Self-Doubt Doesn’t Care Who Or How Successful You Are (So Just Do ‘The Thing’ & Write Your Novel)

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I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. Mostly, I would just draw pictures and follow my mother around the house and tell her the stories I’d come up to go along with them and be ecstatic when they went on the fridge. I was also a voracious reader, but I was never content to only read; I always wanted to create. I didn’t know what writing was, really; I just knew I had stories to tell.

Writing wasn’t about plotting or world building when I was young; I just wanted to put all my ideas down.

I used to write stories for my friends and then leave them on cliffhangers for weeks while I figured out what came next.

In high school, I was the editor for the paper and wrote several articles. I created “Stickman! The Series!” which was an ongoing comic I passed out to various people in my classes. It was filled with dark humor and constantly skirted the safety of a PG-13 rating in every issue. By the end of my senior year, I was making a handful of photocopies in the library because people I’d never even met before had read it and wanted more.

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“Hello dear sailor, I’m a siren, here to kill you.”
“Kill me? Why?”
“It’s what I do. I gotta be me.”
(10th grade humor. You’re welcome.)

But through all of this, I never once had much doubt about my ability to write. It was just something I did.

Writing was as much a part of me as breathing. But without knowing why, I knew I wanted to get better. So I started researching how to write. And this is where I hit my first real hurdle and my lack of skills became self-evident. My talents were raw; they were unformed clay next to master sculptures. I saw the divide, and for the first time, it bothered me that I wasn’t a better writer. It was like seeing color when I never even knew I was colorblind to begin with. But I was still excited to dive in and learn, so I did. I started reading everything I could find on how to be a better writer.

But the more I learned about writing, the harder it became to write. As technical concepts starting taking root, it felt like my knowledge was actually ruining my ability.

Before, I wrote what I wanted, completely in the dark as to whether it was good or not. But the more I took in, the less the words seemed to flow.

No one ever tells you that self-doubt isn’t just a natural instinct you get handed the first time you put a pen to paper. It’s a creeping sensation that comes out of nowhere. Like walking into a classroom you’ve been in a hundred times before and realizing that something seems different. The desks have been rearranged. You’re not by the window anymore. You have a new seating chart and your buddy is this prick that constantly asks what you’re working on and then compares it to everyone else’s work to make you feel bad.

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And when you start to understand the technicalities of what you’re doing (or not doing, as the case may be), writing isn’t “easy” anymore. It’s not comfortable. It’s not fun. It’s a jerk that looms over you and keeps whispering, “Just quit already.”

So what happened? How did you get dejected from Paradise and sent crashing into this new world? Are you actually a bad writer?!

The moment you become self-aware, your brain is not going to take it easy on you. Suddenly, all those books you loved before aren’t just for you to enjoy. They’re also a model of everything that you aren’t, and that you may never be. And when you compare yourself to them, you’ll feel incredibly foolish for even trying.

By the time I graduated, I was exhausted from “creating” on demand. I shelved many of the books I’d started because I literally got sick of them. I was tired as hell of writing. I had more doubts about my abilities than when I’d started. I was scared of what would happen when I actually finished my novels. When I tried to publish. Would everyone hate it? Would they tell me that my efforts were incomprehensible garbage?

This fear compelled me to quit writing for a little while. I threw myself into work instead and got a position as an editor with several indie publishers. I doubted myself for choosing writing as a college major. I wrote only enough to keep the hinges oiled, and considered jobs outside of my field. But then I got a job with an online magazine as an editor and writer. Inside, I hoped the writing portion wouldn’t come, and for a few months, I got my wish. I was a writer who was afraid to write. The fear of how I would be received had crippled me.

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The first time I was assigned an article, I had a full-blown panic attack. I had to get up and walk away from the computer because I was petrifiedof writing again, especially for a widespread audience. My biggest writing credits at this point were publications in my college newspaper and some minor poetry anthologies.

But I knew, under the fear, that I wanted to do it. And that I wasn’t going to let anyone—least of all me—ruin it. I decided, pass or fail, it wouldn’t be because I gave up.

I wrote the article. It took hours. I hated every minute of it. I was convinced it was the worst drivel I’d ever produced. But when I was done, I realized that I’d written. I’d gotten through it, and I could breathe again. Sending it in to the editor was like a weight lifting off my chest. Then came the next assignment. And the next. And before I knew it, I was writing 4-5 articles a day on a variety of topics. And so I stopped focusing on the technical aspects of how to “craft” everything. I focused instead on the writing. I had a job to do; I had to produce. So even if it still terrified me, I did it.

Before I knew it, I had written over 200 articles.

And while this was going on, I discovered the drive to just sit and write. I stopped self-editing so much; stopped telling myself I couldn’t do it. I let the technical aspects I’d learned guide me, but I put down the story I wanted to tell (reminding myself every time that I could edit later), and suddenly, writing was happening again.

I think I repeated Terry Pratchett’s quote, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” like a mantra, whenever I felt like I couldn’t make it.

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In late 2015, two years after graduation, I finished writing my first soft sci-fi novel, Mercury in Retrograde. I edited it for months, waffled on my resolve, and then finally wrapped it up and researched query letters. And even though I felt that same doubt that said I wasn’t any good, or that no one would like it, I sent it out. I cried because I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever done.

Just over a year later, it was published. And just over a year after that, it got silver in a book awards contest. And even now, knowing what I know, the voice in my had still tells me that it’s not good enough. That I’m not good enough.

The hardest part of writing is the deceptive idea that it should be easy. That it should always feel fun, and that if you’re struggling, it’s because you’re a hack. But this simply isn’t true.

Writing is an exercise. A mental one, sure, but you’re working out muscles you may not even know you have yet. It’s going to hurt quite a bit before it gets better. And just like anything in life, you can either use it to make you stronger, or you can cave in and let it smother you.

Don’t focus on your fears. Focus on what you can control. Don’t wait for inspiration; make inspiration happen. Sit down, write that novel.

Don’t worry about what people will think of your book. Write the story that you want to tell; edit it later.

The voice in the back of your head is never going to be satisfied, even when you exceed what you thought was ever possible.

So don’t let it stop you.

 

 

 

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What Is ‘Mental Real Estate’ & How Can It Make Your Writing Better?

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You will probably stumble across the advice to “write what you know” at some point in your career. And it’s great advice! However, as beneficial as it is to “write what you know,” it’s only one small portion of a larger concept you can implement when it comes to storytelling.

Writing what you know can seem both maddeningly simple and alarmingly complex. It suggests that you should draw on your own experiences with people, places, and events to create a more intricate and realistic world for your reader. It’s a great way to add flavor to your writing and make what you’re working on feel that much more intense, gratifying, and yes, even sad or thought provoking.

After all, you’re not just creating your scenario or character, you’re pulling from real-life memories you felt and understand and can describe in detail.

But as a culture and as people that have many elements of entertainment from all over the world, it can be easy to forget our shared experiences — especially when it comes to writing.

This is where mental real estate steps in and sweeps “writing what you know” off its feet. These two concepts are ideal partners. One helps you make your writing fuller, and the other teaches you to write a story people will love!

The brilliant thing about mental real estate is that it’s a concept that holds an infinite amount of information in your mind. If someone names an item — like Mountain Dew, for example — and you recognize it, then that item has staked a claim in your mental real estate.

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Basically, people are all a little Pavlovian by nature, and if you repeat a phrase or word at them enough with a catchy little jingle, soon they’ll start singing along. This is a concept that retailers rely on so heavily that you probably don’t even know how engrained their logos, slogans, and brand names are.

Also, you’re probably thinking about getting Mountain Dew now. Sorry. (#notsorry, that ish is delish.)

Every song you’ve ever loved and sang along to? Mental real estate. Quotes from your favorite poem or movie? Mental real estate. Being able to name the product from hearing, “The quilted quicker picker-upper?” Yep, you guessed it! All of these things take up space in your head. But mental real estate isn’t just a concept that works for retailers. In fact, it works for storytellers — from indie authors to Disney movies — and it can work for you, too.

If you’re asked to name a fairy tale, there’s a 99 percent chance that you’ll know what a fairy tale is and have at least one example, whether it’s Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or a dozen others.

The point is that you recognize these stories because they’re already in your head. They’re a part of your mental real estate and have set up camp right there on Fairy Tale Lane (which, let’s be real, probably intersects with Fetish Ave. at some point).

But it’s not just the names of these stories that you can recognize. It’s also their plots. The heart of the tales. The lessons they teach. Remember when Avatar came out? It made a crap-ton of money and was hugely regarded by viewers.

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And then someone came along and pointed out that it was the exact plot of Disney’s Pocahontas set in space with giant blue aliens. And instead of corn, the evil invading humans were after unobtanium, aka the world’s worst placeholder name that somehow made it through every edit into production.

You might think that people would feel cheated if they got told the same story again. But the trick of mental real estate is that your sweet, innocent brain looks at the concept, says, “Oh, I know this one!” and embraces it in a giant pile of squishy, comforting familiarity. So instead of saying, “I just spent $30 to watch blue alien Pocahontas,” you said, “Oh man, how cool was that?!”

And while this may seem like cheating, it really isn’t. People are comfortable with what they know. What’s familiar and embedded in your mental real estate is Hollywood gold. Filmmakers vie for it like crazy. Many of your favorite movies probably share a ridiculous number of similar traits to many of your other favorite movies.

When it comes to writing, if you’re ever stuck on what to do with your characters or where to go next, write what you know! Think back to similar instances in other stories you enjoy, and try and find a new angle for your audience; a new hook that employs a familiar concept.

There’s a reason why Hollywood can get away with remakes and reboots of the same stories. There’s a reason no one admits to watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales but it got nearly 800 million dollars in worldwide box office sales.

These are stories you know. They’re comforting. They’re familiar.

So when it comes to being a storyteller, it’s okay to look at other plots, other concepts, and try to come up with something that will introduce a lovable old story with new vitality. Read everything in your genre; learn what worked and what didn’t. What reoccurring themes happened? What tropes and characters do you see repeated, and why?

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Recognize these things and employ them in your own writing in a new way. If you want to retell Sleeping Beauty, ask yourself what can you do to make it different and yet familiar enough to be “safe” to your reader’s brain. Can you put her in the future? Absolutely! Can she be steampunk and trapped in a moving tower that roams the land? Yes! Does she have to be Sleeping Beauty at all? No! Change her name; her hair; her skin color! Make her a boy and have a mechanical dragon guarding the tower that your scrappy mechanic prince/princess has to dismantle before they can save him!

You can use these shared concepts and themes to make that novel familiar and comfortable to readers while giving them a new journey to go on. This doesn’t mean copying the story, it means understanding what your readers want and giving it to them. In the end, you can write not only what you know, but what we all know and enjoy together.

This was originally published on Medium.com