Writer’s Block, Part 2: Self Doubt

This is the second in a three part series on writer’s block, on the run-up to NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month – when we really don’t want to fall victim to it. Last week, I described the terror of the blank page. Today, I’d like to talk about the nagging demon that sits in the back of your head.

Writing What You Know?

There’s a well known expression – “write what you know”. I think the idea is that you should write the kind of stories that you like to read; if you’re not interested in romance novels, writing one is likely to be a challenge. If we took it literally, there would be no sci-fi or fantasy!

It can, however, be a problem when your idea starts dipping into areas you know nothing about. It’s very tempting to give up and find something easier to do.

For The Amnesia Project, I had a simple premise – a man wakes up with no memory – but I can cheerfully admit that I know nothing about the medical details behind amnesia, and certainly not how you might feasibly cause it deliberately.

I could have given up on the whole idea as absurd. Instead, I reached out to a friend online who studied neurology and asked him what would be my best approach. There’s no better person to ask about brain surgery than a brain surgeon.

If you don’t know how something works, there’s a simple solution. Find out! Do some research, read some sources, and best of all, speak to some experts. You don’t need to be an expert in the subject yourself. Even a basic understanding of, say, how archaeological excavations are done will make your story set on a dig site much more realistic.

“It’s Been Done Before!”

This is a common problem for writers of all levels. How do you come up with an original idea? No matter how hard you try, everything you come up with has been done – often by bestselling authors, and maybe even adapted into a film.

It’s particularly painful when you think you’ve cracked it, come up with a new story idea, and then you show it to someone and they say “oh yeah, Jane Smith did that last year.” Worse, what if the story you’re halfway through writing gets done by someone else before you’re finished? Imagine, many years ago, working on a book about a school for wizards and then, around the midpoint, this book called “Harry Potter” starts getting mentioned everywhere… what’s even the point of finishing? Everyone will think you were copying it!!

All we can do is try not to worry about it. Everything has been done before. No matter how outrageous your plot, how different your characters, there are at least five stories that are broadly similar. Stories have a shape, and there aren’t many shapes they can take. All we can do is sculpt the edges.

Don’t worry about whether it’s been done before. Write it again, in your own way. It doesn’t matter if the story’s been done – they all have.

But this is really just a version of…

“I’m Not Good Enough!”

I used to worry about my own writing ability. I read a lot of books, and authors like Terry Pratchett and Stephen King are pretty formidable, with dozens of bestsellers and devoted fanbases. Then I’d look at my own writing and think that I couldn’t ever be that good.

Well, so what? I’m not the best writer in the world. I probably never will be, no matter how bad COVID gets. The question is – am I good enough to write an entertaining story? Are you?

Two things have cured my self doubt in this area. One was joining a creative writing group, and judging the entries for the short story competition they ran – there were some very good entries, but there were a lot of poor ones (and some were VERY bad). If you can even finish writing a novel, you’re doing better than 90% of the writers out there.

The other was looking for holiday reading material. I may not be world class, but there are plenty of writers out there that are worse – and some of them are published. Like the short story entrants, there were some very good ones in the mix – others were mediocre, and one or two were absolutely terrible.

Don’t compare yourself to the Pratchetts, the Tolkeins, the GRR Martins. They’ve been writing for a long time. They’ve had a lot more practice. All you need to do is keep writing, keep learning, keep improving. You may never be the best, but can certainly be good enough.

That’s good enough for me.

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