The number one thing that stops me from writing my novels isn’t a lack of time, opportunity, or ideas. It’s how I feel while I’m writing.
The act of writing hurts.
It goes a little like this. I sit down and spend at least 20 minutes getting into a good headspace. And once I get going, it’s not necessarily any easier. The whole process, from beginning to end, is painful. It’s basically “this sucks this is bad and dull and uninspiring” on loop.
And knowing it’s like this almost every time is depressing because I start to question my life choices. Why couldn’t I have picked a nice, happy hobby, like knitting?
There’s only one way I know to deal with this feeling. Not even to make it go away — just to get around it.
Yeah, yeah. Easier said than done, I know. (Trust me, I know.) Because it’s a bit like a catch-22. You have to write often to stop the feeling from being so intense, but the feeling is so intense that it stops you from writing often.
In that way it’s a little like exercising. It’s terrible until you like it (or so I’ve heard). But exercising isn’t a perfect metaphor because it’s not so much that I like it or that it gets any easier. It’s more like meditation. It’s uncomfortable and hard — consistently, no matter how much I do it — until that moment when it’s not.
It happens when I’m maybe an hour in, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But when it does, I call it falling into the “writing zone” because that’s about the time when my husband is asking if I’m ever rejoining the rest of humanity because three hours have flown by. I get up from my laptop all groggy and wondering where I am.
As a writer, I can only live for these moments. But it’s like getting in a car and every time having to drive with a blindfold on. You’re horrified and you want to get out because this is a bad idea, but then you can feel you’re on the highway, and you’ve forgotten anything is wrong because you’re one with your car or something. (No, I have not done this. Do not do this.)
If writing is meditation, it’s a struggle of trying to make it from one word, one sentence, one paragraph to the next while machete-hacking through a jungle of my own terrible thoughts. It’s a fight. It’s relentless. And then all of a sudden, I’m in the groove. I’m too deep and too focused to care or even notice I’m in the jungle anymore — I’m just there, slinging the words, too busy to complain about how hot it is or how hungry I am.
This is probably too many metaphors, but you get the idea.
Writing is hard. It’s hard. I don’t know that it’ll ever not be hard. And yeah, most of the time that makes me want to crawl under the blankets and never emerge.
But then I achieve that small moment — and it’s the tiniest indication that everything will be okay. That maybe I can do this after all.
So here I am. Still writing. Still going.
After a two-month break, I’m ready to revise my latest manuscript — roll up my sleeves, uproot those big-picture problems with world-building and character and … ooh look, that’s a good place for a comma!
Turning off my grammar brain is hard for me. So hard that, when I took a developmental editing in fiction course earlier this year, the teacher schooled me on my first assignment. I was thinking too much like a copy editor. (Full disclaimer: I am one.)
I was seeing the trees, not the forest. As novelists, we gotta see the whole forest, because when you’re trying to take that first draft and hammer it into shape, all the pretty words and emphatically placed commas don’t mean a damn thing.
So I printed out my latest MS with the intent of reading through it with fresh eyes. I wanted to react like a first-time reader would. That way, I could focus on the story, rather than all my insecurities as the author.
And hey, it’s actually working. I can’t completely forget that I’m the author, so I’m jotting down little ideas and insights for how I can make the story stronger, given I know how it plays out. (Which is actually GOOD in developmental editing. You want to be familiar with the story in its entirety before you go making suggestions for how to fix it, so typically you do a clean read-through first, then only start marking up the MS on your second pass.) But I also have emotional distance now, so it feels more like I’m reading someone else’s manuscript, which lets me be more honest and free-thinking in my criticism, as opposed to crippled by doubt and pressure and self-loathing at being The World’s Worst Writer Ever.
So it’s awesome. Except for one thing. My MS is a middle grade, and I’ve noticed a lot of what I’m affectionally calling OPWs, or “Old People Words” — basically words or phrases that an adult like me would use, that might turn off kids and diminish the book’s voice.
Which is great, only now I can’t stop flagging them, or circling other words and marking them as “vague” or “awkward” — or striking out crutch words or whole sentences. Once I get going, I literally cannot stop myself. Full grammar beast mode activates, and I lose the forest for the trees.
This is bad. There’s no sense in caring about issues on the sentence level when it could all change depending on what needs fixed big-picture. Those words I’m nitpicking now? They could all get cut in the next draft anyway. There’s plenty of time to catch them later, when I’ve moved on to more surface-level changes.
So, memo to self — and let this be a helpful reminder. Don’t worry about perfect. Perfect is a trap. If you’re like me, that might take a lot of willpower, but first things first: get the story right. The characters, plot, conflicts, motivations, world-building, etc. See the forest first, in its entirety. Stand on a hill or something and get a good view. Make sure it’s a solid forest in every sense — that all the animals and plants and insects are doing what they’re supposed to. Then worry about pulling the weeds.
Doodle by my hubby
Recently I was talking to a fellow writer, and shortly into our conversation, I got the impression they were showing off about how talented they were. Their stories were, not to brag, really popular. They were told at a young age they were a great writer. Etc.
In that moment, I felt my own insecurity creeping up. They’d reached milestones I hadn’t, and I felt compelled to defend myself and point out how experienced and knowledgeable I was, too. How dare they try to upstage me!
And then I wondered … why am I letting this annoy me so much? Why does it matter how good they are, compared to how good I am? Their achievements as a writer don’t detract from my own, which are different because our experiences have been different. But as writers, we’re often so insecure about how good we are that we constantly compare our skill to other people’s. We beat ourselves up and get defensive.
Here’s the thing. We don’t need to prove to anyone else how good we are. And if we feel we need to show off, it’s because secretly we feel insecure. As my husband pointed out, maybe that’s why this person felt the need to brag in the first place. Maybe they felt they needed to prove how they stack up to me.
Writers don’t need to compete with each other. We don’t need to measure our success against someone else’s. All that matters is our own journey, and how far we’ve come, and how much farther we’re willing to go. Just persisting and writing new things is progress. When it comes down to it, being popular once or writing this amazing thing this one time doesn’t make the other person a better writer. There’s so much more to it than that. And even if they are “better” (who’s judging that, anyway?), that doesn’t mean you or your writing is worth any less.
Sure, we can think someone’s a better writer than us — because they’re published or a bestseller or whatever. The truth is, a lot of writers are. But maybe they’ve also been writing longer, or just got lucky, or they have agents and editors and marketing teams helping them. Or they simply put in a lot more work. Chances are their first draft still stinks.
It’s a waste of time to compare ourselves to other writers. All that leads to is us feeling bad about ourselves. Being a “good” writer isn’t about how many fans you have or books you’ve sold or even whether you have an agent. It’s about how dedicated you are to your own craft — how honest you can be with yourself about where your work needs to improve, and how much energy you’re willing to put in to make it better.
Good writers push themselves. They don’t diminish other writers, because they know the only person they’re really in competition with is themselves.
And you are not your work. If your writing sucks, that doesn’t mean you do.
It just means you haven’t made it better yet.
It’s been almost two years since I wrote my last blog post. And boy, things have changed.
Baby boy, to be exact.
I was feeling pretty down on myself in my last post. I was also — hey — about three months pregnant and constantly sick. So in hindsight, that makes sense. But I was also really stuck on the fact that I’d put a huge amount of energy into writing a novel that was my best one yet, and it wasn’t going anywhere.
So I quit writing. I didn’t have it in me. For all my past talk about “writing’s hard, you just gotta push through” — I couldn’t. All the self-discipline in the world wasn’t getting those words out of me.
Part of me thought, “Okay, this is fine. My mind and body only have energy enough for growing a human being. If I start another novel now, I’ll give birth before it’s finished, and then I’ll have to put it on ice for months as I adjust to being a new mom, and that’ll kill the project anyway.”
That was fine.
I did the thing. I gave birth to a baby boy, seven pounds, one ounce. I enjoyed my maternity leave. Then I grew restless. I wanted to get back to my job. I did.
And then my brain latched on to an idea and it was happening. I was writing a novel again.
As of last weekend, I finished the first draft of my fourth novel, a middle grade fantasy.
It’s a funny thing, life. I guess I only had room for one big project in me at a time. (God forbid I ever have twins.) But I was pretty sure I would never write another novel again. I was that demotivated and hopeless.
But then I did.
Writing with a 10 month old isn’t easy. Time is scarcer than ever. But you get it done. The words are bad, and you hate them, but they go down on the page.
And then you have a novel.
Lately I’ve thinking a lot about my long-held dream of getting a literary agent and seeing my book traditionally published. The truth is, as I continue to query my third manuscript (fourth if you count that one I partially wrote in high school), I’ve been feeling pretty demotivated. The process is ridden with rejections.
I know I’m a good writer. In the span of about five years, I gained traction as a freelance journalist, earning the praise and respect of a number of high-profile folks, and ultimately transitioned full-time into a much different (but also heavily writing-focused) role with a single company, where I’ve gone from bottom-rung to the head of a department and member of an executive team. In what I do, I’m successful — and supremely grateful. I know, with confidence, how much my skills have grown and how much more potential I have to fulfill. I’m damn proud of myself.
But there’s still a part of myself that craves a different outlet. An ambition that needs to be satisfied. And that’s becoming an author. Not a writer who’s finished and revised several manuscripts, mind you, but a Published Author (insert sparkles here).
And as years spent on one manuscript give way to years on another, I’m beginning to question what I really want: to see my name on a book on a shelf in a store or library, or to have readers — dozens or even hundreds or thousands of them?
I think it’s a little of both. I want to feel like I’ve “earned” my keep by getting an agent, getting a publishing deal, and seeing my books for sale. But I also know that if I did all that (or even part of that) and my book still tanked and no one read it … it wouldn’t mean all that much to me.
I want my book to be read, too.
Getting published is hard. The odds exist (and are real) and yet don’t exist at the same time: Honing your craft increases your chance of success, and each novel is a learning experience … just one that takes one or two years to complete each time. It’s a long-ass journey. Ava Jae, a young adult author I admire, wrote 10 books before she got an agent. Even writers who’ve made it into The New York Times can’t get book deals.
And while I’m not sure I want to self-publish — there are a number of drawbacks to that route, including hurting your chances of getting traditionally published in the future and the plain fact that the only person deciding whether your book is ready is you, a very biased opinion holder — I’m not sure I want to wallow in silence forever, either. I don’t want to shelve manuscript after manuscript, all for a goal I may never reach.
So what does my future hold? Well, more querying and more novel writing, undoubtedly. But I’m also toying with the idea of letting some of my old, failed manuscripts free on a community like Wattpad. Those stories are languishing alone on my computer; they’re not going anywhere. If I release them anonymously, for free, with no sales numbers to haunt me — whether they get two views or two thousand — what’s the harm?
At the end of the day, it’s my choice. I have to decide what’s important to me.
Zenith, a new young adult sci-fi book by authors Lindsay Cummings and Sasha Alsberg, is getting destroyed by reviewers on YouTube. But these aren’t ordinary negative book reviews. These are videos where “BookTubers” (members of the bookish community on YouTube), some of whom are aspiring authors themselves, are panning the work of other popular BookTubers — and they’re not going light on the criticism. They’re attacking Zenith to the point of blatant mockery.
This kind of panning brings up a few questions. Is it right or even fair for creators to criticize the work of their colleagues? And what happens when the roles are reversed, and it’s their turn to be judged?
YouTubers vs. YouTubers
In his review of Zenith, YouTuber “InsaneReader” begins by sharing why he decided to pick up the book:
I am a writer, correct? I like to write books. My dream is to get my book published, and I’m a BookTuber. This person published a book, and they are a BookTuber. … I’m a BookTuber, so let’s say I’m getting my book published. What I would want to happen and what I would expect to happen and really, really hope to happen is to have members of my community embrace my book and support me. For me, buying this book, it almost feels like, well yeah, I would want somebody that watches my videos or somebody that supports me to buy my book, obviously.
So basically, it’s like transactional. I would like to buy somebody else’s book and support them so then someday other people might support me. And I’m not saying that in like the sense of, oh, if I don’t give these books good stars, nobody’s gonna like me. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I would expect someone to give my book a chance.
And he does give Zenith a chance. He vlogs his reading of the book … and quickly begins to hate on it for the next 30 minutes. He clearly enjoys making fun of it.
And you can’t blame him. The book sounds awful, from the characters to the plot to the cliche writing. But his book review isn’t so much as a book review as it is a total and unapologetic slamming.
When is criticism not ‘respectful’?
Any reviewer is obligated to be honest — and should be. That’s their job. It’s far too easy for someone to feel pressured to give a good review or soften their opinion when there’s a personal connection to the creator, whether it’s because they’re friends or fellow creators.
“I don’t have any ill feelings toward the author[s],” InsaneReader says at the end of the video. “I could even say I like the authors in some regard. I’m not attacking anybody. I just personally wasn’t a fan of this book. If you’re gonna be somebody who liked this book or maybe didn’t like this book, either way, keep it respectful.”
And he’s right: He isn’t attacking the authors. He’s separating the creators from their creations; who they are as people does not equal the work they produce. “I think I tweeted this at one point,” he says, “but if you’re the type of person who sees that somebody doesn’t like a book that you like, and your first thought is to get mad or dislike a video or leave a mean comment, you are gonna have the hardest time existing as a human being on the earth.”
Just like he isn’t attacking the authors personally, he expects viewers not to attack him personally for his opinion … and likewise for the authors when they watch his video. There’s no need for hard feelings here.
But is InsaneReader “keeping it respectful”? There’s a fine line between offering a fair, honest review and going overboard into mockery for the sake of mockery. Granted, it’s easy to go overboard when there’s so much that’s awful to gush about. Books can be so bad that every page makes you roll your eyes and groan and want to complain to others about it. The bad parts of a book can pile up until everything appears bad and it becomes harder to distinguish whether you’re frustrated with something because it’s genuinely awful or if you’re nit-picking because everything else is so annoying.
And what happens when the roles are reversed? Say InsaneReader gets a book published one day. Would he be terrified that other BookTubers would tear apart his work the same way that he did someone else’s? Or would he hope that they would at least be “respectful” in their criticism? Where do we draw the line?
I’m using InsaneReader as an example here, but he’s not the only YouTuber who’s picked apart every little line of Zenith and ranted about how terrible it is. Others, like Jordan Harvey, have released similar lengthy videos — although I tend to think hers is a bit more analytical than indulgent, which makes it more useful as a look into amateur writing vs. quality writing and how you can learn from that. (She even has a video she recommends in her Zenith review about why Avatar: The Last Airbender does exposition so well, as opposed to Zenith, which doesn’t.)
What do you think? Is all the backlash against Zenith fair? Do people have a tendency to go too far in their hatred of something? Or should creators accept that exposing their work to the world can invite extreme levels of negativity, just like it can warrant huge fandom?
My bookish resolution this year? Read more middle grade.
This winter, I want to try my hand at writing a middle grade novel, which means I’ve gotta stock up on middle grade to read! The category has always been one of my favorites. I love the sense of fun, lighthearted adventure you get from books like Percy Jackson, The Evil Librarians, Fablehaven — or my newest love, Lockwood & Co.
For 2018, it just so happens that the middle grade books I’m most excited about star girls as the protagonists. WIN!
1) The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta
Number in series: Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1
Release date: February 27, 2018
MEET KIRANMALA: INTERDIMENSIONAL DEMONSLAYER
(But she doesn’t know it yet.)
On the morning of her twelfth birthday, Kiranmala is just a regular sixth grader living in Parsippany, New Jersey… until her parents mysteriously vanish later that day and a rakkhosh demon slams through her kitchen, determined to eat her alive. Turns out there might be some truth to her parents’ fantastical stories—like how Kiranmala is a real Indian princess—and a wealth of secrets about her origin they’ve kept hidden.
To complicate matters, two crushworthy Indian princes ring her doorbell, insisting they’re here to rescue her. Suddenly, Kiran is swept into another dimension full of magic, winged horses, moving maps, and annoying, talking birds. There she must solve riddles and slay demons all while avoiding the Serpent King of the underworld (who may or may not want to kill her) and the rakkhosh queen (who definitely does) in order to find her parents and basically save New Jersey, her entire world, and everything beyond it …
Last month, I sent my latest manuscript to one of my closest critique partners. I was anxious to hear what she thought. Anxious, but excited.
This is the third novel that I’ve written. When I finished the first one, I remember my hands were shaking. Pride and accomplishment flooded through me. I HAD DONE THE THING. I HAD WRITTEN A NOVEL. (It turned out that THE THING was only THE BEGINNING because revision is approximately 100 times harder and more work, but hey.)
My second novel is and probably will always be my baby — although it’s more like a car or a house. A shabby, broken-at-its-foundations house, but one that I built myself. I loved it to death, and I kept trying to fix it up (many, many times), but in the end I was only giving it a fresh paint job and dusting out the cobwebs while the porch was falling in and the roof was leaking. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s no saving it unless you build a whole new house.
This novel was different. I didn’t feel overly happy or anything, really, upon finishing it. And while you might think that’s proof that the novel is bad, that it’s not emotionally affecting or immersive, I took it as a sign that I was growing as a novelist. This novel wasn’t my “baby.” It was one story out of many I could and will write. The whole of my aspirations and future weren’t resting on it being some sort of monumental breakaway success.
I felt … calm. I felt good about what I had produced. Confident. There are always problems with early drafts, but to me the novel seemed strong at its core, and I was curious to learn how my assessment compared to my critique partner’s.
It’s hard to get distance from your work and be objective about how good it is — how effective or successful you are at what you’re trying to accomplish. But even when I was doing my first round of revision, I was more focused in those self-edits than I have been in the past.
That focus and perspective, to me, is key. It’s not important how you “feel” about your novel — whether your fingers are trembling as they hover over the keyboard after typing “the end.” Whether the characters are near and dear to your heart. You don’t need to be in love because your personal feelings have little to do with the quality of your work.
Writers are notorious for thinking they’re geniuses one day and hacks the next. If you look over your work in either state of mind, you’re not going to get a very truthful assessment of its quality. It’s colored by what you feel in the moment.
As I waited for my critique partner to respond with her feedback, I suspected I was getting better at putting those emotions aside. That my assessment of my work was more critical and, I hoped, accurate.
And you know what? I wasn’t too far off. What I thought was good about it was what she thought was good. There were no heart-stopping surprises in her feedback. No shockers.
I’m getting better. I find that comforting. It may not be dramatic or riveting, but I’ll take that security over heart-pounding nerves and emotional rollercoasters any day.
How have you noticed yourself growing as a novelist?
Quick life update before we get into the good stuff: September was a busy month for me. I finished the first draft of my novel WIP (!), adopted a dog (!!), and got married (!!!). So yeah, that’s why I sort of disappeared last month.
Now that things are calmer (well, not totally calm — dog training is a big undertaking) and I’ve taken a much-needed break, it’s time to dig my hands into my manuscript again and revise. To get myself pumped and in the writer’s mindset, I’ve been reading Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and listening to writing podcasts (I use and recommend the platform Podbean). One episode I came across was on the “Story Grid Podcast” show and discussed micro editing and macro editing in a first draft.
So I’ve always heard that macro editing — the big-picture revisions to your story’s major structure and core elements, like world-building, plot, and character — should come before micro editing — the smaller-scale revisions to aspects such as sentences and word choice. It makes sense when you think about it: Why quibble over grammar or diction when you’re probably going to make massive, story-altering changes that might undo or negate all that work?
In other words, you don’t edit the prose of your first chapter 10 times, then move on to chapter two and repeat until you hit “The End.” You rework the clay of your story’s body to get the shape right before polishing the details.
But Tim Grahl, the host of “Story Grid,” actually advocates for the other way around: Tackling more minor tasks first before moving on to the big stuff.
The reason, he explains, is because after you reread your first draft and make a list (a spreadsheet works well) of all the problems you noticed or parts you’d like to improve, you’re going to be overwhelmed. And trying to start with the big items is only going to make you want to throw your hands up and quit. How are you even supposed to know where to start?
By starting with the micro, Grahl says, you can knock out smaller tasks while getting a better feel for your novel and how you’re going to fix those macro issues you’ve identified. Which means you’re less stressed and more equipped to conquer the revision process.
I like his thinking.
Of course, Grahl isn’t saying, “Tweak that sentence or fix that typo before doing anything else.” He’s saying, “Fix small issues, then big ones,” and I imagine he agrees the fine-tuning should still come at the end.
That said, every writer has their own style for tackling revisions, and what works works. To me, the most important part is to just get through it, make progress, and keep finding solutions to those pesky problems so you can improve your novel.
What do you think of Grahl’s advice?