide. For me this occasional boldness has opened some doors to success that otherwise would have remained closed.

  • MJT

    One of the buzzes I hear in the world of day jobs is taking a “risk based approach.” We cannot often eliminate risk, but should be cognizant of the rewards and balance both. In many cases the upside is far greater than the downside, but we may not see that until we step further into the dark and outside of our comfort zone.


  • Scott

    Mark, very well said. I appreciate your stopping by my blog, and it made me want to check yours out as well. I’m looking forward to reading more of your words.

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