Is the story good enough? Are you really a good writer? Do you have the chops to tell the story that you care about? Are you working on the right story? Can this be fixed?
Every writer has doubts along the way. They may be tied to something as abstract as imposter syndrome or an inferiority complex. They may be as real as the negative voices of teachers, parents, and editors taking residence in your head. Or as specific as a line that maybe hilarious — or hackneyed.
Doubt is just fine when it spurs us to rise to our better selves, when it pushes us to better prose and storytelling. It’s less than worthless when it turns to quicksand and bring work to a halt. Or a career to a halt. It also can, insidiously, infect our work. Confidence is something that readers (including editors and agents) can sense. And long for. They want to be swept away by a writer who is confident. Who brings, not just talent and craft, but judgment and taste.
I’ve written in the past about instilling confidence. This time, I have a few notes on dispelling doubt.
Lack of experience. Stephen King famously tossed Carrie in the trash. He felt it was ridiculous for him to tell a story from the point of view of a teenaged girl, based not much more (in his view) than having cleaned restrooms in a high school. Luckily his wife was there to reassure him and provide encouragement. She had the experience of being a teenaged girl, after all.
You can look for people who have lived lives similar to your characters and bring your work to them. They might not read a novel, but they are likely to read and comment on a well-drawn scene. Or, even better, to answer specific questions about their experiences.
Even more fundamentally, by virtue of having lived your own life, you have relevant and authentic experiences to draw upon. You may not have been tortured in the Inquisition, but you probably have suffered pain and fear. The classic war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was written by a man who had never been in a battle, but who knew what failure and panic felt like. To those, he added a vivid imagination. Most children’s books are not written by children, but, somehow, they hit the mark.
Lack of credentials. We all love hierarchies, wonderful human constructs that tell us what our roles are. And assure others that we can be trusted to draw up their wills or perform open heart surgery on them. While credentials for nonfiction might be important in some cases, there are no essential certifications for storytelling. Many people in the arts, in fact, only get to join professional organizations after they have had paying gigs.
But it’s very easy to get caught up in the letters after names or accomplishments no one is born having. You have the right to write. Period. No one can tell you you can’t tell your stories. Except you. And why would you stop yourself because you don’t have an MFA or a completed script? If you write, you’re a writer.
There are some people who fret about grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. They never got what they needed in grade school or high school. Or, worse, they got lots of discouragement (because it’s easier to point to one of these errors than to respond to a story). Here’s why, though this might matter, it is not fundamentally important:
There are armies of people with impeccable credentials eager to edit you spelling and grammar to perfection.
It’s mechanical stuff. More and more of the task is being taken over by software. Great storytelling, on the other hand, is rare. And Artificial Intelligence has not provided us with masterpieces or even best sellers.
The best news is that reading and writing regularly tend to lead to fewer mechanical flaws in prose, at least in the final draft. Coincidentally, this is likely to lead to continuous improvement of the storytelling, too.
Challenges of scale. Mostly, this has to do with big projects (though I know some novelists who would shudder if asked to write a short story). It is possible to dedicate months — many months — to writing a novel or a screenplay that doesn’t turn out.
Sometimes, this has to do with concepts that are underdeveloped or inappropriate for the chosen medium. Which is one reason I believe, once, say, thirty pages of a novel are completed, it’s time to write arguments to yourself about why the work must be finished. This serves the purpose of getting you past the inevitable “this stinks” moment about 3/4 of the way through. It also provides a well-informed vetting of the project. With words on paper, you may see that the choice is not good. And you can quit without having made a substantial investment.
Sometimes, the project is full of promise, but the writer does not have the skills yet. This is not tragic, even though it won’t feel great. Almost all writers stretch and develop their craft by pushing at the limits of capabilities. That how those capabilities increase. Most first novels and first scripts (and sometimes tenth novels and tenth scripts) end up shoved in a drawer or under the bed. These are not failures. They are part of the education experience.
Criticism. This is probably the biggest source of doubt. You show your work to someone and they bury you in negativity. (Few people have the good sense to tell you what you’re doing right.) Sometimes, within the pile (or behind the one cutting remark), there is something worth learning. For these, I write down the criticism and return to it when I am calm and confident. That’s when analysis can be useful.
Sometimes, they are well-meaning, but completely wrong. There’s no food for the doubt monster in those comments. I get them most often when I look for expert opinion on facts and the person volunteers story fixes. Recognize some comments are worthless. This comes across most obviously when just one person makes that point. (Although, oral comments in a writers’ group can, unfortunately , take on a life of their own as groupthink asserts itself.)
Sometimes, the criticisms are packed with emotion. Because people can be dark. Because people have their own issues. Here’s a truth worth learning. Anyone who berates you as a person when they critique is not worth listening to. Anyone who makes a comment on a manuscript in a way that is intended to make you feel bad can be ignored. In fact, these people should, if possible, never see your work again. The trolls are out there. Avoid them.
The doubt monster (mostly) is not your friend. Are the doubts sometimes true? Of course. All of us are flawed writers just as we’re flawed human beings. You learn, over time, to be good enough in some areas so readers will appreciate it when you go with your strengths. It’s fine to work (but not obsess) on your limits in craft, emotional engagement, concepts, and storytelling. But don’t expect perfection. It is often the flaws that reveal the real treasure.