Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Confidence in Writing

Back when I was pre-published, I was convinced that while I didn't have an abundance of confidence in my writing now, publication would fix that. Or maybe just having a literary agent. After all, an agent is an industry professional who reads tons and tons of manuscripts, who only makes money when one of their writer's makes money. How could you not be bursting with confidence after you signed with a literary agent?!?

Confidence in your writing cannot come from other people. Same as it's a bad idea to measure your self-worth based on another's opinion, it's a bad idea with writing too.
'writing in the journal' photo (c) 2011, Erin Kohlenberg - license:
At the moment on Go Teen Writers, we're focusing on what I lacked as a high school writer, what it was that prevented me from being published. One of the biggest things I lacked was confidence.

There were certainly times in high school when I felt confident. They were when my friends read a chapter and gushed about it. "Oh my gosh, it's the best thing I've ever read. What happens next? I have to know! Can you go write it right now?!"

And there were times when I felt like my writing was horrible, that I was doomed for failure. They were when conversations went like this:

"Christina, did you like chapter two?"

Christina shrugs. "It was okay. Chapter one was better."

Insert me plunging into a 3 day funk.

We've talked on here about a betrayal I had in high school, and why I now have a closed-door policy on works in progress. In short, my best friend called my writing - ahem - "poo" and not only was our friendship never the same, it took me years to recover writing-wise.

Now, we are all different people, and what's right for me in this situation might not be right for you, but here are a couple thoughts I have on what would have helped me in high school:

To not let people read as I'm writing.

When I wrote the dandelion story, I was finishing a chapter, printing it off, and passing it around to all my friends for them to tell me how good it was. My motivation was not to grow as a writer, to hone my craft. My motivation, seriously, was for them to boost my confidence by gushing over my characters and prose. That is a bad motivation. If that's your motivation when you send a work in progress (WIP) to someone, I encourage you to not do it. Because when one of them doesn't like it, you're in emotional trouble. If your name is Stephanie Hines, anyway. 

When I read this quote of Stephen King's in On Writing, I cheered out loud: "...if no one says to you, 'Oh, Sam! This is wonderful,' you are a lot less apt to slack off or to start concentrating on the wrong thing ... being wonderful, for instance, instead of telling the ... story."

I needed to focus on telling my story. Not on being wonderful.

Get comfortable with the idea of a first draft being bad.

I very, very, very rarely let anyone see any part of my first draft. Over the weekend, my husband and I were sitting on the couch. He was editing photos, and I was writing. I saw him glance at my screen, cringed, and said, "Don't read my book!" Because it's a first draft. Because I know it's not good.

Sometimes, maybe once or twice in our 4 years of friendship, I will send my critique partner, Roseanna White, a snippet of my first draft. When I did it recently, I'd had a lousy week, but had something beautiful happen that day when I was writing. I really wanted to share it with someone, so I emailed the two paragraphs to Roseanna and said to her, "Please read this and tell me how clever it is." Which she did.

Otherwise, first drafts are my own stinky secret. They aren't good, I know they're not good, but I don't have to care because no one will see them but me. And maybe, on occasion, my husband if I'm typing next to him on the couch.

On Friday we're going to talk more about healthy ways to build your confidence.


  1. You know, our different styles suddenly make sense! I was over-confident in high school. I knew I was talented, and so I wrote with the idea that whatever I produced was awesome, and if someone didn't think so, they were wrong. I rarely let anyone read my fiction, certainly not until it was finished. And by that time, I was so attached to The Way It Was that I wouldn't change anything, even when I got good advice. So for me, sending chapter chunks is my way of saying, "Be ready to change it, Roseanna. Be open. Take advice." and actually listen. ;-)

  2. Hmm, I suppose I never really thought about that. Right now, my 'writing buddy' is Lindsey Bradford, who is awesome, and tells me (truthfully) when I need to change something. I actually really LIKE sending my first draft out to a couple of people, strange as that may sound to you (:D), because I like getting info on what I might want to change. I then keep those notes and think about whether or not it would make sense to incorporate any of them, or whether it hinders, rather than helps, the plot. That's pretty much my take on things. I also send first drafts to good friends who came to ME and asked to read the book (I rarely ask someone to read anything I wrote), with a warning that it is my first draft, so it's not that great, and don't expect to get any compliments/critiques/etc.

  3. Roseanna, that's such an interesting insight. Definitely sheds light on the reasons behind our different processes.

    Becki, establishing expectations is a wonderful way to start critiques. I wish I had figured that out at your age.

  4. Well, I figured that if I want to make my work any better, I should probably get peoples' REAL opinion. Don't get me wrong, I love the praise as much as anyone, but I try to ignore that, so I can get actual stuff done.

  5. I love this post! My husband's been banned from reading anything but the finished product, due to some negative input on one of my early book ideas.

    There's a fine balance between accepting those constructive criticisms on later drafts (critique groups are great for this), and having the relentless confidence it takes to keep putting your writing out there and knowing somewhere deep down it's GOOD. So easy as a writer to have "up" days when agents like our query letter, only to tumble into gloom and despair when they don't like some aspects of our novel.

    I personally feel fulfilled when my first draft makes me laugh/smile/cry when I re-read it. I know I've done something right there.

  6. Thanks to you I now have a closed door policy. My friend is always hovering over my shoulder while I'm writing and it's like "really go I'm trying to get something written."
    I guess now that I think about it I'll go and get an agent before I go diving into the publishing houses. Thanks!

  7. Heather: I completely agree. I know I've done it right if I start crying and laughing at scenes that I wrote. :) I once had a character that was supposed to be what I call a "throw-away" character. He had to die for the story to work out, but when he actually did die, I bawled my eyes out, and then realized that I needed to put way more development into him, so that the reader has the same reaction.

  8. Beautiful post. I hung on every word! And I'm not kidding. :-) I get it. :-)

  9. Love this post! I'm the exact same way - I absolutely would not let anyone read the first draft of my book. It was for my eyes only. No one understood that, but I did, and that was all that mattered. =) I'm still not really letting my family read much of Purple Moon even as it's going through the editing process with my publisher. My opinion is that it will not be completely "readable" until it's in print. It's almost like allowing someone to get a taste of food that you're not yet done cooking... pointless. (Unless you're baking, of course. That's a completely different story.)

  10. Until you talked about the closed door policy I had never thought about it. I felt like if someone asked to read what I was writing I had to let them, But I was so uncomfortable with it.  Now I know I don't have to do that :)

     Do you tell your husband and friends what are you writing about? Even though you don't show them?

    I read something by Kristin Billerbeck where she said having confidence in your writing gets hard once you have an agent and are published. You then, have to worry about sales and earning out, plus you can get mean emails from readers! When I started thinking about that it made total sense.

  11. Tessa, that bit about baking. So true. Cookie dough is in constant danger of consumption when I know it's in the house. (Did I use that "it's" correctly?)

    Thanks for this post today, Stephanie. Confidence is something I'm working on. :) People will tell me they love an article I've had published (mostly the church newsletter, sometimes online) but I really struggle opening up about my fiction work. :)

  12. Rachelle, sorry, I'm sort of a grammar freak, but you did use "it's" correctly, because if you had made it two words it would have been "it is," so the apostrophe is correct, as opposed to if you had been talking about "its" ingredients. Sorry, like I said: Grammar freak. (That's what I get for being born into a line of English teachers. My Mom broke the mold, though, and became a MUSIC teacher. :D (I digress).)

    Love the analogy, though! :)

  13. Haha, I know what you mean about not letting anyone see my first draft. Whenever any of my family starts reading over my shoulder, I get nervous and often end up going into my room and locking the door. :-P

  14. Heather, I agree ("I personally feel fulfilled when my first draft makes me laugh/smile/cry when I re-read it.") Especially in early revision stages, if I'm not moved by what's going on, how can I expect anyone else to be? By the end of rewrites, I'm pretty jaded to it all, though :) Thanks for sharing your insights!

  15. Alana, I'm glad you've found something that works for you (the closed door). It's nice to have supportive friends, but it's REALLY nice when they can support you even when you aren't yet ready to show them your story.

    Julie, thanks! What a compliment :)

    Tessa, lol - yeah, the analogy breaks down with cookie dough, but I'm with you :) I'm impressed that you were able to establish such clear boundaries. And I would of course love to feature you on Go Teen Writers when your book releases.

  16. Tonya, before I had writing friends my husband heard every single detail about my writing life. What I was working on, what I was thinking about working on, random ideas I'd had for other stories, etc. He was always very patient. Which is good, because it was very helpful for me to talk to him and it made writing "ours" not just "mine."

    But now he usually knows what project I'm working on and what my daily word count was. ("How'd writing go today?" "Great - wrote 2,000 words.") We'll sometimes talk about the story, especially when I'm really excited about it, but not with the same level of detail as before.

    Roseanna, my critique partner, hears a lot more about story details and doubts because I rely on her for brainstorming.

    Speaking of details - that was probably way more information than you wanted :)

  17. Tonya, also, I agree with Kristin Billberbeck about different challenges coming with being published. More on that Friday :)

    Rachelle, I'm SUCH a work in progress with confidence. Sigh.

    Katie, lol. Good for you!

  18. Such an interesting post and insightful comments!

  19. I normally don't willingly let people read my first draft, especially if it hasn't been edited. There have been times my family has started reading it without my permission. (My brother found out my characters were riding hoses instead of horses, something I might have caught if he'd waited until I'd had a chance to edit.)
    A few months ago, I posted two short stories, one of which was fan-fiction I was rather proud of, online. I got a lot of people saying they liked it, which boosted my confidence in my writing because it was the first time in years someone outside my family had read anything longer than a few paragraphs.
    When I first started writing, I sent my incomplete work to everyone. Now, I look at that writing and sunder in horror when I think that someone read it.

  20. I never thought of it like this! I already decided why I love to write, though, and that is for others, as well as my sanity. Fact is, if one person loves it, I'm happy. But if no one loves it, then there's an issue. It's cool if you don't like what I do, I mean haters gunna hate, but if no one likes what you write, what's the point?

    Maybe I'll try this on my next story, though... I'm curious, though. Where do you peer edit, then? Or do you not?

  21. Can you clarify what you mean by "peer edit"?

  22. I'm not sure how much confidence I have with my writing. Some days are better than others, :) Like right now I feel that I'm doing all right, but its taking all my restraint not to just quit writing "Limelight" and edit it all until its perfect because I think its a dull and drab book. Which... yeah... I won't go into a sob story lol.

    The only person who does see my writing is my best friend who writes as well. :) She's brutally honest with me so I'm lucky to have her haha. :D She tells me when something sucks... I think. As far as I know she does, she doesn't outright say "it sucks", but she tells me what she thinks could be changed in the chapters I send her.