Last year I started writing a book. I did the research, I did the planning, I dreamed up the characters and gave some thought to the themes and what I wanted to say. I started to write. I realised I hadn’t planned as well as I thought, and that the power dynamic between the two leads wasn’t what I wanted. I re-thought, re-wrote. I shared some early chapters with my writing group, who gave positive feedback. Great. I wrote on.
It was a struggle, but who said writing was easy? The struggle is part of the process, right? The struggle is what’ll make it good.
Then, I started to hate it.
So far, so normal. It’s common for authors to go through a phase of thinking their current book is the worst thing ever written. Top tip: It’s not.
Show up, do the work. It’ll be fine.
I doubled-down. I went on a writing break with a friend and pushed on with 2,000 words a day. No going back and tinkering, just getting the story down.
I came home and read over my 50,000 word draft. Not finished, but more than half way.
Parts of it were good. There were some nice lines. Parts of it needed work.
But the story felt hackneyed. I liked one of the main characters, but the other just annoyed me. He’d made some bad mistakes and was about to make another. That’s OK. That’s good! People like flawed characters. But the plot bored me too. The magic felt too similar to the magic in my last book. That might not have bored readers, but it certainly bored me. I wrote a sex scene and just didn’t believe in it. I wanted to scream at the ‘good’ lead character to get out of this terrible relationship – he could do so much better! At some fundamental level I felt I was lying to the reader.
Now I REALLY wanted to stop writing the story.
But, as we’ve established, most writers, at some point, want to stop writing their story.
So, how does one distinguish between ‘this is hard and I don’t want to do the work’ and ‘this really isn’t working and that’s why it’s making me so miserable’?
I don’t know about you, but my way of distinguishing is to force myself to work on the story until I hate writing and hate everything and want to run away from the written word and can’t even read other people’s books. And then I stick at that, for several months, because writing is hard and I’m not a quitter. Aha ha.
But, eventually, I did run away. It wasn’t a simple decision, more a series of decisions, like trying to break a habit. But every time I went back, I realised I didn’t WANT to tell that story. If I’d finished it, published it, maybe some people would have liked it. But I thought it was sub-par and I’m allowed to stop. So there.
I wish I was smarter/faster at making these decisions. I walked away from another book a few years back and that was a similar nightmare of struggling and refusing to give up and returning to this floundering blob of a manuscript again and again and again.
I think what it comes down to is feeling. I have to feel that a story is right or I can’t make myself write it. It’s totally subjective and has nothing to do with anyone else. I’m also a harsh critic of my own work so that makes it extra difficult. Is it REALLY bad, or am I just being mean to myself?
Whatever, I’ve started something new. So far, it’s going quite well, I think. I’m having fun with it. I know what happens next. I like the way the magic works (or doesn’t work). The main characters have problems that interest me.
Will the new story, ultimately, ‘work’? Will it hang together and say what I want it to say and elicit the emotional response I want it to elicit? Will it be publishable? I have no clue. But I’m writing again, and I can read again, and so I’m calling that a win.
How do you distinguish between a manuscript that just needs more work and one that it’s better to walk away from?
It means a lot reading your posts on the complexities of writing because some writers make it look so easy and like it’s just about the discipline of finishing something – but maybe the reason I’m struggling to finish the thing is because it’s not right and I should trust my instinct! I love your books and wish you all the best for this one.
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Yes, I think the really hard part is knowing the difference between ‘it’s not right’ and ‘I’m just over it and therefore being too harsh to myself’. My approach – currently anyway! – is to let myself stop if I really think it’s not working. Because we can always go back to our ‘abandoned’ manuscripts later if we want to, right? I suspect that time will give us the objectivity we need. I do also think sharing work with others can be a great way to proceed. I chose not to in this case, but would normally. Thanks for your kind words!
I look forward to reading the new book.
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Thanks, Susan! 🙂
Thank you – I didn’t know I needed this thoughtful piece about hating one’s writing. I’m loathing the chapter I NEED to write atm, to the point that I really don’t know whether I can push through or not. Part of me (the Scottish Presbyterian grim bit) insists I should simply knuckle down. The “well-if-you’re-opening-another-bottle-anyway” bit says “forget the plot, just have fun, sweetheart”. You’ve made me stand back & think more widely about whether the book as a whole still excites me. Thank you for that perspective.
I’ve loved all your books (though I go back to Mended with Gold most often), so best wishes for your current writing.
PS I think possibly “Frances” Wynne. She also painted this wonderful wonderful scene – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/DV307_no.129_View_in_Davies_St_July_1865.png
OMG that’s the BEST picture! And thanks for the correction and your kind words about my writing. To be fair, I think all writers go through times when their own story bores them a little, but the books I’ve finished writing, and published, have never been as hard to work on as the ones I’ve abandoned. I find that novels that are ‘working’ start to give back in some way. Some random thing you introduced in chapter 2 suddenly is just what you need in chapter 9, and things like that. All the best for your book – even if you’re loathing the current chapter – I hope the way forward becomes clear!
I am a potter, not a writer, but I can relate to the struggle. If I am working on something, and its not coming out as I planned, that’s fine, so I adjust and see what happens.
Sometimes stuff goes wrong, the piece looks wonky or the proportions are all out of whack, and I try to fix it, and than something breaks, or collapses or slips, and then I might try even harder. The despair!
In the end, if I am not happy, I don’t fire it. No point in turning a piece I don’t like into stone. As long as the clay is not fired, I have unlimited tries. Its just mud. And I learn something with every attempt.
I wish you all the best with your new book. I really like your writing, and look forward to reading your next book.
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Thanks, Helen! And there are clear similarities between words and clay – it’s all just mud until suddenly it comes alive, right? Here’s wishing us both luck with our creative endeavors x