Confessions of a frustrated storyteller

Hold on to your voice!

I am my own worst critic. I think that’s the case for most artists, though. We are very hard on ourselves, and we are brutal when it comes to our own work. And while some of that is good (and well deserved), too much of it isn’t healthy.

I’m usually a fairly optimistic person, but when it comes to my own writing I have a pretty negative outlook. I’m really great at promoting other peoples’ work, but I call my own work odd or weird or strange. I don’t seem to be able to say anything good about it. A good friend called me on that the other day, and it kind of surprised me because I hadn’t noticed how harsh I am on myself.

I mean, I knew I was rough on myself. But I had begun to bash my writing automatically, without even trying to defend it or look for its redeeming qualities. So that means subconsciously I’ve reached the point where I don’t think anyone will ever love it as much as I do.

Now, I’m not talking about wanting it to be the best it can be. We should all strive for excellence. We should do our best to eliminate typos and plot holes. We should build the best story we can. And some of those are concrete, objective, right-or-wrong elements. But not all of them are.

If any of you are like me, you value the advice of close friends. And I have been blessed to have many friends who are not only well-read but also writers themselves. But at some point, I need to step back from their opinions and their thoughts on how I need to write, and I need to do it my way. The trick is figuring out where to draw that line. I have amazing friends who are amazing writers with great ideas, and I am always tempted to drop everything I think is right to do what they tell me to do because deep down inside I think they are all better writers than I am.

But here’s the problem: I can’t write like them. And even if I could, they wouldn’t want me to … because it wouldn’t be me.

My voice is what makes it my story. Now don’t misunderstand. I value their input and their opinion higher than just about anyone else, and they have no expectations that I will do everything that they say. All of those expectations come from me because I am not confident in my own work.

I need to be me. Just like you need to be you. Once you get past the basics of concrete storytelling, the rest is subjective. The rest is opinion. Yes, there is a right amount of detail to include. Yes, there is a right way to describe things. Yes, there is a right way to present a character. And, yes, there is a right way to tell a story. But there is more than one right way. And when it comes to your story, that choice belongs to you. You have to choose, but that also means you have to take responsibility for that choice.

So how do you learn to trust your own opinions? When you are insecure because you can’t get anything published and have been discouraged so many times, how do you hold on to your voice?

Well, to start with … don’t make a deal with slimy sea witches because they’re never reliable. =) (Sorry. Couldn’t help it.)

Okay. To start with for real, know what you like. If you don’t like something, you aren’t going to enjoy writing about it. If you don’t enjoy writing a certain way, you won’t have fun while you’re doing it. And I don’t know about you, but if I don’t enjoy what I’m writing (even just a little bit) I have a terrible time staying focused on it. If someone else doesn’t like what you’re writing, that’s fine. They don’t have to read it. And then they can write a book about what they like.

You already know what you like. You know if you like romance or science fiction. You know if you like fantasy better than history. And you know if you prefer to combine everything into one massive conflagration of genres too complicated to explain. Don’t force yourself to write something you don’t like. If you like a lot of detail, write with a lot of detail. If you like a lot of action, write with a lot of action. Yes, there are rights and wrongs in writing, but the minute you try to identify those rights and wrongs, someone will change the rules and succeed where everyone says they should have failed.

Figure out what you enjoy. Find your voice. Find your style. And when you have done that, trust it. There are no new stories, only fresh perspectives. That’s what’s going to sell your story: your point of view. Not someone else’s. You are unique. You are individual. Only you can tell your story, and you have to trust that.

Yes, you need to take advice from good writers and good readers. But don’t let your high opinion of others outweigh the value of your voice. And don’t let discouragement and rejection convince you that your work is too weird for anyone else to love. Believe in your work. Because if you don’t believe in your own work, no one else will either.

Be who you are. Write who you are. And be proud of it. If nothing else, when you finish your story, you will have accomplished something many would-be writers never do. So don’t waste time tearing yourself apart. If it’s something you need to fix, fix it. But don’t change it just because someone tells you to. If you think it will improve the story, do it. If not? Stick to your guns and believe in your work. Someone will read it. Someone will love it. Someone will beg for more.

Everyone always says to be unique, but for the first time this concept finally clicked with me. And it’s the most liberating idea I’ve ever stumbled across. I’m a perfectionist and a people pleaser, but I’ve reached the point where I need to be me. I need to be okay being who I am as a writer — not who people expect me to be. And if that’s the wrong move — if I crash and burn — at least I will have learned how not to do it. And I will know what to do differently when I try again.

So here goes nothing.

I have been writing stories since I was 11 years old. Since then I have absorbed every possible lesson about storytelling that I can, and I have written 35 complete full-length novels since then. And they are awesome. Not perfect. They’re rough in a structural, first-draft kind of way, but overall they are good stories with positive messages and fun characters who feel like your best friends. That’s what I have been told, but now I’m going to let myself believe it’s actually true.

I’m proud of how I’ve spent the last 19 years of my life. I’m proud of the work I have accomplished. And in our world today there is more opportunity than ever. And if people don’t like what I have written, that’s okay. I like it. And it’s not weird or odd or strange. It’s me.

Leave a Reply