The Sneaky Faces of Doubt

I’ve talked before about how I suffer from depression and how it often affects my writing. It is tough to push away the many negative voices that I think most writers suffer from when you already feel like life sucks and there is no point to anything.  Part of living with chronic depression is learning coping mechanisms and how to pull yourself out of the deeper pits.

While I’m aware that some of my coping mechanisms aren’t the best, I had thought I was getting pretty good at identifying and eliminating the writing doubt voices.  I have three pieces of paper posted above my desk.  The first is a poster of Heinlein’s Rules. The second is a sheet with “It Never Ends” written on it to which I’ve added dates and magazine names for my published stories (I got this idea from Dean Wesley Smith. I’m hoping to fill that sheet front and back someday).  The third piece of paper has the five elements of a blockbuster novel according to Al Zuckerman (which I think are good things to keep in mind while writing anything).  On another wall, I have a super cool poster a friend made me of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. I have yet to write a story directly from his formula, but I often glance at it and ask myself some of the questions he poses about whatever I’m working on.   I also have a bunch of smaller pieces of paper with things like “what is the bad guy up to?” and “parade the tag!” and lists of plotting tools (timebombs, crucibles, reversals, revelations etc).  All these things are here to surround me with tools to shove past the writing doubts and get the work done.

In the last couple months, these tools have been failing me. I’ve been failing me.  I got most of the way through a novel through sheer determination and a lot of self-talk. But it wasn’t fun. So I told myself that hey, I have no deadlines. No one is waiting for this book. No one is going to hold me to the writing plan I set out for myself. I can write whatever I want.  Which sounds very freeing.  It should have been.

So I moped sat around and thought about which of my ideas for things would be the most kick-ass fun to write.  And I settled on a series of novellas I’d been turning over in my head for the last year or so.  They are adventure fantasy in the vein of RA Salvatore or Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion books, basically following one group of adventurers as they go around and kick some monster ass, help people, and spit in the face of evil.  With fireballs. And a small pink unicorn.

Sounds fun to me. I decided on my course of action, roughly outlined 15 of these novellas, and on Tuesday got to work.

On Wednesday, I hit a huge mental block. A million negative thoughts and voices flooded my brain. Wasn’t I just writing derivative crap? Shouldn’t I be spending this time working on further books in series I already have started? No one is going to want to read books from the PoV of a mute elf with a bit of a god-complex (to be fair, she did used to be basically a god).  Don’t I know that this sort of fiction would never sell to a publisher? Will never win any awards? This is too fun to write, it must be terrible.

Voices like that.  Wow. Ouch.  As soon as I realized I was avoiding working on the project because of these voices, I paused the Starcraft 2 game I was watching and had a serious conversation with myself.  (Hey, I’m not crazy. We writers do this all the time. Right?)  Where was all this coming from?

Apparently some myths are still stuck in my head and I’m not the freewheeling, commercially-minded mercenary writing machine I like to wish I was.  Some of the senarios in the back of my mind were tied so deeply to things I never consciously think about that once I examined them I laughed.

Like the little scene in my head of being at a con and having someone ask me why I write that DnD knockoff crap. Or why I’m not writing serious novels.

The funny part is, when I stop to think about it, it is always a fellow writer in my fake scene who asks this stuff. I don’t think a reader would or a person who had no idea who I am anyway (ie most random people anywhere).  I was stuck and had stopped working on a project that was the first thing to really thrill me in months because I was worried about hypothetical writer guy in my head.  Yep. Stupid.

I know where a little of that worry comes from. I was privately slammed recently by a fellow writer and the negativity definitely didn’t help my already pretty low esteem. I don’t even know this person well and I have had one IRL conversation with them ever, yet they apparently wormed their way into my subconscious and fed doubts I had thought my mercenary, hack’n’slash-loving intellect had long since defeated.

Thankfully, these doubts are lessened by working through them. I had a serious conversation with myself, identified some of the issues I was having, and talked myself through them.  It’s amazing what looks stupid and trivial once you bring it out into the conscious light.  Especially things like “if it isn’t hard, it isn’t good” which is a dumb myth that gets reinforced a lot with idiot phrases like “no pain, no gain” and that mentality. Pain is bad. Ask anyone who suffers from chronic pain (would you like to trade shoulders with me? Or knees?) how they feel about it? Or people who suffer from emotional pain.  Not a plus. Not a gain.

So I’m adding a couple new pieces of paper to my collection here.  One says “writing should be fun”.  Another says “My path is mine”.  I know that more hidden fears and doubts will show their faces eventually, but now I have a few more little weapons against them.

Follow your writing joy. And kick out anyone who says you should do something else.

15 Responses to “The Sneaky Faces of Doubt”

  1. Melanie Meadors

    This was a great post. I (and probably most other writers at some point in their careers) have these troubles from time to time as well. Well, OK, a LOT of the time. I hear certain in-laws in my head saying, “Why would you waste your talent writing that stuff…” And sometimes I also feel a little worried that other writers in my writing group who write more mainstream stuff think my work is a waste. But I think, in this case, the Dalai Lama has some good advice: If you are around someone who makes you feel bad, or if they get you thinking negative thoughts, don’t hang around that person anymore (or kick them out of your subconscious).

    Sure, it’s great to want to write high art and all that, but if you want to write the fun adventure stuff, many many readers LOVE to read that stuff too. It is fun to go on an adventure with characters and escape in that way without worrying about social commentary and what this all means. And those readers really appreciate the authors that make that possible for them. It’s nice for them to come home from work and flop down on the couch after the kids are in bed to read, it’s nice for a teen to escape from dreadful adolescent life into a world with pink unicorns :).

    And of course, I am saying this, but tonight when things get hairy during writing time, I’ll be having the same doubts. I like to go over DWS’s sacred cows chapters from time to time to keep me on track, that works for me.

    Good luck!


    • izanobu

      Thanks, Melanie. The totally ridiculous part about the person who got me down is that I don’t even really know them. I’ve met them once in my life and interacted with them only a couple other times online. And yet, clearly what they said wormed its way inside my brain and kicked me around a bit.

      Yeah. I <3 Dean's posts. And Kris's. It's nice to have good commonsense voices out there, too.

  2. Mark Philps

    Great post Annie. The amount of time writers spend worrying about what other writers think IS kind of hilarious. I’m realizing that I do this ALL the time, much to my productivity’s distress.

    Next time, deck that imaginary little fucker with an imaginary fist (or fireball, as the case may be). You write what you write because you love it, and that’s by far the most honest motivation. It’s a constant struggle to remind myself to put aside all the bullshit and write the kinds of things I love to read. I think you’re way ahead of the curve on that one.

  3. L. M. May

    “The funny part is, when I stop to think about it, it is always a fellow writer in my fake scene who asks this stuff….I was stuck and had stopped working on a project that was the first thing to really thrill me in months because I was worried about hypothetical writer guy in my head.”

    Been there, done that. It sucks, doesn’t it?

    For me it’s an imaginary English professor who tells me everything I write is crap. I’ll tell you the trick I discovered to deal with him–I made up an imaginary boss I named “Flo” and an environment he’d be uncomfortable in (a trucking company) and now when he shows up I send him to her to whine to about my writing and she chews him out while I get to watch.

    You know, that doesn’t sound very sane, does it? I have a hunch that the more we write, the more feisty our imaginations get 🙂

    As a reader I’d LOVE to have a bunch of DnD stories with a pink unicorn and a mute elf to read right now. I’d buy them and so would a couple of my friends. We need fun stories like that, especially in economic hard times–they’re like the dose of sunlight that gives us Vitamin D to keep strong.

    Great job pushing back against the despair and doubt. Keep going!

    • izanobu

      Ha, Lisa. I hope that there are many people out there like you and your friends. Besides, who couldn’t love Bill? (That’s the unicorn).

      The first one is done and just about ready to publish, so we’ll see!

  4. Jeff Ambrose

    Great post, Annie. Thanks for writing it. I find two things very interesting. First: you still have to deal with the myths. I thought I was past the myths, too, but they reared their head in December (mostly because I started paying attention to reviews on Amazon and Goodreads). What I realized is that all writers must deal with the myths throughout their career. Even Dean has said on his blog he sometimes struggles to keep the voices out of his office.

    But perhaps most interesting is that you fear what writers will think. I’m the same way. One thing I really like about Dean is that he NEVER puts down another writer. I really hate it when Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Harlan Ellison, Dan Simmons, or whoever decides to knock down another’s work. I don’t like Stephanie Meyer, but King’s words about here (and others) were just downright mean. We writers need to stick together. We all struggle. We all know that sometimes, despite our best effort, we miss the mark. Readers might not understand that, but writers do.

    Alas, this is a fantasy world, I know.

  5. Melanie Meadors

    Jeff, you bring up an interesting point here, about “other writers.” Because really, who decides how “successful” a writer is? Who decides who is “good”? Millions of people enjoyed reading Meyer’s stuff. Not because she was Shakespeare, but because she told a good story (and I have not read her books yet, so I am speaking objectively here). People had fun reading her stuff. One can say that her writing could be better or whatever, but she did what all the rest of us writers did–she wrote what she thought was her best and submitted it. She was lucky enough to be published–that wasn’t her fault! It sounds weird to say it like that, but… It wasn’t her fault that readers really liked what they read! When it comes to Meyers, I am sorry to say, I think there is a lot of sour grapes. SHe provided what people were looking for, and other writers, great and small, could not figure out what it was because their college courses or whatever couldn’t explain it. It made them uncomfortable.

    I’m sorry, but if millions of readers love a story that I wrote, I will be happy with that, even if Mr. King is not. I’m not writing to impress other writers, and I hope many others are not, either. People are allowed not to like something. But I hate the attitude some people have where if they can’t understand why something is successful, or if it is not up to some standard that some person set, it is trash.

    • Jeff Ambrose

      Couldn’t agree with you more, Melanie. 100% spot on. What gets me about King is that, oh, about 30 years ago he was in the same boat Meyers is in today — a wildly successful writer whom the critics despised.

      And Shakespeare wasn’t trying to be Shakespeare. He was just trying to make a shilling to feed his family.

      • izanobu

        I think one of the best lessons Dean and Kris ever taught me was not to put down fellow writers and to read bestselling fiction even if it wasn’t my personal cup of tea and instead look at why it might have appealed to hundreds of thousands of readers instead of why it didn’t appeal to me. I have learned so much about writing and craft and how to structure and pace novels from my library project. Moving beyond my own tastes and really examining books that sell has helped me raise my own skill level. And while I hope to someday be as successful as King, I also hope that I never lose sight of how I got there.

  6. Thomas K. Carpenter

    Write what you love. There will always be readers who enjoy what you write. I, for one, adore R.A. Salvatori’s books, so I welcome more fun adventure books like that. Tell me a good story and I’ll remember it forever.


  7. 1-Sierra-Gulf

    When I first read your (this) post I was quickly filled with sorrow, then with anger. I knew the feelings that you had described and how years ago they too took over my writing.

    I know by now you have heard that writing is supposed to be fun, that writing is where the writer escapes and is allowed to dream, that the writer should struggle for perfection in word, plot, theme and voice, well some of this is true, but not all.

    If you approach writing as a word count game you are going to lose. One of my professors at Evergreen told her classes that you need to write as much or as little each day as is necessary to continue your story. Writing is neither a race nor a contest of who can type the most words each day–it is an art, not a science. She also told us that the art of story telling is not a page count or a word count, but is relaying the story from start to finish… if that is 2000 words fine, if it is 200,000 words then that is what it is.

    This lady also discussed other writers of fame. She told us that the quickest way to doom our writing was to try to write like someone else. Every writer has a unique voice; a unique style and you need to develop yours. I, too, have posters on my walls; these posters are pictures of places I want to use in chapters as my settings. I have conversations I have recorded to make my characters real, to give them dimension and to make the dialogue real. There is not a poster that involves any other writer hanging anywhere… the reason is I am the writer doing my work in this place, oh, I acknowledge them in my mind and in my journals, but I do not believe for one minute that they need or want to be copied or emulated.

    Getting published is very difficult. Now having said that I must say that it is not impossible… it just takes time, persistence, submissions, and the very best writing that you can produce…oh, and one other thing it takes is stories that are fresh, new, and excite the reader into wanting more.

    I noticed in this post that you mention posters; “Heinlein’s Rules”, “It Never Ends” annotated with magazine names and dates for published stories… an idea from Dean Wesley Smith, and the five elements of a blockbuster novel from Al Zuckerman. You also write that there is a poster of Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. My point in mentioning this concerns how these authors write, their formulas, do you want their formulas to be yours? I’ve read some of what you write and it doesn’t seem so. My advices is to put away these posters and make some of your own; describe how you write draw diagrams of your story’s plot and character structure after all… you are the writer and what you write is uniquely yours!

    Anne, all writers have self-doubt, we are our own worst enemy. In the short period of time that we worked together I saw a great amount of passion in you for your writing, this fire can be rekindled by not letting the self-doubt take up space in your head. Get up each morning and look into the eyes of the woman, the lady, the writer, and tell that person who you are and then go enjoy the words that you will write, be it 200 or 2000.

    I hope all is well with you.

    • izanobu

      Hey, Burl. Nice to see you alive and kicking. Hope you are well.

      The posters I have around my desk aren’t here because I want to write exactly like someone else, they are the bits and pieces of advice I find useful. I write like me, don’t worry. But I’d be stupid not to look at the methods and techniques of those who have been successful and to steal the ones that suit my needs. All good writers are liars and thieves, right? 🙂

      Believe me, I know how tough getting published is. I have about 400+ rejections to remind me. Fortunately, I can control how much I write and how well I do it. 2011 was a pretty cool year for that. I never expected to sell so many short stories or to have any sales of my self-published work at all. I’m hoping I can make 2012 even better, but it requires that I shove the doubt voices out of my office and work my tail off. 🙂

  8. Marie

    I can so relate to this. Thanks for posting about it. I feel that no one else quite understands what I’m going through. None of my writer friends do, anyway. If I write about depression on my blog no one wants to know.

  9. kellycautillo

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. You are so right! There are people in this world that barely have to do anything but be themselves to crush people’s selfesteem, and us writers are a fragile bunch.

    I don’t talk to myself out loud so much as I do internalise everything but yes, you’re right. You do need to challenge those thoughts, find out where they originate, then kick the shit out of them or change their track so they are following you and not pulling you away.

    I love the idea of the rules and quotes around your writing space. 😀 Have you put pictures up? I demand you do so, if you haven’t already.


  10. justinawilliams

    Here here! I’ve spent years fighting with people about some of the myths you mention. Yes, for people who want to be professional writers, being aware of the audience and maintaining a professional attitude is important-crucial even. But writing, storytelling, is not the same as working on an assembly line or being an accountant. It is art, and it is something done, by most of us I feel, because we love IT, not for the love of some of the results that may come of it.
    So good on you for giving yourself a perpetual reminder of two things I think writers have sad habit of forgetting…that writing should be fun, and that you’re path is yours.

Comments are closed.