the Author

Social Distancing Journal: Answering a question about writing process

Posted in writing.

I started seri­ously writing about six years ago. I finished the first draft of my first novel last summer. In the middle of revising it, I was inspired and wrote a second novel in six months flat.

With two novels’ first drafts done, the logical next step was revi­sion & editing — and this is where the rug was pulled out from under me in a way I did not expect. I’ve read plenty of advice that one should ignore that nega­tive inner voice during the first draft and then utilize it for editing in subse­quent drafts.

For me, I found I could tune that voice out during the 1st draft — it’s the subse­quent revision/editing drafts I’m massively strug­gling with because of that inner voice. … I haven’t been able to make anything gel in months at this point, unless it’s on a new project.

I’m wondering if you’ve had to work through this kind of doubt spiral, either before being published or after (or both), and how you pushed past it? In writing that, I realize those may be fairly personal ques­tions; if they are, I’ll amend them with this one: as a published author, do you have any advice for me as a new(er) writer that may help to get past this kind of debil­i­tating self-doubt?

Yes. I have absolutely had to work through this doubt spiral. (I wrote a long series of posts about my process here.)

Let’s assume that you’re not strug­gling because of beta feed­back, since you haven’t mentioned too much of it. If you are revising to beta feed­back, this is going to be a two part post. This post, however, assumes that you are now trying to revise first drafts.

When I reach the end of a book, I’m done. I need to set it aside for a couple of months (ideally six, but this is not an ideal world) before I can read and assess it ratio­nally, or as close to ratio­nally as I can.

When I do not have the time, I can become completely para­lyzed. The voice of my fear sounds like this: This is garbage. Nothing works. Every­thing is terrible. It’s like a mantra, but… it’s not a mantra that’s helpful with medi­ta­tive peace.

And… because I want to write a perfect book. I want to write a book that my readers will be moved by, I sit here, becoming para­lyzed by the certainty that this time, people will finally see that I cannot write and I’ve just been fooling people all this time.

Or maybe I used to be able to write, but now I can’t — I’ve lost it. I’ve lost what­ever small spark of actual talent I have. And maybe people say they like it because they don’t want to hurt my feel­ings, or they’re too close to it, or… you get the idea.

This is Michelle circling the drain. [On good days, I do not feel like this. On good days, I can become quite excited by the actual book itself. But… you’re not asking about good days. Trust that there are some.]

When this happens, I am inca­pable of any objec­tivity at all. When I know what’s wrong with a book, I focus on that: on the struc­tural elements that are missing, on the tonal shifts, on perhaps the view­point if some­thing is not being made clear. It’s a relief.

When I have zero input, I start to flail. This is frequently when I stick the book in the mail and go away. Many, many people will tell you “good enough is not good enough” or “the book must be as perfect as you can make it” before you send it out — to publishers or agents- or you will never be published.

If this was actu­ally true, I would never have been published. I would not be published now. I would never be published again. I don’t apol­o­gize for the state of the book, and I don’t explain that it’s all garbage. (Most of the time.) But I do send it to the editor. Because to me, nothing works. NOTHING. And I need an outside opinion because the inside opinion is getting me nowhere. Well, no, but it’s not getting me anywhere useful.

Oddly enough, in the case of Touch, I didn’t do this, because I knew what wasn’t working. But I did start that book from page one four times before I real­ized that the ending I was trying to reach was never, ever going to be reached. It was the wrong ending for the char­ac­ters I had created. It was not an ending they would ever reach. So… I could keep throwing out varying amounts of work in an attempt to reach that ending, or I could accept that it was never going to happen.

Since I gener­ally know the ending of a book when I start it, this made things much harder in one way — but much easier, as well. Did I know how the book was going to end? No. But I knew what the ending of the trilogy was, and that did not change. (This had a follow on effect on Grave, because the begin­ning of Grave was no longer the begin­ning, and I had no idea how to get there. So: more throwing out of pages and false starts. I think it was chapter twelve of the 3rd attempt when I real­ized, no, wait! And then I finally had a begin­ning, and the end was solid.)

I think, in order to be published, the biggest obstacle is often… ourselves. I think doubt is not only neces­sary but inevitable. But it’s the ability to carry the weight of doubt and uncer­tainty, and to work with it, work around it or work through it that’s impor­tant. We all have doubt. It’s not the same doubt, because we’re not the same writers, and we don’t write the same books. But… it’s doubt, and when it gets too loud, it drowns out the book. We hear only our fear.

And the truth is: I cannot entirely push it out for good. Ever. It’s a constant, it’s part of the internal cycle of writing a novel, part of the process. I have found a few different ways of control­ling my reac­tion to it: my editor, my Australian reader, and some­times Tanya.

I don’t read reviews of my own books often. (I find goodreads really helpful if I’m on the fence about some­thing new — and it’s often the nega­tive reviews that help me, because appar­ently things that people find boring or stupid are things I really like >.<). But — I avoid things that will unsettle me when I’m already on edge.

If I’m in a really bad place, I don’t read any reviews, because even if nega­tive or upset reviews aren’t talking about my books, I get the echoes of them in my head while I’m trying to write or revise mine. Should I? Well, no. Does it matter if I can’t take it or am not tough enough?

No. Demon­strably.

What matters, in the end, is the book. It’s the writing itself. If, in order to be able to do the work, I have to cut myself off from a bunch of things, I cut myself off from them. If it’s helpful, have beta readers. But try to listen to them as if they’re talking about a different book. If you’re not certain about them as readers with useful feed­back, talk to them about books you person­ally know well – and love. Ask what did or didn’t work for them. It’s easier to get answers, to see the more tech­nical aspects, if you’re not the writer, and it’s also a way to see how they offer feed­back, how they think about books, about struc­ture, etc.

But, I’m not sure I have great coping tech­niques, otherwise.

8 Responses to Social Distancing Journal: Answering a question about writing process

  1. Joey says:

    Do you keep the do-overs? At least the ones over a few hundred words?

  2. michelle says:

    @Joey: No. I tend to throw out the things that don’t work. 

    I do know people who keep things that are cut; they really like the ideas and the momentum of a scene even if it no longer works for this partic­ular book. 

    And that’s down to process. I cannot figure out how some­thing that grew as an offshoot of a specific book will somehow be useful in an entirely different one — because my process isn’t geared to that.

  3. Joey says:

    Is that the case with your short / “short” fiction as well?

  4. michelle says:


    I once wrote 37 pages of a short story (it’s the Alexander the Great one) and real­ized that … it was the wrong story. So i threw them out.

    It’s just … I don’t consider myself all that clever, so it’s not the ideas that are the problem in any given scene, and it’s not like keeping the idea essence of a set of scenes is going to be helpful. If it’s strong enough, I’ll retain it; it’ll stick to me until I write a book that addresses it. And if it isn’t, it’s not relevant.

  5. DeDe says:

    I’m feeling my age these days (more than usual) — Michelle, are you finding that your process is changing in unex­pected ways as you’re getting older?

  6. Mary Allen says:

    Rather than throw anything you write away you might post it. You did let us read about Sigurne that I think you left out of Skir­mish. I enjoy reading anything you write.

  7. michelle says:

    @Mary: The Sigurne section is a little bit different; it was part of the submitted book, but I had a suspi­cion it was too long, given the context in which it was placed.

    A lot of the time, the parts cut are no longer rele­vant to the book as a whole, or they just don’t work (imho). I will prob­ably put up the first few chap­ters of the Severn novel, because that was collapsed into a much small section of the book — but again, that was submitted. I obvi­ously didn’t think it was harmful to the book.

  8. Mary Allen says:

    Thank you so much for answering. I still enjoy anything you write. I read this blog and check it almost everyday even though I do not write anything but letters and actu­ally dislike writing. I have read almost 147 books this year a lot of rereads but think Hidden City is one of my top 10 favorite books I ever read. I have been reading over 100 books a year for over 60 years so being in my top ten is compared to a lot of other books.

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