Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Escaping The Vacuum

My mom has said on more than one occassion that when I was growing up she didn't know if I had the biggest ego in the universe or no ego at all.

I think that's a trait many writers share.

On one hand, we have the hubris that our words are not only important enough to put on paper, but that other people should take time to read them.

On the other hand, we are constantly in fear that we suck hard.

Unlike stage actors or musicians, where feedback is live in front of a group of people, writers get very little in the way of approval from their audience.

Sure, there are reviews. And if we're lucky enough to get published, there can be fan mail. But during the months it takes to write a book, we're usually working in a vacuum. The writing process is solitary, and feedback is often internal and fiercely critical.

This lack of confidence in our own abilities makes us work harder to make the book better, but it also causes a lot of worry and stress. We all face a perpetual teeter-totter of thinking what we just wrote is pretty good, then thinking it will never be published and the world will realize we're frauds.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

I've extolled the value of peer groups in the past. Having friends, family, and peers critique your writing is the fastest way to improve. But it works for more than the finished story.

Asking a trusted peer to read a work-in-progress can be a huge help. It can clear up nagging doubts, get you through a part where you're stuck, force you to regroup, and aid in motivation. A writer friend saying "This is great" ranks only below "I love you" in the most important words you can hear.

I'm lucky that I have half a dozen professional writers on speed dial, and if I get stuck, they're happy to help me out. Naturually, I return the favor. It's a combination of tough love, enabling, and a mutual admiration society, and it is one of the true joys of this business.

Don't have anyone to help you when you're wallowing in despair? Here are some tips to find that special someone.
  • Join a writer's group. Most colleges, libraries, and bookstores have some sort of weekly or monthly gathering of writers. If they don't, offer to start one.
  • Next time you're among writers (convention, conference, writing class, literary talk) introduce yourself to them. If you find someone with similar interests, offer to trade manuscripts.
  • If you're a published writer, and have published writer friends (you can meet them at book fairs and writing conventions, usually at the bar), ask if they'll swap WIPs with you.
  • Show your non-writer friends to critique like a writer. I have a download on my website that teaches how.

Book don't have to be written in a vacuum. Talking with peers can be encouraging and inspiring, even if it only amounts to a few kind words to help you trust yourself.