Letter to a writer who is losing confidence

‘My friend Lucy has always loved writing but recently she’s lost confidence. I’ve just bought her your book Nail Your Novel for her birthday, but I wondered if you’d have time to write something in it to give her a little encouragement? Yours, Diane

I had this lovely email a few weeks ago. I started to scribble a few lines and it turned into a bit of a campaign. So I asked Lucy and Diane for permission to reproduce it here

Dear Lucy

Diane tells me you’ve found yourself writing a novel. Somehow writing sneaks up on a lot of us like that. A bit of typing here, an hour or two musing about characters and a story, and before we know it we have a regular appointment with the page.

She says you’re not always finding it easy. Well, I hope my book will hold your hand some of the way, but here are a few other things I’d say.

All writers doubt themselves

Will we have enough ideas? Will we be able to make the story work? Will our book live up to what we want it to be? And what is that anyway?

Writing a novel is a big job. You have a heck of a lot to get right. Plot, character, pace, theme, structure, description, logistics, language. If it’s your first novel, you’ve also got to learn the craft too. If you take it at all seriously (and thank goodness you clearly do), you’re bound to have wobbly times. Most professional novelists take at least 18 months to get a novel right – and they know what they’re doing.

Take your time and listen to your instincts. Ignore the relatives and friends who are making impatient noises about when it will be ready. They have no idea how much work is involved.

Your path won’t be the same as anyone else’s

… but reading about others’ helps. Writing is a self-directed quest, guided by the books you read and the book you want to do justice to. Plus, of course, whatever’s going on in your life – and that’s under nobody’s control at all. Enjoy your random, rambling learning process because it’s what will help you define your style, your way.

You often don’t realise how far you’ve come

Sometimes it helps to look back at what you wrote a year ago – or two – and compare it with how you’d do it now. Even, ask yourself what you did to make the difference – then you’ll see how your haphazard experiments are taking you somewhere.

Your style and voice

Have you got a style yet? Is your voice strong enough? This develops with mileage. There are no shortcuts, but until you’ve got it, play. Find a writer whose voice you adore and try ‘being’ them for a while, at least on the page. Most probably you won’t keep it up, but you might keep a new trick or a way of having fun with words.  One day, you’ll find you’re not writing like somebody else. You’ll have found the way to sound like you.

Top up the creative well

Read – and read actively. Not just craft books. Read fiction. Observe how other people make stories.

Read lots in your chosen genre, but go beyond that too – the techniques or traditions of another could give you fresh ideas.
Every time you read something that affects you, ask yourself why. Try to read the good stuff, of course, but occasionally find something with appalling reviews and read it to see what makes the difference.

Do you have an English literature degree? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t – most of them don’t teach you to write, or to read like a writer.

Notice the structure as well as the words

Novels are like machines. Under all the words, there is another force at work; the order of the events and the way you show them. Notice that as much as the pretty language.

Rewriting is completely normal

It takes time to get a novel right. We all have to look at what we’ve written and ask ourselves if it works. We all have to go through a scene multiple times in order to make it zing. We all have files full of stuff we’ve reluctantly deleted from our books because a nagging voice told us they didn’t fit.

Your first novel might not The One

Many people don’t get an agent or publisher – or aren’t ready to go public – with their first novel. That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It also doesn’t mean it has to be wasted. Sometimes, after you have a few more novels under your belt, you can return with fresh eyes and finally do justice to your beloved characters and story.

Find others who are like you

All writers have blind spots, no matter how long we’ve been writing. Find yourself people whose opinions you can trust and who understand the kind of novel you want to write. This is unlikely to be friends and family. You need people who will give you critiques that will make your work stronger, but have the maturity not to shoehorn you into places you don’t fit. A critique group who writes genre such as paranormal or thrillers could set you on totally the wrong path if what you want to write is literary fiction (and vice versa).

Early on we need our trusted critics to help us grasp the basics. Much later, we still need them – perhaps because we’ve been pushing our limits and trying to do something ambitious.

Even the famous authors whose names are on the spines of your favourite books need guidance. The other day I heard an editor from Bloomsbury saying that several of her biggest-name authors had turned in manuscripts with significant problems. Sometimes it took several more drafts, with plenty of feedback, before the book came right.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to publish this as a post on my writing blog. Because, as I hope you can see from this, all writers are bumping along in the same enormous, haphazard sea. And whether experienced or emerging, we all need reassurance sometimes.

Thanks for the cliff-jump pic Mr Chris Johnson

What would you tell Lucy? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Kat Latham on June 18, 2012 - 9:46 am

    This is wonderful advice, Roz, and something I needed to hear right now.

    My other advice? Figure out what it is that’s making you lose confidence. Is it because you’ve had bad feedback? Try to step back from the feedback and see how much of it makes sense to you and how much goes against your vision. Is it because you’ve been rejected? Try to get a sense of why your story was rejected and move on from there. Is it because you’ve read a wonderful book and think you’ll never be able to write like that? Embrace the fact that you’ll never be able to write like that, because your voice is what makes you different, unusual, and exciting for your (future) readers.

    Best of luck!

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 18, 2012 - 10:09 am

      Kat, what a wonderful, wise reply. Especially about our own expectations – they make us reach higher, but can also undermine us without us realising. Thanks for adding this!

  2. #3 by Naomi (Write About Me) on June 18, 2012 - 10:18 am

    Great advice, I needed to read this! Am a quarter of the way…almost.

  3. #5 by Inglath Cooper on June 18, 2012 - 10:43 am

    Hi Roz! So nice to meet you! Great words of encouragement here! I struggled with believing in myself as a writer for a long time early on in my writing. I think the change came when I realized I was happiest when I wrote because I love to write. I stopped thinking about whether what I was writing would fit anyone else’s expectations. As writers I think we have to realize that what we have to offer the world is our own visual fingerprint, our view of the world from where we are and who we are. When we trust that there are likely others out there who will identify with us, it’s freeing. We develop our skills to the best of our abilities, and really never stop doing so, but the key is to write our stories because it’s what we love to do, and life wouldn’t be as rich or meaningful without it.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 18, 2012 - 12:28 pm

      Inglath, what a lovely way to put it. Writing is ultimately a personal journey, even though we put the results out for others to share.

  4. #7 by authorsanon on June 18, 2012 - 10:52 am

    Reblogged this on NewsLetter and commented:
    For writers losing confidence…

  5. #8 by barbarahenderson on June 18, 2012 - 11:05 am

    Great post, very reaffirming and just right to read on a grey Monday morning! Thanks!

  6. #10 by Eliza Green on June 18, 2012 - 11:08 am

    Perfectly written Roz. It’s what every start out writer needs to hear. I’m still tinkering with my first book 3 years on, but I’m glad I did. I’m only beginning to see the mistakes I was making. Why did I not see them before??? It takes a long time to write a novel and longer to write it well.

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 18, 2012 - 12:30 pm

      Thanks, Eliza – it certainly does take time. And three years is no time, when you’re learning at the same time as writing.

  7. #12 by Sally - aka Saleena on June 18, 2012 - 11:36 am

    Roz, this was a lovely piece. Though I’ve finished my novel much of what you said took me back to how it felt to be working on the thing (and it was such a love-hate relationship at times).

    “Ignore the relatives and friends who are making impatient noises about when it will be ready. They have no idea how much work is involved.”

    That should be hung on the wall of every writer’s ‘writing’ room – or at least made into a screensaver. They really, really, really, don’t have a clue. At all. I had to do that (ignore everyone, that is) for twelve long years. I still find myself apologising for taking so long to finish (not that I mean a word of it)! :)

  8. #15 by Buffy Andrews (@Buffyandrews) on June 18, 2012 - 12:28 pm

    Excellent advice!

  9. #17 by Jrderego on June 18, 2012 - 1:32 pm

    I’d tell Lucy to be a reader. Not everyone can write just because they want to, or dream of how awesome they think it is, I’d love to be an olympic sprinter but no matter how hard i trajn I won’t be. Writing takes hard work and even with hard work the payoff is 99.99999% works out to cents an hour. The myth that everyone can write or should write needs to stop being propagated. Some people should read, there’s no shame in that.

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 18, 2012 - 10:44 pm

      You’re right that not everyone can do it, but let’s not write Lucy off immediately. She hasn’t had knockbacks from the outside world yet, only from her own inner critic!

  10. #19 by jennymilch on June 18, 2012 - 2:29 pm

    What a great primer, Roz! We all need this at some point in our journeys. Speaking to your point: This novel might not be the one…It took me 11 years, 3 literary agents, and 8 novels before I finally broke through. Then almost 2 more years until publication. My book is now coming out in seven months…I can’t help tearing up every time I think those words. From 13 years to a handful of months. Writing and learning and honing shrunk time down that way. It will happen for Lucy, too.

  11. #21 by Writerlious on June 18, 2012 - 2:57 pm

    Wonderful advice, Roz! Thanks so much for sharing. :) It’s always nice to be reminded that everyone goes through writer doubt. I should tape this post up to my refrigerator to remind of what to do when it happens!

  12. #23 by ingridricks on June 18, 2012 - 5:42 pm

    Thanks for the great post, Roz I think all of us, no matter how far we’ve come in our writing journey, have days where we get discouraged. For me, it’s always helpful to pause occasionally, look back and celebrate the progress made. And then get back to the computer!!!

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 18, 2012 - 10:46 pm

      Thanks, Ingrid – and it’s easy to imagine there will be a time when all the struggle is behind us!

  13. #25 by rmridley on June 18, 2012 - 10:27 pm

    I have always found that a few good fellow writers, that you can contact for chats, advice and as sounding boards (often on-line) is what gets you through. Those who are just a bit ahead of you in accomplishing their goals can lend some advice, and those just a bit behind you make you realize how far you have come. Doing proof-reading / edits of other writers works is an invaluable step in making your own writing better and also gives you the joy of being able to help another writer along the way. It is not always easy to find a good couple of authors whom you can get along with but it is well worth looking.

    • #26 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 18, 2012 - 10:48 pm

      Great point – I learned a lot from a writing group I used to go to, where we all read from our works in progress. It was moderated by an agent whose guidance helped steer the discussion and keep it constructive and useful.

  14. #27 by Joanna Aislinn on June 19, 2012 - 2:27 am

    Great post. A shot in the arm I definitely need right now. Thank you!

    • #28 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 19, 2012 - 8:09 pm

      :)

      • #29 by Joanna Aislinn on June 23, 2012 - 9:18 pm

        Picked up NAIL YOUR NOVEL–getting a lot out of it so far and enjoying your humor too! :)

        • #30 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 24, 2012 - 10:41 am

          Even bigger :)

          • #31 by Joanna Aislinn on June 25, 2012 - 12:54 am

            LOL. I’ll most likely check in when I’m finished. I’m running the gamut of the target areas in the book: unfinished drafts (3) and first draft in need of a real life :)

            Thanx and ttys!

  15. #32 by Aniko Tevvit on June 19, 2012 - 5:34 am

    Roz, I just ran into your letter, and I have to say, I don’t know if there’s anything I could add. You hit the mark. These are lessons I’ve come to the hard way. Although I’m still working on my own first novel, I’ve been writing so long I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t. Everything you said, especially the bit about writing groups (which I’m looking for in my new location, or online), and about your path not being like anyone else’s . . . these are all the things I’ve come to realize over years and years of writing. When someone in my group had a criticism, I had to learn to look at it objectively – to separate myself from the work (not an easy task, for *any* writer!). When my “producer” (i.e. the prof.) red-lined a bunch of stuff out of a script, with a note that read, “Doesn’t move the story forward; omit,” I had to decide for myself if his comment was fair or if I was going to fight for that scene or that line. When I had trente-sixieme false starts, I had to come to realize that that was just part of my process. Eventually I expected it, and now I even rely on it happening that way (when it seems like I’m writing too long without tossing the whole thing in the figurative scrap-heap, I get a little nervous!). I suppose you can tell all of this to a newer writer to be comforting, but unfortunately, a lot of this she (or he) will just have to figure out on their own.

    It is, however, nice to know that *I’m* not alone!

    Aniko Tevvit (@anikotevvit, http://writinginadesert.blogspot.com/)

    • #33 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 19, 2012 - 8:13 pm

      Thanks, Aniko! It’s probably one of those situations where you have to have had the experience to know it’s true. Especially the points about how everything takes so much time – there’s almost palpable disbelief when you tell people their first novel will take them a very long time to write, and even if you convince them everyone else takes years they probably think they will be different!

      • #34 by Aniko Tevvit on June 19, 2012 - 9:00 pm

        Time and immeasurable amounts of writing, whether it piles up in your PC, or in an actual pile. Yes, people think a novel is like a child, one that they grow for a while, then it comes out all perfect. I know better. Any new/young writer should be continuously bombarded with that message, as I think it’s one of the most important, because it just doesn’t work that way, no matter *what* your process is! It’s like thinking if you go to Hollywood you’ll be an overnight success: most of those take *years*.

        You just have to keep writing.

        And funny you should mention time . . . I was just eating lunch and reading Twitter, and thinking, where do these people find the time for all of this?! This is why I do my writing first thing (despite the fact that I’ve never been a morning person), since I am less likely to get distracted and sidetracked. I write first drafts in longhand with a fountain pen, so if I get ten (blank book) pages done, I’m on Cloud 9, but even if it’s only 5, I’ve still accomplished something. And in the past 20 or so days, I’ve written nearly 150 pages (which probably comes out to maybe 30-50 pages, typed; talk about not realizing how far we’ve come!). And I don’t know how much anyone else writes each day, nor do I care (okay, I’m kinda curious;). This is how fast I write. That’s *my* process. When I get there, I get there. I’ve had to come to accept that, but I did. Eventually.

        Again, some people can’t or won’t take your word for this, and have to figure it out on their own. All we can do is assure her (or him) that if they feel that writing is their calling, then just stick with it, and keep going, no matter what anyone else says.

        Aniko

        “It will take as long as it takes.” – Dr. Daniel Jackson, STARGATE SG-1, “Enemy Mine”

  16. #35 by Hemmie Martin on June 19, 2012 - 6:09 pm

    What a fantastic letter. I have put it in my favourites so the next time I’m full of doubt I can read it. You’re right about the first novel. My first one published was the fourth novel I had written, and I look back at the first ones and see how far my writing has come along since then. Even with my first one was published, I’m still full of doubt, and when I read other novels I always believe they are better than mine. I think I may have to live with self doubt as my companion, and maybe ‘he’ helps me in trying to perfect the craft of writing..

    Love your blog, Hemmie.

    • #36 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 19, 2012 - 8:15 pm

      Thanks, Hemmie! I always think other people’s novels are better than mine too – I should have put that in my list.

  17. #37 by firstnovelblues on June 19, 2012 - 11:27 pm

    Man, I just thought the other post was my favorite. I think it might just be this one :) Thanks for a great post.

  18. #39 by Jackie Buxton on June 21, 2012 - 7:55 am

    What a great, informative and uplifting post. My experience of the writing world, as a wannabe novelist, is that there are loads of wonderful people out there who want to help and are willing to give up their time to give free advice (and motivation) – such as yourself! I would suggest to Lucy that she grasps all that’s out there. Click on helpful links on Twitter, comnnect with others in the same position for ever needed moral support, join a writers’ group for practical and emotional support and above all, keep moving. Keep submitting if tou’re at that stage, keep writing – whether it’s short stories, your blog or your next novel, don’t wait for something to happen because even if it does, it will take ages.

    I agree that everyone has these down periods about writing- it’s hard following a dream that few people understand and without any promises at the end- however, it’s such great fun most of the time. Getting to live in another world with your characters, producing a story which has never been written before is just the best feeling in the world! Enjoy the ride!

    Great post and good luck Lucy!

    • #40 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 24, 2012 - 10:45 am

      Thanks, Jackie! And yes, time certainly slows to a glacial speed in the publishing world. Although that’s frustrating – and far from ideal – people are in danger of losing important mulling time as a result.

  19. #41 by Steven Lyle Jordan on June 21, 2012 - 12:43 pm

    I’m surprised that the letter managed to miss an all-important question which I believe all novelists ask themselves, whether they admit to it or not:

    Will anybody care?

    I don’t believe writers write in a vacuum. If they write, it’s because they want someone to read what they’ve written. If no one wants to read your book–if no one will buy it–it does two things to a writer: It breaks down a great deal of the confidence that was built up in order to write it; and it forces the writer to consider whether all that effort, no matter how good, no matter how enjoyable, was worth it.

    After writing a number of novels, I firmly believe that I know how to do it right. But lack of interest and lack of sales does more to discourage me, and prevent my bothering to write the next novel, than all of the other points in that letter combined. (It still may prevent me from writing the novel I’m actually developing right now; at any moment, I might “come to my senses” and pull the plug.) If that letter had been written to me, and it did not touch upon that point, it would be essentially worthless to me.

    As an aside, you might have also asked Lucy if she was comfortable with the state of publishing, the industry turmoil she’d be injecting herself into, the multiple channels of the ebook industry she may have to master, the likelihood that ebook piracy would rob her of some amount of possible profit, etc. All of that has been known to sink many a prospective author before they’d sailed.

    • #42 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 24, 2012 - 10:46 am

      Excellent points, Steven. They weren’t necessarily appropriate for Lucy as I know she’s just starting out, but they deserved a post of their own. Thanks for raising them – and hope you’ll come back and see what I made of them.

      • #43 by Katherine Roberts on July 16, 2012 - 11:33 am

        I was thinking the same as Steven… how do we know Lucy is a new writer? But you’ve answered that one, which explains the focus of your letter.

        I think experienced novelists who lose confidence after a number of published books are facing a different set of hurdles… as well as many of the ones mentioned above! Maybe you can write a second letter to them?

        • #44 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 17, 2012 - 3:25 pm

          Katherine, you’re right. I don’t know if I’m yet qualified to write such a post as I only have a few books under my own name. I can well imagine what the issues are but I don’t speak from the depths of experience yet. Food for thought, though.

  20. #45 by Sheryl Gwyther on June 23, 2012 - 1:00 am

    Hi Roz
    I just read your latest post about losing confidence as a writer – it rang so many bells for me at the moment, I think I’m at the lowest ebb I’ve ever been in 8 years.
    I have 3 mid-grade novels – and I’m losing confidence that my slightly more literary style seems to be far from the short, dialogue-filled stories common for this genre.
    If I write like them it doesn’t sound like me at all. I feel like a fraud and I’m an already published author.
    I’ve even stopped looking at Facebook and reading about my friends’ successful novels and their school author gigs and awards etc. I can’t face it.
    Anyway, I wanted to thank you – now I’ll try to stop feeling like I’ll chuck it all in because I know I can’t stop writing, I love it too much.
    Best wishes
    Sheryl

  21. #46 by Sheryl Gwyther on June 23, 2012 - 1:02 am

    PS Sorry, I meant to say, I have 3 mid-grade manuscripts (not published novels).

    • #47 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 24, 2012 - 10:48 am

      Thanks, Sheryl! I think we have a lot of people here who write because they can’t help it, and have a natural voice that goes a particular way. I’m another of these slightly too literary types, apparently. It’s just the way my brain does things.

  22. #48 by August McLaughlin on June 23, 2012 - 3:05 pm

    Beautifully inspiring post, Roz! I’d also tell Lucy to simply keep writing. Any time I feel lacking in the confidence department then get lost in words and story, those negative thoughts trickle away. And the more we write, the stronger our skills become.

    I had an experience early on in my writing career with a critique group leader who trashed the females in the group. (Could have been unrelated to gender, but seemed that way to group members.) I got out of the group the moment I stopped growing, and after leaving the group one fighting tears. Surrounding ourselves with encouraging friends can help a great deal. Positivity is contagious, and the better we feel, the better able we are to express ourselves and thrive creatively. Great post!

    • #49 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 24, 2012 - 10:51 am

      August, what a horrible experience. We need critics, but critics whose motives and advice we trust. Delighted to have inspired you to persevere.

  23. #50 by sharon2306 on June 24, 2012 - 11:05 am

    What a fabulous post! The biggest surprise and help to me was hearing how long it can take to write a novel. I have been working on mine for eight months and I am growing sooo tired of hearing “isn’t it finished yet?” from the tiny amount of people who actually know about it. I was feeling really pressured and beginning to think there was something wrong with me. I read about authors who publish two books a year and here I am still rewriting and changing and replotting…it’s hard not to feel like you’re doing something wrong. The relief to find that eight months is nothing! I feel so much happier and relaxed about it now. Thanks so much :)

  24. #51 by Melissa Neumann on July 2, 2012 - 3:38 pm

    Thank you for the “pick me up from the floor” advice. I, too, have been having a moment of no confidence in my writing. I’ve been reading too many blogs and articles about how, as an unpublished author, I should expect my writing to be considered as crap. Your words reminded me that it is NOT crap; it is only “unpublished” at this point. Thank for the strength to carry on.

  25. #53 by Jeanine Griggs (@JeanineGriggs) on July 4, 2012 - 7:31 pm

    I am writing my first novel. I have a special needs child who takes up a lot of my time. I have weeks where I cannot get to the writing, because I am at the hospital or doctor’s appointments with my daughter. I found that I was becoming very depressed. Then I realized that reading other novels helps greatly. I can do that in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, right before I doze off to sleep, sitting in the car waiting to do pick-up.

    My intention was to get a lot of writing done this summer. Unfortunately, I have been thrown a curve ball. But instead of getting upset, I am finding a way around the curve ball. It is working out beautifully. I am pushing myself to read novels outside my comfort zone and genre. I am learning so much. I am learning about structure and so many things. I am also watching a lot of movies.

    So I would suggest to the writer’s block crowd, to simply pull out books and continue reading. Too tired to read, watch a movie. Whatever you are experiencing will pass. Your writing time will come again. You will have more to draw from when you come back to the writing. All of those books and movies you feel guilty about reading and watching, will come in handy – more than you know! Best of luck to everyone! – Jeanine

  26. #55 by Suzanne van Rooyen (@Suzanne_Writer) on July 15, 2012 - 8:24 pm

    Brilliant post! Just what I needed. Thank you for such sage words! :)

  27. #57 by Ileandra Young on July 17, 2012 - 3:57 am

    What a lovely letter! Just what a writer needs to hear when that little voice of doubt starts yakking.

    My advice, such as it is would be don’t be afraid to take a break. If you need to go away and write something else for a bit, that’s fine. It may be just what you need to get passed a mental road block.

    • #58 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on July 17, 2012 - 3:29 pm

      That’s good advice, Ileandra. Sometimes it’s difficult to allow ourselves a break as we get too anxious about finishing and not wasting time. But it’s better to go and read a good book by someone else and return rejuvenated.

  28. #59 by urbangoddesspublishing on July 23, 2012 - 2:27 am

    Reblogged this on Blood And Lullabies and commented:
    This is magnificent and wonderful advice to writers everywhere.

  29. #60 by Lakin Konieczny on December 2, 2012 - 10:27 pm

    Amazingly inspirational and exactly what I needed. I’m a young writer, having only been at it for the last four or five years. Writing gets so frustrating, sometimes I’d like to just throw in the towel, but I don’t, for love of the craft. If I would occasionally pause to remind myself that I’m no expert, and I’m not a professional. I’m still learning, still trying new things and trying to find myself along the way. Maybe now I’ll be better able to press on, taking the time to remind myself of that. Thank you for your advice, I really appreciate it.

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