The doubt-beast; or The loneliness of the long-distance writer

What if I can’t pull this together? What if every turn disappoints the reader? What if, instead of a nail-biting action-adventure full of depth and passion, I’ve come up with the literary equivalent of a novelty Christmas single.

I doubt. Everyone doubts. This ain’t my first rodeo and, to be honest, I can’t really imagine writing without anxiety riding the shoulder. It’s almost a comfort; without it I’d worry I was becoming cocky and not caring enough about my work. As it is I’m suddenly struck (for the doubt-beast is a stealth predator) by a fear that what I’ve written is really – well, a bit crap.

I’m not worried about the actual words. They are, doubtless, shit. I’m fully intending to go through this manuscript half a dozen times before it’s ready for professional scrutiny, and the actual quality of writing will, in theory, develop with each pass.

Nor am I too worried with characters, not right at this moment, and for similar reasons. I’ll start to worry about them after my second draft, where I’ve swept away all the foreshadowments I didn’t use and replaced them with the ones I actually need.

No, I’m worried about the actual ideas. I’m worried about choices made and the roads not taken. I’m worried about logic and motivation and cop-outs and gone-too-far-edness.

More specifically, I’m worried about the following:

  • Do I have a decent three-act structure?
  • Is my underlying idea strong enough?
  • Do I have too many point-of-view characters?
  • Is the whole damn thing too complex? Am I trying to do too much?
  • …but the ending lacks a twist or revelation. Is it not complex enough?
  • Is my world consistent? Is there a thread I failed to knit in tightly? Will everything unravel if it’s pulled upon?
  • At almost every stage I could have taken different paths. Have I gone the right way? What opportunities have I missed? What else could the novel have been? Why haven’t I written that novel? Would it be better?
  • Does the story work?

These questions are, in fact, pretty much what I’d want a beta-reader to tell me. And it’s no bad thing to have these questions out there now; it means I’m actively looking for fundamental errors. Simply, I’m alive to ways my story could be improved.

Doubt – self-doubt – is your friend. It’s a way of making sure you look at things from every angle. It’s your subconscious’ way of making sure you’re doing the best you can. It also gives you something of a shield for when you do finally send your work out into the wider world and prepares you for the inevitable criticism from early readers.

But doubt can also be crippling. Too much fear and you’ll never get that first draft down. Which is why I cry ‘Onwards!’ Onwards, to the end. I lock doubt in the broom-cupboard of the mind, or set it to worrying about what I’m going to get the Missus for Christmas (not that novelty single, that’s for sure). Doubt has no place in a first draft. I will save all the questions it throws up – all the above and many, many more – because they’ll be tremendously useful as I move through my revisions. But for now it’s all about getting this draft finished. And I’ve still got my Eternal Climax to overcome.

Feeling the draft

Well, it’s been a rollercoaster. Hopes raised and dashed; nice words concealing harsh truths. And where has it left me? Exactly where I started.

But that’s life. That’s what people say. Riding high in September, shot down by slightly later in September. That’s how the song goes, right? So I’m back scouring the Writers’ and Artists’ for agents and publishers, and in the meantime trying to get on with some proper writing.

Except I’m kinda not, at the moment. I finished the first draft of New Gods last week and I’ve rewarded myself with a few days off. Not like me – I hate not writing. But it’s important to take a little time out, to taste something of the real world and remind yourself that there’s more to life. A couple of beer festivals and a first-aid course (not concurrent) have helped the time pass.

Shortly I’m going to fire up Australis and give it the going-over it badly needs, but in truth I’m putting it off a little. I’ve said before that the story’s not working; it’s hard to face up to one’s own failure and wrestle with demons of your own making. Much easier to push on with something new. And it was suggested that, as I’m not happy with Australis, it might be best to leave it on hiatus indefinitely. Unfortunately, New Gods is built on its back. Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, the second and third books are much closer linked than the first and second. To scrap Australis would be almost like scrapping New Gods, and that I ain’t gonna do.

So that’s where I am at the moment. Hopefully I’ll find Australis much more welcoming than I currently fear. It happens sometimes: the mind creates problems where there are none. And a little time will provide solutions to problems you never knew you had. It’s odd that authors can be the last people who know if what they’ve done is good or not, but it’s true.

In the meantime, I wondered if you, dear reader, might be interested to here a few reflections from the world of first-drafting. When I was coming up to the end of New Gods my partner asked if I was happy with what I’d done. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer; and that got me wondering…

A few points, in no particular order:

  • A bad opening is better than no opening. Getting started is perhaps the hardest part of writing a novel, and it’s much better to have something you can change than to sit wondering why everything you’re doing is crap
  • In fact, bad writing as a whole is better than no writing
  • Accept that you’re going to have to change things. Okay, you’re not human if you don’t re-read the occasional paragraph and decide the proverbial red pen is needed – but no-one (except possibly Mozart, and he’s in no position to give advice) plucks perfection from the air. Write words, move on, change later
  • Plots are difficult beasties. Make whatever notes you need to help you keep it all together. In terms of plot, New Gods is probably the most ambitious work I’ve attempted – I have about eight different threads to weave together. My technique? List the threads on a post-it note and wherever I get to a crux, glance down at it – remind myself what every character has been doing whilst I’ve been focusing on this one aspect.
  • That last point isn’t advice, by the way: find your own way of working. Make as many notes as you need. At this stage, no-one’s judging you except yourself
  • Balance isn’t going to come obviously and evenly. I‘m sure I’ve neglected Weng Fu, for example. I’m not sure if Lewinskiy has enough depth. All these characters need time to breath, but the first draft isn’t the time to worry about all this. Assure yourself that you know what you’re trying to do. When you’re done you can get feedback and revisit and rebalance
  • Ditto for pacing and rhythm
  • Words don’t matter at this stage (see previous blog entry the word myth)
  • I’m an embittered old fool who’s done this too many times to get overly excited about finishing a single stage in the process. You’re not. Finishing a draft, even if it needs massive work to make it readable, is a major achievement. Celebrate it. Tell people – go on Twitter and Facebook and indulge in a little boasting. Have a drink. But don’t show it to anyone. ‘Cause bucks to bullion it ain’t ready yet.
  • Characters grow and change over the course of writing a novel. You’ll have a much better idea of who you’re dealing with after you’ve finished than you did when you began. You’ll have inconsistencies, you’ll be able to sharpen the early depictions with your new knowledge and insight
  • Have fun. Be wild and ambitious. Be mad. Later drafts are serious hard work, but first drafts are your chance to go nuts, to put in wild sex parties and inappropriate off-colour humour. Fly kites, see where they drag you. Even if you have to excise wild digressions like tumours, the very process of writing helps sharpen your skills. Be free – you’ve nothing to lose save a little time

So am I happy with New Gods? Yes, yes I am. Not because I think it works as a story, but because the bones are there. I’ve got the elements pinned in place; and whilst a lot of surgery will be needed, whilst there’s a lot of writing which is simply bad, it’s there ready to be improved. Cuts will be made – whole sections might be scrapped as I send my wrecking-ball into the skyscraper of supposition. And all the ideas I didn’t consider will pop up in their place. It’s remarkable how easily a writer can overlook the obvious: ‘But why doesn’t Mr X just do this?’ ‘Erm…’

And that’s why getting feedback on your work is so important. But not after the first draft – please, not after the first draft. No point showing the world what a fool you are just yet.

Plenty of time for that later.