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Those Pesky Doubts

by Libby Malin

You've heard the stories -- Bestselling Author X sells his first book after a friend shows a partial of the manuscript to her agent, who signs the fellow and puts the book up for auction leading to a "major deal." Or Bestselling Author Y mentions his idea for a novel to an editor over lunch and she buys it sight unseen, leading to rewards, both financial and literary, for all involved.

Don't those stories just make your teeth grind?

Most writers' publication paths are bumpier, with stalls and stops along the way, and occasional breakdowns.

But the overnight success stories do tantalize, and I wouldn't be surprised if many writers (if not most) cherished the dream that their rewards would be similar to those lucky authors who make it big quickly.

When I first began taking writing seriously and committing myself to the goal of being published -- when I decided to stop dabbling and start working at it -- I cherished those dreams of overnight success, too. But, like most writers, I didn't experience the Fast Breakthrough. Instead, I traveled the road most often taken by authors -- writing manuscripts, submitting, waiting, hoping...trying again.

Those early days were filled with doubt. Sure, I thought I wrote reasonably well. My writing had been praised by teachers and employers alike. I thought I told a good story and had lots of good stories to tell.

But when the first rejections started coming in, they brought with them the Ghosts of Doubt. Maybe my writing was good. But it obviously wasn't Good Enough.

Although I've rarely had trouble getting the writing engine started, these doubts sometimes made my writing stutter and stall. I'd begin to take a story in one direction, then wonder if it was exciting enough. I'd give a character an attribute I thought essential to the story and her own personality as I'd drawn it, and I'd wonder if she was sympathetic enough.

I started wondering about everything--how many pages I had in each chapter, whether it was okay to include more than one POV in a chapter, whether a heroine who used foul language a lot was acceptable, where exactly in the story a "black moment" should occur, whether I had too much exposition or too little, whether my characters' names were okay...

Whew! You get the idea. My Inner Doubt Phantom was working overtime whispering in my ear.

Eventually, though, I captured her, dragged her to a dungeon, locked her in a cell, and threw away the key!

And once her whispers were silenced....I became a better writer with a more confident voice.

How did I manage to control that Doubt Phantom? Simple -- through experience. The more I wrote, the more confident I became. And the more confident I became, the better I was able to write. I had to stop caring about that Doubt Phantom. I had to shrug her off and tell her to get back to her cell and shut up. I had to realize that, right or wrong, I just had to write the story. If I made wrong choices, I'd find them in revision. Or when my critique partner pointed them out and her comments resonated with me. Or when several agents rejected the manuscript all pointing to one problem. I had to learn to trust and accept my own voice...unless and until it was proven false.

Once I became published, the Doubt Phantom's voice became fainter and fainter. Sure, she still manages to shout a message up from that dungeon from time to time, causing me to stare at the blank page wondering if I'm headed in the right direction with a story. But she no longer rules this author's world.

So what doubts do you wrestle with when you start writing? Do they still bedevil you? How do you fight them?


  1. Doubts are the devil, but sometimes they help steer you, if you can sort out the legitimate 'maybe the story is going wrong' kind from the 'I'm a crap writer' ones.

    But it seems to me you wouldn't be human if you didn't have the 'I'm a crap writer' kind every once in a while. Agatha Christie said, in her autobiography, about the writing process and doubts: "You (then) get into difficulties, don't see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten."

    Sometimes, doubts are just a part of the whole awful, wonderful process.

  2. Doubts? I have them all the time. I don't quite know how to shut them up, but I do know that when I'm in the middle of a story and I don't know where to go with it, if I start at the beginning and just read it, I realize that there's usually some good stuff in there, it just needs to be fleshed out a bit.
    I think if we all thought we were terrific writers it would take away some of the challenge. Overconfidence is probably a really bad thing in a writer, because as long as you can tell yourself it's crap, you're willing to keep working on it and improving it.

  3. A friend of mine is going through this right now and is fighting really hard to not let it drag her down. I'm actually glad now that I had to write seven books before I sold one. I think I appreciated it far more than I would have if I had sold the first book I ever wrote, but that's just me. I'm proud of every rejection I received before that first sale. They all led me to where I needed to be.

    Great post, Libby!

  4. Marie, I agree about the rejections making you better -- I've found that to be the case as well.

    Donna and Cheryl, very true that doubts are always there and that overconfidence can be a big problem, too.

    I have found, though, that silencing the "I'm a crap writer" doubt is essential for me. My voice becomes stronger when I silence that particular monster.

  5. I always have doubts. Sometimes they're good doubts, need more motivation, deeper troubles, etc...and other times they're just vague arghs. Yet when it's done, and I read it over for the millionth time, I think it's not so bad after all. Why did I doubt myself so? :)

  6. It's the whole "can I do it again" thing...

    But, man, those 350 pages look empty, don't they? :)

  7. Doubts get me down from time to time, I admit. I really have to fight against letting them overwhelm me. Most of the time I can rise above, but it can be difficult. What helps the most for me is to read over my work, as Cheryl said. I read it as if it is something by someone else, and it helps me to renew my purpose and restore my confidence. I have been a reader for far longer than a writer, so I know what is good and what is bad!

  8. GREAT post, Libby!

    I LURVE that you threw your Phantom of Doubt into the dungeon and tossed out the key!

    I call mine the Doubt Demons and they plague me from time to time. Usually when the writing is not going well, or I've had a set back of some kind. They love to pile up on me then and tell me things like, "Your writing sucks ditchwater!"

    That's why I keep a file of good reviews and fan letters. When the Doubt Demons are being particularly onery, I'll read a few of those and say, "See? Not everybody thinks my writing sux! Nyah! Nyah!"

    Yes, there's something to be said for maturity, but not when it comes to the Doubt Demons!


  9. Good idea -- to keep reviews and fan mail nearby!

  10. Libby,

    When writing I seldom have a day without doubts. I think I need to borrow your dungeon and key! Do you think your Phantom would like company? Maybe if they lived together they would leave us alone!

    Lovely to meet you at conference.


  11. Great to meet you, too, Amelia!


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