5 Lies Writers Tell Themselves

For a long time, I lied to myself about being a writer by telling myself things like “writers are poor,” “you can’t make a living as a writer,” and “writing novels isn’t a career option.”

And these lies writers tell themselves (aka: limiting beliefs) were holding me back from being the writer I dreamed of being.

It’s true that as writers, we often have limiting beliefs we operate under, most of the time subconsciously. But there are five specific limiting beliefs that are not only untrue, but that will also keep you from reaching your writing dreams.

The 5 Lies Writers Tell Themselves

1. Because I’ve Read a Novel I Can Write a Novel

Um, no. Writing a novel is not intuitive, especially not at first. Being good at it requires years of studying storytelling and the craft of writing a story.

It’s like when you dine at a fancy restaurant. Your meal comes out looking like art on a plate. The taste is divine, almost indescribable. But you wouldn’t then go home and think you could recreate it in your kitchen. If you did, you’d soon find that it’s not as easy as it looks. That’s because what you saw and tasted on the plate was years of experience, practice, and studying the art and craft of cooking.

Same goes for writing a novel. What you see in the finished product on the shelf is backed by a team of people with years of experience and practice in the art and craft of storytelling. So stop telling yourself it’s as easy as it looks. It’s not.

2. I Can Do Whatever I Want in My Story

Yes and no. Depends what your goal is. If your goal is to get published, telling yourself this lie will land your manuscript in the slush pile.

If you don’t care about finding readers, well, then I guess you can feel free to do whatever you want. Just don’t expect to achieve the results you’re looking for.

3. I Can Do It All Myself

You can’t do it all yourself. And writing and publishing in a vacuum will set you up for total disaster.

You need to have outside feedback and opinion, eventually, if you want to publish a book that’s worth publishing. Whether that’s an editor, beta readers, a critique group, or another writer friend, you have to put your story out there and get feedback. Feedback will help you make your story better, and point you in the right direction when you veer off course.

This is your writing career, so don’t skimp. You’re worth the investment needed to acquire the support and feedback you need to put your best work out into the world.

4. Anything Counts as a Story

No, no it doesn’t. A story is a very specific thing.

It’s often said that conflict is story, but that’s not totally right. Because a story doesn’t just have conflict, a story has stakes. It has a goal. It has a vicarious experience for the reader.

A story is a protagonist who wants something, an antagonist who wants to oppose what the protagonist wants, and a journey that ensues because of it.

Anything less than that isn’t really a story.

5. Process Lacks Creativity

This is the biggest lie of all. Telling yourself this lie will keep you stuck in neutral for years, spinning your wheels without really getting anywhere.

I defer to the following quote from T.S. Eliot when a writer tells me this lie:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.

Creativity and process go hand-in-hand and work together to help you create a cohesive story that keeps a reader turning pages ’til the end.

Creativity is great, in theory. But when it’s applied to something with inherent structure, like a story, it pushes your creative boundaries and forces you to think in totally different ways.

That’s where breakthroughs come from.

I like to think of it this way: if you tell yourself you need to sit down and write, you’ll likely stare at a blank page for a while before you know what to write. But if you’re told you need to write a 500-word short story that focuses on finding a solution to a problem, you’ll be off and running, your mind buzzing with possibilities.

That’s because you’re being given a framework to work within, and your mind likes the puzzle.

So don’t shun process by telling yourself this lie. Study storytelling, learn story structure, practice implementing it in your own stories.

Your writing career will thank you for it.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! In your own experience, what are lies writers tell themselves about writing or being a writer? Tell me in the comments!

5 Lies Writers Tell Themselves

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About Jennifer Blanchard | @InkyBites

Jennifer Blanchard is the author of the novel SoundCheck, and a story coach who helps serious emerging novelists save time, be more effective storytellers, and cut years off their learning curves so they can write amazing stories and get published faster. Grab her free e-guide, Find Your Story: The 6-Week Story Planning Process, to see a story planning example from start to finish.

Comments

  1. thomas h cullen says:

    I acknowledged this to a potential agent – the lie, that I told to myself that authority comes with time. It doesn’t. After two years, since having finished The Representative, I could delete all of the text that’s been unchanged since July 2013 and nature wouldn’t give a damn.

    But then, the reason why I had to tell myself this lie in the first place was because of one of your listed lies Jennifer – that a writer can create whatever they want!

    The Representative is art that’s at a scale and level of 100%. In order to be art, a work of art will always have to be “format”, of course, but the genius of The Representative is coming the closest that an artist can to appearing that they’ve completely eluded this required condition of format.

    In my latest exchange, with this aforementioned agent, I went so far as to express the point that, though “Writing is writing”, what should take priority above that reality is the reality of my history – that I’ve persevered for up to 800 days!

    Your lie is valid, Jennifer – about story not just being anything – however, I would contend that the truth of someone enduring for so long in time deserves to be also valid.

    • I get what you’re saying (I think), but I have to totally disagree with it. It sounds to me like you’re still telling yourself lies (limiting beliefs) in order to not acknowledge the fact that your story doesn’t work (especially after being told this by an agent). And that’s fine. Because at the end of the day it’s about what your personal goal is, not what the personal goal of every writer is.

      If you just want to write for writings sake (and to call it “art”), that’s fine.

      But if your goal is to get published–especially traditionally–keeping up with that lie is gonna stop you from having a successful publishing career. Whether you call it “art” or not, doesn’t change the fact that it’s not a story.

      Any writer who has dreamed of publishing has endured. Using your analysis, I have endured 6,570 days as a writer… but that doesn’t make any of my past failed attempts a story. It makes them a stepping stone in my learning process to discovering and implementing what is required to make my story work.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        People all inhabit the same reality, but reality is also arbitrary – after all, isn’t that the lie that fiction and stories promote (yet everyone’s expected to buy).

        The Representative is a story (better than most).. As of now, I’m still waiting for either a rejection or an acceptance from the agent in question (who hasn’t said anything of the sort about my text not being a story).

        Endurance is essential – and what’s also helped me with this particular agency is my own “particularly strong” ability to betray the “quantity principle”.

    • “the lie, that I told to myself that authority comes with time. It doesn’t.

      what should take priority above that reality is the reality of my history – that I’ve persevered for up to 800 days!”

      Wait, what? Now you’re saying”priority” comes with time?

  2. Great article, especially number 5! I’m one of those writers who thought being creative and having an idea where my story was going did not go together. Good job!

    • Thanks Lisa! I find that writers (myself included) tend to keep telling ourselves these lies b/c we’re afraid. We’re afraid of what would happen to us, to our writing, to our publishing careers, if we stopped telling the lies and started learning what it really takes to write a great story.

      Because if you do that, success is inevitable at some point. And while it seems insane, most writers (and creative people in general) are terrified of success (it’s just part of being human).

      Letting go of the lies is the only thing that will help you get to the next level.

      • “You can accomplish a lot more if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

        Maybe success is not so painful if you use a pseudonym?

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Jennifer!

  4. Jim Arnold says:

    The more I read about how more experienced authors write, the more creative I believe I become. It’s just a matter of actually doing it. When I read this blog, my mind goes back to the two books I am working on. It starts reeling with new ideas.

    Thank you, Katie for posting this, and thank you, Jennifer Blanchard for writing this blog.

    • You’re welcome! And you’re absolutely right–the more you learn, the more creative you can become. No writer starts out knowing all this stuff (not even Stephen King). We all get here by learning and practicing and being open to feedback and being willing to try things we never tried before.

  5. Great post! I think #5 is especially good, and something that doesn’t get said enough. Working within structure, and even with a prompt, has worked very well for me. And, I might add, writing to a set deadline has these benefits as well.

  6. I have to agree with those who before me said that point five is very poignant. It is in my case anyway.

    • It was for me too! When I first learned about story structure, all of my education in story up to that point finally made sense. I finally got it. And having structure now allows me to be so much more creative with my stories.

  7. “This is your writing career, so don’t skimp. You’re worth the investment.” That’s the most valuable line in the entire piece. Until authors get over the idea that their writing is “just a little hobby,” they won’t go far. This is a business. It’s best to approach it as one.

    • YES!! Couldn’t agree more! That’s one of the mindset shifts you have to make as a writer… from “I’m doing this for fun” to “I’m doing this with an end goal in mind” (usually getting published, selling books, making money, etc). I’m not saying you have to start out thinking that way (we all start as hobbyists), but eventually you have to get to a place where you’re ready (or at least willing) to step outside your comfort zone and take your writing to a new level.

  8. K.M. as always, you tell it like it is! Thanks.

  9. As Richard Feynman observes, science requires a special kind of imagination — “imagination in a terrible straitjacket.”

  10. Susi Franco says:

    I’m struggling with this concept right now and it’s painful as crap. On any given day of the week that cheerleading “Yes you CAN write this novel and do a good job of it!” can easily become “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!”

    Some days I’m not entirely sure what’s ‘the lie’ and what’s the reality; it’s a fluid thing, I think.

    This topic makes me think about one of my long-standing arguments. I work as a fine artist and derive most of my income from that. I’m nationally licensed (Thank God) and am humbly grateful for it. So from that wherewithal, I draw this analogy: I find photogs ( not ALL photogs, mind you, not trying to start a war here) who take a picture of something and then label it “Art” whether it is Art or not, not only questionable but even disingenuous. Is it Art just because someone calls it that ?? Is it a good novel or conversely a bad novel just because someone calls it that ?? Hoping you can see what I’m getting at.

    Van Gogh once said “If a voice inside your head tells you you’re not an artist, just keep painting”. I kept this quote taped to my easel for many years; it kept me going & growing and I proved its truth. I’m wondering if there’s an equivalent quote for writers. Or if there should even be one.

    Kinda depressed and down about all this, would love some input from others. So yeah, not entirely certain what’s the lie and what’s the truth, either encouraging or harming me as a writer.

    • Don’t be depressed. Feel empowered. You’ve been given the keys to writing a good novel: learning storytelling principles and implementing them in your own story. If you do that, there’s no way you can write a bad story. (Of course, feedback is always important, just to make sure you’re on the right track.)

      I’m not saying you’re not a writer. Not by any means. And I’m definitely not saying you don’t have what it takes.

      I’m just saying there are certain beliefs writers have that hold them back from being successful. These are 5 of the most common ones. If you identify with any of them, that could be part of what keeps you stuck/feeling like you can’t do it.

  11. The book will sell itself.

    That’s the one I hear–most often from folks who are not writers. If it’s any good, it’ll sell itself. I bet there isn’t a publishing house that is or has ever been in existence that wouldn’t love for that to be true.

  12. To get good at anything it take a minimum of 10,000 hours of study and hard work. That means read about 200 books write 100 good short stories. Then try a 230 page novel. It still won’t be easy, but at least you’ll have an idea what your doing.

  13. Like not forgetting to put an s on takes

  14. Hey Jennifer. I plead guilty to all of these at some point.

    Also, I agree that process, structure and creativity must unite to produce the greatest story possible.

    Thanks for the fun read!

  15. This post was very interesting, and relevant! I think I have trouble with #2 the most—not so much that I think I can do whatever I want in my story, but rather I have trouble balancing readers’ expectations with what the story needs. I can let what I think readers want or expect get in the way of my writing when I should really be focusing on letting the story tell itself.

    • I don’t know, I think letting the story tell itself is a bad idea. You, as the author, need to take the reigns and drive the direction the story goes in. But that’s just my opinion.

      • I think when I say I let the story write itself, I mean tuning out any influences that could hinder my writing process. I’ve recently gotten into outlining and planning things beforehand, and I’ve found it immensely helpful, so I definitely try to have things worked out before I start writing so I know where I’m going. 😉

        • Amen! I’m a HUGE fan of planning before you write, because unless you know your story, you really shouldn’t waste time writing it. But that’s just me. I’m not a fan of doing heavy editing or rewrites because I didn’t know my story before I wrote it.

  16. I have always been told I was a great writer. I’ve never taken a formal creative writing class and yet still was published in University publications. My false belief was that being a great writer made me an exceptional or publishable writer. Wrong.

    • YES!! You hit the nail on the head with that one! Being an amazing writer does not equal being an amazing storyteller. That is a learned skill. And when you combine being an amazing writer with knowing the principles of good storytelling, you will be UNSTOPPABLE!

  17. Great article! I think lots of people after reading that would be afraid to start writing and maybe that’s for the best as then they’ll do something else, something they can be really good at…

    • Why do you think they’d be afraid? It’s not meant to deter people, it’s meant to inspire them to see that they hold the power to success as a writer in their very hands. If they make it their mission to study storytelling and to practice implementing the principles of storytelling, they will have the ability to write stories worth publishing.

  18. Great stuff! Thank you.

  19. Very helful tip in #5.

    “if you tell yourself you need to sit down and write, you’ll likely stare at a blank page for a while before you know what to write. But if you’re told you need to write a 500-word short story that focuses on finding a solution to a problem, you’ll be off and running, your mind buzzing with possibilities.”

  20. I think this some of these points apply only to novelists, such as myself (they may not apply to poets, playwrights, short story writers and screenwriters, depending on whether or not they are writing narrative fiction). Poems and some forms of descriptive fiction don’t necessarily require conflict. You can write a poem describing the sea side and it can be both published and read.

    That being said, as a former pantser, I firmly believe the large majority of writers need outlines and structure to give themselves am idea of where their story starts and where its going. Makes it easier to revise if you change your mind and you’re less likely to get stuck (and therefore, discouraged) if you know where your story is heading

  21. My lie: that’s all there is, there ain’t no more. So I can’t let go of my prose…until I remind myself, there’s more where that came from. Then it’s okay to chop a darling scene.

  22. Loved this post. I agree with everything, but what really struck me was Eliot’s quote. Oh my goodness, that’s so true!

    I’m doing NaNoWriMo now and what I normally hear from fellow writers who don’t even try is: I can’t write on command.
    I think experiences like NaNo stress our abilities. We can do it (I’ve done it multiple times), knowing you have a deadline spurs you to find that solution in whatever way possible. Maybe that solution is ok only for the time being, you will rewrite it completely during revision, but in the meantime, you’ve tore down that roadblock and went forth.

    I also find that genre ‘limitation’ spur your abilities. I write historicals. Fine, historicals with a speculative spin, but I long ago decided the ‘historical’ part is important enough to me that I want to be accurate. Accuracy is an headache. There are lots of things that could happen in a contenporary novel, but not in the historical one, because of era restrictions.
    I’ve always found ‘era restrictions’ to be so inspiring! Not only you have to find a way to write your story taking those ‘restrictions’ into account, but these often turn into twists you would have never imagined by yourself.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

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