Monday, April 30, 2007

The Harder They Come: Writing Woes

Those who follow this blog know that I've been slacking on entries lately, because I wrote two books back-to-back January-April.

The second book, (FUZZY NAVEL, Jack Daniels #5) kicked my ass. I've never agonized over a book like this before. I fretted about plot. I worried about construction. I second-guessed tone. And while I was never blocked, my daily output was much slower than average--about half of what I can usually do.

Part of the problem had to do with writing one book right after another book, without any brain break in between. It was harder than I thought. My hat is off to writers who can write THE END and then immediately start on the next book. I'm not sure I'd attempt it again.

Part of the problem also had to do with the structure of FUZZY--it takes place in real-time, over an eight hour period. There are two POVs in first-person present tense, and six other POVs in third-person present. The book is pretty much all action; there's a psycho in Jack's house, waiting for her to come home, and Jack is followed home by three snipers--so she can't stay in the house, and can't leave the house.

Part of the problem was length. This book is my shortest yet, and I thought I'd be told to pad it out and bump up the word count.

But the biggest part of the problem was believability. I kept questioning if it was realistic to have my characters under fire for so long but still able to make jokes. The book is action-packed, but it's also funny, and I was scared this would take the reader out of the story.

So, for the very first time in my writing life (FUZZY NAVEL is my 15th novel, counting those that never sold) I doubted my voice. I doubted it to the point where I was convinced the book wasn't working. I'd made a big mistake. I was going to have to start over from scratch, and jump through hoops to satisfy my agent and editor.

Which meant I spent more of my time second-guessing than writing. Which meant the book took twice as long to write, even though there was less actual writing and more staring at my last sentence and wondering if I should change it.

The ending was tough. Keeping in sync with the experimental tone of the rest of the book, I also wanted to have an experimental ending. Even though I knew what I wanted, I kept worrying about it.

I hemmed and hawed until I finally sequestered myself in a hotel for four days and finished the bastard. Then it went, fingers crossed, to my beta readers.

To my pleasant surprise, they all really liked it. Since my beta readers are comprised of several published thriller authors, this made me feel pretty good.

What made me feel even better was my agent and editor saying they loved the book. In fact, the editorial suggestions they each made took less than two hours total to do.

So now I'm left to puzzle over my doubt. Did doubt make me concentrate harder and turn in a better book? Could doubt indeed be a good thing?

My conclusion: Hell no.

Doubt is never a good thing. If I hadn't doubted myself, I still would have written the same book, only faster. Doubt didn't force me to make changes, or take the story in new directions. All it did was postpone me from doing what I should have done in the first place; write the story I wanted to write.

So are you paralyzed with fear that your latest opus sucks? Are you convinced you're a phony and a fraud and can't write for shit?

Repeat after me:

1. When in doubt, keep writing anyway.

2. Tell your internal editor to shut up until you reach the end.

3. You're often a poor judge of your own work. Let your readers tell you if you succeeded.

Writing should be fun. That's why we became writers, right? It isn't for the money, fame, or glory. It's because we love telling stories.

Don't let worry get in the way of that love.


Lucas Pederson said...

I have those moments too. I've writen three novels, although none of them published yet, thanks for the adivce you sent me by the way, and I'm finishing up the fourth. I say finishing up, but what I really mean is stuck. I'm sort of caught in a writer's limbo, unable to think of way to finish the damn thing. I know what I've writen is good, probably the best I've writen in a long time, but all of a sudden, here I am, like you, staring blankly at the last sentence I wrote. Ususally I have no problems with novels, it's the short stories that get me. Short stories seem harder becasue there's a lot of details you need to put in to make the story believable and so little space.
Anyway, can't wait to read your latest. Later.

Anonymous said...

I did tell my internal editor to shut up until the end. Now I've written THE END and my internal editor is back with "remember way back some thousands of words ago when I questioned that move? Let's talk about that now..."

I think my internal editor is out for blood and I'm still now sure how to satisfy him...

Anonymous said...

Congrats on getting those squared away. That's a valuable reminder. I'll de-fret and get myself back to the fun of making music with these words.

Ty said...

Hmm. Joe, just for curiosity, I'm wondering if your recent writer's woes aren't a sign of something else, maybe something about your writing career?

I don't mean something negative, but something positive. Maybe you've reached, or burst through, a new plateau in your writing? Maybe it's time to try something else different with the next book?

I don't know. I just find it curious that you had some difficulty with this recent book after all the others you've written. Again, I'm suggesting something good is happening. If nothing else, another growing experience for you.

Anonymous said...

I think Ty is onto something. I've found writing gets tougher with each novel. I think we raise the bar for ourselves. We're capable of more, so we push ourselves to do more. So the process might become more angst-ridden, but the result is worth it (at least that's what I tell myself).

I also think the books we think are most awful probably expose parts of ourselves we are uncomfortable revealing. Our assessment has nothing to do with the quality of the story and more to do with showing parts of our psyches we don't want to show.

And writing back-to-back books is hard. Very hard. But it can also make us dig deeper, which can end up being good for the book.

It can also make me want to spend time psycho-babbling on blogs instead of working. Oops!

Looking forward to some great reading, Joe!

Dawn said...

I needed that, Joe. I don't have to be a one-book wonder. I just have to do it again.

Why is that so hard? When I wasn't published I could only go up - now, on the verge of publication, I realise I can also go down. Scary!

Spy Scribbler said...

I do see in pattern, though. The hardest ones, the ones we think are the worst, seem to be the most-liked ones.

Who knows why.

We're certainly happy you made it through!

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit upon something I've finally figured out, which is: Every book is going to be written differently. Sometimes you have no doubts, sometimes you're full of them; sometimes you're in a happy place while writing it, sometimes you're not. Sometimes it's just plain freakin' hard work to reach "The End."

But the true test of a professional author is in the final reading. And if you're good, the audience won't be able to tell which books were hard to write, and which ones were easy. When you have good feedback, as you have, for a book you know was agonizing to write, then you know you're playing in the major leagues, after all.

WayneThomasBatson said...

Joe, Isle of Swords, my last book kicked my rear also, but for slightly different reasons. One it was a new genre (Pirate not Medieval Fantasy), and two, I overshot the word count by 20,000 words. Argh. Lots of editing later. Mannn...I was totally burnt. I have to start the sequel now, so I'm trying to dig myself out of the burned out funk.

Can't wait to read DM. And FN sound cool. Even groundbreaking. Suh-weet.

deb said...

I'm happy to know there is more Jack Daniels to come. Although I've been reading your blog for a while, I haven't commented. I wanted to let you know how informative I've found your blog AND I love the Jack Daniels series, which I devoured in less than a week. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've been feeling EXACTLY the same thing lately. Like Lucas, I've written three novels, none published, but my agent loves them all. Publishers are looking at them all now, and I've received lots of (very good) rejections. I'm working on Number Four now, but I'm stuck because I don't want to simply repeat my "mistakes," for lack of a better term. I want to grow and write something that publishers are going to love enough to publish, but how do I do that if I'm not sure what was wrong with the other three?

Adrienne said...

I really needed to read this. Excellent pep talk. It's time for me to just bite the bullet, and write the darn thing.

Stacey Cochran said...

I swear we're on the same wavelength, JA. I cranked out nine unpublished novels in the span of six years, but my tenth (started after Bouchercon '06) has moved along very slowly.

It's my first straight crime fiction novel, and I think I've actually begun to believe it might be publishable. Which, of course, makes me scrutinize every paragraph I write that much more painstakingly... And it makes me actually doubt that it's any good, ironically.

I should have the first draft done by July.


Simon Haynes said...

I'm now writing my fourth novel, which is due for publication Jan '08. It's the first book I've started fresh since the first three were picked up, edited into shape and released, and the weight of expectation should not be under-estimated.

So far, feedback indicates that each book has been an improvement on the previous one, but I worry that I might reach the limit of whatever talent or ability I possess, at which point I'll start to slide back down again.

In truth I don't believe I've learned a tenth of what is needed to stay in print, and I will continue to buy and read how-to books on every writing topic under the sun.

Mark Terry said...

The quality of the book never seems to have much to do with how difficult it was to write. I wish it did, sort of. The Devil's Pitchfork was hard. It's good. The Serpent's Kiss, coming up shortly, was a breeze to write. I think it's even better. The third in the series caused me a fair number of problems in the middle and end, but everybody who's read it so far seems to like it. The one I'm working on now is kicking my ass, and I just hope that it holds true to form and actually turns out good.

JA Konrath said...

Lucas--Doubt is natural. Don't let it stall you.

Carrie--There comes a point when editing is simply changing words without making the book any better. Time to let your beta readers have it.

Pearl--It's a reminder I wish I had last month! :)

Ty--I think writers should grow with each book. But I also think some ideas are better than others, even if the writing doesn't get noticeably better. FUZZY NAVEL gave me problems because of its construction. The next book will NOT be this complicated.

Keep in mind that I've written about 2 million words at this point. If I reached a plateau, it was a while ago.

That said, it was a growing experience, because it reminded me that I should trust myself. But I don't believe the calibre of writing is appreciably better than my other novels, even if the story is cooler.

Ann--You know me. Do you really think there are parts of my psche I'm afraid to reveal? :^)

That said, the more time you spend thinking about your book, the better off the book will be. Just don't let your thoughts turn to doubt.

Dawn--I'm writing book #6 in the series, and it hasn't gotten any less scary. :(

Spy--The jury is still out. We'll see what the public thinks of the new one.

Melanie--Thanks. I believe you're right, and I needed to hear that. :)

Wayne--Ouch! The key is to jump in as soon as possible, or else you'll be fighting doubt AND a looming deadline. If the horse throws you, get back on right away.

Deb--Thanks! By many accounts, Dirty Martini is the best one yet. July 3!!!

Anon--Most writers will tell you to write what's in your heart and it will find an audience.

I don't believe that.

I'm all for writing what you like to read, but if you like to read Patterson you have a better chance at being published.

Keep reading. Perhaps even read books out of your genre or comfort zone. And think a lot about the main idea before you put pen to paper. Does it have a strong hook that will be easy for Sales Reps to say in one line? Will your agent be able to compare you to five bestselling authors who write similar books?

Your agent obviously loves your voice, and your stories. Now give her a voice and a story that will make editors fight over you.

Adrienne--So stop wasting your time on blogs and get going! :)

Stacey--Keep at it. Don't let promotion get in the way of writing. After all, the easiest book to sell is a great book.

Simon--While I believe there is a limit to writing talent, I don't believe there is a limit to thinking up stories. We can come up with better and better ideas for each new book, even if the writing stays the same.

Mark--We're often proudest of the children we worry about the most.

Martha O'Connor said...

Wonderful advice!

Christine said...

Oh, do I hear that. It got so bad I had to put the stupid thing aside and start something completely new.
It's not the story though, and it's not the voice - I finally got to where I know where I want the story to go. It's that my vehicle is suffering from vapor lock.

Then throw in that this is the third in a series, and all the problems that come with that and mix well.

Agonizing. I'm combating the problem by setting a daily word count - a NoWriMo, if you will - for myself. I can't quit until I reach it, and I can't go back until next month.

Isn''t this fun :)

Anonymous said...

Joe - hope you'll forgive the venting, but this post struck me right between the eyes.

One novel written. Out to the agent, who loves it. Now on the second go-round to the pubs. So I figure it's time to get going on the next book so that when (even though "if" gnaws at me) it gets picked up, I'll have #2 in the pipeline.

So now here I am with pen and paper thinking "open with a bang. Have a great hook. Snappy dialogue. Keep the readers' interest high. Cliffhanger for the end of every chapter" - all that stuff the writing books say is the only way to write a bestseller. And ALL of it is clinging to my hand and making me double and triple-think every sentence I've written.

And the thing is - I've got a good hook. I've got good characters. I've got a good location. What I ain't got is silence. I've got the nagging voices of advice drowning everything else out of my head, and it feels like I'm trying to write while I'm stuck in a pool of congealing concrete.

I don't want to throw out everything I've done, but when my agent calls, I don't want to tell him I've been spending more time researching the exact colors of the awnings on the Hollywood Hotel in 1917 than writing the next book.

So, sorry for the vent, but I'm in a bit of a solitary place right now. Thanks for the kick in the pants. Can't wait to read the new Jack!

JA Konrath said...

I've got a friend named Jim Rollins, and he's got a sticky note on his montior that says, "I allow myself to write crap today."

Jim writes two 150k word books a year, and none of those words are crap. But he still needs to see those words, because they prevent him from vapor-locking and allow him to tune out the nagging voices in his head.

Plow through it. You'll probably realive that what you thought was crap is actually much better than you guessed at the time.

Anonymous said...

So many writers get performance anxiety before they even start. Or hit a wall of doubt and scrap the project as the "fun" turns into hard work.

Thanks for the butt kicking, Joe.

thewriterslife said...

Actually, I do feel like that. That's why one of my books is still sitting in my files even though I was sent the contract for it six months ago. I hate dawdling, but I just want to make sure it's the best I can make it, you know?

Anonymous said...

Joe wrote:
I've got a friend named Jim Rollins, and he's got a sticky note on his monitor that says, "I allow myself to write crap today."

Joe, you could delete everything else from Newbie's Guide---but leave that single sentence---and it would the single best piece of advice any writer could ever hear. It reminds me of Hemingway's famous quote: "The first draft is always shit."

Rollins is a freaking rock star. When you learn that even people like Rollins give themselves permission to suck, it means that it's okay for the rest of us who aren't rock stars to do the same.

It's liberating and a much healthier way to approach the blank page every day.

Anonymous said...

I'm the "anon" who wrote earlier. Joe, that's the best advice I've ever received.

My agent keeps saying: "Write what you love!" But that's not the point. I love all writing. I want to write what's going to SELL. What I'll love is finally seeing my name on a book cover.

I keep getting rejections from editors like: "I loved this book! I couldn't put it down! I read it in one sitting! But..." and then it will be something generic like: "It's not right for our list" or "I just didn't connect as much as I need to." Then they say: "Does she have anything else?"

It's making my head spin because if I just knew what was wrong...

Funny you said to read outside my comfort zone. That's exactly what I've been doing lately. I'm in the middle of The Heart Shaped Box right now.

Beyond that, I'm going to print out a copy of your advice and paste it to the inside of my eyelids.


Jana Oliver said...

We definitely raise the bar with each novel. I'm working on the second book in a series and it's been a bitch (though this is the tenth book I've written). This book has fought me all along. My initial beta readers' reports sent me into furious revisions even as my editor was working on the first 100 pages. That's not cool. I'm just now coming to grips with this thing.

Part of it was the desire to top the first book. That one rocked. It's also second book syndrome in a three-book story arc. I finally realized that if I MATCH the first book, I've got it made. Sure, that's lowering my expectations, but given the success of Book #1, I'll deal.

The new writers always ask - "Does it get easier, Ms. Oliver?" Hell no. It just gets different.

And Joe, the premise for your book sounds awesome. Can't wait to read it. Thanks for the sane advice. We all need to hear it.

Anonymous said...

How many words a day do you typically aim for, Joe?

Sherryl said...

I was really interested when you said you wrote some bits in third person/present tense.
I have two students who are using this "style" and doing it really badly. I think it is the most difficult to pull off without being clunky and dull.
Can you write a post on how you approached writing those sections, please?