While at an author talk on fairytales and the writing process at my university, a question came from the audience about writing challenges, sensitively, and how to overcome both. The author smiled warily and paused before answering (and this is not quite verbatim), “You know, I struggled a lot with finding a voice in the process, and tuning out critics who didn’t care for this kind of storytelling. I can’t quite tell you how to move past those fears or be less sensitive, because chances are- if you’re drawn to writing, you are a little more sensitive anyway, and you’ve learned to embrace that as part of what you do. It’s okay.”
The statement struck me with all sorts of memories, the first of these being the descriptor from my previous job managing an authors’ community: “must have good bedside manner: authors are sensitive creatures and known for their moodiness.” In the most negative connotation, this can sound like chiding for melodramatic behavior. But then, I had to admit, all authors have a flare for melodrama, don’t they? It’s not our fault, really- it is part of the makeup of creating something. The double-edged sword of art is the confidence to build out of thin air, and the crippling fear that you have created it wrong.
I’ve written longer than I had means to form words on paper, and used storytelling as a harbor to deal with a sometimes difficult childhood. Writing helped translate many of my personal anxieties into something more tangible, making them less scary. Ironic that writing can become, in its own way, a new form of stress and worry. We begin to fret and fuss over our own skills, how our audience views us, and if we live up to the very expectations we place upon ourselves.
I’m no exception to the rule. I am the most and least happy when I want to write; the writing itself is a joyful process. Editing and revision less so, and boy, do I ever hate working on middles. I can become so wrapped up in the process of not writing and the guilt I feel when not writing, that I work myself up into a sad frenzy. “That’s it- I’ll never write again. Been a nice ride, but clearly, I have used all the talent. I am a fake, a fraud…”
And that’’s never true, is it? We always end up back on the grind- pen to paper, fingers to keys. We find our way back into the land of make-believe eventually. A failure in creating is when we give up, after all, not when we make something less than desirable.
During my time as a community manager, I heard a lot of stories from authors. So many emails and comments about emotion turmoil, mental illness, or just good ol’ self-doubt. About coping, drinking, and all the bad and good habits we’ve accrued in hopes of finding a short route to art. But on the business front, I was often asked why “x author here” was acting this way. Why are artists so damned quick to sadness, or anger? Why do they need all this… encouragement?
And I couldn’t help but wonder, just for myself, how much better it was knowing I wasn’t alone. How comforting was it knowing that other writers struggled with the same worries, doubts, and fears.
There is a part of the world that disregards ‘sensitive’ folk as tenderhearted, as something flawed. We discount these nervous behaviors as odd, but what if they are as much part of the writing as the writer themselves? What if it is that very anxiety that drives us to do better?
Not to say you should cripple yourself with worry and doubt, but rather it’s important to recognize that those doubts and worries don’t make you a bad writer, and they certainly don’t make you a bad person. Caring about what you create means far more than to have never cared at all. There is bravery in continuing in spite of writing woes.
So, go ahead: write the scene that scares you most, press forward in miserable revisions, send out query letters even if you fear rejection.
Find someone whose shoulder you can cry on, find a writing tribe who gets that you aren’t out of your mind for despairing over your imaginary friends.
Make yourself a fresh cup of tea or pot of coffee- spike it with something strong, if needed, and keep going. Courage, dear heart.
There is a story, from when I was five or six, about the first time I saw a Stephen King series. I believe it was Storm of The Century, where a small town in Maine is blocked off by a huge snowstorm and subsequently terrorized by what turns out to be a demon. Suicides occur, children are taken to become evil protégé, all while the villain continuously sings “I’m a Little Teapot.”
I remember this vividly, you might notice- because it scared the hell out of me. As did The Tower of Terror, that skeleton army scene in The Black Cauldron, the entire Fantasia sequence of “Night on Bald Mountain.” The one time I watched sections of The Wall when my parents didn’t see me come in (a bad idea, in hindsight). I suffered from one fired-up imagination and had a habit of taking frightening imagery, allowing my brain to fill in the story’s blanks. This resulted in a lot of sleeplessness and nightmares.
“They’re only stories,” my father told me once. “Like Little Red Riding Hood and The Big Bad Wolf. Remember, that wolf always loses.”
Something in those words settled into my soul, and I revisit them sometimes. While I scared very easily as a child, I grew to like and write gothic fiction overtime- a lot of writers do that. A close cousin to historical and horror, and a little like neither. More in common with cabaret music and steampunk culture these days too. Tim Burton was always fun, and I loved the ghost stories book that my mother had passed along to me- the kind with The Monkey’s Paw and ghostly women that haunted roadside hotel. When I was eleven, I sunk my teeth into Edger Allen Poe’s The Black Cat and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The wolves were there, and they came in the form of human condition, negligence, and impossible odds. There is complexity and nuance to each monster, and I saw hope and cleverness there. I found that through fear- something these stories often used, there was also glints of compassion and heroics. I fell in love. I dove into the genre and all it had to offer.
As a reader, a writer, and I suppose, as a person, I’ve always related heavily to that one Doctor Who quote from the Weeping Angels episode with Sally Sparrow. “I love old things. They make me feel sad. It’s happy for deep people.” While a bit on the “emo teenager” side of statements, I’ve far more in common with old ghosts and antique books than I really should. There is an otherness there that I understand.
There is a rather interesting phenomenon in horror and gothic fiction that taps into Otherness. These stories exist in several ways: the heroes verses The Other (Dracula, The Phantom of The Opera), the village verses The Other (The Masque of The Red Death), and The Other verses himself (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and one could argue Frankenstein). Scholars like Jarlath Killeen have discussed the connotations of this in early gothic fiction, and their often racially or culturally charged supernatural entities. There is a mirror effect that occurs in these stories as well, a self-reflection not only of the author themselves, but of the cultural state they occupy, particularly in female authors. Female horror authors love Otherness.
Mary Shelley reflects her times with subjects of responsibility and parentage, and with a monster so brilliant and devastating powerful- yet so physically abhorrent. Shirley Jackson, who died too young to see how her books have lasted, loved the subject of dysfunctional family and tragedy. Anne Rice’s vampires are as depraved as they are empathetic. And this does not go without critique, films like The Woman in Black, Corpse Bride, and Crimson Peak, more feminine in focus and nuanced in their villains, were dragged for being “too sad” and “not scary enough.”
This comes in clear contrast to Stoker, or Wilde, or much of King; monsters are enemies to be defeated. Otherness is something separate from the hero, or even something that consumes the hero to his demise (see Dorian). There is no space for nuance- we’re back to Little Red Riding Hood and The Big Bad Wolf. Wolves always lose.
But what if your wolves are not so literal? What if our enemies are not the ghosts we face, but the beasts that created them? Or what’s more- what if your wolves are too literal? Women spend most of their lives facing what the Big Bad Wolf represents, making this threat more reality than fiction. Perhaps women understand their monsters better, or see them differently.
One of the most striking statements I’ve encountered about gothic horror is that men write monsters based on their enemy (take “enemy” to mean whatever you like sociologically); women write monsters based on how they view themselves. They aren’t just fighting the monster, they are the monster. Society certainly seems to think so, given its track record with women: witch trials, poor mental health, suppression, claims of hysteria… Is it any wonder we feel for the Other?
I write my own sad ghosts and empathetic monsters now, not near as scared of horror movies these days. If anything, I’ve come to understand them a bit better. Rather than fearing the wolves, society sometimes acts as though women might just become one of them. And maybe they’re right.
This year’s Undergrad Novelist is a little late, mostly because this past semester, this novelist got to graduate for the first time! Out of community college and onto one school for a major in English with a concentration in Literary Studies- and a minor in French! Getting here hasn’t been easy though, and 2016 was fraught with the dangers of the Sophomore Slump. But before we talk about the Slump, let me talk about, in timeline points, why I ended up there in the first place.
Over the course of 2015, both my grandparents and my close uncle passed away. Grief consumed the year and drove my writing to halt around that May. During the fall semester, I find myself in a Psychology class with a borderline unstable professor who is in the midst of losing her own mother to cancer. The class derails midway through, and although I performed well throughout the class and formed a good repour with her. I am disregarded and called an artsy, depressed “freak” in front of the class. I later discover she has been trash-talking me behind my back to other students. I am crushed, and she gets fired.
Beginning in 2016, I’m hired onto a new job in publishing. I’ve blogged at length about the domino effect this had on my life- the lack of time, lack of writing, and unusual experiences that came from these eight months. My writing and grades both began slipping during this period, and that’s when I worried I was heading in a bad direction.
The Sophomore Slump is this mythical event before or around the point when you hit 60 hours in college. It is fraught with de-motivation, doubt, and bad habits. The factors I mentioned above matter, but more often than not, this is because Sophomore Year comes with the last few classes before they settle on a major; the pressure to choose something and change feels somewhat immense. It can (and probably will) happen and although it is soul-sucking in the moment, there are a few great lessons to be gained from the experience. Such as…
Don’t Panic (But Also Don’t Slack)
I mostly write this as a self-reminder, because I did just this. I panicked about my grades, and given my problems with anxiety and stress, this did me no favors. Remember that when we panic, we can often make a situation more worse than it actually is. In the event of a bad grade and bad writing patch, it’s best to remain calm and collect one’s self.
By the same token, don’t fall into the other end of The Slump and slack off (or even give up, which I’ll bring up next). Failure in the moment makes slacking very tempting, but it will only lead to larger problems in the long run and more things you haven’t done. I know how hard it is to do badly, but remember that doing badly doesn’t mean you will do badly forever.
Avoid the Path of Least Resistance
Speaking of slacking, it’s at some point during the Slump that you may get an idea that school isn’t for you. In the heat of bad grades and stressful schedules, I had surmised that my best goal was to go part-time (or even drop out) and move to Berlin/New York with my then-publishing job. There’s a really long story behind the results that came from that, but let’s just say I’m glad I stayed in college. Really glad.
And chances are, you can stay as well. Avoid the paths of well-meant jobs and shorter degrees if that’s not actually what you want from your college career. Advisors are there for a reason, and there is so much more to offer in university past Junior Year. Take a weird course, plan to study abroad, find a way into clubs or honors… these things can make the transition through a rough patch more bearable, and challenge you in ways straight-forward college life might not. Don’t overload yourself, but certainly try to find something fresh to do.
Keep Faith in Your Creative Work
Focusing on writing during college can be hard if you don’t know how to manage your time, and sometimes, when one thing is bad, then everything feels bad along with it. School and writing are part and parcel for me; one fuels the other. So, when I started having trouble in school, I watched the same problems consume into my writing. And boy, did I not know how to deal with that.
Remember that just like rough spots in class and bad grades, writing doubts pass and can be remedied. Even if that means taking a few months from it (or in my case, eight), you will come back with a fresh vision and it will be okay. Writing will always find its way back into your life, as long as you welcome it.
Take Care of You
This is the big important one, and something I forgot to do. By the time the semester had ended during my Sophomore Year, I was so mentally beat and stresse that I was suffering burnout. I went to Europe that summer for work/travelling abroad, where my boss then bullied me and pressured me to quit school, doubling down on the stress. I was losing some control of my already doubt-filled situation. Anxiety and burnout had melded into depression before I knew what to do, and it wasn’t until that moment in Berlin that I realized I needed to become my best advocate.
Please take care of you. Stand up for your space, your mental health, and your time. If taking a semester off helps you do better next time, do that. If your job doesn’t respect your schedule and space, please quit it. An education is vastly important, but it’s even more important to enjoy the education you’re given, and without the constant buzz of depression and anxiety. One of the biggest lessons we gain from college is how to truly be independent, and there is no better lesson in independence than the moments where we must stand up for ourselves.
I hope this helps you, whoever is reading. And I look forward to returning next year in the Undergrad Novelist - Junior Edition!
There is a quote from Mel Brooks that I’ve always adored: “If you want to take power away from something, laugh at it.” A stunning statement coming from a Jewish-raised man who served in World War II, and his humor often reflected that background. Many of his movies portray Hilter and The Third Reich as comical, foppish, and foolish. There is an entire musical in The Producers dedicated to mocking Nazis, which goes on to be a smash hit with the audience in movie (much to the chagrin of the main characters). “Springtime for Hitler” doesn’t ignore the darkness inside World War II (“Winter for Poland and France”, so the lyrics go), but undercuts real evil with a heaping of ridiculousness.
Brooks has made it his life’s mission to make light, whether it be pop culture, overused tropes, and more touchy subjects like racism and war. His movies have shown that he’s not the only one who enjoys the laugh, given their importance in American cinema and comedy. Not all parody need be like the Scary Movie franchises; the art of parody goes well beyond Brooks, reaching into novels, plays, and every weekly sketch show in existence.
And then, well beyond the absurd: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was written as a satire of late 18th century Gothic fiction, many of Shakespeare’s plays poked fun at romance tropes and popular characters from his era’s England. But surely, says the general public, we aren’t supposed to make fun of Austen and Shakespeare. They were serious writers and respectable in the world of literature. How dare someone write a modern text version of Romeo and Juliet, or Pride & Prejudice with zombies!
And I will tell you, general public, that you should probably read a few of those Shakespeare plays one more time. You’ve overlooked all the raunchy jokes and clever cultural references. And after all, who said humor can’t be literary? Who ever said that comedy can’t be part of intelligence? It’s easy to throw satire into the ring of low brow, but being funny requires a little more than a good punchline.
I grew up with Monty Python’s Flying Circus reruns, a series more well-attuned to British humor than American. And while it has its share of silliness, their comedy always came with a wink and a tongue firmly placed in cheek. The movie Monty Python & The Holy Grail is a brilliant example of this, an Arthurian legend parody on its surface with a ton of political and historical comedy peppered along the way. While there are plenty of quotable parts from the film, my favorite scene is still the witch trial.
Not only is this still really funny and well-paced, this joke actually has historical context! Tried witches in Europe used to be tossed in ponds and rivers to see if they floated- which is dark and absurd to consider now. There are layers of humor here, from the silly and down into something more cultural and well-researched. The movie just takes life’s true absurdity a step further, revealing it for its ridiculousness and paranoia.
And maybe that’s the core of satire and parody: a means to honesty through the abstract and comical. The world we inhabit is harsh sometimes, just as it is strange and nonsensical.
We use comedy as a reflection from which the world feels a little lighter. Political climates can feel smothering, people grossly negative, and the daily grind crushing. Is it any wonder people turn to The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live at the end of the day? We want comedy to undercut the world’s seriousness. Sometimes, we need to laugh, to take the power back.
Going through all of Stephen King’s works sounds like a beastly task, but it’s also an insightful one. King is the modern master of horror for a reason, tapping into every ghost, ghoul, and inner fear his audience would rather hide. Some of his most telling work though, is about the persona behind the pen. The Shining, Misery, and the novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, all deal with authorly protagonists. Jack Torrance, an troubled aspiring author and alcoholic whose personal demons, hotel ghosts, and artistic failures all drive him to kill. And Paul Sheldon, a mild-mannered, famous author who finds himself held captive by his biggest fan, forced to revive a popular series he has decided to end.
Misery is the sort of book every writer’s group makes jokes about as an “author’s worst nightmare.” Annie Wilkes is the monster that destroys manuscripts, fuels co-dependency, and chops off fingers (don’t lie- you know you flinched). But King tapped into something far more terrifying with Mort Rainey.
In Secret Garden, Secret Window (better known for Secret Window, a 2004 film adaptation with Johnny Depp as the lead), Mort Rainey comes into conflict with John Shooter, an unstable stranger that has plagiarized his latest story- all but its ending anyway.
Several arson cases and violent deaths later, Mort realizes (and spoilers here, so be warned) that there was never any John Shooter at all. Mort is John Shooter, a character so powerful that he has become part of Mort’s personality. While the movie and novella end on different notes (somewhat creepy when you consider the plot), the message retains its prowess. Sometimes our monsters aren’t disturbed fans or old spirits; sometimes the author is the monster.
This has a rocky history of playing itself out in real life. Creative folk get a rep for being weird at best, and deviant or disturbed at worst. They are statistically more inclined to depression and anxiety, drawn heavily to drugs and drinking (all of King’s authors had problems with drug abuse and/or alcoholism, notably), and usually do not fit in to what we might call “normal.” What we seek and do is very lonely at times, and this lifestyle is not a path most desire to tread.
I have a vivid memory of the first time I got in a fight with a professor: after a classmate’s sobering presentation on young musicians, mental illness, and suicide, she dared to call me out and ask why “all artists are depressed freaks? That means you’re a freak too, right?”
I shot up in my seat at once. “Yes, and I’m proud of that.”
I’ve reflected on this incident since, wondering about this “depressed freak” stereotype and how much truth exists in its shadow. Writers are only people, after all; we have the potential to be bullies to reviewers, terrors to our family, and destructive forces on ourselves. There are writers from the past, whose choices reflect racial and social beliefs that shock a modern audience. Several people have even made a career of writing about their crimes, turning horrors into art. They are social outcasts like Wilde, or dark cultish personalities like Hubbard. King himself has a notorious reputation from taking out his rage on the man who accidentally hit him with a car. He was destroyed as a character in King’s fiction, and legally ruined in real life. His reputation didn’t recover before his early death.
Authors aren’t always good people, probably because they are people in the first place. No matter how idealized and golden their created worlds may be. Does that mean a story get take on the judgement that we cast on the author? Depends on the reader, I suppose, but I would much rather let a story stand outside of an author’s shadow- as much as it possibly can anyway.
We are imposing strange creatures at times, but we all write to express a certain secret honesty out into the world. Whether that truth gives away of our inner darkness away really comes down to the author, and whether the reader wants to know said author quite so intimately.
Interestingly enough, the statistical number of fiction authors who are real-life killers is quite low compared to King’s characters. Studies have shown though that psychopathy and a lack of empathy isn’t commonly connected with artistic traits. Indeed, most serial killer authors tend to write more about themselves than anyone else.
It begs the question though- why writers choose to portray other fictional writers as monsters? What kind of “freak” do we see when we create, and are we scared of it too?
If I were going to rank writing-related questions from least to greatest, “how do I beat writer’s block?” probably falls quite high on the list, if not at number one. When I worked as a small publisher’s community manager, this question would show up at least twice a week- on forums, discussion posts, and Q&As with other published authors.
The responses were varied and usually stale in quality: the same “take a walk, listen to fresh music, write something else”- and that’s not to say that these things can’t stop Writer’s Block, because they can for some people. But it’s often occurred to me that, for a question that gets asked so much, there are very few solid answers as to how you actually stop Writer’s Block. There is nothing more frustrating when you are applying all of the fixes and they just don’t work. Que the spiral of despair as you stare down that ever-blinking cursor.
But if Writer’s Block is an ailment, we shouldn’t be searching for the cure; we should find the cause. The same logic applies if you spike a fever; cause might say you have cold, but WebMD will convince you that you’re probably dying of gangrene.
So, let’s talk about a few distinct types of Writer’s Block and what they do to the writing process.*
*(to me, personally. Full disclaimer here, because the most important thing to understand about Writer’s Block is how, just like writing habits, its causes are very unique to the author.)
Starting-Point Stage Fright:
Usually right before or at the beginning of every novel. Symptoms include procrastination, excessive research, and lots of deleted opening paragraphs.
There’s a really great quote by Gene Wolfe, which goes, “You never learn how to write a novel … you only learn to write the novel you’re on.” This was said to Neil Gaiman (yeah, that Gaiman), who finally felt he had this novel thing down after writing American Gods.
I’m now three novels into my writing career, with two more on my plate for this year. Each one of them starts with the sensation of groping around a pitch-black room with only my rough outline and a half functional flashlight. There are things in this room that I want (and probably better batteries for my flashlight), but I need to get my bearings first. It usually takes me about 15,000 words to do this, and it’s easy to mistake this sensation for a “lack of inspiration.” I encourage you to bury the concept of inspiration somewhere deep for now. Inspiration isn’t magical fully-fleshed out concepts; inspiration is what we do when we find those fresh batteries and get a clearer picture of our space. “Press forward to those 15,000,” I remind myself. It always pays off and I always manage to find those batteries eventually, even if it takes a few tries.
The Middle of Despair:
Named so for its location, as the middle of books are notorious for being mind-numbingly hard to write. Symptoms will include plotting ending scenes you have not yet written, social media browsing, and crippling self-doubt. Welcome to the void of the writing process. You got this.
Not everyone has problems writing their novel’s middle, but it’s often noted as a rough part of first drafts and rewrites. We tend to come into stories with a general idea of the plot’s cause and effect: the beginning and middle, in more novel-related terms. It’s easy to get caught up in the sogginess of a middle and fall into a great deal of mood swing-y sadness. Writing must not be for you if you can’t even get through a simple section of the book.
But journeys aren’t about the destination, yes? And as Jeff VanderMeer says, when the reader enjoys an ending, they’re really saying they enjoyed the payoff to the well-structured middle of a novel. This quote helped me re-frame what middles were; the meat and potatoes of the story. Substance that keeps your reader around for the finale, rather than a sequence of events so you can get to the ending. Whenever I find myself trapped in the middle, I have to ask myself “how does this benefit the ending?” If it doesn’t, I cut and rework (even in a first draft, which something I would normally warn against). Listening to your gut about what isn’t working, and locating the strength in your middle, is usually one of the easiest ways to avoid its slog.
Symptoms include starting new projects despite a lack of time, inelegant sobbing, and the return of that crippling self-doubt.
You might think, once you have finished your first draft, you would be free of the Writer’s Block and its troubling patterns. Revision and rewriting should be easy now that you’ve finished the book, right?
Ah, the innocence.
Some of the worst roadblocks I have encountered in writing show up in the process of fixing the first draft; the scenes to reframe, plotlines to tighten, characters to build upon. Revision is harder than hell, since so many issues can show up during revisions that you don’t expect. The point of editing books is digging deeper; you must unearth the layers beneath the top soil that is your first draft, and you will find things you don’t like, things you must throw away and rework into oblivion. There will be scenes that you adore and no longer apply to your current vision. Your story will never again be the project you started, and it will never be perfect, and you get to accept that in all its artistic ugliness.
I recently finished my editing on my first novel and am currently working on edits for the second. The act of pushing through your revision roadblocks- whatever they may be, is a matter of willpower, and moreover, about confidence. It requires trusting in your own abilities, recognizing your limits, and practicing over and over. It’s about being open to failure and critique, and learning from both for the future. These are all hard to stomach, and probably the reason most people don’t like editing. But revision separates the novice from the novelist, and humbling yourself to it is the best way forward. After all, we are often much stronger writers than we feel.
What’s your experience with Writer’s Block? Where do you get it during the writing process and how have you learned to address it?
Just a super quick update (because graduation and finals- yikes) to let everyone know that this summer, I will be representing the #ShoreIndie Contest as a Featured Author! I will be on Twitter between June 12-July 30 (a pinned-down date to come) to discuss writing, my blogs, and my experience with everyone, so have your questions ready and feel free to share to interested folk! The contest they are running is fantastic and very supportive of the indie community- so if you are interested, you can read more about them here! Please also check out the other featured authors; I am honored to be up there with so many talented writers!
Stay tuned for more during the summer!
I’ll be honest and say that I’m supposed to be writing. Touching up the ending of a novel and setting the blocks for its sequels, in fact. But we’re having a plot disagreement at present, so I chose to devote my evening to a blog post instead. I’m returning to editing tomorrow; I always end up going back.
Books are like children in some ways, and so, creating them should be handled responsibly, and with the knowledge that you will be tending to its needs at all odd hours for quite a few more years. My last four years have been solely dedicated to the same two or three books, chipping away at drafts and tightening details with each new pass.
“Why push through for that long?”, you might ask. Knowing when to complete a draft is tricky, after all. Some projects aren’t worth the effort. I’ve even often wondered if my persistence borders on wasteful and tactless.
There will be some stories that haunt you though, no matter what you’re writing. They tug at your hair and disturb you in the night. Ideas that crop up as scribbles on napkins, in the margins of homework. Those books? They are the ones that need telling.
But some stories haven’t been so fortunate. There are few truths in the lives of authors, other than death, taxes, lost data, and lots of abandoned writing. Every career is littered with unfinished ideas and unrealized plots. I spent much of my teen years composing stories via a notebook or my school laptop, all abandoned as I hopped from one story to the next. In fact, my current troublesome draft is the culmination of a few unfinished story ideas that I realized, quite amazingly, finished each other. The story I kept trying to tell was easier after I aged a few years. Even if it wasn’t the same general thing, it was still full of the same tropes, archetypes, and themes. I stopped throwing things away after I noticed.
Finishing a book came in waves; completing the first draft is huge, but completing the first revision is bigger. And just like writing styles, revision styles are wholly unique to the author. I know writers who work through second and third drafts with the complete guidance of beta readers. I know writers who guard their works jealously until they feel it worthy of sharing (whatever draft that might be). I suspect, from my own experience, that revision style is harder to pin down than anything else. Writing is such a natural creative expression, whereas revision means taking that methodical knife to your expression and knowing where to cut. Being a good editor and a good author aren’t always synonymous skills, and neither are easy-going.
So, can you lose a draft in these waves of completion? Absolutely. People have edited books to death, or lost the voice of a story in the noise of too many early readers. Or, honestly- in the disparagement of the author. Editing is harsh, messy, and full of obstacles; writing would be easier if plotlines just worked themselves out. Why write at all?
This all sounds very dreary, doesn’t it? I was originally heartbroken at the idea that a story could go sour, even after so much work and time. “Then,” I thought, “what’s the point of finishing at all? Why am I even doing this?”
Because of those stories that haunt you.
Effort has merit, and so does knowing when to release a story- whether that means focusing our efforts on the projects that matter or finally ending our persistent edits. We all reach a day when our book baby is all grown up and we can no longer predict what it will say to others, or where it will go, and who might read it. That’s okay.
This still makes most authors very anxious, and that’s okay too. You will have other stories to create, visit, and shape, and yes, more edits to weep over.
I’m still supposed to be writing, and have made a sport of actively avoiding it at this point. But I do always manage go back and finish something, which counts in my book. There are scores of abandoned things that I leave in my creative wake, but I am happier knowing we never fully abandon our stories; we just recreate and revisit when the time is right.
I was about 14 when I realized I enjoyed writing historical fiction. Then gawky, modestly full of angst, and just getting my sea legs with writing, I was fangirl of three things: comics, Fall Out Boy, and Pirates of The Caribbean. The last one was where I first found my voice in fanfic writing, curious to explore other characters and alternate universes after watching the movies and reading the spin-off novels so many times. The PoTC craze was bigger then, since the original trilogy had just finished, so pirate books were everywhere. Busy writing, I opted to snap up whatever I could to read more about the Golden Age of Piracy, and discovered how much more I liked that instead.
Clumsily, I started stitching up my Pirates stories with more historical accuracy and peppering them with historical figures like Blackbeard and Calico Jack. I dragged my family all the way to Galveston to visit the Elissa, one of the few functioning tall ships in the United States. I went find Jean Lafitte’s house by the harbor, then took all the details back to my writing. It actually paid off; I won my first writing award for the fanfic I composed with that research.
I really haven’t changed much as an adult, though my stories got more original and my adventures got bigger. Most importantly though, I’ve become a much better researcher. When I first started writing my current series around late 2012, I vanished back down the research rabbit hole, into the world of Gothic fiction, Victorian history, zombies, and Irish mythology. It was kind of a handful, but I was eager about that. I wrote a few very top-heavy rough drafts and spilled all my information into this book, the author equivalent of taking several buckets of paint and dumping their contents straight to the canvas. The result was potentially pretty, but needed… organizing, lest it turn into a mushy shade of gray. This is a big sin in historical fantasy, where the author has so much to share with the audience that the story can get lost in the details, and Dickens call-backs, and angles of possible historical accuracy (I’m looking at you, Cassandra Clare).
The good thing about being a writer is my paint isn’t permanent, so I can separate and remove colors as I need. This also meant narrowing down what kind of research I needed for the story in the first place. So, I spent a few more years on the book, removing layers and adding small flourishes of detail. Travelling to locations and buying new books whenever I could. I reminded myself that there were always new books to write, so- yes, even though it’s super interesting that they were still opening up the Jack the Ripper case in 1901, maybe I don’t need that detail so much right now.
Characters were cut and plotlines were tightened. I mourned over my darlings, but also celebrated that I made the book better. With the novel in its final stages and its novella out to the public, I am happier that I took the time to make sense of my strange Gothic, Irish zombie book and find what mattered in its history.
One thing about becoming a better researcher that I enjoy is how human it makes the past feel. Writers sometimes get so wound around their research, we lose sight of pirates or Victorians in a morass of quirky facts, morals, and behavioral guides. We forget that they were still people, and people don’t really change throughout history; we simply find new ways to do old things.
Keeping this in mind grounds the characters in their present day, which they don’t view under a glass of important authors, historical figures, and tourist-style visits to certain locations. It’s as alive to them as this day is for me, and even a modicum of this really saves the story from becoming an antiqued tribute to some forgotten era.
I so think that should be the final goal of historical fiction, whether fantasy or more realistic. Researching means you get the blow the dust off of history; writing it requires you bring it to life for someone else. There is skill in becoming well-read historically, but there is magic in making that history real for the reader.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.