The Writing Process

When the Going Gets Tough…

…the tough get going, according to the famous song. If Billy Ocean was right about this (and who am I to question him?) then evidently I am not particularly tough. When times are hard, and the going is not so much tough as completely stagnant, I just get worried.

Image credit: Dfrg.msc | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Dfrg.msc |
Wikimedia Commons

I’m talking about writing in particular, of course, though the above holds true for most aspects of my life. I am a worrier by nature. Things are never good enough or quick enough. I’m apt to get stressed by this even in those pursuits that don’t mean a great deal to me, like sweeping up leaves or cleaning the oven. In the case of writing, which means a lot, the stress is multiplied a hundredfold.

I’m going through a rough patch. The words are coming out slowly, if they come at all, and when I read them back they seem like something penned by a twelve-year-old, and a dim-witted twelve-year-old at that. The novel that I once thought almost ready suddenly seems in need of vast amounts of editing and revision. Entire chapters need to be rewritten, entire plot points reconsidered. It’s such a cheerless process that I’ve even found myself being distracted by little tasks like defrosting the freezer. When defrosting the freezer suddenly seems preferable to the glorious process of creating, populating, and refining an entire world, you know you’re in trouble.

Part of me thinks I should just go with the flow. You can’t hurry love (I seem to have old pop songs on the brain today), and you can’t hurry writing either, at least not without compromising the quality of the end product. There is a lot of pressure on indies to churn out one or two books a year, but I doubt that I personally would be capable of that. I’m a firm believer that quality takes precedence over quantity, and that real success cannot be judged by speed. Better to spend another year getting it just right than to put it out there next month and worry about whether it’s good enough. If you’re expecting people to part with their hard-earned cash in return for your book, you have to make sure it’s your best effort.

Phillip Pullman once said something interesting re writer’s block. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, he pointed out; why should writers, uniquely, have an excuse for doing nothing during those troubled times when it isn’t easy? There are bad days in every job, but in just about every other job you have to carry on regardless. And perhaps that is the key – just carrying on, doing your best, and hoping that sooner or later that missing piece of the puzzle will slot into place.

In the meantime, having two WIPs on the go seems to be paying dividends, despite my initial reservations (they do say you can’t serve two masters). When one work grinds to a halt, I often find that just forgetting about it for a couple of days and working on the other helps. Coming back to the first WIP after a short break, with fresher eyes and a clearer head, seems to make things easier. In the same way that you often find things when you’re not consciously aware of looking for them, so too a period of not deliberately working on a problem can allow a possible solution to take shape in your mind.

One thing I’m absolutely sure of is that none of my books will ever make their way into the wider world until I’m satisfied that they are as good as I can make them. On that point, I’m not so much tough as downright unyielding. That magic moment when you can look at a work and say “That represents my best effort” is worth waiting for.

Besides, When the Going Gets Tough is now on constant replay in my mind, accompanied by memories of watching Romancing the Stone as a kid and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. If I remember, the character played by Kathleen Turner in that film was a writer who, shortly after tapping out the last word of her novel on her old manual typewriter, found herself being whisked off to deepest Colombia, where she teamed up with Michael Douglas, rode mudslides, got involved in high-speed car chases and shoot-outs, and eventually (of course) found luurve. Well, that’s one way of getting inspiration, I suppose. I’m half-tempted to call the nearest airport and ask if they have any reasonably-priced tickets to Colombia…

Do you have any tips for dealing with the tough times? Leave a comment.

14 thoughts on “When the Going Gets Tough…

  1. Hello, Maria, I just entered a good long comment and it vanished in cyber space, making me good and mad.
    I wanted to say, I sympathise, I’ve only got one out there (as an ebook, and am saving up to make it a paperback, but I’ve just discovered some annoying errors in the ebook text that will need remedying first) and am now working on my second.

    I think it’s hard to judge for yourself when it’s as good as it can be and that’s where a writing partner is so helpful, I don’t know if you have one? It can be difficult to find someone who loves your work and whose work you love, I met mine through a discussion of The Iliad on Goodreads, would you believe, and she made me do rewrites that were a pain but made a huge difference, she could ‘see it from the outside’.

    I have forced inspiration in the past by listening to Baroque music which is meant it seems to be particularly good at getting those two bits of the brain working in unison that Thomas mentioned a few posts ago. But a whole series of pictures I used came to my mind when i was playing the slow movement of
    Bruch’s Violin concerto number one, really dramatic stuff, just right for Gothic.
    Sometimes I ask my unconscious to provide solutions to difficulties with plot, etc,before going to bed; sometimes it obliges…

    I’m sure you know how people recommend that you write a number of words a day, forcing yourself, even if you know you’re going to tear them up the first thing next morning (or delete them to an extracts file!)

    I think those moments of inspiration when the words just flow are so rare that we must seem deranged to people on the outside, battling through the slough of despondency, waiting for them. I had awful writers block with this one for some weeks until a few days ago when I did get a flash of comic inspiration when writing about the squalid surroundings where the main character in my latest once lived.

    Wishing you all luck. Don’t worry, it will pass…Mine is, slowly…

    1. Thank you so much for the comment, Lucinda! I’ve had problems with vanishing comments myself.

      I’ve a couple of writing buddies, and am always on the lookout for more, as I think another pair of eyes are invaluable in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your work. I agree that it’s important to force yourself to write a little every day, even if what you write is terrible. I find that sometimes just sitting still and trying to get into the right frame of mind helps, though of course that is easier said than done! And you’re right that music can help.

      Writing does often seem like a long, slow trudge to nowhere in particular, and those moments when you’re ‘flying’ frustratingly rare, but at the same time it’s the most rewarding activity imaginable, and there is nothing I would rather be doing. I try to bear that in mind during the tough times.

  2. The second novel is always the child of expectation. At least it was with my second script. So much to live up to if you had a few nice comments with the first. My current WIP is exactly the same. You are not alone 🙂

    I did a post on ‘block’ some time ago which pretty much sums up my way of dealing with it. It will pass.

    1. Thanks for the comment, J.D.! You’re right about ‘second novel syndrome’: the first time around I felt like I had nothing to lose and nothing to prove. Now the pressure seems much greater, which I think is contributing to my uncertainty about the whole thing.

      I like your post, and agree that it’s not a question of not being able to write, just not being able to write as well as you want to. It’s just a case of soldiering on, I think. Thanks for the words of encouragement!

  3. Mari, hi –

    I don’t know if the same is true for you, but I have discovered that my second novel is a more complex creature than my first. My initial draft, which was done in a matter of a couple of months, glossed over many of the deeper philosophical and human aspects of the story. That draft was essentially a 70K word synopsis. I went back to the beginning, adding chapters and events to flesh out the character motivations; everything went fine… for awhile. Then I got STUCK. I could not figure out what I was trying to say, or why the characters were doing anything at all, or even why I thought there was a story to tell. That was a very rough patch, and I did avoid my writing with all sorts of other activities like stove cleaning, car washing, and watching endless episodes of Supernatural. What finally helped was to sit down with the text – as panicky and worthless as that made me feel! – and go through it scene by scene to catalog what I had, and then use that to do an outline of what I thought I still needed to write. It took eight hours, but my panic was dispelled. The outline hasn’t been followed, but stopping to understand what I had and that there was at least one possible avenue out of the box I’d written myself into was invaluable. It got me writing again, without the sense of dread, and I had a better sense of the story despite not using 90% of the projected new stuff from that outline.

    Looking back, I realize that my problem with the initial draft was induced by my plan to write two novellas a year for three years. I wrote a novella’s amount of words, but the story was bigger than that, and trying to squash it to fit into my indie publication schedule nearly killed it. I have since given up any aspirations of fitting the “indie commandments” for success: I won’t be publishing multiple books a year, I no longer Tweet with any regularity, I don’t interact on Facebook, and I don’t compare myself to people who choose to do those things and experience greater sales success than I do. (That last is a difficult one, though!). I am focused on reading and writing reviews of books because that is where I interact with other readers, and on writing this novel the way it is meant to be, even if that takes me another year. I would rather do the idea justice than rush to cash in on something that I won’t be proud to share.

    I know that you will find a way past the worst of this tough time, Mari. It won’t be easy, and it might take awhile, but I believe in you. And I’m looking forward to your next book, no matter what the publication date.

    May you find peace with your writing,


    1. Hi, Aniko! I do find that the second novel is a more complex creation than the first, though this is perhaps due to the fact that I had plenty of time to work on the first, with no sense of a deadline – at that time, I wasn’t even really thinking in terms of publication. I had time to just enjoy the journey and take it at my own pace; now, the destination is always at the back of my mind.

      I think it’s true that these things will take as long as they take, and you can’t try to squash them into a given schedule. And it is very important to be able to really take pride in the end product. I like this idea of sitting down with the manuscript and analysing it in the way you suggested, and will try it.

      I’m glad you left a comment, I’ve missed you! Are you going to restart your blog any time soon?

  4. I feel your pain! I put 100,000 words effectively IN THE BIN a couple of months ago because it needed time to gestate and will come out completely different. But you’re right, pressing publish before ready is not a good idea even though the prevalent feeling seems to be that you can ‘change’ it once it’s out there. I’m lucky in that I have 20 years of back catalogue to ‘play’ with as well as new ideas so I’m never short of something to be working on. On the other hand, advice could be not to get too anal about making something perfect. Learning to recognise when something is the best it can be is part of writing and I think confidence is important in this respect. Well, can I offer more than platitudes? I think that I can. I’ve just finished reading THE QUICKENING and I’m going to put a review up on Reading Between the Lines for you – I shall sit down and work on it RIGHT NOW. Hopefully that will a) increase your confidence and b) motivate you to KEEP WRITING.
    I have to say though, having spent 2 weeks in the grips of plumbing catastrophe, firstly I wished I was a plumber not a writer. Second it totally kicked my schedule out the window (worrying about not having running water is WAY worse than worrying about writing!) and that in itself gives me some motivation to get back to work. It’s good to read here about folks who are keen to write the best they can, not just churn out stuff in order to chase the fame and fortune myth of ebooks. For folks not writing genre fiction to a deadline this new way of publishing should offer FREEDOM not a feeling that we are all competing to get sales or visibility. Just write the best you can and when it’s ready THEN publish it. The more we build networks between like minded folk the more readers we’ll get, but I think it’s time for us to realise that the MASS market is never going to be the place or the answer or whatever. Instead of banging on here I’m going to get started on that review! I could talk on this subject FOR EVER. Sadly!
    Final thought – writing buddies. Effectively this CAN be people working as editors. So it would be great for such folks to learn the skills of editors (which is a writers skill set anyway) so that they can be of real use to each other. Reviewing and analysing fiction is a great way to do this!

    1. Thank you for the comment, Cally – and thank you too for the review, which did indeed give me a little injection of some much-needed confidence! I absolutely agree that one of the biggest advantages in e-publishing is, or at least should be, the freedom it gives to writers. I think this is a message that needs to be repeated in these days, when the emphasis is more and more on getting books out there quickly. This rapid-turnover approach may work for some people, and that’s great, but it leaves others (like me) cold.

      I can sympathise with your plumbing woes, as a team of workmen are about to descend on our house to fix our leaky roof before the entire thing caves in! Perhaps that will, in a strange way, give me a little boost.

    2. You are not the first to harbour a desire to be a plumber, Cally, but you will have learnt that not all are called to the noble craft. Some of us have had to accept writing as a distraction from our failures with the pipe wrench..

      1. Okay, I had to get in on this one. Having worked in the construction field for several years (although never with the pipe wrench), I still remember hearing the three rules of plumbing: 1- S#!t rolls downhill, 2- Never chew your fingernails, and 3- Payday is Friday.

        Sorry, I know that’s not very helpful, Mari. I think it must be January. I’m seeing (and feeling) similar sentiments in many areas of the blogosphere. I think it also has to do with the 2nd novel (something I’m also seeing/feeling). It feels like more of a battle this time around.

        It sounds like from this post, though, that you’re heading in the right (write?) direction. Two works-in-progress? You are bolder than I.

        Just stick with your passion (and Billy Ocean), and you’ll get through.


      2. Thanks for the comment, Paul. I think maybe it is something to do with the time of year – Christmas and New Year seem a long time ago already, but spring still seems so very far away. It’s cold and dark and cheerless, and you’re watching your Resolutions fall by the wayside one by one. It’s depressing; but then again, I suppose I ought to count my blessings, as at least there’s nothing seriously wrong in my life at the moment.

        Just hanging on in there is my best strategy so far. That and trying to look on the bright side. And Billy Ocean of course!

  5. I get notifications of other WordPress bloggers’ posts in my e-mail inbox but not of yours, Mari. Who knows why? But anyway…

    Any writer worth his or her salt is plagued by doubts from time to time. It’s in the nature of the dedicated writer to swing between periods of believing him/herself to be a literary genius and a poetaster/impostor. And if you truly reflect on your craft, the doubts will assail you too. It’s all part of the process. You’ll come out the other side! And at some point, as I’ve remarked before, you have to let manuscripts go and move on.

    For all that, I really should listen to my own advice! A writing buddy recently read my last manuscript, and while she was generally full of praise, she picked up on the aspect of it that I’d already felt was the weakest. Hence, I suspect, I shall be gnawing away at it again.

    If you need another view on what you’ve been writing, I’d be happy to provide my thoughts, for what their worth!

    Is the twin manuscript approach not helping, then? It’s been working for me but I’ve just run out of time to write anything of late due to work commitments.

    1. Hello Paul, and thanks for the comment!

      I’ve found that almost every writer I’ve spoken to goes through this swing between almost insane self-confidence and crushing self-doubt, which does give me hope. I’ve actually been feeling a little better since I wrote this post, because I’ve been trying to steer a middle course and not get distracted by either extreme. And I agree that sooner or later you really just have to let the manuscript go: revision and rewriting are theoretically infinite tasks, and it would be entirely possible to spend the rest of your life constantly rewriting the same thing!

      Having two manuscripts on the go has been helpful, I have to say. Putting one to one side and working on the other can be very refreshing, especially as they are both very different. However, like you, I’m currently inundated with work commitments, and finding time for serious writing is a bit tricky.

      Thanks for the offer of a fresh pair of eyes, too – I may take you up on that! I’m constantly surprised (in a very good way) by how generous other writers are with their limited time, and how willing they are to offer advice and feedback. It’s very much appreciated. Of course, if I can return the favour and provide another view (‘for what it’s worth’ being a very necessary disclaimer here!) I’d be more than happy to do so.

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