Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
This is a weekly blog on the art of creative writing, for writers, readers and anyone interested in how stories work.
There are fewer than 50 days until The Honours appears in the shops. Crikey. You can pre-order now and get it delivered to your door on the day of publication – that is great news for me, as the author, because it makes it look like people are excited about the book before any publicity has happened or anything. If you go to the Waterstones or Amazon links, you can even read a bit of the book!
I am finding the run-up a bit nerve-wracking, to be honest. I expect that is true for most authors, but as someone who manages an anxiety disorder, sometimes it has that extra little flavour of arrgghh! I feel very lucky and excited – this is something I’ve aspired towards since I was 5 – so it surprises me when, occasionally, I get these feelings of frustration or panic or inadequacy.
It doesn’t help that I’m working on my follow-up novel as we countdown to the launch of the first. Over the last few days, the writing has gone really well and I’ve produced loads, but as soon as I hit a snag or patch of uncertainty – what are the characters supposed to do here? What’s his motivation for this? Am I foreshadowing this right? – those old feelings of self-doubt and anxiousness and horrible impostery procrastinatory bleurgh start rising up like some capering chimp-goblin o’ doom.
It is very hard to write when a voice in your ear is saying: are you sure this will work? I don’t think this will work. What if you’re wasting your time? Shouldn’t you stop and check you’re doing this right? You don’t want to spend months taking a wrong turn. Maybe make some notes. Maybe read back through what you’ve done. That sick feeling in your gut must mean it’s going badly. You’re not going to write well with a headache – take a break. How many words have you written today? Based on that, how many months will it take you to finish the draft? What if everyone hates it? What if you can’t fix what’s wrong with it? And so on.
My chief problem with dismissing these thoughts is that I’ve always believed that a robust self-critic is central to writing a decent story. Err… you may have deduced that attitude from the timbre of my comments in this blog. In my experience – and, to be fair, I can think of one or two counter-examples – being extremely positive about one’s own writing correlates strongly with being a shit writer.
But what a horrible conclusion! That a writer can’t enjoy their own work – at least not while they’re writing it – for fear of ruining it. Surely this can’t be true!
And I don’t, deep down, in my best, rational self, believe it is true. But it feels like a convincing assertion when you’re muddling through a big project like a novel and you’ve strained so hard to cram multiple versions of an entire fictional world into your head that your brain feels like a pinata filled with tepid porridge.
I suspect – and bear in mind I’ve only ‘successfully’ completed one novel in my life, so this is very much a provisional theory rather than a thumbs-up bona fide iron clad Facto2000 Supa-Truth – that the only way to get through is to gently, compassionately keep going.
Notes, outlines and plans can be very useful, but overdo them and you will fry your mind. Think of them as memos from head office: a few, outlining general positions of protocol, and maybe highlighting some very specific nuances of execution, can help guide workers on the ground, providing they’re offered as suggestions rather than grand inviolable edicts. If head office bombards frontline staff with reams and reams of absurdly detailed instructions on how to handle every aspect of their jobs, however, this will only straitjacket and infuriate the most important people in the company, and prevent them from fulfilling their duties well – while simultaneously creating huge amounts of work for the CEO, who is expected to foresee and micromanage every eventuality that workers might encounter.
Urgh. I think I threw up in my mouth a bit from doing a corporate metaphor. But you get the idea, right?
I admit it. I’m a perfectionist. And not in the humble-braggy, what’s-your-biggest-weakness job interview question way. In the way that I set absurdly high standards for myself, perceive before even starting the task that I’m not going to achieve them, feel stressed, then sack it off to eat Weetabix and play Chronotrigger. And if I do manage to get started, as soon as I encounter difficulties, ambiguity or uncertainty, the fierce self-criticism starts playing its shitty ringtone over and over and over.
But I’m getting better. I exercise a lot, and I’ve started meditating every day. Roll your eyes if you will, but meditation has started taking the edge off bad habits I’ve spent decades accruing. I procrastinate less, and I’ve started to notice when I’m being shit to myself.
I mention all this because I know I’m not the only writer out there who experiences moments of self-doubt.
See, experiencing doubt about the sentence you’re writing, or the scene – that is good. That proves you have some kind of operational sense of artistic judgement. Sometimes you’ll write a scene, and the scene sucks. It turns out these characters don’t have very much to do in this bit, it turns out the plot’s taken a wrong turn, it turns out you’ve used horrible, leaden language, it turns out this character doesn’t even belong in the story, whatever. Without that sense of doubt, you’d never know. And you’d never be able to sculpt your novel into a workable, enjoyable whole.
But self-doubt is a bit different. It feels the same – if you’re not really paying attention or you’re feeling shit or your mind is busy, you probably can’t tell them apart – but it’s much less useful. It basically says: maybe I’m crap. Maybe the problem is me.
Self-doubt is trying to protect you in the same way artistic doubt is. It knows that, if the story doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, you’ll experience disappointment and sadness. And it wants to protect you from those. So it tries to limit your ambitions and draw you back into your shell and stop you from taking the sort of risks that might get your heart broken.
The only problem is, it doesn’t work. Pressing on might not fix the story. I cannot promise you your novel will work. I have written novels that did not work. I really put my heart and soul into the novel I wrote at university, and it was mediocre and a mess. I remember how gutted I was that I couldn’t save it. So look – you can certainly do your best and it not turn out right.
But if you give up, it definitely won’t work. And – far worse than that – you’ll lose respect for yourself. You’ll lose confidence, and you’ll lose that playfulness and wonder that made you love writing in the first place. These worries can become self-fulfilling prophecies by eating away at your ability to concentrate and discouraging you from investing the time necessary to take your story through all the stages of development, from rough, disconnected sketches, to stable build, to redraft, to fine tune, to polish.
Writing does, occasionally, require a kind of faith bordering on the ludicrous. You will, mid-project, probably look round and realise you are constructing a 1:1 scale replica of the Ark on the roof of your apartment block, ready for a flood no one else believes is going to come. And you’re not even really that much of a boat-builder – you certainly couldn’t build anything like those vast, majestic ships you’ve glimpsed out in the harbour, slitting the silver throat of the ocean with their sleek cruel prows.
Damn good for you. For what it’s worth, I admire your arrogance, your foolhardy labour, the secret shame of believing that this story, out of all the stories that could ever exist, this very story, deserves to be told. That is gutsy. And possibly stupid.
But fear of looking stupid, fear of failure – these are the things I see again and again killing creativity, killing self-expression in the 8 and 9-year-olds I teach workshops to. When I ask a child: ‘What’s an object that could appear in a story?’ something always pops into their heads, but sometimes they stop themselves before they say it, because they think it might be rubbish, and so they say: ‘I don’t know.’ (did you see an object that could appear in a story? I bet you did.)
So I try to play some games where we take any old thing, a seagull called Jerry, a pine tree, an Xbox, the stink of fish, and we work it into a story. And we have fun. A lot of the time I’m laughing so hard I have to stop for a breather before we continue the lesson. Because all their ideas are brilliant. Every single one.
And we don’t lose that capacity when we get older. But I think we can – even when we’re sat at home, alone at the laptop, with no witnesses to whether we’re producing gold or bum-slurry – start to worry that we don’t have the right to mess up, to fail, that it’s something we need to get over if we ever want to start producing good work.
Please – when you read Death Of 1000 Cuts posts where we dismantle sentences and find ways you probably hadn’t even considered of being wrong – don’t internalise these things as more reasons to stifle your writing. To write, to create, is to produce huge piles of failure, and then learn to arrange them beautifully. Yes, I know the Beckett quote.
Tomorrow I’m going to plough on with my writing, with little idea of where I’m going, safe in the knowledge that I’m almost certainly getting it wrong. And I shall make my mind up to enjoy it.
Have a lovely week, friends.