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?
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.