Writers are often worriers. We’re plagued with indecision about the choices we make for our stories. We doubt the quality of our writing. We wonder if we’ll ever break through into the realm of publication, recognition, and even celebration. We sometimes fret that we’re wasting our efforts entirely in a profession with few to no rewards.
In addition to improving your craft and developing a sustainable writing habit, fighting low self-confidence about your writing is a task we all must face. Today, James Scott Bell weighs in on personal writing demons and turning worry into writing in an essay from his book The Art of War for Writers.
Don’t worry about being worried, and don’t let worry drag you down.
Not long after his novel Hold Tight debuted at #1 on the New York Times best-seller list, Harlan Coben was speaking to a crowd of suspense readers. He was asked if, with all his success, he still felt insecure with any part of his writing. He laughed and admitted that’s the writer’s stock in trade. Coben said he always gets to a point in a work-in-progress when he thinks, “This is terrible! I used to be so good. When did I lose it?”
In fact, if you’re not insecure about your writing, Coben says, you’re either mailing in forgettable stuff or somebody else is writing for you.
You will worry if you are a writer. Turn that worry into writing.
Some years ago, I was teaching at a writers’ conference in New Mexico. After lunch I noticed one of the conferees sitting at a back table, looking distressed. I went over and asked her what was up.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Am I ever going to get anywhere? I see all these people; they all want it just as much as I do. How do I know if I’ll ever make it?” Tears started down her cheeks. “Sorry,” she said.
I handed her a paper napkin. Then I took another one and drew the following diagram:
I explained that at the bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level …
… which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes … and write.
Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full-length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.
The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this, because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.
Next are those who get published. Above that are those who are published multiple times.
At the very top is a Wheel of Fortune. This wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Shack. No one can control this.
Your job, I told the young woman, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on the ones right in front of you. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. If you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can get. After that, it’s not up to you anymore.
The conference went on, and I eventually forgot all about this incident.
A couple of years later, I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going.
Two years after that, she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.