Need Fiction #Writing Tips to Fight Self-doubt? #writetip

Merchant's Tale: Goodreads Giveaway
The Merchant’s Tale

Two weeks ago, Michael Dellert was on my blog giving fiction writing tips about ‘How to Get Your Novel Started.’ The weeks after, I was struggling with the move to the new domain (I hope I haven’t lost any of my blog-friends!). But today he’s back with the second instalment of his fiction writing tips: How to deal with the Sabotuer

He’s going to share some of his tips on writing fiction (I’ve highlighted the stuff I like in bold!). Take it away, Michael!


He’s known by different names in many cultures: Angra-Mainyu, Shaitan, Fer Dearg, and many more besides. He (and just as often She) is the Adversary, the destructive spirit of falsehood and deceit that leads one astray, the coffee table in the dark that you keep banging your metaphorical shins on. I call Him, “The Saboteur.”

Novelists (and writers in general) are always insecure about their work, but we’re at our most vulnerable when we’re first starting out. Not long ago, when I took up the mantle of “writer” seriously for the first time, I joined a writing group and shared early chapters of a work-in-progress. When “That Guy” tore apart my work for the first time, I was deeply shaken, and even convinced, for a few days, that he was right: I was a terrible writer and never should have left my day-job.

Most writers like to encourage beginners, but some feel the need to cull the competition. Even more commonly, non-writers make disparaging remarks without meaning them. They don’t understand that a wrinkled nose can seem like the deathblow to an entire writing career.

These are all faces of The Saboteur. So be choosy about whom you discuss your material with, especially in the early stages. If you tell someone that you’re writing a novel and they want to know what it’s about, try this:

• Explain politely that you don’t discuss works-in-progress. Most people will have heard that one before, and it has the added benefit of cloaking you in “mystique.”
• If that feels too uncomfortable or pretentious, just give a vague answer like, “Oh, it’s this fantasy thing.” Leave it at that.

Guaranteed, if you start a long summary of the plot, the person’s attention will wander off somewhere in the middle, or he’ll suddenly spot an old friend across the room. You’ll have gained nothing except another reason to doubt yourself.

There’s another, even more important reason for exercising this restraint:

• You should take the excitement you feel for your work into the work itself.

If you casually discuss what you plan to write about, you lessen some of your drive to do the actual writing, and you invite The Saboteur into the dark empty space between “One day I’m going to write a novel” and “Today I am writing a novel.”

For the same reason:

• Don’t repeat all those great, funny, lyrical, and insightful lines you dreamed up today with your friends.

If they laugh, you have a little less reason to go back and make them even funnier, more lyrical, and better, because you’ve just received a little satisfaction from having written them at all. And if they don’t laugh? Here comes The Saboteur, with a cart-load of self-doubt for you.

Don’t get me wrong. You do want to get feedback on your work-in-progress. But maybe wait until you’ve finished the whole first draft. Maybe share it only with a few trusted friends whom you’ve carefully cultivated as critics (like Damyanti!). Find a writing group that works with you, not against you. Don’t give The Saboteur any room to cloud your judgment with fear and loathing. Or better yet, turn this Adversary into an ally. Recognize that fear and self-doubt are the most common of human emotions, and put those feelings into your work, rather than setting them against it. When your readers say, “Wow, I’ve felt exactly like that,” you’ll be glad that you did.

For more fiction writing tips on putting The Adversary back in the box where he belongs, check out my #13WeekNovel series. And keep writing!


Michael DellertMichael E. Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He currently works as an independent freelancer. He is the author of the fantasy fiction novella, Hedge King in Winter: First Tale in the Matter of Manred, now available from Amazon for print and Kindle, and from Barnes & Noble for Nook, and will soon be announcing the release of his next work, A Merchant’s Tale: The Second Tale in the Matter of Manred. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

To learn more about his work, you can find him at his creative writing blog, MDellertDotCom: Adventures in Indie Publishing ( Or tweet him up on Twitter @MDellertDotCom

What about you? Do you have bouts of self-doubt while writing fiction? Have you wrestled with The Saboteur, the sworn enemy of all authors? Do you have questions for Michael? Any fiction writing tips of your own to share? Have at it in the comments!

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I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !


Add Yours
  1. millie schmidt

    This is a fantastic article. I definitely feel like a ‘beginner writer’ as I’ve never published anything and have no writing credits out there in the world. I’m hoping I never come across a Saboteur! I’m pretty hesitant to let anyone read my work anyway (except my mum lol) but I do have two trusted friends like you mentioned that I have lined up to read my current WIP once I’ve finished editing. I will try my best to stay positive and remember these tips. 🙂 Thanks!

  2. Alex Clark

    This is so right. I particularly like ‘Take the excitement you feel for your work into the work itself’. Writing is a solitary task, and if you’re writing a novel that can go on for years, so the temptation to tell people when you’re excited about how it’s going can be massive. But it’s always an anti-climax, and it usually leaves you feeling deflated. Must remember to stick to these rules!

  3. Jacqui Murray

    Good advice. I do struggle, often. I think simply being too busy to dwell on it gets me through. And then there are those bright shining writing examples–love when those pop up.

  4. Julia Lund

    I have doubts every day, especially on the days I know I’ve written well. What if I’m delusional? I hate talking about any work in progress. Until I have a coherent draft, it only exists in my imagination and belongs to no one else until it’s been spilled onto the page.

  5. hilarymb

    Hi Michael and Damyanti – I must come back to read … rushing off for a train now … but obviously good advice here – though I don’t have a book … I appreciate being around and absorbing information … we definitely need to be passionate about what we do … and ignore naysayers … cheers to you both – Hilary

  6. ericlahti

    Excellent advice. I hate talking about works in progress. To tell the truth, I don’t even like talking about stuff that’s done. I guess I’m just not a talker.

    • mdellert

      I have the same problem. I always feel a little awkward discussing my work with other people. Like it’s a delicious secret that I don’t want to share.

  7. Rajlakshmi

    I usually look forward to constructive feedback, but if someone rips apart my story I don’t know how I will feel!! Wonderful points Damyanti.

    • mdellert

      As I like to say, when you’re asking for a critique, you have to learn to take the crunchy with the smooth. Not everyone is qualified to provide a “good” (i.e., constructive) critique. This is one reason why it’s important to find trusted, qualified people to be beta-readers.

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Michael is a wonderful author and editor, Rajlakshmi, and I’m so happy you could connect. Please follow his blog, because he is aces.

      Michael, thankyou for this post, and the last one. You’re such a joy to host on the blog.

  8. Lata Wonders

    Damyanti, I totally related to the feelings of fear and self-doubt as I have just experienced the journey to publishing my first book – A Dance with the Corporate Ton: Reflections of a Worker Ant. Fortunately, I did not experience the Saboteur as I instinctively reached out to a chosen few to comment on a work-in-progress.

    • mdellert

      Congratulations on your first published book! It’s a unique feeling, savor it. Your title reminds me of a song: “Sixteen Tons.” About being a worker ant and still trying to have some pride. It was performed by Tennessee Ernie Ford many many years ago, but there’s a ZZ Top version that I particularly enjoy. Ironically, the only version I can find has advertising. Sorry about that, but here it is:

      • Lata Wonders

        Thank you. Yes, it’s an incredible high publishing a book. Thank you also for sharing the link to Sixteen Tons. I must confess I hadn’t heard of this song before but have now earmarked the You Tube video for leisurely listening later. May I invite you to browse through my book page on Facebook? The address is

        Of course, if you browse through the book description and reviews on Amazon, it would be even better:)

  9. andfreed

    I couldn’t agree more! I feel like I have experienced every single one of the Saboteur situations described here. Great advice.

    • mdellert

      The Saboteur is such a pernicious little imp… The hardest thing is to recognize Him in all His most subtle disguises! But don’t give up!

  10. DJ Cockburn

    Thanks for this, Michael and Damyanti. I certainly recognise ‘that guy’ from the writers’ group. He’s usually the one who has written very little, published nothing and thinks he’s an expert because he’s looked at a few ‘how to write’ websites. The trouble is that you don’t realise that until you’ve got a bit of experience yourself. When you’re a beginner, it’s hard to tell that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    The saboteur in my head doesn’t need his help undermining the squabbling creators!

    • mdellert

      Yeah, “That Guy” is a buzz-kill when you’re a novice writer. At least nowadays, he usually comes equipped with an overpriced Starbucks latte. 😉

  11. Parul Thakur

    Great advise and thanks Damyanti for bringing Michael over. In the spirit of sharing, writers should share with people they can trust for candid suggestions, encouragement and of course to protect creative work.

    • mdellert

      Glad to be here, Parul, and many thanks to Damyanti for having me. The hard part, of course, is getting candid suggestions and encouragement in the same package. Some can be candid and not at all encouraging at the same time. That’s just the Saboteur in sheep’s clothing.

  12. Ramya

    Great advice from Michael, I am not a writer but write on a personal blog. So, not my domain to comment about writers. But I would 100% agree that writers should be cautious on whom to share/ not share their ‘in progress’ scripts in the early stages of their career.

    • mdellert

      Thank you. I think self-doubt is probably the leading cause of writer’s block and the death of many a nascent writing career. The Saboteur must be stopped! 😉

  13. Glynis Jolly

    Even though I’ve know what you discussed in this piece, Michael, your words have enforced my confidence in these matters. So far I have two beta readers, both are writers, to throw my work at once I’m at the point where I know I’ll need the feedback. Finding a writing group has been impossible so far. Most of the problem is due to location though. Small towns usually don’t have this sort of help. Online groups are my only option. Trying to find one that is right for me has been overwhelming.

    • mdellert

      I know what you mean: knowing something is different from practically doing that thing. “I know I shouldn’t care so much what the critics think” is different from “I don’t care what the critics think.” 😉 And I have that same problem with finding writing groups, especially when I’m in small towns. It can be hard to find a group that is well-suited in terms of the groups interest/experience in your genre, their experience with constructive critical techniques, and personality. Online groups give you more options to choose from, but can present the same challenges in finding the right fit. Hmm. Maybe a topic for another blog post in there. 🙂

  14. litadoolan

    This blog is beautiful. So thrilled to find your clear and concise posts today. I have pinned this to my Pinterest for others to benefit. Good wishes for a lovely weekend.

  15. mdellert

    “Well, it’s about a guy, your height, your weight, your build, who gets caught in a zombie apocalypse. It’s a tragedy. Oh, and he’s got your eyes too… and your hair… What’s your blood type?” 😉

    • mdellert

      It would absolutely be weird if we didn’t have doubt. We’re hard-wired to be skeptical, and we’re engineered to turn that skepticism on ourselves. “Do you really think you can do that dangerous, scary thing? ‘Cuz I’m thinking that steakhouse back the road a piece looks aaaawful comfortable…”

  16. ccyager

    I only talk about the novel that’s published, or anything else I have that’s published. If someone asks about what I’m working on, I usually say something like “several different things depending on what day it is” and leave it at that. If pressed, then I say that I don’t talk about works in progress. But then that’s usually followed by some version of “have I got an idea for you! It’s so great I’m sure you’ll want to write the story!” etc., etc. To which I often reply, “It’s your idea, please write the story yourself. I have my own ideas.” LOL Cinda

    • ccyager

      Oh, and yes, I struggle with self-doubt on a daily basis. What I do to get past the Saboteur is to do some editing first, then move on to first draft writing. The Saboteur seems to REALLY like editing! LOL Of course, I do keep a close eye on him…..

    • mdellert

      I’m like that too. Example: I had to take my car to get some work done. To test the work when he was done, the mechanic and I took it for a test ride, and struck up a conversation as we drove. “So, whatta you do,” inevitably came up. “Oh yeah, whaddaya write?” Well, now that you ask, I happen to have a copy…. To whom should I make out the inscription? 😉

  17. Susan Scott

    Alex’s comment is funny! Thanks to both of you Damyanti & Michael for this; on occasion I feel in the zone and like what I write, other times I think o balderdash! Right now I’m completing a WIP, non-fiction and I need it ready by the weekend to leave for person to edit, critique, delete whatever – which will be the 2nd time. I’m going away for a bit on Monday –

    • mdellert

      I can be like that too, Susan. Sometimes many times each way each day. The important thing is to keep showing up, no matter what the Adversary throws in our way. Good luck with the WIP!! Let us all know when it comes out!

    • mdellert

      That’s great to hear! I’m always glad to hear that my work makes a difference. It’s always such a challenge to sit down and write when the Adversary is throwing chairs in the way for no reason. It takes commitment and fortitude to face whatever holds us back and break through it to honest work at the other end 😉

    • mdellert

      As writers, we work in such isolation that sometimes we feel like we have to share every word with our friends and supporters, just to seem like normal people who can hold up a rational conversation. But once you’ve put it into words, you feel less inclined to do it again. Better to save up those morsels of ideas and imagery for the work itself. 😉