Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Crisis of Confidence

Recently, Thriller Guy has been advising several pals who are writing thrillers. As most readers of this blog know, or possibly not, TG does this advising for money, as a job. He can be hired through The Appel Store, and anyone looking for a writing coach and general wisdom dispenser can find TG there or at his private, super-secret email,

These writers are facing one of the most common problems a writer, either seasoned pro or just-born newbie, encounters at one stage or another of the novel-writing process: this is the dreaded crisis of confidence. There are several areas where a crisis of confidence comes into play and we’ll eventually get to the others, but this particular crisis occurs, usually, sooner rather than later in the process of writing a first draft, most often around page 150 or so, when doubts begin to seep in as the confidence of tackling a new project bleeds away and the writer wakes in the night, bathed in flop sweat, his brain screaming… who the fuck am I kidding? My stuff sucks! To counter this panic, the novel-writer then decides to send out his manuscript or partial manuscript, to someone, a family member or trusted friend -- ideally another writer -- and ask for a quick read to see what this person thinks. Dear _____, could you be a pal and take a look at these pages? It’s just a first draft, but I’d like to know if you have any thoughts on what I’m doing and how I could improve what I’ve got. Love ya, babe, and I’ll return the favor some day!

(Or, the writer gives the pages to his or her spouse, mother or father. This is the biggest mistake of all; the parent is going to think they’re great no matter what, and the spouse is going to bring a whole lot of baggage to the table that doesn’t belong in a literary craft discussion. Trust TG on this.)

The problem is, most times the readers who are asked to review the pages hardly ever give the writer the response he was hoping for. This can be frustrating and discouraging.

Which is why Thriller Guy says that a writer should never show his or her novel to anyone except TG. (There are exceptions. Often it’s wise to have an expert read over areas in his specialty to check for mistakes the author has made. That’s a different thing than what TG is talking about here.)
All writers come to this particular crisis on some level at some point. Maybe they don’t see these worries about their abilities as an actual crisis, but if a writer doesn’t have these very human doubts about his work, he’s probably an asshole. What the writer isn’t looking for, even though he probably is not going to say it, is editing, technical writing tips, plot help or philosophical discussions,. He’s really just hoping that the recipient will read the pages, pat him or her on the back and say, “I really loved it!" Period. That little bit of encouragement usually puts some wind back in the writer’s sails, so he can continue what TG has said over and over is one of the most difficult tasks in the world, particularly one of the most difficult artistic tasks in the world, completing a novel. That means 500 pages or more of gut busting, brain bleeding, original words put down on the page in a way that readers will think is wonderful. Wonder-full.

The problem is, most people who are the recipients of the pages and the request -- being friends and good people -- think the writer is actually asking them for their honest opinion and for suggestions on how the writer might further his or her novelizing and make it better. But really, what does anyone know about what is in someone else’s head, about what the writer is going to do in the rest of the book or even what will be done after the draft is finished and the rewrites begun? They can only guess at what's there and what will come from the pages they have been given. And, they are also carrying their own prejudices and opinions (both good and bad) about themselves and about the writer. So the way it usually goes, is the writer gives out what is most often a partial first draft, probably uncorrected pages, and the person who reads the pages almost always thinks that they have an obligation to offer suggestions and honest opinions. Because, as TG has noticed in general and in writing in particular, everyone has a goddamn opinion.

Picasso once said that the only thing an artist really wants is to be loved. TG can assure his readers that the only thing any writer wants when he hands out his work for peer review is to be told that his work is loved. Or at least that it doesn’t suck. Because if it doesn’t suck, it can eventually be finished. And that’s enough to quiet that screaming voice that wakes one in the night, that calms the fires of doubt.

It’s an impossible situation. Everyone involved has the best intentions, it’s simply that the process almost never achieves what anyone wants it to achieve.

And how, you may be asking yourselves, is it possible for TG to accomplish what mere mortals cannot? How can he, a man among men, know how to put together an opinion that’s actually useful? Easy.

Because he is a professional.

Would you go to a pal and ask him or her to check out a lump in your abdomen and tell you if he thinks it’s cancer? Would you take a friend who’s an English major to court as your lawyer and expect him to defend you in a murder trial? Of course not. But TG, after years reading and reviewing novels from many genres, from years of reading unpublished manuscripts for money, friendship and love, knows what works and what doesn’t. Can TG always tell a writer what he needs to do to fix his problems? If truth is to be told, not always. Neither can anyone else. But he can make sensible, workable suggestions based on what he has learned from critically reading and writing over many years. And from having published many novels and written even more that weren’t published. From being in the business. From holding hands, patting weeping adults on the back, handing out hugs (OK, maybe TG doesn’t really hand out hugs) from dishing out his hard won wisdom, TG has learned to be the consummate professional: calm, dispassionate and wise.

Especially when he’s being paid for it.

So will this lone blog, this cris de coeur aimed at writers everywhere, imploring them to stop sending work out to friends and family asking for an honest opinion actually stop anyone from doing so? And feeling rotten when they get back lame tips on how to improve story and style? Probably not. So what’s a poor writer to do? Besides hire a professional. And it doesn’t even have to be Thriller Guy. There are plenty of us out there.

Shake it off, put the comments in the drawer or better yet throw them away and don’t look at them again and get back to work. Or not. There are very few working writers whose lives depend on writing a novel, except the guy in Stephen King’s Misery. (Excellent book and movie for writers.) And it’s always a realistic choice to either continue writing or not. It's a damn big rock and the hill is extremely steep and usually no one is paying you to push it to the top. The smart thing to do would be to apply one’s time to a more immediately fruitful project, to stop beating one’s head bloody, but no one ever said writers were smart. They continue to toil beneath their own, painfully conceived rocks, scrabbling and scribbling their way up the hill, gaining two feet, falling back one, because they are stubborn, stupid, proud, unfailingly hopeful, filled with resolve and good stories, determined to tell their tales and make us love them.

And we do.

Even if their first drafts are crap.

Note: Thriller Guy is headed out soon to an artist’s colony for several weeks where he will be cosseted like an emir while working on several publishing projects, one of which is the writing book, Sit Down; Shut Up; Get to Work, which will contain not only the above advice, but much much more. There is no Internet availability at this retreat, so the blog is suspended in the interim. Readers are advised to while away their time until TG’s return by downloading Allen Appel’s eBooks from Amazon.