Self-Doubt and Unfinished Stories

Issue 62

Self-Doubt and Unfinished Stories


J.A. Marlow

Copyright © 2011, J.A. Marlow, All Rights Reserved


The nagging worry something isn't right. The certainty that the writing cannot go on unless it's fixed! The self-doubt increases until the writer can't move forward! Writing grinds to a halt...

Sound familiar?

Many writers have this problem. The self-doubt stops them and they end up with scattered half-finished stories and very few, if any, completed. Even established writers can run into this problem. Any story can have it.

Some writers have certain points in their story, such as the 10,000 word mark, or chapter three, or the midpoint, where the doubts rear up. And then for some the problem point varies with each project.

For a lot of us it doesn't go away no matter how many years we've written. It is a familiar feeling we will always face at one point or another.

But, it does get better. Because we learn to recognize the signs and it has nothing to do with the story. It has to do with the person writing the story. (I'm not going to go into legitimate story problems that can stop a writer. That is something different.)

Learning to recognize the problem is important because it can be a vicious, self-perpetuating circle which can destroy the process of telling stories. As with so many things, if you can recognize the problem then you can take steps to address it and mitigate the effects.

Here are a few pieces of advice. Their effectiveness will vary from writer to writer, but they provide a place to start:

1. See if the points of self-doubt come at any specific marker. Such as a certain word count, chapter, or act. Be prepared with a dramatic scene, or a scene you really want to write, to help you push through the problem point.

2. DO NOT show unfinished work. Finish the work first before showing anyone. Showing off your writing is a great way to stop the process dead in its tracks and have another unfinished story.

The writer's unconscious reaction is to start relying on the outside validation, along with all the feedback given. The readers give their opinion, and there is a tendency to feel the advice must be used. The story starts to morph into something the writer didn't expect or like. The writing grinds to a halt because suddenly it's not the story the writer wanted to tell.

3. Many writers need to work through to the end, even if a part needs to be rewritten. I'm one of those people. Otherwise it can be a rewrite trap. Constantly rewriting without ever finishing because the first part of the book isn't 'perfect.'

This varies from writer to writer. Some have to fix things. But, if this is stopping you from finishing, then try pushing through first.

The problem is that no book is ever going to be 'perfect,' and a first draft isn't supposed to be. Very few writers can write a great first draft. Don't put this pressure on yourself. Revision is a true blessing to writers. Recognize it. Embrace it. Let it take the pressure off. Know that once a story is finished you have the revision process to whip the story into shape.

Make a note in the manuscript to the effect of "From this point assume the beginning is correct." Put any notes in there of what needs to be fixed in the first part. THEN WRITE.

This has an added benefit to the rewrite/edit process. Often the ending will completely change what the beginning needs to be in order to support the ending. The Right Brain is the creative side, the side where your personal psychological 'muse' resides. The part that loves messily throwing creations out there and making amazing things happen. This is the first draft side of the brain.

Then there is the analytical Left Brain that loves order, lists, logic, and loves to declare your work a horribly tangled mess before it is even finished. This side of the brain is seeing the misuse of words, faulty sentence structure, stilted dialog, a small plot hole in scene five. And that's okay. The Left Brain is needed, but it's needed after the Right Brain does its job.

Some writers, myself included, cannot have both speaking at the same time. If the Right Brain is creating, then the Left Brain needs to shut up. As a consequence, I do not write new words and edit at the same time because editing is an invitation for the Left Brain to wake up, start interfering, and causing trouble.

5. Use challenges, dares, word count sprints or other activities that focus on the quantity of words. The point is to not give the Left Brain enough time to engage and mess things up. It's all about the quantity of words only. This is one reason why events such as "National Novel Writing Month" is so popular. The site Write or Die (LINK: is good for timed writing to help get over the humps.

Every writer is different, so a solution to the problem will be different for each writer. The point is not to give up and don't let the story die. Experiment and find a way to keep writing. Let the story be told. Only you can do it, but only if you are determined to make it happen.

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