Demons of Doubt and Comparison, and the Weapons to Fight Them

Buer (1) Today I want to talk about the demons that dog us. Particularly the ones that come calling after you feel you’ve paid your dues. The unglamorous demons. The ugly, stupid, unsexy monsters of mistrust. The sorry sack of dopes you absolutely must banish if you ever expect to get anywhere.

But first, an annoying personal interlude! (Trust me, it’s relevant.)

Before I pulled the trigger on my first book, Orison, I was sure no one would care about it. I imagined it would garner the faint, polite praise of a few friends (possibly my mom), and then I would move on to something else, battered but wiser.

I was so sure this would happen that I never bothered to consider the alternative: that people I’d never met would post glowing reviews, compare me to traditionally published authors, and send me jovial but slightly menacing threats, asking when they could expect the sequel.

The book got praise. Quite a bit of it. And people wanted more. So I started working the sequel (like you do). But then fear and doubt began to creep in. Not the dread certainty that my work would meet with indifference. No, now I had fans. Now there were expectations to meet. Now, much to their surprise and my own, people thought I was good.

I was trapped.

You might wonder why this is a problem. Oh, your book was popular and well-praised? Please wait while I produce a tissue so I may cry bitter tears over your predicament.

But sequel-fear is a real thing. “Second books are often weaker than the first,” conventional wisdom goes — which, to an author working on their second book, takes on the funereal sound of psychopomp wings, waiting to drag your sequel-writing soul off to authorial hell. NOT AS GOOD AS THE FIRST ONE, your tombstone will say. And that will be it for you.

So do the creeping demons of doubt and comparison come calling to your door, even — especially — after an auspicious beginning.  Here’s how to identify them and, one by one, beat them down. 

An Alchemy Against Avoidance

The demons of avoidance will find any reason to keep you from your work. You are too tired. Too depressed. Too burnt out. Your favorite show is on. Your hamburger meat was too fatty. Sometimes these things are true. Sometimes it’s just the demons, drawing you away from your work so you will forget what was important. But they are easily slain. Set ten minutes on the clock, churn out some words, and knock them down like the cheap tenpins they are. Chumps, the lot of them. 

A Crossbow Against Comparison

Zhugenu-payneA thousand writing blogs will tell you not to compare yourself to others, and they are all correct. Yet so many authors, even the successful ones, do it all the time. Oh, your buddy got an agent, or just launched their new book, or was retweeted by a celebrity? Well, that’s all the success. They used it up. None left for you. Better luck next incarnation! These particular demons are insidious and crawl right under your skin, so don’t let them get near you. Shoot them in the head from afar with a dose of hard work. You are you. You’ll never be anyone else. Stand your ground and deliver, because that’s all you have.

A Defense Against Doubt

In the wolf’s hour, a sudden, terrible thought: What if you aren’t any good? What if your best is actually crap? What if every friend and colleague who told you your work was quality is secretly a clever and inveterate liar and / or a tasteless nincompoop who is mysteriously wise about every author but yourself? These demons are ridiculous once you uncover the inconsistensies in their lies. Apply a cold bash of logic, and don’t let doubt prey on your emotions. Keep doing the work. Everything you complete makes them a little weaker.

A Potion Against Perfectionism

The grim psychopomps of perfectionism are my own personal nemeses. They come a-flapping, wondering why every paragraph, every sentence, every word choice isn’t a transcendent bloom of orgiastic wordplay. Well, sometimes it just ain’t. Despite what the demons of perfectionism might think, “change the world of fantasy literature and acquire billionaire status” is not a plot synopsis. These demons prey on the first drafts, the first sentences, the early stages of your work. Defeat them by splashing a few sloppy sentences in their faces. Misspell things. Abuse your grammar. Drop an entire plot thread! That will fix their wagons. You can always edit later. They try to make you forget that part.

A Phylactery Against Fear

The demons of doubt are everywhere. Some lurk in this very post, creeping behind the scenes, masquerading as cleverness and snark. Every writer deals with them in different ways. Some bluster and swagger. Some confess. Many quietly despair. Too many give up. Others put their heads down and power through. But the main tool any writer has in battling these demons is identifying them, not as failures of character or moral shortcomings, but as part of the process: a signal that you are on the right path. The writer’s road is not for the faint of heart. It’s thorny and windy and full of demons.

But come to the page prepared for battle, with weapons in hand, and I promise you will  prevail.

 

Daniel Swensen

Daniel Swensen has written everything from cell-phone advertisements to tabletop roleplaying supplements. He blogs about motivation and craft at Surly Muse, and recently self-published the paranormal short story, Burn. Dan lives in Montana, with his wife and two spoiled cats. Orison is his first novel.

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4 Comments

  1. OMG You are my hero, Daniel! Yes, this. I totally do all this. Thanks for giving me an arsenal, now I just gotta move my arse. ;)

    (Loved Orison, BTW, and I’ve been told I’m a terrible liar so you know I mean it.)

    Reply
  2. Perfectionism and avoidance, my two main writing demons…and I remember battling comparison when I thought about trying to mimic someone else’s style, someone who’s writing I loved, but I had to learn we all have our own style and voice, and we need to learn to love it!
    Kick those demons to the kerb!

    Reply
    • Thank you very much, Lisa! I struggled with trying to mimic someone else’s style, too… I’ve (thankfully) since abandoned that.

      Reply

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