If this is the first time you’re putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, in an effort to produce a poem, short story, novel, or even some other form of art, know that you’re going to doubt yourself. You’re going to struggle to “get it right”. You’re going to feel like a fish out of water. And you’re going to want to quit.
Each of those things is a signpost on the road to success, because each is one of the four common attributes of successful writers.
This is unavoidable. Self doubt will stay with you throughout your career. I’ve only published one book so far (Necromancer Awakening, Amazon Top 100 Bestselling Dark Fantasy), but I’ve been a software engineer for nearly 20 years. I’ve won awards for my technical work. I’ve developed software systems that have saved lives in war zones and continue to do so to this day. Yet not a project comes along where I don’t question my ability to deliver.
I’ve been writing for nearly 30 years, but Necromancer Awakening was published just this year. [Note: this article was published in 2014.] Why is that? Because I spent 30 years believing what James Scott Bell calls “The Big Lie”. That’s the lie that says “Writers are born. You cannot learn how to be a writer.” The Big Lie fed my self doubt and kept me from succeeding. In many cases it kept me from trying to succeed.
Embrace your self doubt now. It’s going to be with you for a long time. But why is it a sign that you’re on the right track?
Self doubt that arises from the knowledge you’ve yet to reach a certain standard of excellence is like a star guiding a ship. This is a sign you’re on the right track because you know what you’re aiming toward! You’ve seen the destination and merely need to navigate the waters that take you there! You’re head and shoulders above those who are lying to themselves about their abilities, or those who dismiss critics and only listen to their biggest fans. You know which areas of your craft you’re weakest at, and therefore you know what you need to improve. Revel in this knowledge! If there are gifts from the universe, this is one of them.
But there’s a time when self doubt can undermine your efforts.
Self doubt that paralyzes you is the same sort of fear that keeps an animal staring at an oncoming car. That’s the fear that will kill your career long before any lack of talent will do so. Recognize this fear for what it is. It’s the kind that keeps you from writing. It’s the kind that not only tells you “you’re not good enough”, but goes on to say “and you never will be!” When you hear that last part echoing in your mind, let that be an “AHA!” moment for you. Recognize that it’s your mind playing tricks on you. It’s your psychological history stepping to the forefront and doing its best to get you to sabotage your own success. When you recognize it for what it is, it will lose it’s power over you.
But it will come back, just like that stray dog that’s always shitting on your front lawn. Deal with the shit. Don’t stop tending your lawn just because another dog came along.
The Desire to Get It Right
You’re going to question every word, every comma, every semicolon, every adjective, every metaphor, every section break, every chapter length, every word count, every character name, every point-of-view, every paragraph length, and every adverb.
And this is good. This means you’re on the right track. You’re misguided, but you’re on the right track.
The desire to get it right stems from the recognition that there is an acceptable standard to strive toward. The fact that you want to “get it right” means you recognize the possibility of getting it “wrong”. Once again, this puts you head and shoulders above those who believe there is no standard of excellence. The more you write, and the more your confidence grows, the less this will be a problem for you.
Continue to learn your craft. The more you know about your craft, the less you will question whether what you’re doing is “right” or “wrong”, and the more you’ll simply focus on telling your story. Share your work with others. When they report back, look for common themes in what they’re saying. Focus on those areas that are subject to the most complaints.
Feeling Like a Fish Out Of Water
No one embarks on a writing career and feels comfortable in their own skin immediately. It’s certainly not true in software engineering. When I became a software engineer, even though I had fantastic skills and received a lot of praise for my work, I still felt incompetent for the longest time. Why? Why do we always feel like we don’t know what we’re doing?
Feeling like you don’t fit in with others in your chosen career is a sign that you recognize others are better than you at what you do. Simply put, it’s another form of self doubt (as most of these “signposts” are). You look around, see yourself surrounded by brilliant people, and you feel like a hack.
But here’s the thing. You’re part of a select few individuals who are capable of recognizing and admitting that someone else is better than you are! This sounds extraordinarily obvious, but let me assure you there are countless writers/artists with seriously over-inflated egos and exaggerated estimates of their own abilities. By recognizing that others have something to teach, you are automatically pulling ahead of the pack.
Wanting to Quit
All of us want to throw in the towel. There will be times in your career where you are faced with a problem you think unsolvable. There will be days when your book sales come to a screeching halt. There will be days you get one-star reviews, and somehow that one star will outweigh all of the five-stars you have.
Wanting to quit is a sign you have passion for what you’re doing. If you weren’t passionate, you’d be too indifferent to give a damn!
People can teach you the craft. Or, more accurately, you can learn the craft.
You can develop your imagination.
You can learn story structure and how to employ it.
But no one can teach you how to be passionate. No one can knight you with the Magic Sword of Giveashit.
If you have this passion already, you will succeed one day…if you continue to recognize where you need to improve and do everything you can to strengthen those areas.
So if you’re suffering from self doubt, desire nothing more than to “get it right”, feel like an alien among humans, and you just want to throw in the towel, then celebrate. You’re a writer now.
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Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling.
Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.