Writing fiction is a wonderful but delicate thing. We need a certain amount of confidence in order to be able to spend time putting what is in our heads down onto the page or screen. When this is high, we feel more resilient, we're less vulnerable to anxiety and rejection; we are ‘in the zone’ and the focus is on the work.
But what if our confidence is low?
A poll of would-be writers usually reveals two central anxieties that they share: one is a lack of time, which is understandable - but even this is undercut by the second concern: a feeling that, even if they get the time to write, what they write will not be ‘good enough’.
It’s that worry - that the product of our own fiction will simply not be successful with readers - that hinders us from making the time we need to write. If we were totally confident that what we had to say was valuable and would reach readers, we would much more easily rearrange our lives to make sure that we got the stuff out of our heads.
Improving a writer’s confidence can be challenging, especially if that writer has experienced setbacks in the past. Self-esteem is rather unstable anyway, and can fluctuate daily, even hourly. Another complication is that we perceive the writing of fiction as central to our own worth as people. A bricklayer or dentist under critical attack for their products is one thing, but bricks and teeth are physical items, one step away from the person: our own fiction comes, at its best, from our hearts. People criticising that feels much more personal, and it is.
Here are five distinct things we can do to address our confidence as writers:
1. Positively affirm yourself as a writer.
You can do this by saying to yourself several times a day ‘My writing is worthwhile’ but that might clash with any criticism you have received for it in the past. You might instead want to try ‘I will learn to better my writing in every way’. This is pretty impervious to critical remarks and encourages you to reach out and seek real mastery of your art.
2. Identify your strengths.
Critical remarks feed our lack of confidence. They might even be valid, which of course makes it worse. You have to know what your strengths are. What are you good at? There are five basic levels to creative writing and in each one you can be strong. They are:
i) planning and ideas - how organised are you? How strongly do you believe in something that communicates itself through your fiction? Think of Graham Greene or J.R.R. Tolkien and their Catholicism, or J. B. Priestley’s socialism: these world-dominating authors were driven by powerful ideas which they held close to their hearts.
ii) the Bigger Picture in your stories - how do the above beliefs translate into what is at the heart of your plot? For example, in Tolkien’s case, his religious beliefs led to his stories being primarily about Death and Mortality as far as their themes were concerned. What is your fiction really all about?
iii) the structure of your stories - do you create enough suspense, enough mystery, enough moral choices, enough energy to attract and glue readers to the pages of your work?
iv) your understanding of your readership - who is your ideal reader? Do your stories ‘talk’ to that person?
v) your page by page writing style - this is as far as some writing advice goes, but as you can see it is only one part of the whole. Is your writing style effective? Are you an ‘economic’ writer who communicates using minimal wordage? Are you a plumcake-rich writer who delights in adjectives and adverbs? How effective is your style at gripping readers and moving them forward?
Go through the above and write down what you are good at, not where you are weak. You will feel a resurgence of confidence as soon as you isolate the existing pillars of your work. Reward yourself for finding out what makes you a good writer! Then, and only then, look at those areas where you could improve.
Figuring out your core skills and talents will encourage you to find opportunities in your work that emphasise them.
3. Accept compliments.
When we are down, if someone tries to say something good about our work it can feel as though they are lying or just trying to cheer us up. They may be - but they may also be pointing out valid strengths. Instead of allowing these comments to automatically bounce off us into the void, a simple ‘Thank you’ , or ‘Thanks for saying so’ permits the remarks to float around us, not rejected but lingering in our space. As our confidence picks up, we will remember these things and they will be like food to a growing child - we will get more and more certain that perhaps all is not lost.
4. Have some compassion.
We are normally asked to have compassion for others, and usually neglect to have any for ourselves. But take pity: you are attempting something virtually impossible, when you think about it. You are taking an immaterial, translucent and perhaps not fully worked out idea, accompanied by a set of images and notions, and trying to capture them within the confines of language; then you are playing out that language over a whole piece of work, hoping that, like a net, it will somehow corral your ideas and pictures together long enough for some cohesion to occur; and then, in what truly is a work of magic, you are throwing them out into the void where you hope a group of complete strangers will notice them, find them interesting, and follow them through in order to be able to receive the effect that you originally planned.
Fiction is sorcery, really, or at best a kind of ‘telepathy of words’. It’s hard enough to get concrete notions across from one person to another using these things called ‘words’ - but a creation that you have mocked up in your head? That shouldn’t really be possible. And yet it is. Millions upon millions of written works exist out there in the world which accomplish this every day. Yours can be one of them.
5. Visit your well-springs.
Someone once gave me that advice and I often return to it: get clear in your own mind what it is that gives you strength and make sure you tap into it as often as you can.
Make a list of qualities you have that make you a great writer, such as your vocabulary or emotionally powerful characters. Jot down everything that makes your work a valuable addition to the worlds of fiction. Write a brief paragraph or two about why your stories are important, and why other people would appreciate them. Do this exercise often.
Do these things as a writer and you'll find yourself developing not only a resilience to criticism, but better and better writing too.
For more, read the book How Stories Really Work.