Can doubt play a positive role in your writing life?

[This blog post first appeared in the International Christian Fiction Writers blog, June 2018]

If you’re a writer, you’ll have doubt. We all do. It comes with the territory.

What amazes me is that even the most successful writers go through it. I was listening to the most recent NovelMarketing podcast and Jim Rubart made mention of the fact that his latest novel – his 10th – has been hard. He’s wondered if he can actually write and doubting if he’s up to it. Jim’s an amazing author with half-a-library’s worth of books with his name on them, but he’s still saying he experiences doubt.

I’m going through another phase of doubt too. I’ve just had the rush and enormous excitement of signing a contract and working on my debut novel with my publisher. The edits. The cover design. The marketing ideas. It’s been amazing, and a sense of achievement. Recognition. Validation that the doubt was wrong.

Then it came time to pitch some more ideas. The doubt returned quickly. Very quickly. My feeling of success was still warm but the icy hand of doubt came back.

I tried to shake off the doubt – we all do, don’t we? – but then I wondered if there was another way to think about it.

So I was thinking about the role of doubt in a writer’s life. It’s often spoken about as a negative, and there are a gazillion blog posts about overcoming it so I, in typical contrarian fashion, wondered what sort of positive role it might play.

I didn’t want to write another blog post about “tips on getting rid of doubt”, so I thought about how doubt might actually help me.

  1. Doubt makes me challenge what I write. Let’s face it, I’m the worst person to evaluate one of my own ideas – either in a positive or negative light. For me, when I doubt my story because I wonder if that plotline is derivative or just lame, it forces me to rethink it, and strengthen it. I doubt a character is likeable, so I examine him. It drives me to work harder to make him quirkier, more engaging and memorable.
  2. Doubt helps me check my research and presentation – research or grammar. I doubt I’m right about the details, so I check the Chicago Manual of Style (my marketplace is in the US), and I get it right. I don’t presume, and therefore make silly mistakes.
  3. Doubt is a part of the fun. I don’t know if this idea is going to get over the line or not. It’s exciting while waiting (he says, knowing he often thinks otherwise in the middle of the wait).
  4. Doubt keeps me reliant on God. This is a big one when you’ve just had a success. When well-meaning people (who are clueless about the writing journey, let’s be honest) start to tell you that you’ll retire on your “author money” in the next five minutes, that doubt over your next idea – and the thought that my first novel was just lightning in a bottle – keeps me leaning into God for whatever happens next.

So that’s what I’ve learned about doubt and me. What role does doubt play in your writing life?

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