Yesterday I talked to three different writers who were plagued by doubt. That wasn’t the purpose of our conversation, of course – the purpose was to get the words on the page to reflect the story in their heads, and to engage their readers, and to win over agents and editors. But doubt was at the center of the conversation nonetheless.
Without using real names, I want to talk to you about each of these people, because they are writing very different books for very different reasons and from very different stages in their career, and yet every single one of them was feeling exactly the same thing. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that we ALL have a chorus of naysayers in our head shouting at the top of their lungs, and that we will never be free of them. The only way forward is to just sit down and write.
This writer booked a Creative Strategy Session with me because she had at long last come to the end of her first draft of her first novel. She was so excited, and wanted a professional opinion as to whether or not it was any good. “Tell me the truth,” she said, “I can take it.”
The truth was that, while she had accomplished this amazing thing by writing all those pages, she had written a very flat story. It was filled with cliché characters, long paragraphs where the was writer just telling the reader what happened (as opposed to showing us, letting us in, giving us something to FEEL), and nothing that resembled an actual scene (where something happens, where something changes, where tension mounts, decisions are made, and stakes are raised.) I told her this, in as gentle a way as I could, using specific examples to show her why I had made this judgment.
Her response was to get defensive and to argue with me to try to convince me that I was wrong, that what I was talking about was just her style of writing. I was not wholly surprised because this tends to happen a lot; it happens all the time to me. I often think that what I have written is the most brilliant thing imaginable, and I am gobsmacked when other people don’t agree. It takes me awhile to process the feedback. So I carefully tried to go back in and explain to this writer that this wasn’t a question of style. There are, in fact, fundamental principles of good storytelling and she had failed to adhere to them.
We went around like this for a few times, when all of a sudden, she got it. “Oh,” she said, “Oh no! I see what you are saying!” And then she asked the question that is far more brutal than tell me the truth about your writing. “Tell me,” she said, “If you think there is any hope.”
It breaks my heart just to write that. But isn’t that the question at the root of all doubt? You think, Maybe I suck, maybe I can’t do this, maybe I was totally deluded, maybe I should take up knitting (she actually said this), maybe I wasted a year of my life on this.
My answer was that of course there is hope. There is always hope. I do not have a magic wand to wave to make her draft any better than it is, but the way forward is clear: learn the skills you need to learn, study the craft of writing, keep trying, keep reading, keep writing, keep seeking help, keep on keeping on. Writing books that people want to read is not so much about talent as it is about hard work and persistence and patience.
Up next was an expert in a field that I can’t mention, but this expert has had a bird’s eye view of some recent newsworthy events. This expert – let me call her Joanne – also happens to have a long list of writing credits at major national publications of exceptional literary merit. On the basis of a very short 5-page proposal (that incidentally took her several months to prepare), she has signed with a top New York agent. She has also secured a full year of financial support from an organization I can’t mention. You cannot be in a stronger position at the outset of a book project. You cannot get any more assurance than this that you are on the right track. And yet? Joanne asked, “Who am I to write this book?”
I would have laughed if the question hadn’t been so sincere. But really, who is anyone to write a book? No one is immune from needing to ask that question, and it will be one of the first questions that agents, editors and readers ask of your project. They want to know who they are listening to, and why they should care.
For first-time writers, part of the answer is going to have to do with your plan for connecting with readers and finding your toehold in the marketplace. But there’s also another part of the answer, which applies to absolutely everyone, including this superstar. And that answer is, who are not to write it?
Just by virtue of wanting to write a book, and through the power of acting on that desire, you set yourself apart from other people who either haven’t conceived of a book idea or who only have had vague thoughts about wanting to be a writer.
Finally, there was a writer whom I shall call Betsy. At the request of the editor who has published her last two books, and her agent, Betsy was working on the proposal for her third book. Those first two books were both New York Times bestsellers, reviewed everywhere, totally beloved. Betsy is popular speaker in a number of arenas that I can’t mention here (is this driving you nuts?? Sorry!) But Betsy has never had to do a proposal before, so she came to me for help. It was the 11th hour, and she was panicking. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, “I started, but it’s very, VERY rough. Help!”
Here is an author whose big juicy deal was already in the bag, who had the support of a team of pulishing professionals who support and adore her, who has a massive reader fanbase -- and even SHE was filled with doubt.
This should make you feel better. Because the truth is that we are all filled with doubt about our writing. No one is immune, and no one ever gets out from under it.
So if you are feeling doubt about your work, feel it. Wallow in it. Get down and dirty with it. But then stop, and keep writing.