22 April 2017

The Little Engine That Couldn't: Writers and Self-Doubt

by John M. Floyd

Confidence is a wonderful, magical thing, when applied to creative endeavors. It can sustain us in good times and bad, and when confidence in one's ability is justified it can spur him or her on to great accomplishments.

As for me, I'm no genius, but I try to stay positive and optimistic. I was fortunate in my career with IBM, and I think I do a passable job in my so-called career as a writer. But that doesn't mean I don't suffer lapses in confidence--especially in this crazy world of publishing.

Hills and valleys

I don't personally know a lot of New York Times bestsellers, but I know a few, and one of them told me years ago that she experiences self-doubt on a regular basis. Only half-joking, she said she usually wakes up in the morning thinking Oh God I don't know what the hell I'm doing, then wakes up the next morning thinking You know, I believe I've finally got a handle on this, then the next morning it's This book's going to suck, and everybody's going to find out I'm a fake, and then Okay, I guess I really do know what I'm doing after all, and back and forth and back and forth, day after day. She also told me she doesn't think such feelings are uncommon.

The thing about self-doubt is that it can lead to failure, and failure leads to more doubt, which leads to more failure, and pretty soon the downward spiral is going full speed. And being told not to doubt yourself is like being told not to worry. Everyone worries.

On the other hand, a little doubt can be a good thing, and far better than blind overconfidence. The only time I remember being completely free of self-doubt was a two- or three-week period about twenty years ago, shortly after I'd first started submitting stories to magazines. Having never published anything before, I had submitted five different short stories to five different markets just to see what would happen, and--although I still have trouble believing this--four of those first five stories were accepted, and for the next few weeks I was convinced that I was sitting on a rainbow with the world on a string, like in the old song. I figured Good grief, it it's this easy to get published, I'll just sell a gazillion stories and make a gazillion dollars. That, of course, was not the case. The next thirteen stories I submitted were rejected. Thirteen in a row. That brought me back fast to terra firma, and in retrospect it was one of the best things that could've happened to me. Live and learn.

A necessary evil?

Not necessary, I suppose. But self-doubt is certainly often-present.

Here are a couple of quotes, on the subject. Charles Bukowski once said, "You are better off doing nothing than doing something badly. But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on . . . When failures gather together in an attempt at self-congratulation, it only leas to a deeper and more abiding failure. The crowd is the gathering place of the weakest; true creation is a solitary act."

And this, from Stephen King: "Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt."

I think that goes for a short work of fiction as well. And here's another point: some feel that self-doubt is cured when one's writing happens to win an award or some other form of public recognition. I don't agree. The times that I've been fortunate enough for that to happen, I've often found myself wondering, afterward, if it was just a fluke, sort of a cosmic burp, never to be repeated. And I've heard others say they feel the same way. Self-doubt, deserved or not, seems to follow most writers around like Pigpen's dust cloud.

So what can we do about it?

Hey, if I knew the answer to that, I would've already done it. But here's some wise advice I saw at Chuck Wendig's blog terribleminds: "The key is to let doubt be clarifying rather than muddying. It's important to know that the doubt isn't yours to carry. It's not about you. You needn't doubt your own abilities but rather some aspect of your current work that feels like it's not coming together. Here your self-doubt serves as the standard-bearer for those instincts rising up from your gutty-works. Follow your heart. Thus, self-doubt helps you improve, which in turn helps you defeat self-doubt."

Well said. But it's a hard feeling to overcome. On the lighter side of all this, I remember something else I once heard: "I tried all that 'positive thinking' stuff. I knew it wouldn't work, and sure enough, it didn't." And the sign on the library door that said, "Low Self-Esteem meeting at 6 p.m.--attendees please enter through the back."


What are your views? Do you ever find yourself doubting your ability or your effectiveness as a writer? If so, how much does it bother you? How do you deal with it? Did any accolades you've received put it to rest? Do you have any advice to offer us Pigpens?

Oh my. Something else just occurred to me.

What if nobody even bothers to read this post . . . ?


  1. Lots of food for thought, John. And I think to be a writer is to be filled with self-doubt...after that first burst of enthusiasm when you think you're going to conquer the world. Then you hit the walls and reality sets in and with the The Doubt, which ebbs and flows over time.

  2. I'll echo Paul, who beat me to it--as usual! Self-doubt plagues me at nearly every turn, as I think it does so many writers, but I take that as a guiding rather than a defeating influence. Somehow we keep plugging away, keep getting things done!

  3. Paul, I agree: if you write, self-doubt is there, at least to some degree. And Art, you're right also, that we have to learn to accept it and keep trying.

    It's always comforting to me when I hear (especially from talented and experienced writers like you two) that others suffer the same misgivings that I do.

  4. I do think self doubt is worst when one is starting out. Not to say that rejections don't continue to come- and accelerate even as one gets older, but the older one gets, the more realistic one is about one's work and about the fact that there isn't much one can do about different tastes- or no taste at all!

  5. Hi, John and everyone.

    It's always helped me to remember I'm not the best judge of my own work. I think any creator is too close to what s/he creates to see it with true objectivity. The best we can do on our own is walk away from our work for a while, come back, and try to look at it with fresh eyes.

    As a writer, I favor traditional publishing because an editor doesn't have the attachment to my work that I do. If s/he likes it, s/he publishes it, and that opinion matters more than mine in the end. So, most often I try my best, then send it out and see what happens. If the work is rejected a few times, I might go back to it and see if I still like it well enough. By then, weeks or months have past since I've thought about it, giving me more objectivity.

  6. Good points, Janice--thank you. I agree that there's more doubt early on, which I suppose is natural.

    Gerald, I hadn't thought about it before, but I think you're right: self-published authors (especially beginners) probably harbor ever more self-doubt than traditionally pubbed authors--at least our work is vetted and approved to some degree before it's put out there for the world to see.

  7. Lotta self-doubt at the start of my career. Would have given up a couple times but I was put here to be a writer and that's it. I wrote a few books with no self-doubt, books I knew were good from start to finish and they turned out just as good as I'd envisioned. Most of my books, however, start with confidence then the confidence wanes as I reach the 1/4 mark, all the way through the end. When I finish, I think - well I did my best. I dread the second draft. Let it sit a week or two as I line up the next book or write a short story or two. I kid you not - every time I go back to the first draft I say the same thing. Damn, it's a lot better than I thought when I typed THE END. Of course it isn't until my first readers go through it and editor that I feel good. It's not until I finish the five or sixth draft do I feel - all right. I nailed it again. Then I'm faced with the true horror - selling the book. But I'm in the middle of another book by then and off to the races. I write. If I could sell, I'd be successful. For the moment, I write.

  8. Read it! grin.
    I think self-doubt becomes worse as you get more publications and awards. Particularly, awards. Because then, you are always asking yourself: Is my best work behind me? Will I ever write something as good as (previous work that won an award) again?

    Because the thing we dread most? That critical review: "It wasn't as good as her last book." ARGH. I am haunted by this.

  9. I agree with everyone. Every time an issue of AHMM or EQMM comes in the mail, and I see the wonderful stories by my successful colleagues, a small part of me feels like a failure because, once again, I have nothing in that issue. Their arrival remind me I've still never sold anything to EQMM, and reinforce my fear that my one sale to AHMM (and corresponding Agatha win for that story) must have been a fluke, and perhaps it's all downhill from here. The only things that keep me going are my love of writing and the tiny flicker of hope that my doubts are wrong. I tend to think that the tiny flicker must be like David and self-doubt must be like Goliath, because self-doubt is always there, huge and looming, trying to chip away at me, yet that teensy flicker of hope keeps beating it back over and over.

  10. I really believe that the best people in any field are the ones who keep striving to get better. That's because they KNOW they can still improve. Is that really self-doubt? I don't know.

    One reason for self-doubt is the desire to produce something REALLY GOOD, and that's hard. Only an idiot thinks this is easy. The best people may be the ones who have the best grasp on how hard it really is. The flip side is the people who seem proud (arrogant, maybe?) about stuff that really isn't that good.

    I struggle with self-doubt every time I sit down to work on a new story, and it's a good thing because it means I'm going to work to make it the best I can. Someday, that may even be good enough...

    I'm not sure I agree with Melodie, though. I don't think my self-doubt is any worse now. I know that on a good day I can accomplish something worthwhile, and then I can improve it, even if it takes a long time. Self-doubt is only a serious problem when it prevents you from trying again.

    Actually, O'Neil, I don't think I'd give up now because it would mean all those rejection letters were right. And I've always had to much pride to admit something like that...

  11. John, your words and writing always inspire me. Thank you and thanks to the talented writers who have responded with comments. Each of you have helped to bolster my confidence! Many thanks!

  12. I'm going to swim against the current with my response because I've reached a point where I no longer doubt my ability to write a publishable story. Almost everything I write gets published somewhere, and regular feedback in the form of acceptances, contracts, invitations to submit, etc., etc. negates any self-doubt I might have otherwise.

    Part of this comes from accepting my place in the food chain. I long ago realized that I'm a blue collar writer. I'm one of the writers who gets mentioned on anthology covers as "and many others!" I write the middle-of-the-anthology, back-of-the-magazine stories that editors need. (Note: This recognition of my place in the food chain doesn't prevent me from striving to improve. Without constant striving I never would have even reached this stage.)

    Like others, I have written some "fluke" stories--stories unlike any others I've ever written or stories that sell to publications that I never sell to again. That's part of being a writer. Rather than doubting myself and worrying that I might never be able to do it again, it actually boosts my self-confidence.

    For example, I've only ever had one story in EQMM (well, half a story; it was a collaboration). Rather than doubt my ability to ever again sell to EQMM (and I have the rejections to prove I continue to try), I look at it as a positive event. With that one appearance, I've been published in EQMM more often than most of the writers I know.

    So, while I deal with self-doubt in many aspects of my life, writing isn't normally one of those places.

  13. If you ever run out of self-doubt, John, let me know--I've got plenty to spare. Once in a while, I've written a story in a burst of enthusiasm, gone over it a few times, and sent it off feeling confident. Most of the time, I revise endlessly, going over a story again and again. I recognize that as a way of stalling, caused by fear of rejection. And the delay can go on for weeks or months. I know I could improve my productivity, probably without significantly hurting my acceptance rate, if I didn't revise so compulsively. Once in a while, though, on my tenth or twentieth time through a story, I do suddenly discover a way to make it better. So I guess that's one positive effect self-doubt can have.

  14. I agree with all of the above regarding self-doubt. I've suffered from it my entire life, being the oldest child of extremely strict parents & a Virgo besides. Several people mentioned putting a story aside for a period of time, weeks or months, & then coming back & looking at it with fresh eyes before being tempted to make revisions. I have an extremely good memory & it takes me an awfully long time to forget anything, so I have difficulty with this. I just sent out a story I wrote a long time ago & hadn't looked at since the fall of 2015 ... made slight revisions & sent it out again. Maybe it will sell this time around. ?

  15. John, I was on top of the world last year. I submitted to three anthologies, thinking I'd be lucky with one acceptance. I got three. Woo-hoo, right? Yes, but...

    I submitted to Bouchercon's anthology this year and, well, the streak had to break sometime, right?

    Fortunately, I have an awesome critique group who is encouraging me to make a few changes and put the story back out there.

  16. I always have self-doubt, usually right where I get stuck, stuck, stuck at a certain plot point, and wonder if I am EVER going to be able to write my way out. And then I do... And then it happens again... Lather, rinse, repeat...

  17. Hey folks--just got back from a booksigning in Louisiana (northern Louisiana, O'Neil, not your part of the state), so am only now getting around to looking at most of these comments:

    O'Neil, thanks for the look "inside"--sounds as if you're way more comfortable with your process than I am mine. As you said, it all seems to turn out okay at the finish line, but boy do I have doubts during the race itself. I do think all this gets easier the more I do it, though.

    Melodie, you're RIGHT: awards just makes me wonder if I can ever do it again. What's the old saying?--you're only as good as your most recent work . . .

    Barb, ditto. As for AHMM and EQMM, I've been really fortunate at AH but so far have sold only one story and two "mystery poems" to EQ. Not for lack of trying. And I agree that what keeps all of us going is that we love to write.

    Steve, your positive take on all this is encouraging! And I talk to folks all the time (even today, actually, at the signing I mentioned) who think writing really IS easy. As you said, it's only the bad writing that's easy.

    Paula, great of you to stop in, here! And many thanks, for the kind words. We'll inspire each other, okay?

    Michael, thanks for those points. I suppose I pingpong back and forth a lot, on the confidence thing, sort of like the writer I mentioned in the column. Sometimes I feel my writing's terrible, other times I think all is well, but--as you said--I always seem to somehow manage to deliver, in the end. All we can do is keep at it, right?

    Bonnie, striving for improvement is indeed one of the good things about self-doubt. But I also think that constant rewriting can eventually take us to the point where the corrections are no longer productive. I guess the secret is knowing when to stop. (It's a secret I haven't found yet.)

    Liz, good luck with that finally-found and submitted story of yours! I too have a hard time letting those stories "cool off" for long--if I think it's ready, I send it out. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes not.

    Mary, thanks for the comment. Congrats on those antho acceptances last year--three for three sounds good enough, to me, to sustain your confidence level for a long time. And you're fortunate to have a critique group that you trust.

    Eve, you sound like me. I get those plot problems where everything's in a logjam, but--as you said--I always seem to find a way to fix 'em. Keep up the good work!

    Thanks again to everyone for chiming in, on this!!!

  18. Great article, John. I doubt I could ever write anything as good.

    Oops. There's my self doubt again.

    Like most of the others who left comments, I've been writing for a number of years, but still worry that whatever I'm working on doesn't say what I thought I wrote. That's why I still rely on my critique partners. I'm never confident enough to submit something until they've gone through it and pointed out my shortcomings. There's a great feeling when they say a story or chapter is good to go and an even greater feeling when it brings home an acceptance. By then, of course, I'm deep into another effort with its own set of self doubts. It's a never-endng cycle.

  19. Self doubt? Yup. I alternate between, "this is crap" to "this is actually pretty good" back to "this is crap." An emotional roller coaster! But you know, I think it's the self doubt that makes us better writers. Loved the post!

  20. Again, John, I say "Been there, done that!" And thank you for your candid insight!

  21. Hey Earl!! As you said, the doubt's there every time, but sounds like you've found a good way around it, via your critique partners. I still love your creations after all these years, so believe me, you're doing something right! Best to you and yours, old friend.

    Thanks, Judy!! Yep, back and forth is the way it is, for me too. And yes, that uncertainty, aggravating as it is, probably keeps on the right track. Thanks for stopping in at SleuthSayers!

    Jeff, keep up the good work, old bud. Thanks for the note. One of these days we've gotta get together again at a Bouchercon . . .

  22. Earlier, a few of us mentioned "fluke" stories--one-off sales we fear never being able to repeat--and I mentioned seeing "fluke" stories as positive signs rather than as something I fear never being able to repeat.

    Here's another reason I don't fret about "fluke" stories: In 1990 a fantasy magazine published one of my short stories. Earlier this week I signed a contract for my second sale to that magazine, for a story that will be published next year. That's 28 years between my first and second appearances in the magazine, proving beyond a doubt that the first sale was not a fluke.

  23. True enough, Michael! Bet it was nice to find that you still have the touch, at that magazine. (I hadn't even started submitting stories in 1990.)

  24. I'm seeing this late, John, but I'll put in my two cents: my experience with the crazy world of publishing over the past few years has pretty much eliminated my self-doubt as a writer, because it's become clearer and clearer that success and failure has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of my writing. I will stipulate that I say this primarily as a novelist rather than as a short story writer. Maybe that's why I'm sticking to short stories these days.

  25. Oops, make that "success and failure HAVE..." And I've just realized I seem to be saying that I'd rather have my writerly self-doubt than not. So I guess I agree with you about the constructive value of self-doubt in fueling the creative process.

  26. Good points, Liz. It does indeed seem, sometimes, that success and failure aren't related to, or determined by, how well one writes. All we can do is keep trying.

    I do believe that my confidence level, justified or not, is at least higher than it used to be.


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