Monday, 3 January 2011

What Do I Do? The Uncertainty of Being a Writer

Absolute Beginners. From what I can see they fall into three main camps.

Absolute Beginner 1: The Eager Submitter

Writes a story/novel/screenplay, grabs their copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ – the ancient dog eared one the library were selling for 10p on their bargain shelf – and goes through it marking “possibles” with their highlighter pen. Sends off their first three chapters to a publisher then from the moment it drops in the postbox, waits for a phone call/letter/email begging for the rest of the manuscript. Here they divide into two subs. The one who starts writing something else and the one who stops writing and will not write until they have their contract in their hand (just in case the publisher wants them to do revisions). Both expect to hit The Big Time.

Absolute Beginner 2: The Shrinking Violet

Writes a story/novel/screenplay and decides no one in their right mind is going to want to publish it, so they put it away in a drawer. But the Writing Bug is there, so they start writing something else telling themselves that this time, it is the one, but halfway through they lose heart. What is the point? That effort is hidden away and the next one begins because the writing itch has to be scratched and so it goes on for years, sometimes decades. Absolute Beginner 2 may never find the courage to send anything off and they won’t even let their nearest and dearest read their work. How many wonderful books, I wonder, are out there hidden away in drawers?

Absolute Beginner 3: The Eternal Planner

Buys all the books on writing, reads all the blogs, spends hours in the library/bookshop checking titles and browsing the internet visiting publishers’ websites. What is popular? What is not? Who publishes the kind of thing they want to write. They have a white board on the wall covered in plans, names and dates. There are post-it notes everywhere, folders with character sketches and pictures of people who look like their characters. With all this research and planning they don’t actually have time to write anything and by the time they get round to it, the fire has gone out and they decide to start something new and so the research begins again.

So where was I as an Absolute Beginner? Well if I’m honest I was mostly Absolute Beginner 1. Although I didn’t send off my very first efforts I did write a novel of black magic and Satanic rituals when I was 19 – I sent off my synopsis and sample chapters and Robert Hale asked to see the whole manuscript, so I sent it off.

And like Absolute Beginner 1 I waited for the acceptance. Which of course didn’t come. Lesson learned? Well almost. A whole heap of rejections later, my lesson was learned. My confidence was in shreds, but my lesson was learned.

The lesson being to always have something Out There so that when a rejection (or twelve) comes in, you still have hope. And eventually one day I did get an acceptance letter and shortly afterwards I learned lesson no. 2.

Just because you have sold 1 story, 10 stories, 100 stories, 1000 stories, you have not earned the automatic right to be published and you have not found the path to riches. You are only as good as the last story/book/screenplay you submitted.

This post is about uncertainty. Crisis of confidence. Call it what you will.

These days I sit down to write a story and halfway through a little niggling voice (the same little voice that in the beginning used to urge me to submit) starts to tell me it isn’t good enough. So I rewrite. And rewrite. And sometimes I end up scrapping it or putting it to one side because by then I have rewritten it to death. Sometimes I only write a line before deciding no one will want to read it.

And there are the novels I have planned, researched and plotted – but never really started.

I think we are all absolute beginners in a sense. Every piece of work you write is a new beginning.

There are fine lines between the eager submitter, the shrinking violet and the eternal planner. I regularly leap between them all and I’d guess quite a few of you are the same. Either brimming with confidence or drowning in doubt.

I do the same with blog posts. I write them and then delete them before they ever leave the safety of Word.

So perhaps it is time to banish uncertainty, to grasp hope and hang on to it and maybe I will start hurling posts at you willy nilly until you beg for mercy! Or perhaps I should proceed with caution and not inundate cyberspace with my ramblings. Maybe I just need to read more books on the subject…

I think really you need to be a mixture of all three, but in moderation. You have to do your research, but not to the detriment of your writing time. You have to submit, but not until your work is ready. And you have to submit full stop. Faint heart never won a box of chocolates or whatever the saying is.

If you haven’t sent anything off yet, but have been writing for a while, DO IT! There is nothing to fear. Send it off and move on. Go on. Do it now. What are you waiting for? Go on…..


  1. I think I was mostly Shrinking Violet when I started writing, but I got over it and now I just submit all the time, because you never know where that first break is going to come from (and it's probably from the place you least expected).

  2. I think I was an eager submitter initially with my short stories. I certainly sent out some stuff that I now know isn't nearly good enough. We live and learn!

  3. I was number 1 although I didn't really expect to hit the big time - that part didn't kick in until I'd sold my first few stories. Because I had a couple accepted close together, it seemed as though I'd finally got it right. The next few rejections were a terrible dissapointment (I'm nearly over it now though)

  4. I think I'm a mixture of 2 and 3. I only started the research thing in the last few years and finding other writers on blogger has been a great help!
    It's tricky getting the balance just right though!

  5. Excellent post, Teresa.

    And it really helps beginner writers, whichever category they are in to hear that even more established writers get rejections and have the same insecurities about their work just as much as any other writer. I swing between all the writer types you mention too! But as you say you have to submit your work at some stage if you want to be published, and be prepared for rejection as much as, if not moreso than acceptance. It's a hard lesson to learn but learn it we must!

  6. I think our insecurity is one of the reasons why we have success as writers. Never sure, always tweaking, never complacent, always striving to make our work better, deflated by rejection yet determined to keep fine-tuning and resubmitting. I don't think any us is ever smug or self-satisfied. All we do is have a solitary celebration and punch the air/dance around the house/put the kettle on when we get good news. Then we return to our insecure selves. If we didn't work that way and respond that way, we would never receive any more acceptances of our work. And we wouldn't be writers. So those doubts that creep in and nibble away at our confidence maybe just go with the territory.

  7. I think I've been a mixture of all 3 of those, Teresa. Although I've had a combination of articles, stories and novels published, there are times when I can't seem to progress. I have two works in progress [novels] that I've put on the back burner for ages and they only need me to write a chapter or two to finish them. I think I'm the type of writer who needs to keep up my momentum!

    By the way, I would hate it if you left cyberspace as I love reading your blog! x

  8. Fantastic post Teresa! I'd never given thought to the different types of beginners. I think I may have been a number 1 but by the time I submitted I'd learnt enough about the industry not to expect to hit the big time which I think is a lot nicer than being disillusioned with your first submission :)

  9. You describe the 'absolute beginners' so well, Teresa.

    I was interested to read, recently, that even Alan Bleasdale has had a lean few years. He says that people want his work, until they actually have it in front of them. Then, they want to set about changing everything.

  10. Great post, Teresa - I've been all three at some time!

  11. There is a fourth category, I think, although maybe s/he doesn't really count. He's the person who says "I've always thought I'd like to write a novel", or "everyone says I should write my life story". This person thinks that, one day, he will do this; but we all know he won't, for one overwhelming reason. He hasn't got The Bug. Those of us who have it (and I often really wish I didn't) can't not write. We have to write. It may be a masterpiece; it may be rubbish. But it's a compulsion that only a fellow-sufferer can understand.

    By the way, great post, Teresa!

  12. I think I've been all 3 too, consecutively.

  13. Glad you got over it, Juliet. Being a Shrinking Violet can be soul destroying.

    Me too, Helen – but I still send stuff off that makes me cringe with shame when it comes back!

    I suppose it was teenage confidence, Patsy, but I really thought I’d hit the Big Time running until I crashed into the Real World.

    I find it very tricky getting the balance right too, penandpaints. I have been known to try to fish a submission back out of the postbox because I suddenly realised it was utter crap – only to have it accepted. And likewise, sent off a masterpiece which has come back by return of post with an audible scream of horror trapped inside the envelope!

    Definitely, Julie - I don’t think the insecurities ever go away no matter how long you’ve been doing it.

    How very true, Joanna. So all the self doubt is a good thing really, keeps us on our toes. And I love “deflated by rejection” – that is exactly how it feels isn’t it.

    Thank you, Lynette. I feel even more nervous about posting on the blog than I do sending off a short story – there’s no editor here to tell me whether it’s rubbish or worth posting. I hope you can get those two novels finished.

    That is very true, Lacey! A very sensible way to go about things.

    That’s interesting about Alan Bleasdale, Martin. I had written a long answer to your comment on the way writers are treated, but perhaps I’ll save all the righteous indignation for a future post.

    Me too, Rosemary. It is so nice to share these feelings with other writers and realise we all suffer the same anxieties and harbour the same hopes.

    They’re in a class of their own, Frances. I’ve met several “Oh I could do that,” or “My daughter could easily do what you do,” or “I think I’ll write a book one day.” You’re right – they haven’t got The Bug.

    You too Diane! I feel less and less weird the more I realise I'm not alone!

  14. Hi Teresa. Great blog (don't stop we love them!!) I think I'm a mixture of all 3 to some extent! Depends on my mood at the time and how creative I'm feeling. Caroline x

  15. Hands up! I'm all three and I've just sent off my work just to see what will happen next. With my first MSS I had read everything I could get my hands on... My dear husband let me spend a small fortune on ebay on 'How to write books'. I read them all from 'cover to cover' just over 250 books until he said, Look, my love I think you need to get on with the writing and stop reading about it' when I beg him to buy me just one more that I had to have because it was a must have one. As they say to be a writer one must write. So keep on writing your blog, Teresa and we'll keep on reading it.

  16. Brilliant post, Teresa. You've summed up all my thoughts and feelings. I'm definitely a B1. I always have something on the go and make sure I always have a few things out there.

  17. Teriffic post, Teresa.

    I agree with everyone who is a mixture of the three types but I have a special interest in 3 - particularly reading the writing books.


  18. Lovely post, Teresa. I was definitely B1 but without big time expectations. I sold my first story to PF swiftly followed by 2 others and then didn't sell anything else for nearly a year!!
    So good to know everyone else feels uncertainty like this. Coincidentally I've just blogged about self-doubt too (though not nearly as elogquently as you do!) since I am currently suffering from it big-time. Don't you just hate that horrible little voice in your brain whispering: this is rubbish! But since I am particularly pig-headed I'm not listening to it anyway. Love the idea that it contributes to a better standard in our work, Joanna. I'll try and remember that next time I am climbing the walls with doubt and frustration! :) x

  19. Great post Teresa and so true. I'm an all 3 type too.
    At least where rejection is concerned I'm disappointed but take comments and look at my work in that light and consider what I need to do to make it an acceptance next time- I'm still trying, but one day...

  20. I am definitely No. 3, the Eternal Planner. One day I shall get a sentence written... a page... a chapter. I got writer's block halfway through my last book and haven't written a word since.

  21. Thank you, Caroline – that’s very encouraging!

    Good for you sending your work off, Jarmara and good luck with it. Your husband sounds perfect and he’s right (I speak as one who knows how hard it is not to read everything on the subject of writing!)

    Thanks Keith. It’s always good to have stuff Out There.

    Thank you, Suzanne – don’t let no. 3 take over though.

    That voice can be pretty persistent can’t it, Lydia. Good for you not listening. I’m about to pop over to your blog.

    Carol, it’s always good to get comments with a rejection. Keep trying!

    I seem to be an eternal planner these days too, hydra – mainly with long stuff, but it’s starting to invade the shorter things too. It’s really hard to go back to something you’ve left halfway through too. The initial enthusiasm seems to evaporate.

  22. There is much that I can relate to in this post. I can bounce from doubt to confidence and back again within the space of an hour. It's never a constant thing. All you can do is try to carry on regardless!

  23. I was number 3 for a very long time - it was finding the internet and joining a writing group that really made all the difference. I'd say I'm more a mix of all three now, but it's subject to change!

  24. I'm a mixture of all three, and was successful in a minor way (i.e. not JK Rowling sort of way) for some years. Then divorce and reality struck and real life, and coping with it, got in the wa of writing. I've begun again, encouraged by Hydra, with a blog. I've no idea if I'll try to write for money/publication again.

    The one thing I am certain of, Teresa, is that I've never yet read a story of yours that I didn't enjoy. Keep it up!

  25. Speaking of Alan Bleasdale, I've just watched his 2-part drama about the sinking of the Lanconia. I thought it was very well done, and isn't that chap, Ken Duken, who played the u-boat commander, Werner Hartenstein, absolutely blooming well handsome?

  26. You are so right, Joanne - about the bouncing back and forth.

    And you, Karen - all we can do is go with the flow.

    I hope you will, Jacula - write for money/publication again. And that is such a lovely thing you said, thank you so much.
    I haven't watched the sinking of the Lanconia yet, but it is recorded. Am looking forward to seeing the U boat commander - er I mean the programme ;-)

  27. I was definitely No 1 when I started to write but, in those days, there seemed to be a lot more outlets for writers than there are now and I'm sure it was easier to get published.

    Now, I tend towards No 3, especially where novels are concerned. I'm an absolute sucker for books on how to write. I have shelves of them. I always believe that each one is THE book that is going to turn me into a great writer!

    Great blog, Teresa. Thanks.

  28. Hi again Teresa. Just letting you know that I have referred to this post in my latest one, as I think it's so relevant to many of us who write.

  29. Yes I think it was definitely easier, Gail.
    I cleared out my stash of writing books a while back and just kept half a dozen favourites, but it seems to be expanding again! It's like an addiction isn't it.

    Thank you, Joanne :-)

  30. Oh, I sent something off today to The People's Friend, and a letter to Writing Magazine. I have no confidence, but will keep sending stuff out, as time allows!

  31. Good for you, Teresa - good luck and yes do keep sending stuff out so you always have something Out There.