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.

A Favorite Fantasy Monster: Jane Yolen’s Dragons

Today I’m answering a challenge from fellow fantasy author Aaron Volner to write about a favorite creature from the world of fantasy fiction. After giving it some thought, I decided that I would write about the dragons from the YA fantasy series The Pit Dragon Chronicles, by Jane Yolen. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Dragons, Lindsay? What a cop-out. But hear me out.

What They Are
The dragons of Austar IV are the center of that world’s ecosystems, economy, and culture. Originally a prison planet, the descendants of the original guards and convicts have carved out a unique life for themselves by domesticating, breeding, and training dragons. From the stewpots to the fighting arenas, dragons are the lifeblood of this hot, desert world.

A full-grown dragon is roughly the size of an elephant not counting its impressive wings and tail. It Their scales come in a variety of hues ranging from mud brown and mottled yellow to vibrant blood red. While most of these creatures demonstrate bestial levels of intellect, it is said that a trainer can develop an empathetic bond with his dragon. I won’t give any spoilers beyond that, as the exploration of dragons and their unique qualities is one of the central themes of the series.

Why I Love Them
I’ve read plenty of stories about dragons, but for me, Yolen’s dragons are the ones that feel the most real. The series is told from the point of view of Jakkin, a bond-boy whose life up to now has been nothing but sweeping up dusty dragons fewmets and mucking out their massive stalls. This perspective -inspired by familiar domesticated animals including horses, dogs, cats- creates a sense of realism in the mundane habits of these fanciful creatures.

As our understanding of these creatures evolves and changes through the story, we realize that these are more than stock fantasy monsters. In this series, they fill up every page and scene with their powerful scent and heart-stopping roars. If you want to lose yourself in a world of dragons, I highly recommend this series, particularly the first book.

Be sure to check out Aaron’s original post about the Darkhound from the Wheel of Time series, and be sure to check out the next installment from author Connie J. Jasperson.

Rules for the Blog Chain:

1. You must write a blog post about the subject of a favorite fantasy creature of yours and why it’s a favorite.
2. The creature may not be from one of your own books.
3. You must challenge one other author to do the same.
4. You may not pick the same creature as the person who challenged you.
5. You must provide a link back to the post of the person who challenged you, and a link forward to the person you challenged once they publish their post, so people can follow the chain if they want.

My Birthday Wish

Today is my birthday, and for the last few weeks I’ve had people asking me what I want. Honestly, I want what I have. I’m finally a father (twice!), I have a loving family, more good friends than I can count, and I get to work in a field that I love. My life is blessed, and I am so grateful for it.

I suppose if I did want to ask for something more, it would be success as an author. My fan base continues to be loyal but small, and I often wish I could share my stories with more people. With that in mind, this is what I’d like for my birthday.

If you’re still doing your Christmas shopping, please consider giving the gift of one (or more) of my books to a friend or family member. Not only would this be a kind gesture to me, but you’d be sharing great stories with the people that you care about.

If you decide to buy a book of mine for someone this Christmas, please leave a comment below so I can thank you for your wonderful birthday present to me.

Love you all!
Lindsay

Link to all of my books on Amazon

Expressing Gratitude as an Author

With Thanksgiving coming up next week, I’ve been thinking about all of the supportive people that I’m grateful for. They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and I think it must take a whole community to support a writer.

Of course, authors do have some unique ways to express gratitude for special people. Many of our books start with an Acknowledgments page where we list a few specific individuals that were instrumental in seeing the project all the way to publication. We can also dedicate our books to people who have touched our lives in a special way.

Even so, I’m often worried that I’ll forget to mention someone that I’m truly grateful for. I try to compensate for this by thanking groups of people like my beta readers, street team members, and friends. While this may result in someone feeling slighted, my hope is that I can better show my gratitude by the way that I treat my friends and fans on a regular basis. Sure, seeing your name in the front of a published book can be exciting, and having a book dedicated to you can be touching, but isn’t it more meaningful to have a relationship that demonstrates gratitude and appreciation? The kind of relationship that goes beyond the books?

I know that I could probably get more sales and reviews if I hounded my friends for them, but I prefer for my friends to be friends first and fans second. If they do buy a book or write a review, I would want it to be because they either liked the story or wanted to support me in my craft. That’s the sort of fan that I’m truly grateful for, and I want to express my thanks, once again, for all of you that have shared in this wonderful adventure thus far. I couldn’t do it without you.

What Makes a Classic Novel Popular?

There are many novels that we would consider classics. Stories that have outlived their creators and found new readers with each passing generation. But not all classics are what we may consider popular in today’s culture. Many classics seem to live on mainly in schools and universities as required reading in a sort of artificial life-support rather than the healthy independence of a novel that people buy and read because they want to.

Of course, I’m not saying that assigning classic literature in schools is a bad thing. In many cases, it’s the first exposure students have to the kind of writing that challenges them to really think and consider what they’ve read rather than simply seeking to be entertained. But what makes a certain type of classic novel popular? Why are characters like Tarzan, Dracula, and Frodo Baggins still a significant part of our culture decades after they were created?

The simplest answer is that most people have been exposed to these characters outside of their original works. Movies, TV shows, and even video games and graphic novels have turned classic characters into brand names, something familiar that the average consumer feels like he knows and is therefore more willing to spend money on. These days, it’s likely that most consumers are first exposed to classic works of fiction through some medium other than their original work.

However, I believe there’s more to a popular classic’s appeal than its level of exposure. I think it’s safe to say that every classic novel has been adapted to some other medium at one time or another, but that doesn’t make them popular, just recognizable. This is why I believe that a classic book needs more than a move tie-in to make it popular today, and I think it has something to do with the quality of the original source material.

Put simply, I think it’s in the characters. A well-written character can withstand both the test of time as well as any number of adaptations, re-imaginings, and reboots as long as they are equally intriguing and empathetic. A popular classic character is both relatable and interesting, with qualities that remind us of ourselves and motivations that we can understand and care about.

Think of how many different Sherlock Holmes’ we have seen over the years. Many actors have left their own marks on the genius from Baker Street. Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch… they’ve all taken the name of Sherlock upon themselves, and yet the character himself has outlived them all. This is because Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made his detective both nuanced and complex while still leaving enough flexibility within his development for readers to share in the creative process using their own imaginations. As we read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, we create our own version of the detective in our minds, and it’s that level of intimacy that builds a lasting relationship between the reader and the character.

In the end, the popularity of a classic work of fiction is probably a combination of good storytelling, characters that are relatable across different cultures and time periods, and a healthy dose of serendipitous good fortune. My only hope is that we never lose sight of the original works that introduced the world to the stories that we love, and that we continue to go back to these classic books even as we are entertained by the adaptations and reboots that pay homage to the original creator’s genius.

 

Thanks to Derek Schreiber for suggesting this week’s article. Leave a comment below if you enjoyed it or have a suggestion for a future subject.