Thursday, 25 August 2011

Losing Confidence In Your Writing

I don't think there's a writer alive who, at some point, hasn't looked at their work and thought: That's rubbish.  

I do it all the time, throughout the writing process.  The flip side is I also get moments when I'm thrilled by my cunningness at plotting, my abilities to create new words (like cunningness), my nifty bits of description.  I ricochet from despair to elation and back again, like one of those pendulum games that used to be a fixture of every executive desk in the 1970s, eventually settling for: It'll have to do.

What I can do without is outside comment that it's rubbish.  It's a strange thing - I don't mind reading between the lines when my writing friends tread gingerly round the rubbish writing question - 'No, no, it's fine, I just wasn't sure you'd got the right approach...' Then, I'm quite happy to have a giggle at my own idiocy and get re-writing.  

But outsider comment is lethal, especially when that person might have a stake in it like an agent or an editor.  I once sent my agent a synopsis for a novel I was 20,000 words into.  She didn't like it.  I stopped writing immediately and started something new, not because I didn't like what I'd already written but because I'd lost confidence in it.  My editor occasionally volunteers to have at look at work-in-progress, but I refuse - I know my limitations and one negative from her would scupper the whole thing.  

So, how to cope if your outsider comments are coming from real outsiders, by which I mean people who you are writing to on spec, like agents and publishers? 

1.  Only send out work that you are as confident in as it is humanly possible to be.

2. Get a friend (or friends, even better) to vet your submission before you send out in case there's some major league problem you haven't noticed.  (I recently looked at one where they'd forgotten to put their contact details anywhere in the package.  Strange but true.)

3. Send out multiple submissions so one negative response doesn't derail you.

4. Send out multiple submissions so one positive response doesn't derail you.

5.  Put all comments you receive, both negative and positive, to one side for at least 48 hours until you've calmed down and can attempt to be rational about them.

6.  Ask a friend to read any comments.  Their take may be quite different from yours - I once consoled a tearful recipient of what was supposed to be the most soul destroying letter in the world.  It was full of nice, albeit slightly guarded, comments, and a request for more.  The teary writer had only registered the qualifiers and hadn't taken in the request for more.

7.  Build a support network.  It could be writing friends, it could be your mum, it could be your partner.  It could be people on Twitter, Facebook, it could be anyone.  But a support team is vital to keep you going in those dark moments when you know you're rubbish, your writing is rubbish, there's no point to carrying on. 

8.  Use negative feedback as a spur.  It's fine to wallow in misery for a short while after receiving a rejection, but far more useful is to grab your 'I'll show them,' attitude and use the energy to get writing again.  

9.  No one has to write.  It's not compulsory.  I make my living from writing, but there are other jobs I could do.  Tell yourself you can walk away from writing - but if a spark flares up inside you that you don't want to walk away, then use that spark to motivate yourself again.  

10.  I look back at stuff I've written and some of it IS rubbish.  And some of it is really quite good.  But it rarely coincides with what I thought was rubbish or good at the time.  You are not always your best judge, but time and experience can help to make you so.  

I think all of us writers have to accept that we can be both rubbish and brilliant at the same time and just because someone gives you a negative opinion today, it doesn't mean there won't be a positive one tomorrow.  Positive, negative, rejection, acceptance, brilliant or rubbish.  These are words we have to live with if we want to be writers, two sides of the same coins.  


Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Thanks for writing this today. I'm doing a rewrite. It's wearing me out. I have been on a high about bits of it that are working well. Now I've hit quicksand and I am sinking into the 'slough of despond' once more. You're right - we don't have to do this, but I've invested eighteen months in this work and it is nearly 'there'. The problem is I don't know if anyone is going to share my opinion that it's worth doing. Anyway, I shall wade on because I promised myself I would get it up to the required level, or at the very least finish it! I have set myself one major deadline with it. After that, we'll see.

Good luck with yours. Remember your fan base. We like reading yours and we're looking forward to your next one.

Tringyokel said...

What a timely post. I have just posted on my own blog about rewriting a short story for a competition. This was prompted by comments from another writer about how the story could be improved.

Point number eight is particularly relevant to me. Our local writing circle held a competition earlier this year. I wrote what I thought was a good story and it came seventh. (There were only six other entries)

This spurred me on to start submitting stories and perhaps now is the time to revisit that entry to see why it didn't win.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you for this, Sarah. It really stuck a chord with me because only last night I went to bed full of despair because my almost-completed first draft was sinking into a morass. I was tempted to delete the whole thing--but decided to sleep on it first. And yet only last week I thought it had promise.

Then I read this post, followed by Fiona's comment (which sums up exactly how I feel. I, too, am worn out.) I've taken another look and now I can see a clear path out and am more optimistic.

The funny thing is, I can face criticism from others--especially professionals because any such comments show that someone else has taken the time and trouble to read and assess it. (My Mum doesn't count, by the way. She thinks I'm a genius whatever I do, which is lovely, but galling.) No, it's my own stupid emotions that get in my way.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rubbishness is often a hard thing to gauge. Length is easy and weight and temperature but it’s hard to measure how rubbish something is with the naked eye. That’s because our eyes are attached to our brains and before our brains can do anything of much use they require calibration and that takes time. I look at some of the works of staggering genius ‘what I wrote’ when I was young and I just shudder. How could I not have realised even then that what I was doing wasn’t very good? These days I’m a much better judge but I’m still not the best person to ask. The only problem with involving other people is that they want to fiddle with the piece to make it meet their standards. I’ve just had two good friends whose opinions I can trust read over my next book and both had problems with it because it wasn’t a) what they expected after reading my other work and b) what they would have done with the material themselves. Reader expectation is a difficult one. Look at all the kerfuffle when Dylan went electric. What both readers recognised is that I’d done things for a reason even if they couldn’t quite grasp the reason. As a thank you for the work they put in I sent them both a copy of the novel that I had based my book on which should help them understand where I was coming from. I do worry though that my book is rubbish. It’s hard not to. It does what I set out to do. I picked it up after not looking at it in about six years and I was immediately caught up in it but maybe I just like rubbish. One day someone will invent a rubbishometer and that will solve all our problems but for now all we can do is live with that nagging doubt and get on with it.

Josa Young said...

You so SO RIGHT. Just the word feedback makes me want to turn up my toes. and when you get positive feedback, it's like a drug. You want more and more. My ancient MIL is currently very helpful critical appreciative reader.

Sarah Duncan said...

Fiona - Sorry to hear you're in the slough of despond. Keep the faith and get your rewrite finished, then - when you're feeling strong - look around for some feedback. We are often very hard on our own writing, so need some outside compass points. Thanks for your nice comments on my writing!

Tringyokel - Ouch! But a competition that only attracts 7 entries isn't a major event - and who were the judges? Reading what does win comps is good, reading lots of other people's work is good, reading full stop is good - it all helps you learn to judge your own work more effectively.

Sally - Never, ever delete stuff because today you think it's rubbish. Tomorrow may be quite different. Sorry - and amazed - to hear you're feeling down about your writing; when I was starting out I kept seeing your name in the winning lists for all the writing comps I was entering (and failing). Proof that lack of confidence happens to us all.

Jim - hurry up and invent that rubbishometer! We'd all want one - you'd be a winner in the Dragon's Den. Until then you're quite right, the answer is to just get on with it.

Josa - a good reader, one who is both critical and appreciative is worth their weight in gold. Cherish your MIL.