Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to Balance Confidence and Doubt

Quote of the Day:
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

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?

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 of 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.

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.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Wow, you really are a master of essay. You nailed the emotional life of a writer with humor and grace. That was so well-written and truthful that all I can do with my red pen is write: A

Katie Salidas said...

Writer friends definitely help.

I can feel everything you have said here. I've ridden the high of overconfidence, the low of rejection and in between. Hell, I do it every day. I'm out there still trying to get published, submitting to agents, writing, submitting to critiquing groups. It's so rough. I can say this though, sometimes those harsh critiques, though they sting at first, are the best thing for you. They help you improve so much more than the gushing critiques of praise. It just takes getting past the sting.

Weronika Janczuk said...

This act of balancing is probably the toughest thing for me -- I doubt myself all the time, sometimes because I am surrounded by such phenomenal writers and bloggers, while at other points their positive critique of my writing allows me to soar.

It's a tough business, and I hope that someday I will manage to perfect that balance.

It seems to me you're doing well, Michelle. GOOD LUCK as you move forward. :)


Eric said...

Great post. This is great stuff to remember, particularly for those of us who are still trying to hone our craft.

Lisa Guill said...

Thank you. I really needed to hear this :)

I would love to find some critique/writer friends, but as a newcomer to all of this, I still worry about entrusting my WIP to someone I really don't know that well. At what point did you feel comfortable enough to share your writing with online friends?

Michelle McLean said...

Thanks for the comments! It really is a fine balance sometimes. As I am currently in the "get shredded by your crit buddies" stage, my confidence is often lacking nowadays. LOL

Morgan - it is difficult, especially when you are dealing with online friends, to know when you can trust people or not. And I have actually had an experience with someone who did plagiarize a friend's manuscript. Someone we all knew and were friends with in real life as well. You do have to be careful, but the reality is, even someone you know very well can steal from you.

Just trust your instincts. Go to reputable sites (Querytracker.net/forum is awesome! That is where I have met all of my close writer friends and crit buddies). I actually did a post on finding crit groups a few months ago. Here is the link - http://michellemclean.blogspot.com/2009/04/how-to-find-critique-group.html

I hope that helps!

Good luck with your writing everyone and thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

Ditto on what Tricia said.

You posted this at the perfect time, too. People truly do not understand how difficult this process is until they try it.

You've done an excellent job showing the rollercoaster of emotions writers go through when trying to get published.

Unknown said...

My writing pal (met online) is the best thing to ever happen to me.

We didn't intend to become friends, so we set the rules up right away. Honesty, brutality, and trust.

Friendship came naturally after that!

Now we know each other so well we can spot a familiar weakness a mile away. Thanks for the post. Being knocked down a few pegs is something I know only too well!

Elana Johnson said...

'Tis true. Writing friends make all the difference in the world.

Rebecca Knight said...

This is too funny! I just blogged about the self doubt and necessity of Writer Friends this very day :). I love your honesty about your own emotions/shortcomings. It's just so true!

Your experiences here reminded me of my own "brutal awakening" when I went off to college. All the way through high school every writing teacher I'd ever had ooh'd and ahh'd over my poetry, never once telling me that there are "right" ways and "wrong" ways to write even freeform verse. Some stuff just sucks, as we all know.

My first week there I found a critique group and sent them a pile of my poems, puffing out my chest and waiting for them to email me telling me what I already knew: I was the next Emily Dickenson. No degree needed. I should teach the class.

But, you guessed it, it came back with tons of edits and suggestions on everything from form to imagery. After yelling charming things like "You wouldn't know good poetry if it kicked you in the nut sack!" at my computer screen, I finally faced the truth.
They were right. And nice. And just helping me out.

It was an embarrassing but necessary lesson.

Michelle McLean said...

ROFL Rebecca LOL oh...yeah...I hear ya. My whole life, my writing teachers have praised me. I was even accused of plagiarizing in fifth grade because my teacher just didn't think a kid my age could write that well (I had to show her all my drafts before she'd believe me).

Mine was a rude awakening, but I am thankful every day for it :) I am a much better writer now, and I continue to learn new things at the hands (and red pens) of my critters. If it wasn't for them, I'd still be screaming at my computer screen wondering why the rejections were pouring in :)

Anna C. Morrison said...

Well said. I have often discarded weeks of work in fits of desperation. I don't do that anymore. And I would be lost without all the workshop support I received in grad school. And keeping those friends and sharing the experience with them is priceless. No writer is alone!

Liza said...

I am bookmarking this post to read at least once a week.