The Book Blahs: When Backwards (For This Writer Anyway) Is The Only Way Through.

Maybe I ate too much turkey Thanksgiving week.  (Or, more likely, had too many helpings of sweet potatoes topped with streusel.)  Maybe I have hit a wall.  But after eight weeks of furious activity and thrilling inspiration, during which I produced five full chapters of my novel and felt like I had finally pushed past the murky middle to see the light at the end of my book, I returned to writing after giving myself Thanksgiving week off, opened up the ms, read a few bits here and there, and felt...blah.  Blah blah blah.  Like, I don't really feel like working on this.  Like, some of it stinks.  Like, I would rather be taking a nap.

I've often heard it said that writing is like exercise -- skip a few workouts and you may never work out again.  I am certain I will write again.  What worries me, though, is to feel so lackluster, as though my book were a torrid affair I'd been barreling through with blinders on, a thing so fragile that only the slightest bit of distance could turn torrid to tepid in the space of a week.  Like waking up after a night of passion to regard one's lover in the cold light of day (and with morning breath), looking at my book this week all I can see are its flaws, and I kind of feel like breaking up with it.

To me, this feeling of underwhelmed ambivalence is far scarier than writer's block.  How could characters that have captivated me so utterly suddenly seem so far from alluring?  How could a storyline that so entertained me these past months suddenly feel so strained and strung out?  

This happened to me once before in writing this novel.  (It being my first, my list of experiences to draw upon is short to nonexistent, which is why I've been so grateful for all the insights She Writers have generously shared with me here.)  This summer, after completing what I felt was the first third of my book, I realized, at 50,000 words, that it was flabby, redundant, and long.  Looking at it, I had a distinct case of the blahs.  It was hard to be inspired to go forward when I felt so uninspired looking back.  So I decided it was time to revise, for real--to go backwards, in order to go through. 

I'd been revising all along, but only on the level of the chapter.  I had yet to look at the book as a whole, and it was about time.  And so I sat down and tackled what I had so far, cutting 20,000 words relatively painlessly (a sure sign you are doing the right thing), resulting in six opening chapters I felt were tight, well-paced, and meaty.  With those chapters safely in hand, my confidence was restored and my faith was replenished, and I was able to embark on part two with a spring in my step.  

I only have one chapter to go in what I see as the middle third of my book.  I think I can bring myself to write a draft of it even with a serious case of the blahs, hopefully by the end of next week, just before heading home for the holidays.  (It should help that in that chapter, my main character finally gets laid.)  And then I will have my next chunk complete--which, I am happy to report, will be closer to 30,000 words than to 50,000, unless I write the longest sex scene of all time.  And at that point, I think it is time, again, to revise, to pull back and use the wide-angle lens, fix things up, and regain some perspective on the larger beauty of the thing I'm creating, rather than scrutinizing the dirt contained in its every pore.  

And so I ask you, She Writers, When do you revise?  

Do you push forward until you have a full draft, never looking back until you have seen it through?  (I know writers who do this.)  Or do you revise as you go, even going through multiple drafts of single chapters, or paragraphs, before moving on?  (I know writers who do this too.)  Or, like me, do you try to meet a goal, and then take a timeout to revise a larger section or chunk of the book?  

As ever, I am all ears.  I will be looking for ways to procrastinate this week, as I head off to write a sex scene that, apparently, I could care less about.



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Comment by Alexandra Caselle on December 20, 2012 at 7:58am
I revise as I write. When I am done with a piece or when I have quite a bit finished, I like to give it to a couple of people who will give me constructive criticism from a reader's perspective. As a writer, I am so wrapped up in the characters and their stories and need that objective view. But since I have begun submitting my shorter pieces to literary magazines and contests, my revising has turned into a critical editor's voice with the comments from rejection letters making me deliberately "choose the right word." But as I am writing, I find Lamott's book to be helpful. The most helpful resource for me when revising stories and chapters is The Making of a Story by Alice Laplante.
Comment by Vicki Malits Addesso on December 19, 2012 at 7:44pm

I have no set rules about when to revise, push forward, rewrite, edit, move forward,take a break, etc. But then again, I am a master procrastinator and have a real knack for not following through. However, that "underwhelmed ambivalence" is a state I have experienced and dread.When that happens - when I can't stand what i've written, or it just doesn't matter - I take a step back, remove myself. Absence making the heart grow fonder. Letting myself get some distance between myself and the work. And often (not always) I am drawn back, and once again seduced - ready to work at it. But sometimes... 

Comment by Kathleen Kern on December 19, 2012 at 12:23pm

I don't have a huge amount of experience--three novels, two self-published and one fresh out of NaNoWriMo--but it usually depends on whether there's a writing contest asking for the first X-number of pages of the novel, then those tend to get polished and re-polished extensively while I'm still working on the rest of the novel.

Comment by Joanne Orion Miller on December 19, 2012 at 11:29am

It always amazes me when someone says "writing is so easy". I think everyone gets "writing fatigue". Are you working from an outline? I find that helps me a lot, even if I have to start farther along than where I feel stopped. What I often discover is that I've taken a wrong turn somewhere, and the story itself is trying to tell me that. Jump in again,even if it's only a few sentences. Do it now, today. I'm currently re-reading "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. It's about the basics of writing, and I find it quite go girl!

Comment by Cynthia Pittmann on December 19, 2012 at 1:54am
Thanks for posting! I get the book blahs, too, especially in my current longer project- finishing my PhD dissertation. My big procrastination technique is to write something else in another genre (poetry) or another project (memoir). Sometimes it works out but I don't recommend it. I haven't written a novel so I can't comment on that aspect. It seems as if you have a great writing pace in spite of the "frightening ambivalence"!
Comment by Lovenia Leapart on December 18, 2012 at 10:16pm

Wow, thanks for this post!  I've never experienced writer's block, but "underwhelmed ambivalence I HAVE experienced and it's comforting to know I'm not the only one.

Comment by Julie Luek on December 18, 2012 at 5:07pm

Interesting-- I wrote my first, full fiction MS, let is sit and lost interest, picked it up again,  even let a CP at it, and have totally lost interest in the project once again. The good news, for me, is it helped me reevaluate if I want to go in the same writing direction or try a different route. So in the midst of "eh", I'm doing a little writer soul searching. 

Comment by Brooke Warner on December 18, 2012 at 4:19pm

Hang in there, Kamy!! This is true for so many writers: "underwhelmed ambivalence is far scarier than writer's block" Thanks for sharing your process.

Comment by Grace Peterson on December 18, 2012 at 3:58pm

I never write a full anything before revising. Backtracking to read what I've just written helps me think about how I want to go forward, if that makes sense. Plus I guess I like "hearing" my own voice. I like to smooth and polish as I go. I'm probably doing it all wrong but, it's how I roll. :)

Good luck with your project Kamy. One thing I've learned through my writing journey, it's a hell of a lot of work. But so worth it when it's finished. 

Comment by Cai Emmons on December 18, 2012 at 3:32pm

I have always been a proponent of writing a complete draft before beginning to revise, in part to keep a sense of the story's totality and structure, and also so as not to get bogged down in revising things that might eventually be cut.  But I have noticed with my last two books something happened to stop me just shy of the final chapter (or chapters). Though I knew the general shape of what had to happen, I couldn't arrive at the details. And so, to build up steam again and make that running jump to the end, I went back and revised from the beginning. By the time I got to the end a second time it was much easier to embrace fully my choices about the ending. There was more revision to be done, of course, but two weeks ago as I wrote the last sentence of the first draft of my new novel SHORT OF WONDERFUL, I found myself actually smiling (not something I usually do while in the midst of writing!). It seems I may have established a new norm for myself. I hope the smile lingers as I begin my next pass! And I hope this helps.


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