How successful writers keep up their confidence

Self-confidence is the single most essential ingredient an author needs to succeed, since good writing is never that quick or easy.

To keep at it requires energy, discipline, and a sense of humor.

The most accomplished and productive writers I work with are able to sustain a level of assurance and optimism. And that’s even when they’re  feeling blocked, burned out, and unappreciated.

It’s admirable and a little amazing they’re able to do this, since there’s so much hard work and delayed gratification in writing a book.

I’ve worn two hats in my professional life – as an acquisitions and development editor and also as a licensed therapist specializing in crisis intervention. This has given me a useful perspective on what helps writers sustain their confidence during the often grueling marathon of producing a good book.

There are no universal cookie-cutter techniques writers can use to keep up their hopes and dreams. Each writer is unique, with an individual temperament, culture, and developmental process. But here are some general suggestions all writers can consider to help soldier through periods of doubt.

Stay connected

Withdrawal and isolation can be debilitating and reduce creative energy. Writers can work with other people doing research, brainstorming plot ideas, and building characters, but ultimately writing is a solitary occupation, with hours alone facing that blank screen or that big empty pad.

Consequently a conscious effort to reach out is the only way to prevent isolation and loneliness. Maintain contact with other people, loved ones, family, friends, and colleagues. You don’t have to ask for help, just engage as much as possible in regular human relationships. Look for people who can make you laugh out loud. Get out of your head, get out of the house, go and talk to another person. You don’t have to be alone. Repeat: you are not alone.

Keep writing

Even if you don’t love what you’re turning out, keep putting those words on the screen or down on paper, regardless. What may feel like a massive writer’s block may be only the need to pause, or to work out the story on an internal, unconscious level. You can always polish or delete what you’ve written, but sustaining the discipline will be encouraging and ultimately valuable. You will actually build confidence by sticking to the task at hand.

Revive your passion

Go back to the source of your motivation, your real reason for writing and what you are determined to produce. Whether it’s a novel or narrative non-fiction with a terrific story, a well-argued polemic about something important, a love letter to a lost relationship, an angry response to perceived hurt and damages, or any other desire to understand and make meaning out of your life – be honest about it and renew your devotion to this mission.

Keep yourself in good mental health

Some writers exercise, others maintain a spiritual practice like meditation or positive visualization. Others devote themselves to a righteous cause, or become passionate about domestic arts like gourmet cooking or building beautiful things with their hands. Many paint or make music to relieve their creative tensions. Some go to therapists, regularly, or on an as-needed drop in basis. Whatever it takes: do it.

Get editorial help

The best writers I know use editors. Not family and friends who love you no matter what, or other colleagues who may have a personal agenda, such as flattery or competition, but professionals with proven experience.  Writers under contract may already have an editor at the publishing house.  Other writers can engage an editor on a free-lance basis. Choosing the right editor is crucial, so track record and compatibility are a top priority.

Read

Good writers love and appreciate other good writers. It’s inspiring, not necessarily as a direct literary model, but as a process example and goal achieved. It can be done!

Expect rejection

Even the best writers have their work sent back as unacceptable, in some cases after acclaim and riches. Bad reviews, a fickle market, unpredictable changes and abandonment from their publishers — it’s a jungle out there!

Get used to it. Agents and editors don’t always behave rationally, and occasionally say things that just don’t make sense, like “This isn’t a good fit for us.” What does that mean, anyway?  Learn to distinguish constructive criticism from glib and thoughtless remarks.

And for a reality check, consider that Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 140 times before a publisher finally took a chance.  So take heart!

Be patient

All evidence and historical example shows us that it takes many years of rewrites and heroic perseverance to endure the creaky slow risk-aversive decision-making process of the book business. To get published, it’s essential to have realistic expectations about how long it will take. Think years, not months.

Embrace irrational exuberance and obsessive compulsions

During the course of writing a book, it’s ok to be a little over-the-top in your focus and devotion to the work. What may seem to others as a bit crazy can actually serve you well. Many writers succumb to an extreme level of behavior that really keeps up their confidence during the hard work.

Then, when it’s done, they relax, wind down, take a vacation, enjoy their time off – at least until they are compelled to start again.

___________________

What works for you? Have any suggestions to pass along?  Please post them here.

38 Responses to How successful writers keep up their confidence

  1. Donna Hosie

    Wonderful advice as always. Read and keep writing are the two I live by. I would add to this the expectation of riches. With this recession/depression resulting in more and more redundancies, it is understandable for people to believe that writing can make them rich. We all need to keep a level head about how much money writers, even the successful ones, can make from the industry we love. Of course we want to make a living through selling our novels and our agents/publshers want us to be victorious with sales, but common sense must prevail. A love of literature spurs you on, not the thought of having JKR’s bank balance!

  2. kate

    . . . when i’m blocked, i sit down and write about the very thing that scares me the most, that i’m most horrified to put out there, the thing i’d most rather be kept locked up, not translated into words. and then i press the ‘publish’ button on my blog and send it out into the net.

    i get all sorts of comments back. some cheering me on. others mean-spirited. or those passive aggressive ones. some say: good lord i feel that too and i’m so dang relieved to hear it from another human being and i can face my own wall now and thank you for putting it out there.

    but regardless of what comes back, i fought the demon NO inside my mind, and won, and i’m still alive, and i can go on. after that, the writing comes much easier . . .

  3. Nita Leland

    Such good advice in a nutshell. “Get editorial help” is a key that many writers overlook. A good editor is your book’s best friend. A tip I picked up in my reading somewhere can also be useful. Write short notes to the authors of books you have enjoyed. “What goes around, comes around.”

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  6. mari kurisato

    Incredibly timely advice. Thanks for that.

    To contribute what works for me:
    Watching my First Reader read the work, and seeing them laugh, cheer, or get emotional at all the same spots that I did writing it. Those little moments are hugely constructive for confidence.

  7. Irish Barbour

    What has helped me is staying connected to the publishing world online and being blessed by bloggers such as yourself that let me know that I’m not crazy, what I’m feeling and going through is normal; never stop reading, never stop writing.

  8. Raven

    I don’t exactly feel blocked, but there are times when things slow down. I can feel the story simmering, I can really feel it there, doing something, but I’ll sit down and it won’t come out. I believe the story is baking in my brain and no matter how many times I open the oven, it aint’ going to hurry things up. so I read stories, and dreamstorm scenes and even turn the story that is cooking into a visible form so that when it comes, and the story starts to flow, I am ready to go.
    While I’m waiting, I work on rewrites and read blogs.

    The most important thing for me it not to push.When the story comes, it arrives in a lovely flow, almost like rain. I think if I were to worry about this process, if I were to dwell on the possibility it might be nonproductive, I’d only inhibit the process. So, I just keep mining other creative parts of me, until it’s time to write.

    Raven

  9. Natalie Hatch

    Hi Alan,
    I tend to go downstairs and hula hoop with the kids for a little while to release the tension. Then when I head back to writing it’s easy to pick up where the block was and keep going. Sometimes this doesn’t really work and so I’ll skip scenes and write one that I’ve planned for later in the storyline. Then when I come back to the blockage I can see where I went awry.

  10. Erin

    Great article, Alan.

    Just a nitpicky historical note: Contrary to popular belief, Gone With the Wind was not actually rejected at all! Margaret Mitchell gave the manuscript to a visiting literary acquisitions agent with Macmillan who came to Atlanta looking for new literary talent and it was picked up immediately. Wish they had traveling literary talent scouts out there today. :) Guess there are, they’re just not on whistlestop tours!

  11. Alan Rinzler

    Thank you Erin, for correcting the record here. Sure enough, I did some more digging and found what looks like a copy of a letter Margaret Mitchell wrote in 1936, in which she says that she never tried to sell the book before Macmillan picked it up. The letter can be seen here: http://www.kruegerbooks.com/books/sig/mm.jpg

    There’s another story I remember, though, from my days at Macmillan years ago, that Mitchell’s manuscript was in fact submitted widely by her husband prior to the arrival of the traveling company rep. But I can’t prove it without doing further research. Stay tuned…and in the meantime, I’ll remove the reference from the post.

  12. Sara Merrick

    Hi Alan:

    Thank you for the terrific, professional blog. Going to a book signing to support another writer is a good way of getting outside myself. Attending a well-run writing workshop where I can be with like-minded people can be nourishing, as well.

  13. Lynde Lakes

    Excellent advice. Getting outside oneself and living in the real world makes it easier to make the fiction world authentic. Touches of realism makes the reader suspend disbelief and enjoy the journey with you through the story arc.

  14. Guffin Mopes

    I just assume that everything I write is garbage, and do it anyways.

    That way I’m excited if people like something.

    But I don’t know if that would work for everyone. Great advice!

  15. LitPark

    Thanks for this, Alan. As a fellow writer and former crisis counselor, I appreciate and agree with your analogy!

  16. Marilyn Peake

    Hi, Alan,

    Thank you for a very insightful article on how to stay motivated to write. I agree with everything you’ve said, and it helps to see techniques for motivation spelled out that way. As a writer, I sometimes find myself stumbling around in the dark trying to figure out how to stay motivated, especially when the economy and publishing world are in flux or the dreaded writer’s block pays a visit. I experienced writer’s block halfway through the novel I’m writing, and it did turn out that a pause followed by a return to writing were exactly what I needed. The novel started flowing again after I figured out, partially on an unconscious level, exactly where the story needed to go.

    I also agree with Irish Barbour. It helps tremendously to stay involved with the publishing world online, and blogs like this one are great for that.

  17. Candace

    When I’m feeling terribly low in the self-esteem department (especially when I’ve received less than stellar praise from my editor)I always turn on Fall Out Boy’s “I Don’t Care” and dance around like a rock star. By the time the song is over, I can sit down at my computer with a straight back and look at my editor’s notes and tackle them with confidence (verses crawling under the bed and crying out the rest of the day). Works every time.

  18. Kristan

    Here via lit agent Nathan Bransford’s blog, and thanks! It’s reassuring just to hear the words. :)

  19. angela

    Great reminders. Thank you. Looks like there’s lots of good advice here…

  20. Melissa

    Of all days…I, too needed a break and found your words via Nathan Bransford’s blog. I’ve been in that strange place you described at the very end. Finishing a book causes all sorts of odd behavior. As I write this, it is 3:41 pm, I am still in my pj’s, and I guess I need to shower. I’m going to take your advice, damn it! After my shower, I’m going to ruminate with an old friend over a Rusty Nail or two, get connected, get passionate, get rejected and come home to meditate about the whole thing.

  21. Gail

    I think my expectations for being published were warped by the fact that my very first book was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to. After a few rejections, I have to face facts and tough it out like the majority of writers out there. It’s a sobering experience. Thanks for a wonderful article.

  22. Ann Victor

    Also wandered in here from Nathan Bransford’s blog, and very glad I did! Great post – realistic but positive. Thanks. Meditation is my favoured method of keeping up my confidence.

  23. Amber

    I find that an online community, where you can post your work for critique by others, as well as critiquing other’s work, helps me get through the rough patches where I’m blocked and can’t figure out why. Sometimes, it’s easy to see the problem in another peice of work than in your own. And sometimes, it helps to have other people point out a problem, getting you ready to start again.

  24. Emma Newman

    Thanks for an upbeat, non-preachy post on this topic. It’s nice to read about this without feeling that I am being persuaded – I agree with these observations.

    I keep coming across this advice about getting an editor – I have tried once and don’t feel I got the best service I could have. They wrote a nice report, got me a fast track to a couple of agents (who were complimentary but rejected nonetheless), but the editor changed very little in the book. Since then I have edited it again myself, reworked the ending of the book and feel that this should have been pointed out to me, thus making me wonder whether someone else would have been more beneficial. Do you (or any of your lovely commenters) have any good advice about where to find a decent freelance editor for YA post-apocalyptic fiction?

  25. Alan Rinzler

    Dear Emma,

    How do you find a good editor? Here are a few suggestions:

    1.First, check out their track record. Who are the writers they’ve worked with who have been published successfully?

    2.Make sure that you’re talking to a developmental editor, not a copyeditor who just corrects spelling, punctuation and grammar. A developmental editor works with a writer on plot, characterization and literary style. You should receive specific line-by-line changes, edits, deletions, additions, corrections, requests for more information and greater clarification page-by-page throughout the manuscript.

    3.Before you hire an editor, speak on the telephone and even in person, if possible. It’s important that you are compatible, feel comfortable and trust your editor since it can be an intense and personal relationship.

    I don’t know of any editors who specialize specifically in YA post-apocalyptic stories. But a good fiction editor should be able to edit any story.

    I work privately with writers, and you can read about my approach on my FAQ and Services pages. I’ve personally edited a number of YA books, so if you’re interested in contacting me, I’m at alan@alanrinzler.com

    Alan

  26. Emma Newman

    This is a huge help to me, thank you for taking the time to point me in the right direction. There is a language associated with the world of publishing that I’m still getting to grips with – this phrase “developmental editor” is one haven’t yet come across and seems critical – I feel I have been given a password that will unlock some more doors on the next stage of the journey.

    I have looked at the pages you mention and I would love to make further enquiries, however, until I have some money in the pot it will have to wait. I don’t want to start getting excited with you only to explain that it will have to wait for six months whilst I sell everything non-essential in my home to pay for your services. You’re top of my list though!

  27. Miriam

    I felt quite identified with your style.

  28. Lorelei Armstrong

    Now how do unsuccessful writers keep up their confidence? Or is the universe telling us something?

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  30. Chiron O'Keefe

    Excellent advice. It’s ironic how a career that looks so easy from the outside can be so challenging. Isolation is necessary as is an amazing capacity for delayed gratification.

    One piece of advice I offer is to recognize the difference between a critique partner and a cheerleader. During the creative process, we need those cheers. We need doses of optimism and hope like a runner needs hydration. When the book is finished, polished and revised, then additional (and critical) eyes are mandatory.

    Having recently gone through a bout of physical therapy I would also add, take care of your physical health! Writers tend to hunch shoulders and the back. Better to put in the time for proper stretches and some weight-lifting to strengthen those muscles than end up needing weeks of recuperation. We tend to think physical labor is difficult but writing is easy. After all, we’re just sitting around!

    Those muscles require attention to remain flexible and strong. Treat your body with the same care you would treat any tool you need on a regular basis.

    Thanks for a wonderful post. I’ll share this link with several of my groups.

    Best,
    Chiron O’Keefe
    http://www.chironokeefe.blogspot.com

  31. Chiron O'Keefe

    Lorelei,

    The way “unsuccessful writers” keep up their confidence is by focusing on their goals and reinforcing their optimism. One way is to join a writing community. Sharing your goals, your hopes and your fears with others can be balm to the soul. We all need support. Even more important, we need to reach out to others who can offer it. Friends and relatives can be wonderful, but only another writer can relate to the struggle.

    Stop by my blog every Monday. I write a motivational essay for writers, just like you, just like me. We all need a boost. *smile*

    Best,
    Chiron O’Keefe
    http://www.chironokeefe.blogspot.com

  32. Angie Fox

    Great advice! I’m going to have to bookmark this post and refer back to it.

    You know another thing that helps me keep up my confidence when facing a blank page – I have an email file of fantastic, gushy, happy emails from readers. My favorite letters are in there and I pop in there whenever I need a friendly reminder of just why I do this.

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  34. MeLanie

    I know am a little late to this blog. However, it’s been very helpful thank you. Actually, all your post have been informative. I am overwhelmed (and very grateful) with all the information on the web for writers.

    When I first began writing my novel in January. I was obessed to the point of neglecting all my domestic duties. It was so hard all I wanted to do was write, all I thought about were my characters, the scenes and so on. I finally had to make a choice to slow down as I have two small children that have to come first, no matter what.

    Some days I struggle with confidence when I come across blogs of authors that write the way I dream of writing. I don’t fit the profile of a writer, no formal education, a terrible primary education due to a crazy home life, and it goes on and on. Negative thoughts will intrude upon me and I will think about giving up as I did in the past. But for some reason with this book I cannot give up. There is a still voice that says,”MeLanie just keep writing.” I have about 20-30,000 more words to go and I am determined to complete this project. I want to do this for me. It will be the first difficult task I have ever completed for myself. It is a way of saying “I love you” to myself.

  35. Heiddi

    Hi Alan,

    Great post. I am a therapist in foster care and sometimes that is enough to get me writing again when I’m blocked. My day job is very stressful and it leads me to writing as a form of therapy. Also my confidence grows when I see a comment on my blogs and get feedback from others about my writing.

  36. Kathy

    That was an uplifting and realistic blog for writers. Thank you. I have not been mingling with life as I should, great advise. You’ve got to step away, get out and listen to others even if you don’t feel like talking. I remember hearing great lines from other people. Getting outside clears my head. I think I’ll get away to the park tomorrow. No need brooding around here.

    You said that Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 140 times. I can’t find 140 literary agents in the young adult genre to contact. I’ve been bumbed out about the last story I wrote for young adults, I like it, I don’t normally say, I like it.

    I got one liteary agent’s attention. He didn’t like my “one line” of “OUCH” in the story. He said I should expand the sentence, give more explanation. I am sure that additional explanation is not needed when you proceed reading. I don’t think I’ll be hearing much back from this gentlemen. I wish you could email agents with a humorous one-liner, like, “I thought I had you at ouch.”

    Kathy

  37. Kaz Jordyn

    I find ‘visualization’ helps a lot – both in terms of creativity and keeping positive. After two novels, I’m attempting a 60-day challenge to write and sell a screenplay -and to be honest, it’s not progressing as well or as fast as I envisaged, but I know I’ll get there.

    Best, Kaz

    http://kazjordyn.blogspot.com

  38. Kyle Smith

    I basically just write even when I don’t feel like it! When I go through the writers block transitions; i tend to get up and play basketball or call some friends, just to take my mind off of the project for a while. But the worse thing ever to do; is to stay away from the project too long….it will eventually disconnect you from the book and force you to become lazy, with an intention to stare at the computer screen more than writing. The best advice i’ve ever gotten was “Completion is better than perfection”….focus on completing more than making mistakes!

    Warmest Regards,

    Kyle Smith!!!!

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