Thursday, 1 May 2008

Friday Coffee

I'm posting on Thursday late afternoon, because I'm going away for a few days early tomorrow morning (so I won't be commenting over the next week, sorry). Do please fetch yourself a drink and snack of your choice, and sit down for a wee reading and writing session.

I think writers are alchemists. Here’s why. First off, the obvious stuff: we take the lead of our lives and use our imaginations, minds, emotions, aspirations, eyes and hands to turn it into the gold of carefully crafted stories. But there’s more to it than that. We have to turn lots of things into lots of other things in the process: blank pages/screens into pages/screens covered in words; rubbish first drafts into honed later drafts; vague ideas into clear specific ideas. But one of the hardest, strangest, least well understood conversions we have to make, sometimes daily, hourly, or even minute-by-minute, is the transformation of lack of confidence into confidence.

So I thought this might be a useful topic for a coffee morning. It was partly inspired by two of our published novelists. Rowan Coleman recently blogged about her feelings on the imminent publication of her seventh novel, and defined excitement, restlessness, fear and uncertainty. Clare Sudbery, whose second novel is soon to be published, commented on Rowan’s post, saying ‘I can’t work out whether to be dismayed or reassured that you are still saying ‘Yikes!’ about an impending publication when you have so many under your belt already.’ I bet lots of us have a fantasy that a time will come – when we have an agent; when we have a book deal; when we have a published novel; when we get asked to speak at a literary festival – a time when we will no longer lack confidence; when we will somehow have made it into that longed-for world where fear and uncertainty have no place.

But it is a fantasy, isn’t it? Yet there are things we can do to help ourselves when that inner voice starts its insidious mutterings about why we ever had the temerity to think we could even construct an interesting sentence, let alone a whole novel; how we’ll never be as good a writer as X or Y; that our writing skill is poor, worthless, broken. I have a few techniques to share. One is to visualise the owner of that voice as a nasty little black goblin, and me as a big powerful woman belting it to death with a big heavy cast iron frying pan (no, I don’t know why, but it works for me). Another is to use affirmations, to say out loud to myself ten times ‘I, Zinnia Cyclamen, deserve that more of the energy I put into my writing should return to me in the form of recognition.’ A third is to look through my Nice Letters File, where I keep letters, cards and emails where someone has sent me an unsolicited compliment or a personal thank-you. I really recommend this if you don’t do it yourself; it’s very good for the self-esteem. You can include evidence of achievements as well; mine has a couple of letters telling me of good exam results. And a fourth method is to flick through a how-to book, which often helps me when I feel stuck or blocked.

I find that belonging to the Novel Racers is another confidence booster. Although I should probably own up that I’m not, generally speaking, lacking in confidence. (In fact I recently scared Top Bloke by telling him that a new activity I’d taken up had increased my confidence. He looked at me, alarmed, and said ‘You mean you’re going to have more confidence?’) But, even so, sometimes writing seems to sap my confidence, and it’s all I can do to pull myself around and get going again. So I’ll be glad to hear of any tips other Racers can offer for ways to boost writing-related confidence.


Calistro said...

Great topic Zinnia and very timely. Earlier today I posted a comment on someone's blog in reply to a post about how she felt like maybe she wasn't a one trick pony after all.

I can relate to the feeling. No matter how many times a short story of mine is published or, even more shocking, someone actually pays me for one, I still feel like a bit of a fraud, that I'm not actually a very good writer and sooner or later I'll be discovered as the imposter I actually am!

But in a good way I think it's a good thing that we don't sit back on our laurels and say "I'm such a good writer" because that way complacency and crappy stories lie. I know for a fact I'm ALWAYS going to compare my stories and novels against other writers and find my own work (and style) lacking. But that's not a negative thing necessarily. It means I push myself to become a better and better writer. Okay so my writing is never going to be as witty and erudite as Oscar Wilde or as clever as Margaret Atwood but my writing has, and is, improving.

I've got a couple of things I do when I feel crap about my writing:

1) I've got two small boxes/folders filled with magazines and anthologies I've been published in. Looking through them all fills me with an incredible sense of pride.

2) I look through an email folder called 'Good News' where I file away emails from competitions and editors telling me I've placed in a competition or sold a story and random emails from people telling me they loved something I wrote (there's not tons of them to be honest) or positive critiques from people I've asked to review my work.

3) I read crap novels. Yes really. The worst thing you can do when you're feeling crap about your own work is to read something you admire. Much better to read something really shoddy and think "Hell, even I can do better than this!"

4) I whinge on private internet forums/blogs. Sometimes just getting it out there (by writing about it ironically enough) helps release some of the anxiety. Often, by the time I re-read my post the next day, I feel better!

5) I tell myself I'm never going to write another word and I'm going to live life instead. I'll go to the cinema, go on a shopping spree, see friends, get drunk. What I WON'T do is read about writing (blogs, writing communities etc) and I won't write about writing or do any actual writing. Sometimes telling yourself you don't have to write another word if you don't want to is enough to make you release that actually, hang on, I quite fancy writing something.

Looking forward to reading everyone else's tips!

Lucy Diamond said...

lol at your bloke's comment - brilliant!
Great post, Zinnia. I love the thought of a nice letters file/Calistro's Good News email folder - that is a really good idea. Must start one immediately.

I don't really have any tips. I still get those doubts and worries and feelings of insecurity about my writing - but I know that they are just part of the process, so I suppose I just wait for them to go away, or give myself a bit of a "Pull yourself together!" talking-to. Or whinge on to my other half until he gives me a "Pull yourself together!" talking-to and pours me a glass of wine!
I was running at the gym today and found myself thinking, "Why am I kidding myself that I am a runner, when I'm still such a complete amateur and any day someone's going to wise up to that and put me in my place..." - it struck me that it's exactly the same thought pattern I get sometimes about writing. Sigh. I guess I'm just neurotic!

Clare Sudbery said...

Oh dearie me yes. Those that know me will know I'm a seething mess of angst and always worrying about some part of the process or other. And when I get writers' block, it's always about confidence. I get really terrified to write anything at all, cos I'm so convinced it'll be rubbish.

Like Zinnia, I'm also a relatively confident person (although not as much as her!) and when I feel good, I can recognise my talents and feel proud. But I have high standards and constantly fall short of them, and do often think that I've only been published because stupid people of poor taste have failed to recognise that I'm actually rather crap at this writing lark...

So anyway, things I do to make it better? Sadly the same solutions don't always work twice, but here are things that have been effective:

1. Throwing high standards out the window. Assuming that what I write will be crap, but knowing I can always make it better during the editing phase.

2. Having a good old angst-ridden whinge. It does help to get it out of my system. I do this in many forms: I might write a blog post, or send an email, or ring somebody up, or post something on one of the online forums I belong to. I did this recently when I was getting all of a pother over what direction my writing career should take, and somebody (Jane Henry, in fact) commented that they had noticed I do this: I get it out of my system, then I get on with it. I hadn't noticed it before, but she was right.

3. Get published. Easier said than done, I know, but by far the biggest confidence boost I have ever had was when I got my first deal. Similarly, positive feedback from literary agents, good reviews, all that stuff. External validation. Works wonders. And means that it really IS worthwhile perfecting your work and sending it out into the big wide world.

4. Just write. When I read back what I've written, my confidence can waver depending what kind of mood I'm in, but the process of writing always makes me feel more confident. And I know this, and get very frustrated when I let myself grind to a halt because I'm lacking confidence, when I know full well that if I would only write something - anything - then I would feel better. It's at this point that I often post something somewhere saying "Argh, I'm such an idiot, I know I'd feel better if I could only make myself write" and just announcing it to the world is often enough to make me act on it.

5. It can help if I remind myself that my inner critic is a big old nasty meanie. Cruel and un-nurturing, the kind of person people shouldn't listen to. If I ever heard anybody else talking to somebody in the negative way I talk to myself, I would be incensed. I would certainly tell whoever was on the receiving end to pay no attention. So that's what I try and tell myself.

P.S. I too have an email folder full of nice emails and reviews, as well as nice things people have said on my blog and the occasional pep talk in response to one of my 'woe is me' blog posts, but the silly thing is, I rarely look at it. The few times I've tried, I've just thought stupid things like, "oh well, they clearly didn't know what they were talking about," or "they were only being nice." Mostly I feel silly looking at the contents of the folder - as though I'm being narcissistic or self-indulgent - and I just leave it sitting there, unopened. Very silly, I know.

Clare Sudbery said...

P.S. Sometimes I have little chants which I repeat over and over, like "I can do it, I will do it, I want to do it" or "It's fine, I'm fine, I'm good at this".

And another thing which helps: wearing headphones with loud get-up-and-go music playing. Something fast and stirring. Personally I use the Alabama 3, but I don't think there'd be any point recommending particular bands or tracks: Everyone will have their own personal version of favourite music which makes them feel good.

Helen Shearer said...

Hello all!

I wish I could offer you some brilliant idea for getting over minor lapses in confidence but, sadly, I can't. I usually just allow myself the time to feel like a complete tosser then wait for it to pass. We all have those lapses. Those of you who have read On Writing by Stephen King might remember that he tossed "Carrie" in the bin because he thought it was utter crap. His wife rescued it an it became his first bestseller, so clearly we are sometimes our own harshest critic. I think the trick is to wallow for a while, wait for the clouds to clear then just get on with it.

Anonymous said...

My own experience in gaining confidence has been a staged affair. It has gone something like this:

1. No confidence in any aspect of writing. Just a very infrequent hobby for a rainy day. No ambitions.
2. Creating lots of ideas and gaining confidence in how good these ideas are. Support from friends in this respect. Still no writing confidence.
3. Job redundancy, therefore gained time. Finished first draft of short(ish) story (25kw). Positive feedback from friends. Gained confidence in drafting.
4. Found web site "Wannabe a Writer" and bought JWJ's book. Started thinking about how to do things properly. Considered possibility that one day I might get published.
5. "Met" people on line through WaW site and blogger. Huge boost in both interest and confidence. Thanks to everyone out there for this.
6. Worked on more shorts and working on three(!) novels. Constructive feedback from e-friends and irl-friends. Boost in drafting and editing confidence.
7. Bought "On Writing", "Eats, shoots and leaves", "Writers Yearbook" and a whole host of others. Preparing to take the plunge. That scary word: Submission...

It hasn't been a monotonic increase in confidence though. There have been several dips and troughs along the way. I have a number of ways of dealing with them:

* Make use of the lack of confidence. It must be there fore a reason, so do something about what is perceived to be lacking. Nobody is an instant expert in anything - it's a learning process - so study and learn.
* Read a rubbish book. Same reasons as Calistro's #3.
* Read a good book. Here I disagree with her. I am inspired by books I enjoy, rather than subdued by them. Most of the time anyway.
* Simply take a break from it.
* Get help from friends.
* Go running. Amazing how the mind can work away from the computer screen.
* Go on a course. Actually I haven't tried this yet, though I'm booked up for one in July/August.

Polite Request
I find this blog very useful but am often slowed down when trying to find older postings. It would be useful to name the titles something a bit more like the subject, rather than the generic "coffee morning" naming style. Alternatively, more use of the keywords might make searching the archives easier.
Thanks to everyone for these great discussions.

[Phew. Sorry for the long comment]

NoviceNovelist said...

Really good topic Zinnia - I do what others have mentioned in their comments - drink wine, moan to the nearest and nearest, whinge to other writers and blog about it. What I do mostly these days though is just accept that it is part of the package - insecurity and lack of confidence in my writing potentially lurks on every blank page. I've worked out that there is a certain level of insecurity that I can write with and basically just allow it to sit on my shoulder and dig its claws in occassionanly. Then when it steps up a notch I am partial to loud music, a bit of excercise or a slug of wine. Bad TV always helps!

I have accepted that it may never go away regardless of my levels of success (or not) with writing. I have also discovered that my desire to write is a strong one and this can often silence the inner critic. Not always though!!!!

liz fenwick said...

Great topic Zinnia.

No answers here I'm afraid. Those doubts are with me everyday. The other day when feeling low I pulled out my rejections - strange I know but I felt better when I was finished because I realized I had gone from standard form to personalized rejections. It was sign that my writing is growing so I might just make if I keep plugging away!

Capt. B will have look at the searching business. I think it would be a hell of a lot of work at this point to go through all the post but maybe if we move forward with labels......if some one would like to suggest a helpful that would be a huge step.

BTW - on the waiting list. i am going to post it on the sidebar with links if that okay with everyone????

Lazy Perfectionista said...

Whenever I experience a confidence dip I try to do something different. I often watch an episode of 'The West Wing' - seriously good writing and it always leaves me feeling more up-beat. 'Nevermind the Buzzcocks' also has the same effect. I think it's fairly hard to feel really down when you're laughing so hard you can't see straight! I also agree with Clare about music, and have a really bouncy playlist on my iPod for when things get tough.

Leatherdykeuk said...

For boosts of confidence I'll write a flash piece (under 250 words) and hone it down until I'm really happy with it. Then I post it on one of the community blogs or forums I belong to. With any luck it'll garner some praise ;)

If I'm down I play PC games for half an hour. That generally lifts me out of it.

I love the idea of a happiness box. I make hand made books every once in a while. I might use one of those for a happiness book :)

Thanks Zinnia.

Graeme K Talboys said...

No tips, I'm afraid. Ten books in print and I still struggle on a daily basis with doubts.

I think the one thing that would really boost me would be finding a decent agent (unlike the waste of space I once had). But that's a task for another day.

Caroline said...

No tips here. I have far too much self esteem baggage and tend to focus on negatives.

I will be sorting out a positive file to remind me of key reviews and emails.

I do find that the support I gain from other Novel Racers really has helped with the anxiety that I've had since January (in regards to TFP). So many of you have supported me and I am so thankful.


B.E. Sanderson said...

This happened to me just the other day. Fortunately, it was only a one day case of the squirms. It came when after reading a blog post somewhere about fear, I started obsessing over all the things to be afraid of in this business - never selling, sucking, being a hack, etc. It left because I wouldn't let it hang around. I've got work to do.

I wish I had a quick and easy fix, but I don't. The simplest way for me to avoid it, is to not think about getting it. When I think about fear or losing confidence, that's when it hits me. (Which means I only skimmed your post and my fellow racer's comments. I'm on a roll and I don't want to fall into the trap again this week.)

Anonymous said...

Another thing I meant to say was that both positive and negative confidence tends to suffer from positive feedback. By that I mean that if you're low, it's far too easy to sink lower. If you're on a roll though, your confidence rockets and you tend to write better, which boost your confidence etc. I suppose this is why dips in writing confidence seems so significant.

The trick is to break the hold it has on you. Hopefully we now have enough material here to attack this pesky issue from now on.

sheepish said...

Hi another excellent topic, it really does help when you know that others suffer the same doubts, lack of confidence etc. And seeing how everyone approaches these problems is as good as any of the "how to" books. Just knowing that you are all out there ready with advice if asked for is a real bonus.
I do find that if I take on a new activity it often boosts my confidence which rubs off onto my writing.

Fiona said...

I wonder if it matters that much if we might lack confidence as long as we still write?

I do try and tell myself that I am writing more as a project or as a an outlet for myself than to get published. Focusing on that one goal -- getting the deal -- is being so hard on ourselves and it's distracting.

Your post has really made me think though, Zinnia. Confidence is a fascinating subject and I do wonder where those Apprentice guys get theirs from especially as so many of them seem to be, er...a bit rubbish!

A. Writer said...

No tips here either. My confidence goes up and down and I'm not sure how or why!

I agree with Captain Black - I also like reading good books as it inspires me to keep pushing.

I also blog about my writing problems and the biggest boost I get is from other writers - so thank you! xx

L-Plate Author said...

Zinnia, have you been reading my mind!

Its taken me a whole year to come back from losing my agent after being so close and her keeping me on the hop for over two bloody years. Every week I thought it won't be long now but the journey went on for ever. And every month I would hear about another new writer being published and then as time went on, those new writers had second books published.

I think joining you guys has boosted my confidence. Just a comment on my blog can get me out of the doldroms of self pity. I've had some fantastic feed back. And meeting some of you was the best confidence boost I have ever had. It was inspirational just to sit around that table and discuss my writing to my hearts content.

My confidence is now taking another dive as I wait for the agent to get back to me about the full of book two. It's been over six weeks now. Is this too long? Has she started it yet? More likely, it's still sitting in a pile of things to be done. But the more she hangs on to it, no matter what the outcome is, I think she won't like it. See lack of confidence? Me?

It has put me off starting my 'new' book three but I am going to start it this weekend. Now that will be a confidence boost, I'm sure, when that word count goes up and up.

Great post Zinnia.x
Have a great weekend everyone. x

Clare Sudbery said...

L-plate, agents and publishers are really slow. In everything. But I know exactly what you mean - the longer you have to wait, the harder it is to remain positive. If it's any consolation, I've had an agent now for a long time, with him constantly making positive noises and me beginning to despair that he would ever sell my book, but after 6 months I had news that he'd sold it to Random House in Germany (translated). Of course that was over a month ago, and I now have to wait all over again for him to sell it in other territories, but it CAN happen, and it nearly always takes a long time.

Fiona said a couple of interesting things:

"I do try and tell myself that I am writing more as a project or as a an outlet for myself than to get published. Focusing on that one goal -- getting the deal -- is being so hard on ourselves and it's distracting."

Very good point. My first novel, I sent the first three chaps out to 15 agents and 20 publishers before I had finished writing the book. I received 33 rejections and assumed the other two had just forgotten about me. I gave up on the idea of being published, and finished writing the book entirely for my own benefit - just so that I could say I'd written a book. After that I was planning to stop writing altogether. As soon as I stopped worrying about being published, my confidence increased and the whole thing became both easier and a lot more enjoyable. And then, with amazing timing, two days after I'd finished writing it and ten months after I sent out those first three chaps, I got a phone call. From one of the publishers who hadn't rejected me. Asking could they please publish my book? I was totally shocked. And very happy!

Also... "I do wonder where those Apprentice guys get theirs from especially as so many of them seem to be, er...a bit rubbish!"

Ah well, that's the difference between confidence and arrogance. But there might be a very interesting conclusion to be drawn: Lack of confidence can mean people don't get complacent or arrogant, and continually strive to make their work better - resulting in a better quality of work. And ironically, more objective reasons to be confident.

Debs said...

Sorry for being late to this excellent post.

I find that the boost I get from other writers when blogging about lack of confidence is what helps me most and sets me back on track and being a part of the Novel Racers and reading posts and comments like these.

Apart from that my usual reaction to a confidence dip or rejection is to, a) have a good moan about how useless I am and wonder who the hell I'm trying to kid that I have any remote talent at all, b) feel sorry for myself whilst taking time out to switch off and immerse myself in whatever book I'm in the middle of reading and, c) give myself a mental slap and get my butt back out out to the shed and start writing again.

Lane said...

I don't have much to add to these excellent responses. I heartily agree with Clare re. the line between confidence and arrogance. A crisis of confidence means we are constantly re-appraising our ability/work - a positive asset.

In a 'I'm crap at writing moment' I ..
1) come here
2)turn to my other online writing friends
3) read something inspiring
4) walk
5) realise the alternative is not writing and that's far worse.

I must get one of these 'nice things' files. They seem very popular:-)

B said...

Hi all, I am officially on the waiting list now and will be popping round all your blogs to say hi soon :)

This is something I've struggled with a lot, and it stopped me even starting for a long time. I wish I'd never lost my childhood writing habit, as it's a lot harder to develop again once it's gone.

But for the last 9 days I have been freewriting EVERY DAY for 2/3 pages (big pages too, A4 with very close lines and no margins at the top) immediately on waking up. Takes time (and I've had to start waking up earlier) and to be honest I don't think it does what it's supposed to as once I'm awake, I'm awake, and I don't have this 'access to my subconscious' thing - but it means that I start every day writing, even if it's just mostly moaning about it being far too early. And once I've written something, I keep wanting to write, all through the day.

It works for me, anyway. Hope it's a useful tip for someone!

wordtryst said...

I'm late again. Sorry!

Zinnia, just last night I was feeling low and wondering why so many of us do this writing thing, and more pointedly why do I do it. It's a roller coaster; no matter what the high, you know that lows are ahead. They just keep on coming.

I read that post on Rowan's blog, and I too was taken aback: You mean this doesn't go away? You don't get used to it? I also wondered, like Clare, whether this was a good thing: How wonderful to feel the excitement each time, and never get jaded! Or a bad thing: You mean you have to experience the flutters and fears every single time? When, oh when can you put those two eff words behind you?

People have said that this type of vulnerability is necessary to the writing process. I don't know. I want to get to a point where I can get off the roller coaster and just glide, confident in my multi- (or single-) published status, happy with the work I've done, immune to the negativity that's unavoidable in this business, and most of all, satisfied that I've silenced those inner goblins for good.

I know. I'm a dreamer.

Don't have much to add to the great ideas for coping with the downsides. I try to remind myself that everything is cyclical, and that if I can just endure for awhile the upswing will inevitably roll around. I also go to the blog. The supportive comments on mine, and the posts and comments on the bunch of blogs that I read regularly - several of them Racers' - never fail to give me a lift, even, or maybe especially, the silly posts!

Off to start a Good Stuff file right now..

Liz, I think putting the waiting list on the sidebar is a great idea.

Flowerpot said...

I'm even later and apologies for that! Good post Zinnia and very timely as I'm going through a phase of being utterly exhausted so much so that I can barely email let alone blog or construct a sentence. I'm hoping it will pass - soon. ?But in this case I need a) a rest b) a confidence boost (editor in question to come back with answers) c) recharge batteries. I'm reading lots of everythign at the moment - newspapers, magazines, novels - and longing for the moment when I can feel like myself again. When I'm not writing I get depressed, weepy and generally don't like the world. much less myself.