The following is a chapter from Business for Breakfast, Volume 1: The Beginning Professional Writer.
However, if you’re like most writers (broke!) I will also be posting a chapter a week, so you’ll merely have to have patience to read all twelve chapters.
I’m a fairly confident person. I’ve been teased about being a Towering Mountain™ of self–confidence.
However, I’m also a completely neurotic artist as well as an introvert.
How did I get this self–confidence? I certainly wasn’t born with it. It’s something I worked at.
This chapter is about you, the artist/writer, achieving some level of self–confidence.
When I was in my early thirties, I bought a one–way ticket to Europe. I had no idea when or even if I would return to the United States.
I ended up traveling around the world for three–and–a–half years, working and traveling.
About halfway through the trip, I ended up in Tainan, Taiwan, teaching English at an afterschool cram school.
I had been traveling for almost a year and a half. I had worked on an archaeological dig in Yorkshire, England. I had taught English as a second language in Budapest, Hungary. I had taken the trans–Siberian railroad from Budapest to Moscow, then all the way across Russia to Beijing. I had traveled through China by myself for a month, before making my way to Hong Kong, and then Taiwan.
I had done all of these things, and yet, I was convinced I was a failure.
I didn’t travel like other people. I must have been doing it wrong. I was failing at traveling.
I spent a day out on a pier, sitting over the ocean, having a talk with myself. I compared the reality of what I had done with how I was judging myself.
The two weren’t even on the same planet.
I was not failing at travel. I was not a failure. I was just marching to my own drummer, traveling at my own speed, carving my own path to the mountain. I wasn’t following in anyone else’s footsteps.
And that was okay.
That was when I figured out, and the lesson sank deep into my bones, that the only failure was to not do. To not travel. To not try new things.
To not write.
While I encourage every single one of you to go travel, I don’t believe that you have to go to the extremes that I did to gain more self–confidence.
You need to use the same trick I did, though.
That is, you need to compare the actual reality of what you’re doing to your judgment about it.
Do you write? Do you actually commit words to page?
If so, congratulations! You are now in the top one–and–a–half percentile of all writers.
The majority of people who want to be writers merely talk about it. They plan on writing someday. They’ll get around to it.
Just the fact that you write makes you special. Different.
Do you finish what you write?
That puts you in the top percent of the top percent. There is a large subsection of writers who never finish what they write.
Those two accomplishments, by themselves, should give your self–confidence a boost. You’re doing something amazing, that most people honestly can’t do, and never will.
That makes all the difference in the world.
I can hear you, you know.
Yeah, that’s easy to say. But everything I write is crap!
Writers are the worst judge of their own work. I know New York Times bestsellers who have sold millions of books, who get fans lined up around the block when they do a signing, who firmly believe that everything they write is crap.
Michael Connolly felt he wrote crap. His wife was the one who rescued his first manuscript and sent it off.
You cannot judge your own work.
No. You, the writer, don’t know what you write.
You cannot judge it.
What you need is a good first reader.
Not a critique group.
It’s all about intent.
I can critique anything. I can critique Pulitzer Prize winning novels. I can critique Hugo Award winning short fiction.
The intent of critique is to tear apart. Generally you get critique from other writers. Or from your own inner critic.
A reader’s intent is to enjoy a good story. They won’t care about perfect grammar, they won’t care about metaphors. They certainly won’t attack your work. They just want a good story.
So instead of a critique group, find readers. Preferably readers who read a lot and like to read. (This can be how you bring in your partner, your friends, your coworkers as part of your support network, as mentioned in a previous chapter.)
Readers won’t critique. They might say, “I didn’t believe this guy when he said X.” Or they’ll say, “I couldn’t finish it.” Or maybe they’ll say, “Where’s the next chapter?”
A reader won’t know how to fix something. They can just point out where you may need to fix things.
No, really. You need to be able to show your work to readers.
Why are you writing? It may be that you are writing only for yourself, that you never intend to show your work to others.
If that is the case, that’s awesome. Go you! But you need to own that. You need to declare it to your partner, to your support network.
You need to truly believe that intent, deep down in your bones.
If your intent is to sell your work, you need to be able to show it to readers.
Perhaps the first reader you find isn’t the right one. Not every readers loves every work. Think about yourself as a reader. Do you love Stephen King and buy everything he writes in hardback? Or would you not touch his work with a ten–foot pole?
All readers are like that. They have their own tastes and preferences.
Keep looking. You’ll find a reader. You’ll find your reader. The one who loves your work and always points out the one spot that you knew deep in your bones needed to be fixed. Or perhaps you’ll find several, one for every genre you write in.
You can also train your reader. Ask them leading questions after they’ve read your work. (Never prejudice a reader with things to look for before you hand them your work.) Ask if they believed this character, if they liked the setting here, was it magical enough, did it make sense.
You must believe your reader when she tells you, “This is great! Send it out!”
Sometimes, the hardest thing for a writer to hear is praise.
We know how to work hard. What do you mean, I don’t need to work on this piece anymore? It makes no sense.
Believe your first reader. Believe in yourself. Believe that you can write.
Here are the three things you need to remember about self–confidence:
- Do a reality check. Without the judgment.
- You’re writing and finishing what you write. This sets you far beyond most people who say they want to write.
- Share your work with first readers, not a critique group.