Thursday, January 16, 2014

Six Ways to Write Through Self-Doubt

by Erin Healy

At some point in the course of writing each of my novels, I’m overcome with certainty that my story is coming undone (or, if I’m just beginning, might never get off the ground). The pages of my manuscript take on the look of confetti that a light sneeze could obliterate. A simple thought paralyzes my creativity and confidence: You are not up to this task.

There was a time when I expected this anxiety to fade. Experience would lead to confidence. I don’t know why I thought this. I’ve been a published author for five years and a career editor for more than twenty, and the talented novelists I know routinely experience self-doubt, whether they’ve written one book or fifty. In fact, I’m wary of the work of writers who claim never to question their abilities.

Here are some of the ways we veterans outlast our inner critic:

Show up each day. Engage your novel in whatever condition it’s in. Worst-case scenario: your story is coming undone and you are not up to the task. Moaning this mantra from under a quilt can’t change the state of things. The only way to hold a work-in-progress together, discover real solutions, determine the actual value of the story, and improve your abilities is to keep doing the work. Showing up is the one self-disciplined action that solves most story problems.

Do what feeds your creativity. I like to walk, watch movies, and revisit books on storytelling technique and principle (such as Story, by Robert McKee). Reread your favorite novel, the one you wish you’d written. Hike a mountain, clean your house, visit the art museum with your best friend. Do whatever it is that gets you in the mood to show up. (Otherwise, you’re procrastinating.)

Get input from a trusted adviser who can talk you out of your dark hole of doubt and/or brainstorm solutions with you. With any luck that will be your editor, or a writer with more experience than you. You might only need an objective, qualified reader (not your mom) to tell you that the story is in fact quite good! Beware too much advice from too many sources, which can confuse rather than inspire.

Be actively patient in seeking a solution. Hold your story loosely so that it can become a surprising beauty. Generate new material but don’t throw anything away. Try new techniques. Hit your daily word-count goal with stream-of-consciousness dialog between you and a character about the problem you face. Write back story that probably won’t appear in the novel but might reveal what you need to know about your characters’ journeys. I often get unstuck by revisiting or extending my research. Write unplanned scenes that deviate from your outline. Or try writing an outline of the parts you haven’t imagined yet.

Treat your story kindly, like the parent of an adorable awkward adolescent, a fragile creature. Love its potential. Forgive its shortcomings.

Maintain your momentum. Thriller writers are genre writers, and part of what’s required to be a successful (i.e., money-making) genre author is the ability to accumulate a body of work in a concentrated amount of time. (A friend of mine has recently gone underground with a contract to produce serialized novels at the rate of 200,000 words in four months.) Inertia is a genre writer’s enemy. If you don’t have the luxury of a publisher willing to print on your schedule, you’ll probably have to accept that not all the novels you write will be equally excellent or inspired, no matter how hard you strive to best yourself each time. As with any discipline, the level of maturity you can attain in your craft and genre is directly related to the amount of practice you put into it. Each time your self-doubt rears its head, you’ll be better equipped to hold it in its proper place.

Erin Healy is an independent book editor and novelist who lives with her family in Colorado. Her new supernatural-suspense novel, Stranger Things, is the tale of a group of strangers working to bring down a sex trafficking ring in California. 


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

An excellent post, Erin. Thank you. Good to know that another author suffers from the same anxieties. Interesting that you hoped the doubts would fade with experience. I was hoping for the same (I'm working on novel #2 at present). In that case I'd better bookmark this to read when I need encouragement.

Erin Healy said...

Anxiety can work in our favor, that's the upside! If we let it, self-doubt can keep us sharp and always striving toward excellence. Best wishes on your second book, and all of them!

Ian A said...

Love these ideas, Erin. I'm in the process of writing backstory that won't appear and it;s creating a vision for parts of the novel I wasn't expecting.

Erin Healy said...

Such a great exercise, Ian, and often hard to do, because we might be tempted to feel it's "unproductive" (i.e., not adding to the real word count). But I think it's a wonderful way to discover what's most important to our characters. said...

Very poignant, and so very true. I'm a thriller/suspense writer, and I always feel—at some point during the writing process—that everything's falling off the rails, or that my work is just the worst heap of crap the world has ever seen.

I agree that if a writer claims to have never experienced self doubt, that's a sure sign that they're not to be trusted by readers. Self doubt never feels great, but it does do us writers one very significant favor: it keeps us humble and open to learning...always. It's when we think that there's nothing more to learn that our writing will truly be poor.

I also wrote a blog article that pertains to this very topic, as I think it's an important one for writers.

Erin Healy said...

Sloankady, your point about staying humble and open to learning is key. Would you mind sharing the link to your blog too?