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On trusting yourself

In my other life, I'm a management consultant with an emphasis on personal skills and the theory to support our personal approach in the workplace. (Still awake, eh?)

Last week, I had the pleasure to get out - out, I kid you not! There is life beyond my desk - to visit a writing group for an author Q and A. I answered in my usual way - a mix of what I do when and lots of practical advice. I don't, really, do writing advice - what works for me works for me, and most likely won't work for anyone else. I don't give definitive answers, but ask more questions and give supporting theory to guide peoples' choices as to what they might want to decide to do themselves.

It occurred to me this morning as I stared at my keyboard there is a key component of personal capability skills that I've never talked about in my blog, and it's so important.

It's about trusting yourself. Trusting yourself to make the right choice. Trusting that if you have alarm bells ringing you should listen to them. Believing that you are the best person to make a decision for yourself and that no one - not your publisher, or your agent, or your writing chums - is guaranteed to make a better one. (I write this knowing that I sometimes see what I consider to be bad advice from professionals in the industry. But it's hard to see that when there are strong voices around us, more knowledgeable voices, who are very sure of their advice.)

An example from my own past: I knew when I was asked to rewrite Inish Carraig for a young adult market that it didn't feel right. I knew that it wasn't, really a young adult book - it had the wrong focus, the wrong type of point of view, and an key adult character, not just as a support to the young voice. I knew it from the jangling in my stomach, but, in a tide of enthusiasm, I went along with all the changes. Why? Because I believed the person giving the advice knew best.

The first real inkling I had that something was amiss was when the book went out to market as a cross-over book. One of my writing group - a good, sensible voice as it happens - asked me why it was being subbed as that when I'd just spent 18 months changing it from a crossover to a Young Adult book. But even then I drowned out the warning bells, told myself it would be fine, and went with it. I didn't ask the critical questions that I should have.

Well, dear reader, it wasn't fine, and lots of editors remarked on the voices being too young for the crossover market and it didn't sell. (And when I brought it back to a true crossover book, it felt so different and so right)

Since then, I've taken a different approach to my writing career. If, in my professional life, something jars with my innate knowledge, I listen. I've been doing my job for the best part of 20 years and I mostly have to rely on my own instincts. I don't second guess myself - instead I try to work out what it is I'm not happy about and then I problem solve from there. That inborn knowledge is called heuristic knowledge and it's very strong. It pays attention to stuff that goes on under the radar, stuff that I disregard or don't know about. It's worth listening to.

And so to writing. Most writers I know have been around a few blocks in their professional life. Few of them are writing for a living and, if they are, few started their professional life as a writer. They, like me, have knowledge of what feels right, and what doesn't. Which means all of us can listen, if we wish, to the built in voice of wisdom.

For those who are looking at this and wondering what sort of questions they should ask when they're not sure, here are a couple I tend to fall back on:

What does the person I'm listening to know? Is their knowledge up to date? (Writing is a changing world - be wary of anyone who dismisses self publishing as inferior to traditional publishing.)

Do they know my genre? (One of the worst thing any writer can do is go with an imprint that knows nothing of the market. Read that for any genre. If you're writing literary fiction, find a publisher who understands that. If you're writing thriller, get an imprint and editor who knows that market etc etc.)

Do they stand to make money from my decision one way or another? (an agent, for instance, makes nothing out of a book that is self published - so it is rarely in their interest to advise you to take that route. Having said that, I do know some who are more savvy and who support a hybrid career, knowing that titles sell other titles by that author AND that a book has to be marketable enough to be worth the agent's time.) 

Do I like what I see from a publisher's other books? What are their sales like? (Note, do not rely on what their authors say. Rarely will an author diss their publisher, in case it goes back. And I would have recommended my agent to anyone when I was with her. An author may be contracted not to disclose anything. Instead look at things like how many authors stay with the imprint beyond the first book, how they're being marketed by the publisher, not just their own efforts, where their books are on sale, what the editing is like etc etc.)

With each question you ask, listen with not just your ears but your internal voice and if it rings ANY alarm bells, listen more carefully. We do it in every other part of our lives - just because writing is our dream, we shouldn't silence that voice of warning. I turned down a publisher offer that was a strong one and that I would, with retrospect, take - except that I took advice, from someone experienced, who suggested not to.  That was, I think now, the wrong advice.

At the end of the day, the only person who will look after you as if they were you, is you. Be confident for yourself. Trust yourself to know what feels right, and what doesn't. As a bonus - if it all goes wrong, you'll know who to blame!


Trish Bennett said…
Thanks for this post Jo. It was just what I needed. I met an "expert" last year who proceeded to tear my work assunder, I knew she was wrong but the kick to my confidence meant I didn't write for a long time afterwards. I've been having issues again and forcing myself to write something when the "little voice" kept saying 'no', this is not for you. From now on, I'm listening to my inner voice.
Joanne Zebedee said…
Go you! don't let the naysayers win! xx
mcgdanny said…
I've hesitantly finished blocking out my first major story (space opera with mysterious aliens) and discussed this outline with some mates. They gave me lots of conflicting advice so I have decided to write it all out for me first. Then review the gruesome battle scenes etc and only then let anyone else have a look. Even in outline draft a minor character morphed into a key player!
Joanne Zebedee said…
Sounds very cool! Hope it comes together well :)
Dan Jones said…
Good post, Jo.

For writers starting out the amount of received wisdom out in the world can definitely seem daunting, and listening to one's inner voice can be a good way of navigating that, but it begs the question how does one develop the confidence to listen to that inner voice?

Personally I think all writers should develop the skill of determining which pieces of advice are useful, and which are not. This is difficult as one piece of advice might resonate with one writer but not another. Getting feedback from a range of people and learning to gauge which opinions are useful for you (and that doesn't mean whichever ones say how brilliant you are) gives you the tools you need to listen and listen good when your inner voice tells you when something is wrong, or indeed, when it's right.