In search of the confident writer

Lately, I’ve been reading more than writing. I generally read fiction and non-fiction simultaneously. This time, I was about halfway through a novel when I picked up a memoir in the morning and finished it by the end of the day. Then, instead of going back to the half-read novel, which was a bit depressing, I started reading a different one.

Both these novels are debuts, one published in 1989 and the other in 2009. Rule breaking is one thing they have in common. You know, those carved in stone Writing Rules, the ones debut authors must follow to have even a hope of being published.

One of these books starts with seven pages of description and history of the town and its residents before the first line of dialogue is recorded. I would say most of the book is telling, not showing. As for the protagonist, well my sympathy and patience wore thin midway through. The other novel starts in media res, as The Rules state we should, but half the story is told in flashbacks, which is supposed to be a big no-no. Also, so far, the author has used one dream sequence—another instance of so-called bad writing.

Of course, twenty years ago as now, if your story is fantastic, those Rules don’t necessarily apply. These authors apparently felt confident they had stories so strong they were free to tell them their own way. And they were justified. The older book was awarded a Pulitzer; the newer one was a bestseller.

Is this post just another rant about The Rules? No. Am I writing this post to justify my own rule breaking? No again. I’m thinking about confidence. Specifically, confidence in your writing. Does this confidence come naturally to some writers or are they just better at hiding their doubts?

I just beta-read a friend’s book, and though I, and another beta judged both the writing and story as wonderful, she still doubts. (Though I can’t believe she has that much doubt.) But I wondered, what will it take to give her solid confidence in her book? Will an agent’s offer of representation do it? Will publication be the key? Will the praise of the reading public finally convince her?

Your turn: Are you a confident writer? If not, what do you think will make you one?

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28 thoughts on “In search of the confident writer

  1. Have you ever heard of Dunning-Kruger effect? http://tinyurl.com/y39tsho (not enough room to do it justice here, but very interesting…per wikipedia competent individuals tend to under-assess their abilities)

    I’ve wondered if writers fall into this camp, perhaps many artists in general. A close friend is a painter and I know she illustrates that principle.

    Am I confident? — It’s a constant roller coaster. I guess I’d say I’m learning more to listen to and trust my voice, more often than not.

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    1. No, I hadn’t heard of that effect, but I have now. Thanks for the link, but I’ll have to read it another time to understand it.

      You may be right. This under assessment might be true of most artistic people. I know I’ve never been completely satisfied with any portrait I’ve done, though the recipient always was.

      Maintaining confidence in my writing is a daily struggle. I’m not joking when I say I sometimes wake in the middle of the night with a thought like: Maybe I should rewrite Brevity. I think I could take it deeper. It’s a curse.

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      1. mmm, yes. That was my dinner table rant last night – “… major reconstructive surgery is required!” Being a morning person, I’m now seeing it with more clarity. 😉

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  2. What’s amusing is that I’ve met the opposite of those writers who are good but not that confident. I remember one girl who posted bits of her novel on this writer’s forum I used to belong to. She thought it was fantastic and it was actually cringe enducing writing. She was all excited about submitting and did right away (and of course got rejected like 10 times right away) I tried to advice her and say “let the first draft breathe for a while” but she wasn’t listening and started editing the first draft after only leaving it for 1 week. Oh well, never mind.

    About breaking the rules, I had a similar problem when I had originally started my first chapter with a waking up sequence. Another big no no. After much deliberation, I changed it. Why? Because even though it was good and I loved it, if most agents hate waking up sequences, well, then that’s just hurting my own chances right at the start and I want to give my novel the best possible chance it has.

    Oh and I’m not confident a lot of the time. Even after I get praise. It’s easier with short stories, because I can see right away whether I am happy with what I’ve done or not but I still cannot see my novel properly. Hoping that enough time passes so I can look at it with fresh eyes so I can do another edit.

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    1. That’s the trick isn’t, Alannah, knowing when to break and when to obey? That indecision can stifle your writing sometimes.

      I wish judging my short stories were easier for me, but it’s not. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to sit at the grown-up writers’ table.

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  3. When my editor told me she loved my book, I was so happy- my beta-readers had, but I needed her approval of course! So, up to those days before it came out, I was happy and confident. Then, however, when it was released, I became nervous: would others like it? How will it be received? Will they love me? When it’s all ours, we can love our words and character(s) and story and feel confident — but when it goes out and becomes everyone else’s, it can shake our confidence a little, or a lot. So, I try to remember why I do this. And I listen to readers who email me and tell me they enjoy my work-always a confidence builder. However, a little humility keeps one grounded and always aware of trying to do our best.

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    1. Oh, Kat, I try not to think too much about the period after my book is published. I know I will be a mess just sure I’ll get horrible reviews and snide remarks. Maybe I should have a Boost My Confidence party right before launch day, so it won’t plummet too far. 🙂

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  4. I think I am a confident writer, but confident or not, when I thought my novel was finished, it wasn’t. I discovered this myself after being away from it for a while. What I’m saying is that confidence is a good thing but it isn’t a sure thing. A writer’s confidence in his/her own work doesn’t prove that the writing is great or less than. Then there is this factor: Our world keeps changing. Most readers would be repulsed today to wade through the writings of authors from yesteryear, which indicates that writing styles may be like clothing styles, except that old writing styles seem not to come back. A reader’s vote of confidence would mean more to me than my own vote. Until I have a trusted opinion to the contrary on my MS, I believe it is a worthy work. Does that make me confident? As for your friend, I don’t get it. What’s her problem? She should be smiling! Maybe her lack of confidence caused her to nitpick her own work until she made it so perfect that you and another reader loved it. I know. It’s not supposed to work that way, but did it?

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    1. Not a lack of confidence that makes me nitpick — just the desire to make my work the best it can be. 🙂 I absolutely believe (and am encouraged by!) Linda and Melissa when they tell me they love it, but I also believe another reader who has some concerns. (I agree, as you say: a reader’s vote of confidence would mean more to me than my own vote, and until I have a trusted opinion on the contrary, I believe it is a worthy work. At the moment, I have both. More positives than concerns, but both sides nonetheless.) Everyone agrees it isn’t polished yet, and it has room to improve. I’m just taking the feedback as I get it and considering every encouragement, and every concern, sent my way. Despite the fact that some things are hard to hear and that I still have some work ahead of me, I’m still confident in my novel and pleased with how far I’ve come on it. 🙂

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      1. Did I miss that you are the writer that Linda referred to or is this a revelation? I’m always missing details. Duh. I have never read Linda’s work but I have confidence in Linda’s judgment from reading her blog. Based on this I believe she is a good writer, and I believe that about you, also, Kayla. I think you will both eventually be published. I am proud to blog with both of you. 🙂

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    2. I agree, Carol, that just believing your writing is good doesn’t make it so. As Cathryn and Alannah pointed out, some of the worst writers can be the most confident and vice versa. And perfectionism can spur you to polish your work to a brilliance, but it can also keep you from recognizing when it’s reached that stage.

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  5. I’m confident I can write, and write well; hell, it’s my bread and butter. But fiction adds a whole new layer, and that layer includes such things as personal taste and subjective opinion and then it all becomes so hazy and hard to predict.

    That’s when my confidence takes a nose-dive. But then I’ll get something accepted, and it gives me the boost to keep going. In fiction, it really is about people loving your work.

    As to those writers who are confident regardless of skill, Cathryn is correct that the DK effect comes into play. Some people just cannot see how monumentally awful their work is, because they don’t have the skill set to understand it. The more skilled you are, the more chance there is that you will be down on your own work. This is both useful and a self-flagellation tool.

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    1. Merrilee, you said: “In fiction, it really is about people loving your work.”

      That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? If we’re writing for publication, we’re writing to please others. So no matter how much we believe in our work, the transaction is incomplete until the reader gives a thumbs up too.

      To balance that “tool” is my quest. Can it be done?

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  6. Oh, wow! What a question. I’m gaining confidence in my story construction, creating voices for my characters and balancing scenes, but my grammatical skills cause me so much anxiety that it almost completely smothers those little embers of hope.

    That said, from now on my stories are what they are. Yes I break the rules on occassion, but not for the sake of breaking them. If a dream sequence fits, I’ll use it. If including a page from a character’s journal fits, I’ll use it. If it makes sense I think that is all that matters. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t use them. Oh heck, I’m just going to write. 🙂

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    1. Yes, Trista, just write your little heart out. You can always find a critpal who’s a whiz at grammar. 🙂

      We’ve discussed this so many times, I know. There are basic rules of writing that we all must follow, but the arbitrary rules are just that. Follow the ones that work for you, ignore the rest. And I guess when everything you write debuts at #1 on the NYT best seller list, you can break all the rules if you want to. 🙂

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  7. I am currently writing my 1st novel and it seems everywhere I go I see Rules for 1st timers. At first I started revising my work to fit The Rules, but then I found I wasn’t as confident in my writing. I second guessed everything. Now I have thrown the rules out. I have decided to just write without worrying over what I’m doing wrong. Of course, my confidence is like a roller coaster from day to day. During revisions I will look more at The Rules and make revisions accordingly.

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  8. I love the comments from you and Cathryn about the night editor.

    Like others, I ride that roller coaster, and I don’t like the dips and swings. I know I can string words together so that they read well, but my wavering confidence comes in wondering whether or not others will find those words (and stories) interesting.

    I guess the key is to accept that not every reader will love what I write, and to focus on the readers who do — easier said than done, but I’m getting better at it 🙂

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    1. As usual, Christi, the best writing on this blog is done in comments. 🙂

      Well, you are much braver than I, putting your work out there profusely. I’m sure you don’t find many readers who don’t like your writing, but still I’m glad to know it’s possible to survive it.

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  9. Seven pages of description…I wouldn’t have gotten through the first three. I guess that’s why they say write what you read. Yeesh!
    I am not a confident writer and I have no idea how to change that. I guess it would have to start with at least one person reading through an entire draft of something I’ve written. 🙂

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