Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 9, 2022

The Winning Attitude of a Successful Writer

by Diana Gabaldon

stick figure person carrying books up staircase leading to success

Writing successfully (meaning that you get words on the page) is largely a matter of understanding how your own brain works, and working with it.

Some of us are linear writers, who find outlines indispensable and (mirabile dictu) normally write a book from Page 1 to The End. Some of us…. umm…. well, we’re not and we don’t, but we do write books anyway, and no one will ever find out how we did it, unless we choose to tell them.

Regardless of the technical details, though, all writers deal with Mind Games.

These are the games your mind plays with you to distract you from working. There’s the “Wait ‘Til I Have a Big Block of Time” game (Pro tip: nobody has time. You make it, or you don’t have any), the “I Feel Like I’m Neglecting my Husband/Family When I Write” (Look, take your husband to bed and wear him out, then get up and write. He won’t mind at all…), and many, many others. But one of the most insidious is the one called “I Feel like a Fraud/Failure.”

Everybody has doubts about their writing (well, most good writers do…). How do you deal with this? Or, since it’s me writing this—how do I deal with it?

Putting on an Attitude

Hmm. Well, I mostly try not to take out frustration on family members. I am kind of a mellow person most of the time, anyway.

But the question of attitude toward the quality of one’s writing... well, let’s see if I can explain that one in any kind of comprehensible way.

It’s not really that I’m automatically pleased with everything I write, no. It’s just that I see it as a work in progress. I’m involved in it, as an ongoing thing. So it doesn’t really matter all that much if the first thing I put on the page looks good or bad—all that matters is that it’s there and I’m working on it. Eventually, it’ll either look all right, or I’ll decide this isn’t the time or place for this bit and go work elsewhere.

I judge the writing, is what I mean—“Nah, too long, not enough action, mmm, too many words, whoops, repetition... move this clause up? No.... drop the whole paragraph to the bottom—decent phrase, but it doesn’t fit here yet. Why did he say that?”—but I don’t think I often judge myself, if that makes any sense.

Nuts and Bolts

See, I’ve been writing for a long time. Not just fiction, but writing in general. I know what a sentence is; I know how to spell; I know how grammar works—and I know I know that. So it’s just a matter of, “Here is the work I’m working on right now; what am I doing with it? Is it as good as I can make it, or is there still something that can be improved?”

I think—having read a lot of messages from a lot of writers—that many people sort of write with their eyes closed.

That is, they pound something down—maybe a lot of something—and then sort of peek through their fingers at what they’ve done. They then emit cries of anguish or outrage at what they see, and proceed to beat themselves about the head and shoulders because what they see isn’t what they hoped for.

Frankly, this seems kind of strange to me, but I know a lot of people do it. I just don’t know why.

If you write something, and it isn’t right, you just mess with it until it is, or until you decide this isn’t the time and place, and do something else for a while. It isn’t personal, I mean.

You are not a Bad Person

I doubt this makes much sense, but that’s about it. It’s a job. An important, challenging, and wildly entertaining job—but a job, not a test of my individual worth as a human being.

It’s not a test of yours, either.

You are not a Bad Person because you want to write a book and feed your children Lunchables so you can have fifteen minutes at the keyboard. You aren’t a Failure because you haven’t found an agent on the first try. You’re not a Fraud because you secretly call yourself a writer—if you put words on a page, you’re a writer; the fine points can wait.

What games does your brain play with you while you are writing?

* * * * * *

About Diana

Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the award-winning, #1 NYT-bestselling OUTLANDER novels, described by Salon magazine as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting ‘Scrooge McDuck’ comics.”

As of January 2022, Diana’s books are published in thirty-eight languages and sold in one hundred and fourteen countries.

Learn more about Diana on her website: DianaGabaldon.com,

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

43 comments on “The Winning Attitude of a Successful Writer”

  1. This is a helpful post. Very. From someone who's been there and got the job done, more than once!

    If I can come at it from a slightly different angle, a would-be-published writer recently asked for help on a writing group social media page. Grammar was disastrous, spelling all over the place.

    I replied with some gentle suggestions about writing courses. I was brushed aside. They had asked for publishing advice!

    So I'd say the craftsperson who really labors over their writing is on the right course. But as this wise post says, let that lead to better writing, not beating yourself up.

  2. Diana- You called out the secret I hadn't acknowledged: "Pound something down, peek through [my] fingers, emit cries of anguish or outrage, and proceed to beat [myself] about the head and shoulders." And now that I recognize it, I can and will change my attitude to mirror yours: "If you write something, and it isn’t right, you just mess with it until it is." It's brilliant. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for the gift of your beautiful books and for sharing your wisdom. I love your thoughts that your writing is a "work in progress" and that success is defined as you're "there and working on it". My journey with writing is more like a roller coaster, where I'm confident and pounding away at the keyboard one day and stuck and avoiding the page the next. Your strategy is much more kind to yourself, more productive and I'm adopting it.

    1. Well, you know what they say, it's a marathon, not a walk in the park... Or does anyone say that?

      Anyway, the best correlation is working out. You try to do at least _some_ exercise/workout stuff every day; you don't stall and procrastinate and tell yourself you'll run sixteen miles tomorrow to make up for it, because you won't.

      I've only had serious writer's block once, and that was when I was attempting to write my doctoral dissertation. I finally succeeded in breaking it by keeping a journal. It wasn't Deep Thoughts or emotional outpouring--it was just a flat description of what I did that day. And I found that if I had to write, "spent the whole day reading Nero Wolfe novels", I felt bad, but if I could write, "Analyzed the Data for Figure 2.14", I felt Good. Simplest kind of reinforcement there is, but it was enough to get me through a 400-page dissertation and result in a Ph.D.

  4. This was such a great help and relief. I can clearly say it was an epiphany. I do write and I do move stuff around. It's a work in progress for a reason. Thank you so much!

  5. Insightful advice, Diana. Your phrase "putting on an attitude" is very helpful. So many of us have trouble accepting and embracing the messiness of the writing process, we just want the words and the story to be perfect from the get-go. It is all about working on it, and making it the story you want it to be.

    One of my challenges while writing is self-doubt and the dread feeling that there is always something wrong with the mystery I'm writing. The way to overcome that is to work on the story as you said, focusing on putting it together so that it works for the reader and fixing any specific gaps in the narrative, plot, characterization etc.

    Thanks so much for this post!

    1. Well, it's natural to identify with your writing; I mean, it's coming OUT of you...But then again, so does a baby, and you aren't disturbed (sleepless, maybe, but not _disturbed_) by the fact that this small blob of humanity doesn't immediately display all the behavior of the 21-year-old they'll sometime be.

      It all takes work. But you _can_ do it. Good luck!

      1. Thank you so much for this post. It must be your wonderfully kind heart that makes you take time out of your own impossibly busy writing schedule to encourage us, the dreamers.

      2. Hi, Diana, this is Sue of the Archives of Outlandish Voices. You may recall me sending you my translation of Catullus I,5, way back when our List was on One List or eGroups. I'm sending the site you shared with OV to my son. He's a creative director (no prefix!) for a pharmaceutical adv company, but has finally begun to write again. I know he will love what you wrote. Thank you.

  6. Thank you for this post, and for your writing wisdom. I needed to hear this today. It isn't personal. I am not a bad person for not getting the perfect sentence/paragraph the first time around. I've been mired in thinking I'm a fraud/failure for a few weeks now. I appreciate you being here and sharing your knowledge. Love your books. Great post!

  7. I love this kind, sane, sustainable, and practical advice. Writing is a thing we do, not who we are--and like any craft, it can always be improved as we learn and grow. Wonderful post.

  8. Great post! I agree that figuring out how your particular brain works is super important. I found I can't outline when it comes to fiction. I'm a pantser and have to write scenes in order because I'm never really sure what comes next.

    I look at my process as using a compass instead of a GPS. I know the general direction I'm heading and where I'd like to end up, but how I'm going to get there is a mystery even to me. Of course, the destination often changes during the trip, but I always end up in a better place when that happens.

    1. Yes, that's much the feeling I have--I sort of know where this is going, but No Idea how we're getting there, or what will happen when we reach the destination...

      1. I learned to do this from you, Diana. I was getting so stuck trying to write in a linear fashion, when I read (or was it saw an interview?) Where you explained your process. What freedom that brought me!

        1. I said a similar thing down below, Nancy. It was SUCH a comfort! Plus, when I was a new mom, I read a blog from Diana about writing with children and how your writing was vitally important too. Man, that was a comfort at that time.

          1. Please, if it is possible to still find this article you are referring to (writing with children), I'm sure I wouldn't be the only person much obliged to have the link to it.

    2. This is my approach too. Good to know I’m not the only one who does this. I hear so many times that you simply *can’t* write without an outline, yet I have never written with one. Seems I’m in good company if that’s how Diana does it too!

      1. The only people who tell you you have to have an outline are the people who use them. Only about half the writers I know do; the rest are variations on the non-linear, scatter-shot, intense-focus, whatever... Both approaches work, provided your own brain finds one of them acceptable.

  9. Hi, I'm Mirabel and I'm half way through a first novel draft. I love the picture at the top. I agree that we need to understand how our brain works. Sometimes I immerse myself in needlework because fabric textures and colours inspired me. I create scenes out of fabric and wool for my characters and then I write.

  10. That was packed with good stuff. I struggle to let things out of my head. I have an unfounded fear about letting that side of me out.

  11. OMG Diana you have to be A.D.D. to keep writing like you do!1 You are Awwwesome! From your TOP Canadian Fan! Carol - Reid - Palmer - Gooch! 😉 You've got me thinking about beginning to write...scarrrry...

  12. This is so straightforward and helpful! I do tend to peek through my fingers a lot Stepping away from the work for even as little as a month helps with that. If I recall less of the moment of outpouring, I can view the editing process more objectively!

  13. Thank you. I love what you said about asking if this is a good as I can get it or if there is something that can be improved.

    I’m at that point right now. First draft done, second draft and edits in process. I have been getting frustrated with myself for not getting it done faster, but I will give myself a break on that as long as I still see there is something that can be improved.

    I read years ago how you don’t write in a linear fashion. That was an epiphany for me and turns out to be just how my mind works. And it made it so fun to just write a scene that I loved, knowing it would fit in somewhere, someday!

  14. I’ve been ‘meaning’ to write my book forever, but it was always so daunting. So I started by writing pieces (2 so far). I shared the first with a group of ladies on Facebook (an Outlander pen pal group who have become sisters to me) and I got a lot of positive feedback. One lady has leukemia, and not much longer. I told her I would make sure that she was a part of my book, so I wrote a piece that was about receiving a letter from her. I hope one day to finish it and dedicate the book to her and the rest of the ladies.
    Thank you for the advice and inspiration.

  15. Diana, do you pretty much produce scenes close to their final form on your first draft and then fine tune them, or do they come as sort of a skeleton on which you hang the flesh on in subsequent drafts?

    1. I don't write in drafts. I write something I can "see"--and then I fiddle with that sentence, while the back of my mind is kicking up compost and asking questions (What time of day is it? Where is the light falling? Is there someone else in the room--who IS that...?, etc., etc., etc.... And I continue to write and fiddle and move things around until either the scene is done, or the sun is coming up and it's time for bed.

  16. I loved your article "Mind Games" from The Outlandish Companion vol. 2. I read it (and translated - I'm Italian) in 2017, and yes, I understood the concept, I found my countless mind-games that we can summarize in two: "I'm not enough skilled" and "I need a large block of time". So, I write short novel, and it works, and I write short true stories for a female magazine, and it works, even if they required more time for interview the protagonist. I need to make the jump, from short to long. Oh, I write in "structure mode": if I don't see all the way in front of me, the path, I can't write. So, my problem is to see a long way, a marathon, instead a little walk around my neighborhood... I think the "mind games" now is "fast satisfaction": if I write short, I finish short and I see a (good) result short. A novel is long path, no satisfaction for years, no results for years, dissatisfaction for years... 🙁
    Thanks for this post too!

  17. My brain plays the game of "you should do it this way." I've mostly conquered that game over time but early in my writing life, I was in critique groups where everyone wrote linearly, one chapter at a time. I cannot write that way (and I have 11 unfinished books to prove it)!

    Once I embraced my scene-writer brain and just allowed the scenes to come and then be refined and stitched together into good structure, I began to finish my stories, and write way more prolifically. But, man those early days were hard.

    Oddly, it was you and Janet Fitch (White Oleander) and Lorna Landvik (Angry Housewives Eating BonBons) who got me through. I read that Fitch wrote White Oleander as a series of short stories that she re-ordered and edited into a book. I read that the original Outlander ideas came in dreams and scenes. I read that Lorna Landvik wrote her scenes and then put them on index cards hung at eye level in her hallway, so she could "walk her story" and visually see where there were gaps or inconsistencies.

    In other words, I learned that there were other writers who needed to write their stories out of order in their early drafts...and I relaxed into my own process. So, THANK YOU. You were a great comfort to my early writing self. 🙂

  18. Thanks Diana. The first time I let someone read something I was working on it felt like my heart was in my throat, wanting honest feedback, but dreading it at the same time. I appreciate the reminder. I have a full-time job and write at lunch, at night and/or weekends, but I have finally decided my job is just what I do, but who I am is a writer.

  19. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us, Diana! You've saved me hours of needless author angst over the years with similar insights. I wonder how many fabulous books have never been published because of author attitude? I know of a few! Mental health awareness for authors is huge.

  20. Your article made me think of personalizations, a type of thinking error in CBT where you jump to the conclusion that something out of your control is a direct reflection of who you are and influences shame about your personhood. I realized that I've been defining much of my self-worth based on how I judge my writing, but this has been a mistake on my part because writing is just a creative action that I do and not a question of what's morally right or wrong (usually!—well, the action itself isn't morally right or wrong; it's just an expression).

    Understanding my own brain and my own writing process has been essential in helping me produce the work that I've been hoping for. I typically write linearly and usually know that this character will end up in this place at the end of this book based on their desires/characteristics/etc., but I rarely if ever know how that happens, and this often changes—I just let the characters do their thing. And I love learning about what inspires other people's writing—for me, it's typically music, emotions, and places in nature, but I'm amazed that someone else who commented said she's inspired by fabric textures and colors. How beautiful!

    Thanks for the words of wisdom, Diana!

  21. overediting and perfecting instead of writing and worrying about editing later is one of my bad habits.

  22. Love this! I, too, am a “pantser” rather than a linear writer. It did my heart so much good way back when I learned that others write that way, too. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom.

    My first novel (under my pen name) has been quite successful. It was so validating to get it out to the world and then have people request more. When they ask me how to do it, I always tell them to find and accept their style, tell the story they’d love to read, listen to their characters (yes, I talk to mine), enjoy the process, seek constructive criticism from successful writers, and give themselves some grace. It takes time. Good characters have lives, not scenes, and often need time to marinate before their story can be fully told. You are their therapist. They’ll share things as you become comfortable with each other and build trust.

    1. “Good characters have lives, not scenes.”
      I think I will hang that on the wall above my desk. SO important to remember!

  23. Hi,Diana.

    Well, my brain (or maybe it's my muse?) is always teasing me, especially when I'm indecisive about a plot, characters or whatever it is that's frustrating me when I'm writing. For instance, I changed the ending of my third novel (it's part of a series) five times, because it didn't 'feel' right. So I played around with it for a while until my 'muse' said, 'Now you have it!' As writers, we all have our own way of doing things, as well as going through our phases of self doubt. And, of course, sometimes life gets in the way, too. But, after reading your post, here, it lifted me, because I could relate to what you had to say, as regards to 'how' you right, and how you deal with those niggling issues, working on them until they 'feel' right. I feel encouraged by it, as this is how I also approach my writing. So, thank you. (I'll raise a dram to you when I'm in Edinburgh next week 🥃💙).

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