On a recent episode of Litopia’s Pop-Up Submissions, we intended to talk about writer confidence, then the show went in another direction. But it’s worth a proper discussion.
Litopia founder Peter Cox, who is also a literary agent, told me confidence is a major issue for his members. ‘Either it never gets a chance to develop, or gets fatally knocked by so much conflicting advice (thank you, internet). But without a sense of self-confidence, I don’t believe a writer can develop their own true voice.’
First, let’s define voice. It’s what makes you unmistakably you. Your style. Your thematic signature. The distinctive hue of your world. As Peter says, this comes from confidence.
Here’s my take.
I remember when I wasn’t secure about my voice and other distinctive whatnots. I regularly rebooted myself, to be like the authors I was reading, or to act on feedback from critique groups or other publishing people.
I seemed to be a jigsaw. A bit of this and that. And changing all the time.
But gradually, I discovered that if a technique or approach didn’t fit me naturally, I couldn’t keep it up. It was a strain, like clothing that was too restrictive. But sometimes a new thing did fit. I kept it, and once I used it, it changed anyway, bent to my own shape.
If you do enough of this…
…eventually you’ll know…
- Your writing style – whether it’s poetic or not, descriptively detailed or not, pacey or not, emotional or not.
- Your thematic signature. There will be certain aspects of life you’ll tend to write about, and certain characters – because those are your curiosities as a member of the human race.
Curiosity. Look closely at this word. It’s highly individual. It’s how your originality works. Originality also comes from confidence – when you know it’s okay to do what you’ve never seen before.
You’ll also know what flavour of book you’re suited to write. If you like the conventions of the crime genre, or the horror genre, or paranormal, medical thrillers or historical romance, or whatever, write them. They are genuinely you. The readers who like those conventions will enjoy your enthusiasm. If you like the nuances and ambiguities of life, and metaphorical resonance, you have a literary bent. Write that. Perhaps you’re a mix of genre and literary; often they’re on a spectrum. Learn who you are and be that.
Muddling and fiddling
This sounds so inefficient and clumsy. Is it really a way to learn?
It’s the only way. Because writing isn’t just a technical skill. It’s an art as well, and the art is, arguably, the trickier aspect. It comes from a complex and unique source – our inner landscape.
This holds for other artforms besides writing. Recently I interviewed a visual artist who said he gets inspiration by meditating, by submerging in an inner world he doesn’t listen to in everyday life. Actors also do this kind of deep exploration. Just last week I met a manager at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She said that much of actor training is about understanding themselves, and to an extent that most of us never consider. What they respond to, how they make others feel.
Whether actors, artists or writers, we all create from this unique source. We find it by discovery, by dismantling what we do and rebuilding, trying on feedback or advice, listening for the change that rings true, that enlarges what we can do. Slowly it becomes an inner courage, to be who we are.
When does this experimenting stop?
It doesn’t. There are always new things to learn as writers, readers and human beings. Also, each book goes through cycles of confidence – at least, mine do. I start in a muddle. After a while, some ideas sing well with it. Some don’t. I can treat feedback constructively, especially negative. I can recognise feedback that doesn’t align with my intentions, so it doesn’t demolish the work, which certainly happened a lot in the blundering days.
So that’s how I’d define confidence. How would you define it?
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.