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How do I distinguish between self-doubt and objective recognition of fault?


I start writing a short story, I'm loving it. If I didn't love it, if I didn't want to tell it, I wouldn't be writing it.

I finish the first draft, I still love it, and am so proud of completing it. But by the time I'm in my third or fourth draft, I begin to feel that the core idea of the story is unoriginal and beaten to death, that I'm not saying anything new, and additionally that I'm not even telling it very well.

Now to some extent, any artist experiences self-doubt, and if I've been working at an idea for a while, it's reasonable that it would appear stale and worked to death to me - because of the very fact that I've been working on it for a while. But on the other hand, I might be right. It might be that over the course of writing and editing I came to know more than I did when I started the project, and the idea is indeed not as fresh as I initially thought.

How do I distinguish the two - how do I know if the self-criticism is correct, or if it's just usual self-doubt that should be ignored?

(I suppose beta readers are going to come up. But is anyone really going to tell me "listen dear, this thing is stale"?)

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1 comment

If your schedule allows, you could try setting your story aside and not looking at it for a few weeks/months. That usually works for me... Evil Sparrow about 2 months ago

3 answers


To me, the recognition of an actual fault is specific, I can point to exactly what is wrong and state exactly why it is wrong. While self-doubt, for me, is generally vague. e.g. What if this is like a hundred other stories? Are my turning points too weak, maybe not justified enough? Should I cut the sex scenes to be suitable for a younger audience?

If you can Google for fixes to your perceived problem and find something more than generalities and platitudes, you can see if those fixes apply to your situation.

In your specific case, thinking the plot is done to death: Who exactly do you think has done this plot? If it "unoriginal" and done to death, who has recently failed with this plot? Where have you seen it and been bored?

You might be right, but also remember a huge percentage of best-sellers follow the beats of a 3 act structure, because it works. It is possible your concept is unoriginal, but still works! (Look at Romances, for example). In such cases, the value is all in the execution, the details of the characters, their situation, and their personalities.

Take for example "The Truth About Cats and Dogs", a Janeane Garofolo movie 1998 I think). It's a fairly standard romantic comedy (it wouldn't work in the modern world due to the Internet, but neither would You've Got Mail or Sleepless in Seattle), nevertheless at the time it was hilarious because of the execution alone, including the cast. I recognized every standard beat in the movie, but I loved it anyway. Just because, while watching, I am thinking "complication goes here", and turn out to be right, doesn't mean I can't be delighted by the imagination of the writer.

(My family says I'm not allowed to comment on movie structure when watching movies. Too many spoilers.)

Plenty of best sellers follow the Hero's Journey practically to the letter, and it is just an expansion of the 3AS. Because it works, people like stories structured like that. A lot of people forget that Joseph Campbell synthesized the Hero's Journey as a generalization of hundreds of beloved myths in cultures all over the world. It isn't a prescription for a story structure, it is a description of the story structure of memorable, beloved stories.

So are you really certain it is a bad thing? Isn't your execution at least original? Your characters, or setting, or the complications? Because maybe it is "done to death" for the same reason the Hero's Journey is done to death, because with a little originality, it is evergreen. It keeps working because it taps into the very psychology of what people think is a good story.

If you have a real fault, you should be able to identify it analytically, more precisely than "I just have a feeling". If you make an effort to do that and the only way you can articulate the perceived fault is in vague terms that suggest no course of corrective action, then I would call that self doubt.

Accept your self doubt, and proceed anyway.

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Some of the stuff you write is going to suck. Some of it is going to be without substance or inconsistent or just dull. And some of it is going to be brilliant in conception but dreadful in execution.

The first you should junk. The second you should fix.

But you won't always be able to tell which is which. This is what desk drawers are for. Stick the piece in a drawer long enough that you are no longer invested in the work you did, the effort you expended. Long enough, in other words, that you can throw it in the trash without a qualm. Then pull it out. If it is worthless, trash it. If you are still in love with it, or still intrigued by it, rewrite it.

Repeat until published or trashed. (This could take years.)

The way you tell the difference between self-doubt and genuine fault is time.

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It largely doesn't matter

If you can tell which of two versions of a piece is better, you don't need to be able to tell if either is good. You'll edit to the better version, and repeat cycles of editing and resting until the story is as good as you can make it.

Suppose angels then came from on high and told you whether the piece is excellent or terrible. What would you do with that information? It's already the best you can do!

Your audience will tell you

In traditional publishing, publishers will not be shy about telling you if they like your writing.

For technical writing, you can run hallway usability tests.

If you don't have such a convenient audience, it can be hard to get feedback from beta readers; most are more cheerleader than critic. You might try one of the many online critique exchange groups, a writing workshop, or a professional editor.

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