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  • The Book Blahs: When Backwards (For This Writer Anyway) Is The Only Way Through.
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The Book Blahs: When Backwards (For This Writer Anyway) Is The Only Way Through.
Contributor
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
November 2012
Brainstorming
Contributor
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
November 2012
Brainstorming

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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Comments
  • Alexandra Caselle

    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.

  • Vicki Malits Addesso

    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... 

  • Kathleen Kern

    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.

  • Joanne Orion Miller

    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 inspiring...you go girl!

  • Cynthia Pittmann Writing

    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"!

  • Lovenia Leapart

    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.

  • Julie Luek

    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. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    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.

  • Grace Peterson

    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. 

  • Cai Emmons

    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.

  • Mishele Maron

    I love this post as its so true to what a writer actually goes through when you look back at what you have created. I love the fact, too that you included how you worked through the blah feeling, because we see how the "blah," actually informed you.

    While none of us what to feel "blah," when we work through our work, look how well this turned out! Look at where the feeling sent you, and what you were able to do with this. So perhaps, I am thinking, we should almost welcome the "blah." Embrace, "the blah." I am not saying we have to like "blah," but its so much more toothsome than relying on buddies to have to tells us, "Blah." I think this is a story of triumph and what it is really like. You don't feel good all of the time when you are writing, and that is the blunt, bare bones of the job. How not to be disappointed when you realize that its not as great as you thought? Part of the process, I guess, but not fun. 

    My one other thought, which is sort of a flip side argument, is that it is very important to check in with yourself. Is the "blah," really about the work? All of my friends who write are very sensitive people who are juggling families, the needs of children and mates and work against creative work. Sometimes "blah," has less to do with the work than real burn out. I went to write yesterday and realized, after tearing myself away from horrific news, kids, my mate that I had to go to a yoga class. There was no way I was going to have clarity after recent events. 

    So I don't know about that part. I guess what I am saying is that sometimes you have to protect your work from your marginal feeling self and your habits that are perfectionistic and not helpful to the work. Funny to think we have to navigate between the two strains.

  • Nancy E. Frank

    Pre-computer, I wrote by hand and edited on a typewriter.  Once those machines came out, I learned to type out my thoughts.  Now I'm in a position where I can't write for more than 15 minutes, and dictating seems you're not getting the words together the way you want.  Wrote my first novel on computer in 1985-89.  Unfortunately, the operating system is so far removed from mine.  Technology has provided nothing but, say, the telephone, and the computer system I worked in 1985 recently.  (I put the novel away for 20 years, and now it shows, more than ever, how differently -- I'd say more calmly -- than  As for procrastination, if you want social media sites, there are tons; if you're been curious about some historical moment for you, there is (help me) Google.  I've revised the novel about 15 years ago, but I only take some notes on a chapter I may reading.  I'm not up to constructing a new novel, when I do like the first one, and now that it's at a historically profound moment, and I'm hoping that will keep me away from picking up all the dirty laundry in the house.

  • Norine Dworkin-McDaniel

    Oh Kamy, I hear you. I'm revising a bunch of essays for a collection right now and some days I think This is brilliant! And other days I wonder if I should pack away the laptop and apply for a grocery bagging job at Publix. Sometimes it depends on my mood -- I'm my harshest critic. Sometimes it depends on which essay I'm working on. Perhaps put aside the section that you're less than thrilled about and write a different section of the book for a while. Let your subconscious brain percolate on the section that's giving you trouble. One day, you'll see, you'll have a sudden inspiration and it'll all come together for you. That's the way it happens for me, anyway. And I say this as a writer who's spent the day wrapping holiday presents when I should have been writing. So there you are. Good luck!

  • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

    Oh Kamy, do I know this lament.  I am an obsessive reviser. I pick the lint off of each chapter until I'm so sick of it I want to ditch the whole thing!  I did that on my first book.  I did that on my second book (the one that's actually getting published).  I refuse to do it on my new book.  I'm trying to write a whole first draft with only quick one-time revisions on each chapter as I go. I recognize the OCDish nature in myself, and I'm vowing to do the next one differently, if only to save myself the torture.  I'm approaching this next book in the same way I would build a house. I figure get the whole thing framed out, then go back and add the pretty details.  Can't perfect the lines in the wallpaper before the walls are built, right?  Or at least that's my logic.  Brooke Warner's book, What's Your Book is helping.  

    By the way, I think the blahs are the worst form of writer's block.   Miserable.  But it will pass.  

  • Aífe Murray

    I was half way into this book and found self in similar situation of not caring. Even though I cared underneath somewhere.Totally frustrated. It happened a second time when I had gotten second wind and wrote in an exciting new direction. What gives? So now I'm crawling on my belly and thinking about rereading Bird by Bird but mostly I'm moving very slowly, taking long walks, and looking at this story like I might sit behind an easel watching light on a live model.

  • Rita Arens

    I write through until the end and then start doing multiple rewrites. I learned a lot about structure while writing The Obvious Game and cut 10k words in one day once. Don't worry about it -- the novel will be tighter, and you might have to do it more than once, and that's okay.

    I personally feel like if you're totally blah it's fine to take a few weeks off, but I've never been a you-have-to-write-everyday kind of writer and I still manage to write things.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    @Adela, great idea about reading Bird By Bird!  I have a good friend who teaches writing at NYU, and she told me that her standard answer whenever her students are struggling is...read Bird By Bird.  And keep digging in those slimy oysters.  @Claire, great idea about reading Stephen King's book too, I have heard nothing but good things but somehow have never gotten around to it.  And @RYCJ, thanks for reminding me that sometimes there are other things in your life, your heart, your mind, that you might be less aware of, but are part of the picture.  Writing is so deeply personal, and one of the reasons I started She Writes was that right after my divorce, I couldn't bear to travel inward, and for years I couldn't write at all.  @Juliet, what a fascinating process!  Did you ever try to publish the short story, or is it now deeply part of the novel?

  • When I realize something might, just might be askew with something I wrote, I am too distracted to barrel through to the end.  I think it's all about your own style of writing and your personality. 

    I suggest you read just the first chapter of BIRD BY BIRD.  It happens.  We get distracted, we find what we wrote is rubish.  We keep going.  Just keep going.  You will find the pearls in the mucky, slimy oysters.  You will. You are a great writer, Amy. 

  • Juliet Wilson

    I wrote a very first draft for NaNoWriMo last year then i left it for a month then cut out all the rubbish and since then have been revising in different ways.  I took out one subplot, rewrote it as a short story, when i was happy with that i put it back into the novel. I'm now going through the whole thing, adding in two more subplots I've recently thought of and tightening everything up and adding in extra detail.

  • Daphne Q

    Funny and informative!

  • RYCJ Revising

    Hi Kamy...I think it's okay to have the blues... it'll likely end up being a time you add on to the collection of all that went into writing this novel.

    What works for me is that there is a catalyst; whether plot, character, or personal motivation that makes me never tire of this story...particularly (I'm now finding) during the revision process.

    On a side note; sometimes external elements that have nothing to do with writing can 'excite' the blues, too.

  • Ruth Mancini

    I keep going till I've finished, then revise. I also get feedback from an editor friend after each draft. I wrote around 11 drafts of my first novel "Swimming Upstream". But like you, I often feel "flabby" and self-critical and want to give up and do something else instead. Good to know I'm not the only one! I think that writing is a very isolating task and unless you have a hermit personality it's inevitable that being alone with a PC and four walls for long periods of time are going to make you feel uninspired at times. I say, take a walk or a swim and connect with real life for a bit when feeling uninspired, gather some writing material and hopefully some insipiration, and then make yourself write anything and keep going for a period of time you set for yourself even if what you are writing doesn't seem great. It is still a foundation for something that will suddenly gell at some point soonand turn into a great piece of writing.

  • Claire McAlpine

    I started out revising at I went until I read Stephen King's book On Writing which suggests you write until the end nonstop. That seemed scary to me but since it was all a big learning curve anyway, I decided to step outside my comfort zone and go for it. The impact of doing that came from the feedback from my first reader, who commented that something happened about page 90, the story suddenly took off and really picked up the pace. I don't think I would have ever learned that had I not tried something different.  So there isn't really an answer, it's a matter of adapting, but if you need to inject pace, that's when writing through without revising can really help. It gets us out of the way and allows the subconscious to take over.