Posts Tagged 'Self-doubt'

Writing to Contract

In late 2009 I signed a two book deal with Viking, Penguin, and I honestly felt like the luckiest little rabbit in the writerly stratosphere. It was the kind of thing I hadn’t even let myself dream about, especially in the years prior where I’d experienced the slew of rejections all writers do. Yet even as I signed the contract I had a nagging voice in the back of my mind wondering about book two – the book they’d contracted based on Squish Rabbit. An undefined book I hadn’t even written yet. But of course this thought was quickly overtaken by everything involved in getting Squish out into the world. And all the excitement. And maybe the champagne.

Flick forward to early this year. Squish Rabbit was but months away from appearing on bookshelves and suddenly my publisher was asking about book two. They wondered whether maybe I’d considered doing another Squish book? Now I had tried to prepare for this moment. I had certainly considered other Squish stories, as he’s so alive to me and I know much about his little life. I had some notes about other possible stories and even some very basic drafts. But nothing I had done really prepared me for my first experience of writing to contract. Cue dramatic music…

Before that point, every story I’d created I had written for myself. Sure, I’d hoped to get published and I certainly had readers in mind, but in real terms I was following my own whims and ideas. No matter how determined or focussed I was in my writing, ultimately I was just chasing around my own muse. And besides the whole ‘not knowing whether I’d ever get published or not’, it was really quite glorious.

Writing to contract was completely different. My first book had a sell-in to bookstores that was encouraging enough for my publisher to ask for a second Squish story. Suddenly I had an editor with hopes and expectations. In fact I had a whole team I’d worked with. What if they didn’t like anything I sent them? If the chances of getting one picture book accepted were so rare, what was the possibility of me writing two they’d love? What if I only had one publishable book in me? What if they began to regret signing me up for two books? Would I have to give back the money? Oh horror of horrors … every iota of self-doubt I’d ever experienced kicked up into a dust storm inside me. So instead of ambling through the creative fields of my mind, I was paralysed. I couldn’t write a word.

Self-doubt always settles in me eventually. And with time, I realised a number of things that helped me push through this:

  1. Always write for yourself first: No matter where the story is going, no matter who it is for, always begin by writing something for yourself. Something that moves you, that pulls at the strings of your mind, that calls to that secret little place where your inner child hides. I honestly believe that if you write something you love, you’re much more likely to write something someone else will too. And besides, editing can come later…
  2. No story is brilliant from the beginning: You have to write crap before your story can get better. I’m sure this is a rule, written somewhere in the vast and dusty annals of ‘The Craft of Writing Awesome’. We can’t help but compare ourselves to all the amazing writers out there, and yet their picture books and novels that we read have often been through years of rewriting. Nothing we write on day dot will ever come close to it. It. Takes. Time
  3. Your publisher is not all seeing: I had this weird and creepy feeling that my editor could see everything I wrote. Every time I tried to write something down, my mind would conjure up how she would respond to it. My poor delightful editor (sorry Tracy!) turned into the voice of my inner writing critic. It was actually a revelation to me that she couldn’t see my first draft! Once I realised this, it freed me up to play again – to try out all sorts of different story options and to toil through many drafts
So I released the pressure valve, took a month or two out to play with story ideas, and finally sent off a manuscript and storyboard to my editor. And the end to this story? She took it to their editorial meeting and the team responded with a delightful ‘We fell in love all over again’ :) Squish’s second story should be on bookshelves late 2012.

The Illustrator who can’t Illustrate

Care to join me while I wallow? The word of the day is Self-Doubt, that wily fog-like creature that creeps in to disrupt all creators’ work. If anyone has a deterrent spray, please let me know…
I’m not sure why, but I’ve never felt particularly confident as an illustrator. There’s something about the process that brings out all my insecurities. Something about putting my work out there that still makes me feel like that ten-year-old who was terrified to show anyone her drawings for fear of rejection. I’m comfortable enough to call myself a writer, but when it comes to the label ‘illustrator’ I’m not always certain I deserve it.
Sound a bit silly for someone who has a picture book coming out next year? Yeah, I know.
It seems to be a cycle I go through. It’s usually triggered when I see other people’s art, especially those who work in different styles to me. I start to worry that I should be able to draw like Shaun Tan or Anne Spudvilas or Aaron Pocock. That unless I can create beautiful, emotional, realistic characters like they do, I’m not a real illustrator. That my own silly, cartoon-like figures just can’t stand up next to their creations. Then I start to worry I’ll be found out to be the fraud that I am – the illustrator who can’t illustrate.
But then the cycle comes around and I realise that I enjoy my own brand of illustrating. That it’s ok to work to my strengths – everyone does. That it’s unreasonable to expect that I could work in every style or that I could illustrate any type of story. Reflecting on this, I now have a song called ‘Clockwork’ stuck in my head, which features a great sample from the ‘Windmills of my Mind’ song. So I’m back at my drawing desk, scribbling and inking in my own silly style, singing:
Life is but a cycle
Round, like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending, nor beginning
On an ever spinning reel
Does anyone else get caught up in a negative spiral?

Training Wheels

Perspective is a funny thing. It twists your viewpoint around, so things you once knew to be true suddenly look very different. I recall many pivotal moments in life when this happened and the world shifted around me into a new shape. And that’s exactly what happened after I signed with my agent and got my first book contract.

Exactly one year ago, before I had either, like many aspiring authors I imagined getting a book contract meant you’d ‘made it’. I looked at published authors with a kind of awe. I imagined them to have answers I didn’t, to know things, to possess a kind of confidence I lacked. I was always surprised to hear when they expressed self-doubt about their work. I’d think: but they’re *insert-name-of-famous/successful-author here*. How could they doubt themselves?

I’m finally where I always wanted to be (and loving it by the way), but the world has shifted around me and suddenly I’ve realised that I’m actually at the very beginning again. It’s like graduating from junior school, feeling incredibly grown up, but then realising that you’re at the bottom of the high school. I still feel uncertain. I still don’t have all the answers. And I still feel just like me – a kind of dorky blonde girl who sits in the back room of her house, playing with words and colours in her PJs.

I may have a book contract, but I feel like I’ve just been handed my first set of training wheels. At first it terrified me – I worried I should have felt more professional and experienced – but I’ve realised it’s actually ok. I’m enjoying learning, figuring things out as I go, listening to more experienced people around me, growing with each step. I’ve recently received my first set of edits from my delightful editor and art director, and they have been so generous with their time and encouragement and feedback.

So I’m using my training wheels, gaining experience with each test ride and slowly learning to coast. Before long I hope to be riding with more confidence, maybe even leaving the safety of the backyard and taking to the roads. Then again, perspective is a fluid and flighty mistress. It’s likely that by then something else will have happened, and the world will have shifted once more…

Editing Roller-Coaster

I’m a logical sort of gal. I don’t like accepting anything ‘just because’. I like to get to the bottom of things – the real reason, the cause, the fault. Why? So I can fix it. I’m like this with writing ups and downs. I’m currently wrangling with the 3rd and final-ish draft of a mid-grade adventure novel and day to day my mood varies widely.

Some days I’m up. I’m positively joyful, loving editing, believing in the story, adoring the characters, daydreaming about this being the next Harry Potter (ok, so I’m never THAT up). I feel like a writer. I feel good at what I do. I feel worthy and productive and like I could do this for the rest of my life.

Other days I’m down. And the downs get pretty deep. I wonder why I’m writing this story when the plot is banal, the characters cliched and the writing woefully unsalvageable. I wonder how on earth I got through two previous drafts without abandoning ship. I daydream about other professions – so when I’m found to be the fraud of a ‘writer’ I am I can make a silent exit. I consider changing my name and skipping town.

The Sherlock in me wants to know the cause of these ups and downs. ‘It’s just a writer thing’ is never enough. So I go through all the possible whys for getting down. It was a chapter that needed more work, so it challenged me more. I got a rejection that day. I had lots of other stressful things on my mind which were the real cause. I needed a day off. I’ve had another story circling my mind, so I couldn’t get into the voice of this one. I had too many e-mails demanding my attention. I had someone asking to see the ms and was feeling the pressure.

So many possible reasons. And you know the conclusion I’ve come to? It’s just a writer thing. Ha (see the humour? Me neither). There’s something about working in creative industries that lead to more self-doubt and ups and downs than other jobs. It’s just the way it is. And although there really are lots of reasons for this, I don’t think there’s a way to fix it. Even in ideal conditions I still get down days. So what can you do?

  1. Accept it: day to day ups and downs are mostly out of your control
  2. Embrace it: gotta love yourself, foibles and all
  3. Give yourself a break: don’t sweat it too much. If it’s a particularly heinous day, take some time off
  4. Bake: scones and cookies will cure what ails you

Sorry. I think that was self therapy more than blogging. If you managed to stick with me to the end then feel free to add your own solutions for dealing with the downs. By the way, is anyone quite as amused by the WordPress snow as I am? Ah, Christmassy happiness.

Waiting

Rabbit - sitCan anyone honestly say they enjoy waiting? I don’t think humans are born with natural fountains of patience. Trouble is, this industry is full of opportunities to test a writer’s patience: waiting for a response to a submission, for replies from agents/editors, for contracts or rejections, for feedback or good news or pigs to start flying.  All this waiting leaves writers with plenty of time to wallow in their own self-doubt and insecurities. Or maybe that’s just me.  Anyway, instead of trying in vain to grow a patience organ, I think instead writers need to become masters of distraction.  Here are my top 6 forms of distraction:

  1. Get out of the house: coffee, a movie, and catching up with friends are all sure fire ways to keep my head from imploding
  2. Watch an old favourite: pull out a DVD that’s sure to make you laugh and cry, nothing too serious, but with a focus on escapism. My current top picks are Pride and Prejudice (BBC version), Mulan (Disney), 10 Things I Hate About You, and Empire Records … please don’t judge me
  3. Baking: my fiance knows that if he comes home to fresh scones, I’ve had a bad day. Baking makes me happy
  4. Gym: adrenalin is good. Running is my drug. Working out also helps to combat the negative side effects of distraction tip number 3…
  5. Taking my pup for a walk: fresh air combined with my puppy’s never ending well of joy in the small things always makes me smile. Also my dog park is full of lovely people who love to talk about dogs and don’t know about my writing, which equals distractions aplenty
  6. Blogging: a great way to feel connected, understood and heard. This is clearly my choice of distraction for the day!

These methods can only be used to overcome short term waiting periods (by which I mean a day or two). If short term waiting turns into long term waiting, then the above methods constitute procrastination. Unfortunately most waiting in this industry is long term, which can only really be battled by jumping into the next writing or illustrating project. No one has said it better than Stephen King: bum in seat, and write the damn book.

But I do allow myself a day or two of distraction. So, now that I’ve finished blogging I’m off to cook some scones. Anyone else have any good tips to share?

Editing Blues

Rabbit - sitThere’s no point in dancing around it – editing is hard work.  And if right now you’re wondering what I’m talking about – if you’re thinking I’m mad and are telling me through your computer screen that editing can be fun – then either you’re in an earlier stage of ‘fun-fiddly’ editing than I’m talking about, you have selective amnesia or you’re a robot.  Take your pick.

The editing I’m talking about is gritty, finger skinning, brain twisting, eye gouging, painfully hard work.  The editing I’m talking about is the part of the writing journey that will test your commitment to the process.  It will make you question why on earth you want to be a writer (and conveniently forget the joy of new ideas and characters that consume you and and all those lovely butterfly things).  This editing will make you question whether you have it in you.  It will push your brain out your ears.  BUT: I guarantee you that every writer, be they new or experienced, has felt this way.  And probably has experienced all these doubts at some point during each and every book they’ve written.

Based on the above rant, you may well have guessed that I’m going through a tough round of edits.  A few weeks ago I received Kate’s assessment on the latest draft of my mentorship novel, and she bravely, patiently and honestly guided me through how to take my novel into its third draft.  My reaction has nothing to do with Kate or the way she approached it – she has been an absolute dream to work with.  She even invited me to bang my head against a wall, saying this is how she often feels at this point in the editing process.  It’s always nice to know you’re not alone.

Luckily I’m sitting on the cusp of the ‘hard work’ mountain.  After some serious time spent world building, pushing all my major and minor characters further, significant reorganising of the plot points, and detailed (scene by scene) analysis of pacing, I’m almost ready to start the rewrite.  For me, this means I’ve just reached the editing summit and am about to start gloriously frolicking down the other side.  The lure of the writing has been the light at the end of my ‘plotting’ tunnel, and it will be so much easier due to the tooth pulling work I’ve just done.

There’s a great guest post over on Rachelle Gardner’s blog talking about this exact process.  It’s called ‘The Hell Formerly Known as Editing’, and Terry Brennan discusses the editorial process he went through after selling his first book.  He’s refreshingly open about just how tough it’s been.  It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, but we all need a little brutal honesty every now and then.

I know most of the time I need to believe that writing is wonderful and exhilarating and a constant source of joy, but if you’re serious about this (and are aiming for publication), this also needs to be balanced by the knowledge that some bits of writing are just plain hard work.  So, protective gloves on, helmet buckled tightly, safety goggles in place, and back into the fray!

7 Stages of Feedback

Rabbit - climbI’m starting to think the stages we go through after receiving feedback on our work is a lot like the seven stages of grieving. I’ve found feedback to be one of the most valuable ways to develop my craft: to see my writing more objectively and make it the best it can be. However the process of receiving feedback can be a bit challenging and at times even a little painful. Especially if it’s the first time we have sent our ‘baby’ (or manuscript) out into the world, when we are still feeling particularly enamoured by its magnificence.

Reactions to such feedback can look a little like this:

  1. Shock or Disbelief: OMG. Look at all those red marks. Every single comment is negative. They hate it. All of it. Not a single thing can be salvaged from my wreckage of a manuscript. And I thought it was ready to send out. Am I that delusional?
  2. Denial: OK, slow down. Maybe they were just having a bad day. That’s it – their boyfriend broke up with them, and they’re taking it out on my manuscript. Or maybe they’re just not into my genre? Maybe they prefer romance – so how could I expect them to understand my gothic steam-punk YA? They clearly just don’t ‘get’ my writing style.
  3. Bargaining: Well, maybe if I just alter this little part in the story, then my whole meaning will be clearer. Maybe if I make this one chapter then the rest can stay as is. Or maybe if I make this character a bit more likable / assertive / witty / intense / muscly they’ll understand my genius and take their comments back?
  4. Guilt: I can’t believe I sent them this dreck. What on earth made me think it was ready to be read? How could I have wasted their time with such a clichéd, flawed, mud-heap of a manuscript? Oh woe…
  5. Anger: I’m so stupid! In fact, the whole world is stupid. Everyone and everything in it. I hate it all.
  6. Depression: My writing sucks. I’ll never make it in this industry. Why bother? I shall never again burden the world with my atrocious writing, be it novel, blog entry, e-mail or shopping list.
  7. Acceptance and Hope: You know, on rereading their comments, they’re really not so bad. In fact, there are an awful lot of positives in there. Hey, I think they actually like it. Sure, there’s a fair bit to fix, but most of that I sort of knew anyway. This person’s actually quite astute. Their comments are spot on. And, with a bit of time, I reckon I can fix it. It might just be the next Harry Potter after all…

Ok, so maybe I hammed it up a little. I’d hope no one’s reactions are quite that extreme, but it can certainly be a tough process. I find my reactions are heightened if the person giving the feedback is within the industry: ie. agent / editor / respected writer, as opposed to my critique group (who I feel more ‘safe’ with). The quicker you embrace the stages you go through, the faster you’ll move through them. I used to wallow for a good week, but now go through stages 1-6 in the first day, and am at stage 7 overnight and ready to tackle the manuscript afresh.

So, I say embrace your neurosis, let yourself grieve any feedback a little, and then run through the writing fields of your mind wild and free and ready to rewrite.

Writing Prayer

Rabbit - balloonA while back, J.A.Konrath published this on his blog.  I’ve always thought of it as a kind of writing prayer, which is best read on those dark days us writers know all too well.  It’s written in his usual brusque style, which always manages to make me smile.

So, little writing minions, repeat after me:

Write.

Even if you have other things to do.

Even if it sucks.

Even though it’s hard.

Even though there are no guarantees.

Even if no one else cares.

Revise.

Even though it’s difficult to be subjective.

Even if you think you got it right the first time.

Even though you hate it.

Even if you’re sure it’s a waste of time.

Submit.

Even if it’s to a small, non-paying publication.

Even if you feel you’re not ready.

Even if you hate rejection.

Even if you know you’ll never be accepted.

Repeat.

You’re a writer. Act like one.

Writerly Esteem

Rabbit - runThis is turning into a regular topic for me.  Clearly it’s something that’s on my mind a lot.  But this time, instead of drowning you with my own ramblings, I’m going to subject you to the (at least slightly) more ordered thoughts of others.

J.A.Conrath has written a typically blithe and cheeky post on writers self-esteem over on his blog, called ‘I’m Better than You‘.  He says:

I’m a much better writer than you are.  Sure, I know that taste is subjective. But if we could wave a magic wand and strip away personal taste and bias, leaving only the raw, core elements of what makes writing good, everyone would know the truth: That I’m the greatest writer to ever live.

But don’t be fooled by his humility.  Just make sure you finish reading the post, otherwise you’ll miss the punch line.  His posts have a wonderful way of making you laugh at yourself, while also being grounded and genuine and giving some of the best advice when it comes to surviving this industry.  His was the first blog I started reading as a new writer, and I still check in regularly.

Then Alan Rinzler, a consulting editor and past therapist, blogged about ‘How successful writers keep up their confidence‘.  He comments that:

The most accomplished and productive writers I work with are able to sustain a level of assurance and optimism. And that’s even when they’re  feeling blocked, burned out, and unappreciated.  It’s admirable and a little amazing they’re able to do this, since there’s so much hard work and delayed gratification in writing a book.

He goes on to list a number of excellent tips on keeping up your confidence, including my personal favourite: Embrace irrational exuberance and obsessive compulsions.  I have this one down pat.  Although I am mildly disappointed he did not include my own favourite method of fighting off the blues (chocolate consumption).

So, now that we have enough self-esteem to inflate a small planet, what are we going to do tonight?  The same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world.  Cue evil laugh.

(And for Non-Pinky and the Brain fans, just ignore me)

Writing Blues

Rabbit - angryI’ve read a few posts about the writing blues of late.  There must be something in the air.  Or the water.  Or maybe it’s all this hot weather (or extreme cold if you’re in the northern hemisphere).  Anyway, it made me realise that the last time I blogged about the ever present writing critic (the little guy* that sits on your shoulder telling you your work isn’t good enough), I didn’t talk much about how I battle him.  In fact, I wasn’t really sure how I did until I consciously thought of doing this post.

I realised I have developed a few methods over the past years in fighting the writing critic (which for me are most relevant when writing the first draft):

  1. Hemmingway: Still my most effective method is throwing Hemmingway’s quote at him (which I did talk about last post).  Hemmingway said that ‘All first drafts are shit’.  So when my writing critic starts having a go at me during a first draft, I use this quote to tame him, ie. I tell him it doesn’t matter if the writing is bad, because it’s just a first draft and can be fixed in the next one.  In the second draft I tell him any problems he’s throwing at me can be fixed in the third, and so on.  I find it shuts him up pretty quickly and allows me to keep writing.
  2. Don’t re-read: When I first start working on a draft, I’m always tempted to go back and read what I wrote the previous day.  Problem with this is that it slows me down long enough for my writing critic to start up.  Re-reading can often awaken my self-doubt and make it harder to start up again.  At most I allow myself to read the last paragraph if I need to reorient myself to the scene.  Once I’m a few thousand words into a draft, the urge to re-read disappears anyway, as I become lost in the flow of the story.
  3. Write fast: This technique I learnt in a workshop with Sarah Armstrong.  Free writing is a technique used by many writers, especially in the first draft, and is basically writing fast enough to override conscious thought and is about just getting the words down on the page.  The great side effect is that you also write too fast for the writing critic to catch-up.  Mine doesn’t have a chance to intrude while I’m free writing.
  4. Daydream: This is something I’ve discovered I cannot do without when aiming to write every day.  And the big benefit – it takes away the fear of the blank screen / page.  Each day, before sitting down to write, I need to have let the story and characters roll around in my head.  This is often while at the gym, cleaning, or in the shower.  Times when your body is engaged, but your mind is left to wander.  It doesn’t always happen automatically – sometimes when really busy I have to make myself consciously think about it, otherwise I just end up thinking about the shopping list or the million other things I need to be doing.  Once you have let the next scene unroll in your head, sitting down to write wont be so frightening and the writing critic is less likely to kick in.  I find the characters have already told me what happens next.
  5. Chocolate: Drown him out with chocolate.  Or peanut butter toast.  Or ice-cream if I’m feeling really naughty.  Mint choc-chip, if you must know.  On second thoughts, this might not really help.  It’s sort of a last resort.  But it sure makes me feel better.

The journey of writing can be tough, but it’s also exciting, exhilarating, liberating and wonderful.  I’m forever learning and I bet in a year’s time I’ll be able to add to this list.  No doubt others have different methods of fighting their critic.  Or a favourite guilty snack.  Care to share?

* By the way, any guys reading this: I’m sorry that I refer to my writing critic as a ‘he’ – mine is a he, but not all of them are!  Nor am I making a comment about men!


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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