Thursday, January 6, 2011

Getting Defensive Over Your Work Isn't Always Bad

I've been revising my work. I haven't written anything "new" in weeks, and I've noticed my brain switching from one kind of thinking to another. I like this switch because it's a break from drafting. As I've said before, drafting exhausts me. On the other hand, revising, for me, always means I'm dealing with some sort of feedback from others, and feedback always means shifting into defensive mode. I'm sure my betas would tell you I don't actually get defensive with them, but I do get defensive in my head. This can occur even without feedback. That familiar battle:

Oh my gosh, this book sucks. Everything I've ever written sucks. No, it doesn't suck! Have a little self-respect, would you?

How did I miss these plot holes! I'm so stupid. You are not stupid. If you say that one more time I'll break your arm. And both your legs.

I can't possibly revise this beast one more time. It's good enough now. No it's not. No work is ever done until you turn the final edits into your editor. You know this. Duh.

So the battle rages on and I revise page after page after page. This can, sadly, go on for years. Defensive mode can be a comfortable battle, one in which I feel empty without its presence. Being always happy with my work is boring. Being too confident is egotistical. I've got to keep pushing myself down to be a real writer. Right?

Tell Yourself You Suck
As much as I think it's wrong to dog on your work all the time, I do think it's a necessary step to grow. No completely 100% confident person has always been completely 100% confident. Allow the doubt to creep in. Wage a war. Let yourself land into a deep dark pit of doubt and despair and see the light up above.

And Then Get Out Of There
Yep, climb out. Fight your way out. Grow. Learn. And don't beat yourself up for beating yourself up.

Nick made it clear in the comments that there's a difference between beating ourselves up and beating up our work. I agree. What I'm mostly talking about here is being critical of your own work. Mostly, I'm saying give yourself permission to suck and get upset about it. A lot of what I write is never seen by any alpha or beta reader. A lot of it gets deleted into the abyss because I'm learning faster how to recognize what sucks. Still, it's the recognition that counts, and that almost always includes waging a little battle. Celebrate the fight. Let it happen, and march on to victory where there will likely be another battle in a few days. Opposition is, after all, how we grow, and I suppose if you keep losing the battles you probably aren't cut out to be a writer. I'm convinced it's a violent career, no matter what anyone else says.


  1. Hmm. Must chew this one over for a bit. I think there's a huge difference between saying, "That thing I just wrote sucks," and "I suck as a writer." I'm not sure, though, whether that's significant or not. Hmm.

  2. Nevets: Yes, there's a difference. You're right. I didn't make that difference clear here at all, either. I think it's necessary to be critical of our work, but maybe not so "hateful" of ourselves as a person.

  3. I tell myself I suck as a writer all the time. And then I punch myself in the arm and say, "Well, if you're so sucky, how come everyone says they love what you write?"

    You're right, it is a violent occupation. I've been burned more writing, than I ever did when I was a chef. Burned meaning, I type so fast, the keypad is literally on fire. lol

  4. There, Nevets, I added another line in the post for you. :)

  5. Anne: Yes, I think writing is the most personal, violent thing I've ever done. That includes labor and childbirth. That was at least over pretty quickly. I think as the years go on with my daughter I might find that raising a child is even more emotionally battering than my writing, but it hasn't been so far. Nothing else outside of writing has been so consistently intense and battering inside my head. It's wonderful, though. A lot of work, but very rewarding in the long wrong.

  6. Okay, it probably was significant to me because I feel better about it now. hahaha

    Because I do agree that there's this conflict in any writing process and that it's a natural and normal part of developing and exercising confidence.

  7. Nevets: I agree. I think it's really important not to be 100% confident all the time in our work. If I was, I would never strive for anything better.

  8. If it's your state 100% of the time, I'm not even sure it's confidence. That's just swagger or delusion. It's not the same thing.

    You're not being confident if you don't have challenges to overcome or weakness to bolster, because it's only then that you have to look the bear in the teeth, hike your pants up, and say, "Yep, he's gonna eat me, but I can do this anyway."

  9. I think allowing a negative comment re your work drive you to get better is not a bad thing. but when it undermines your ability to move forward and write - that is a problem. (if that makes sense)

  10. Some kinds of writing, however, take a good deal of confidence to attempt. There are times when it's good to just man up (or woman up, as the case may be), and say, "The hell with it, I'm writing it this way. I can make this work, biotch!" (The "biotch" may or may not be necessary.)

    Sure, kick yourself a bit when revising for your silliness and the things you missed, but buck up, baby. Write like you mean it.

    *steps off soapbox*

    *rubs hands together and waits*


  11. Christina: Yes, and I do think that if a writer consistently feels that way over the course of years and years and never really moves forward, they probably shouldn't be writing - well, at least pursuing publication, I guess. Writing is therapeutic and wonderful for many people who have no desire to publish their work. That's great, too.

    Simon: EXACTLY! That would be what I mean by getting out of the hole and moving forward. Fighting that battle and self-doubt, but letting that self-doubt fuel you forward. Sounds like that's what you're doing. Go, go, go!

  12. Simon: For the record, I personally believe the 'biotch' is always necessary. :~D

  13. As I said in my blog post this morning, I've finally battled through the "I suck as a writer" stage.

    As I edit now, I can separate the temporary existence of a sucky sentence from the knowledge that I have the ability to write well.

    I'm a good writer. It feels great to say that. It feels healthy.

  14. Linda: YES! I think it's that healthy attitude that lets us look up and SEE the light and have the courage to fight all the little battles. Sounds like you have won the big war, and that's the most important step. :)

  15. Of course Bru would agree with the biotch!

    I think an implied message here is also that one should be open minded enough to consider the fact that their writing might need work, that it may have the potential to be better. No matter how defensive I feel, I have to be willing to consider that my defensive stance is wrong. I open up that possibility for a short while and then make my decisions about whether or not I want to change something. I get down in that dark pit a lot!

  16. In my mind, one of my major writing accomplishments since college has been to separate criticism of myself from criticism of my writing. In college, I felt deeply ashamed, embarrassed, and inadequate when I realized my writing was bad or someone didn't like it. Now that I can better separate the two, writing is much more enjoyable--and I find myself less defensive, because I can agree that something I wrote needs editing without feeling terrible.

    I just started looking back at pieces of my WIP after a break of several months. The draft lights up in my brain with highlighted words or sentences that need fixing. But instead of making me feel bad, it pleases me because I feel clearer about how I can make it better--and because, well, retaining some editing skills shows that my brain hasn't completely atrophied during pregnancy!

    I agree with your conflict metaphor. Constantly questioning and reworking our writing, like a giant puzzle or game or battle plan, keeps us sharp and always improving.

  17. Re: confidence: there was a psychology study a few years back which attempted to determine correlation between self-confidence and objective performance. What the researchers discovered was that people who were very confident about their abilities were much more likely to perform badly, while those who were *not* confident about their performance did quite well.

    In other words, if you never question your skills, it might just be because you are fooling yourself. I'll bet writers fall into the "less confident but perform well" category more than the "over-confident but perform poorly" one.

    I was absolutely thrilled to have the chance at a pro editor going over my novel page by page (and sometimes line by line). She made her points quite convincingly and never made me feel badly -- she stressed that the revisions were all about strengthening what was already there.

    I've certainly had my "this is no good" moments, but they tend nowadays to shift to "what can I do to make it better?" moments along the "strengthening what's there" notion. And whenever I do feel pangs of self-doubt, I just remember that psychology study -- and smile.

  18. You know, I JUST had this epiphany. I think that something that has really helped me make this attitudinal change has been my husband. He is the first romantic partner I've had who truly does not define himself by his credentials or public accomplishments (like test scores, degrees, etc.). We were filling out pages in a baby book "about Mom and Dad" and it was fascinating to see how differently we described ourselves. I included my educational and work history (like a resume, LOL!) and Mr. G included none of that stuff, just things like his favorite colors and personality traits.

    Hmmm, it is interesting how much our support networks can affect our attitudes and neuroses, and through those, how productively we write. A lot of writers tend to think of themselves in isolation, like robots or hermits. I know I do sometimes. But now I am thinking more about how important our social supports are, separetely even from our writing/critiquing support networks.

  19. On the one hand, if I read something I've written and think that I can make it better, that's a good thing. Sometimes when I'm revising I make comments in the margins of the MS like "this is just dull; do something with it or delete it" or "rework all of this passage" or even just "wow, this really blows." Because sometimes I write badly but at least I can see when I have. Hopefully most of the time. I still have weird little grammar and syntax quirks that only other people can spot because I don't know any better. So when *I* tell myself that my writing sucks, it's fine.

    On the other hand, even the slightest advice or criticism from someone else rankles at first. "No, this is mine," I think. "Your job is to appreciate what I have wrought, not to make suggestions. How dare you?" So I am both extremely critical of my own work and extremely sensitive to any kind of commentary about it. But, you know, I get over it pretty quickly because it's not personal and it always results in the work being improved.

    Though, to be honest, sometimes people make suggestions and I just look at them and wonder how I managed to make friens with such an idiot. And then I stop letting them read drafts at any stage and just tell them "Yeah, the writing's going well! How are you?"

    I am so off-topic it's not even amusing.

  20. Here's my real comment: I think it's fine to tell ourselves that we have written something that sucks, as long as we are resolved to make it better. I also think that during a first draft especially, there comes a time when we lose all confidence in the project and think it's the stupidest idea ever written in the worst prose in the history of bad prose. It seems to be a compulsory step in the process, and it's also fine as long as we buck up and get on with it.

    Self-doubt is a good thing; it makes us work harder. Anyone who says he's mastered the art of fiction is a just trying to sell you something.

  21. Davin: Yes, that's the implied message, exactly. It's important to see that we always have room to grow, and I think a part of this is not getting too puffed up over ourselves. That usually means getting down on ourselves occasionally, or at least our work. I get in the dark pit a lot, too.

    Jeannie: Love your comments, thank you! It was an important step for me to realize that everything I write doesn't have to be perfect and that it can ALWAYS change - and that it's okay if it needs to change. And that is very cool about your husband! I love that. I tend to judge myself by my accomplishments, and that's not the best thing to do. We should be happy for WHO we are. Everything else is extra. Social support is so important, too. I'm so happy to be a part of the writing community!

    Mizmak: Wow, that is really interesting! Thanks for sharing that. I think it's true. I just watched a Star Trek episode that dealt with someone who had overconfidence in himself. It's important to find the place where we know even if something isn't necessarily good, it's perfectly fine, and to happily fix it on our own, or with help.

    Scott: Love the fake and the real comment. I'm like you about being extremely critical and sensitive of my own work, but I think I'm getting to a better place with it where I deal with it better than I have in the past.

    And yes, it's important to see our work for what it is and not delude ourselves either way. This may be subjective, but our subjective opinion is what matters the most. And your editor's if you have one, I suppose. :)

  22. Yes, you can read all about it in my upcoming book, Mastering the Art of Fiction!

  23. Scott,

    If I buy 10 copies, will it make me 10 times better?

  24. Justus, Scott's book works exponentially, so your improvement will far more dramatic!

  25. Domey, will you blurb Mastering the Art of Fiction?

  26. Bailey's book, Mastering the Art of Fiction, is essential reading for anyone who wants to master the art of fiction. Don't write a word until you read this book. Don't read this book unless you are prepared to master the art of fiction!

  27. 'I'm learning faster how to recognise what sucks' - Amen to that. It's sad but true that a lot of what passes unnoticed when you initially start writing / editing becomes horribly apparent with greater skill and experience.

  28. ah, Domey knows my mind too well :~P

    Next time we're all hanging out down in that pit of despair we ought to have a barbecue. Just as long as we keep each other from tossing our ms's onto the toasty flames of writerly angst, at least we won't starve!

    Seriously, though.

    This is a great post- and the comments are very helpful to someone really trying to get some perspective -->me<--.

    I honestly have no compass for this-it's just all 'it sucks' and that's why I am struggling with revision of the bigger works. I hope I can find my way out of the pit eventually. Right now- it just all feels completely sucktacular.


  29. The key word here is 'balance'. Learning when to accept a negative comment and when not to.

    I've had critiques of a chapter that were spot on and I've made changes. I've also ignored them because I believe that what I've written fits the character/story.

    My writing does suck. If it didn't, I would have been published by now. But it's not as bad as my inner demon thinks it is.

  30. Sometimes our defense is of our vision of the book as we see it, and that's not a bad thing, but allowing ourselves to see what other readers see in it also allows us to deepen our writing.

  31. Haha, a "violent career." Yeah, well, let yourself write sucky first drafts--we all do. Join the club! The important part is how you edit and revise. Your skill with the polishing tools, aided by helpful betas.


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