I’ve just about wrapped up THE SHINING. Whether you’ve read the book, seen the movie, or neither, you know the film’s most infamous scene: disturbed writer/supernatural alcoholic Jack Torrance has been possessed by an evil hotel and is trying to murder his wife and son. His wife, the bathrobe-clad, resourceful heroine, shrieks in terror as her husband hacks through the bathroom door with a hatchet, his eyes smoldering with madness.
“Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in…”
Let’s get a visual, shall we?
I’m sure you get the picture.
As you may or may not know through my various outlets on social media, I have recently been struggling with something that has never plagued me before.
It has puzzled me. Bamboozled me. Beguiled, bewitched, and utterly beleaguered any hint of progress sparked in the past few weeks. I’m young. I’ve lived a pretty exciting life. Every day brings a new trial, whether that’s being attacked by a wild bull, being invited to a French housewife’s BDSM party (Still not sure what to do about that one.), or cutting part of my finger off.
These past few weeks, I’ve been suffering from writer’s block.
In two years, I’ve written five, full-length novels. Needless to say, being unsure of what to write next has never happened to me before. It certainly wasn’t what I expected from my Midlife Crisis, and it certainly did not happen the way it was supposed to.
I didn’t expect to hit the wall during a second draft.
Let’s rewind to Christmas, 2016. It was a rough year—a horrible year—and I was more than happy to bulldoze it straight out the door. My husband and I decided to spend the holiday in Italy, travelling the country with a group of our closest friends.
Perfect, I said to myself. Rome, Florence, Venice… Everything an author needs to be inspired. Driving from city to city will give me ample time to hash out a plot.
And it did. In less than two weeks, I had a full, working outline for my newest novel. The book was fully written in less than six weeks.
As is my customary practice, I waited over two months to revisit the novel. A long break is good practice; it’s an ample time of separation—time to let go, time to stew. Burying your manuscript for eight weeks ensures that when you pick it back up, you’re actually reading the words from the paper and not from your own head.
For those eight weeks, your book sits in rapt excitement. You wait like a child anticipating Christmas, just imagining how good it is going to feel to finally unwrap all of your hard work and put it on display for the whole world to see. Then, when that day finally comes, you rip open the paper and dive straight into the present you’ve gifted yourself, plunging into the story with the fresh eyes of your future readers.
One of two things happens on the event of the reread: You are either blown away by your genius or sickened by your ineptitude. Unfortunately, mine was the latter.
“Come on now, Hannah,” you say to me. “You’re being hypercritical. You need to stop being so hard on yourself.”
While that might be nice of you to think, I can tell you with merited confidence that you are wrong. Dead wrong. When I say that this novel sucked, I mean it. I’m in 98th percentile of postgraduate writers; I have a degree in English and spend countless hours reading, rereading, and assessing literature. I know bad writing when I see it.
Holy halibut, I said to myself. Holy, macrelling halibut. How could I have ever come up with something like this? And (Let’s make things worse.) how could I have ever thought that it was GOOD?
I was heartbroken. Zombified. Distraught. What could have possibly gone wrong?
I was so ashamed, I hesitated to send it to my critique partner for help.
What does one do with a flaming pile of poo?
The first step was to stop. Breathe. Relax. Remind myself that I can write, that genius is there (somewhere), and that an unpublished draft is not the end of a career that hasn’t even started.
The second thing to do was get really, really frustrated. Rant. Rave. Rage against the dying of the light. It’s okay to be angry and frustrated at yourself; it’s okay to throw around plushy objects and take enraged, five-mile walks to vent your furious energy.
The third thing that I did was the wisest thing I could have done.
I reached out.
I called on other authors. I wrote to my critique partner and unloaded my woes in miserable detail. I phoned my husband and tried to puzzle through the grievous aspects of the plot.
The response I received was overwhelming: Support. Encouragement. Brainstorming sessions and incredible ideas bouncing from left to right. Do you have a writing group? A support system? I’m telling you right now, you’d better get one soon.
The most important resource an author can boast is at least one person who will critique her work with brutish love, indefatigable honesty, and boundless encouragement.
Coleridge had Wordsworth. Hemingway had Gertrude Stein. Don’t take it from me—take it from literary masters.
My husband is a researcher by nature, and he found this little nugget of wisdom from George Saunder:
Did you get that?
“Be thunderstruck by how very bad it is.”
First drafts are flaming bags of poo. Always. 100%. Now, your flaming bag of poo might not burn as brightly as someone else’s, but do not field the expectation that everything you write is going to be incredible the first time you write it.
That’s your ego talking, my friend. He probably got the idea from my ego. Sure, looking back at a failed draft is a kick in the pants, but it does keep us humble.
Writing a book is hard. Writing, in general, is very hard. Respect the guild.
On Reddit, boing345brooke asked author John Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska) to describe his greatest difficulty in writing. Here is how Green responded:
“There’s always a point, usually 20,000 to 30,000 words into a new story, where I realize it’s bad. Like, really bad. And often when I get to that point, I have to abandon the story–which is a bummer, because I’ve spent three or six or twenty months on it, and then I feel like, this was all for nothing! I have wasted all this time!
But then sometimes I will get to that point of realizing the story is terrible, and I’ll think, ‘You know, I think I can plow through to an end here. I think I’ve at least got some idea about the characters.’ And then I make it to the end of the draft a few months later. I’ll still have to delete most of that draft in revision, and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite before I have a book, but if I make it past that point where I realize it’s all bad, I can finish.
And then eventually I will understand that none of the time spent was actually wasted, because I had to puzzle through those stories that couldn’t work to get to the one that could.
So for me the hardest part is accepting when something isn’t working, and letting it go, and starting again.”
Letting go and starting again.
That means accepting that things aren’t going the way you want them to, dealing with it, and then having the courage to step back up to the plate. That may be at 30,000 words—it may be at 90,000. My first novel was a whopping 140,000 words (trimmed) before I decided to put it out to pasture.
Consider your revision to be a rite of passage. It’s a necessary evil—the cruel path to a glorious ending. Every author does it. Stephen King writes for four hours a day. Do you think that everything he types up makes its way into print? Hardly.
Let’s get back to our axe murderer.
What is to be done with that poo of a draft? Well, you’re just going to have to hack it to pieces.
Yes, I know it’s odious. I know it’s cruel and degrading to the X hours you’ve put into your manuscript. “But Hannah!” you cry. “I’m in love with this chapter/character/scene/string of dialogue! I can’t possibly do it in!”
Ask yourself this:
If I murder this chapter/character/scene/string of dialogue, does the ending change?
If the answer to that question is no, it’s probably a darling. And, if the darling has no clout in the book’s finale, you’re probably going to need to kill it.
Every time I head for my second draft, I can’t help but feel a bit like Jack Torrance, stalking his victims through a haunted labyrinth while they plead and scream for mercy. They can’t run; they can’t hide. Eventually, I will find them—each and every useless adverb, flat character, and pedantic description—and I will hack them straight out of existence.
“I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in!”
Gristly? Yes. A bit melodramatic? Perhaps. But this is the writer’s world, honey child. Welcome to the jungle.
Finally, I am finished with my second working outline. It’s certainly a Frankenstein of the first, but I think (and my betas agree) that it is much more beautiful than its predecessor. Perhaps it will be hacked to pieces, too. I know that whatever comes of the final project (if anything comes of it at all), it will be starkly different from the first, second, or even the third draft.
As an author, you must constantly be landscaping your manuscript. Sometimes you prune. Sometimes you snip. Sometimes you hack, stab, or even decapitate drafts. As much as it hurts, you must never be afraid to trim away the mediocre in order to make way for the fantastic.