Saturday, October 18, 2008

Blog Chain - My Confidence or Lack Thereof

Time again for the Blog Chain! Kate started us out with this one, and Carolyn's stellar entry was the next link in our chain. The topic for this round:

How as a writer, do you find the balance between being having too much or too little confidence in your work?

You know, until I started writing, I had just assumed that all these best selling authors just sat at their computers and typed out a masterpiece, having full confidence that what they had written was golden. And then I met a few writers. I read their work, marveled at how genius they were, how wonderful their story was, how smoothly it flowed, how real the characters were, how supremely awesome and talented these people were. I told them how I felt. And listened in amazement as they melted in a puddle of relief, telling me how they thought their work was crap, how it would never make it, how afraid they were that no one would like it. And I thought, how, how could these incredibly talented people doubt themselves so?

I have a book of quotes from writers, giving advice to aspiring writers. I was amazed to find this letter between two of the “greats.” (Language Warning for the kiddies)

For Christ sake write and don’t worry what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the waste-basket…Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously.

Ernest Hemingway in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Again, I read in stunned disbelief that these two immortalized writers could doubt themselves as I do. I really kind of pictured them like Mozart, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece with nary a comma out of place. Yet, they doubted too. Curious.

Until I started down the road to being “a writer,” I was very confident. I knew I could write. I was good at it. Everyone had always told me so. I won awards when I was young. I have a Masters degree in English, (so you can imagine how many papers I have had to write in my educational career), and I received As on every single paper (with the exception of four - 3 Bs, and one (I shudder to say it) C – and yes, I remember each and every one, and each teacher who gave me those marks (and I am certain the C was because the teacher did not agree with my point of view, and yes, I will argue that to the death!)) :D

I was very good at non-fiction, academic type papers. And my first three publications were Chicken Soup for the Soul essays that I turned out in under twenty minutes each and only edited once for typos. I wrote them, sent them, and they got published. My confidence soared.

Then I started querying my first novel. I just knew that I would get an agent right away. I got a rejection letter or two. I was surprised, but brushed it off. I got a request for a partial from one agent and then a full from another agent. Vindication! (By the way, if you had seen the first version of my query letter, you would know what a miracle this really was – I won’t even go into how bad that first version of my novel was). Then the rejections came. Confidence shaken. But, one of the agents did say I was a “competent writer” (and yes, I still have that email saved in my files). So, my ego was a little bruised but not irrevocably damaged.

I got smart…I searched the web and found writers groups and critique groups and query help. And the critiques started coming in. I think I actually cried when I first saw all the red on my manuscript. And then I got angry and thought “These people don’t know what they are talking about!” And then I calmed down, took a close look at what they were saying, and realized…they were right. My storyline was good. But my execution sucked.

And here is what I learned…it is good to have confidence in yourself. It is necessary. You’ll never make it in this subjective, brutal, torturous industry unless you have at least some confidence in your work. But don’t get cocky. There is always room for improvement, always.

I have moments where I sit back, look at what I’ve written, and think, “Damn, that’s good stuff.” But I still sweat bullets whenever I post a chapter for critiques or send some pages off to beta readers. I always (well, almost always) have confidence in my storylines, in the backbone of my story. But I am usually fairly sure that the way I’ve written it is total crap. So I’m pleasantly surprised when I get a comment (as I did recently from a crit buddy) that says “Holy crap! I loved it!” And it doesn’t phase me so bad anymore when that exclamation is followed by “I do have a few suggestions though.” And I’ve learned that those few suggestions are not comments on my talent or me personally; they are what they are…suggestions to help make the way I’ve executed something even better.

It’s a very fine balance…you have to be confident enough in yourself and your work to continue churning out words, day after day…to send that work off to people who will shred it and send it back (within reason – savage critiques are no use to anyone)…to believe in yourself enough to know that you can take those shreddings and turn them into something amazing. And at the same time, make sure you are not so overly confident in your greatness that you are not open to those suggestions.

There is an excerpt from a letter that I love. It reads:

Writing a novel is a very hard thing to do because it covers so long a space of time, and if you get discouraged it is not a bad sign, but a good one. If you think you are not doing it well, you are thinking the way real novelists do. I never knew one who did not feel greatly discouraged at times, and some get desperate, and I have always found that to be a good symptom.

Maxwell Perkins in a letter to Nancy Hale

These words couldn’t be more true. It’s kind of like the actor that doesn’t get nervous going on stage. His performance is flat without that emotion behind it. The writer who doesn’t get discouraged, who knows beyond doubt at all times that he/she is greatness itself, is the writer whose book I never want to read.

We all have our moments of weakness. Perhaps we get a particularly brutal rejection or critique. Maybe we were just having a bad hair day. It is in those moments that I thank my lucky stars for bringing me the amazing group of writer friends I have become a part of. There is nothing like pouring my fears and woes into the ears of people who know EXACTLY what I am going through and who are therefore able to talk me down from my freak out. And it is my equal pleasure to return the favor…though I am still amazed that some of the most talented and incredible writers that I know have the same fears about their writing as I do.

So, how do I keep that fine balance between too much or too little confidence in my work? I surround myself with like-minded peers who are sheer awesomeness. They stoke my confidence when it needs stoking and knock me down a peg or two when it is called for. I generally have confidence in my work until the moment I have to send it off to someone. That is when I call or IM a writer buddy to hold my hand as I hit Send. My confidence will soar when I get requests – and I get to have a virtual party with friends who are just as excited for me as they would be for themselves. And my confidence plummets when the rejections roll in – which would be when said friends talk me down from the proverbial ledge and keep me from deleting every file I have ever written.

The stories clamoring in my head keep me writing, and my support group helps me maintain the exact level of confidence I need to keep going on the elusive path to publication.

Without them, I would be a raging ego-maniac until the moment of submission – when I would then turn into a blubbering mess of self-doubt. My advice to any writer suffering from confidence problems….get a good writer friend.

Sandra is up next on the chain, so head on over to Dual Citizenship in SpecFic and Mundania for her take on the whole confidence game!


Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Sounds very realistic to me. I like the quotes from the letters.

H. L. Dyer said...

You guys with your awesome quotes!

Great post, Michelle!

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Michelle. I agree that it could be very easy to become isolated as an author, and we need to surround ourselves with good people who are willing to tell us what we need to hear. Great job! :)

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Aw, what a great post! I love the last line about getting a great writer friend - and I have to agree - it makes a huge difference when you know you have people to both cry to and (hopefully someday) celebrate with!

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

I really liked the quote about how if you think what you're working on sucks while you're trying to write it, that's a good sign. Because I keep wanting to give up on this...thing I'm trying to do. I can't even call it a WIP; it's mostly crossouts and shards of a novel that is trying to find itself.

I also loved your heartfelt discussion of the importance of writer friends. I couldn't agree more!!

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, I couldn't have said it better myself. And I have to agree, the support of other writers has been vital for me.


ps.- Virtual parties are the hangovers to contend with and a ton of great smileys along the way. :)

TerriRainer said...

It makes me feel so much better about my own writing to hear that so many well-educated writers also doubt their work.

You having a Masters in English, I always just assumed that your writing would come so much easier. I'm not sure if it makes me feel better that you are just like the rest of us, or somehow let down that you aren't having it easier!

:) Terri

Michelle McLean said...

Well, it might be easier in some ways. Just because I've had a LOT of practice writing :) There is something to be said for really studying the craft of writing. I geared as many electives as I could toward writing.

But most of that practice was in non fiction writing. You ask me to write an paper on Shakespeare's chauvinist attitude toward women, and I can whip it out for you in no time and have a fair level of confidence about it.

Fiction is a whole different ball game. One thing I've noticed in my crits, is that I tend to do fine with elements that are also in non the technical stuff (grammar, punctuation, etc) and descriptions (although I go a little overboard with those sometimes). And I am fairly confident in my ability to pull that stuff off - because I have been doing that kind of stuff for so long.

It is the more fiction related elements that I have a harder time with, that I don't have as much (or any) confidence with. Like plot holes, flow, that kind of stuff. When I first started writing I had a major problem with POV - I literally had 4 different POVs in ONE PARAGRAPH once. Yikes :) But because I know that is a weakness, I've worked hard on that and I'm more confident in my POV abilities now :) The a work in progress :D

Carrie Harris said...

Woot! I love the quotes too, but I've got to ask whether or not Hemingway ever wrote ANY pages of masterpiece?

Sorry. Just never did like Hemingway. ;)

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

"My advice to any writer suffering from confidence problems….get a good writer friend."

Amen, Sister!

Fantastic post. Well done.