Tammy Cohen on Self Doubt

Author Tammy Cohen’s latest novel, The Broken, is a chilling story of divorce and loyalty (think Girl on the Train meets The Husband’s Secret). Here, she tells us about that universal feeling: self doubt…

You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I am a serial killer. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve murdered at various stages of life or gestation. My hard-drive and bottom drawer (let’s draw a veil over the stack of cardboard boxes in the loft) are a graveyard of unfinished novels, their narrative-arcs cruelly truncated, their futures un-played out.

81hqyXHj+DLI wish I could blame perfectionism or a compulsive need to experiment with form, but there’s only one reason behind the Killing Fields that are my writing history: self doubt.

Ian Rankin calls it The Fear – that horrible, bile-inducing conviction that comes to you somewhere between 10,000 words and 30,000 words that what you are writing is the worst thing ever written. By anyone. At any time. What on earth made you think this was a good plot for a book? Which misguided idiot gave you the idea you could write?

It was Iris Murdoch who said ‘every book is the wreck of a good idea’.  How wise she was. Before I start a novel, I’ve usually convinced myself my idea for it is the best I’ve ever had. Scratch that, the best anyone ever had. I can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye – this perfectly conceived and executed gem that will become an instant classic, be showered with prizes and awards and have other writers kicking themselves that they didn’t think of it first.  When people ask what my new book will be about I say, ‘I can’t tell you’, in an infuriatingly smug way, so convinced am I that everyone will want to steal my Precious.

My enthusiasm carries me through the first few thousand words, but then they start to crawl in. The doubts. They’re like ants – every time I block up one hole, they find another to swarm in through. Really? they say. That’s it? Your grand idea? Plot holes I previously glossed over in excitement become fathomless craters. The characters are ridiculous, two dimensional. Rather than leaping off the page, they flatten themselves to it like stickers. There’s a reason no one has written this book before – and that’s because it’s crap.

Author Sadie Jones, whose debut novel The Outcast won the Costa award in 2008, perfectly describes this agonising realisation that the book you’ve ended up writing is a million miles from the masterpiece you’d conceived of. “You imagine, before you start, there’s a cathedral,’ she said in an Observer interview,  “and the moment it starts on the page, it’s a garden shed.”

It’s at this point that Past Me always gave up. What’s the point in investing time in something that not only isn’t perfect, but some mornings you can’t even bear to look at? I’d abandon the work in progress and move on to the next one. And then the next, a pattern that only stopped when, in desperation, I sent the first 10,000 words of a novel to Vivienne Schuster at Curtis Brown.

While she didn’t sign me up on the spot, prompting a 12-way bidding war on the basis of those 10,000 words, she did tell me it had commercial potential. And that was enough. I gritted my teeth, ploughed on through the doubts and finished the book in three months.

So, I’d like to say I never experienced those crippling doubts again. But that would be a lie. Each book I start, there they are again, like unwelcome holiday guests who keep returning year after year, even though the hotelier has banned them. But now I’m on Book Seven, I’ve finally worked out some coping strategies:

Stop aiming for perfection, and just get the words down. You can always change them at second draft stage.

Write for yourself, as if no one else will ever read it.

Read David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay ‘The Nature of the Fun’ where he compares the work in progress to a deformed infant, and concludes the only way to avoid being overcome with revulsion for the hideous creature we’ve created is to get back to seeing work as fun rather than self exposure.

Remember every top writer has doubts – and besides, anything that puts you in the same boat as Ian Rankin can’t be bad. Right?

Tamar Cohen’s fourth novel The Broken comes out in paperback today, published by Black Swan

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