Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Self-Doubt and the Writer

Mitch Wallace sent me several "writerly" questions. Today I thought I'd tackle: "What do you do when self-doubt sets in?"

Mitch is right. Self-doubt can be absolutely crippling. But as I thought about his question, I realized that the kind of self-doubt I experienced when I began writing is very different from that crippling kind I encountered when I began to share my work with strangers. And that self-doubt is different still from the stuff I experience today.

Like many writers, I started out being encouraged by teachers and my parents. I was fortunate enough to have some early success in selling short stories. Looking back, I now realize I had enough enthusiasm and desire to carry me through writing a short work. However, I lacked the skills, discipline or stamina to write a full-length novel.

For more than a decade, I followed a pattern: I'd have a great idea for a hook, start writing and run out of steam somewhere between 10K and 15K words. The unfinished manuscript would eventually go into a box under my bed where it would reside until the next great idea hit and a new manuscript joined it.

In early 2003, I decided to get serious. I planted my butt in the chair and began writing. A hundred thousand words later, I had a manuscript.

I'm going to stop here for a moment to describe a model for the learning process that I find useful. It breaks learning into four stages of consciousness. At the point when I finished that first manuscript, I was unconsciously incompetent. I was so green, I didn't even even recognize my incompetence.

The writer's job is a lonely one. We sit in front of a desk or table and pour our hearts into a manuscript. While I was writing that first novel, I didn't seek any feedback. But it wasn't so much self-doubt as it was shyness. I was embarrassed to share the fruits of my labor with anyone.

Eventually, I worked up the courage to share that first novel with my family and friends. Because they loved me, they raved about it. Encouraged, I queried my first editor.

When the rejection arrived, I was stunned. The Tor editor had written a very nice note across the top of the letter, telling me to query her again with my next novel. But I couldn't believe she didn't want THAT manuscript. I began querying agents. And querying. And querying. That's when the really crippling self-doubts set in.

I'd been so sure my novel would be immediately published that I was lost and confused. But I was also determined. Activity helped . . . a lot.

A new strategy was called for. I began joining writers' groups and seeking critiques from published writers. I've told the story here before about Catherine Spangler's critique of my first chapter. In the kindest possible way, she told me everything that was wrong with those ten pages.

I was devastated. And angry. It took a week before I could face the red ink on that chapter again. But in re-reading the pages, I saw that Cathy was right. And I buried my anger and self-doubt in more activity. This time, I sought critique partners through Sisters-in-Crime online and in local writers' groups in Dallas.

I'd moved to the next stage of learning. Now I was consciously incompetent. Although I didn't yet know what to do about it, I knew I had deficits. And I could find people to help improve my skill level. My new critique partners gently pointed out the flaws in my manuscript.

A year later, I'd ditched that first manuscript and begun incorporating all that I'd learned into a new one. Along with my second novel, as an exercise for a writing class, I'd written a novella. I entered them both into five contests where I won first place in two and second place in two. A judge in the erotic romance category of the fifth contest told me she was offended by my erotic novella. {grin} I decided I'd found my genre.

Those contest wins raised my confidence level. I was now in the third stage of learning: Conscious competence. I queried agents again and signed with Jacky Sach of BookEnds. Tracy Bernstein, an editor at NAL, asked me to expand the novella into a novel, which eventually became Bad Girl.

I'm still in that third stage of learning about writing. I still have to think about the things I've learned and work on breaking bad habits (I am the Queen of Backstory, you know). I'm not yet at the fourth stage, which is unconscious competence, where what you've learned has become second nature to you. But my self-doubt has morphed, too. These days my insecurities surround the business side of publishing . . . and my experiments in another genre. The self-doubt is no longer as sharp or as frightening as it once was. I know I can handle it.

And--as you can tell from this blog--I'm still dealing with my self-doubts through activity. I spend a fair amount of time learning about publishing and writing about it here.

I'm sure other writers have their own mechanisms for dealing with self-doubt. I'd be happy for them to chime in with what works for them.

Hope this helped, Mitch.


GentleLavender said...


I can understand what you mean when you talk about a writer's lonely work. Its a lonely world for sure. I've quoted you on this on my blog and provided the source link too. If you wish me to remove the reference, please let me know and I would do it at once.


Tara Maya said...

I can relate so well to this. I had the same naive self-confidence but shyness regarding my own first novel. I think I am now in the second stage, vividly aware of my shortcomings.

Kimber Chin said...

I don't have a lot of self doubt when writing. I write the first draft as quickly as I can. That hustle crowds out self doubt.

I do doubt whether a novel is good enough when shopping it around. But I figure publishers will accept it or reject it and that's that.

The stage I REALLY have self doubt is when the work is published (and before the first reviews). Will the readers like it? Will they feel they got their money's worth? I haven't yet found a cure for that (except chocolate and even that doesn't help much).

Anyone have any ideas?

Maya Reynolds said...

Swapna: Thanks for the compliment.

As long as you only excerpt and link back here, you are welcome to quote. Thanks again.

Tara: Awareness is a step along the way. Be sure to give yourself credit for progress, too.

Kimber: I think every writer is nervous during the period before the first reviews. Thankfully it's only a brief period of time.

Sharon said...

I think your explanation of the stages of self-awareness has a broader application as well. This post struck a chord with me and the personal changes I have made over a period of time.

Maya Reynolds said...

Sharon: I agree. I've found it a useful paradigm in other circumstances, too.

Dawn said...

This blog post came at a perfect time for me. From it I've learned that I have a long way to go, but I can learn and remain hopeful.

Maya Reynolds said...

Dawn: I'm glad this came at a good time for you. Thank Mitch.

I'm happy to have readers suggest subjects for discussion.



David Eric Tomlinson said...


I just found your blog this morning - and it's a really good resource for aspiring authors.

I love the mental migration from "unconscious incompetence" to "conscious competence" you've described here. At this stage, I'm probably somewhere in the middle.

Thanks so much for the timely advice and keep it up with these great posts!

Mitch Wallace said...

What a great post, Maya! This is helping a lot.

I'm honestly not sure exactly what stage I most closely identify with, but I do believe I've had my "revelation" of sorts - I've written two complete first drafts of novels, and both of them were horrendous! And I remember feeling hopeless for quite a time after writing these manuscripts, thinking that because I'd produced what amounted to self-indulgent gibberish, I had no chance of ever putting together something that made sense and was entertaining.

But now that I'm about to finish up a novel that I've taken my time on and can be proud of, I'm probably hovering somewhere around "consciously incompetent". Not an expert by any means, but I feel that my stuff isn't utter garbage anymore, which is progress, if you ask me!

I guess writing is a lot about admitting that we're not perfect, and once that's been done, it's easier to start getting good at it. I used to have a horrible problem with that kind of thing - since there is no actual "perfection", it's (ironically) the perfect way to torture yourself.

I just hope that my self-doubt will eventually dull into something more manageable, because as I've been finishing up this book, it has often reared its ugly head and threatened to derail the whole damn process.

Thanks again for such an informative post Maya. I'm looking forward to more in the future! (If you're up to it, that is).