Like most writers, you may sometimes have to contend with the nagging voice of self-doubt. Yet step one in learning how to write a novel entails learning to differentiate between constructive (self) criticism and unproductive criticism. Even if you are critical of your own work to the point of creative obstruction, there are techniques that can aid you in quieting that voice so you can get on with your writing:
Don’t compare yourself to writers you admire
Contrary to what many beginning writers may believe, doubt plagues writers at every stage of their careers. Writers who persist and succeed often still struggle with confidence, but the difference between those writers and the ones who give up is often their ability to control negative thought patterns. Some ways of controlling those thoughts can work for negative thoughts in general, but some are specific to writing:
One of the first points to remember is that you should not compare your first or early drafts with the polished work of other writers. Most of us know the feeling of staring in despair at a few lines or paragraphs we’ve struggled to put together only to find them lacking in comparison to the prose of our favourite writers. What we forget is that when we pick up a published novel, we are not just reading the most polished work by that writer. The work has also had the input of at least one editor and possibly also a literary agent and the writer’s own test or beta readers. It doesn’t make sense to compare our early efforts to a final product like this.
The writer Anne Lamott famously wrote about this very dilemma in her essay ‘Shitty First Drafts’ in the writing book Bird by Bird. With a mix of humour and wisdom, Lamott offers a number of helpful tips to writers plagued by this insecurity at the early stages of writing anything. It’s well worth a read. Keep in mind that almost all writers produce first drafts that are not very good – this is one way to counter thoughts of ‘I can’t write!’.
Practice being mindful
A second point to keep in mind is that mindfulness matters. Sometimes, negative chatter in our brains can be something that happens at a low level of consciousness. It chips away at our confidence before we even realise what is happening. Sometimes it’s necessary to turn up the volume first in order to make negative self-talk stop. Notice when that negative voice starts. When it does, respond to it the way you would reply to a friend who said those negative things about themselves. Would you let someone you care about say that they are a terrible writer who should give up? You shouldn’t tell yourself those things either. Over time, you will begin to make a habit of countering that negative voice as soon as it starts.
Celebrate the Small Writing Successes
A third strategy is to keep track of the positives. Every time someone says something to you about your writing that makes you feel good, write it down. Keep this handy as a document you can access any time to remind yourself of your many strengths and the ways in which people have responded positively to your writing. These could be the positive insights of beta readers or the members of your writing group.
Remember that not all stages of writing a novel will be equal parts fun and hard work
Practice noticing the good and the bad things that you tell yourself about your writing. The key here is to start paying attention to how little your emotional state about your writing is actually related to the quality of the writing itself. In fact, what you may notice is that your negative feelings about your writing are often more related to the stage of writing you are in rather than having anything to do with the actual story you’re working on.
Often, at the beginning of a book, writers are filled with optimism and convinced that they are writing the best book anyone has ever written. By the middle of the book, that initial euphoria often wears off. Many writers find that they begin to question their ability to finish the book as well as the premise of the book itself. No matter how excited they were at the start, the middle can yield less focused writing that makes the book feel plodding and unoriginal. Remember that you can always edit a ‘bad’ page – you can’t edit a blank one. Keeping up momentum is one way to drown out the ‘you can’t write’ voice.
Coming to the end of writing your novel may be accompanied by a sense of euphoria or despair. And then sometimes the excitement of a first draft can carry you all the way through and the ‘you can’t write’ voice doesn’t turn up until the revision stage. By anticipating this voice, tying it to certain stages of your writing and recognising it as a normal part of the writing process, you can circumvent demotivating negativity.
A fifth way to silence the voice of doubt is to let it win – for a short time. Take a break from your book, but be sure to set a date that is not too far away by when you have to return. A week or so is long enough to give you a fresh perspective but not so long that you lose the habit of writing regularly or lose the thread of your story.
You may be surprised at what you see about your writing when you go back and reread it after a little time off. Taking a break from writing can be a masterclass in how to write a novel from a more objective vantage point. You might run across passages that you love and barely remember writing; you may also be better able to assess some of the problems, but you’ll be able to do so more objectively and less emotionally.
If you look back over these strategies for finding motivation and finishing a novel, one thing you may notice is that negative self-talk relating to writing comes from many different places. If you can identify why you are listening to the ‘I can’t write’ voice, you might be closer to shutting it up. Do you have unrealistic expectations about your first draft? Do you pay too little attention to the messages you are sending to yourself? Do you tend to accentuate the negative and forget about the positive feedback you hear? Are you at a particularly difficult stage in your book? Are you too close to the story you’re writing? Answering these questions will help you pinpoint just what is behind these self-defeating thoughts so you can find the best way to stop them.