As you write, do you ever feel worried about whether your work is really good enough? Are you plagued by self-doubt, and a niggling critic in your head? Do you try to shrug off imposter syndrome but find yourself constantly questioning the value of your words?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, don’t worry – you’re not alone! But it’s important not to give in to these doubts and try to elevate your prose. It’s important to be comfortable with ‘good enough’. And in this blog post, our founder Louise Dean explains why.
The beauty of ‘good enough’
John Steinbeck put it beautifully:
And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.
Many of my beloved writers at The Novelry suffer from a sickness called overachievement – ‘the curse of the capable’.
It’s a condition for which there seems to be no cure. And yet perhaps there is.
Both intelligent and intuitive, overachievers find their way to The Novelry because they have a feeling the cure is inside the story. And they’re right.
As we all know, stories have many therapeutic benefits, either en masse or taken one at a time. We explore the ‘eucatastrophe’, the deliverance from evil described by Tolkien in the Classic Class, and look at the life problems and psychological ills chronicled in fairy tales. A little bit of ‘doctor heal thyself’ is prescribed in our story starter course which asks you to dig deep into your experience and first loved stories to find the seed of the story you need to write.
The temptations of overachievers
Overachievers throw themselves at their novel-writing most diligently when they take our Ninety Day Novel Class, but they don’t dawdle in the shallow end to find out more about the techniques of staying afloat in a novel. They’re on the top diving board fast. I know how it is. My worst writing habit is showing off incorrigibly. I’m the fool on the top diving board. In my opening chapters, I am giving it all my long words and best tricks, and this is why I am a slow and uneconomical writer, because I have to write so many drafts to get the hell over myself, and simply tell the story, and say what I see. But for too long before I get real, it’s all pizzazz contrived to have people craning their necks; it’s ghastly.
The wonderful thing about teaching is, of course, the ability to see your flaws and failings in others and warn them they’re creating trouble for themselves.
Are you an overachiever?
Now, let me tell you about my overachievers so you can work out if any of this applies to you. Then I’m going to give you the cure.
According to psychologist Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, there is a ‘curse of the capable’ which is ‘a complex web of emotions that drives people to hide their genuine needs behind a mask of over-achievement’. He claims people often seek ‘the “quick fix” of over-achievement to compensate for wounded self-esteem... Chronically-overachieving people often don’t realize unrecognized needs are driving them from the healing conditions necessary for fulfilled lives.’ Overachievement is ‘the drive for status to overcome psychological wounds.’
Here are the attributes my overachievers share:
- They’re already proficient as artists, often writing professionally (or at work to a high standard) and have been or are formally involved in the arts
- They’re funny, candid, self-deprecating and to all appearances very relaxed
- Plus they have a day job that’s demanding and a relationship and kids and....(etc.)
- When it comes to their writing, they want to be well-reviewed, well-regarded and they do not want to associate with clichés. They’re looking for a high-concept pitch. Or eight.
The problem with overachieving
Although the elevator pitch lends itself best, being one sentence, to a few words to convey one idea, my overachievers tend to shoehorn several good ideas into it, so that the whole thing sounds lame, apologetic and noisy, and rather a drag. (Clue: one good idea is better than two.) Sometimes, a story about a boy who loves his mother is what we want to read. But overachievers won’t have it. They want everyone to love them, so they conspire to be all things to all people.
But not in any dumbed-down kind of way. Oh no. My overachievers abhor anything corny, so it’s all got to be original death-defying, jaw-dropping stuff.
Thus we have first chapters which pull punch after punch in purple prose.
What overachievers cannot accept is that readers like simplicity and they’re not appalled by cliché at all. One or two can make a person feel quite at home. They don’t mind them, they’re partial to one or two with a cup of tea.
So, why does it never strike the clever overachiever that others also like to feel clever?
Let your readers feel clever, too
The reader likes to feel clever. He or she likes to join the dots and feel good about themselves. The reader doesn’t want to spend a few hours thinking how clever you are, the author, when she could be thinking how clever she is.
It seems to me that successful writers, offering viable commercial novels, know this.
Hey, I say to my writers, that first chapter with 53 big ideas in it, you know you have a few books there (and a life of pent-up self-loathing)? You could roll with just one and let us come into the home of the novel and put our feet up? If you focus on the main character and let us see them – not necessarily being extraordinary, but so that we feel something for them – then you’ve probably done a good job for chapter one.
Slow your roll
There’s no need to rush at it. I see a lot of novels getting written and the writers who do best don’t thresh about in agony, breaking and burning one draft after another, they proceed with prodigious sluggishness. They write – as did Greene and Hemingway – a regular daily 500 words or so using the hours in between to refresh them, and keeping close to a well-considered path. When we get you settled into your story at The Novelry (once we’ve got the premise sold and commercially viable) we put you on a word diet of 500 words a day (in the hour’s writing time) and increase that to 750 after a few weeks. It’s counterintuitive perhaps, but it works.
One of my writers recently produced a thrills-and-spills first chapter – and was very gloomy about it. I said to her, ‘if you want to finish the novel this year, you’re going to have to go more slowly.’
The impulse to overachieve is difficult to satisfy
Overachieving is a condition for which no success can provide a salve. You’ll simply raise the stakes when you get the prize because you’re running from an old hurt, the idea that you’re not good enough, planted somewhere back in childhood when your success seemed to make the people you love love you more obviously. You’re a praise junkie.
It’s a noose around your neck. The more you try to excel, the tighter it seems to get until you feel that you can’t breathe, and it feels just like the very thing you fear most: failure. A lack of oxygen, the obliteration of your meaning and existence; death. You’re dying to succeed.
But the cure is inside the story. So you’re almost home.
Fiction is the cure
The novel is a form which provides the ultimate therapy.
Now, you’re not to apply it neat – you’re not writing a story about you. It won’t work. But you can take the worst parts of yourself, those which you won’t own in daylight and good company, and give them to one of your cast and treat them for it in the story.
A story is a beautiful lie, and the novel pretends that people can change. I am not clever enough to tell you if they can or do. Possibly they can, possibly not. Perhaps that’s why fiction is so necessary; it’s our last best lie.
Your novel takes the thing you fear most, the part kept concealed, and grafts it onto someone not like you, and you the author play God or the doctor and treat it.
What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Every novel is a moral journey which concludes with the patient finding themselves beloved on this earth. Usually humbled, occasionally exalted, sometimes at home, sometimes in a strange place, but they arrive at a place not of genius or outstanding insight, but self-acceptance. The story begins with a character flaw and the journey is one of acceptance if not conquest!
What a tonic for the exhausted overachiever!
So it’s no surprise to me that so many overachievers pitch up at The Novelry. No need for a Twelve-step programme. We need never speak of your affliction, we will give you the promotion you need, rather than the one you want, to being the doctor who cures others. Our online creative writing courses will do the trick, and give you long-lasting relief.
And we will put you on a sensible word plan for healthy writing ever after. Go slow, and be good.
The good news – a happy ending
Performance psychologist John Eliot wrote the book on the subject.
‘Overachievers,’ he insists, ‘don’t think reasonably, sensibly or rationally.’
It’s not rejection that distinguishes achievers from non-achievers, it’s the way they handle failure.
‘They get excited about learning so they can turn weaknesses into strengths.’
Come on in overachievers, we’re ready for you!