Sunday, July 10, 2011

Writers and Doubt

James Scott Bell


"Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you." – Satchel Paige 


You want to be a writer? You are a writer? Welcome to the world of doubt.

Dick Simon (of Simon & Schuster) once said, "All writers are scared to death. Some simply hide it better than others."

Why should that be? Even after one has reached the hallowed halls of publication? Even while in the midst of what might termed a career?

Because there is always lurking the idea that the rug may be snatched away. That some little dog will pull aside the curtain and reveal you there, a fraud after all. Even the top writers in the game get this feeling. No less a luminary than Stephen King cops to it.


Another reason excellent writers experience doubt is, ironically, excellence itself. Because these authors keep setting their standards higher, book after book, and know more about what they do each time out. That has them wondering if they can make it over the bar they have set. Many famous writers, unable to deal with this pressure, have gone into the bar itself, and stayed late.

Jack Bickham, a novelist who was even better known for his books on the craft, put it this way:

"All of us are scared: of looking dumb, of running out of ideas, of never selling our copy, of not getting noticed. We fiction writers make a business of being scared, and not just of looking dumb. Some of these fears may never go away, and we may just have to learn to live with them."

Yes, you learn to live with them, but how? The most important way is simply to pound away at the keyboard.

You write.

As Dennis Palumbo, author of Writing from the Inside Out, put it, "Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing."

If a writer were to tell me he never has doubts, that he's just cocksure he's the Cheez-Wiz of literature, I know I will not want to read his work. That's why I think doubts are a good sign. They show that you care about your writing and that you're not trying to skate along with an overinflated view of yourself.

The trick is not to let them keep you from producing the words.

Don't ever let the waves of doubt stop you. Body surf them back to shore, let the energy of them flow through your fingertips. That's the only real "secret" to this game.

What about you? Ever feel doubts? What's your preferred method of handling it?

41 comments:

  1. The doubts are sometimes paralyzing. Sometimes feeling I'm not good enough to pull off a particular story, or more often, worry that I haven't researched something well enough and that I'll make a stupid mistake.

    You're right-only thing I've found to combat the never-ending stream of doubts is making myself write anyway. Sometimes it comes out drivel, but I also often find that a scene I was doubting myself on turns out better than I thought.

    BK Jackson

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  2. Great post. I'm hounded by doubts :). I usually talk them over with a friend or my mom (she knows more about the stories I've concocted anyone else). Sometimes it's counter-productive, but it does help sometimes.

    Otherwise, I might put a few hours on a game (computer or console) then come back it. Recharge and let those awesome gentlemen in the basement have crack at the things bothering me. Ice cream and chocolate help too. It's hard for me to feel bad about my work when I have got either in large supply. They have gotten me through a few long painful days and nights.

    Still, you're right that the only way through is through.

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  3. Doubt hits me at various stages of writing a book. It seems to ebb and flow.

    One of my favorite authors, Robert Crais, said that he writes in constant fear, but he trusts the talent that got him where he is today. I have that posted near my computer.

    Nice post. Jim.

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  4. Great post Mr. Bell,

    I love how you humanize what we writers do and consistently level the playing field by pointing out that writing, sitting in the chair and hammering out the words is the way we do what we do.

    Who said "Write Hot - Edit cold"?

    Doubting yourself can be a viscious cycle of despair.

    I agree with you that we authors set the bar high because we love words, our characters, their stories, and we worry that we'll never get them across that great finish line with the style that they deserve.

    When I meet my weekly word count goal I have the basis I need to humbly look self-doubt in the face and say, "There. I've done the work. I found the courage to face off with you and guess what? We've got a story here."

    The Kill Zone forum is one of my favorite ways to fight self-doubt. These discussions are solid gold, and I want to thank each and every one of the authors who post here for sharing your thoughts, doubts, success stories, tips, and suffering.

    Thank you for leveling the playing field.

    Paula

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  5. How to tell if a writer has doubts? They're breathing. It happens to us all.
    The technical term for much of this is the "imposter syndrome." We keep waiting for someone to jump out from behind a bush and say, "I know you. You have no talent. Why are you trying to impersonate a writer?"
    My answer? Frankly, I don't have one. I just slog on and hope that somewhere along the line I'll get a smidgeon of validation.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  6. This is exactly what I needed to hear today. I especially love the Palumbo quote. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  7. Thanks for the great comments, all.

    Paula, I'm touched by your kind words, and I know my blog mates feel the same way. Thanks for making this a regular stop.

    Jordan's comment reminded me of something. I saw an interview with Dean Koontz at his massive home. He has a big, enclosed room of just shelves of his books, foreign editions included. He says he'll sometimes go in there and look around and say to himself, "See? I did it before. I can do it again."

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  8. Holy cow, I doubt myself every day. And now that I'm in revision, doubt tempts me to delete absolutely everything. The trick for me is revising without losing the heart of the book.

    Thanks, James, for your constant inspiration!

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  9. doubt can absolutely be paralyzing. And for me the key is to not let my fear prevent me from reaching success.
    As you say, when I'm doubting myself, I write more. I open my head and let it out. I can edit later.

    I also agree that if a writer doesn't doubt themselves at all, that's not likely a writer I want to read. Doubt shows care, concern and passion.
    The trick is to balance it.
    Thanks for the great post.
    Elena

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  10. I may print your blog out and put it on my monitor, James. And staple it to my forehead as well.

    I tell my children regularly and myself every day: you meet people constantly who will enjoy telling you "no." You can go over, under, around, or through most of them eventually. The only one you can't beat is the one you see in the mirror every morning. That's the person you have to make tell you "yes" every time.

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  11. Needed to hear that - thanks

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  12. Great post today. I'm so glad I popped over to read it. As a new writer, I ride waves of doubt constantly. It's so good to know that this doesn't mean I'm not meant to be a writer. I'm retweeting this one. =)

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  13. Loved this post today, Jim. Now I know my "this really stinks, nobody will read it" days are perfectly normal. If writers can be called 'normal' to begin with. :)

    And I just Tweeted this post link.

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  14. Jim, I read your post with great interest today. It strikes me that self-doubt does indeed exist in all writers, but it's not really the same in all of us. It depends on who you are.

    After reading your post and thinking about this provocative topic, I was inspired to post a blog about it on my website. If you're interested, you can check it out at http://mikedennisnoir.com/self-doubt-i-doubt-it/2206/

    Keep up the good work!

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  15. I don't think I've ever been more filled with doubt and scared to death than I am right now revising book two. "What if", haunts me, yet I know all I can do is the best I can do. I have 2 Timothy 7:1memorized for this reason. For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. KJV

    Just recently I heard someone on the radio say, God gives us a talent and that's his gift to us, what we do with it is our gift back to him.

    Sometimes I think about writing my books for just one person who loves the genre. If I can entertain that one person, maybe others would be entertained as well.:)

    Nice post, Jim. Its good for all of us to know we share this mysterious doubt of talent.

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  16. Jim, your post is so apropo. Today I arrived home from a great ThrillerFest experience. A true celebration of the thriller genre. But having spent 3 days in the company of so many brilliant, successful, talented authors, some of which have multi-million copies in print, it always has the same effect on me--it inspires and at the same time scares the hell out of me.

    On one panel, someone said that the most terrible thing that can happen to a writer is to get published. Up until then, we have a free ride propelled by dreams and wonder. The moment we are published, we drop down into the black rabbit hole never to feel that free-spirit naivete again.

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  17. Thanks again for the great comments here.

    Mike, I hear what you're saying. It's doubt and frustration combined, and that's not something the "biggies" necessarily feel. They are salved by their sales figures.

    Still, they are writers who care about continuing to do good work, and that is an ongoing challenge.

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  18. Joe H., good advice for the kids. They're lucky to have you.

    And Joe M., ain't that the truth? My "freest" writing time was before I was published. Then you get a multi-book contract and the publisher kind of wants you to produce books good enough to make back the advance. And you have readers you don't want to disappoint.

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  19. When in doubt, host a contest! :)

    I start feeling doubtful many times, but I love to write. I have a hint fiction contest on my blog and will give away $25.00 to a winner. How does this help me? It doesn't, but it helps bring writers together so that we can write together.

    I also just started another creative writing challenge on my blog where I post a picture and ask writers to give this book cover a title and then in 100 words or less, write the first couple paragraphs of the book.

    You get to see a sense of different styles and different perspectives that people will come up with. I love it and it inspires to me join in.

    Even if I doubt my own writing or my own path to publication, I'll always have my day job. But, I too can have a little fun on the side with my writing and I do it by welcoming other writers into my life, because Lord knows, my family can't handle me at times.

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  20. When in doubt, host a contest! :)

    I start feeling doubtful many times, but I love to write. I have a hint fiction contest on my blog and will give away $25.00 to a winner. How does this help me? It doesn't, but it helps bring writers together so that we can write together.

    I also just started another creative writing challenge on my blog where I post a picture and ask writers to give this book cover a title and then in 100 words or less, write the first couple paragraphs of the book.

    You get to see a sense of different styles and different perspectives that people will come up with. I love it and it inspires to me join in.

    Even if I doubt my own writing or my own path to publication, I'll always have my day job. But, I too can have a little fun on the side with my writing and I do it by welcoming other writers into my life, because Lord knows, my family can't handle me at times.

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  21. Jim, I think you're right. The only way to overcome doubt is to keep writing.

    Where does this notion come from that all writers are so narcissistic that we must struggle with doubt, must struggle with writer's block, must struggle with our inner demons, in order to be true writers? Writing is a job like any other. If you've got talent and skill, if you apply yourself, if you approach your writing practice every day with passion, intelligence, and energy, then you'll do fine. So what if the work you did today sucks? You'll fix it tomorrow. In every profession, people have failures and successes. If they're smart, they learn from their failures and become even more successful as a result.

    If I'm not insecure, it's not because I think I'm the great Cheez-Whiz of writing. It's because God didn't make me that way. My life has taught me that I can overcome obstacles with hard work and persistence. Do I ever feel frustrated? Of course. But I don't say, "I can't do this." I say, "I can't figure out how to do this." I walk away, do something else for a while, and come back to my work with a fresh mind.

    I think that what differentiates writers from other people is that our work requires us to examine all our petty little, pokey little human emotions as if they're things of great significance. I'm sure that when my uncle used to shovel hot asphalt on a sunny day in July, he felt like his work was overwhelming, too. But he couldn't focus on that because he was paid by the hour, and if he didn't do his job, he'd get fired. Sometimes introspection is not your friend. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and write.

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  22. That Andrea is one tough cookie. YOU VILL KEEP WORKING UND LIKE IT!

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  23. Andrea, I like the work ethic! I might quibble just a bit with making a necessary connection between doubt and narcissism. I don't think it's usually that. I think in a true writer, the one who gives a rip, it's the desire to keep delivering, and keep getting better.

    Re: your dad. The ever prolific Robert B. Parker was asked why he never suffered from writer's block and continued to put out 2 or 3 books a year. "I have children in the arts," he said.

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  24. Jim, as always a great post. I am plagued by doubts all the time and I just muddle through hoping that at the end of the day I will reread what I have written and think 'actually that aint half bad'. Some days that's as good as it gets!

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  25. I waded into writing as a career because my previous career ended with the off shoring of my job and then me being unable to find a new job. Since I had always wanted to be a writer of science fiction/fantasy, I took my life savings and leaped into a new life. My current project is a unique and wonderful story, and the tale is well told, well written, and the quality is improving with every application of the rewriting magic and the editing enchantments.

    At times my doubts dominate. I am new to this occupation and fear failure. I am burning through my cash reserves — life savings have a limited life expectancy — with no assurance of success. I force my doubts aside partly because I am living a dream and having the best time of my life, and partly because I am foolishly stubborn.

    Doubts be damned. I will make my work and myself a success. Be looking for me on the The New York Times Best Seller list. I will be there!

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  26. Super post. Thank you. The past three years of not producing anything has been the toughest thing for me. I've let doubt drown my writing instead of relying on my writing to drown my doubt. Thanks for the surf board.

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  27. "Don't ever let the waves of doubt stop you. Body surf them back to shore, let the energy of them flow through your fingertips. That's the only real 'secret' to this game."

    I'm posting this on my writing board. Thanks for keeping this query-weary writer on the (key)board!

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  28. I never have doubts.... Except when I'm unsure of my self.

    I am always a success ... Except when I suck.

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  29. Wow - this answers so many questions.

    Doubts are the nemesis that prevent the work from continuing. I don't know that work itself keeps the doubts from coming, but perhaps it can, with a little validation?

    Thanks for the post.

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  30. Awesome post, Jim! It just shows how human all writers are. Writing is such a great gift. It's a beautiful thing to have such passion for something that becomes a part of you even though it can acquire some self-doubt at times.

    Thanks for posting.

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  31. In an interview, Stephen King talked about his fear of writing a really bad book.

    He then quipped that there were many reviewers who thought his worst fear had come true over and over.

    I'm stuck in an "I can't finish it" rut and with the help of a LOT of really good friends are slowly pulling out of it. Today I'm subbin a short story to an anthology. Scarecely a finished novel, but it's a first step out of the creative ennui that has gripped me for the last couple of years. I was doing my little resume and realized my last pub cred it 3 years old and most are 5. Not acceptable.

    Time to get back in the game!

    Terri

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  32. I think you've nailed one of the reasons why I'm not trying harder to find an agent: I love the freedom in writing that goes with not having publication expectations. I'm not confident of the quality of my writing -- I don't trust my own judgement -- and am not totally convinced by encouraging comments from critiquers and beta readers, so it becomes a go-nowhere circle. Instead of trying to break out, I bury myself in my writing. Isn't that an ostrich characteristic?

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  33. A character in my latest book says this to the protagonist (and it's really me telling myself):

    Let me tell you a secret: every time self-doubt crawls in to your skull, grab that mother by the throat and kick the ever-loving shit out of it. Trust me. You only succeed in this business when you know, absolutely know in your heart you will succeed.

    THere are battles going on every day.

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  34. My preferred method of handling doubt is to look at the alternative: quit writing.

    Not an option. It's a great confidence booster!

    Great post, James!

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  35. The doubt demons are always sitting on my shoulders but I try not to listen to them. I enjoy storytelling for its own sake. If I can make my works saleable and gain a fan base and get better at what I do, that's wonderful. But the doubt demons will always be there. Ignore them.

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  36. Mr. Bell, it was a thrill for me to stumble across your post tonight as I searched for kindred spirits experiencing writing anxiety and doubt. (As I shared with you the other day, I'm reading your book Plot & Structure to help me with my novel.) I recently realized the toll that my own doubt has taken on me and my enthusiasm as a writer after I noticed my last online newspaper article was published early last month. I'm grateful for the positive responses to my articles, yet I had grown antsy as I realized that people are really reading my work!

    Well, I want people to read them and I want them to read my novel, so I'll keep working on my craft. I compare this to Johnny Carson's stage fright... he walked through that curtain every night anyway, didn't he?!

    As my internal naysayers found their way to dance in my head, I needed to find out if these feelings were normal. After finding your post and the encouraging comments, I understand that they are indeed normal and thankfully I know that I'm not alone!

    Thanks again!

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  37. Doubt is a constant companion, but equally as constant is my love of writing. When I don't think I can write another chapter our outline an idea, I focus on the smaller stuff - writing a poem in all its elements; reading a chapter on writing; writing a short story; or doing some fun exercise that reminds me why I love to write.

    Thanks for the post! So glad to know I'm not alone.

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  38. The Cheez-Wiz of literature! ROTFL!!!!! Seriously, though, thank you for this post. I'm printing it and taping it to my forehead on top of my bedazzled crown of doubt!

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  39. Who hasn't? I have doubts all the time. But as you say, I just keep writing - because there's really nothing else I can do.

    "Cheez-wiz of literature" - now that's funny. =)

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  40. I always worry about my writing, especially since I started writing scary stories for kids. But let me pass on some advice. I'm now studying my second book by Scott - Conflict and Suspense after finishing Plot and Structure. They can give you the information you need to at least calm the doubt somewhat. I follow him on Twitter as well. I rate his teachings among the top 3 or 4 I've studied.

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  41. I seriously cannot get enough reminders about this. Doubt has a tendency to really slow me down, but I keep pushing through. It really helps to have a critique partner that I trust. We keep each other going when things get rough!

    I also keep a Pinterest board to inspire me when I feel like I need a little kick in the pants. :-)

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