Tuesday, 19 June 2012

That Delicate Thing Called Confidence by Ellen Renner

I knew I shouldn't do it, but I couldn't resist. 


I don't know if I'm unusual in this respect, but I tend to avoid reading fiction when writing a first draft. Partly, I don't want to be influenced by someone else's voice or ideas, swept away into someone else's world when I need to be thinking about mine. Building a story,  breathing life into a concept and creating characters, is a treacherous process, hemmed round with dangers and pitfalls. One mis-step and a shiny idea you've cherished for months or years can turn sullen and lifeless.


Also, I already have a problem with displacement activities. I don't need the seductiveness of story to provide me with yet another excuse to avoid bum on chair/fingers on keyboard/brain switched on. (The last being by far the hardest.) And because proper thinking - really digging deep - is hard work, I find that confidence (or the lack of it) makes all the difference.


So confronting someone else's utter brilliance while struggling through the thicket of angst that is my typical first draft isn't something I find helpful. But Oxford University Press had kindly arranged for me to appear at the 2012 Hay Festival earlier this month to promote CHARMED SUMMER, the first book in a series for 8-12 girls. I spent last year writing four books about friendship and mystery on a summer island. It's been a total delight working with the team at OUP and with Working Partners on the Flip Flop Club concept. I've enjoyed the collaboration, learned a great deal, and am very proud to have been involved. The books are lovingly produced by OUP and, as I'm sole author, I'm promoting them under the psuedonym Ellen Richardson, to keep them distinct from my own books.




So here I was at Hay for the first time in my life, rather in awe and very impressed. The festival was extremely well organised and they certainly look after the 'artists' beautifully. Even the porta-loos are posh! So impressive was the whole event that I found myself surprised the weather had the temerity to rain, although monsoon might be a better description. However, on the last Saturday the rain stopped and the sun almost shone. Better yet, directly following my session, I and my son were able to trundle off to hear Philip Reeve talk about his new book, GOBLINS. Which is, of course, brilliant. As was the session. I knew it would be. I shouldn't have gone but I couldn't resist.


All indulgences must be paid for in this life it seems, and I began paying the price at once. With each delightful, clever and elegantly written extract that Mr Reeve read out, a niggling little voice in the back of my head grew louder: 'You will NEVER be able to write anything half so good. Why try? Give up now.'


I think all writers, perhaps even Mr Reeve himself, have a similar goblin inhabiting the darkest recesses of their minds. One with a nasty, whining voice which takes considerable determination (or sheer stupidity?) to ignore. I tend to avoid circumstances likely to wake mine. I've been waiting ages to read FEVER CRUMB. I'm desperate to read it. I opened the book to the first page a year ago, devoured the words on it, snapped the book shut and put it carefully away. I won't open it again until my own current project has safely made the journey to that lovely, comfortable place known as editing.


My new thing is TRIBUTE, to be published by Hot Key Books in 2013. It's a young adult fantasy. It's ambitious and big and scary and I'm right in the sticky middle of the first draft. Still floundering; still finding my feet. And it's going well. I'm excited - when I let myself be - because I know it's the best thing I've yet written. But will it be good enough? Not if I listen to my own inner goblin. I couldn't write for nearly a week upon returning from Hay, but I'm not sorry I went to hear Philip Reeve. I thoroughly enjoyed his talk and will buy the book. But I won't read it. Not just yet.

So, a question to those writers brave enough to answer. Do you have your own little goblin? Do you read other writers when writing a first draft? Or like me, do you avoid?



17 comments:

jongleuse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jongleuse said...

So comforting to hear that even published authors (of wonderful books too) have that 'I'll never be good enough' feeling. Diana Wynne-Jones, Margaret Mahy and Joan Aiken particularly seem to bring on deep, despondent feelings of depression. I'm not sure I could just stop reading though-horrors I could just as soon stop eating! Your new project sounds so intriguing-will look forward to it!
(sorry for repost-typo)

Vanessa Harbour said...

What a wonderful post. I hope you slap that goblin of yours around a bit. The new book sounds awesome - congratulations - can't wait to read it.

Anne Cassidy said...

I recently read BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel and felt like giving it all up! Such effortless storytelling and fantastic prose. I thought, What am I playing at????

Ann Turnbull said...

I love reading fiction so much that I could never stop for any length of time - it's like a drug! At the end of a hard day writing and struggling with an unworked-out plot it's such a treat to sit down and read someone else's work - something finished and polished and gripping. The better is is, the happier I am.

Jackie Marchant said...

I think goblins are vital. They keep us on our feet. If we didn't have them, we might not see room for improvement.

And there is nothing better than meeting a writer you aspire to, one whose work you really admire. That means you don't think you've reached the top, where the only way is down.

So, these are positive traits!! It's just normal for writers to feel a bit negative - it comes with the job.

I never read what I'm writing. So I don't read fantasy if I'm writing it, don't read humour if I'm writing it. At the moment I'm avoiding all things space. But, once the WIP is done I will gobble them up because I love them.

Good luck with everything, Ellen!

adele said...

I'm with Ann Turnbull on this! Never do stop reading, whatevs.
Very interesting post!

Trudy said...

As an unpublished writer, I think I have a different take on this problem. One of the first things I was told when I started on my writing journey was to read, read, read. My own draft seemed woefully inadequate compared to what I was reading, but that didn't knock my confidence too much, as I was just a beginner. But what I found as I worked through my first draft was that almost every chapter was taking on the tone and style of what I was reading(subconsciously, I assure you).
And that was disheartening.
I've since started a second draft from scratch, and I plan to only read non-fiction until I've finished. If my draft ends up sounding like a David Starkey history lesson, I'll know my plan hasn't worked!

Louise said...

I read as much as I can, whether I'm writing or not, and I find other people's creativity feeds my own. I don't think I copy, well, not much, but actually copying is a good thing ... if it works for them ... for me the reading and writing thing go hand in hand. I have issues with confidence, but feeling better about my abilities these days thank goodness.

kathryn evans said...

*sigh* I don't have a goblin, I have a GIANT PIXIE OF HATE. And I read and read and read because I WANT to be influenced- I want to learn from those writers I love - and you're one of them. Feel blessed to have had a sneak peak at Tribute Ellen - it's going to be a smash - it's right up there with the best. My Pixie says he'll take your goblin any day....

Joan Lennon said...

Yup. Got a goblin. Oh yes.

Caroline Green said...

My goblin is an absolute brute. Is also very shouty. But I am able to read others when I'm writing. I snap instantly into reader mode in quite a childish way. There have been loads of times where I've started to read something, going, 'Right, book! I'm going to read you as a WRITER, ya hear!' and then I finish it in a daze and go, 'Doh!' I forgot to notice again!

Caroline Green said...

Love the idea of the giant pixie of hate :)

Emma Barnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan Dapré said...

I wonder if the 'greats' have their insecurities too and wouldn't it be fun to know what they are? The issue I have when writing is that when i have just finished a first draft or sent a book off i suddenly spot a similar idea doing the rounds. Often it is different enough but that cane a very off-putting experience. You have to stay true to your story, not be influenced and carry on - having the confidence to believe that your own work is worth reading ... It's important to just carry on regardless - there is an anonymous saying ... 'Don't refuse to go on an occasional wild goose chase - that's what wild geese are for.'

Writing is very much like that ... chasing ideas, embracing them and loving them.
Al

Linda said...

I've read 'Goblins' and felt, just like you, that I could never create anything so brilliant. But I also felt that when I read your books!

Nick Green said...

I prefer to read books that are so far above my level of competence that the thought of emulating them can't even cross my mind. It's when I find a book that I feel *almost* capable of writing that I start to get the Green-eyed monster.