The doubt-beast; or The loneliness of the long-distance writer

What if I can’t pull this together? What if every turn disappoints the reader? What if, instead of a nail-biting action-adventure full of depth and passion, I’ve come up with the literary equivalent of a novelty Christmas single.

I doubt. Everyone doubts. This ain’t my first rodeo and, to be honest, I can’t really imagine writing without anxiety riding the shoulder. It’s almost a comfort; without it I’d worry I was becoming cocky and not caring enough about my work. As it is I’m suddenly struck (for the doubt-beast is a stealth predator) by a fear that what I’ve written is really – well, a bit crap.

I’m not worried about the actual words. They are, doubtless, shit. I’m fully intending to go through this manuscript half a dozen times before it’s ready for professional scrutiny, and the actual quality of writing will, in theory, develop with each pass.

Nor am I too worried with characters, not right at this moment, and for similar reasons. I’ll start to worry about them after my second draft, where I’ve swept away all the foreshadowments I didn’t use and replaced them with the ones I actually need.

No, I’m worried about the actual ideas. I’m worried about choices made and the roads not taken. I’m worried about logic and motivation and cop-outs and gone-too-far-edness.

More specifically, I’m worried about the following:

  • Do I have a decent three-act structure?
  • Is my underlying idea strong enough?
  • Do I have too many point-of-view characters?
  • Is the whole damn thing too complex? Am I trying to do too much?
  • …but the ending lacks a twist or revelation. Is it not complex enough?
  • Is my world consistent? Is there a thread I failed to knit in tightly? Will everything unravel if it’s pulled upon?
  • At almost every stage I could have taken different paths. Have I gone the right way? What opportunities have I missed? What else could the novel have been? Why haven’t I written that novel? Would it be better?
  • Does the story work?

These questions are, in fact, pretty much what I’d want a beta-reader to tell me. And it’s no bad thing to have these questions out there now; it means I’m actively looking for fundamental errors. Simply, I’m alive to ways my story could be improved.

Doubt – self-doubt – is your friend. It’s a way of making sure you look at things from every angle. It’s your subconscious’ way of making sure you’re doing the best you can. It also gives you something of a shield for when you do finally send your work out into the wider world and prepares you for the inevitable criticism from early readers.

But doubt can also be crippling. Too much fear and you’ll never get that first draft down. Which is why I cry ‘Onwards!’ Onwards, to the end. I lock doubt in the broom-cupboard of the mind, or set it to worrying about what I’m going to get the Missus for Christmas (not that novelty single, that’s for sure). Doubt has no place in a first draft. I will save all the questions it throws up – all the above and many, many more – because they’ll be tremendously useful as I move through my revisions. But for now it’s all about getting this draft finished. And I’ve still got my Eternal Climax to overcome.

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