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On Confidence

I think one of the hardest things, as a writer, is to become confident in what you write. Too often we seek external validation to gain confidence and, when they're missing, it can be hard.  

I don't have an agent. I did but it didn't work out. I don't have someone in my corner telling me I'm great and that they've got my back.

I don't have a huge sales base. I tick along, I do well enough but I'm not sitting at the top of the bestseller lists - nor do I expect to. I'm (mostly) self published, I write (mostly) weird sff set in a small region.

I don't have thousands of reviews (although I probably do have a few hundred, so I'm not complaining) BUT those I do have tend to be on the very good side of the equation. That's an important one, that one - in the absence of other indicators, the fact that people who do read my work like it has been a big validation. And, once in place, that validation can begin the self-confidence process. But, just as external comdemnation shouldn't be what stops our confidence, nor is external praise enough to drive confidence.

Despite my lack of most of the big validation-ticks, I get told, time and again, that I seem to be doing very well. (And, this week, I was told if it wasn't all just as positive as it looked, at least I appeared to be enjoying myself - and I really am. Very much.) One thing I am, though, is much more confident as a writer than a year or two ago.

An exciting thing that happened this week (I'm getting to the link between the two) was that I had a new story out in an anthology called The Last City. ( We had a brief to work to, which was fun but which, at first, I found challenging. My original story idea should have been right up my street, but it didn't work out.

The second did, however. I ended up with a guerilla gardener, a quiet rebel using botany for nefarious acts. I knew, as I was writing it, that I was happy with the story. I knew it was the story I wanted to write, and it was the story I submitted. It's a story I'm pleased with.

There, now. A story I'm pleased with. That's confidence in my writing. The ability to say yes, without external validation (which might or might not come) I like what I have written. It feels like a story I might write - and no one else. Because each writer has their own style, their form, the things that feel right to them. To get to know that feel takes a lot of words: to get confident that it's right takes an awful lot more.

The first book that 'felt' right to me was Sunset Over Abendau. It flowed. But the first book that I submitted for editorial and knew I was absolutely happy with was Abendau's Legacy. I have never entirely been happy with Abendau's Heir and, with Inish Carraig, the final version came out years after I first wrote it and it had grown into one I was confident with. Waters and the Wild, with its twisty corners and turns was a harder book to be sure I had got right - but I have confidence that it told the story I wanted to tell, in the way I liked to tell it.

So, how do you get that confidence? Earn my keep as a blogger, eh?

1. Write until you know how you want to write. Not what - that can change - but how. Do you like to write in various styles? Do you like a lot of description? What feels right to you? (And, on a binary note: read a lot. Know what you enjoy, the type of book that moves you.)

2. Seek validation to gain initial self belief, by all means - but confidence can only be driven from inside. I still have my beta readers, but I have them for a different purpose now. It's not so much to tell me whether or not they like what I'm writing, but whether it works and has clarity when people are reading it. I don't jump on comments the way I used to and go off and change everything. I read the comments, put them to the side and then, later, edit.

Not everyone will like your writing. That's a given. Many years ago, I put a flash fiction piece up on a forum for critique and one person came back with something along the lines of 'I know everyone else likes your stuff, but I don't.' Harsh, dude. My critique partners had a good giggle at that one. Even I smiled at the bluntness of it, the fact it wasn't about anything other than my writing not being a good fit with a reader. Once, perhaps, that would have dented my confidence: now I see it for what it was. Feedback, nothing else. 

Part of this process is about trusting myself. I'll be coming along to tidy things up later. I've written a lot of books now, I know that honing things is part of the process of writing. Just as I trust my past self to have done the best I could, so I trust my future self to know when things are not right.

3. Remove the expectations you have set. When we look at something like Expectancy theory, we see that we set expectations. For instance

If I write a good enough book I'll get an agent and big publisher - well, no. You might, but many good books don't get agents. An agent takes books that will sell a lot. Many books won't. It's not a true expectancy.
If I read lots of books on craft, I'll become a better writer - maybe, maybe not. You'll have a better understanding of how books work and the techniques involved, but that may not equal a better product in the end.
If I write a good enough book, it'll do well - No, no and no. It might. And it might sink because no one can find it.

To give yourself confidence, challenge the beliefs you have in place. Don't assume that carrying out an action - working hard, getting great reviews, having a great query letter, running a brilliant promotion - will have any particular outcome. Carry out the action because you want to do it, not to achieve from it. Write a great query because it gives you the best chance, but don't assume it will deliver. Because one of the killers of confidence is when we don't get what we expect from the work we put in. Because that must mean we failed. Which must mean we're not good enough. (And, to be clear - that's not neccessarily the case. Maybe you weren't lucky enough. Or maybe there's a key aspect not quite what the market needs. Or maybe it's just not your door to open. Or, whisper it, you need to improve your writing skills - which is entirely in your own hands to do, if you want.)

4. Listen to the balance of feedback. Only listening to the good is dangerous but only listening to the bad is a confidence killer. It doesn't take a hundred people telling you your writing is great - it takes one or two, if you allow those voices in. Too often, we take in the bad, allowing self doubt to grow, and ignore the good.

5. Have fun. Look like you're having a blast. Take the opportunities that come your way. For instance, all my short work recently has been for anthologies. All of those were by invitation. I don't have a lot of writing time. I don't have time to write on spec and get rejection after rejection. But when interesting opportunities come up (I have a new antho opportunity on the radar this week and it's an absolute doozy) take them. Take them, get your work out there, and gain confidence from it being in a book, on a shelf, on someone's kindle. Take confidence that it's your story, told in your voice, and it feels right. If it doesn't feel right, change it until it does.

Because that's what writing confidence really is. The knowledge that I wrote this and it's exactly what I hoped it would be. It feels like me. It's one I'd read out loud and be sure I'd read something I'm proud of. And only you can deliver that to yourself. You can take external cues, you can listen and grow from them, but they can't give you the real confidence to say: This is me. Take it or leave it. Love it or hate it. But it's me.


Amanda Evans said…
I love your blog Jo and everything you post makes so much sense. I particularly like this one on confidence and it is only now on my second year of writing that I can see the confidence in my writing slowly creeping in. I do still seek outside validation, but after reading your post, I can see the good in what I've done too. I loved your point about reviews and while I may not be confident enough in what I write, the reviews state otherwise. I'm sharing this post because I think every writer will relate to it whatever stage of their career they are at.