“Do writers in general suffer from low self-confidence?” hubby asked me the other day. Hmm. I would not describe myself as low on confidence. Low on self-esteem, yes, but that’s another matter. Or maybe it isn’t, because if your self-esteem is a bit shaky you become vulnerable as to what other people think of you—and your books. Does that mean writers as a whole are peeps with shaky self-esteem? No, I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think writers in general have low self-confidence either. But what most writers need and want is some sort of affirmation, a third opinion – preferably as a review – expressing that their work is okay. Ha! Okay is not what we want to hear, more along the lines of “heart-wrenching” or “unputdownable” or “thought-provoking” or “excellent read” or “gripping”.
It’s not only writers. Most of us want someone to pat us on the back now and then and tell us we’re doing a good job. Even when we know, logically, that we are performing as expected or even better, that validation is what makes us feel we’re doing well. Maybe it’s because we’re all very humble and therefore do not trust our own opinion. Not! Rather, it’s because we, as a species, belong in groups, and if you’re a member of a group, then you want the group to recognise your contribution.
Writing is not a group effort. Well, in some ways it is, as the writer lives in a bubble populated not only by themselves but also by the characters in their books, and boy are those characters a pain in the nether parts at times. Leaving aside all the voices in a writer’s head, all those shadowy creatures visiting them at night to suggest yet another tweak to a crucial scene, the writer is mostly alone. So alone, us writers tend to talk a lot to our pets, or if we don’t have pets, to ourselves or our laptops.
As you can see, my dog is not all that interested in my attempts at conversation. Unless what I am saying includes words like “ham”, “walkies”, “food” or “ball”, he mainly lies there, looking totally relaxed as I lay out my latest plot conundrum. Still, it feels better to talk to Asterix than to myself. Makes me feel less eccentric, if you will. Most writers aren’t eccentric. They just have very vivid imaginations, which, IMO, is usually a good thing. People with a rich inner life are rarely bored, because if we are, we can embroider on our humdrum lives, add some spice in the shape of an imaginary character or amuse ourselves by considering just how to divest of a body if you’ve just killed someone with a hoe – this while kneeling by the flower beds and doing some serious weeding.
Back to the self-confidence issue: One of the drawbacks to being a writer is that there is so much work invested in each novel. Some writers—especially those with huge outputs, releasing several novels each year—resort to formulaic writing. Essentially, they’ve learned to standardise their production process. Lee Child does this in his Jack Reacher books (and I must hasten to add I really, really enjoy those books and am a tad worried about the news that he plans to pass on the writing baton to his brother…). In every book, you have lone wolf Reacher who wanders the U.S. with a toothbrush in his pocket and not much else, pitted against baddies. A woman is always involved. At least once per book, there is a love scene. There is always one initial fight scene where the baddies realise—too late—that Reacher is not only big, he is also an extremely competent fighter. Reasonably, after five Reacher books, the reader would yawn at the recurring elements. Except the readers apparently don’t. No, the readers love knowing exactly what they are getting.
Romance writers are also quite good at formulaic writing. Enter hero, who for some authors always is tall and bulky. For others, said hero always has mesmerising eyes, be they amber or green or grey. Enter heroine. Usually, heroine is spunky. She also has mesmerising eyes—rarely are her eyes described as “small” or “a muddy brown”. She has lovely hair—not necessarily immediately apparent as heroine may have hidden it in a messy bun or under a hat. Usually, heroine has baggage in form of a tender heart which makes her reluctant to trust. Alternatively, it is the hero who has had his heart broken in one way or the other. Trust, dear peeps, will not come easy to our couple—but attraction does. Like a wall of sizzling heat, it has both our protagonists gasping while desperately trying to hide it. At first. (NB: these days, romances can have two heroes. Or two heroines. Same rules apply re the broken heart and trust, though)
Once again, the interesting aspect of all this is that the readers do not mind the repetitiveness of the writing. Take a historical romance by Amanda Quick (and while Ms Quick has some formulaic elements, she always delivers a unique plot, so it doesn’t quite apply, but still). Should the hero not have a leonine mane of (preferably) black hair paired with amber or green eyes, I would be somewhat disappointed.
Likewise, if I read contemporary romance featuring hockey stars (Yes, I know: sounds very formulaic. Is very formulaic, as the writer wanders through the team, one book per player, but this particular writer is skilled enough that she always delivers a human angle that varies) I am expecting a story about a young man who has really enjoyed the wild and crazy life of an attractive (and hot—they are always hot) bachelor who suddenly meets Ms Right. He doesn’t always want to meet Ms Right—heck, he likes his life as it is—but there you are: Ms Right enters from the left and Mr Hockey Player is soon enough a reformed man, worshipping the ground she walks on.
Those of us who haven’t quite mastered the art of standardised production (which we all know brings with it the benefit of solid margins) plod on with our stand-alone stories. We write books that sometimes cross over multiple genres, thereby making it difficult to promote them adequately. The other day, someone asked me if I could give them the name of a couple of books which I felt were comparable to my Wanderer saga. My reply? “Ummm…”
I can give you a list as long as my arm with books that in some aspects compare to this complicated story featuring star-crossed lovers who’ve been around for 3 000 years, who’ve lived and died, who’ve loved and lost, and who now finally—FINALLY—are in the same time frame only to discover that their ancient nemesis has also decided to pop up, as intent as ever on destroying their lives—but I can’t name one single book that contains all those elements. I am inordinately proud of my Wanderer books—IMO, my writing reaches new heights in this series, probably because I loved writing them—and I have some lovely awards and reviews, but my self-confidence suffers when the sales stats don’t pick up or when the reviews don’t flow in. Logically, I understand why. Emotionally, I am wrecked.
The moral of all of the above is that the savvy writer lays an ear to the ground and considers how to address the market. Then they sit down and mull over their formula: what genre, what ingredients will be recurring, what will be added as a unique spice. Assuming they can write—because let’s face it, it takes a lot of skill to write high-quality formulaic fiction – the savvy writer is on the road to success, both from a monetary perspective and as a self-boosting exercise.
Obviously, I should now be sitting here considering just how to become one such writer. Except, I’m not sure I want to. I like writing unique stories, crazy, sprawling things that vary in historical period, that sometimes include paranormal elements, sometimes not. I want to write romance and historical fiction and time travel and epic sagas and maybe historical fantasy. The single recurring ingredient in my stories is love—and my preference for tall, strong heroes. I suspect that isn’t enough to design a standardised product, but boy do I have fun exploring all these parallel, imaginary worlds and stories.
“Do writers have low self-confidence?” hubby asked. I guess some do. But some of us clearly have enough confidence to write what we love, no matter if the end result is sprawling and quite, quite impossible to neatly box into one genre. I will just have to suck up that emotional wreckage and soldier on, finding confidence in the fact that I write what I love and hoping the passion I invest in my work carries across to my readers.
And talking about passion, I must now return to my WIP, a heaving, twisting thing that spans centuries and continents. But guess what? My leading man is tall and handsome, even if his dark hair has a tendency to flop forward and cover half his face when it escapes its ribbon. And as to love…oh, yes! Lots and lots of love!