Fifty Shades of Self-Doubt

As I was reading Jeff Seymour’s recent blog (, 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.

My Secret Battle With Writer’s Block

For the first twenty years I wrote fiction, I didn’t understand when people spoke of “writer’s block”. Of course there were times when I got stuck, and it took me a day or two to figure out where to go with a story. But usually, when I sat down to write, the words flowed. It was partly because of the way I wrote, snatching hours and minutes here and there from my hectic life. Writing was a pleasurable and gratifying experience, something I yearned to do, rather than a chore. But gradually the joy I found in writing began to diminish, until a few years ago, it stopped being something I sought out at every opportunity and became something I had to force myself to do.

Part of the change came from my dwindling hope for my writing career. For ten years I steadily sold books and had writing contracts and deadlines to motivate me. Even after my career stalled, for a long time I was able to convince myself that my latest work-in-progress was the one that was going to get me back in the game. By the time I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen, self-publishing had opened up new opportunities.

I excitedly began to re-release my backlist, and indie-published three manuscripts I’d finished but never been able to sell. But it soon became apparent that marketing my books to readers was going to be as difficult as finding a publisher. And marketing those books consumed more and more of the time I had available for writing. For an entire year, I didn’t write any new fiction. Instead, I edited and revised, proofread, wrote blurbs and blog posts. Finally, I said “enough”, vowed I was done with self-publishing, and decided to return to writing fiction. But it now seemed a lot more difficult.

I told myself I was “rusty” because I’d gone so long without working on new material. I’d broken my long-standing pattern of writing nearly every day and it was difficult to get back into it. I tried. I sat at the computer with my manuscript file on the screen and waited for the words to come. Some days I actually got through a few paragraphs before flipping the screen to the internet to answer email or do some on-line shopping, or check my sales figures on Amazon or Smashwords, anything to avoid writing.

When I did write, it was at a snail’s pace and a grim, grind-it-out process. I got stuck all the time. Even when I knew where I was going in the story, the words wouldn’t come. Or they came so slowly it was ridiculous. I went from regularly writing a chapter a week to a chapter a month and then less. I wondered if it was over.

Most of us have heard the ironic line about writing as an addiction: “You’d quit if you could.” Well, maybe I could. Maybe, having realized my dream of being published, and now realizing that the dream was over, I didn’t care anymore.

I told no one of my fears, my gnawing sense that I was no longer really a writer. Because, after all, “writers write”, and I wasn’t. At least not much. And yet, because I am driven and goal-oriented, I did manage to finish three books over the last three years. All of them were partially written before my “crisis of faith”, which made it easier. And my intuitive sense of plot and story, honed over the years, got me through the worst stretches. And I sold those books. To small presses that offered no advances, but still, they did the editing, formatting and cover art and helped with promotion. These books are probably not as good as my most inspired stories, but they’re decent books. I’ve gotten good reviews on them, especially from readers, which are the ones that really count these days.

So, yes, I can still do this. But what about the joy? a little nagging voice asks. What about the way the words used to flow? The way I used to be excited to sit down and “get to write”?

I’m afraid to talk about it much, for fear it will go away. (We artists are a superstitious bunch.) But I’m beginning to have those moments again. Those out-of-nowhere revelations about my story. That tingling thrill when the characters come to life and the story unfolds before my eyes. I’m starting to have days when I sit down to write, and what seems like a short while later, I realize an hour or two has gone by. I’m no longer making myself write. Instead my story is calling to me, tantalizing and seductive.

Maybe I was right after all. Maybe writer’s block isn’t real. It possible it’s nothing more than a loss of faith. In yourself. In the words. In the process. Maybe the creative process really is magic, and all you have to do is believe.

For more tales of struggle and how various authors get through the rough spots, join me and authors Jeff Seymour, Julie Kazimer, Bonnie Ramthun and Shannon Baker for our panel at the Colorado Gold Conference entitled Failure and Self-doubt, the Silent Battle.


Another note-to-self in the form of a blog …

I’ll cut to the chase: what we do is a choice.

We put ourselves in this situation—“forced” to think about stories and characters and plots and craft.

The burden of it all; the agony!

The tortured artist at work--just look. Over there in the corner, writhing in pain. He's squirming in the corner in sheer horror, drowning in his own drool, recoiling at the thought of having to pound out one more precious sentence.

Sheesh, really?

Did you listen to the recent RMFW podcast with Aaron Michael Ritchey? If you need a lift, check it out. You’ll hear a guy who a) produces at an impressive rate (he’s currently working on a six-book series, under contract) and b) embraces the work.

On the podcast, Ritchey recalls a key moment when he was complaining to fellow writer (and RMFW Colorado Gold Writing Contest chair) Chris Devlin about writing. And Devlin apparently told Ritchey how much she enjoyed it all, getting lost in her worlds and her characters.

That changed everything.

Ritchey decided then and there he didn’t want Devlin’s pity. “I forced myself to love writing,” he recalled.

Ritchey’s enthusiasm is infectious. I’m not saying you can wrap yourself in a cloak of enthusiasm and the books will come flying out, but starting with an upbeat thought or two about the writing day certainly couldn’t hurt.

A few days ago, I listened to Meg Wolitzer deliver a stand-up, no-notes story on “The Moth." (Yes, another podcast.) Wolitzer's storytelling style was so natural, unforced, easy-going (and funny) that I’ve got to dive into her novels. (Like my pile of books isn't tall enough.)

And this particular story, “Summer Camp,” concluded with a message similar to Ritchey’s: “The world is always trying to tell you what you’re not,” concludes Wolitzer. “And it’s up to you to say what you are,”

Funny, isn't it? How some times you run into the same message twice within the same couple of days.

Must be true.


What’s Your Plan for 2015?

By Kerry Schafer

planGod knows I'm a pantser by birth and inclination, but I've learned that sometimes I need a plan. In writing as well as the rest of my life, there is a time for pantsing and a time for planning and it's important to get this straight.

Do you need a Writing Plan for 2015?

That depends.

Do you want to just have fun and create stuff for pleasure? Great. Kudos to you. No planning required and I hope you have a lovely time. (I might be a little bit jealous)

But if you want a writing career, you need a plan.

Stay with me here. A plan doesn't have to involve flow charts and spread sheets and hours of tedious details, although it certainly can. Some of you organized minds out there totally get off on this sort of thing. My crit partner, I know, has a spreadsheet that includes detailed timelines of not only WHAT she plans to accomplish this year, but WHEN each component will be completed.

This just makes me shudder. And want a nap. And ice cream, chocolate, and a bottle of wine. Or two.

On the other hand, I know that if I don't set some goals and some timeline markers, I'm not going to accomplish everything I want to do. Time is not linear for me. It expands and shrinks according to its own irrational whims, and if I don't pay attention I'll suddenly look at a calendar and it will be November and I won't have moved any closer to my ultimate writing career goals.

In case planning is not your forte, I've included pantser-friendly steps to help you get this done.

1. Start with the big picture. Think about what you want to have accomplished by the end of the year. Pretend it's New Year's Eve and you're looking back on all of your accomplishments. What do you want to be able to say you have done at the end of 2015? Finish that novel you've been working on? Write ten short stories? Find an agent? Get published?

I like to write this up as if I've already accomplished it all, something like this:

"It's been a fabulous year. The draft of XXX came out awesome and is on my agent's desk, ready for submission...." That sort of thing.

2. Figure out what is actionable. Okay, I sort of hate the word actionable, but it makes its point. There are things YOU can do, and things you can't. For example, if one of your goals is to get an agent this year, you can't actually force an agent to sign on with you. You CAN write a good book, draft an awesome query letter, research agents, and send out queries. So take a few minutes to break your goals down into smaller steps of things you are going to do this year to get you where you want to go.

3. Set deadlines. I don't know about you, but I can get a hell of a lot done when I've got an impending deadline. If you don't have an agent or a publishing contract to do this for you, it's tricky. This is the position I was in this year. It's much harder to make myself get up at 0-dark-thirty to write when there is no deadline. Who cares? says the voice in my head. It's not like there's anybody out there waiting on your words.

The solution - or at least a solution - is to set your own deadlines. Choose a weekly word count goal, number of revision pages, how many queries you're going to send, whatever. Pick a date you're going to do this by. Write your deadlines on a calendar or sticky notes or your bathroom mirror. Tell a bunch of people. Broadcast it on Twitter.

I have to confess that I did not meet my self imposed deadlines for The Nothing. In fact, I was at least a month behind where I wanted to be when I finally finished the sucker and flipped it over to my freelance editor. But you know what? Without a deadline and a goal I'd still be writing it. Or maybe I wouldn't have bothered with it at all, because that book was a struggle for me.

4. Celebrate Everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. This is so important I consider it part of planning. This writing business is hard. It chews writers up and spits them out on a regular basis. Part of motivation and sticking with the plan comes from marking milestones. So live it up. If you made your weekly word count or your daily word count even, reward yourself. Sent out queries? You ROCK. Give yourself a cookie or a piece of chocolate or at the very least a pat on the back. You didn't just sit there, wishing. You did something to make it happen.

5. Recalibrate as needed. Things change. If it looks like your original plan is a bust, revise it. If you're a pantser, you're already good at this. The whole point and purpose of a plan is to be looking down the road a little so you know where you're headed.

Making a Big Deal Out of It

As writers, we spend a lot of time beating ourselves up. That story wasn’t good enough, we didn’t finish it on time, it didn’t sell to our market of choice, it got a bad review, I’m just not happy with it… etc. etc. Too often, we forget what a monumental undertaking writing is in the first place. How many people say they’re going to write a book and never even set hands to keyboard? How many people get started but don’t stick with it? I propose that today, at the start of the Christmas season, we start thinking about how to reward ourselves for our accomplishments instead of letting them fall away in the stew of self-criticism and all the pressure we put on ourselves.

There are many different ways to do this, of course. Hang the reward out there as a carrot or just promise yourself you’ll do something special when you meet that next milestone. For a long time, I bought a print from my favorite musician/photographer whenever I finished a manuscript. (When I ran out of wall space, though, I had to try something different.) I’ve also been known to give myself a day off just to read, watch TV or knit when I finish a project.

A few years ago, I started a charm bracelet. It’s one of those Chamilia bracelets, where you buy the bracelet and then string beads on it as you purchase them. I got the idea when my daughter got a similar bracelet, and now I buy a bead to commemorate book contracts and completed book series. The first bead I bought was a Bestseller bead for my book Where There’s a Will, which was on the Kindle bestseller list. Then I got beads for some of my past books—a Celtic-style bead for The Haunting of Rory Campbell, a black, night-sky-type bead for my Dark Callings series, and a glass bead in ocean colors for my Mara’s Men series. Recently I picked up a bead with crossed hockey sticks to commemorate the sale of Blood on the Ice, and a round bead with embedded stones for Necromancing Nim. I’ve got a pretty good string of beads going, but there’s still room for more before I run out of room on my bracelet.

These beads aren’t exactly cheap. This makes me try to talk myself out of them on a regular basis. But finishing a book is a big accomplishment, and selling it is even more so. So I promise myself a bead for major sales, or for the completion of a three-book series, or for other milestones beyond simply completing a manuscript. It makes me feel good, and when I wear the bracelet, when people ask about it I can revisit the warm fuzzies I’ve gotten from writing and selling these books.

These ideas might not be for you, but I think we as authors need to acknowledge our own awesomeness on a more regular basis. We spend far too much time locked up in our offices churning out words and then telling ourselves we didn’t churn out enough words, or didn’t commit the right words to paper. We need to pat ourselves on the back. We really need to make a big deal out of it.

So think about that this Christmas. If you don’t already have a commemorative system in place, think about something that might work for you, and then treat yourself.

(Beads from top to bottom: Necromancing Nim, Blood on the Ice, Beautiful Music, Puck You, Vampire Apocalypse, Ring of Darkness, Crimson Star, Mom bead (a mother's day present), Dark Callings, Where There's a Will, Mara's Men, Haunting of Rory Campbell).


Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog