Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 8, 2017

Living with Writerly Self-Doubt

Revisions have always been my favorite part of the writing process. That’s when my geek side takes over and I color code scenes and lay them out and analyze story threads and add the details that pull everything together. A control freak’s happy place.

When the editorial letter for book 2 came in I was giddy. I ordered new sticky notes in fun colors. I bought a batch of yellow note pads (I edit long hand) and a box of purple pens to go with the purple binders I’ve been using for this story. Then I printed out all 300 pages. I. Was. Ready!

I rocked chapter one and two. Blew through the first 100 pages even with quite a bit of rewriting. The story was coming together.

And then something wicked happened … I lost my confidence. For every change I made, I second guessed the entire manuscript. I worked on one page for an entire week. Five days on one stinking page. I wrote two paragraphs, deleted four. Wrote one paragraph, flipped through 60 pages to quiet a nag and ended up rewriting an entire chapter.

The voices in my head said I’d broken the book. Ruined the story. I was doomed.

So I did what I always do … I got feedback. And the feedback fed my crisis – loved it vs. nope, not working. We’ve all been there, right? But I’ve always been able to weed out the bits and pieces that felt right and move on.

Except this time. I was doo-doo-doomed!

In a fit of desperation, I whined to a writing friend that I was about to make s’mores on the manuscript bonfire. Her advice: “Trust your gut. You didn’t get where you are on accident. You know better than you think you do!” My response: *laugh-crying because scroll back through the previous two paragraphs*

My gut was as fickle as my creativity. And it wasn’t just with writing. I’ve been very busy triple guessing everything. And I do mean everything. Parenting decisions? Yup. Life choices? Of course. What to cook for dinner? Oh dear lord, I’ve got nothing!

Triple guessing is second nature to me. And I’ve had plenty of “this is crap” moments when it came to my writing. But I always managed to write myself back into a happy spot.  

Except this time. What was different? Pretty much everything, actually. That’s helpful, right? Revising on contract, major personal life upsets, a very unsettled political climate, to name a few. My gut was curled up in a corner hugging a stuffed animal, pretending to be in a sunny, remote vacation spot. And as much as I wanted to join my gut in that alternate reality, life and deadlines weren’t going away.

I reread my friend’s advice over and over – “You know better than you think you do!” Maybe she was just blowing hot air up my flannel pjs, but I needed to latch on to something positive so why not this?

First I had to quiet the doubts and there was only one way of doing that … unplug. An awesome writer’s retreat in a soul-refilling location – yeah that. Nope, not that. I unplugged from social media, logged out of email, turned off all news notifications, waved my family off for the day, and spent the next few hours going through my editor’s notes and the manuscript.

And there it was – the story I wanted to tell. Without the distractions of external and internal noise, the story found its way back to the surface.

This is where I give you the lessons-learned and lay out the handy-dandy take away. I wish I could. I wish I could say that I’ve learned what not to do or what to do better in the future. But the truth is, I’ll have another “this is crap, I’m doomed” crisis with the next manuscript or the one after that. Because we’re writers and we do these things to ourselves.

Doubts will always color our manuscripts. Feedback will always be mixed. Every story will have moments of brilliance and hours of despair. When those moments hit, I’ll be looking at this sign and listening to my gut …  

What gets you through those times?

*      *     *     *     *

About Orly

Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world, where she spent roughly sixteen (cough) years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats. She is a co-founder and past president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and a member of the Tall Poppy WritersShe is rep’d by Marlene Stringer, Stringer Literary Agency LLC.

Orly’s debut, The Distance Home, will be released by Forge on May 2, 2017.

You can find her on on Facebook, on Instagram, on Goodreads, or on her website, www.orlykonig.com.


63 comments on “Living with Writerly Self-Doubt”

  1. Thank you for a timely post. I'm in a seriously deep bucket of self-doubt and I've let it derail me. I'm not sure if this post will be the ladder out, but I keep coming back here for more encouragement. Thank you!

    1. It may not be the ladder out, but know that there are others who are offering a hand to help you up. We all go through this, some more than others but I don't believe there's a writer out there who doesn't have some level of this at one point or another. You can do it ... one step at a time!

  2. It hurt me to watch you go through this, Orly. Especially since it happened with my favorite book of yours! But I've been there. It happens to me most in the middle (or, as I call it, The Pit of Despair).

    What helped me was when Fae Rowen reminded me, around the fourth book, 'You know you go through this every time, right?'

    No, I hadn't remembered that. And a light bulb went off. I relaxed, and (kinda) accepted it as part of my process.

    Not that I don't still freak out - I do (and I'm a professional at it by now), but in the back of my mind, I know that sometime (hopefully before the deadline), the plot will magically unroll before me, just as it always has.

    But there's always that nagging voice: "Yeah, it has SO far, but..."

    I hate that voice.

    1. All of us do it at some point. Yours is the middle, mine tends to be closer to the beginning. And we ALWAYS get through it. But man does that crap stink while we're in the middle of it. 🙂

  3. Great post, Orly! Somehow I think self-doubt grows with publication--before I was just writing for me, and now I'm worried about how every chapter, sentence, and word will be received. Nothing to do but keep on plowing through.

    1. That's exactly what Laura and I were talking about the other day. The added pressure is quite a creativity-constipator, isn't it?! Keep on plowing!

  4. My main moments of self-doubt have come after sending MSS to readers or my agent but before their feedback comes back. The constant theme? "Maybe this story is just too complicated." I worry that I have too many threads going or that it's clear in my mind what's going on and why but I've made it too obscure for others.

    Then I try to remember how much a love complex books and movies where there is a lot going on, you don't always have your bearings as a reader or audience, but that's part of why you love it. Specifically, I try to remember Breaking Bad cold opens that Vince Gilligan allowed the audience to wonder about FOR AN ENTIRE SEASON before answering the question of, "What the hell am I looking at here?"

    I also try to remember that if something doesn't make sense, someone will tell me and I'll fix it.

  5. The very last thing I did before opening this email was to close a file that was spun from dreams. As if I needed any more! I'm hip-deep in the first revision of my first novel and it's equals parts pain and satisfaction. A long scene that I sweated blood over two years ago felt bloated and labored and I blew it away by two short paragraphs.

    Revision feels like tearing up and rebuilding a swinging bridge over the gorge to hell while you are on it. Nowhere to go but down, with only a pocketknife. naked. in the dark. The little devils of self doubt swarm and get smacked down and overrun by short, steel braids replacing rotted rope.

    I'm trying to treat the woman who wrote this first draft gently, keeping in mind that this was her circus in the first place, full of wonderful, wounded beasts. It's fallen to me (three years down the road from her) to groom the raggedy, uncover grievous wounds and even put down the terminally miserable with one hand and help birth wonderful new creatures with the other.

    Now that I have that out of my system. Thank you for the timely encouragement.

    1. Wow, Deb ... if your writing voice is anything like your commenting-on-a-blog-post voice, you'd better get that book finished and out there because I want to read more!!!!!!!

  6. Wow. The timing of reading this post couldn't have been more perfect. I'm currently waiting for the last of my beta feedback to come in, and while a number of comments have been helpful (and some of the praise has helped me see the manuscript's strengths), I keep focusing on the negative and the aspects that aren't clear to everyone... And it's giving me anxiety, to the point that I can't think clearly about the story or work on my new project's first draft.

    Obviously I can't focus about how to fix things until everyone's feedback is in and I have a clear overall picture of what needs to be done. So I think all I can do right now is do a different kind of unplugging, where I can focus on taking care of me and cultivating the right mindset for whatever work might lie ahead in future revisions. Your post might not have been about this directly, but it reminded me of it nonetheless. So, thank you.

    1. And keep in mind that while all feedback is equally appreciated, not all feedback is equally appropriate. Take in all the information you receive and then let those comments percolate a bit. A few will ring more true than others. Some may point at a trouble spot but the solution will be totally different from what your readers may offer. And sometimes, you'll flat out disagree. And that's okay, too. Trust your gut that you'll know where your story needs to go (so much easier to tell someone else that!!!!).

  7. "Maybe she was just blowing hot air up my flannel pjs..."

    I can always count on your good humor to pull me through a tough spot, Orly. And so can you. 🙂

  8. Every single manuscript at every writing stage. Doubt is there, the boogie man lurking in the shadows. Your post is timely, as always. I'm in fast first draft mode where my doubt is the worst and I forgot where I placed my self-confidence. It's probably in my purse but I already looked there. Your friend---*cough* Jamie--is wise. We should all listen to her.

    1. I think your confidence is sitting with mine at the tiki bar, Kerry. 🙂

  9. Having just shown the first 250 pages of my WIP to my agent and hearing her say, "Um, no," this post couldn't have come at a better time for me! I'm not revising a finished draft, but I'm trying to tear apart a half-ass draft and make it start putting one foot in front of the other without, um, dragging its ass??? It is KILLING me. I keep thinking, Why aren't I smarter/faster/better at this writing biz, after so many published novels? But the truth is that, like children, every damn book is different, and every one of them is hard to raise at times. Thanks, Orly, for sharing your doubts so that the rest of us won't feel so alone.

    1. And like kids, every time you think you've gotten over one hurdle and it'll be easier from here, they throw something new at you. Yeah ... gotta love em! 🙂

      At the end of the slog, you have a gorgeous book, Holly. Keep going and I'm clearing space on my bookshelf for this next one of yours.

  10. I just finished my substantive edits last night and over the past few days have had similar highs and lows like you mentioned. Breezing along on a chapter here and there, thinking, "wow, I wrote some fabulous stuff. I'm so witty." Then I would crash, coming to chapters that didn't make a bit of sense, chopped and diced up so bad (by me) trying to "fix" it that I started wondering if I should just light the whole dang thing on fire and call my editor, saying our house burned down and could I start the story over?
    Does any writer ever publish a book and look at it thinking, "that is PERFECT!"? I doubt it.

    1. I doubt it, too. And if they do, I hope they'll share their kool-aid cause that's some happy stuff. 🙂

  11. Orly, I love how you expose yourself to all of us. Take off those flannel pajamas and let the breeze blow. No, wait. It's just that your sentiment is so raw and true. It helps to know we're all in this together. Sometimes you're feeling smug and at the top of your game and just as quickly, you're at the bottom wondering where to find a shovel. xoxo

    1. *tightening the knot on my pj bottoms* ... My poor neighbors would not appreciate that! 🙂

      I never had doubts like this when I worked in corporate. The work wasn't personal. Now ... oh wow! And that's why we need writing tribes. Because we're not alone and sometimes you really, REALLY need to know that there are others feeling the same thing.

      Shovel is at the ready any time you need. xoxo

  12. Orly, your ordeal is similar to what happened to me during my last book. My people, too, kept telling me to trust my guts, I know more than I think I do, etc., etc., but it was still difficult to keep my nerve. Then finally, it just popped up in the middle of doing something inane: the solution for three different problems, in one single, manageable change. In the end, it required the rewrite of only 1 1/2 chapters, not the half a book that I feared it would. But before that happened, they were dark days, indeed.

    1. I had to reread your comment, Meg. And I may need to switch to decaf ... kept seeing "popped" as "pooped" - then again, pooped fits the post, doesn't it?! 🙂

      The solution always presents itself in those moments. Same happened here. You'd think by now we would all just automatically switch to doing whatever finance thing(s) trigger the free thinking. But no, we sit and beat our heads on the table first.

  13. Orly, such a good post! And very timely as I'm doing some serious editing and have had those "this is crap" moments. It's a roller-coaster ride. Thanks again for reminding me to hang on and not bail.

    1. And, Lorraine, if you're anything like me, keep a bucket handy on those roller-coaster days. It's a wild ride but worth every dip and skip! 🙂

  14. Going through the same at this very moment with editor's notes, deciding what lines up with the story in my head and what doesn't. (But what the hell do I know?) It's masochistic machinations in a never-ending loop of self doubt and self-praise. I'm with ya, Orly.

  15. This "crisis of doom" happens with every book I write. When the words first pour out, I'm rolling along creatively. Afterward, the act of revising feels contrived, as I struggle to make sense out of page after page of gibberish. Constantly changing our words, trying to find the "perfect ones," that's what exhausts us mentally. Yes, we do know better than we think we do; but it doesn't make the task of rewriting any easier.

    Thanks for posting, Orly. Pinned & shared.

  16. Orly...I wish I could say I enjoy the revision process. But I hate having to 'kill my darlings'. Recently was reading through my WIP to find those spots that needed revision before it went to my beta readers. I commented to one of my writer friends that while reading it I thought 'this sh** ain't half bad'. She very quickly came back with an 'I told you so'. Can't even pat myself on the back without giving myself a black eye at the same time. LOL

    At the moment, I am in that limbo where my beta readers have it. As I was going to sleep the other night, a scene from the WIP suddenly popped in my head. I realized I hadn't tweaked that scene so it would make sense after I had severely changed the scene right before it. Don't know where that enlightenment came from but wished it had gotten to me before I turned it over to my beta readers. But I sent them all an email telling them the writing fairy had visited and pointed out something I needed to change...and that it was a brain fart on the writer's part!!

    I always enjoy your posts, Orly. You are so open and honest about your experiences and it helps me realize we ALL go through these same doubts...publlshed or unpublished.

    1. I loved your comment about the writing fairy coming after you'd sent it to your beta readers. I had a similar experience except when I was going over galleys which meant NO MORE CHANGES. GAHHHH!

      Thanks for reading and your kind words. We all go through the same things ... there's a definitely a comfort in that, isn't there?! 🙂

  17. I am experiencing this right now. I am doubting ever word in my picture book manuscript. I have only one impression to make on the editor waiting to critique it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. I found writing picture books much harder than writing women's fiction. 🙂

  18. Ah, the self doubt. That's where I've been for the majority of the last two years! I do think that sometimes we have too many voices in our head, and are too distracted with what others might want. Unplugging - thanks for the advice. That might be just what I need! Wonderful post!

  19. It'a hard to trust your own instinct when you get mixed feedback, but it's the only way to move on with a book and make peace with it. Thanks, Orly!

    1. Even when the mixed feedback is coming from the various voices in your own head. 🙂

  20. This piece hit home in a HUGE way. I have been working on a massive historical piece for the past five years - wait, more like ten. In between, I work on my fiction and anything else that fills me up. But then the crash came in November . . . Christmas around the corner, family issues, political strife and I just couldn't get a coherent sentence on paper to save my life. That's when I did it! I UNPLUGGED from FB and all other media. I am now starting to get back to my happy place. Sometimes you need that sunny spot in your soul, on a beach somewhere at dawn, where no one can interrupt. Still working at it . . . wish me luck.

    1. Ohhhh ... I want to be on that beach. Sigh ...

      Good luck! You've got this. 🙂

  21. Boy, did this sentence resonate with me - "I worked on one page for an entire week. Five days on one stinking page." Been there done that. Self-doubt is a story killer, but "listening to your gut" a life saver or in this case, story saver. We have to remember, it is our story and no-one can tell it better than we can. Of course, easier to say than do as I revise and revise. LOL. thanks for a great post. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

    1. Right? Yesterday I was chatting with a writing friend, talking her off the crazy ledge. At one point I started laughing because really ... I'm giving her the advice I needed to be reminded of myself a few days before that. 🙂

  22. Orly, I have yet to get to the point where I am revising but after reading your post, I am seriously considering looking for a writing coach to help me through it.

    1. For me, it's revising. For others, it's the writing. I've never used a writing coach so I can't speak directly to that but I know others have and got a lot from the experience. I love my writing buddies and crit partners for keeping me grounded.

  23. Very helpful to read this today at this moment while I am convincing myself to stick with edits in the last three Chapters of my novel. I'd just decided it was doomed and it was time to stop editing and --well-- stop writing and pack it up. Took a deep breath, said it happens to others, and ..... back to edits.

    Thanks so much for your blog post.

    1. Oh boy does it happen to others!! Hang in there and keep editing. 🙂

  24. Love this post. I am new to writing and still building a network and having doubts is part and parcel of the process. There is so much to learn and only so much I can do. I love posts like yours because they lift your spirits.

  25. Timely. Instead of curled up with stuffed animal, it's a full glass of Chardonnay. Yikes, I've been working on one scene for days and it's still crap. I'm losing hope, because it is pivotal to the whole rest of the story. I'm keep your motto in mind and charge back in to it. Thanks.

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