So you start working on your outline, or even on your draft, and you’re actually starting… and then something happens.
A doubt hits you. “Well, this isn’t very good.” Or, “this is the best you can do with this idea?” Or, “Maybe we should have started on that other idea instead.” Or, “Are you sure you want to write this?”
For me, this is usually the point where I give up. Another idea looks like it would work better, or I realize that this particular idea is just not going to work, so I change gears and start working on something else. I go back to the beginning—to shaping and refining a new idea, where it is still vague and perfect.
Until that one hits the collapse as well.
But now, in this new venture, I want to stay committed. I want to see a single version of an idea through to a finished draft. I want to break the endless cycle of doubt and restarts that have dominated my creative process for too many years. I want—no, I need—to get on my way to writing.
When the doubts hit you, the first step is to try and figure out where they are coming from. Sometimes, they’re coming from what I call “external” sources—fear of judgment and criticism. If a doubt is in the voice of a reviewer, a blogger, a friend or relative, a teacher, or some other person outside of yourself, then what you’re really afraid of is other people’s opinions. If you’re like me, then you might be so concerned with what other people think that it makes it impossible to tell what you think of the idea, and so “external” doubts become “internal” ones. But if you can trace the doubt back to an external source, you can remind yourself that what other people think really doesn’t matter; that it’s worth writing it anyway, even if it will be judged and ridiculed, because you’re learning and growing as a writer along the way. Spending your creative life catering to the fickle and contradictory whims of others will lead to an unproductive and unsatisfying life, so… don’t.
But sometimes the doubts are coming from inside the house. A lot of the time, you’re doubting how “good” the idea or your development of the idea is. Sometimes, this is just a matter of not developing the idea enough; if the character feels flat, dive in deeper, or if the plot outline feels vague and weak, keep pushing for more concrete details. Other times, you just have to remind yourself that it’s the first draft, and it’s supposed to be terrible, and you can revise everything later.
Internal doubts can also take the shape of vague unease, a sense of foreboding, and even a lack of excitement or motivation to pursue the idea. This sense of “apathy” has been particularly unsettling to me, because it makes me question whether I want to be a writer at all. And when I discovered that every idea hit the same moment of apathy, I really feared that writing was not for me. But as my newest motivated efforts began to hit that wall, I saw it for something else—intimidation. When you’re very early on in the process, and you’re starting to see what the actual story will be, you get a real sense of what you’re in for: that beautifully vague and complete idea in your head now has to be slowly and painstakingly crafted word by word. And all that work intimidates your feeble muse into not wanting to try at all. Better to sit back and stew in the vague, easy phase of inspiration and thought.
Pushing through this moment of intimidation when it feels like a complete lack of motivation can be difficult; I’m still working through it as I write this. All I can say is that you must go back to the source of your motivation, both for this particular idea and for your career as a whole. Look at authors whose careers inspire you, and read writing how-to books that encourage you. Go back to the vague vision of this idea as a complete book, and imagine yourself finding it at a bookstore in the front display with a towering pile of glossy hardcovers (or, better yet, with a “Sold Out” sign). Or if your aspirations are more humble, imagine a reader finding your tiny paperback and falling in love, or finding your eBook and giving it a glowing review, or recommending your fanfiction on Tumblr. Rejuvenate your aspirations and ambitions, while also reminding yourself that no one gets those things without work.
And while this isn’t always easy, try and dig back into why you want to write this idea. What drew you to it in the first place? Was it the characters, or the worldbuilding, or the expansive plot? If something specific in your development has gotten you away from that, or made you question if what you thought you would like can actually turn into that in reality, try and get back to it—but without changing what you’ve developed so far. For example, in one of my projects, I’m questioning my protagonist, my connection to her, and her effectiveness as a character. But going back to find a whole new protagonist will just open up a doubt spiral. So instead, I have to lean into her character, stick with her but try and develop additional qualities that improve my connection to her as well as her strength in the story. When I first invented her in “the vague,” as I call the mysterious abyss of early creativity, what attracted me to her and what made me decide she was the one? Or, if that only brings up more doubt, what would I want in a protagonist instead—but then how can I add that to her?
The difficulty of development is that it’s a process full of choices, and with every choice comes doubt. If every other writer out there just makes decisions and never questions them, then I am alone in this. But for me, the development process is a constant barrage of choices, calculations, and analysis, and with that comes a world of doubts. My answer in the past has always been to answer the doubts with huge changes, up to and including abandoning projects altogether. I’m determined to stop that, and so I must live with the choices I’ve made—but also learn how to develop them further so I can work with their weaknesses while leaving them in place. It’s a balancing act I’m still learning.
Sometimes, you can’t work with the doubts, or they won’t work with you. In that case, you just have to keep going. Develop more details for the idea; add more characters, or another scene, or draw a map of the setting and remind yourself why it interests you. Just keep writing, keep pushing, keep trying.
Writing is work, and that work is not always fun. But it’s worth it.