Confident Insecurity


Stephen King

I’ve seen some dramatic improvement in my writing skill over the last year or year and a half, and I’ve worked pretty hard to improve my prose.

Now, granted – nothing improves like practice, be it golf, poker, sex or writing.  Still, learning new aspects and putting them into practice helps too.  I learned a lot about writing from other writers early on, and took a couple of tail spin plummets into “I stink at this” along the way, but in the end I always managed to get wind back under my wings and climb to new, higher heights.

Stephen King’s heavy influence on my adverb-sparse writing forced me to take perhaps the biggest step forward.  While I don’t exercise adverb-control here in my blog posts, I find myself automatically cutting them and rewording sentences on the fly when I’m writing fiction prose.  Ernest Hemingway’s maxims about short, punchy sentences goes far with me, though I have varying degrees of success working with those.  (Something I hope to remedy as I go forward, actually, and will be targeting specifically in my next piece.)

Initially, my writing was adverb-heavy and my word choices weak.  The first writer to point out my dependence on modifiers also gave me bum advice (she told me it was ADJECTIVES which were to be avoided, not ADVERBS), but the point carried through.  And I learned a lot about offering writers feedback from my buddy Sherri over the time I’ve known her.  She’s now editing for a company on a contractual basis, and she knows from whence she speaks.

I picked up a lot from the first self-editing book I ever read too.  Not as much from the first plotting book I read, though; the author lost me in his explanations of things.

But lately, I’ve found myself unable to find much on the ‘Net about writing I haven’t either read already somewhere else, and I don’t find as much value in the input and feedback I’ve gotten lately as I used to.  I’m not sure why.  It feels arrogant and at the same time scary.  I have so much left to learn – so very much – and I know that, but I’m having the worst time taking another step forward.

I’m on a plateau, which frightens me, because I feel I have to get better.  I mean, this can’t be the top of my game, the best I’ll ever be … can it?

On my deviantART page, I get a lot of encouragement and accolades about my work.  It’s a nice feeling.  Occasionally, I get a “critique” from someone who takes the work line-by-line and points out areas they don’t like, or which could be improved.  It hasn’t happened very often but when it does, I’m always grateful.  Problem is, about 90% or more of what they say makes me chuckle and shake my head.  I’m pretty dismissive of the input, depending on who’s providing it.  From some, I’m grateful to listen, to act upon the advice they give, and feel the story’s improved.  From others … not so much.

Overall, though, I’m starting to see the value of a few trusted beta readers and I’m becoming pretty dismissive of “critique” from anyone else.

That’s cocky.

At the same time, I’m scared to put my work into the hands of the people who are the self-designated gatekeepers of literature.  I’m afraid it’s not good enough – I’m not good enough – and the thought of being told I still have miles to go (I do) makes me shy away and hold back in fear, worrying over how to get better.

I’m very secure and yet … insecure.  I have confident insecurity.

Is this a common thing to all writers?  Is there ever a point at which the insecure part goes away and the confidence remains?  Are we doomed to stagnation if we do?  And how does one go about improving prose, getting stronger and better?  How do we develop our style as writers?  Is it really just a matter of throwing more words out of our heads over and over and over?  It seems to me that won’t work if we’re not somehow getting new ways and means to state the things we want to say in better, clearer, more descriptive, more artful, more [insert whatever you go for here].  Or is this where talent separates writers from wannabes?

Writers, what do you think?  Am I off my rocker, or do you only really accept input from a select few?  Are your critics who matter a specially defined group or are you open to hearing from pretty much anyone about your work?

Sound off, writerlies.  I’m genuinely worried.

-JDT-

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10 thoughts on “Confident Insecurity

  1. I take writing advice / critiques on a case by case basis. I’m notoriously bad at catching typos, so I love having folks around who point those out. But very few people offer any real criticism other than that. It’s mostly more general positive/negative feedback. (Like the guy who said my novel was like a $0.69 burrito at Taco Bell.)

    Ouch. What a dick. Why say something like that? Didn’t mommy ever teach him if he can’t say something nice to STFU?

    I just ignore most of the negative feedback, bask in the glow of the positive, and then sort through at what’s left. If it’s real criticism and not just meanness (or stupidity), I’m grateful, and I make appropriate changes.

    When do you do that? Right away, or when you next get around to editing the piece? For me, it’s been sorta when I get around to it. Which seems rude to me.

    Yes, advice from folks whose writing talent I respect is weighed heavier, but I’m generally open to thoughts from anyone. I am, after all, an attention whore.

    Oh, I’m an attention whore too. But “attention” and “input” aren’t the same. One I’m willing to take from anyone; the other, not so much. Does that make me elitist?

  2. I think you’re trying to bulldoze your way through the natural rhythms of learning. There is a time for instruction and a time for practice. I think the reason you’re not finding anything you haven’t already heard on the Internet is because you’ve spent a long time on the instruction part. Now it’s time to put into practice what you’ve learned during that period. Maybe quit reading about writing for a while. Your brain can be so stuffed with other people’s advice that you can’t hear your own voice. You can be so concerned with doing it “right” that you can’t do it at all. Believe me, I know.

    I’m always trying to bulldoze my way through some crap or other in my life. This is a good point I hadn’t even considered. Once again, you school me when I need it. Thanks, hon. :)

    I believe in you. Thanks for the mention. :)

    Pishaw. It’s the trewf.

  3. When do I make the changes? If they’re little changes, I usually just go in and make them immediately. If they’re big, I usually just make a note and wait.

    I guess we’re all sorta this way.

  4. While I’m not a writer and have no interest in BEING a writer, I find Sherri’s advice to be pretty darn good. We share a common trait – if we want to put it out “there” it has to be pretty good because we’re afraid of falling flat on our faces and/or being mocked because it’s not good enough. In other words, perfectionism has reared its ugly head.

    I research pieces that I’d like to create on etsy, Vintaj.com, and other jewelry related sites for hours but rarely set aside time to actually MAKE my creations. I’ve got a lot of great ideas rattling around in my head but none have come to fruition because if I’m going to lay out the cashola for the supplies and expend what little free time I have to actually ASSEMBLE the piece then it’s gotta be pretty damn perfect. I demand nothing less and you do, too.

    True story. I waited until the last minute to create the piece that I wanted to wear at my crazyass birthday party last year (aka Ocho Loco). As a result, I thought it looked sloppy, shittily constructed, and I was almost embarrassed to wear it in front of close to 100 of my family, friends, and business acquaintances because I could see its every stinkin’ flaw. Much to my immense surprise – people LOVED it and a few friends asked me to make them something similar. I was astounded that people liked it so much when I thought it was sheer crap. I ended up making pearl necklaces for my friend’s wedding (her as the bride and all of her bridesmaids). Seriously, to be asked to make a piece that she would wear on such a special occasion and would remember forever through her wedding photos floored me.

    How does that story relate to you? I absolutely LOVED Ghost Hunters. Ask my husband, I read the whole thing almost in one sitting because I was so completely engrossed. Did I notice any adverbs? No. Did I bemoan any lack of punchy sentences? No. I don’t even remember any blatantly obvious typos. YOU see its every flaw and weakness because you created it.

    And now here comes the part where you may hate me for a bit… but I hope you consider it to be ‘tough love.’

    You are so freaking blessed and don’t see it. Many aspiring writers have a full time job with a commute that totally eats up whatever free time that they might use to write. Figure that the average person works 8 hours a day (9 hours if you include lunch), commutes 1/2 hour each way, and averages 7 hours of sleep a night. Right now you’re not tied down with that burden of a job. Sure, you spend a good chunk of your time job hunting, but that still leaves a huge portion of time where you could get those pieces honed to the level you want them. Honestly, I remember you churning out more fiction when you had the commute and were employed. You’re letting this insecurity and “I’m not good enough” attitude stand in the way of your dream.

    You need to dust Ghost Hunters off, edit it, and start shopping it around. Set a timer and only work for 15 minutes a day on it at first. Submit Misty Hollow somewhere – anywhere. Break up your time into measurable chunks: X hours researching publications, X hours doing writing exercises, X hours editing pieces for submission. Consider writing your full time job and it will BECOME your full time job. I know, it’s easier said than done but taking those small steps today will pay off in huge dividends.

    You have such a great supporting cast of characters (Fal, Sherri, Bryce, DZ, me, a few others I’m not familiar with) and we’re not going to lie to you just to stroke your ego. We’ll tell you if a piece stinks or how a certain section needs revised. We’re not going to let you fail. If by some chance you stumble, we’ll be here to get you back on your feet.

    You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and goshdarnit – people like you. Just to let you know, I WILL drive the 404 miles, I WILL spend 6+ hours in the car, and I WILL invest the toll $ into kicking your ass if that’s what it takes to motivate you. Yes, I mapped it – that’s how serious I am.

    You CAN do this. We love you! *hugs*

    *hugs back* God bless you for saying this. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart … and the top. I’ll say nothing more.

  5. Since I’ve been blogging I have worried less and less about the “writerly” aspects of my writing. I used to go over my drafts several times. Now I give them a quick once-over and hit publish. If I had more time I’d work more on the craft. As it is I’m just glad to have a ready audience for my blatherings. And because I’m not writing for a literary audience, no one’s critiquing much anyway. (Although wigsf is always kind enough to point out my typos ;-) )

    Yeah, he’s helpful like that. :)

    I think there’s a freshness in not pouring over the writing in a blog post too much that gives it an appeal to a lot of readers. Blog audiences want something very different than literature audiences, though. So, while blogging scratches the writerly itch most times, it’s not the same kind of discipline. Still, I have to admire your courage! And you’ve got plenty of commentators on your blog to demonstrate how nice it is and how reader-friendly. SO — keep up the good work!

  6. Well, now that my wife has had her say there isn’t much more for me to do other than be the wheel man when she comes to Chi-town.

    You already know how I feel about your work. Just know that if you need me I’ll be here….

    Thanks, Ben. That means a lot to me. :)

  7. My wife is my main trusted reader and I enjoy hearing everyone’s opinions but I have learned ultimately when it comes to the actual story itself (not my lousy ass proofreading) I have to follow my own admittedly strange instincts.

    I think this is true of everyone. All of us are ultimately the final decision-makers about our story, our style, our voice.

    Now admittedly after I spent almost twenty years trying to get stories in print (a lot of them are stories you can find on my pages) I have pretty much given up on seeing someone pay me for my tales.

    So I write for me and my readership of maybe 100- and I enjoy it again.

    That’s the important thing. Gotta like it!

    I have been at the writing thing since 1986 and I can honestly say that even if practice doesn’t make perfect at least it makes you respectable. You have to keep trying and finishing each story that you can even if you start hating it halfway through. Somehow the act of just finishing a story makes you better equipped for the next one.

    So I’ve heard … can’t say from experience though … heh.

    Oh I kinda rambled there, but that’s what I do…

    That’s what I do too.

  8. I’m a mess when it comes to feedback. I want feedback and I don’t. However, I never get angry or dismissive of anyone’s feedback. I either accept it or ignore it. I get annoyed with writers who, when they get a bad review, will say critics don’t know anything. But when they get a good review, they’re happy to accept the awards.

    That’s annoying. I wish I were more like you, and I try to accept/not accept without any judgment on the critic, but I’ve never attacked critics for offering critique.

    I want to be a better writer, but I don’t know who to listen to. Writing books give conflicting advice. I’ll admire two writers and then one goes and says something disparaging about the other’s talent — making me question myself. I love certain books that I’m sure will prove I have no taste and shouldn’t be allowed near paper.

    This IS a problem, not just for you, but for folks like me too. No two writers say exactly the same thing about everything. I try to take the universal advice and see about the rest, but … it’s tough.

    But then I love my own writing and feel like an idiot for doing so. I don’t let my husband read my work because I’m afraid he’ll realize he married a talentless, delusional fool and that he’s been supporting this dream for nothing. But I keep writing anyway.

    Interesting. I couldn’t write — not effectively, anyway — without my wife’s support and input. She’s my first and best reader, my first and best fan. I need her.

    That is all probably too much information and too much drama, but there you go.

    Not at all. And thanks for sharing. I’m glad you’re comfortable with doing that here.

    • Yeah, I know a lot of writers who share their work with their spouses. I know a few who don’t–for various reasons. My husband and I have been married for 13 years and he is good, kind, and supportive. I don’t fully understand why I won’t share with him–but I won’t go to therapy so we may never know. I would add that he would never pick up the kind of stuff I write on his own if it were someone else writing it. He’s a mostly non-fiction kind of guy.

      My wife wouldn’t read my stuff if I weren’t writing it either. She’s NOT into my genre.

      But it is great you share with your wife. Everyone needs a first and best reader–whether it is someone you’re married to or just drink coffee with. Honestly, I’m still working on finding that person.

      I hope you do find them. I know I enjoyed your work, and I know others will too.

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