It’s a little premature to say I’ve mastered my doubt. Unfortunately, one finished first draft does not a career make. But the mental transition I’ve made in the last month has at least given me the confidence that I can conquer my doubts enough to finish a draft.
A month ago, I would have given anything to know how to banish the doubts and just write.
I’m afraid the advice I have may be obvious, and it may be things you’ve heard a hundred times before. In many ways, I’ve heard all this before, too. But somehow, this time, it just worked.
Right now, as I work on a draft of a second novel, I live in a state of anticipation of doubt. I don’t actually feel it yet, I don’t know that I will, but I have been defeated so many times by doubt that I don’t trust my ability to fight it off forever. I felt this way the entire time of my first novel (I just love saying that), so I know that I can continue writing through it.
But as I fear the oncoming doubts, I’m trying to figure out how to fight them.
For me, the first key is to understand them.
- Idea Doubts
In many ways, these are the killer doubts. These are the doubts that make you feel, deep in your bones, that the idea, the story, is bad. I think the main reason I managed to conquer my first novel was that I just didn’t face any strong idea doubts—at least, not until I got far enough into it.
Idea doubts show up strongest before you even start, and they can keep you from starting… ever. Once you manage to get into the draft enough, hopefully, the momentum will keep you going. But I think they could show up at any point, and so I have to figure out how to fight them off.
Idea doubts are the thought that your story is completely unoriginal, that you’ve seen it before, that you could never publish it for fear of plagiarism accusations (which, other than directly copying other peoples’ words, characters, and trademarked elements, is not illegal, I think, but I digress). They’re the thought that you actually don’t like this story. They’re the thought that no one will like it.
For me, the strongest doubt is unoriginality, and the key that made me finally able to write was just… embracing that. I’ll probably do a whole post on it, but all I realized was that I can write anything. I may not be able to publish anything, and people certainly may not like anything, but that shouldn’t stop me from writing anything I want. Once I found this mentality, this willpower to do whatever I want and who cares what people think, the writing flowed.
The other doubts, about people liking your story, can be a part of not caring what people think. The doubt that you wouldn’t like your story is harder to fight off, because it feels like a betrayal of your artistic integrity to write something even you don’t like. But I think you have to trust that something in this idea attracted you to it in the first place, especially if you’ve already done some development work on it. If the idea is barely more than a scribbled note in a notebook, it just might not be for you, and that’s okay—but if you’ve spent time on it, there’s something there. Keep pushing, try to build up more of what you do like (romance, action, emotional dialogue, tragedy, description, etc.), and focus on how this project can help you grow as a writer even if it doesn’t go anywhere.
- Writing Doubts
I think these are the ones everyone talks about in drafting, but once you can get a handle on your mindset, I don’t think they’re as hard to fight off.
Writing doubts are all about the writing itself—the exact words you use. Whether it’s dialogue that’s cliché and boring, plot twists that are obvious, or starting the same sentence the exact same way, you just have to push through it. Keep reminding yourself (every minute if you have to) that you will have revision to come and rewrite everything. Don’t look back if you can help it, and if you can’t, just tell yourself you can’t change even a word.
For me, tiny, deliberate mistakes helped me distance myself from my own writing enough to realize this was a draft. I’ve also thought of trying to write in a font or page view that makes it feel less “official,” or using separate documents to keep from seeing what I’ve already written. I didn’t have to resort to those tactics this time around, so I can’t speak to their effectiveness, but they sound like they might work. 🙂
The difference between idea doubts and writing doubts is this: If you think about your project, and you would still want to write it if you could write it differently, then it’s not the idea you’re doubting—it’s the writing. Even things as big as character and plot are just writing, just words, and they can all be fixed in revision. To a certain extent, a bad idea can be too; it’s all just execution. But if you still like your idea, then you’re dealing with writing doubts.
And you just have to work on distancing yourself from the draft enough to let it be bad. It’s as simple, and difficult, as that. But it can be done.
- Process Doubts
These are the silliest doubts of all, and maybe just mine. They’re not even doubts, not really, just various frustrations and impatience that add up to making me feel a little… off.
Process doubts are all about how you’re writing—how fast, how often, when, where, etc. When you’re worried that it’s not going fast enough, or that you’re tiring out too quickly every day, or that it’s going to be too long or too short… it’s all process. Even pacing, to a certain extent, is about process—when to change scenes, when to stop for the day, etc.
The only basic key is just to keep writing. Even if you miss a day, or several, if you come back to it and just keep at it, you’re fine. For me personally, I wrote the first one in such a blur that I worried about this stuff for absolutely no reason. The second one is going a bit slower—not slow, but slower. I’m just trying to get to it every day, write at least my minimum word count, and above all: don’t stress.
For all the rules of writing you hear about, I think every writer needs to find the process that works for them. Some will write it in one long stretch, most will pick at it a little at a time over months or even years. There’s no right or wrong, only what works for you, and it may take some time to settle into that rhythm. It might even be different with every project.
The only time process doubts get bad enough to actually stop a project is when you let them—when they make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, and so there’s something wrong with the idea itself. For example, I feel a little like my slower pace means I’m more susceptible to doubt, like this idea isn’t as good as my first one. Whether or not the latter is true, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I keep going, as best I can, and I don’t give up. I’m not really close to doing that, and I feel strong and confident, but I can feel the doubts hovering.
Probably a part of the process doubt is simply the fear of doubt itself. For me personally, I’ve seen the strength of doubt to keep me from what I want most in the world, so I don’t take it lightly. I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, but at the same time, I realize the only person who could drop it is me. So all I have to do is hold onto the shoe.
Right now, no problem. But it’s almost like when you’re thinking so much about your hand not getting sweaty that it… gets sweaty. Or you imagine the shoe slipping so often that you’re not sure whether or not it actually is… Yet I’ll take this feeling over doubt any day, because I can still write with it.
And for now, the other doubts seem to be held at bay, mainly using the mentalities described above. I hope they might work for anyone else out there feeling the same.
You can do it!