Life During Wartime: Coping (and Not Coping) with Confidence Issues as a Writer

Five years ago, I got an agent.  It was a wonderful thing to happen, and wonderful in the way it almost happened by accident – a process I’d imagined was going to be long and laborious and probably go on for months ended up taking about forty-eight hours. Within about two weeks, my book was going out to publishers, and my life felt like it was accelerating in a wild, unpredictable direction. Maybe it was going to happen. Maybe I was actually going to get a book deal. My imagination rushed through all the possibilities, of finally getting to realise what I’d dreamed of. And, at the back of my head, there was a tiny note of caution, a little voice of insecurity that said: You know what? This is a bit fast. Things don’t normally go this quickly for you. I bet the next bit’s going to take longer than you’d like.

I hate that voice. I wish I could switch it off. Most of the time, despite the amount I listen to it, it’s wrong. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t.

As it turned out, life intervened. The book got turned down by one publisher, and then another, and the cycle pretty much repeated like that. It’s happened to plenty of authors before, and it’ll happen to me plenty of times to come, I’m sure. But on top of that, a few months later, my four-year marriage came to an amicable but pretty damn final end. I went from getting an agent and dreams of publication to having to pack all my belongings into a van, move to a brand new city (Manchester, which I’d only visited twice in my life, twelve years previously) and reboot my entire existence. 

A lot’s happened in the last five years. I’ve built myself up a modest freelance income as a proofreader of novels, alongside doing editorial reports and regular reviews for SFX magazine. I met someone new, fell in love, and now we’re living together. There’s a whole number of ways in which my life has immeasurably improved over the last five years. But it’s hard to get to this point in the year, and once again have to think: “Nope. Still not published yet.”

You have to have confidence. You have to believe that you’re going to make it, that no matter how long it takes you’re going to reach your goal. I’ve been working in publishing (in one form or another) for ten years now; I know how difficult it is, and how long it can take. I know all these things, but the fact of the matter is that it’s gotten a lot harder for me. My confidence has suffered a lot over the last couple of years, to the extent that I’m having to look myself in the mirror and say: “Yes. I have a problem.”

Because, I do. I’ve had a problem with my confidence all my life. It’s rather like having a very annoying alter-ego – as if Tyler Durden from Fight Club has turned up, and instead of leading me into a life of anarchic terrorism and bare-knuckle fighting, he’s simply made it his mission to make me feel as crappy about myself as is humanly possible. My confidence problems manifest in a variety of different ways, but they still have the power to cripple me, and lock me into a spiral of self-doubt and anxiety. There’ve been points where I’ve been really good at fighting back against this – but ultimately, a lot of that’s sometimes been dependant on outside sources, on life actually giving me reasons to feel positive about myself or my writing. And of course, life isn’t always in the mood to do that. The trick is not letting that stop you, but it isn’t a trick I’ve completely mastered. 

We’re all made of neuroses in different combinations, and the best way of summing up the entertainingly conflicted state of my mind is that on one hand, I desperately want to be accepted and appreciated for who I am – to fit in, and be part of the crowd; to be someone who’s valued and appreciated. On the other hand, I don’t want to have to change myself to fit in. Not in any way whatsoever. I want security, and life to be easy – but I’m immensely bored by routine. I want a sense of creative achievement, but I’m also looking for it by trying one of the hardest creative acts you can possibly do. I want to be a published writer – but I’m also trying to do it by writing big, complex, genre-mashing novels that require a tremendous amount of work. I want things to be easy, and I absolutely hate the idea of making things easy for myself. 

As someone with a lack of confidence, some of the feedback I got from my book being sent out did hurt, of course – but a lot of it was positive. I even ended up, for a few months, being seriously considered for publication by one imprint. Just being in a situation where I was able to take feedback I’d been given on a book and turn it into solutions, to figure out ways of streamlining the beast of a novel I’d written and make it work better… it was one of the most thrilling times in my life. I wrote like a maniac, and loved pretty much every minute of it. Problem-solving is one of the aspects of writing I really enjoy – that, and constructing worlds, plots and characters so they all fit together like a finely-tuned swiss clock.

It didn’t work in the end, and the book got rejected, but I kept the enthusiasm going. I told myself that I could get there, and get another book finished, and then another and another. I already had another idea that I wanted to work on, so I got going. A year, I wanted to aim for. Maybe eighteen months, tops. As long as it took less time than my first novel which, on and off, took me two years to properly do. I had my target, and I knew what I wanted to do.

That was November 2009.

Life gets in the way. It’s not supposed to, of course, but it does. Writing is a weird, difficult existance, and keeping my confidence going at the same time as trying to build up a genuine freelance career doing proofreading – something I only started getting experience at in back in 2008 – isn’t the easiest thing. The freelance life is all about momentum, any time spent away from work feels like time you *should* be spending on work, and it’s very hard to say “No” to a job if it’s offered, even if it suddenly means that week I was planning to get loads of writing done is suddenly going to mostly consist of proofreading. 

I’m learning as I go. It’s taken me a while to get into the right headspace, to stop trying to be other writers and just try and be myself; to say to myself “It’s okay not to write short stories if you don’t want to write short stories.” For some people, it’s a brilliant way of honing their craft. There’d probably be a lot of good reasons for me to write short stories. But ultimately, I don’t enjoy short stories, I don’t want to write short stories – and at a point when I’m still mainly writing for myself, I want to write the kind of things I’m actually going to enjoy.

That’s an important lesson. I thought I’d learned it, but the last couple of years proved me wrong. 

I’m not the fastest, most productive writer in the world. I write in splurges – mad bursts of activity over the course of a few weeks. I managed to get about half of an entire first-draft of a book written in the space of about six weeks last year – and then momentum ran out, work intervened, and my confidence subsided. I’m also trying to get myself into the habit of writing every day, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Especially when I’m busy, it simply isn’t always possible to fit it in – especially when I’m doing something as brain-intensive as proofreading. When you’ve had to spend six hours staring in detail at proofs of a novel, with maximum focus to spot any mistakes, very often the last thing you’ll want to do afterwards is immediately rush to the keyboard and start banging out words. 

And of course, that’s one of the many areas where the whispers begin. The nagging doubts. The sense that if I’m not desperate enough to write every single day, if I’m able to let confidence issues get to me, then I’m not like the writers I admire, and from there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to: Maybe I’m not meant to be a writer. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe this has all been a waste of time, and nobody’s ever going to be interested in looking at the weird, sprawling, frothy SF/Fantasy adventures I’m trying to write. 

It’s completely ridiculous, of course. Yes, it helps if you write every day. (Plus, I suspect that if/when I finally get a publishing deal, motivation for writing most days ain’t going to be anywhere near as much of a problem…) But, contrary to some writing advice that floats around online occasionally annoying the living crap out of me, you don’t automatically drop out of the ‘being a writer’ club if you’re not able to write every day. It’s okay to take a while to find your voice. Being on Twitter can sometimes give the impression that a thousand tremendously exciting things are happening in publishing every single day, and there’ve been plenty of times in the last five years when it’s been rather demoralising watching other people outpace me – getting an agent, getting a book deal, getting their first book published, and then another, and then another…

It isn’t a race. It can sometimes feel like a race, but it isn’t a race. And I do feel like, slowly but surely, I’m starting to believe it. 

2012 was supposed to be ‘the year’. My second book took me just over two years to get into the shape I wanted it, but finally it was ready. It had been a long hard slog – I’d tried something ambitious, something with a lot more depth and emotion than my first book, and it took me a long time to get it right. I wanted to get this book as good as possible, to impress people with it, to make the crazy ideas in my head work for me, to throw them out into the world and make stuff happen. There’s a style of story that’s in my head, and I want to get it out there – whether it succeeds or fails, it’s my voice, the story that I want to tell, and that’s what I’d tried to do with my second novel. I was looking forward to going through the same process as I had back in 2008 (except this time, it’d go out to even more publishers, with even more chances of being accepted). Whether it rose or fell, it was going to give me something to be proud of, a real sense of achievement.

Instead, things went wrong. A selection of events over the summer basically took my confidence out into the street and gave it a damn good kicking. Oddly enough, the least of those events was my book getting turned down by the first publisher it got sent to – for various reasons I wasn’t immensely surprised (and was kind of relieved it had only been sent to one publisher – one important thing about novels being submitted is that you only ever really get one shot per book with a publisher, so you’ve got to make it count). I got some extensive feedback which smarted like hell for the first two hours, and then did bring into focus a lot of nebulous issues with the book I’d been struggling with. There were solutions. There were things I could do. But it was going to take time. 

And then, late last year, I also made a major breakthrough. Without spoiling anything, a large chunk of my second novel revolved around infidelity in a relationship, and the ultimate result of this was that the relationship broke up at the end of the story. I’d known my emotional baggage from the end of my marriage had played into this an awful lot, but I’d never really realised exactly how much until I was rewriting the opening half of the book (the section which, at that point, I thought needed the most work), and there were certain sections I just couldn’t get to work – the early scenes involving the relationship, before the infidelity becomes clear. I wanted the relationship to feel real, but also be empathetic, charming and believable, so that the revelation when it came would hit hard, and be truly upsetting. Trouble was, I couldn’t get the early scenes to feel right. I can always tell when a scene is working – there’s a music or a rhythm to the writing that gives it life and momentum. When that music isn’t there, it’s the most frustrating thing on Earth – the scene just sits there like a damp sponge, doing everything it’s supposed to but feeling utterly mechanical, getting the plot from point A to point B and nothing more. I was trying to figure out why this was, talking it through with my girlfriend, wanting to find the solution…

…when it hit me. And for at least a minute or so, I kind of wished it hadn’t. 

Solutions sometimes hurt. They’re great, because the problem’s solved, but sometimes they can expose mistakes, and leave you cursing yourself for being so blinkered. Novel-writing is such an intensive job, and it’s easy as hell to get distracted by the micro-detail while not noticing the problems at the macro-level. Story-elements can set like amber, to the extent that aspects of the plot can be there for draft after draft, and yet they don’t necessarily have a reason to be there. They’re just there, part of the architecture of the story, an ingredient that feels integral when actually it can be left out without affecting the recipe in the slightest – and in fact, the ingredient’s absence might be the key to the whole thing.

When this brainwave hit me, I realised that I didn’t want to write a story about infidelity. I didn’t want to write a relationship plotline that had an unhappy ending. I’m still proud of what I wrote – I tried something challenging and difficult, something that was emotionally gruelling and pushed me in different directions as a writer. I tried something that was more of a literary approach, something more intense, something that wasn’t the traditional way of doing things. I’d also worked through a lot of emotional baggage without realising it – sometimes, writing can be tremendous therapy, a cathartic experience. But sometimes, that kind of writing can topple over into self-indulgence. And sometimes, you’re ready to move on, even when the story isn’t. 

I didn’t want to go to that place again, in order to do the rewrite. I’d had enough. Yes, the choice was there to just walk away from the book, or to leave it for a few months, but then another solution occurred: take the infidelity out. Make it a happy ending. It meant re-engineering certain chunks of the plot… but then things started clicking together in my head. There were ways of figuring it out. I knew right then that, if I could do it, the resulting book would be much closer to the kind of book that I wanted to write – an emotional but satisfying adventure – something that went to some dark places, a story that was wild and crazy and unpredictable, going from daft and surreal to twisted and scary, but ultimately turning out okay in the end. My mind isn’t always the easiest place to be, and I’m sometimes more cynical and pessimistic than I want to be – but I’m also a sucker for a happy ending. 

In many ways, this is a good thing. There was a problem, and now there’s a solution. I’ve got a way forward. But, as I started to sort things out in my head, I got to grips with exactly how much of the book I was going to have to rewrite almost from scratch… and the doubts began. The nagging little fears. And the voice at the back of my head that said: You should have spotted this earlier. You’ve spent two years fumbling around trying to get this to work. Maybe this is another bit of proof that you’re not a writer. 

It’s insidious, the way these doubts can eat away at you. My insecurities have gotten so bad, I’ll occasionally find myself getting a little worked up and insecure at seeing someone else’s writing getting praised on Twitter. It isn’t just a childish (but sometimes inescapable) burst of jealousy – my brain somehow manages to interpret that kind of thing as: Nobody will ever say that about your work, and I end up bothered and weird, and once again feeling like instead of being a short distance from finishing my journey, I’ve gotten lost and am now just stumbling around on a featureless moor, hoping that whichever direction I randomly choose will be the right one. It’s frightening, and it’s difficult, and I wish there was an easy solution. But there isn’t. 

So. It’s the difficult road for me. 

I know I have a problem. My insecurity and confidence has stopped me doing a lot in my life, and it’s frequently prevented me from being able to appreciate what I have acheived, and the genuinely good things that have happened to me. But I’m not letting myself get away with it anymore. At the least, I feel like I’m fully aware of it right now – I’m getting better at recognising the signs when my brain is heading in an unhealth direction, and while I can’t quite stop it, I can ride it out. Of course, there aren’t any quick and easy fixes for this – it’s going to be a gradual process of setting myself acheivable goals, and not beating myself up over any potential missing of those targets. I’m going to have to take it slowly, step by step.  I already know what I want to do in 2013 – I’ve got a new novel to finish, and I want to get the rewrite done on my second novel, and I’m aiming to get them done by November, when my girlfriend and I will be heading to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. I’m also applying to get onto an MA course in Creative Writing at Manchester University, and if that happens it’ll open up a whole series of interesting directions.

But I’m going to keep going. And no matter what that voice at the back of my head may whisper, I’m not going to let it win. Not anymore.

I’m going to have a good 2013.

And I hope you do too.


2 thoughts on “Life During Wartime: Coping (and Not Coping) with Confidence Issues as a Writer

  1. Saxon,

    I understand your concerns and worries, probably more than you can even guess. But maybe you’re worrying about too much. When I first met you, you came over as a nice guy, confident, flamboyant even, different in an intriuging way.

    I understand the problems of wanting to be an author because I know myself it isn’t something you can just put down and say “I never wanted to do it in the first place”. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

    But its a New Year and we’re all entitled to feel up-beat. Yes, this is the year it’s going to happen. Go for it.

    Your friend Dave


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