Writing isn’t easy. Ask any published author how long it took them to write a short story or a novel that’s been traditionally published (meaning not self-published), and they’ll tell you something you’ll not likely want to hear: it took a long, long time for them to get there. Obviously short stories don’t take as long as novels to write, but all the same, professional writers, meaning writers who put the effort in to learn the craft (which, by the way, is a never-ending process,) understand that criticism is part of the process (however much it crushes your ego). They know that writing is rewriting. They get that just because you’ve been lucky enough to get something published doesn’t mean the next story or book is going to get easier to write and/or that it too will get published. And they always, always, keep on trucking, no matter the outcome.
Writing, if you want to make it a life-long endeavor, can be just as much a slog for the experienced writer as for the beginning writer. The difference between the two is simply that the experienced writer has been through the wringer already and knows there’ll be something at the end of the process, whereas the beginning writer isn’t so sure. Beginning writers lack confidence. They’re inexperienced, which means they may not yet understand or appreciate the process. They’re excited (as they should be) but haven’t quite reached the point yet where they’re self-aware. They oftentimes believe their first draft is gold (it’s not), that the words they’ve put down on paper are ready to share with the world (they aren’t), and that anyone who doesn’t see their genius after reading their work is a moron (they may be, but they’re probably just telling the truth as they see it—writing is subjective, after all, isn’t it? ((hint, it is)).
One of the sayings I grew up hearing (though I’m not exactly sure where I first heard it), is that “tough guys move in silence,”) meaning that they don’t need to walk around telling everyone that they are tough—their actions speak for themselves. The same is true with writing. Writing should speak for itself. Writers shouldn’t have to explain anything to their readers—the words on the paper should tell everything there is to tell, in a way that’s properly communicated. It’s that simple; if I have to explain to you what happens in a piece of fiction, then as a writer I’ve not done my job. That said, every reader experiences a piece of writing in their own way, and that’s a good thing. It shows that we’re all individuals, and that the experiences we’ve had in our lives has created a lens through which we see and translate things, which leads to a variety of experiences for readers of our work. Hopefully, with any luck, they also take pleasure in reading our work—but that’s not always the case, and that’s all right. Not everyone will. It’s not anything you should take personally. War and Peace isn’t for everyone, and neither will your writing be for everyone. That’s just how it is.
Now, back to the confidence aspect of writing. Augusten Burroughs, says, “When you say, ‘I need more confidence,’ what you’re really saying is, ‘I need those people over there to approve of me. That is the desire to control other people and what they think. The first person who figures out how to do this owns the world.’” Jorge Luis Borges, author of Ficciones, says that “Doubt is one of the names of intelligence.” And this quote from E.L. Doctorow is probably one of my favorite quotes, because if you’re a pantser like I am, it makes absolute sense: “‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” No truer words have been spoken.
As a writer, you must put your fears aside and go forth. You have to not worry about this word or that line or that chapter. Not when you’re first getting your story down. And probably not in the second or third draft, either. Writing takes time. It takes perseverance. It takes, in all honesty, not giving a shit what other people think. Not yet, anyway. Your job is to have the confidence to know that the story you’re imagining in your head is the one you’ll eventually get to. Or at least get to as close as you can. That’s all we, as writers, can aspire to, because we’ll never reach that magical place where everything turns out exactly as we’d imagined it would. But we go on. We write. And with time, we’re even confident about what we’re doing. Not fully, perhaps, but enough. And that’s all that matters.
So how do you build your confidence?
You write. You write daily. You write for whatever amount of time you can, whether it’s five minutes, five hours, or whatever you can fit in during your lunch break. But you write. You don’t make excuses. Everyone is busy. Everyone has too much on their plates. Everyone has jobs, kids, pets, and a million other commitments. But if you’re a writer, you write. Period.
You read. Voraciously. Every so often I see some aspiring writer or other declare that they don’t like to read but they want to write. I don’t understand that. In order to learn how to write, you have to know how writers do what they do. This applies to anything. Want to be a coder? You have to learn how to code. How do you do that? Well, besides reading books on it, it probably makes sense to have someone teach you. Want to ride a bike? Same thing—someone has to show you how to get on a bike, how to pedal, and how to work towards maintaining your balance so you don’t fall over. Same with writing. If you don’t know what or how an author does what they do, how are you going to do it? So read. Read long fiction. Read short fiction. Read magazine articles. Read nonfiction. Read craft books. But read.
You have trusted beta readers. Writing, while a solitary venture, still requires feedback. It requires someone sitting down with your fiction and ideally marking it up with comments that are constructive, that open your eyes to what you’re doing well and where you need improvement. Trusted readers help you hone in on where you lose them, where their interest is high, and, hopefully, they provide you with specific recommendations on how to improve your manuscript, whether you take their advice or not (remember, it’s your book, and it’s your choice to use or discard their feedback).
You submit. Submitting short stories is how I got my first publications. Some of the submissions required that I pay submission fees, others were free. Both were nerve wracking. Or perhaps not nerve wracking, but they were definitely a little stressful. Some of my stories were rejected within a day; other stories were rejected years after I submitted them. Literary journals are often short-staffed and unpaid, so you shouldn’t sit on your haunches waiting for them to respond. But submitting means you’ll get rejections, and, if you’re lucky, some acceptances. More than not, you’ll likely get a lot more rejections than acceptances. But those acceptances build your confidence. They tell you that what you’re doing is, at least to some readers of your work, working. And you learn that rejection is just part of the process of writing. And it’s a very important part of it, because if you can’t handle rejection, writing is probably not for you.
You become familiar with the writing world. Now, I know this one can be a bit overwhelming, especially for new writers. But it’s critical if you want to take this writing thing seriously. Becoming familiar with the writing world can mean any number of things. It can mean attending writing conferences. It can mean reading publications like Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, The Writer, literary journals, and so on. These publications list writing competitions, talk about craft, grants and awards, provide you with literary agents looking for submissions, and a great many other resources writers can leverage to gain a better understanding of all things writing. Remember that old television meme with the star at the end of it, The More You know . . . well, it’s true. The more you know about the writing world, the more confident you’ll be when it comes to your own writing.
You have a writing mentor. Now, this one is similar to having beta readers, but your reader is someone who’s already established in the industry. Most writers I know that are successful (meaning they publish, know craft, understand the writing business, are confident in their writing abilities, meaning they’re self-aware, etc.) have a writing mentor. My mentor is a professor of writing at a university, has written novels, short story collections, books on writing, and is just a generous guy all around. I’ve known him for almost 30 years. He was my first creative writing teacher, and we’ve been friends for many years. I trust his opinions immensely, and I keep his books handy (I’m sitting about six feet away from a handful of them right now). It’s great to have beta readers; mentors, if you can get one, are the cherry on top because they’ve been there and done it when it comes to not only writing but getting an agent, publishing, and motivating you do strive to be the best writer you can be.
You don’t listen to the critics. Now, I know this one can be confusing, or even counterintuitive. But hear me out. Critics aren’t bad people. Well, maybe some are, but for the most part they’re looking to read something they enjoy, and that’s not always the case. You know why? Because they’re human, like you, like me. And we don’t always like everything either. But their job (if they’re a professional critic) is to provide their readers with what they believe are objective evaluations of the writings they read. Good critics (in my humble opinion), provide balanced criticisms of a writer’s work. They highlight the compelling writing, the strength of the story, the author’s gift of suspense and tension and dialogue, and they point out what they believe the writer could have improved or written in a different way to make the experience more enjoyable, and they do so in an impersonal fashion. Again, this is just my opinion on how a fair critic should present his criticism. To me, that’s constructive criticism for the writer, and helpful to prospective readers. You may not agree with what they’re saying, but again, writing’s subjective, so their opinion is as valid as the next reader’s opinion.
When I say “don’t listen to the critics,” I don’t mean that completely. I mean it shouldn’t stop you from writing what you want to write. A critic’s opinion of your work is no more valid than your grandmother’s opinion of your work. If someone enjoys your piece, they enjoyed it. If another person doesn’t, they don’t. That’s it. As a writer, you’re happy when they do, and you’re fine when they don’t. C’est la vie. Why? Because you know that you’ve put your best foot forward. You’ve given it your all. You’ve written countless drafts of your work, and edited and edited, and workshopped your novel, had beta readers, know how your work stacks up against others’ works because you’re so well-read you know what works and what doesn’t, and because YOU, my friend, are CONFIDENT in your writing.
And that’s what it’s all about. Your job is to write the best story or novel or whatever that you can. It ain’t going to be for everyone, and that’s okay. You wrote something and it will exist forever, even if it’s never printed. There are plenty of bestselling writers out there with unpublished manuscripts that’ll never get published. Do you think they’re not confident in their work? Do they give up because someone hated one of their books? No, right? And neither should you. You’re a writer. You know what you’re doing. And you keep doing it, because you know, in the end, good will come of your effort. And that effort, the effort you put in day in and day out to reach your goal, whatever the outcome, should tell you that you’re already there, and that the confidence you need to continue writing was always in you—you just had to prove it to yourself.
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