Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When You Doubt Your Writing

by Stephanie Morrill

Last Friday, on the Go Teen Writers Facebook Group, the topic came up of doubting one's story, of being hypercritical of our work. How do you know when a story is good? How do you know you can stop editing and declare it done? Do the fears of the book sucking go away after a certain number of edits? Or will it always feel like a leap of faith when you send your manuscript to someone?

Connor, age 2, is all about the crazy leaps.
I know every writer is different in how they handle their insecurities, so I doubt everything on this list will be helpful to you, but hopefully something is:

Remember, all writers have doubts.

Occasionally I meet writers who are rather cocky about their book idea, but most of the writers I meet feel nervous about their story. They like the idea, and it's meaningful to them, but will anybody else like it? I've often wondered if when Suzanne Collins was writing The Hunger Games, she ever thought things like, "I can't believe I'm writing about a bunch of teens trying to kill each other! No one will want to read this!"

We all have doubts about what we're writing. You're not alone!

Try writing the first draft, then going back and editing. 

I've shared on here before that I embrace the "write bad first drafts" strategy for writing novels. It helps me write quicker, and the time I spend editing is more effective.

Something else bad first drafts help with is silencing the, "This book is terrible," voices. I already know my first draft is bad, so when the voices kick up, I can say to them, "Yeah, I know it's bad. But it's just a first draft. I'll fix it later."

So if you haven't given bad first drafts a try yet, it might be time!

Don't read other books in your genre while you're writing the first draft.

I'm currently working on the first draft for the second Ellie book, but I had really wanted to read a YA contemporary romance,  Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, for a while now. So I broke my rule and read it.

Bad. Idea. 

Because I no longer wanted to spend time with my character in her storyworld when it was so much easier to hang out with Lola. Lola was so quirky and fleshed out, the storyworld so easy to visualize, the dialogue so snappy.... I would sit at my computer to work and just pout at my screen. 

This only happens to me when I'm reading a book that's in the same genre as the one I'm writing, so I've reinstated my rule of no contemporary YAs until I'm done with this first draft!

Experience matters

When I was a new writer, I had a lot of trouble knowing which story ideas were big enough to sustain a full-length novel and which weren't. It's a skill I've been able to improve over the years. While I still have lots of doubts during the writing process, I feel like my judgment of what works and what doesn't has been honed in the last decade.

But I wouldn't have improved if I hadn't had all those story ideas that went nowhere, so it was definitely worth it to try them out!

Give Yourself Time Between Edits

I try to take six weeks off from a story after I've finished a first draft. It's pretty easy for me now (unless I have a deadline pressing!) but it wasn't always. I wrote right before Me, Just Different that I was WAY excited about. I loved the story, and I was dying to get it back out and start on edits.

To distract myself, I decided to go to the bookstore and find a few YA books to read. This is when I discovered This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen, which became one of my all-time favorites. I basically did nothing but read for a day and a half. (Ah, the days before kids...)

Reading her book made me panic about mine. After a day or so, I caved and pulled out my manuscript. Oh, it was horrible! Sarah's book was so funny and sarcastic and bursting with voice. Mine had none of that! I started rewriting mine, which led to me dissolving in tears within an hour. I was never going to be published!

My best friend (who wasn't a writer) happened to call in the middle of this. When I told her what was going on, she said, "Stephanie! You're supposed to put it away for six weeks! What are you doing with it out? You put that book away right now and don't look at it until your calendar says."

That was the last time I ever did that! It can be  tempting to pull the draft back out, but I've found it's rarely fruitful and that edits go much better when I've gotten some distance from the story.

Find writers who can help you along the way.

My first attempt at The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (which releases this May) was a few years ago, right after I finished the Skylar Hoyt series. During the writing of Ellie, I had never felt so insecure about a story. I spent most the draft saying things like, "I just don't know about this book," to my critique partner, Roseanna White. When I sent her the edited draft, it was with a note that said something like, "Will you please read this and tell me what's wrong with this book?"

Roseanna read it in a day and told me it was the best thing I had ever written.

I thought at first she was being sarcastic, but no. She really did love it. I couldn't believe it. And then my agent loved it too. While I still had work to do on the story, it wasn't nearly as bad as I had convinced myself it was.

Sometimes it's tough to see our own writing clearly, which is why writing friends are so valuable. (Also, I've noticed that when my main character is similar to me, the way Ellie is, my insecurity about the story skyrockets!)

Don't discount fatigue.

When you're on rewrite number seven and you've been working on the same story off-and-on for the last couple years, it's normal for the story to feel boring and predictable. The phrases that once seemed fresh now seem to just die there on the page. So if you've been working on the same story for a while now, it might be the fatigue speaking. It's possibly a good time to put your book away for a month or so, to work on something fun and new, and then come back to it.

Consider a paid critique and/or attending a conference

If you've decided to get really serious about your writing, it might be time to invest in a professional edit or in attending a conference. They don't come cheap, but this is a great way to get an idea of where your writing is.

And remember, you may never feel ready.

You likely won't wake up one day thinking, "Man, I feel ready for some really harsh criticism!" If you're tender-hearted (like I am) you may have to make yourself send your book out. I was crazy scared, but I knew that I had to do it if I ever wanted to be published. Eventually you must decide if you want it enough to risk the pain involved.

Anybody have advice to add about dealing with doubts?


  1. Thanks Stephanie! I think all the grumpiness I've had lately about my book is the fatigue talking. I mean, the other day, I had the thought "I hate my MC." Which is odd, because I LOVE my MC. Guess I've been writing so much I forgot why I love her. So I went and reread an old draft and fell in love again. :D
    HAHAHA, I've wondered that, too, about Collins. "No one will read a book about teens killing each other! People will think I'm crazy!" :P I wonder what her first crit partners told her about it?
    I never thought about not reading books in my genre when drafting, great idea. :D

    1. I've gone through the same thing, Allison. Just before I acquired my agent, I had reworked Me, Just Different so many times that I thought, "I almost hope she passes so I can put this manuscript away for a while." Well, she said yes :) Dealing with the fatigue now is good practice for when you'll have to do it under contract!

  2. This was such a great post! I needed this. I feel like I need to stop looking at my novella because I am too close. I have already sent it out because think it's ready, but every time I open it I think I shouldn't have. So, instead of paying for a shrink : ) I eat Chocolate Therapy Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

    But, you are right when you right about someone who is extremely close to yourself. My art teacher encouraged us not to do any self pictures, even if it was a younger picture or we were just in the crowd because we would never finish it. I didn't listen and hate the drawing : (

    1. Ah Ben and Jerry's... Yes, the best comfort therapy. And much cheaper than a psychiatrist. I like your thinking ;)

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    3. Oh, Wow! I said "right" instead of "write" Now I feel like an idiot : )

    4. I hadn't even noticed, Alyson! And how interesting about your art teacher's advice. That makes sense.

      Oh, Ben and Jerry's. LOVE. Phish Food and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough are my favorites...

  3. When I'm sick of my writing, I usually turn to another hobby. It helps my zone out of the "this is horrible" thing and inspires me along the way. For example: sometimes I'll start to play piano all the time. When my fingers start working into chords that match the mood of my story, I know it's time to go back. The chords always seem to scream to me "DO THIS NEXT! DO THIS NEXT!" Another example (even though it doesn't apply to me) would probably be photography or drawing.
    Anyway...great post. I can definitely use these. Especially the one about not reading the same genre you're writing. I've made that mistake more than I can count.
    And I also wanted to point out that all is Alysons posted in a row =)

    1. I noticed that too! All my Al(l)y(i)sons in a row!

      Turning to another hobby is a GREAT suggestion! Taking a walk sometimes helps too.

  4. Great post Stephanie! I've also found like you were saying, that sharing your writing with other writing friends, or a critique partner can really encourage you. Especially when things you just don't like, they really do. One way to fall back in love with your writing, is to try to remember why you loved it in the first place. You were writing this story because it spoke to you, and you wanted to tell it. So go back, and remember why you loved it in the beginning. :)

    1. Yes, great idea, Bethany. About halfway through the story, I usually feel tangled up in all my plot lines, so stepping back and remembering what the story is about at its core and why it feels important for me to write can get me energized again.

  5. Oh--I love this post! Thank you so much for writing it, Stephanie! I have had this same book idea for four years and have been fleshing it out ever since--and I'm *still* in my first draft. I am, yes, writing by hand, but sometimes it's just gotten so BORING.

    I think I'm going to bookmark this page!

    1. I'm so glad it resonated, Hannah Elise! I wrote a lot of my early books by hand as well :)

  6. Great post, Stephanie!! I'm in the middle of the my-book-is-terrible-stage, and I've found that a great piece of advice (one that I'm trying hard to stick to) is to NOT let yourself make changes before you finish the rough draft.

    I'm part of the One Year Adventure Novel writing forum, and it's a piece of advice that I've given and been given many times - and now I'm having to live by my own words and just write. Because I've got all this nonsense going on in the first few chapters that I'm just ITCHING to fix, but I know I should I've made a commitment to see this rough draft through with no more editing (because yeah, I already broke my own rules once.)

    So that's what I'm working through lately. ;)

    1. I hear wonderful things about that forum, Olivia :) It sounds a great place for encouragement and advice.

      If I have changes I want to make, I do what you do. I'll make myself a note or something, but I don't mess with going back.

  7. This is SO helpful! Thank you!!

  8. I'm about a quarter of the way through my current WIP, but I know this stage is coming. I never thought about not reading other books in my genre while I write, but it makes total sense now because I always finish the book and look at mine and wonder why it isn't that creative/funny/engaging. Thanks for the advice!

  9. Thanks! This is extremely helpful :) I tend to doubt my writing a lot and unfortunately it often leads me to turn to another project, instead of just finishing one story completely.

    Can't wait to read the Revised Life of Ellie Sweet!

  10. I hope you're feeling better. Connor looks so nbig there!

    This is one of biggest struggles. It definitely stops me from writing. Ever so slowly I'm learning that its not something that's overcome but managed and I have to be proactive in managing it. It's been hard for me to accept the bad first draft, I want everything to just be write and then I obsess and stress myself out when it isn't. Now that I'm done some editing and rewriting I see how things change in the proccess and its helped me accept a bad first draft more. But there are still days I have to convince myself that its ok to be bad (like the scene I wrote today) and to keep moving forward.

    Another thing that has helped me is to really take it down to bare bones. I can feel overwhelmed easily so if I only focus on the main plot and the next turn that has to happen. I feel better and actually write faster than when I'm thinking about everything. My plan right now is to go back and write the subplot like a short story & weave it in.....we'll see how it works out.

  11. I've just queried and I'm insanely crazy scared. My inner-writer is having a spack attack about how unready the book is and how no one's going to want to read it and it's messy and...horrible. But I KNOW I've worked on this book for 3 years, had plenty of beta-readers, severe edits and light edits and complete rewrites. I want to be published, but my head is spinning with "what ifs"...

    Love the picture of Connor! ;) We keep finding my 2yrs nephew on top of God definitely has a sense of humour when he decided to give 2yr olds 50 times more energy then anyone else. :P

  12. Oh man, have I ever felt that before! Especially since all my friends are writers and we all share are books with each other. I always find myself so hooked on their books and when I look at mine I feel like it's not good enough. But despite that, my friends are very supportive. I remember when I was on the brink of quitting my book and I told one of my best friends, she slapped me (literally). She said, "don't you dare quit your book! I'm really enjoying it!" (Rather abusive, but very helpful!)
    I told myself never to quit again.

    I have definitely had the same problem as Stephanie when I read a book while I'm writing one and suddenly you just want write about those characters instead. I remember especially when I read Sarah Sundin's new book "With Every Letter". Ooohhh! It was just so good that the characters were in my mind for about a week before I got them out!

    thanks so much Stephanie!!

  13. Thanks so much for this encouraging post. :) I hope this means you're feeling better. I know being sick is no fun, especially when you have such a full plate! :P

    1. I am feeling better, thank you! Now my poor son has something again. This has been a bad winter for the Morrill family!

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  15. I haven't gotten past the second draft yet for my first novel, and I'm on the first draft for my WIP, but when I do, I'm sure it'll come in handy. Sometimes I really doubt my ideas (not being able to explain them well doesn't help), but sometimes, I have an inflated opinion and everything's going really well (at least, until the next day). Thank you so much for this post!

  16. One thing I've noticed is that the less I doubt my writing, the worse it is. For instance, I absolutely loved the first draft of one story, and I look at it now and say, "How did I ever think that was good?" Then with my current WIP, I think it still needs a whole bunch of work, and my critique partner thinks it's really good.

    And speaking of critique partners...besides convincing you that your project isn't total crap, they're also good for pointing out your strengths and weaknesses. I never would have listed dialogue as one of my strengths, or description as one of my weaknesses, if it weren't for my CP.

  17. Thanks, Stephanie! This post was really helpful! I was just feeling frustrated with my story, and I think that's because I finally decided to put aside this story I've been working on for two years and think is really crappy. I think some of that sore feeling towards my old story came over into my new story. Hopefully, now I can just continue fleshing out the first draft of my new story.

  18. Thanks Stephanie! This post was seriously helpful. I know that I'm constantly worrying about my story, whether or not its good enough. This at least let me know I wasn't alone! :D
    When I'm doubting it, though, I try to look back and think about what my critique partners said. They're really awesome; while they pointed out my strengths and weaknesses, they made me feel good about the project, too. So that's definitely helpful.

  19. That's funny - I usually have an easier time writing when I read things in my genre. I have trouble when I read or watch something in another genre (e.g. futuristic - my WIP is allegorical. You could call it fantasy, but it really isn't) I want to write something in that genre! I guess it's different with different writers, maybe?