Today we’re taking a field trip to touch on something all writers struggle with at some point: story doubts. It might come about because of a less-than-enthusiastic reaction from a beta reader, or after requests for fulls go nowhere. Maybe you have rewritten your opening 9,000 times or have three drafts of your novel, all told from different points of view, and still feel uncertain which version is the right one.
Doubt – soul crushing worry that we are not capturing our story well enough – can not only snuff out a novel, but the writer’s spirit as well.
Jennie Nash has some excellent insight into this pool of doubt, and how to swim through it to write deeply from passion, telling the story as only the author can.
I’m a book coach, and all day long I have writers coming to me who want to work out the Where and What and How of their story. Many of them are in the midst of some kind of writerly anguish: they have a pile of agent rejections, or they are 2/3 of the way through their 23rd draft and they’re still not sure the book is working, or they got to the last scene and suddenly realize that nothing has happened in the last 150 pages so there’s nothing to resolve. They are not sure how to move forward or even if they should move forward. They are, in other words, full of doubt, and somewhere along the line, they have come to believe that the way out of that doubt and that anguish is to focus like a laser beam on these Where, What, How questions:
Where should my story really start? What needs to happen in the middle? How is the best way for it to end?
Nine times out of ten, they are asking the wrong questions. Instead of Where, What, and How they should be asking Why? – and not even about the story itself, though that is an extremely powerful exercise, too*, but about themselves as writers.
If you’re anything like me and almost all the writers I work with, your story has been haunting you for quite some time. It keeps you up at night. It nags at you when you are reading other people’s stories. It pops into your head at times when it is least welcome. It wants to be told.
It can be extremely useful to know why you think it’s haunting you. I actually believe that not knowing the answer to why is one of things that holds a lot of writers back. They know they like to write, they know they’re good at it, they know they have a story to tell, but they don’t know why it matters to them, or what, exactly, it means to them.
As a result, they write a book that doesn’t ever really get down to anything real and raw and authentic. They write pages that skate along the surface of things. And if there’s one thing readers don’t need, it’s to skate along the surface. That’s what the Internet is for. And cocktail parties. And the line at Costco.
Listen to Simon Sinek’s TED talk on how great leaders inspire action. It’s 18 minutes long, but even if you listen to the first 6 minutes you’ll get it. The main point of the talk is this: “People buy things because of WHY you do them, not because of WHAT you do.”
Writers want someone to buy something from us as much as the folks over at Apple and Nike. We do! Even before we talk about dollars and cents, we want readers to buy that we have something important or entertaining or illuminating to say. We want agents to buy that our idea is generous and alive.
So all this work you’re going to do on WHAT your book will be? It often all hinges on WHY you want to write it — on why it is haunting you, on what captivated you from the start, on what the spark was, on why you care so much. If you can articulate that, it will probably unlock the story in very powerful ways.
In 2002, literary agent Ann Rittenberg gave a speech at Bennington College that sums this up beautifully.
What kind of writer can make characters [you care about]? I think the kind of writer who is not afraid to access the deepest places in himself, and is not afraid to share what he comes up with… I see plenty of writing that has kernels of good in it, but it’s hedged around with so much tentativeness, or uncertainty, or excess, or stinginess, that it doesn’t allow the outsider — the reader — in… Yet when I read something that speaks to me, that absorbs me, that remains vividly in my head even when I’m not reading it, I’ve been intimate with the person who wrote it before I’ve even met him. This isn’t to say I know anything about him. I only know he or she’s the kind of writer who’s willing to explore the deep essence of character….
That’s the kind of writer I am guessing you want to be. So how do you get there? Ask yourself the following:
- Try to recall the moment your story came into your head. What took root in that moment?
- Why does it matter to you? What does it mean to you? It wouldn’t have stuck in your head if it didn’t mean something and matter to you – a lot.
- Have you been shying away from the truth of that moment – out of fear of how raw it is, or how powerful it is? Let yourself to get closer to it.
- Let that truth inform your story from beginning to end. Let it be the engine that drives your narrative forward. A story that has a single driving force tends to be a story that has a solid beginning, a gut-wrenching middle and a satisfying end.
- *Ask why of your characters, as well. Why do they care about what they care about? Why will it hurt them not to get it? Why are the afraid? Why can’t they do what they know they should? Why did they do what they just did? Why did they cry? Why, why, why. It can be the key to great writing.
Jennie Nash is a book coach, the author of eight books, and the creator of the Author Accelerator, a program to help writers break through procrastination and doubt and write books that actually get read. Check out her free resources: a free 5-Day Book Startup course, a free weeky trial of the Author Accelerator and weekly lessons on writing in the real world at jennienash.com. Also check out The Writers’ Guide to Agony and Defeat, and sign up to win a free coaching session.
Do you struggle with story doubt? How do you move past it? Let us know in the comments!