The Nervous NovelistJan 10, 2021
Almost 99% of writers exist in a state of some doubt that they’re any good at this writing business. The other 1% aren’t very good at it. Only a fool thinks their writing is much good while they’re mid-novel. Sure, you get flashes, moments, in which a line soars, an insight cuts, or a mysterious space opens up and you think – yup, that’s why I do this. And even, damn that’s good. But mostly one goes to the manuscript word document in a state best described as faintly appalled. Here are some quick fixes to build your confidence as a writer.
First, you’re not alone. Confidence is quite properly an elusive quality for this craft. You’d be useless with too much of it. Confidence and doubt keep the work human and humane, and above all else tender. After all, the novel is the art form singularly concerned with the frailty of the creature that knows God but is no god, that has the appetite of an animal, but is not quite as reliable.
Every writer I know has trouble writing.
We seem to see our novel as the antagonist, there to be the unfair fairy-tale mirror which when we approach it with our tremulous question has a stern riposte. Who is the fairest of them all? Not you, sucker.
But the novel we are writing is not Frankenstein’s monster, grown beyond our control, and we should see it not as a monster but a charmer. It’s ours. We can make it lovely and loving. We should see it less as a sardonic schoolmaster and more as dance partner.
Here are some quick fixes to find yourself in its warm embrace.
The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything... The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.
Ask questions. Insert questions into your chapters and scenes. Think of you, the author, dancing backwards in high heels with your reader. Invite the reader in with questions. This is a canny way of upping the ante on your plot. Can she be sure of him, she wonders. For example. But, is this the right way home?
Bring your doubts to your novel and ask the reader to share the journey. Include questions from your very chapter, and use them to signpost or breadcrumb the route through the novel. At first draft, you’re asking yourself these questions too. From second draft on, they’re there to keep the reader turning the pages.
Some of you will have enjoyed the Black Narcissus adaptation by the BBC of Rumer Godden’s novel. The character’s flaw is fixed fast. (When scoping out your story, for those of you who are averse to plotting, consider this: a main character unsuited to the circumstances in which they find themselves.)
A nun, who is proud, is tested in mystifying circumstances which ask her (and the reader) to reconsider her understanding of religion and spirituality. This is the theme.
The inciting incident (the move of the group of nuns to establish a mission at Mopu) is highlighted by the question raised at outset in the first chapter:
‘But I should like to know,’ said Sister Ruth, ‘why the Brothers went away so soon.’
—Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus
Now, don't be afraid to ask it more than once...
She did not want to answer that question and now Sister Ruth had asked: ‘Why did the Brothers leave so soon?’
—Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus
And don’t be afraid to let the reader know that neither you the author nor the main character as yet has the answer. The first chapter ends humbly thus:
Sister Philippa’s voice seemed to ring on the air, and the clatter of the ponies’ hooves and the creaking of their saddles. They felt curiously abashed and silently followed one another down the path.
—Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus
You see, in a tender honest relationship, one can be oneself and be vulnerable. This could be your relationship with your novel. You don’t have to be confident and ball-busting in this charming space. You can – and perhaps you should – be exposed. Rumer Godden’s chosen setting of the exposed Himalayan mountainside is perfect for her theme.
You can admit your doubts and uncertainties as to how to tell the story and create an immersive mutual enterprise between you and the reader. This works particularly well if you’re using an authorial voice either in first person or third and creates complicity.
Kurt Vonnegut does this to great effect in Slaughterhouse-Five when he admits it has taken him 30 years to work out how to tell this story. The upside of being an open book with your reader is trust, and you can take them into curious and surreal places if you’re this candid with them. This is, perhaps, the ‘reliable’ narrator trope. I’m being honest with you that I’m a little lost here.
I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
You can revel in your lack of confidence and use plenty of self-deprecation when you insert yourself as the storyteller in this way. We see the same approach in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
We see a similar abashed candour of approach with the storytelling of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, ‘I was destined to be unlucky in life’ and perhaps this is what made it, as Dickens attested, the favourite of his novels.
The best treatment you can apply for the condition of lack of confidence is humility. Confess it. Because you are taking the reader deep within yourself, and are at risk of assuming their close knowledge of your life and times, signposting is important. The unfolding of personal biography, dealt with summarily and humbly, is closely followed by Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut takes pains to tell us where we are and flags and explains leaps of time and place. Dickens does the same. Don’t be afraid to NOT be clever, and tell your reader where you are and they are in quite a plain and simple way.
Looking back, as I was saying, into the blank of my infancy, the first objects I can remember as standing out by themselves from a confusion of things, are my mother and Peggotty. What else do I remember? Let me see.
—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
See how straightforward this is? More a ponderous conversation than any vaulting or leaping between metaphors or attempts at genius. Indeed, most best-loved writing is straightforward more than it is obscure.
When we confess and reveal ourselves through the guise of our characters, we find a safe place where both the reader – who like you lacks confidence – and the author is at home with someone who knows how they feel.
It would concern the reader little, perhaps, to know, how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the close of a two-years’ imaginative task; or how an Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever. Yet, I have nothing else to tell; unless, indeed, I were to confess (which might be of less moment still) that no one can ever believe this Narrative, in the reading, more than I have believed it in the writing.
—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Dickens is saying that in no other novel has he been so exposed or at home.
What I am saying to you is it’s okay to be scared. You’re not alone. It’s why we read – and write. ‘Only connect’ as E.M. Forster put it.
It seems to me that the novels which affect us most profoundly have at the heart of the story an injustice visited upon a certain person representative of a segment of society. The classics which we visit on the classic course are the best-loved stories appealing to both adults and children and often the main character is being hard done by, through no fault of their own. This is a little more than a question of being the ‘outsider’, it’s not a matter of choice but of being marginalised by a society which offers no place. The story makes a space in the universe for this person. And these stories say to us: when we reach the end of this story and make space for this person, the world gets a little better. Thus the reader and author embark on a charitable expedition to do the right thing and turning the pages, each opens their hearts and creates room there.
I would ask yourself as a writer: who is being hard done by in this story world?
When you locate the object of your sympathy, you forge an alliance with the goodwill of the reader and make a joint enterprise based on your humanity.
You see, you are not alone in your self-doubts, but when you turn your focus and energies to somebody, a fictional person, in an unenviable situation either marginalised or abhorrent (more often in adult books) your own nervousness and sense of failure, that chill within, are swept away in a current of hope and warmth. By tending to others, you lose yourself and find what you’re looking for. Love, and sympathy.
Lean in to your nerves. Any artist attempting to portray the human condition knows this is the source of our art. In your nerves and self-doubt, you will find us. All of us. Knees-knocking. Don’t dodge your doubt, delve.
To boost your confidence during the writing of your novel we suggest the following little hacks at The Novelry:
- Small achievable word counts daily
- Stay in touch with your novel daily even on the days the words won’t flow. Just pop in. Skipping a day makes the wobbles worse!
- Make contact and connect with other writers who share doubts about their writing too, and know you’re not alone
- Confess the problems and write them down, you’ll tackle them in time (there really isn’t a problem that can’t be fixed, I promise!)
- Don’t share work at first draft. Give yourself time and space to develop your precious work in private before it sees the cold light of day
- Remember no one will see it until YOU the author are ready
- Don’t strive to be wildly original, readers want familiarity more than they want originality. How about a new twist on an old tale?
Our positive coaching method
Before The Novelry, I had a couple of experiences of feedback which were similar – in that both saw what was wrong with my first draft, and only that. This left me – an experienced, published author who might have been more confident – panicked and defeated. I became consumed with doubt and paralysis set in. All they saw were problems; all I saw was a failing writer. The first time I experienced negative feedback, I abandoned the work. The second time I experienced it cost me six months of time and a further – ahem – few misguided drafts of a novel (like throwing darts blindfolded.
Any fool can see what’s wrong with an author’s first draft
There’s no merit in shaming the first draft, it’s not helpful. It’s stupid on the part of the giver. Wholly negative feedback on your novel at first draft is more about the giver than the work. A first draft is not a finished draft and offers many opportunities and story avenues – still open – to pursue.
I decided to put some of my work at later draft stage through The Big Edit feedback session with one of our tutors. The session went like this: that’s good, that’s good, I love that, and – do you need that to make the story work – or is it really about x, this story?
The positive tutoring set my mind buzzing with possibilities, thanks to an ally who could see beyond the trees. I left our session with an elegant streamlined concept, feeling excited, elated and – hell – actually liking myself.
All writers are sensitive. It can be a good thing, it can be a bad thing, but it’s a thing. Naturally, we are susceptible to influence as part of that condition. I am likely to give a lot of weight and credence to what is said to me, particularly when it comes to the work. I am hungry to find my way. As Michael Ondaatje puts it: writers are always looking for the ‘next step’. Just be very careful where you step.
At the heart of The Novelry is our positive coaching method. We offer a collaborative environment, not a competitive environment. We believe all of us, writers at all stages of their careers, are always learning their craft. We work as comrades. No creative writing coach should assume superiority, far better they expose their mistakes and help their fellows learn from where they’ve gone wrong than to dodge the difficult questions or issue divine diktats. We are all up to our necks in words in the early drafts of our novels, half-blind to the storyline. All stories are equal at this point. It takes a working writer to have the humility and sense to know that and to practise gentle, positive care.
We work with you as fellow craftspersons. We bring our experience to bear to guide you by showing you the tools (not rules) to achieve your vision. We want the best for you and your story. And you know what? The mutuality of the enterprise brings rewards to both parties. Our one-to-one sessions with our writers are lively and exciting. We love what we do. Good teachers learn while they’re teaching. (Bad teachers assume a lofty position and leave you to clear up after their ego.)
If someone pours scorn on your early work, they’re either not a writer writing, or it’s them, not you. All early work has a little light burning, it needs life breathed into it, it needs to be coaxed into a story fire.
At The Novelry, we are writers writing. Above all else. All the coaches are writing novels and at work, too, just like you. We will never pooh-pooh your idea, we will help keep it warm and breathe life into it, cherishing the good in it. We will help you grow as a writer and build your skills and confidence so that you get stronger without losing the vulnerability that makes you unique and your work truthful and affecting.
Be who you are, maybe even more so, when you're writing fiction.
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