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I often come up with an idea, write an outline, and sit down eagerly to write, but over and over again, this sense of doubt sets in. This affects me tremendously while I'm writing, because I believe my idea is not "good enough" and it won't turn out to be successful novel. Worst-case scenario I end up ditching the novel. Then I come up with a new idea and start the loop all over again.

Any advice to believe in your novel and persevere to the end without wallowing in your own self-doubt? I've already established in my mind that the first draft of any novel is going to suck, but I can't seem to get past the first draft without feeling that my ideas for a novel and my talents as writer aren't good enough.

7 Answers 7

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Here's what I do or have done to have the energy, courage, and drive to keep writing, in semi-order of importance:

Have an opinion

Find an important reason to write, an important message.

If you have none, go to your core values (if you don't know them, there are tests online).

Read magazines (e.g., Amnesty Press, the WWF magazine) and watch TV shows and movies. I think it needs to be current issues even if you're not writing a contemporary text.

You're finding your reason to write, not what to write.

If you consume media whose opinions you share you'll get more meat on the bones for your message. If you consume things you disagree with, you might also strengthen your message by counter argumenting.

Don't be afraid to have an opinion.

Study the craft of writing

Sometimes stories don't work because you've built them wrong from the beginning. Most of the time they can be fixed, if you know how to.

In order to do that you need to study the craft of writing.

I only know how I do it, but I've figured between the lines that others follow similar paths. (For instance, many successful authors started out as journalists...)

I firmly believe the knowledge of how to write is something you learn, for the rest of your life.

Think of it as learning to ride a bike. Once you've got it, you can't explain what muscles you need to keep balance, and most of the time not even how to push the pedals (or, I realized a few years back, pull them if you have the right type of shoes and pedals).

It takes determination, seeing, and trying, and for most people, more time and effort than they can or are willing to put into it...

Even such fleeting things as voice follow the same principle. See it. Try it. After enough attempts, you get it.

Maybe you need to learn how to finish a story, be it a crappy story or not? A test says more than a thousand theories... so finish it even if your inner critic is kicking and screaming...

Some craft I've been helped by

Story structure and character arcs were two very important discoveries early in my writing life. (I remember being awed by movies and TV shows after having read Syd Fields "Screenplay" and then seeing the screen go dark at exactly one quarter, half time, and three quarters. Sometimes I don't even think I paid attention to what the movie was about...)

I suggest Weiland's texts on both as an introduction. She's good at getting you all excited about the subject so you can then go on and find complementary sources.

Another thing that helps me is to base the story on the conflict between a truth and a lie. The antagonist believes in the lie, the protagonist may also believe in the lie, but then come to believe in the truth and gets to pay dearly for it.

The choice of truths and lies will usually be based on some form of thematical intuition or notion and going back from the theme might produce more truths and lies for secondary characters to embrace as counterpoints or variations on the theme.

Emotional wounds have also done great for my stories. It's happened more than once that adding a wound to one character will inevitably add wounds to other characters and it may even bind them together and just having that event in the past will create tension and drama.

Adhesive is another great thing mentioned by James Scott Bell. Adhesive is what keeps characters in the place and the story (e.g., they're kidnapped, they're on a trip in a foreign country, one must catch the other and the other will get executed if he's caught, they are parent and child).

Without adhesive, the characters will just up and leave, or at least should.

A story with little or no adhesive will suffer tremendously because you want to write a whole novel, right? So the characters can't give up and leave, so you find all sorts of artificial reasons to keep them in the room, while a proper lock on the door from the start would have done wonders.

To figure out how all this works, I suggest reading tons of books and watching tons of movies and TV shows to immerse yourself in the craft of storytelling, and all the rest.

The only thing I've noticed you cannot trust writers of novels and scripts to help you understand is how to write... I.e. the exact process of writing. I can't for the life of me understand why so many literary and filmed works about the writing process show some guy punching away on the typewriter, send the first draft to the publisher and get instant fame. Maybe they're afraid to be replaced?

The solution is out there

Adopt a "the solution is out there"-attitude to problems, both in writing and life as a whole.

When you get problems to solve, don't look at yourself as a janitor that has to wipe the crap off the walls.

Look at yourself as a Sherlock Holmes searching for a solution.

If you look for problems, you'll find problems. If you look for solutions, you'll find solutions.

It also helps to be a bit zen about problems. So you have a problem... likely you should do some menial task to let your brain rest and reorganize itself and spit out the answer.

I can't count the number of times some hand washing the dishes has relaxed me to get the problem solved (so much so I'm seriously not considering getting a dishwasher...)

Write crappy first drafts

Write crappy first drafts and edit them into shape afterward.

Let high quality be a question for editing.

You need a ton of handwavium for the plot that's falling apart and a blind eye for the ridiculously dum sentences, but at this point, you're panning for gold, and finding a nugget requires digging through tons of dirt.

This is true even if you're an outliner.

The first draft is a pilot, a concept, there to prove or disprove that your idea can be turned into a story.

It's a block of marble very roughly cut into the shape you finally want.

Before you've written the first draft and can take a step back to discover that shape there is no use in polishing.

Listen to the story/your unconscious storyteller mind

Don't worry if things seem to go awry at the moment. Trust the story and your unconscious that you know more about where the text is going than you're aware of...

While psychologists don't agree with Freud's implicit notion that the unconscious is somehow "under us" as in "sub-" most agree that there's more to the mind than what we are aware of.

This is very true when it comes to writing.

Don't even trust your inner critic to know where it will all end... Go there and figure it out for yourself!

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Your Novel Will Suck! But that is the first one...

Unfortunately, WHATEVER is your first novel will suck, barring massive rewriting. One of my favorite books, Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold, was the first book she wrote. It was a great work of passion. She couldn't get it published. She went on to write other books, which DID get published, and when she went back and rewrote the novel later, it got published then. And while I love it, there are still parts that I can see with experience are rather naïve from a story line perspective.

If you haven't written a novel, there are things about writing novels you simply won't understand. I can't tell you what those things are, because it's different for everyone. The experience of writing it will train your writing. I found my first novel was better at the end than the beginning. It needed to be completely redone after successive rounds of editing, beta reading, style editing, etc. to be decent. Including long pauses in the middle of the process while I worked on other stuff. I still think the sequel is a better book.

So pick one of these and write it. I'm not promising you it will get published, or that it won't suck. You need to write it to get good enough to write it well. Maybe after you've worked out your process, you'll be able to go back to it and clean it up. But if you don't write it, you'll never have it be good enough to write it.

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    I totally agree with this answer! Wish I could give it more than one upvote. I used to tell myself that I wasn't qualified to START my first real novel until I had completed and repeatedly edited at least one abysmal embarrassment. The need for that deliberate initial failure liberated me to write without concern for the result. I will never let anyone ever see that monstrosity, and I sometimes mourn the sacrifice of that wonderful story idea which died in service to my writing craft, but once it was completed, I truly did feel more prepared to write something that even I could love. +1 Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 7:34
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You are writing with a premonition of failure. Remember Murphy's Law?

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Now, is that a sufficient excuse to give up? Well, let's find out.

Remember, a writer is a reader first, then a writer next. If your work is "good enough" in your eyes and you put your heart into writing it, it's worth putting out before the world to read it.

Moreover, how would you come to know how everything turned out if you keep "ditching" what you write? Even if your novel is a failure, it's a great opportunity to learn from feedback and constructive criticism. So, control the controllable and keep writing.

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  • Could you clarify what you mean by "a writer is a reader first"?
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 13:32
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You might be experiencing one of two things. Either you are being too critical of yourself or you are exercising good instincts on what makes a good story.

I struggle with the latter myself and this is what I've figured out from writing short stories.

The skills involved in writing (short stories or novels) can be conceptualized into two categories: the craft and storytelling.

I realized that my craft is adequate to hold a reader's attention, but my storytelling is woefully inadequate. All my ideas never resulted in satisfying plots or they ended flat; or worse, the stories just keep going and going with no internal consistency.

Once I realized this, I refocused my efforts on learning the art of storytelling and critique. I was very surprised by the scope of storytelling and how much goes into creating a good story arc. The more I've learned, the more sense it makes that I needed the extra effort because I'm not a natural storyteller.

And, the most effective skill I've learned to be a better storyteller, is how to critique stories. By learning to read someone else's work, and see the underlying structure of the story (its plot), I've gained confidence that I can see the absence of structure and story arc in my own short stories.

In my case, I felt very much like you describe; initially excited by my ideas and later feeling they were kind of lame. But, now that I have the tiniest modicum of skill as a storyteller, I can see structural weakness of those stories. Some I've rewritten and they're much better and others I've recognized as simply ideas and lack the elements of transformation and conflict that can capture someone's imagination in an engaging way.

"You learn more from finishing a glorious failure than you do from writing a success," said Neil Gaiman

and it seems like really good advice, since it encapsulates a clear warning, don't start stories you're not sure you can finish them. If novels aren't working for you, write short fiction or a summary of the entire story. If you can conceptualize a solid short story and write and finish it, then writing a novel is a fractal expansion of those same skills.

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It is a psychological problem and therefore needs a psychological cure. Some people tell themselves they aren't writing a novel just practicing for one. I have had luck switching between two works --which is slower but gets there.

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This well-known parable from Art and Fear dramatizes why it is better to write for quantity than for quality, as counterintuitive as that may seem:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

In the case that you already believe this, but can't convince your internal editor (critical voice) to relax, a surprisingly effective suggestion (from Rest by Alex Pang) is to write at the time of day you're most sleepy --early morning for night owls and late night for early birds. Something about that silences your internal critic.

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There has been a lot said already that I agree with, but I do have something to add. One method is to try to get to your characters in a scene and empathize with them. It is like I become an observer in a grander tale rather than a worker in front of your computer.

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