Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Dark Night of the Novelist's Soul

Over on the Magical Words group-blog, CE Murphy shares one of the secret fears most writers share: that the thing we're writing is awful.
I’m in the middle–and I do mean middle, as I’m 90K into what I’m beginning to be depressingly certain will be a 165K book–of writing my sixteenth full-length novel.

These are my observations at this point:

- this is the worst thing I’ve ever written

- none of it hangs together

- there is no integral structure

- the end is so far away I will never be finished writing, but I am more than ready to be done

- my editor is going to burst into tears when I finally do turn this horrific lump in to her

- she is then going to have to find a way to break it to me gently that perhaps I should consider a career in shoveling elephant dung, because my writing life is over and cleaning up behind elephants is sure to be a less smelly job than what I’ve just delivered to her

The bitter thing is that I recognize this stage. This happens every time. It means that things are probably going along just fine, even though my inclination is to say, “No, no, I know I’ve said this before, but this time I think I’m right. This really is terrible.”

Recognizing this does not make me feel any better at all.
I invariably go through this stage somewhere between the one-third and two-third mark. And like Murphy, when Allison invariably tells me "You say that every time," I always answer, "Well, this time I think I'm right."

I'm reminded of the chart that Maureen McHugh posted last year, illustrating the process of writing a novel:

Invariably, when it's all said and done, I'm pretty happy with the completed draft. And by the time it's all polished, edited, and ready for the reading public, I'm proud of the work I've done. But that middle period, that Dark Night of the Soul when the novel is nothing but awful and I'll never finish writing it, is still a stage I go through on every book.

Last Thursday I finished work on Three Unbroken, sending off the last third of the "hexagram" chapters to my masters at Solaris. While most of my novels take a month or two to write (with a variable number of weeks and months of preproduction outlining and researching in advance), Three Unbroken was something of an experiment, since I wrote it in three separate chunks, doing other projects inbetween. The first third of the book was written the first two weeks of October, after a couple of weeks of outlining in the end of September. The next section was written in January, again at the end of a couple of weeks of research and outline. And the last section was written over the course of March, following a few weeks of research in February. So from start to finish, the whole thing was nearly six full months. But even spread out, since I was only writing two "hexagram" chapters a day, and sometimes only one, the actual writing itself took more working days than normal, as well.

The upshot was that I lived in that "Dark Night of the Soul" that McHugh describes in her chart, the "this is awful" stage that Murphy mentions, more than once (visiting it at least once in each of the three writing legs) and for a greater number of days than normal. Which, ultimately, made me miserable to be around, I'm sure. Allison, for one, was so glad to have Three Unbroken done and me at the end of that long race that she baked me a chocolate cake on Thursday, just to celebrate.

I don't know that I'll write a book on that kind of schedule again. So much of my writing process is involved with getting up a certain amount of inertia, getting my brain distorted in a shape appropriate to a story and the world in which it takes place, and then building up a good head of steam. Writing in discrete chunks, as I did, starting and stopping three separate times, meant that I had to do all of that building-up-inertia business each time.

Next up is a bit of franchise work. I'm reading a big stack of Warhammer 40,000 novels at the moment, and noodling with characters and outlines. Then I'll be doing a Celestial Empire novella for a market that's requested one, and after that doing some revisions to my space opera. And then, who knows? It'll depend on which of the various irons I've got in various fires pays off. For the moment, though, I'm just trying to get used to the notion of not being anywhere on the chart that McHugh drew up, if only for a few days, for the first time in a long time.

I have great respect for novelists such as you, Chris.

While I have ideas a plenty (and many of them wind up in my role playing gaming), I'm pretty sure I can't survive the "Novelist's Journey" as Maureen outlines.

It's a pity, too. I'm a personal friend of Elizabeth Bear and know her from long before she was a writer. And some days I think "I could do that too."

Its a beautiful delusion that lasts a few minutes, maybe more. In the end, I realize that I probably could do a first novel (since I can take as long as I like to do it)...but an (expected) second would be absolute murder.
Thanks, Paul! Of course, there are times when I think I'm just deluded about my own writing, as well!
Ha! I'm between 'Okay, it's harder than I thought' and 'This is going to take some work' right now. Thanks for letting me know I'm 'normal'. Great post!
Thanks so much for sharing. Whenever I speak, I always tell my audience that I hate my book while I'm writing it. Then when I have the pub'd book in my hand, I open it up and think, "Wow, this is pretty good!" And I am completely amazed. My audience always thinks this is funny. They don't realize how true it is.

Glad I am in such good company.
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