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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, May 23, 2014

How Not to Drive Away Readers: Confidence

When you read something, whether it’s a personal letter or a novel, you can quickly get a sense for how confident the author was when he wrote it. This level of confidence is a key factor in grasping and maintaining reader interest. Without confidence, a writer is in danger of driving away readers, and that’s the last thing any of us wants.

When we write with confidence, it infuses every aspect of our fiction, or nonfiction for that matter. As people are naturally drawn to others who express confidence, we, as readers, gravitate toward writing that expresses the same, and get frustrated or skittish around writing that’s full of hesitancy, uncertainty, and hedging.

So what characteristics signal uncertain writing and, thus, make readers back away?
  • Wordiness: Uncertain writers tend to add more unnecessary words that get in the way of clarity and good pacing. Such makes reading a drudgery.
  • Vagueness: When a writer isn’t confident about his abilities or ideas, he tends to hedge his bets by writing with less specificity and precision. The result is vague prose. This type of writer also tends to include hedging phrases such as “sort of,” “kind of,” and “seemed to.” In and of themselves, the phrases aren’t bad and have their occasional place, but an uncertain writer makes far too much use of them.
  • Wandering: Have you ever read a story that seemed to go nowhere or a letter that just wouldn’t get to the point? Those examples screaming wandering. Uncertain writers don’t trust their own ideas. Perhaps they don’t think they’re good enough, or they’re afraid of others rejecting them. The result is broken plotting, plotting that never takes off into a riveting narrative, scenes that feel pointless, and long stretches of explanation about one aspect or another of the story.
  • Caricatures: Much like wandering, caricatures result from author nervousness. One of the key elements of a great story is well-developed, dynamic characters. However, when a writer is uncertain, he struggles to reach or portray those characters. Perhaps in his head, the story’s cast acts just as they should, but when it comes to putting them on paper, the writer hesitates. All those dangerous questions start surfacing: What if this character seems too annoying/arrogant/boring/stupid? What if the protagonist taking this action makes people mad? What if I’m wrong about having the antagonist do this? What would my mother think? What if this action is stupid? What if the idea is stupid? What if me trying to write is stupid? I’m sure you can see the death spiral that emerges. Hesitant writing makes for hesitant characters, and one of the biggest clues of this is the caricature. Caricatures can seem safe to an uncertain writer. They’re not stupid, right? People already accept them. right? Wrong. They’re boring and predictable, and that leads to bored readers.
  • Never Finishing: While every writer has projects that linger half done for ages, the uncertain writer struggles to finish anything. Finishing a project is one of the biggest steps to becoming a professional writer. Never finishing results from a variety of reasons from doubt about a writer’s ideas to the fear that finishing means allowing someone else to read the work. Either way, uncertainty is usually the culprit.
Would you eagerly recommend stories with those characteristics to your friends? None of us would, so as writers, we must strive to provide something engaging in its place. We must provide stories written with confidence. But how do we do that?

First, take a look at the characteristics of a story written with confidence.
  • Precision: A confident writer employs precision in everything he pens from wording to characters to plot. He knows that this word is perfect to convey the idea he imagines, and if it isn’t right, he finds the right word. This results in tight and engaging prose that summons vivid images and riveting action.
  • Solid Structure: Structure is the skeleton of plot and is required for a satisfying story. A confident writer understands this, even if only on an unconscious level. A confident writer doesn’t shy from the shifts a story requires to move forward, and he proceeds with dynamic plot choices that naturally raise stakes and increase tension until he reaches a dramatic and satisfying climax.
  • Dynamic Characters: A story can’t exist without characters that are interesting, unique, and dynamic in their makeup and choices. Such characters drive plot, engage reader interest, and are the vehicle with which an author encourages the audience to identify with the story. When we read, we are drawn to something that mirrors a yearning in ourselves, and that yearning is satisfied, however briefly, in following a character we identify with.
  • Productivity: Whether a writer has only half an hour a day or twelve hours every day to devote to storytelling, when he’s confident, he approaches the work in a way that results in completed products. Stories get finished, polished, and shared. Confidence helps breed success.
But when faced with the dreaded blank screen or page, when staring at stacks of rejection letters, when wincing at every critique, or when simply wrestling with our fledgling ideas, how do we generate the confidence that creates great fiction?
  • Fake It: Sometimes, this is the required first step. When nothing else works, pretend you’re confident. Make the choices and act the part of a confident writer. You don’t always have to feel confident to appear so. Eventually, faked confidence, particularly if it results in positive change, can transform into genuine confidence.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: We all have skills to hone, no matter how long we’ve been writing. Practicing writing is key. Practice new techniques. Force yourself to work on your weak areas. Polish your strong skills. Over time, you’ll notice improvement. If you read your work from a few years before, you’ll marvel at how much you’ve grown. Besides, repetitive action creates comfort, and comfort encourages confidence.
  • Write, Speak, and Act as if You Are Already Successful: Don’t lie, of course, but choose how you write, speak, and act as you think a successful write would. It’s like the concept of dressing like the position you want, not the one you currently have. If a successful author writes every day, write every day. If a successful author lets others read his work, show your work to trusted friends and family. If a successful author discusses his story in concise terms, do the same.
  • Give Yourself Time: Don’t expect to suddenly feel confident about your writing overnight. Building confidence takes time and consistent effort. As long as you are consistent, though, your confidence will grow.
  • Do Things to Make Your Brain Receptive to Confidence: Exercise, take care of yourself, eat right, dress in a way that makes you feel confident. In other words, act like someone who deserves success. When we take actions that are like those who are confident, it helps our brains think we’re confident.
  • Understand Confidence Is Not a Constant: Even the most successful writers have doubts and fears. Just because you have days like that doesn’t make you a bad writer or an uncertain one. Writing is a profession full of disappointments, frustration, assaults on our egos, and vulnerability. It practically welcomes all out warfare on our confidence. It’s part of the job. The trick is to understand that and move on. Keep practicing those things that build confidence, and eventually, success will follow.
  • Recognize You’re Not Alone: Practically every writer struggles with this. Knowing that means part of being a writer is struggling to write confidently. The best writers, though, don’t let it stop them or drag them down. Part of mastering writing is more than mastering prose and plot structure, it’s mastering that little voice of doubt we all carry with us when we sit down to write.
What other tricks do you use to build confidence?

In honor of Memorial Day, there will be no post this Monday. However, swing back by next Friday for the next segment on how to keep readers and not drive them from your fiction. The Monday after, we’ll resume reading The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle and learn more how a successful author puts together a story.

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