On The Subject Of Your Discouragement

this owl is judging you

This past week I put up a post about some mistakes I see in the stories of new(er) writers, and it’s one of those posts that went further and wider than I expected — and for the most part, the response was pretty positive. But there’s this other effect that happens, and sometimes this effect is revealed in emails or I see it in social media, and the effect is this:

I have discouraged you.

My nonsense has stitched into your soul quilt a BLACK SQUARE OF DOUBT.

That saddens me for a number of reasons.

So, first, let me get out of the way a disclaimer — one I think regular readers here recognize, but one that perhaps those who are new to the terribleminds experience (which sounds like a really weird laser light show) do not know:

I’m full of shit.

Just bubbly with it.

And all kinds of shit, too. Horseshit, bullshit, monkey shit, and all of it gets hosed down with a gurgling spray of hogwash and then slathered over with a gluey coating of PURE SHENANIGANS.

Nothing I say here is true.

It is nearly always my opinion. Okay, sometimes I’m talking about things that are writing “rules,” but even there, the rules can flex or even snap satisfyingly in the hands of a savvy craftsman. In fiction, everything is permitted — all magic is manifest if you’re a wizard of proper talent. Exceptions often make for the finest fiction. (They also, contrarily, comprise the bulk of the worst mistakes. Risk big, and you win huge or lose like a motherfucker, I guess.)

My opinion should be weighed in the hand and brought to the nose like any other opinion. How does it feel? How does it smell? If it feels and smells like a big ol’ pile of bloggerrhea to you, then you need to drop it on the sidewalk, wipe your hands on the nearest businessman, and run.

And now, with that disclaimer out of the way —

Listen, if my posts cause you doubt and discouragement, you’re in some trouble.

I try very hard to mix it up here — when I post about writing, I aim to keep a saucy blend of craft advice, publishing talk, storytelling neepery, inspirational tickles, motivational taint-kicks, and so on. Sometimes it’s so-called tough love, and sometimes it’s a big slobbery sobbing hug. We’re all in this together and that means we all need pep talks. But we’re also all friends, or so I like to think (which is why I am standing in your shrubs right now watching you read this), and that also means sometimes we need to speak truth about the things we’re doing poorly.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is, we can all do better.

That’s not just you. That’s me, too. I own that. Every book for me is an opportunity to improve my craft, up my game, and understand something new about the art, the life, the business. I pray to the ashen reliquary of Sweet Saint Fuck that I never become complacent — that I never become one of those authors who refuses to be edited or who thinks their prose-piles don’t stink.

Doubt is an insidious thing. I’ve commented on it many a time. Once you let that demon under your skin, he lives there like a parasite — except instead of leeching your blood, he starts siphoning your confidence. Just as you start to feel good, the worm turns and feeds anew.

And I recognize that posts like mine can contribute to that.

It’s why I suggest that authors are best when they ignore that doubt. Like, I know that’s way easier said than done, but what I mean is: just say fuck it. The doubt is there, and the doubt is a liar demon shitty-pants asshole, so you speak aloud: YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME. And then you keep on keeping on. You write. You rewrite. Write. Rewrite. That’s how you beat doubt. By doing. By doing and iterating endlessly to spite your own fear and shame and uncertainty. Because that’s how you gain confidence, really. And instinct. You do a thing enough times, you start to get a sense of it. You start to see its edges, feel its margins. You know the shape. To go with a metaphor I like to use, writing a novel is like running through a dark house — and the more you do it, the more you start to figure out where the furniture is. You learn how not to bump your knees and shins and knock over lamps. In fact, let’s go with the lamp metaphor, too — you start turning on lamps as you go. Click. Click. Click. Let there be light. And doubt cannot abide the light, so it shrinks into the darkness of rooms where you have not yet been.

And by the way, when I say doubt, I don’t mean the normal feelings of uncertainty you get that suggest your work isn’t perfect. Of course it isn’t perfect. What are you, some kind of Word Angel? Disgorging shining gems of prose from your sanctified maw? No, no, I know my writing isn’t perfect, and I know it’ll never be perfect, but I know I can fix it and I get as many chances as I want or need to fix the damn thing to my liking. That’s not doubt. That’s a comfortable, confident awareness of imperfection. That’s a happy understanding that my work sometimes will need a scalpel, sometimes it’ll need a truckload of Juggalos with chainsaws, sometimes it’ll need orbital lasers. I get it. I’m all good with that. You should be, too.

The kind of doubt I’m talking about is that aforementioned demon doubt.

(Note: I consider this separate from depression. For that, read: “The Writer And Depression.”)

Here’s where I get, though, a little mean — or at least uncomfortable — again.

Let me reiterate:

If my posts cause you doubt and discouragement, you’re in some trouble.

Here’s why you’re in trouble:

First, because I’m just trying to help. If general criticisms of unspecified work have you experiencing the shivering shits that you’re not good enough — enough to paralyze you where you sit, fingers poised over the keyboard and never again to dance on those keys — that’s trouble.

Second, because you’re going to get rejected. Rejections will come from agents, editors, and readers in the form of reviews. And those rejections? They’ll be specific to your book. Not my “painting with shotguns” approach to criticism. But they will be very explicitly pointing their critical laser at the exact thing you wrote. And it’ll hurt. It always hurts. I’ve had a dozen-plus books out and… yep, still burns. Even when it’s a rejection you can discard for XYZ reason, you still feel stung by it. And then eventually the sting wears off and you get back to work.

Third, because this is art. Art is made through agitation. Not necessarily unkind agitation, to be clear, and maybe sometimes I drift too far into the realms of unkindness, and if you feel that way, my apologies. (Er, I’m probably gonna keep doing it, though? So, I guess I’m not that sorry? Is that what sorry not sorry means? I GUESS IT DOES.) This shit isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. You’re not supposed to just write a book and then be like YAY I DID IT SO GOOD YAY and then launch it off into the ocean. That boat has holes in it. That vessel shall sink unceremoniously to the bottom of the drink. Your work needs to be tested. Gone over. Rent asunder and put back together again. As authors and artists, we’re supposed to chew it up, spit it out. We have to let other people kick the tires, rub it on their gums, give it a little slap-and-tickle.

You gotta learn to take criticism.

Sometimes that means taking criticism to heart.

Sometimes that means taking criticism and flinging it over your shoulder.

But it doesn’t mean giving into doubt.

That’s what the demon wants.

And fuck that demon.

You can do this.

No matter what I say.

You won’t do it perfectly.

But you can always make it right.

So go write. And rewrite. And write again.

That’s how you exorcize the demon.

* * *

ZER0ES.

An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.

But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.

Out now Harper Voyager.

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68 comments

  • We all have those doubt-filled moments. I’m a writer on lack of sleep and seeing some of my own sins in print hit a little hard that day/this week.

    That doesn’t mean stop writing entirely. It may mean, give yourself a break. Get out and live for a day, a week. But come back and look at your work with fresh eyes and mind and heart, looking at the best pieces of honest advice. When any work gets tough, any smart professional practices self-care and writing is no different. But, as is well pointed out, you only get better by learning, and that comes with the practise.

    So thanks for the brutal honesty Chuck; it’s what so many of your readers/followers/cultists/barely alive minions enjoy. And thanks for some gentleness today. To everyone else struggling: Breathe. Tomorrow is another day, and it can be yours.

  • The first post was fantastic and inspiring, and so is this followup. This kind of advice can be hard to hear from someone who has arrived and succeeded. So, newbie-to-newbie anecdote:

    This morning, looking for a different file, I stumbled across the very first draft of my current WIP, the first novel I ever completed (but the sixth or seventh that I’ve started; I started the others and gave up because I knew enough to know that they were crap and but not enough to fix them). I finished this draft about six months ago, and since then, have finished another novel draft and been pretty steadily plugging away at revisions on both.

    So I found this file and thought, “It can’t be that bad, haha, let’s see how much of the original is intact.”

    YOU GUYS. It was SO BAD. I mean it was quite utterly unreadable – I got about three-quarters of a page in and closed and deleted the damn thing, and sat there stunned, thinking that it was amazing that I 1.) actually slogged through and finished 80k words of this dreck and 2.) thought it was worth continuing to work on, and 3.) DID continue to work on it, and improve it. And deeply, privately grateful that I had the sense to put it through three rounds of revision before I let anyone else read it.

    At this point – I’m a professional book buyer, and it’s as good as most of the stuff that crosses my desk. And yet? The seed of the thing, the fundamental story, the core imagery? Totally intact.

    I’m finishing the current round of heavy beta critique and revision and starting to shop it. I have no idea if I’ll sell it, but I KNOW it’s a work I’m proud to put out in the world.

    There’s nothing wrong with discouragement and doubt; it happens. Keep going anyway.

  • I really liked the post you refer to , and bookmarked it. I wished someone just said those words as a teenager. Instead I had a writer, not a very published one, shred my work during a high school workshop. The doubt demon remained stuck for a number of years. I did learn to not only take criticism, we need it, but to know the tone and content of what’s said.

    Does that make any sense? I had not had my coffee requirement yet.

  • I thought your suggestions were great. You should know since you’re a successful published author. Beginning authors should listen. You’re perfectly right. I would tell other young people what I told my own kids. They need to toughen up because there’s a lot of criticism out there. It’s hard. If they get too discouraged to continue writing now, they’ll never make it. I have yet to have something published, but I’ve done other jobs where a lot was expected of me. No one just gives success, respect, or money away. You have to earn it by hard work. You have to give all the effort you’ve got. And you can’t expect everyone to love, or even like, you. It’s not going to happen. You have to develop a shell over your feelings without letting it affect your work. My first boss was a Type A personality who could be plenty nasty. I started to toughen up right then and there. Quitting wasn’t an option. I cried when I was alone, but I didn’t quit.

  • I am just stoked you offer any advice at all. Although I did get advice from one writer who shall remain nameless because I forgot about him. His advice was clearly jaded poo.

  • i save up your posts to read like two months later, when I have time, from writing. I don’t know much, but I know from one or two groups I joined on the “social” webiverse, that there are a lot of people who think they could be writers but who will never be because they don’t actually write stuff down, and these kids could be perhaps discouraged by your advice – but the advice is for actual writers, not these guys who are thinking about it. Any real writer will write stuff, even if it is about their own self loathing and frustration and not being able to write something good. I’m not saying dont’ worry about them, but there’s little you can do to help them. They need to go away from social media and hunker down with their inner demons and a pen and paper, and when they get back to you, if they do, they’ll be ready for your advice. I say this from the pov of a writer who never sought advice on the internet until I was already accepted for publication – from an albeit small press – because until then I never considered myself good enough to be worth advising.

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