Thursday, May 24, 2012

Crippling Doubts in the Rough Draft

On Monday I began my next novel, The Last House in the Sky. During my previous novel I tried to stay as open as possible about how I worked, whether it was stumbling, marking what would need changing later, or what I was proud of that day. I was surprised by the warm public reception, particularly to the post breaking down how much I wrote and when.

Because I believe one person’s transparency can help another person’s process, I wanted to list the anxieties I had during that day. There were a lot – so many that I opened a Notepad file to jot them down. It became funny to compare them against each other over time. Anxiety kills more worthwhile projects than anything else I know, and often it’s a process of learning what to disregard.

It started with the two things I feel on most projects, and have long since come to suppress because neither has ever been right.

1. The novel won’t be long enough.
-I haven’t planned enough events! A novel needs way more to happen.
-The plot points I have planned will all go too short. If each only winds up needing a few pages, this sucker won’t even make it to a novella, and novellas are hard to sell.

It’s interesting to note that within minutes of this, I felt …

2. The novel will be way too long.
-I only think the plot is scrawny. Some of these events will balloon unexpectedly to ten thousand words and I’ll wind up with a novel that’s unsellably huge. Half the stories I’ve ever written had plot points that exploded. Why am I not prepared for it to happen here?
-I know it’s only a skeleton with the first few chapters coming up right now, but what things am I willing to cut?

3. These jokes are only funny to me.
-The character quirks will offend somebody. If not at Chambers showing up shamelessly naked, then at the other guy endlessly courting a lesbian.
-The jokes are too contextual to quote. How can the novel go viral if the quips can’t be tweeted? Why does all the humor have to build up?
-I’m a horrible writer and everyone will misread the tone as serious and find no whimsy in land-squid chasing a rust Volkswagen Beetle across a desert.
-Nobody else wants to read about a backstabbing decapitated gremlin or land-squid chasing cars. I’m simply too deranged to market.

4. There’s no hook!
-I mean, you don’t know the whole plot on page one. Who reads books that don’t spill the plot on page one?
-Okay, everyone does, but there’s nothing interesting on page one. Only a guy in a tuxedo and sword wading through a monster-infested fog to turn himself in at a prison. I need to get to the premise faster.

5. There are too many hooks!
-The monsters in the fog, and all the criminals turning themselves in for no apparent reason, and the guards at the jail plainly not being real guards, and The Boss being missing, and why they drew signs in orange paint… the reader will be too confused. Sensory overload. I can envision them putting the book back on the shelf.

As I rounded out the second chapter that afternoon, I had ample opportunities to reflect on the opening. Oh, the opening…

6. The opening…
-…is too straightforward. I need more exposition.
-…has too much dialogue containing exposition.
-…is too nebulous and people will get confused and give up.
-…takes too long to reveal what they’re all planning.
-…has so many moving parts that only a couple will have punch, and readers won’t understand any of the others when they come to fruition.

I hope you realize there is not one item above that is worth stopping over. Once you have experience, you know when to course-correct and experiment. Otherwise, these are the kinds of momentary doubts that exist solely to annoy the writer. I came in with a good guideline, I bolded things that weren’t working to massage later, and post-completion editing will catch any stylistic or structural problems that I don’t alter on the fly.

Do any of those doubts sound familiar to you?


  1. Hah, I like how you're seeing things, and your blog! I've awarded you a Kreativ Blogger Award, swing by here; to pick it up!

  2. Oh, so familiar. And even when you've been through it before, it still can send you screaming from the computer. i spend most of my writing time with my teeth gritted.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

    1. I've found it helpful to acknowledge and pit these fears against each other. The teeth-gritting is a good fall-back, if the ironies don't kill each other for you.

  3. Do any of those doubts sound familiar to you?

    Every single one, especially the "These jokes are only funny to me" one.

    1. Any recent occurrences of that dread, Tony?

    2. Yes, actually, but not just about the jokes. It's the action sequences, the bantering dialogue, the romance angle, the oppositional interactions with the friend/betrayer...

      I'm closing in on the end of my novel WIP, and am already feeling sad that once I give this rotten, clunky, boring, tedious work to my beta reader friends and colleagues, they will not only begin to disengage themselves from me in a nauseated collective act of literal de-friending, they will whisper among themselves in horrified wonder that they ever thought I was capable of writing a coherent piece of long-form fiction.

      Rational fear? No. Easily dismissed? Well...

  4. Yup they're all familiar. Sometimes they all come at the same time, sometimes at different stages of the project LOL The worst doubt for me is: Is this is really any good?

    1. The question of whether it's really good doesn't come up too often on long projects, at least for me. When I was younger, I was crippled by that fear. With experience, though, I've come to be at peace with a promising outline, and faith in editing out the grit later. The question becomes: can I make this good when I finish?

  5. Thanks for sharing your doubts. It's so easy to get stuck on anyone of them and start doubting your work. I agree with the previous visitor regarding the worst doubt--Is this any good?

    1. Theresa was definitely on to something, Joanne. Did any of these doubts resonate for your process?

  6. I am a reader rather than a writer, but found this truly fascinating.

    These words from your penulitmate paragragh 'Once you have experience, you know when to course-correct and experiment. Otherwise, these are the kinds of momentary doubts that exist solely to annoy...' struck me as being as true of life as they are of writing.

  7. John, thank you for sharing this list of doubts. I should probably write my own list of doubt about revision. I find that process much more difficult than I do regarding motivating myself to do the initial draft. At least for short story and longer lengths of works.


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