On self-doubt

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Apr 19, 2018
As usual I am own worst enemy as I work on my latest fiction, The Editor. It doesn't matter that people I admire have complemented my work; that I have published other successful books; that I have had things featured on the front covers of important magazines. What matters is that in my own mind I wonder how others could have made such terrible mistakes in finding my stuff worthy of publication in the first place. I don't need other critics. I do a a pretty thorough job of it myself. I got a little push yesterday, though, when I read that Barbara Kingsolver advised writers to give themselves permission to write a bad book, then go back to revise it into a good book. That was yesterday. Then today I got another message, this time from William James, one of the best, most lucid and fluent prose writers in American English. In a letter to a friend James said of his most recent book “If there is aught of good in the style of it, “it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified in a crude shape, I can torture and poke and scrape and pat at it till it offends me no more.”

So with that in mind I boot up, hunker down, and once again butt my head against the wall. Maybe this time the cracks will be in the wall.
Self-doubt is a writer's constant companion. But, it's better if you look at it benignly, rather than with loathing. It's proof that you want to do a good job, not that you haven't!

At some point, a writer has to get on their own side. The way I see it, is that everyone is a critic (especially in the internet age where anonymity rules), so why join the naysayers?

In the publishing process your book will meet these people: editorial assistants or freelance paid readers or work-experience interns who trawl through the slush pile, before a proper literary agent has a look, followed by underlings and decision-makers at a publisher who'll pass your story on to editors, then book cover artists and publicists. Printed, your book will be mulled over by critics (or totally ignored), accepted or rejected by book distributors and bookshops, then fingered by readers who'll post their own reviews online. Eventually, it might end up on a charity shop shelf, where it's offered as part of a buy-two-get-one-free £1 offer. From the moment it's in physical book form, it faces being pulped.

With all of that lot potentially against your story, it needs a protector—you!

Self-doubt afflicted even great writers, such as Charles Dickens who couldn't leave A Christmas Carol alone, constantly tinkering with it:

Charles Dickens Couldn't Stop Tinkering With 'A Christmas Carol'

I have a Persian ancestor, my Great-great-grandmother, who was of the Parsee people, a Zoroastrian community who were chased out of Persia in the Muslim conquest of the 7th-century, to settle mainly in India; the most famous Parsee was Freddie Mercury. I recall a painting of this lady on the wall of my grandmother's spare bedroom, alongside a framed Persian proverb:

He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool...shun him.

He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is willing...teach him.

He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep...awaken him.

He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise...follow him

I remembered that proverb and it's helped me navigate through life; just because someone is rich or in charge, doesn't mean they know what they're saying or doing. Now, that I'm a writer, I'm confident enough to believe in the last line about myself. The second line is my current state of thinking about querying and self-publishing.

At the moment, I'm dancing with doubt, trying to decide which way to go with my writing career. Fortunately, I have less self-doubt than I do suspicion and qualms about Amazon, blogging and the value of posting on social media to publicise myself and my novels.

So it goes, for in planning a route to take there are no accurate maps. I feel more like I'm surrounded by fog with a wonky compass, while invisible writing gurus shout advice to me, many of them wanting to sell me their guaranteed directions.

I'll find my own way. As Charles Bukowski said:

The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.

You have to utilise self-doubt, but don't let it overcome you. It's like walking a tightrope. On the one hand if you're too confident, you'll become arrogant and you won't see the flaws in your own work. On the other hand if you become consumed by self-doubt, you'll get too depressed and never be able to write everything.

I find the balance like this; I accept that my failures are my failures, but that my achievements are my achievements. I can succeed, if I have the will to do so. The person that wins is not the smartest, the strongest, the richest or the fastest, but the person that gives up last. If you stick at it, keep improving your manuscript, you will get there.

My only word of caution is to avoid 'tinkering'. If you're doing an edit it needs to have a purpose; you should be resolving a particular issue(s) e.g. altering the pace, removing passiveness, developing character etc. If you are just substituting a word for a similar word that doesn't add anything, you are wasting your time. If your manuscript still isn't working, you might need to zoom out and look at larger plot, concept or character issues. Putting your manuscript away for a few weeks, helps give you the cold eye you need for these kind of edits.

I did see your opening on pop up submissions and I thought your writing style was excellent. I felt it was lacking in terms of narrative, you might need to work out where the story really starts and start there. Writers often think that readers are less intelligent then they really are and often shove a load of exposition at the start of their story on the basis that they can't possibly let their reader loose until they understand everything (I've been guilty of this). It's better to try and reveal all the backstory narratively, that way the story that you are telling is progressing but at the same time you are drip feeding them information as and when they need to know it. Key word there is need, don't give your reader information for the sake of it, condense your exposition down to purely what the reader needs, not what you want them to know because 'I really like that bit', but what they really need to know. It also might help to imagine that your novel is a short story with a tight word count; if you had no choice but to condense it, where would you start the story?

Hope this helps.
It is possible to avoid being tortured by self-doubt, which is different than doubts, and still write well. It might even be necessary.

The belief that everyone has to suffer from self-doubt is a trapping of the idea of what a writer is rather than a truism.

I think.

To experience self-doubt is to doubt you're able to do something.
To experience doubt is to doubt that anything will come of it for anyone but yourself.

Doubt is being grounded in reality.
Self-doubt is unpleasant and has no benefit. It certainly isn't an unavoidable writing companion.
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