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Writer’s Craft #13 – The Doubt Button

March 28, 2011

This is the story of my journey into doubt, and a call for your own tales of how a minor incident can shake a writer’s confidence, if only for an hour. We all take it as a given, here, that writers are who we are and writing is what we have to do.

I was re-reading my novel Throne Price, when I ran into a sentence that sent me to a grammar book with worries about my use of ‘which’. In particular, I wondered if the first ‘which’ should be ‘who’.  I soon satisfied myself  that ‘which’ was correct, but the more I read the sentence the more I felt the whole thing was a complete disaster. It was a short hop from there to wondering if anything as complicated as clan leaders occupying diplomatic residences called  ‘hearths’, had any place in the attention-deficit modern world, and a skip and a jump farther to the precipice of depression concerning my misspent life creating the Okal Rel Universe.

Here’s the offending sentence.

In addition to Nersal, which held Black Hearth, the Ava’s Oath included steadfast Monitum, the oldest of the hybrid houses and holder of Green Hearth, and the Demish house of H’Us, which occupied Silver Hearth. (pg. 21 Throne Price, 2003)

Making ‘Nersal’ more obviously parallel to ‘house of H’Us’, cleared up the question of grammar.

The essential sentence is:

In addition to House Nersal, the Ava’s Oath included Monitum and the Demish house of H’Us.

Since ‘Nersal’ can mean a person or a clan, I should have used  ‘House Nersal’ to avoid worries about whether the first ‘which’ should have been a ‘who’.  ‘Which’ is the correct way to add the non-restrictive clauses about hearths. (See:  University of Calgary’s Commas with Restrictive / Non-Restrictive Clauses for a quick refresher.)

I was now able to see the sentence as less than a fatal flaw undermining the novel, the series, my life, and parts of the known universe.

Recovering my mental health took a bit longer, but rather than dwell on my internal mechanisms for self-preservation in the face of doubt, I decided to reflect on why a flawed sentence can send a writer into a tail spin.  In my case, I suspect it is because I’m always worried about how to make the Okal Rel Universe accessible, quickly and painlessly, without compromising the series’ integrity. When I find a long, dry sentence like the one cited here, it pushes my doubt button.

What’s the doubt button? It’s the big, invisible, red one that is always with you, close at hand,  and mocks you, in a whisper, with the suspicion you’d be better off doing the dishes or watching TV than writing, because — and here you have to fill in the blank.

Do you have a Big Doubt?  What, on the other hand, are you absolutely sure about?  (Personally, I have never doubted the power of my story or my characters to move people once they get involved; it’s how to find the right people and get them over the hump of first contact that I feel vulnerable about.) What kind of discoveries or criticisms push your doubt button?  Is it typos, or your best friend being too busy to read your latest draft?

Comments on the grammar questions raised in the article are welcome, as well. Or your own tricks for regaining your sanity when your doubt button gets pushed.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2011 7:19 am

    wowwowwowwow did I need to know I’m not alone in this space today.

    I thought I was being pretty thick-skinned and professional with this latest book. It’s my first foray back in after pausing to have a couple of babies. I’ve diligently written every morning, and taken all the feedback through the first two drafts without emotion, and continued on with a sound business mind about this book, and not treating it like my “baby.”

    On Thursday, that all changed, and I crumbled. The culprit? A contest – a local, teeny contest, with judges of unknown credentials. For whatever reason, the feedback I received from that contest (maybe you should try poetry) sent me off into the abyss of doubt. For almost 4 hours, I quit.

    After seeing my statement on facebook, my glorious group of friends rallied around me and committed to stand by me, whatever my decision. My character? Not so supportive. He battered me until I couldn’t sleep at night and got up to fix his story – make it better – make it truth. He wouldn’t allow me to quit.

    I’m still not sure what triggered the Big Doubt, maybe it wasn’t facing my vulnerability in the beginning until it became too big to ignore, and the straw literally broke the camel. I am, however, absolutely sure my character is strong enough to carry the book. He’ll make sure of it.

    Jen Greyson
    The Survival Mama

    • Mishell Baker permalink*
      March 28, 2011 8:32 am

      I have doubts more often than not, these days. I have about a billion reasons to stop writing, if only because the world just really doesn’t need more writers, and I could spend my time tutoring underprivileged kids or planting trees or something instead. It actually makes more sense for me to quit writing than to continue. But then I realize, I don’t write because I should. I write because I can’t help it. Living is inhaling, and writing is exhaling. If I live and don’t write, I feel like I’m holding my breath and turning blue. It has to come out of me somehow. So I guess I’ll continue to write whether I’m any good at it or not, whether the world needs it or not.

      • March 28, 2011 8:36 am

        So true, Mishell. I think that’s why I still got up the next morning before the boys. I really enjoy the time I get to spend with my characters, and creating a story – – it’s up to me to decide where I attach the joy in the process.

      • Lynda Williams permalink
        March 28, 2011 12:04 pm

        I’ve had the same thoughts, Mishell, but then I get angry about something and realize that no matter how frail and problematic, writing is one of the few ways I have to project my values and vent my frustrations or maybe just layout what I believe and applaud the ‘good’ in the world. If we gave up the fight to be heard because we became convinced the world doesn’t need more writers, it would be like giving up our beliefs and your desire to ‘explain’ that exhalation of experience.

        I wrote a story about this very thing, in which my heroine Ann urges a disillusioned young pilot to “fly for your own reasons”. It doesn’t matter how much harder and faster a Sevolite pilot can fly, if the Sevolite isn’t doing it for reasons that matter to a Reetion.

        The story, called “Going Back Out”, is online at http://okalrel.org/saga/stories/backout.html and if it makes any other writer get a grip on his/her reasons for flying it will have have been well worth my effort in creating it.

  2. March 28, 2011 7:54 am

    What a timely blog post! You write to the lass who’s suppressing the urge to throw her laptop through the window and set fire to her manuscripts!… well not at this exact moment, but half an hour ago I was. Right now the doubt button feels bigger than the manuscript and the manuscript is 100,000 words long. I feel like a failure in the face of it. I can see more of the mountain than I used to and can actually wrap my head around more of it – that is a good thing, except that it also allows for a deeper sense of failure too! And part of the button is beyond words, trying to articulate it into words is physically painful.

    And PMS, I have PMS, therefore the novel is doooomed. It’s rather fatiguing that way!

  3. Kari T permalink
    March 28, 2011 8:51 am

    I”m chuckling to myself. Almost in tears, you could say.
    Doubt button, is that what it’s called?
    Six months into my novel I gave my first chapter to my Dad. Later I asked what he thought, and he said, ‘I don’t know, it was rather dry.’ This set me back a full month, because I was too whatever to write. But then I had an idea for a new first chapter, which I liked much more.

    My mother said the new chapter was too long and confusing. Yeah OK. I rewrote it AGAIN. (A piece of it was posted on last Monday’s call, and you yourself Lynda made a suggestion to make it better)

    But for me it always comes back to why am I writing, and the answer is, ‘because I can’t stop.’ I also want to write a good story, and thus, welcome all comments.

    If it makes you feel any better, I’m reading Jack London’s Sea Wolf right now. Guess what? If you read carefully you’ll notice even he wrote sloppy sentences and suffered from plot holes. Still love his work, though!

  4. Leslie C permalink
    March 28, 2011 11:44 am

    Just recently I received a rejection for a short story I thought was a “sure thing.” It wasn’t even a Hope in my mind — I was absolutely sure it was going to be accepted. But it wasn’t. It’s thrown me into an “is there something basically, fundamentally wrong with my writing?” funk. So much so, that I think it is what caused the physical illness that has had a hold of me for more than a week. It wasn’t so much that the story got rejected; it was that I was so sure that it wouldn’t be. Doubt button, yeah.
    What am I doing about it? The story is going to my critique group next month. I’m continuing on with my novel. I’m taking echinacea. I decided several months ago that it’s not about the product; it’s about the process. Am I still enjoying writing? You bet. Still hurts, though.

    • Mishell Baker permalink*
      March 28, 2011 12:59 pm

      I’m about to have a similar experience. My “bestest ever” story is out there at the magazine where I was encouraged to send it by my various critiquers. When I get the rejection letter, part of me is going to say, “If the ‘perfect market’ doesn’t want it, who on earth will?” Sigh. I do have two more appropriate markets in mind, but if those two don’t want it I may very well just curl up in the fetal position and call in sick to life for a week or two.

      • Kari T permalink
        March 28, 2011 3:35 pm

        Just curious, how does one find a ‘critique group’? I”d very much like to join one, but have no idea how to go about it. (to find a good one, is what i”m implying)

      • Mishell Baker permalink*
        March 28, 2011 7:47 pm

        Well, my critiquers have historically been my Clarion classmates… I honestly have no idea how everyone else does it. I think there are online sites and whatnot, and I have heard of some mythical thing called “Local writing groups,” but have never been to one. You could, in theory, start one by having people send you writing samples, and if you think you’ll enjoy reading their stuff, invite them to join. 🙂

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      March 29, 2011 8:16 pm

      Maybe there’s something wrong with the basic idea that submitting a really good story means you’ll get published. One person’s “really good” is another person’s “nothing special”, for starters, so something even a story that “deserves” publication (in the eyes of many) might not be accepted by a particular editor. Then there’s timing. Maybe the magazine or e-zine would have accepted your story if the editor hadn’t already picked three he/she liked. Stories have to be good, certainly. But even good ones can fail to get placed due to other circumstances. I’m glad you still enjoy the process. I do, too.

  5. Lynda Williams permalink
    March 28, 2011 11:54 am

    Re-writing, workshopping and the “worlds of ‘no'” experience of trying to sell work, or the challenge of promoting it when you have sold it — they’re toxic in the wrong doses! And there isn’t an author alive who doesn’t have sentences in print he/she would change from the perspective of some future wisdom. So why do we subject ourselves to people pushing our Doubt Buttons? To learn? Or to make the connections we need to get published? Maybe criticism (of the do-it-like-this sort) is the easiest, most rewarding thing for others to give, and has less to do with our work than it does with the needs of the person being critical. And yet we all do need to continue learning our craft. Does it ever really feel good to get re-written? Maybe not. And we have to develop thicker skins around our sense of purpose, as writers, to listen with patience but pick and chose what we act upon.

  6. Krysia permalink
    March 29, 2011 8:26 am

    Most of my doubts dont come from sentences that are technically wrong, but from senctences that I find convay now stupid/childish ideas. That’s why I cant read my own work after it is done. I find one of those and am thrown into a “I can’t believe you were that person I year ago–this me would have done better.” tail spin. My biggest writing fear is waking up to find that Im a talentless hack who should stick writing facebook statuses…

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      March 29, 2011 8:20 pm

      Chuckle. And now you are in print, you will have to deal with reading your published novellas and short stories years after writing them! Here’s a thought, though: maybe the ideas seem ‘childish’ to you after the fact because you worked through them while writing the piece they appear in, and have moved on. Don’t look back, just keep going.

  7. March 29, 2011 12:56 pm

    I thought rejections would be my biggest pusher of the doubt button, but they aren’t. My biggest doubt comes when I get a critique or a review from a fellow author. Then I start questioning my talent or lack thereof. Am I just deluding myself into thinking I can write when I can’t? I have to remind myself that I have fans who love my stories and my characters even more than I do. My writing may not be perfect or exquisite. I may not have awards and honors heaped upon me by my fellow authors. But I have readers who love what I create. And I love what I create. I remind myself that it’s more than enough.

    Go away, doubt button and inner critic that won’t shut up.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      March 29, 2011 8:25 pm

      Couldn’t have said it better. I love my work, too. Why not! And the other people who tell me they do, as well, keeps me going in my doubtful hours. We have every right to love our work. And to take input about it cum granis salis, no matter who gives it to us.

      I was in a workshop today about communication. The facilitator talked about taking in all input in a spirit of open-minded curiosity — but taking to heart only what “sticks” for you.

      I’ve seen too many good stories disintergrate in workshops because the author’s will and vision was undermined by too much negative criticism from too many different perspectives.

      Glad to ‘hear’ us ending on a note of conquest over the doubt button.

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