Monday, March 11, 2013

A Matter of Trust

Why is it so hard to trust our instincts in writing? Is it because we secretly believe there is some trick, some fool-proof method to writing that, if only we were privy to it would lead to our certain success, but without it we are doomed?

I question everything. My words, my sentences, my plots, my characters. I find myself wanting to thrust my chapters in others' hands and ask, "Is this okay? Does this work?"

It's been nearly six years since my critique group formed. For a long time we exchanged work every time we finished a chapter. Chapter by chapter, page by page, I worked off feedback. I think really I just needed to hear every few pages someone say, "This is going great!" so I had the confidence to keep moving forward. Because, inevitably, even with all the critiques and comments and correction, that was what my group almost always ends an email with.

Then I went to school and worked with Pete as an advisor and everything was always NOT working. I'd think I'd have something down, I'd send him the 20 pages or so, and he'd email back his extensive comments which I'd always interpret as something along the lines of, "See all that stuff you thought you were doing? It isn't working."

And he was always right.

If I'd left that way, I guess I'd have reason to question my ability to write, but I didn't. By the end, Pete told me I was ready to strike out on my own. That I had the tools and ability I needed to write well. He tried to say I could trust myself on my own.

I didn't believe him.

I've been leaning on people so long, depending on others to tell me what works in my writing and what doesn't, that I've paralyzed myself.

I realized that this weekend when I was re-working the opening chapters of my old novel. After two years of working on that thing, and a year in a drawer, it felt stale and old and tired. I love the idea of it. I love the characters. But the writing just wasn't me anymore, so I began with a blank document. And what ended up on the page was first person present tense.


I'd written this in third person past before, kept it that way, for a very specific reason. This book was too personal - too close. There are some nasty things that happen to the character, awful things she sees, and I, as the author, needed distance. I needed to not be in those dark places with her.

But now - I can see the piece is better for being in her words rather than mine. Seeing it through her eyes makes it more powerful.

But as the words spilled out, all I could think was how first person present is the kiss of death for writing. How many contests I've seen that complain about the over-use of it. How some agents have said flat out they hate it, won't look at queries for stories written that way. And the flood of doubts came back.

I thought about emailing my critique group. But I knew what they'd say: "Go for it!" They are adventurous and supportive that way. And they implicitly trust that I can pull off anything.

I thought about emailing Pete, but that felt weak. Like returning to an old crutch. I googled the topic, found out there are a huge amount of great books out there, including Hunger Games, are written that way. I'd totally not noticed that was in first person present.

I thought about emailing Pete again. Pete is brutally honest, and I knew if he thought it was a bad idea, he'd say, "Stay away from that," the way he's told me to stay away from writing about dead babies for a while. And if he said, "Go ahead, be bold and try the scary way," I'd trust him that it was okay.

I am pathetic.

The only thing that saves me from being the most insecure writer in the world is that I didn't actually email anyone. I finally said to myself, "Heidi, you are pathetic. You've been writing your whole life. You went to graduate school for two years. You have a pack of people behind you that you KNOW would say you can do this. You know that many, many books get published and are wildly successful in first person present. You are not doing it because it's a trend or because it's easy; you are doing it because it's what the story needs, despite all your insistence otherwise. You need to stop asking everyone's opinions and just trust yourself. Just write."

This isn't to say I won't have other eyes look at it when I'm done. I'd be a fool not to have my critique group read it. But I realized this weekend I need to stop expecting someone to hold my hand through the process, encourage me along the way. I need to just do it. Trust that I've gained enough experience and wise advice along the way to just write.

Am I the only one? Do you have others read what you write as you write, or do you save it all up until you're done?


  1. I think I'm really narcissistic about my writing. I CRAVE that feedback, people telling me what a good job I did. I'm certain I would have given up on this writing dream long ago it it wasn't for my critique group because I know my stuff will be read at least once a month. That it will have an audience, even if that audience is only 6 people. It's enough.

    "all I could think was how first person present is the kiss of death for writing." Yeah, when I read this sentence in my mind I was shouting "HUNGER GAMES!!!". :)

    I don't know why we doubt ourselves. Could part of it also be that whole modesty thing we learn at an early age? We can't brag about ourselves too much, we aren't that great. Think that stuff enough and it sinks in.

    Paul (

    1. I don't think it's narcissistic. I think there are stages where we need that just to keep writing. And I like what you said, about needing an audience, even if it's only the few people in your critique group. That is so true!

      I think a lot of the doubt stems from rejections. This business has such a high rate of rejection, I think I'm constantly worried that any decision I make in writing will earn me an instant move from slush pile to garbage can. :)

  2. I still need help--comments, fellowship, reading a lot, my dog in the room--but increasingly I don't need what I guess I'd call existential help--someone to tell me it's okay to take up space on the planet and write about what that feels like. Others can only hint at making that transition anyway. We have to cross over on our own. I think it's especially hard for mothers. We're hardwired to help other people thrive.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. I'm with you as far as needing help. I certainly need to keep reading and thinking critically about writing, and getting comments at the right time. My worry is needing someone to hold my hand through it, to assure me at every step that I am making the right choices, or tell me I'm not.

      The solution, maybe, is to know there is no completely right answer. Even if my critique group loves something is no guarantee an agent would, and if Pete hates the first person is no guarantee a readership also would. I need to be confident enough in what I think to be good for the story.

  3. You are definitely not the only one. I question every sentence so badly that it's almost paralyzing. It's terrible. And I know what you mean about first person present. I wrote a book that's first person present for MG and was so insecure about. Had people tell it was a bad idea, so I tried to change it, but I hated it. But unlike you, I did email someone. I emailed an agent and her answer was, as long as its a good story she didn't care what tense it was in.

    I hope to someday learn to trust myself more, I think that's when I'll feel like I've made it.

    1. Paralyzing is exactly the word.

      An agent is a good person to take advice from. And I keep telling myself the same thing... that the technique I choose is much less important than how good the story is.

      I don't think any of us feel like we've made it - and that's from the mouths of some of our highest awarded faculty.

  4. No, you're not the only one. Wanting encouragement along the way is natural. Learning to need it less is something that seems to come with time--at least from what I've observed in some writer friends I've known over the years. It seems to start with taking one's self in hand. Honestly, fear is often a sign that we care deeply about a project, a reflection of love and wanting the best for the project.

    1. Wise words, Laurel!

      Although I have to say I've seen very incompetent writers who think they know it all, and very accomplished writers who humbly admit they still are sort of just faking it.

      Maybe it just boils down to there really not being any one right way to write, or one kind of reader.

  5. Oh, the hours of sleep I've lost second-guessing my work!

    Since I'm writing fantasy, I joined an online critique group (O.W.W.) and have received great feedback. That doesn't mean all raves, all the time, it means other writers who care enough to be honest about what works and what doesn't--which is, of course, what I expect. I appreciate the encouragement I've gotten and, frankly, don't think I'll ever be at a point where some kind of external validation isn't helpful.

    1. If I could put all the time I've used up second-guessing into actually writing, I'd have so many more books written by now!

      Sounds like you have a great critique group. Mine is fantastic as well - always very honest, but also encouraging. I think I just need to go for longer chunks before I ask for those other eyes. I've found I lose my own vision and voice when I let others have their say too often.

      Thanks for your thoughts, and good luck on the book!

  6. After a year of drafting and another year of editing (see what we can BOTH accomplish in two years?) I finally sent my book to two friends. They are the first to read it, if you don't count a few pages read by my mom and husband. I think I'm just a different kind of insecure, like I don't want somebody to come over when my toilets are dirty.

    1. Ha!! I do a marathon scrubbing of toilets when my doorbell rings. :)

      See, though? You finished your book first, and I think maybe that's the way I should be going right now. Not just for me, but for the sanity of those who read it. They don't need to see my insecurities showing through fifteen drafts of my first chapter. :) Congrats on drafting and editing and getting yours out!!

  7. I, so far, have only been able to write my stories/books in first person, present tense. And not because I think it's in vogue, but because that's what the story demands. I am early on and so don't really have a "critique group" yet, just one or two people I trust. I want to want feedback because that's how stories and books get better, and not because I have this need to feel validated in my writing.

    The thing that surprises me the most about writing is that the story unfolds itself in its own way, sometimes not at all how I planned it. This really excites me.

    1. I think one or two people are all you need. Even in my critique group, sometimes only one or two people have time to read a chunk of work, so having a group of six of us gives us all a little lee-way to say, "I'm really busy this week."

      I'm in total agreement that the way a story unfolds on it's own is the best surprise of writing. I think that's one reason why I need to hold back letting others read for a while... because I learn what the story is about as I write, and as such, that first few chapters will inevitably change on edits and rewrites.