A Writer Needs Wisdom More Than Confidence

I’m a member of a number of online writing communities where writers from various genres and backgrounds gather to share successes, talk shop, and sometimes commiserate together about the difficulties that come with our chosen profession. Recently, I saw a post that was a perfect illustration of the last of these topics. A developing writer told the group that she had realized that not only was her first novel not as good as she thought it was, but she now felt trapped in a series that she didn’t have the skill to write. She felt like the bottom had fallen out of her confidence as a writer, and was seriously considering giving it all up.

This writer’s situation was not unique. Over the years, I’ve heard from many of my peers who have also experienced a “crisis of faith” about the quality of their work and whether they should continue writing or not. Of course, my first instinct as a friend was to give encouragement, and that’s certainly what happened to this writer. Within hours of her original post, she’d had more than a dozen replies of sympathy and encouragement from other writers. I hope that she got the emotional boost that she needed to return to her craft, but her situation also got me thinking.

As an independent author, I meet a lot of other self-published writers. Some of them are exceptionally skilled, while others are hard at work on improving their craft. But unfortunately, there are also those who have a distorted self-image about their skills and their work. These are the authors that think their work is better than it really is, and will publish their stories long before they are ready to be seen by the public. These writers don’t have a problem with confidence, they have a problem with overconfidence. They’ve worked so hard to convince themselves that they really do have talent that they have completely silenced their inner critics and convinced themselves that their early drafts are much better than they actually are.

Does this description seem particularly harsh? Of course it does. Writers have a reputation for possessing thin skins, and industry professionals rarely risk making any statement other than “you are special” at workshops and conferences. But the truth is, if the writing isn’t good, then someone will eventually let the writer know. If it isn’t friends and family, then it’s the editor/agent/beta readers. And if it isn’t them, then it’s the readers, who either don’t buy the book or give it one-star reviews. Even if the book becomes wildly successful, public opinion will eventually wear down the hype and show the flawed product for what it really is.

Unfortunately, just as the problem is difficult to address, the solution is not easy. An author must do more than simply educate themselves on the craft of writing. I’ve known longtime conference goers and workshop attendees that have been writing for years and yet still don’t apply the principles that they have learned. Does this mean that they should quit? Of course not. While blind confidence in a writer is a mistake, a wise author knows how to be both confident and objective about their writing.

The key to developing objectivity is to seek out informed, non-invested critiques and feedback. This can be harder than it sounds. While most writers know that their family and close friends will likely be too nice to be useful, the truth is that a lot of writing groups are equally biased, and not always in the author’s favor. In fact, there are some group members that seem to get a perverse pleasure out of tearing down their peers and finding fault where there is none. Neither of these extremes will help the author gain objectivity towards their own work.

As an alternative, an author should consider choosing readers that are fans of the author’s genre and work as opposed to being a fan of the author as a person. These kind of readers will have a working knowledge of what the story should sound like as well as a passion for making the story better. It’s also necessary for the author to find readers that are both honest and comfortable with expressing their views.

One way to get this sort of feedback is by organizing a beta read. Street teams and book clubs are also a great place to find beta readers. I’ve also had success during my test reads by putting some space between my readers and myself, giving them the security to speak their minds without hurting my feelings. This can include getting a third party to moderate the beta read, providing critique forms with specific questions for the reader to answer, and even giving the option to give feedback anonymously.

Another option for quality readers is to seek out the services of a professional editor or writing coach. In this case, it’s best to choose a writing professional that is both familiar with the work’s genre and who is willing to have an open dialogue about the piece, rather than simply correcting what they perceive as being wrong with it. This kind of open discussion is invaluable to an author who wants to really improve their craft, rather than fixate on problems in a single manuscript.

Whatever source an author uses to receive feedback, the most important part of the process will be the authors plan of action based on the feedback that she’s received. The wise author will identify her weaknesses with two purposes in mind. First, to focus on and improve that aspect of her writing. Second, to reduce that element’s frequency in her writing, such as focusing on the action or dialogue in the narrative rather than setting description, or writing in a genre that emphasizes flights of fancy more than relying heavily on historical research.

Put simply, all authors, no matter their level of achievement, should continue to grow and develop in their craft. No author is either too gifted or too challenged to become better.

Should Writers Be Writing Everyday?

This month I’m participating in a daily questionnaire for writers about their craft and work habits. It’s been a lot of fun thus far and I’m making some new friends along the way, but there was one question I wanted to explore a little more deeply.

Recently, we were asked to share the worst advice that we’d received as writers. Many authors immediately said that they hated it when people told them that they should write everyday. They said that this was an unrealistic expectation that just ended up making them feel bad about themselves. I was intrigued by that, especially since I’ve been encouraging my writing students to write everyday for years now.

I understand the feelings of those who are opposed to the idea of daily writing sessions. Life happens, and we shouldn’t punish ourselves for focusing on more important things when they come up. I also understand that some people have writing rituals that require a certain amount of time or preparation that make them impossible to do at the drop of a hat. Still, I’d like a chance to clarify my position on the subject.

I don’t encourage my students to do a full writing session every day. My advice is to get a minimum of 100 words written every day, which usually takes 5 minutes or less for the average writer. Even doing this minimal amount of work will help establish your writing habit, and make it that much easier to take the time for a serious writing session when you have the time. Of course, life can still happen and you could miss the occasional 100 word minimum. That’s fine. But it’s important to make that effort and at least stretch those creative muscles, even if you don’t have time for a full workout.

I’ll end this by acknowledging that writing advice is subjective, and if you’ve found that you’re able to write better by not holding yourself to a daily standard, please keep doing what you’re doing. My hope is to speak to those writers that are still trying to find their own writing process, and to encourage them to lean towards goals and personal accountability, rather than the slippery slope of justification and excuses.

Ten Ways to Handle Writer’s Block

It doesn’t matter if you’re a best-selling author or a first-time writer. Sooner or later, every storyteller will find themselves staring at their computer screen (or notebook) without a single story idea. Here are some ways to break down those mental barriers and get back to the craft of creation that you love.

  1. Change your Mindset

We’re often our own harshest critics. We feed ourselves all sorts of negative self-talk. “Your ideas aren’t any good.” “You are wasting your time.” Make a conscious effort to remove these bad messages and replace them with positive affirmations. “This is just a first draft. I’ll revise it later.” “I set aside this time to write, so that’s what I’ll do.” You might even try saying these affirmations out loud before you write to help train your brain for positivity.

  1. Work on Multiple Projects

When something is hard, it’s natural to want to take a break from it for a while. But rather than walking away from your writing to check out what’s on Netflix, try writing on a different project. It could be another novel, a short story or even a poem. This allows you to continue to exercise your creativity muscles while giving your brain a break from that project that is bothering you. Who knows? You may even find that your secondary project becomes your primary one!

  1. Create a Writing Playlist

Music helps with so many tasks that we do each day, it only makes sense to listen to tunes while writing. Just keep in mind that the wrong music can be a distraction and actually make it harder to get your work done. Try to pick songs that will inspire you without pulling your attention away from what you’re doing. Movie soundtracks work well for this, as do playlists based on songs that make you think of the scene you’re currently working on.

  1. Brainstorm Your Way Through

Sometimes, when it’s hard to decide where to take your story next, it helps to brainstorm all of the potential directions it could go in, however improbable or out-of-character they may be. Take some time to list anything that comes to mind without worrying if it makes any sense. “His hairbrush comes alive and tells him what to do next” could be one idea. “They all turn into weasels” would be another. Give yourself permission to be silly. By relaxing a little and having fun with the problem, it becomes less intimidating and stressful. Eventually, you’ll get the wiggles out of your system and will be able to start brainstorming some real options for what to do next in your story.

  1. Change your Method of Writing

Sometimes a change of surroundings can reset the creativity batteries and bring fresh new ideas. If that’s not possible, try changing the tools you’re using. Whether it’s switching out a laptop for a pencil and paper or a tablet for a typewriter, many writers have found solid results by changing their preferred method of writing, even if it’s only temporary.

  1. Introduce a Recurring Scent

The human mind can be conditioned through stimulating a variety of senses, and one of the strongest is our sense of smell. After all, when was the last time you walked past an aromatic restaurant and suddenly realized you were hungry? Similarly, if you regularly introduce a particular scent into your writing space (stepping into a coffee shop, lighting a scented candle, etc.) you’ll eventually notice that you feel like writing just because there’s a certain fragrance in the air.

  1. Research

If you’re struggling to come up with ideas for your story, you may be suffering from a lack of background information. Ask yourself if learning more about some aspect of your story would help give you more material to work with. If nothing comes immediately to mind, pick something minor out of the scene that you’re currently stuck on, and research that. You may not get anything useful for that specific scene, but there’s a good chance that you’ll learn something new that could give you that creative spark to get things going again.

  1. Dress to Write

Some writers take pride in the fact that they can exercise their craft while still wearing the clothes they slept in the night before. But other artists feel the need to dress for success before the ideas start flowing. You may even consider having a “writing hat” or similar article of clothing that you always wear while working. This has the double benefit of establishing another level of conditioning to train your brain on when it’s time to write, while also sending a visible signal to those around you that you are busy and not to be disturbed.

  1. Short Outlines

If you’re a plotter (a writer that plans a story before writing it) then you already know the benefits of having a roadmap to follow as you work. But even if you prefer to just jump in and see where the story takes you, there is an advantage to sometimes doing partial outlines of your current project. If you’re stuck, try creating an outline of what will immediately follow the current scene. By planning out the next few chapters or scenes, you’ll have a better idea of where you need to get to, and may get an idea of how to connect those dots.

  1. Set Modest Goals

Too often, we choose to measure ourselves against some other person’s yardstick. We hear that a successful author writes 2000 words a day, so we figure that that’s what we have to do. Or we become impatient with ourselves and set an unrealistic deadline that temporarily feels good but inevitably becomes a source of guilt and private shame as we realize that we’ll never achieve it. Instead of filling your mind with negativity, try setting smaller, more conservative goals. This will build your confidence as a generative artist, and give you a better idea of what sort of long-term goals are truly within your reach.

 

Do you have any other techniques that have helped you with writer’s block in the past? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

Top 10 Things a Writing Coach Doesn’t Want to Hear

10. This session didn’t count, right?

9. I’m going to warn you up front that I don’t take criticism well.

8. How many books should I expect to sell in the first week?

7. I’m not looking to hire a writing coach, I just wanted to send my manuscript to you to get your feedback.

6. I never realized how effective semi-colons are.

5. My writing group thinks you’re wrong.

4. How many copies of my book are you planning on buying for your friends?

3. What are your rates for writing college research papers?

2. Can you help me get my fan-fiction into Barnes and Nobles?

1. I’ve got the cover image done, now I just need to write the book.

Can you think of any more? Leave a comment below.

Interviewing Aaron Volner

This week I’m doing something new. My good friend and fellow fantasy author Aaron Volner has just published his first novel, and I’ve invited him to my blog for a little interview. So, without further ado…

Lindsay
Hello Aaron! Welcome to my website. Are you ready for some hard-hitting, no-nonsense questions about your first novel?

Aaron Volner
Absolutely! I can’t promise the answers will be totally nonsense free, but I’m excited to talk about the book! Thanks so much for taking the time and space on your site to talk about it.

Lindsay
Ok, here’s my first question:
True or False – Is your book called Chronicles of the Roc Rider: Book One?

Aaron Volner
True! My book IS called “Chronicles of the Roc Rider: Book One”. Phew! They say the first question is always the hardest.

Lindsay
Perfect. Where did the idea for this story first come from?

Aaron Volner
I’ve always had a fascination with birds of prey, so it naturally followed that I loved the myth of the roc as well. In real world mythology the roc was a legendary elephant hunting bird that supposedly showed up when there were great storms. A while back I realized there weren’t as many rocs in fantasy as I would like and decided to do something about that. I started musing about how rocs would fit into a fantasy world, what their relation to humans would be, and the rest as they say is history.

Lindsay
So it isn’t because you have an irrational dislike for dragons?

Aaron Volner
That depends, does having an irrational dislike for dragons make me eccentric enough to be more marketable? Just kidding. I love dragons too. I’m a sucker for most mythological and fantasy creatures, really.

Lindsay
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Aaron Volner
I really loved writing the relationship between my main human character, Tanin Stormrush, and his roc, Zera. Tanin has suffered a big loss when we first meet him. His wife and his original roc partner have both passed on. Zera is, at this point, the most, in not only, meaningful relationship he has left. Trying to work in moments for Zera to have her own personality and not just be a horse or dog with wings, in ways that would illuminate Tanin as a character, was an invigorating challenge.

Lindsay
How long did it take you to write this book?

Aaron Volner
When I first started writing Roc Rider, I was working on several other big writing projects at the same time. So I made very slow progress for a few years. I finally decided that I needed to get down to just one project, so I could get something finished, and decided on Roc Rider as the project I’d focus on. Once I made that decision it went pretty quickly.

Lindsay
The fact that it says “Book One” in the title seems a subtle hint that there might be more of these. How many are you planning on writing for the series?

Aaron Volner
There will be at least three books in the Roc Rider series. It is possible, depending on how I choose to end the third book, that the series may extend beyond that. I’m not making any promises beyond three though, for now.

Lindsay
When will the next book come out?

Aaron Volner
I’m already working on the second book and my goal is to have it out sometime in 2018. I don’t want to say precisely when yet, but I’m confident we’ll have book two out next year.

Lindsay
Would it come out any sooner if you had 100,000 sales in the first week?

Aaron Volner
I’d like to say yes, that if I got 100,000 sales the first week I’d use the money to build a time machine, travel forward to my future self who’s already written the book, take it back to now and publish it super early. But plans involving time travel rarely work out the way you expect them too. Who knows? I might create a timeline where I never have the fun of writing the book, and that would be terrible! Still, if that many sales do happen the first week I’ll have plenty of motivation to get the book done in a timely fashion.

Lindsay
Do you have any other projects in the works?

Aaron Volner
I have several other novels set in a different fantasy universes that I intend to pursue, including an urban fantasy series set in Wyoming. My next project I intend to finish after Roc Rider is one of the projects I was originally working on alongside it. This one follows a woman bounty hunter, Shara Fordell, who undertakes a job for the emperor, only to find herself enchanted by the object she’s sent to retrieve. Suddenly able to change bodies like the enslaved shape shifters, but unable to control the ability, she’s forced to go on the run or risk being captured. Things get more complicated when a plan is unveiled to resurrect a long-dead god…all they need, is Shara’s blood. I also have a text-based choose your path adventure game I’m working on for my website, although that project hit a technical snag and is currently in development limbo while I decide how to proceed. Interested readers can play a demo of the game on my website.

Lindsay
Last question: If I gave you fifty words or less for some shameless self-promotion, what would you say?

Aaron Volner
If you enjoy Lindsay Schopfer’s books (and really, who doesn’t) you should read mine. If you enjoy my book (and gosh, I hope you do) you should read Lindsay Schopfer’s books. Perhaps not the most shameless self-promotion in the world, but hey, both our books are awesome. So why not?

Lindsay
I won’t complain. Thanks for your time, Aaron, and good luck with your first published novel!

Click here to check out The Roc Rider: Book One

Click here to check out Aaron’s author blog

Some of my Favorite Quotes about Writers

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.
– Richard Bach

A hack is on the constant hunt for ‘ideas’ for his plots or ‘new angles.’ The real writer is haunted by a plot which he must write out of inner necessity. He is impervious to suggestions.
– Edmund Bergler

However great a man’s natural talent may be, the art of writing cannot be learned all at once.
– Jean Jacques Rousseau

Everyone who works in the domain of fiction is a bit crazy. The problem is to render this craziness interesting.
– Francois Truffaut

Any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others.
– Marianne Moore

How can you write if you can’t cry?
-Ring Lardner

Tips for Handling Writer Blindness

Have you become blind to the mistakes in your manuscript? Are you in that limbo of eternal editing without really getting anything done? Here are a few tips to break you out of that ongoing cycle.

Change Your Font, Color, and Text Size

Oftentimes, we become blind to the errors in our stories because we’ve seen this vast collections of sentences so many times that we mentally fill-in what a section should say, rather than actually looking at the words in front of you. One way to deal with this is to make your story harder to read. Changing things like the color of the page or the font will force your brain to focus on the words in front of you and snap you out of that editing reverie.

Listen to Mildly Distracting Music

This can be tricky, as you run the risk of becoming so distracted that you can’t work. But if you can find the right combination of volume level and genre, you can achieve the same kind of results as the previous tip without additional eye strain.

Read it Out Loud

This is an old tip, but it works. Reading your story out loud can help with the flow of the narrative and the believability of the dialogue, among other things. Be careful of reading the story too fast however, as you can run the risk of seeing one thing but saying something else out loud.

Read it Backwards

This method is best for when you’re trying to proofread your own work. If you read the story from back to front, it’s impossible to fall into the natural rhythm of the narrative, keeping you focused only on the words in front of you. I recommend taking it in paragraph-sized chunks, as anything smaller gets really tricky when going backwards.

Get Help

Whether it’s an editor, a beta reader, or just a friend looking over the manuscript, a second set of eyes may be your best way of dealing with your writer blindness. Just don’t rely solely on someone else to find and fix all your mistakes. This is your story, after all, and you should have the final stamp of approval on every line of it.

 

These tips come from part four of my writing course “A Novel in Four Drafts”. If you’re interested in taking this class, registration is currently open to the public through the continuing education program at South Puget Sound Community College. The course begins June 22, so be sure to register soon.

Click here to learn more