Insecurity and the Fiction Writer

“My books aren’t good enough.” “My writing is crap.” “I’ll never…”

I’ve thought those kinds of thoughts many times over the years about my writing–before I was published, and even after. I have always struggled with worrying that my writing isn’t good enough, powerful enough, polished enough. Part of that is being a survivor of abuse, having my abusers intentionally go at my self-confidence. But in talking to other writers, I’ve found that part of it is just about being a writer and a creative, sensitive person in our society.

There’s a lot of rejection and criticism involved in the writing business, which I think can increase or at least reinforce insecurity and doubt–and there’s also a lot of vulnerability. As writers, we our baring our soul on the page. We are showing so much of ourselves, and the deeper and more fully we show ourselves–which I believe makes a more powerful book–the more vulnerable and insecure we may feel when others read and react to our work.

Before we first get published, we can receive hundreds upon hundreds of rejections for years before getting that elusive “yes” and a contract. And it can start to wear at our self-confidence; we may worry that our writing isn’t good enough. It’s painful to get rejections over and over again, and it can feel like publishers or agents are saying that not only is our writing not good enough, but that we, as people, aren’t–because there’s so much of us in our writing.

And that’s really hard. We work so hard at our craft, and yet the quality of a novel is so subjective; it’s based on the opinion and life experiences of the reader or editor, and everything that makes that reader respond or react the way they do. It’s not the same as, say, turning out a finished product in a factory, where most people will agree on whether it’s finished or not, its beauty or lack of. Writing technique is important, and polished writing is important, but we all aren’t always going to agree on what is beautiful, moving writing and what is not. So we face repeated rejections as a writer, and that can feed our feelings of insecurity or doubt or not being good enough at our craft. And it takes time to hone our craft. So we work at it, and we improve. And if we’re lucky, we have someone around us remind us that a rejection letter doesn’t necessarily mean that our work isn’t good enough to be published; sometimes it’s just that we haven’t gotten the right fit yet with the right editor or agent at the right time. But it still feels like a rejection–of our work. Of us.

And writers are often very sensitive people, and many also struggle with depression or self doubt or other things that make the repeated rejection even harder. But if writing is part of the fire that makes us feel alive, we keep writing and submitting.

Even after we get a book published, there’s rejection and criticism through reviews of our book. If we put a lot of our heart and soul into our writing, it can be incredibly painful and feel very personal when someone says they don’t like some aspect of our book or the book at all (though sometimes there’s something we can learn from that and take into our future work). I know some writers who don’t read their reviews at all because of how it can affect them. I know that I usually get many, many glowing reviews for my books, but that just one negative review stays with me, cutting into my mind and heart like barbed wire, making me doubt my writing, my talent, my worth as a writer, and it takes a lot of effort for me to get distance–something I am still trying to learn.

And once we’ve got a book contract, before the book comes out into the world, publishers ask us to seek out blurbs–recommendations of that book–from other, more established and well-known authors. Some authors will never respond, some will refuse (which feels like a rejection), and some will be willing to read but not find the book fits for them, while others will like our work and lend their recommendation. But that whole process involves yet more rejection and can feed into our insecurity.

There also seems to be a natural stage that many writers go through in their writing and repeatedly editing a manuscript where we go into doubt and worry that our writing is crap. Maybe when we’ve become too close to the writing, maybe when we’ve gone over it too many times–but many writers seem to go there. For me, that’s a sign that I’m finished editing the manuscript, at least for the moment, and need to put it away for a while or submit it. It’s helped to learn that over many books, and to be able to see it, remind myself of that stage. But I still go to that place: my writing is crap.

And the rejection or possibility for more self-doubt doesn’t stop there. Even after we have a book or books published, it doesn’t mean we automatically get the next one published. We may receive rejections from publishers or editors still. Or we may lose a trusted editor, may have our publisher fold or be absorbed into another publishing house–changes that again can rock our confidence. Or we may not sell as many books as our publisher wants us to, or as we want ourselves to.

It can be hard not to compare ourselves to other writers who we see as doing better than us with their books, or to see the things that other writers do better than us. And yet it’s so important to be able to recognize our own strengths. I know I write with strong emotion and being inside the character well. I write with passion, I write with tension and fear that make great suspense, and I write about the things I care about, the things that move me, the things that I need to speak about. Those are all important to me. I also know that I have to go through my manuscripts every time and look for more ways to ground the characters in their surroundings and settings, add in more body language, more of all the senses, and layer in symbols. But that’s okay; that’s what we do as writers. We go in through our edits and we round out our characters and story worlds to make them the best that we can make them.

Before I was published, I thought that once I had books published the insecurity would fade, that I would feel more confident. And in some ways it has. I know that I’m a Writer, and that I’m making a living through my books; it’s something I’m proud of and feel good about. But even after having five books traditionally published and one self-published, even after several awards and many glowing reviews, I still struggle with insecurity and doubt about my writing. I still worry that it’s not good enough, and I’m still always trying to make it better. I think that last part is actually useful–the trying to always learn more about the writing craft and make our writing more powerful. But the insecurity and doubt is not useful, and can get in the way.

I’m editing a manuscript of mine right now that I deeply care about, and that in some ways exposes me even more than my other books have (and I always put so much of myself into my work). This has me feeling even more vulnerable and insecure about my writing than usual. I’ve been working from a critique of the manuscript from a fellow writer. I trust this writer, but the first three pages of her feedback are all about the things she doesn’t like and that don’t work for her. It is so much harder to work from the negative first (at least for me), and for me it increases my insecurity and starts those old negative messages running through my head. I found myself jumping at her suggestions, thinking I had to do everything she said in the way she said, even though some of it felt wrong for me and for the story I was trying to tell as I worked. There’s a lot right that she said, but some things just don’t fit for me, and I started feeling a bit stuck. So I had to take a step back and remind myself of the same thing I’ve always told other writers when I critique their work: “My feedback is my opinion, it’s subjective. Take what works for you, and ignore the rest.” Once I did that, the writing/editing flowed for me again, though I’m still battling insecurity and doubt.

What I’ve needed to re-remember is to trust my gut in my writing. I know I need to edit and polish my writing; I want it to be the strongest, the most powerful it can be. I want it to move readers, to touch them, to make them feel for and side with and understand my main character and the problems she’s going through. I want to make a good enough living at my writing. And I want to always, always make a positive difference in the world through my books, even as they entertain. But I also have to remember that I am already doing that. I still get reader letters every week telling me how much Scars moved them, or helped them. And that’s something I need to hold on to. Not the doubt or insecurity or negative messages from the past.

I don’t write half-heartedly. I throw myself into my writing, I draw on my emotion and trauma to write, I make myself the character as I write. I pull up what I know and what I care about and weave it into the story. I always edit and re-edit until it sounds and feels right to me. So I have to trust myself. Know that I am speaking my voice through my writing, and am being heard and responded to. Know that I am putting my heart and soul into my writing. Know that I am doing what I can to make positive change into the world, while telling as good and as moving a story as I can.

So. I am going to try to trust in myself and my writing, and the many people that have told me my writing moves them–and I hope you will, too. Trust yourself, trust your writing, and believe in yourself as much as you can.


23 Responses to “Insecurity and the Fiction Writer”

  1. Nelsa Says:

    Great post, Cheryl!! So inspirational.

  2. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Aw, thank you, Nelsa! (hugging you)

  3. Phyllis Towzey Says:

    Wonderful article. I think the writer’s greatest enemy is self-doubt, and avoiding it is much easier said than done.

  4. Jocelyn Shipley Says:

    So true, Cheryl! I really related to what you said about reviews and rejection. I just got a rejection this am, and was obsessing over it, until I saw your post, which helped me put it in perspective. Thanks for taking the time to say in such a caring way what we all feel about our writing.

  5. Lisa M. Cronkhite Says:

    Very insightful. Definitely can relate.

  6. Rebecca Green Gasper Says:

    Very inspirational- thank you! I think it is human nature to question ourselves, to compare, to beat ourselves up…not just with writing but with everything. It is so important to believe, trust, and go for it.

  7. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Phyllis, I agree–it can be very hard to avoid self-doubt. But I do think we can move through it, by trusting our gut, reminding ourselves that most writers go through it, and taking in the positives we do get.

  8. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Jocelyn, I’m sorry you got a rejection–but SO glad that you put it into perspective! I really believe it’s about finding the right editor (or agent) at the right time. I know there’s some stories that will never be quite the right fit for me as a reader that many others love, and some that I absolutely love that some others may not. Very glad if I helped remind you of it! It’s so important. :) And thanks so very much for your lovely comment and for taking the time to let me know.

  9. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Lisa, thank you! It helps to know we’re not alone, doesn’t it? :)

  10. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Rebecca, I agree! And I think as writers we do it even more, especially about our writing. SO important to follow our hearts and write what we need to.

  11. Lisa Says:

    I go through the same things you do. I want you to know I’m here for you. I love your books and one day I hope my work is rated up there by your works. side by side. I love writing and I feel it’s not good enough, and I’m not a writer that has work worth publishing. Keep at it and like you said believe in yourself.

  12. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Thank you, Lisa (smiling at you). That was lovely to read! I think it’s important to not give up, to keep getting your work out there–that’s what I think gets us there. Keeping on writing, editing, reading, and not giving up. I’m glad you love writing, and if you do and you put yourself into your work, then you will likely have something other people will want to read and will relate to.

  13. Joanna (Lazuli Portals Trilogy) Says:

    I can definitely relate, in so many ways. It’s scary and brave putting our souls into our stories, then inviting people to read them. But, as you know, it’s impossible to stop…. ;)

    Thank you for putting yourself out there in this thoughtful post, encouraging and inspiring others.

    Joanna

  14. Margot Finke - author Says:

    Great article Cheryl. I think insecurity goes hand-in-hand with writing. Many writers battle a sense of inadequacy. Thanks for saying it so well and so movingly.

  15. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Thank you, Joanna! (smiling at you) I appreciate your kind words. It’s such a wonderful thing when our books touch others–I think that helps assuage the fear.

  16. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Margot, I agree; I think a lot of writers deal with insecurity. I’m glad you found my post moving; thank you so much for letting me know. :)

  17. Juli Alexander Says:

    Cheryl,

    You are truly amazing. I know what you mean about the insecurity, the kind all writers have. I also know that the more serious pieces of yourself you include, the higher the stakes. I generally write humor because I enjoy escaping from the real.

    I didn’t start writing about serious issues that I have faced until I was 40. Forty years to build up courage. The book isn’t ready yet, but someday it will be. And because of the courage of writers like you, I’ll release it. I know that others can benefit from my experiences with the mental illness of a family member, but it is raw, and the closer fiction gets to the truth, the harder it is to deal with.

  18. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Aw, Juli, thank you (smiling at you). Writing humor sounds like it was a good way to deal with things and still reach people. And I am so proud of you for writing about serious issues, now, too! It does take so much courage, and you’re right–others can benefit from the honesty that you’ll weave into your fiction. I know what you mean about it being raw. Sometimes many revisions of the manuscript help, and taking time away from the manuscript, too. I also find it helps to make it (in your mind) clearly fiction, a story, even though you infuse it with your pain and truths. And to take your time with it, to not send it out until it’s ready. It can be hard going, but it can also be so very rewarding! Good luck with your new book. :)

  19. DT Krippene Says:

    The worst critic ever is the one that resides in ourselves. On the other hand, overconfidence I think, can breed complacency. Being at least a little insecure keeps us honest, and hard working. Now I have to try and believe that myself.

  20. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    Yes, DT–I never want to be overconfident or arrogant! But I think a lot of writers are far over on the other side, struggling with doubt. A little may be okay, but a lot can be painful and even interfere with our work.

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  22. Samantha Clark Says:

    Great post, Cheryl. Trusting ourselves as writers can be so difficult. I also experience everything you talk about. And even when others tell me my writing is good, I still doubt it. But I’ve been working a lot on trusting myself in my revisions the last couple years and it has helped a lot. For my current novel, I’m not letting anyone see it until I’ve done everything I want to do. I usually have critique partners reading sections throughout the first draft and then a full after the first draft, but this time I’m keeping it to myself in an exercise of trusting myself. When I run out of ideas for changes, I’ll let others read it. Trusting ourselves is so important in dealing with every aspect of this business because it does help us to remember that writing is subjective. We’re not accountants or computer programmers where there are specific ways of doing things. We all have our own style and we need to trust that it’s good, even though it won’t work for everyone. Thanks so much for this remember, Cheryl.

  23. Cheryl Rainfield Says:

    I’m glad you’re working on trusting yourself, Samantha! That’s so important, and we each find our own ways to do it. I hope this works for you! And you’re very right–we each have our own style (and unique voice) and that’s not going to work for everyone. But if it’s real, and if we work hard to polish it, i think it’s going to reach many. :)

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