I was intending to do this as one of the writing podcasts but I’m fighting against another return of the Vile Lurgy, so to spare you my coughs and splutters I’ll do it as a regular blog post.
Recently I received a lovely email from reader Alyssa, who asked me what advice I’d give to aspiring writers about the demon of self-doubt and the need for external validation of the work. It’s a great question, and I wanted to answer it in a more public forum because I’m pretty sure Alyssa’s not the only writer who sometimes struggles with these issues.
The ugly truth is that self-doubt is the writer’s constant companion. Okay, there might be some writers who never have a wobbly moment but honestly? I’m inclined to disbelieve the ones who say they never wobble … and the ones who really don’t wobble aren’t the kind of writers I want to read. A smidgin of self-doubt is, in fact, a healthy thing for a writer. A smidgin of self-doubt keeps us honest. It helps to keep us free of laziness, of complacency, it discourages the urge to rest on our laurels or the success of our earlier books. A smidgin of healthy self-doubt is to be encouraged.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: storytelling is a two-way street. A story without an audience is fairly pointless, and an audience in search of a story is a sad, sad sight. But storytelling also involves obligation. When the storyteller is asking the audience to stump up their hard-earned cash for the story, they must give in return the very best story they can write. Every time. No phoning it in. To do less than that is to dishonour the craft and the compact between writer and reader. The writer must also accept the verdict of the audience. If somebody doesn’t like the story you wrote, then suck it up. They didn’t like it. They get not to like it. They also get to say they didn’t like it. And there’s no law that says they have to be polite about it, either! That’s the risk a writer takes when they offer their story to the public. If you can’t deal with that you’re in the wrong business.
(As to what the reader owes the writer? Well, I think the writer is owed the freedom to write the story they want to write, without being told they were wrong or stupid to want to tell that story, or that they didn’t tell it the right way, or that the characters should have done something else, something the reader wanted them to do. The reader can offer an opinion on the work but that doesn’t make the writer obligated to act upon it. Writing is not a democracy. Of course, if enough people say the same things about a weakness in your work, you’re smart to pay attention. You know what they say: if one person tells you you’re drunk, shrug it off. If ten people tell you, go lie down. )
But … back to self-doubt and the need for validation!
I think nurturing the habit of healthy self-doubt is the best way to ensure that the contract between writer and reader is honoured. If a writer adopts ‘Always do better than last time’ as a mantra, instead of ‘Near enough is good enough’, it’s almost guaranteed that the work will at least maintain its quality, if not improve from story to story. So investing in the habit of always challenging yourself from draft to draft, project to project, of always asking yourself Can I make that sentence more exciting, more precise? Can I expand my vocabulary to keep the prose vibrant and fresh? Can I find a new way to approach this story problem? How can I improve the snappiness of my dialogue? Is this good enough? Can I do better? is a healthy way to doubt your own work.
But note — this isn’t about saying to yourself: Oh, I’m crap, I can’t write, nobody will want to read this rubbish, I might as well give up and grow watercress.
That kind of self-doubt is unhealthy. That’s the self-doubt that undermines your progress, that brings an unfinished story to a screeching halt, that sees it shoved into a drawer or stored in a folder on the computer or dumped into the trash bin and emptied into the ether before you ever get the chance to learn that in fact you’ve told a great story.
Many many writers fall prey to unhealthy self-doubt. Some are aspiring writers, but not all. I confess that on occasion I still allow myself to wallow in unhealthy self-doubt. It was that kind of thinking which saw me take years to finish my first fantasy novel, The Innocent Mage. Yes, then I was still aspiring, but it was also that kind of thinking which made The Falcon Throne such a tough book to write. I was stepping way, way out of my comfort zone, I was taking a huge risk, and I was so scared I ended up paralysed with the wrong kind of self-doubt.
It’s insidious, you know. Unhealthy self-doubt. It has such power over us. Why? Because writing is so important. Often the act of storytelling is a vital part of our psyche, it’s who we are, it helps define us to ourselves and to the world. Without that creative act we are incomplete. Sometimes we can even feel invalid, as though we don’t exist without it. Unhealthy self-doubt is a swamp monster, sucking the life out of us, the joy, the creative spark, until we’re empty husks.
But it is beatable. I’m living, writing proof of that. I’m currently writing my 19th novel. If I can beat the demons, so can you.
The most important thing to remember is that unhealthy self-doubt is – for most if not all writers – part of the process. I wish it wasn’t, but it is. And it’s almost impossible to escape, so don’t even try. When you hear those ugly whispers in the back of your mind, when the little taunting voice that lives deep inside your mind starts up with its white-anting, take a deep breath, stop what you’re doing, and acknowledge what’s happening. You’re having a wobbly moment. The swamp monster’s off its chain. But you have the power to leash it again. You don’t have to stop forever, to give in.
Look at it this way. When you’re training for some kind of athletic event, a 5k run or even a marathon, there will be days when your legs hurt. When you feel like you’re not getting any fitter despite all your training. Or you could be actually running the race. Somewhere along the line you feel puffed, you feel your feet blister or get a stitch in your side or your legs start to cramp. At that point it feels like you’ll never make it. You’ve failed. It’s too hard. The end will never come.
That’s the point where you have 2 choices: keep going, or quit. Quitting might be easier in the short term, but in the long term all you’ve done is fed the swamp monster. You’ve confirmed all the doubts, all the nasty jabs about not being good enough. And if you do that, you only make it harder to beat the swamp monster next time. If there even is a next time!
So you’re not going to quit. Instead you’re going to take a time out, to think about why the swamp monster has started growling. Is it really the work, or did something else happen in your life that made you feel wobbly and this is how your psyche responds? Or is this a case of your subconscious trying to tell you that you’ve started writing yourself down the wrong road, or into a corner? Or have you just finished reading somebody else’s book and has it rattled you because it’s so good, so perfect, you just know you’ll never write anything so wonderful? Or has somebody you know just landed a publishing contract, the contract you want, and you’re jealous and unsure and worried that now there won’t be a place for your story?
Whatever the reason, you need to look it in the face. Breathe your way through it, find a way to deal with it, then get back to work. Or else you can quit. There’s no law that says you have to be a writer. It’s not like there’s a shortage of writers in the world. Could be you thought writing was for you, turns out that it’s not. That’s okay. If that’s your truth, embrace it.
But if it is a case of the swamp monster messing with your head, get it sorted. Face the doubts, unpack them, disinfect them with some sunlight and rational, objective thought. Then start work again, one word at a time. One sentence at a time. One paragraph at a time. One page at a time. One chapter at a time. One foot in front of the other until you reach the end. There is no way to get there except by doing it. The act of doing in the face of fear is a supreme act of faith. It’s a declaration of trust and belief in yourself. You can’t control the future. You can’t make an agent take you on, an editor offer you a contract. All you can control is the story you’re telling. The quality of the work. So focus on that. Pour all your emotional energy into telling your story the best way you can.
Bottom line? However many times you need to stare down the swamp monster, you stare it down. Because it’s that, or quit. Do you want to quit? Do you want to die never knowing if you could have been a great storyteller? No? Then keep going. It’s as hard and as simple as that, my friends. Quit, or keep going. Ignore the messy emotions, the angst, the teeth gnashing and the despair, the excuses, the rationalisations, the orgy of self-indulgent wailing. Quit, or keep going. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. It only matters that you keep on getting up. It’s no guarantee you will get published, of course. But quitting guarantees that it won’t happen, ever.
And now for a word about validation. Everybody needs it. Every writer needs it. Don’t believe a writer who tells you they don’t care if nobody likes their work. That’s just them telling themselves the lie they need to hear to keep on going. Every writer needs validation. The trick is to know when that need is getting in the way.
I’ve had validation for my work in a variety of ways. I received some really important encouragement from a couple of my lecturers in university. I received some amazing feedback from readers of my fan fiction, back in the day. The feedback I received from professional editors on the old Del Rey SFF Writers Workshop website kept me going at a couple of crucial points prior to publication. And these days the emails I get from readers lift me up when I’m at my lowest point. A handful of award nominations also help to validate me, as do some reviews. This feedback gives me something to lean on when I’m at my most vulnerable.
But if you let the swamp monster take control of your life, you run the risk of getting addicted to validation, to seeking it out over and over and over again, instead of focusing on the work. And if you get complacent, you can use validation as an excuse for not working harder, for not demanding more of yourself in the work.
Every writer needs a positive reality check. We need somebody to look at the work and tell us no, we’re not mad to think we can do this, we’re not crazy to think we can tell a good story. Writing is a lonely business. At the end of the day, writers sit by themselves in a room playing with people who don’t exist. Let’s face it: it’s not the sanest way to spend a few hours. Losing perspective is dauntingly easy. So hearing someone say Hey, I really enjoyed reading that, can I read some more? goes a long way to reassuring us that we’re not really nuts and we’re not wasting our energy and saying no to spending time with family and friends for nothing.
A little healthy validation can mean the difference between quitting and not quitting. When the swamp monster’s raging, remembering some great feedback can give us the strength to keep on keeping on. Just remember to stay balanced about it – and don’t let its tail start wagging the dog.
I hope these thoughts have been helpful. If you have any other questions, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll do my best to answer them!