Note: this is a rather long Note To Self that I wrote. It occurred to me that there might be others out there also going through this, so I figured I might as well publish it.
It seems to me this is the best way to approach this business of making things up and writing them down. You send your stories off into the world, and if you want to remain a reasonably sane human being, you get on with writing the next thing and don’t burden yourself with visions of dollar signs dancing in your head.
Someone bought the book? Terrific. Go on with the next story.
No one bought the book today? Whatever. On with the next story.
So my resolution for today is not to worry whether my books make a splash or bellyflop. On with the next story.
I was going to write a book for Nanowrimo this year. Set up my Nano page with the book’s cover and its title. Then promptly on November 1st, I got hit with a lightning bolt of a new idea. I had to write it. The goal for Nanowrimo is to write 50,000 words of a new novel in a month. I passed that in two weeks. That’s the problem with lightning bolts: they dazzle you so you cannot see any other stories.
Now I’m in the dull part of writing. I’ve got all the scenes down on the page, but I have to put them in order and make sure they flow one to another. This part of the process takes a lot of chocolate. Especially at this time of year, when all I want is to curl up and ignore the fact that it’s dark at 4:30 in the afternoon.
How do you cope with this time of year? Chocolate? Chestnuts roasting on an open oven?
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.
-Vincent Van Gogh
Sometimes, we have to go through storms. I have to remind myself that storms and upheavals are a necessary part of life.
One thing I’ve learned over this process of changing from a hermit to a published author is that you can feel as if you’re on a ship in the middle of a storm. The waves toss you up and then you plunge down into a maelstrom. Over and over again.
Not much to be done about it, apart from stocking up on Dramamine. Just something to be aware of. The alternative is going back into my hermit cave and quitting. That might be more comfortable, but I don’t think it would be nearly as interesting a life.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation. And you can’t do it ! There’s no home safe enough, there’s no country nice enough, there’s no relationship secure enough; you’re just setting yourself up for an even bigger fall and having an incredibly boring time in the process.
– French Kiss
It’s a great myth that creative geniuses consistently produce great works.
They don’t. In fact, systematic analyses of the career trajectories of people labeled geniuses show that their output tends to be highly uneven, with a few good ideas mixed in with many more false starts. While consistency may be the key to expertise, the secret to creative greatness appears to be doing things differently—even when that means failing.
An article in Scientific American discusses the research that Dean Simonton has done on creative people. People who are highly creative are not inevitably more successful than anyone else. Unless they create a lot.
Simonton’s extensive analysis of geniuses found two major factors to be critical in explaining the creative process of geniuses. First, creative geniuses simultaneously immerse themselves in many diverse ideas and projects. Second, and perhaps even more important, they also have extraordinary productivity. Creators create. Again and again and again. In fact, Simonton has found that the quality of creative ideas is a positive function of quantity: The more ideas creators generate (regardless of the quality of each idea), the greater the chances they would produce an eventual masterpiece.
I eat doubting,
go out to a dubious cafe with skeptical friends.
-Jane Hirschfield, My Doubt
I am hacking my way through the revisions to Geoff and Lia’s story. Revisions are like housework; I would much rather be doing something else, but once I’m done I am glad I did it.
The difference, of course, is that when I’m sweeping the floor, I rarely question whether I’m doing it right.
Perhaps this is a character flaw. Maybe I’ve been sweeping wrong all this time and no one told me.
But with writing, it’s different. I am slicing and dicing the text and then splicing it back together into a semblance of a smoothly flowing narrative. And at each step along the process, doubt is right there with me, a constant companion who questions everything.
I’ve decided that doubt is part of the process as well. I might as well sit him down and make him a cup of tea if he’s going to stay around.
I’ve finally managed to drag my muse out from under the bed where she’s been hiding ever since I got Geoff and Lia’s story back from the beta reader.
Here are three facts about the feedback:
The beta reader did a great job. Her feedback pinpointed the areas in the story that felt weak.
Her feedback was balanced between good and bad elements of my writing.
When I read her feedback, my belief in my ability to write went away and hid for a while.
I knew I was being foolish to overreact like that. I did it anyway. I’ve decided that this reaction is part of the process and I’ll just have to accept it. Plus, I need to recognize that this reaction has very little to do with what the beta reader actually said. I apparently have a hearing problem; criticism of my writing is going to be distorted into something monstrous.
What the beta reader actually said: You need to work on areas A, B, and C.
What I heard: You are the worst writer in the history of the planet.
Something inside my head took the perfectly fair, dispassionate, balanced advice that I was offered and turned it upside down and inside out until it was almost unrecognizable.
Maybe it’s a reverse form of egotism. If I can’t be a good writer, then I’m going to immediately rank myself at the opposite end of the spectrum and be the Worst Writer Ever.
All right. Let’s imagine that’s true. In that case, there’s room for improvement. I will aim to be the Second Worst Writer Ever. Move one step up the ladder.
I have finally got myself back to work by ignoble means. Bribery. The only way I am going to let myself start working on the Shiny New Story waiting in the wings is to finish smoothing out Sam and Neil’s story and then revising Geoff and Lia’s story.
I have a confession to make: I am the sort of person who reads other people’s diaries. But I only read them if it’s the author is dead and the diary is published. I’ve read Virginia Woolf’s diaries. She used to note down how she felt at different stages of writing a novel and then come back later and compare it to how she felt about the story later. So I’m going to note here that at this moment I think that Samantha and Neil’s story is the worst thing I’ve ever written. When I started writing it, this story was all glitter and stardust. I want to check back in six months or so and see what I think about it then.
It’s hard to finish a story when you think it’s the worst thing you’ve ever done. I don’t want to submit a horrible story to my editor. But considering how my feelings about a story are going to change, I don’t think I’m the best judge of whether my stories are any good or not.
It’s not my job to reject this story. That’s the editor’s job, and she’s very good at it. I’m going to write it as best I can and then let her do her job. My job is to write it and then go on.
Bad writing can lead to good writing.
I really do believe that it’s only through writing The Worst Book Ever that I am going to get better. If I keep writing–and finishing–novels, and if I make it a point to analyze where I’ve gone wrong with each story, then I will get better at this.
You are the only you… There are better writers than me, there are smarter writers than me, there are people who can plot better, but nobody can write a Neil Gaiman story like I can.
My first ever book is getting closer to publication. And I’m starting to worry.
I know, I know. I should be happy/excited/proud. Not nervous. But… taking words out of my head and putting them onto a page is one thing. Putting all those pages out for all the world to see is very different.
Is my book any good? I have not the slightest clue.
When an author first starts a book, it’s all rainbows and glitter and insta-love. It’s the Best Book Ever.
Then it comes back from the beta reader, and this book is clearly a complete waste of time and you are obviously an inept bumbler who should never have been allowed near a keyboard. Be off with you. Find a new hobby.
Then comes revisions, and it’s like eating dust and ashes. The story is dead, there’s no life to it, you should just delete it from your computer and burn any hard copies.
Then it comes out and… this part is hypothetical, but I’m guessing there will be one of two possible scenarios here:
Zzzzzzzz…. crickets…zzzzzz…. maybe a one-star review on Amazon if you’re lucky.
What, someone liked it? It’s not the absolutely Worst Book Ever? Maybe even not the Second Worst Book Ever? Hey, maybe it’s even made it up to the level of the Third Worst Book Ever! Success!
tl;dr — I am trying not to think about the upcoming publication of His Forgotten Fiancée. This week, I’m finishing up the smooth draft of Neil and Samantha’s story, tentatively titled Sierra Hostage. Then I am giving myself a month to go over the revisions for Geoff and Lia’s story before I send it to the editor. Keeping busy helps.
All I can do is focus on finishing the current story. Then the one after that. The next one will be better. Each time, the next one will be better.