Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Combating Doubt

Writers are their own worst critics. It's no good, it'll never work, no one will want to read it, and no one will ever want to publish it. And the mother of them all: I'm a failure.

These are merely variations of the same theme: Doubt.

Doubt nests in us all (unless you're a narcissistic sociopath). It lurks deep in the belly, like bad chili, waiting for its moment to strike. According to the old axiom, it takes 10 nice comments to make up for one mean one. Doubt never bothers waiting for the one. It takes advantage of the slightest opportunity, striking hard and fast to zero in on your deepest fears and make them, even if only for a moment, truth.

Doubt is poisonous to those of us who create. Whether it's done with pen or keyboard, paint or clay, music or dance, the very act of creating embeds pieces of the creator's soul in every line, every stroke, every step, every note.

And doubt? It's a soul killer.

On a daily basis, the writing Twitter world explodes with links; links to blogs on writing and craft, to new release announcements, to on-the-spot alerts about the publishing industry – and to reviews. A couple of weeks ago, one of these links lead me to a category romance review. As I read through the short piece, horror and doubt followed every advancing word. Several of the book's plot points were eerily similar to mine. For a moment, I even had the crazy fear that I'd been scooped.

No, I don't recall the title. I deliberately did not pursue the book. The last thing I need is to have someone else's words and world in my head. But the damage had been done. I was suffused with doubt. My soul despaired.

And then I looked again. The review wasn't favorable; neither the author nor her plot or characters escaped unscathed. This brought me no small relief; to be honest, it stuck my nose up in the air more than a little – no one could ever call my heroine weak or whiny. (Yea, I am a shallow woman.)

In truth, the plot wasn't all that similar after all. OK, it was a little too close for comfort, but with further review, the differences were glaring, certainly enough to calm if not exorcize my doubts. All right, they were still there and they were raging. Self medication of the wine variety helped in the short term.

For the long term, I remind myself of 5 things to combat the soul killer:
  1. No story is original. Not even Harry Potter. Themes, character archetypes, and plots reverberate and repeat throughout the history of storytelling. We're all working off the same template. Some of us are simply doing it better.
  2. Originality manifests in execution. No one can tell your story except you. What you bring to these established tropes is unique. That's what makes it special.
  3. Rejection comes like the dawn. We all fail. It ain't pretty and it's never sexy, but it happens to all of us – even New York Times bestsellers. The trick is in picking yourself up after a failure and journeying on.
  4. Never, ever quit. Envision typing The End. Write your award acceptance speech (I've already altered the Oscar speech I wrote when I was 12 for the RITA award that awaits me). Picture your book on the shelf. Do whatever it takes to finish the book.
  5. You are not alone. When in doubt, turn to your greatest cheerleaders – your critique partners. In my moments of doubt, mine continue to reach out with support and praise, though lately I fear I've made them spend more time talking me off the ledge than reviewing pages. Critique partners make all the difference in the world. Don't have one? Reach out to your local writing group and get one. In the meantime, call your best friend. They are your first and best cheerleaders. I know this from experience.
Have a method for combating doubt? Share it in the comments and on Sunday, I'll pick a random commenter to receive a free category romance compliments of my basket of win from the Liberty States Fiction Writers Create Something Magical Conference. With any luck, this will assuage some of my guilt for reveling in that poor author's bad review.


  1. Thanks for this Kiersten. We all at one time or another have dealt with this 5 letter work -doubt- and whether we are truly good enough to do what we do. Let's face it, someone is always better and even though that may be true,
    I have learned that there is enough room for all of us in this business and I have a voice in it.

    So whether I'm looked upon as a 'wannabe' or never taken serious, (when are you gonna write a real book?)
    I have come to live with that and realize I would not be who I am if I wasn't true to myself.

    My four letter word comes in front of that five letter word.
    Jeffrey Barbieri

  2. Thanks for commenting Jeffrey. I agree, it can be especially tough for pre-published writers as the quantitative result has yet to happen. We also seem to get a lot of chuff from non-writers who wonder why we're taking so long to finish the book already. And yet we know that being true to who we are as writers takes time and effort and sometimes, a lot of missteps. That's why it's so important to have a support group that understands, be it a writing chapter or critique partners. They'll see you through every dark moment.

    Write on!

  3. What a great post. Doubt is such a sneaky thing. In those rare moments when we give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back, doubt races up to wrench our arm behind us, telling us we don't deserve to feel good about something we've done. LOL

    it can be a curse that we're so imaginative, because our brains can take any situation and twist it into a horrible mess. The only way I can battle doubt is to be stubborn, doing my best to outlast it. I also acknowledge that it's part of the process and just keep moving forward.

  4. Donna - So true. Benefit of an active imagination is being able to write great stories; downside is that when things go wrong, no consequence could be worse than the epic badness we come up with ourselves! Good thing we're both so stinkin' stubborn, right?

    Thanks for the comment!

  5. Thanks for such a timely post, Kiersten. I wrestle with the beast of doubt more or less constantly. I've finished my first manuscript (some time ago, actually) and just wrestled with putting it 'out there'. After all, if you don't ask, you can't be rejected. Or told it worthless tripe.

    My best doubt-basher? If you don't ask, the answer is ALWAYS no. Makes it a little easier. But only a little!

  6. Anne - thanks for commenting. I think that goes along the lines of "if you don't ask for permission, they can't say no". ;-) Sometimes I think hitting the "send" button takes the most courage of all. My first contest submission, (and there haven't been many) my cursor probably hovered over the send button for 20 minutes or more.

    But when we don't hit that button, turns out, it's not so bad after all. Sometimes really good things even come from it.

  7. You are such a wonderful writer, Kiersten! This is a great topic that all of us have experienced. I fully agree that it shakes you to the soul. There's a piece of our hearts on those pages. Never give up; never give in, right? I take your words to heart. I hope every writer who reads your post does the same :)
    Love to you ~ Mickey

  8. You are such a wonderful writer, Kiersten! This is a great topic that all of us have experienced. I fully agree that it shakes you to the soul. There's a piece of our hearts on those pages. Never give up; never give in, right? I take your words to heart. I hope every writer who reads your post does the same :)
    Love to you ~ Mickey

  9. This seems a very timely topic, since I know many writers suffering from doubts right now. And if you don't have the doubts now, you know they'll just be back later. You just have to work through it, no matter how discouraged you feel because tomorrow will be a better day.

  10. Aw, Micki, thank you so much! Never give up - Never surrender, right?! ;-) Thanks for stopping by and saying hello. Your support means a lot to me!

  11. Anne - I meant that to be "when we DO hit that send button". Whoops.

  12. Julia - it does seem like a lot of writers are struggling with doubt these days. I know for me there are times when it's a daily, uphill struggle. We just have to keep on writing, write through the blocks, write through the rejections, write through the doubt. Success in the face of doubts tastes all the sweeter.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  13. Love this blog! So many great takeaways here that everyone should clip out these lines by their desk so they can always remember to keep plugging away and not let those doubts drag you down!

  14. Thank you, Beth! I'm so please that everyone is taking away something helpful from the blog today. Warms the dented cockles of my heart. ;-)

  15. Kiersten, I love #4. When I finished my first MS I didn't type "THE END" and when I brought it to my critique group, I got chills just saying it out loud. Now I'm envisioning it on an agent's desk and then in the book stores.

    I had to stop reading a story once because it sounded like mine. It was freaky.

  16. Carla Kempert said:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I wish I had an original method for combating doubt but I think you already stated the most effective ones I use. :-) This is all stuff I needed to hear right now, too. My '72 VW didn't stall out as much as my current WIP. I'll keep these things in mind as I get back on the horse today! Thanks, Kiersten!

  17. @Abigail - we all have our tricks to keep on keeping on. Congratulations on finishing your MS!! That's a fantastic success. Happy Publishing!

    @Carla - Those VWs will survive the apocalypse, I swear. My family went thro2 Beatles, 2 Rabbits, and a Jetta while I was growing up. Still love the VWs. Climb back on that horse, sweetie! So glad I could be your cheerleader today! ;-)

  18. I just had the strangest feeling of deja vu when reading your post...

    Anyway, YES, YES and YES. Doubt is the killer of all things hopeful and good. Honestly? I never really doubted myself until I started querying. And now I doubt myself ALL THE TIME. It sucks. I hate it. But you've given some great pointers for combating it! Thanks for this!

  19. Hey thanks for this post. Came by it via Twitter - Ashley Graham.

    For me doubt/fear still sometimes paralyzes me to stop writing.

    However,one way I have tried to combat this is by a close few friends to read my work. It has taken me years to just let my husband read it but after his favorable review, I gained enough confidence/courage to let some close friends to read it.

    Slowly but surely, the fear is reigned back in to the dark corner where it should stay.

  20. Thanks for pointing me over here, Kiersten. This is the plague of writers, or anyone human, right? Does my hair look stupid? Do these pants make me look fat? LOL Doubt is hardwired into us.

    I was trying to think if doubt has an upside -- you know, like fear -- we're all hardwired with fear, too, but it keeps us safe (though out of control, it keeps us from living as much as we could, too). Maybe doubt keeps us humble -- reminds us we don't know it all?

    Like fear then, the trick is to know when to listen to it (if you have doubts about your manuscript, maybe they are justifiable ones that can lead you to make it better) but if they are out of control, and lead you to never write again, well, that's obviously not good doubt.

    Also, one thing I rely on to keep doubt in perspective when it comes from a rejection or a review -- I don't know everything, and I am not perfect. And neither is the person rejecting or reviewing -- they can only offer their opinion, and I don't have to believe it, depending on how much credence I give it.

    Anyhoo, don't let doubt demons get you down, though a little itch now and then isn't maybe a bad thing...


  21. Ashley - you're very welcome! I believe it takes a lot of courage to begin querying. Naturally, doubt would choose that time to knock you upside the head! Keep at it! Thanks for commenting, and thanks for bringing Sophie along with you!

    Sophie - hello! I'm so pleased to hear that you got such fantastic edification from your husband and friends. I actually think its easier to have strangers read my work. At least if they don't like it, I don't have to see them in the morning. The people that mean the most to us, well, their opinion means the most too. And when that opinion is mad love and kudos, that makes it all the sweeter, stomping out all that fear and doubt for a while. Thanks for visiting the blog and leaving a comment.

    Sam - glad you made it! congrats on finishing the book! we should make banners that say "don't let the demons get you down" 'cept people would probably think we were writing paranormals. Actually, now that I think about it, that's not a bad tagline for a paranormal romance. Trademark!

    Fear and doubt can sharpen us, help to toughen our skin so we don't take those inevitable rejections to heart but use them instead as a stepping stone to that next level in our writing. Or as my mother is fond of saying: own up to what's yours and flush the rest. ;-)

  22. Oh! I really like your mom's saying!

    That's really just perfect :)


  23. rah-rah ree kick 'em in the knee
    rah-rah ras kick 'em in the other knee

    cheerleading from a mile high