Fifty Shades of Self-Doubt

As I was reading Jeff Seymour’s recent blog (http://rmfw.org/my-names-jeff-and-im-a-failure-by-jeff-seymour), I was struck by the thought that for a writer, there are all kinds of ways for demoralization and discouragement to find their way in and poison your life. Jeff describes his sense of failure in terms of sales and income, in other words, his writing career. I’ve certainly spent my share of time agonizing over similar issues. But I have to say that worries about my career haven’t caused me nearly the misery as some of my other bouts with self-doubt.

Despite his sense of feeling like a failure, Jeff still comes across as fairly confident in his writing abilities. He describes his book as good art and shares how this was validated by having it named to a list of the Best of 2014. But what if you publish several books that don’t get positive reviews or win awards? It’s very easy for the insidious doubts to creep in. It’s hard not to wonder if getting published was a fluke. Maybe it was all a mistake, and you just got lucky. Maybe you have no talent, and now that you’ve been exposed as a lousy writer, you’ll never sell another book.

And then there are the reviews. A single one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads can destroy whatever confidence you've gained by getting published. A few ho-hum two and three-star reviews drag down your rating and inspire more agonizing. Readers are the final arbiters. If they don't like your book, you know you're in trouble.

Or, maybe you’re confident you're a decent writer but worry there’s something terribly flawed with your story ideas and your fictional vision. Technical ability can be worked on and improved. You’ve seen it happen in critique groups and in the publishing world. A writer you considered mediocre finally writes an exceptional story. Clearly they’ve been working at their craft and it has paid off. But what if you begin to feel that no one else is interested in the stories you’re drawn to write. Where do you go with that?

Of course, if you’ve never been published, the claws of self-doubt can dig in even deeper. That’s when you wonder, after the tenth or twentieth rejection, whether you’re wasting your time, not to mention your money, on those conferences, contest entry fees, critiques and writing advice books. There you are, selfishly taking away money from the family income to indulge the hopeless cause of your writing.

You may have confidence in your talent and your stories but end up feeling that fate is against you. I’ve known authors who got published just as the line their book was featured in was closing down. Or they published their first book at the exact time their genre fell out of favor with readers. Or maybe you’ve been cursed by an incompetent agent, who never sends anything out, even to editors who ask for the manuscript. Or the editor who acquired your book moved on right afterwards and your new editor considers you damaged goods. Or your book got the most terrible cover ever. Or it came out the same month as a blockbuster hit that left every other book in the dust.

Most of us who’ve been in the business awhile accept that at least a part of publishing success is due to luck. But that doesn’t help if it you’re one of those people for whom it seems if not for bad luck, you would have no luck at all.

Of course these days you can make your own luck. You don’t have to wait for an editor who believes in your story. You can publish it yourself and go directly to the readers. Unfortunately, the freedom to indie-publish doesn’t free you from all the things that can undermine and discourage you. Yes, you have control. You control your cover, your release date and every marketing detail. But with control comes responsibility. For everything. Which means if things don’t work out as you hope, you have no one to blame but yourself. And that can lead to even more layers of self-doubt and questioning.

Sometimes it seems endless, the way the world can gnaw away at our writing dreams and leave us empty and hurting. But because there are so many things that can trigger the doubt lurking in our artist souls, we have one advantage. Self-doubt is an incredibly common problem, something all but a few fortunate writers face at one time or another. Which means that lots of creative and dynamic people have endured and survived what you’re going through, and many of them are willing to share what helped them go on. What restored their faith in themselves and gave them new motivation and optimism.

If you are attending the Colorado Gold Conference a week from now, you will have a chance to meet some of these veterans of writing hard times. You will be able to network with them informally at meals, in the bar and after workshops. And there will also be a panel on this very subject. Come and hear Jeff, me and three other writers (including the 2014 Writer of the Year, Shannon Baker) as we discuss our battles with self-doubt and discouragement. We’ll share what worked for us, how we overcame our fears and despair and lived to write another book.

Mary Gillgannon
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Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

23 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Self-Doubt

  1. Mary, this is one of the wisest pieces of advice I’e read in a while. I actually printed it out so I can have it available to goose myself with when those doubts start crowding in.

    • Thank you, Terry. I’m glad it was meaningful to you. Next month, I’ll cover some ways to get beyond self-doubt. I am my own techniques and will add other ideas from the panel.

  2. Amazing how we are all accomplished, having written a book or maybe 50 of them, and yet, that doubt still lingers. Now, I know I’m a hack, so self-doubt can’t beat me. Great post. Looking forward to hearing more at the self-doubt panel.

  3. I am really looking forward to this panel at Colorado Gold and suspect the room will be packed. Most of us have been in that down phase and can use a pep talk from others who’ve successfully worked through the angst.

    • I don’t know how encouraging I was, other than it probably helps to realize how many of us struggle with this battle. Next month I’ll be covering the ways we can overcome all the things that drag us down.

  4. What a great post, Mary. I’m looking forward to the panel next week. Is there any of us who can’t use a good pep talk?

  5. Wonderful post, Mary. I think rejection is the hardest battle a writer faces. I remember a program Rex Burns gave at our first conference way back when. When asked about rejection he mentioned that after having several books published one was rejected by the same publisher. Asked how he reacted to it, he shrugged his shoulders and said , “I just thought the guy was crazy. I sold it some where else later.” My point in telling this story is that I never forgot his reaction even after all these years.

    I think blaming the competance of the publisher is a good first reaction. It makes you feel good, and takes away the rejection’s power to leave you a quivering mass of hoplessness. It is easier then to regain your writerly self-confidence and approach the piece with objectivity.

    My favorite rejection story is that Issac Assimov once had a story rejected by The Issac Assimov Science Fiction magazine. The story might well be apocryphal, but I doubt it.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Calisa. Maybe we can connect at another conference sometime. I’ve toyed with the idea of going to RWA next year. I think it’s in San Diego, where my son lives.

  6. Well, Mary, this post hits a lot of us where it hurts! I know that after four readers told me my romance books have ‘no romance’, I’m looking up to try to see bottom in self-confidence in my writing ability. But, I figure if I didn’t do a good enough job in making my readers care about my characters, that’s my problem and I need to do something about it. I’m currently putting myself ‘back to school’ to better learn how to express the romance in the stories. I wish all those who read this and ‘felt the pain’ the best, and good luck to you at the conference.

  7. My sympathy on your struggles, Mairi. The fact is, there is no way to please everybody. I think your books are lovely and romantic, and I’d hate to see you get too down about this. But yes, we can always improve.

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