Getting Past Self Doubt

I really hate posts that suggest that all writers do <fill in the blank.> Especially when there’s some sort of implication that if you *don’t* do that thing, then you’re not a *real* writer. But if you asked me to name one thing that I see from most writers, it’s that they all deal with self doubt. I mean, maybe there’s one mythical author out there who just types stuff and immediately knows it’s great, and they never have even a moment where they wonder. But I know a lot of authors, and I don’t know that person.

So if we assume everyone doubts themselves at some point, the question isn’t how do we avoid it. I don’t think we can. I know I can’t. The question is how do we deal with it in a way that lets us keep going *despite* the self doubt. How do we feel the doubt and not become paralyzed by it? I don’t claim to have all the answers to that. Certainly different people feel doubt at different levels, and in different ways. This is in no way intended to over simplify what can be a complex and potentially crippling issue. What I want to do is share my own experience, and a few tools that I use when I’m feeling like I’m not good enough.

The reason I want to do this is because I’m a pretty confident guy in most cases. I think most people who know me through the internet (and even in real life) see me as somebody who has my stuff together. And most of the time I probably am. But not always. So when you see people on the internet, remember that they’re showing you what they want to put out in the world. They’re not always showing you the messy crap that’s going on behind the scenes. Today I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit.

Bear with me…this is about to get pretty personal.

I have a two book deal. The first book, PLANETSIDE, comes out in late July. I am extremely happy with that book. It’s the best book I could write, and I’m excited and only a little terrified for people to read it. Secretly I feel like people who have read it didn’t really like it, but are just being nice to me when they say that they do. That’s a feeling I have to constantly mash down. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about book 2. For the purposes of this story, I’m going to call it that: Book 2. It has a tentative title, but my editor hasn’t seen it yet and I’m not ready to share it. It’s not relevant to the discussion.

I wrote book 2 in February and March, a zero draft, and it was horrible but it did what a zero draft does. It helped me figure out the story so that when I wrote the first draft it had structure and a reasonable plot. By the time I finished the second draft I had it in a place where I wasn’t embarrassed to show it to other people. This is important, because at some point you *have* to show it to other people. So I sent it off to three readers, honestly unsure what they’d say. I didn’t think it was very good, but it was an early draft. The results came back, and they were pretty positive, and this was from two published writers and a third person whose opinion I value very much. So I revised again, using their notes and feeling more confident about it. What I should have known at the time was that the things they said that they liked are the things that are good about it…the voice, the character…that’s what I do well. At that time I still didn’t see the holes in the book.

I sent the next revision off to Dan Koboldt, and he gave me great notes. He *didn’t* say he liked it, but then that’s not really what he and I do as critique partners. He gave me some concrete things that I needed to work on and some ideas how to do it. I loved the notes and got right to work. And I fixed some of the stuff.

That brings us up to more recently. In January I sent my revised manuscript off to my agent. It wasn’t ready for that, but it’s due in April to the editor, so it was time. I got Lisa’s notes back, and she confirmed the things I already knew. She liked the voice and she liked the character, but there are slow sections in the book and the villain’s motivations didn’t make sense. And it hit me pretty hard. Because she was right (hey, she’s brilliant, and she’s pretty much always right.) The notes were developmental, and in no way harsh, but it still kind of overwhelmed me. I have a book due in two months and it’s not close to where it needs to be. I mean, it’s not *bad* but it’s not as good as PLANETSIDE. And it needs to be.

The next few days I had some pretty unproductive thoughts. I’m not exaggerating here…these were very real things that went through my head and that I seriously considered more than once:

This book sucks and I can’t fix it. I should scrap it, get an extension, and write this other book I have in my head, because that will be a better book 2.
I’m a fraud.
My agent likely regrets her decision to take me on as a client.
Well, my first book is good. I can just be a one hit wonder.
I’ve lost it.
I should quit writing.

And many, many more.

Okay. So that’s the negative part of the post. If you’ve made it this far, it gets better, I promise. I’m going to discuss what I did to get from that point to where I am now, with a revision plan in hand, ready to start work on this revision with an absolute belief that I can get it to where it needs to be.

1. Do something you’re good at. I don’t think it matters what it is. We all have areas where we’re strong, so find one of those things and do it. You’ve got to break the spiral of feeling bad about your work. Doubt is a tricky little bastard. When you doubt yourself in one thing, it’s easy for it to spread to the point where you feel like you’re bad at everything. You’re not. But jerk brain is a real thing, and jerk brain will foul up your thinking. It grows and grows until you feel like you can’t do anything. So fight back. Do something you know you do well and let that success sink in. For me, it’s critique. I’m good at it. I have half a growing shelf of books written by other people that I gave notes on. I held a twitter drawing to critique somebody’s first ten pages, drew a name, then did it. And you know what? I gave that person good feedback. I’m sure of it. I could see exactly what it needed, and I think I was able to articulate it in a way that the writer could work on it. It reminded me that I can take a scene apart and put it back together in a better way.

2. Make sure you’re not imagining it. This one takes help. You need someone who is going to be totally honest with you. In my case, I was sure that Lisa’s notes were right (Spoiler: I’m still sure they are) but you can’t rule out the potential for your mind to mess with you in these situations. So I shared the gist of the notes with my CP, Becka Enzor. She’d read the first draft and liked it, but I knew she’d have an open mind. And she did. When I shared the notes, she told me ‘yeah, I can see that. The character *is* kind of passive.’ That confirmation didn’t really change anything, but I think it’s a crucial step to not overthinking things. Have people in your life who are going to tell you the truth, even when it sucks. Because dismissing the problem isn’t a solution.

3. Use the phrase ‘I can at least do ________.’ Staring at an overwhelming task creates its own momentum, and not in a good way. You tell yourself that the problem is too big, and it’s hopeless, so why even start? So you don’t. And a day later you’re in the same spot, only now it’s even harder. When we say ‘I can at least’ then we break that cycle. In my case it started with ‘I can at least fix the problematic interaction my MC has with a secondary character.’ I knew what it needed, and it wasn’t going to be hard. I could do that. And I could at least remove some of my junk words. And while I’m at it, I could at least delete some of the slow parts…if I removed one character that would remove a few of those parts, actually, which would make the first half of the book move quicker. And I could also make it move quicker if I cut some of the transportation between scenes out. I could get into scenes at a little bit later point, and I could leave the scenes a little bit earlier. That would help. I mean, I still have this massive problem where my villain isn’t believable, and I still have to make my MC more active and I don’t know how to fix those things, but I can at least do those other things.

And that’s exactly how it built. It started with one thing I could fix, but it became more than one thing. Each thing built on something else. I still had the big problems, but I had something I could fix, and it felt like a start.

4. Write it down. In the previous paragraph I talked about the things I decided I could at least do. Now I needed to put them into a form where I could use them (and not forget them.) For me, that’s writing them down. For others it might be a white board, or note cards. It doesn’t matter. There’s not a right answer…it should be the thing that works for you when things are going well. When you’re writing at your best, how do you capture your ideas? Do that. Doing that comfortable thing with your ideas puts you in the frame of mind to solve problems. For me, when I write things down they connect in my mind in ways that they don’t when I’m just thinking about them. Often I’ll write emails to people answering the questions I have in order to force myself to put them in some sort of understandable format. I might not even send the email. That’s fine. It’s not about telling someone else, it’s about being *able* to explain it to someone else. Because if you can explain it to someone, you really understand it.

5. Make your plan. I’m not a plotter. Like I’m REALLY not. I make up entire novels as I go, often writing with no idea what happens next. But at some point you’ve got to look at what you have and figure out where it’s not working so that you can fix it. I had some ideas in my head from step 3…at least I could do those things…so I started doing that by chapter. In chapter 1, I could at least…in chapter 2 I could do…and so on. As I did that, I still had the big problems in my head. My main character was too passive and my villain’s actions didn’t make sense. And as I hit chapter 6, typing out what I could at least do, the villain came into focus. I figured out the thing that changed him/her (sorry, no spoilers!) and that moment changed everything. I had to go back to the beginning and change my hero’s perceptions of things, I had to change how the villain acted both before and after that point. It’s a huge change. But I know what the change is, so while it’s a ton of work and it’s going to be very challenging, I can see it. And if I can see it, I can write it. There were more moments like that. I figured out a huge change that takes my character from passive to active. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

And that’s the thing. I haven’t fixed the book. I haven’t even started writing yet, and I still have some more things to figure out before I’m done. But I’m *ready* to start. I believe I can do it. And that’s what getting through self doubt looks like. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got all the answers, and it doesn’t mean that you’re going to write the best book that ever existed. What it means is that you believe you can. It means that you can start. That you’re moving.

On Monday I’m rewriting book 2. And for the first time I believe it can be as good or better than PLANETSIDE. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Speaking of PLANETSIDE, did you know you could pre-order it? You can also add it on Goodreads.




  • K. Eason says:

    Sympathize. I am always half-convinced Lisa regrets signing me. I get a lot of knitting and spinning done when I’m convinced I am a terrible writer. And a lot of baking. May the rewrites go as smoothly as possible.

    Also not a plotter, at all (and having to produce even the roughest of predictive synopses gives me anxiety, esp. since once I have one in place, my subconscious tries to make me stick to it).

    • I literally wrote my entire book 2 because my contract required me to turn in an outline and I couldn’t do that without writing the book first.

      Also, I’m reading ALLY right now and it’s brilliant. I was sitting there reading it and thinking how every word is perfect, and how much that had to have taken for you to get it to that point. It’s so funny how our minds work.

      • K. Eason says:

        I am so glad to hear you say that, because I have no perspective on that book. Truth: I was so scared writing Ally that I did the zero draft with beer, a buzz, and without an outline, and it was a mess. My betas, Lisa, and the developmental editor worked miracles on it.

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About Me

I am a former Soldier and current science fiction writer. Usually I write about Soldiers. Go figure. I’m represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency. If you love my blog and want to turn it into a blockbuster movie featuring Chris Hemsworth as me, you should definitely contact her.

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