Second guessing

A Writer Faces Self-Doubt

A writer is the most doubting person in the world. No other area that I know if is so filled with uncertainty. Is this project any good? Can it be made better? Will anyone get what I’m trying to do?

There are rules. There are guides to grammar, to structure, to character. But, at the end of the day, the only way a writer can tell if he’s done something worth sharing is to share it. This makes a writer horribly vulnerable – not only to mortifying mockery but also to the extremes of ego. He lives by the judgement of others in a way that very few other fields do (I can think only of other arts) and that can lead to unwarranted cockiness before the inevitable backlash.

Even stranger is the fact that a writer only finds his own voice when he breaks those rules. Mine comes from the way I omit words and write sentences with a word order that’s technically less than optimal. Much of my editing in fact, actually takes the form of removing these tics. Other authors make their reputations by playing with structure and with genre. In the process they create something that’s uniquely ‘them’.

All of which means that no writer is ever sure, when they get words on paper, if what they’ve written is any good. Sure, experience helps – every first-time novelist will think that their first draft is perfect and inviolate. Experience teaches you that that’s only a starting point and most of the work is still to come. It also tells you what you should be looking out for in your own work, if you’ve got your beats in the right place, if the dialogue is to be worked on, if there’s anything you know isn’t quite right.

But it also means that the doubt never quite goes away. You’re never sure you’ve got it right. You constantly second-guess yourself, can’t tell if you’re making substantive improvements or if you’re just tinkering at the margins.

Which is why we need beta-readers. It’s why we need editors, why we need reviews and sales. To tell us that we’ve not been wasting our time, that there is actually something worthwhile in our brains, something that someone else actually enjoys like you do. It’s not about money or status: it’s about the sense of self.

Because when we send that manuscript out to be read we have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not.

Just keep swimming

‘Are you waiting for the world to get it?’ Swervedriver sang on their last album.


The satisfaction writing can provide is amazing. The highs can be tremendous. Just the sheer pleasure of achievement, to have a passage down, locked, ready for the tinkering; it can be a fantastic feeling. But most authors write to be read, and that’s where the fragile nature of our egos is revealed in all its primitive antiglory. We’re like jack russells yapping at your feet, desperate for any scraps of praise that may fall from the table. And should the rolled-up newspaper of criticism come down instead…


This is never felt more keenly then when we’re submitting our work – to publishers, agents, magazines, whatever. We read the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook carefully, draw up our shortlists and check our targets on the internet. We make careful note of just what material they request (and God forbid that you stray even a single character from their demands) and collate it – careful, of course, that not a single typo remains, that we’ve got the date right, that our personal details are present and correct.


And then off the package goes, either in the post (expensive) or via email.


At first, when it vanishes from our sweaty grasp, we are filled with hope and optimism. Of course Publishgasm will love my work. I was made to be with them! See, their website says that their commissioning editor loves {insert genre here} – bingo!


Time passes. Maybe, like me, you’ve sent out a dozen submissions; at any moment, any one could get in touch; an eager phone-call, an email, even a letter. An invitation to meet up at their offices, an expenses-paid lunch. But nothing comes. Nothing. Not even an acknowledgement. Okay, you know the odds are against you. You know – you’ve read all the books on getting published, the writers’ guides, all the advice in the W&AY – you know that the chance of getting a positive result is tiny. But the heart doesn’t. The heart is still full of passions, of songs, of dreams.


But as the days pass, something strange happens. You stop wanting responses to arrive. Instead of the postman bringing good news, you fear his arrival as each day the horrible, incriminating, malevolent package that is your self-addressed envelope might drop on your doormat. Another rejection.


And the email. That’s even worse because you have hope until the very, very last second. The envelope is obvious – as soon as you catch sight of it you know it’s your sample chapters returned with an ultra-brief note telling you that your work isn’t quite right for Publishgasm after all. Email… emails are sneaky. For a start, it’s not always easy to see who they’re from. You sent off your work months ago – can you remember which individual company-person you addressed it to? And it might not be them replying anyway. They have People for that sort of thing.


And the subject line gives you no indication. They just reply to your message, meaning, in my case, that such things are usually titled ‘RE: Night Shift – fiction submission’.


Again, you know that the odds are weighted heavily against you. You know that it’s almost certainly a ‘thanks but no thanks’. But you hope, you hope, you hope. Because you believe in what you’ve done. You believe, and you know that it only takes one person to get what you’re saying, for your work to cross the desk of the right person at the right time and your career’s underway. Because writing’s about being read: the arrogance of us to think that strangers want to read our work.


So why even open the message? Why not just let it sit there? It’ll become Schrödinger’s Email, full of mystery and potential. In fact, isn’t it better for people not to reply so you can keep the beautiful Hope alive?


This, of course, is stupid. I still do it, though, sometimes – wait until I feel I have the mental strength to deal with it.


Because I’m getting rejected a lot at the moment. This is partly because I’m sending in a lot of submissions and I guess partly because these things come in fits and spurts. Most of the time I manage to be philosophical and take what I can from the rejections (you can read a lot into the way an email is worded; my ironic favourite came from a grammar-starved obviously work-experiencing bod). Quite often the commissioner will squeeze in a little almost-compliment to sugar the pill. So far I’ve garnered a ‘not right but we’ll see any more work you have’ and a ‘your work shows intelligence and imagination’. Mostly you’ve got to look pretty hard to find these markers, though. ‘Don’t take this rejection as a reflection on your writing’ and its variants are common.


But they’re still rejections. So how does one cope? Well, you just have to keep going. ‘Keep on swimming’, as my lovely fiancée sang to me recently. Because no matter how many rejections you get, you have to believe that someone out their in publishingland will get you. You have to believe this. And whilst you’re sending out the finely-whittled samples, keep working on new stuff. After all, no-one’s ever said that your work has to be published in the order it’s written.


UPDATE: Just returned from work to find the Envelope of Doom on my hall carpet. Inside was not even a note: the agent had simply written ‘no thanks’ in red pen on the bottom of my covering letter.


Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…