My Self-Confidence

There have been some questions about why I don’t sound more upbeat before I post a story. I’m not talking about whether or not I’m tired before I post…I always am…I mean the people who have been enjoying the stories and wondering why I don’t sound more confident before a post. It’s pretty simple, actually. The fact is you don’t want me sounding confident. You don’t ever want to hear me say that I know for certain that a story is great.

Look at it this way. When I get into it and am in my groove I, as I’ve mentioned time and again, am constantly making decisions and choices. That’s all this process really boils down to: making choices and then following those choices to their logical ends. If I decide someone is a computer programmer for a living and I have a scene where this character sits down to type, it follows that he should be a pretty fast typist. He might use two index fingers to “hunt and peck,” I’m not saying that he necessarily has to be fast and traditional, but based on the initial decision of his job other factors like his typing speed are bound to follow. If he isn’t isn’t fast at typing, then I need to figure out some reasons why this might be true (he was lying about his job; he’s not a very good computer programmer; he’s used to a Cyrillic keyboard) and then choose one. Choices and decisions abound.

Now let’s constrict this whole process to the very tail end of things, the rewriting. I should dismiss the idea right now that rewriting only involves correcting typos and grammar. It’s so much more than that. When I rewrite what I do is I sit down with a pen and a printed out version of my story and I read, and I mark the page up. Every mark I make is a decision to change something based on what it is that I want the writing to be doing at that point. This tends to mean clearing up any vague writing and finding ways to say things as directly as possible…but not always. Again, it depends what I want the writing to be doing at that point. Sometimes you want things vague, sometimes the meter of a sentence is more important than its point, adverbs are generally believed to weaken a sentence but sometimes when you find a perfect place for an adverb it makes things ten times stronger, and sometimes grammar goes right out the window.

Let’s take a closer look at that last example as it’s the easiest to illustrate. Pursuing proper grammar is not always the best way to pursue better writing. The clearest place I can point to this happening is in dialogue. Grammar has no place in dialogue. None. Take five minutes out of your day and listen to real people talking in real conversations. They’re all over the place. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that improper grammar is essential to writing good dialogue. And then you have variations on that, like when the writing begins to reflect a persons thoughts more than straight narration, or when you write in the first person. People tend to miss that one. When reading something written in the first person it’s always a good idea to keep in mind that the narrator is a character just like everyone else.

My point being that when I perform my rewrites I focus on the language. And what that means is focusing on every word. And, if you take an average word count of 5,000 per story, that means, even while isolating this very last step of this process, I face 5,000 separate choices with each rewrite. Every word matters. Every word gets thought about. Some, granted, more than others. “The” doesn’t really get a lot of thought devoted to it, but a lot of the other choices being dealt with are more shaded. It isn’t always a choice of “leave it in” versus “take it out.” If I come across the word, “cold,” I have the possibility of taking it out, leaving it in, or replacing it with brisk, chilly, frigid, freezing, cool, etc. And then you have punctuation to think about. Really the number 5,000 is arbitrary, what I’m trying to get across is the huge number of decisions that get made.

These decisions are why I have zero confidence when I post a new story. It’s difficult if not impossible to know for certain how all of these decisions are compiling. It’s not like one word choice is going to make or break things, but if you imagine a story as a marble statue and the rewrites as the final polishes and fine chipping done to this statue, then no one chip is going to make a difference, but the sum total of five thousand chips begins to add up. With a statue you can take a step back in physical space, view the statue as a whole, and get a sense of where you’re at. When writing a story, though, getting that sense of distance so you can see the whole is nearly impossible except with time. And even then I’m talking about years not days. And if we open this up to the whole process the number of decisions becomes staggering. We’re not talking about the final chips and polishes, we’re talking about stepping up to a block of stone and carving an entire statue without ever really being able to take a large step back to see the entire thing. You can train yourself to make these decisions well, you can do your best to make the right choices, you can hone your judgment so overall you have confidence that you are on the right track, but you can never know for certain that you’ve done well. Not until a reader comes along (we’ll get into the strange role you, the reader, plays in this whole thing at some later date). Before it gets read by you a story is nothing put potential; there are no definites.

Now on the whole, yes, if you all continue to like the stories I put out I should gain some self-confidence where this project is concerned. And, to be fair, I have. It’s getting easier and easier to tell people to come visit my website. But for each individual story? I’ll put it this way: if I ever say, “This story is great, I’m sure of it,” that’s a bad thing. It doesn’t mean the story is great (it might be, I might have gotten lucky). What it means is that I haven’t examined the language and the details enough for me to lose track of the whole. It means I haven’t put a lot of work into it. It means I haven’t fixed sloppy parts or tried to write clearer or given any thought to a character’s accent or the clothes they wear or what the weather is like or if “brisk” captures the temperature better than “cold.” It means I haven’t made a lot of choices. And that’s a bad thing.

Trust me. You want me full of doubt.