Imagine, for a moment, you are talking with a new writer. A brand new, would-be writer who is coming to you for advice. What advice would you give them? Where would you start?
Whenever we think about the skills you need to develop to become a successful writer we usually start with the basics:
Then, somewhere along the way we'll also mention the importance, no, the necessity of developing a thick skin so as to handle all the rejections that will come a writer's way.
We'll then get side-tracked to talk about how to fit writing into an already busy life and how to set goals to keep your writing on track. I'm not belittling any of this; this is all solid and useful advice. But somewhere along the way we forget to mention a skill that is so vital that without it we cannot function as writers.
What is this missing ingredient? It is self-belief.
Self-belief is an issue for many writers. Writers are their own worst critics. It sometimes seems to me that as soon as you declare yourself a writer you sign up somewhere to have an extra dollop of self-criticism dropped into your consciousness.
As I mentioned last month, experienced, successful writers still often feel that they 'aren't good enough'. So imagine how much worse it is when this lack of self-belief hits you before you've published anything.
This came to me when I had lunch with a friend recently. She is just starting out as writer. She's written lots of stuff but has not submitted anything yet. She told me that she wants to submit her stories for publication but gets put off by all the 'rules' she's read in writing magazines. How agents won't want this. Why 'these' stories won't sell. How difficult it is to get a gig at a magazine when you're starting out.
She feels fazed by the writing world, unsure of herself and, quite frankly, scared to enter it. I understood how she felt. I'm sure most of you do; we've been there, done that and got the t-shirt.
I told her that some so-called 'rules' are actually guidelines to help people to publishing success, but, I added, you don't have to follow them. Nobody wanted magic stories until J.K. Rowling came along. Then vampires were a 'dead' (or should that be 'undead') market, until Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer made them popular. I said that unknown writers do, occasionally, make first sales to glossy magazines. It's rare but it can happen.
But most of all I told her the secret fact that we writers hide away from the world. We all think we're no good. But we have to build up our self-belief. We have to work past it, silence our huge inner critic and get on with writing.
She asked me how. I told her that you just have to work through it. Keep going. Pointedly ignore your critic and only let it out to play when it's editing time – but even then, keep it on a leash.
You need to believe in yourself as a writer. Don't automatically think you're going to be the next Pulitzer winner, but recognize what's good and be gentle on yourself as you improve your weak spots.
Now I don't know if she felt any better about her writing after her chat, but I noticed I felt better about mine.
I think of all the skills we think of when we talk of what you need to learn to be a writer, or to develop as a writer, self-belief is the one we neglect the most and at our own peril.
So be kind to yourself this month. Yes, we can all improve, but don't let your inner critic over-rule your self-belief.
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