Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Crazy Hamster Wheel

If you’re a writer like me, chances are you suffer at least a bazillion mood swings a day. Constructing a novel is hard, editing is hard, and querying agents is even harder. This does not lend itself to an emotionally stable situation, and often I feel as though I’m fighting a constant battle against arrogance on the one hand and despair on the other. Some days I think I’m the greatest novelist ever; some days I believe I’m the worst. Let me show you how this plays out.


Drafting:  From the first page to the last, I flee the rabid monsters of blinking cursers, crowded schedules, and impending doom. During this time, I often wander around feeling like a toddler flinging paint at the wall and calling it art. Eventually, I tell myself, I should probably just grow up and get a normal job like bull fighting or yak farming. Of course, I have my moments where the words sing and the characters dance and I’m convinced I’ve landed a masterpiece. Those wonderful occurrences last about as long as a caffeine rush. (Note to self:  Is coffee a performance-enhancing drug?) At this point in the game, I am usually not anywhere near my high horse. But just you wait and see.


Edits—Round One:  Unlike other people, I don’t enjoy reading my unpolished work. I remember the vision I had for my story and the warm fuzzy feelings that cropped up along the way, but somehow none of those actually seem to have made it onto the page. Nothing of the genius survived the transition from fingers to screen—nothing of the wit remains. After all that hard labor, all those long nights writing by the light of the moon—exactly what have I accomplished? And as I stare at that ginormous, ignominious pile of goop, I toy with my chainsaw, wondering if there might not be a huge distinction between deleting my entire manuscript and saving the world.

By the time I get my act together and dive into that icky vat of words, I’m starting to feel more confident. After all, there isn’t any rush. Since I have no actual deadlines—aside from the ones I set myself—I can take all the time I need to tighten my writing as much as I like without fearing THE END OF THE UNIVERSE. Anyway, editing is where the party’s at. And I’ve reserved a date with the backspace key. Just imagine all the lines we’ll tear apart and the scenes we’ll erase. Oh, won’t it be magical?

Once I’ve finished this first round of edits, I send my manuscript out to my beta readers, heart thumping in anticipation, head spinning with the intoxication of success. I anxiously await replies, imagining the adoring phone calls and emails I’ll be answering all week. Within a few hours, even, they’ll have breezed through my novel, and they’ll beg to buy me Lamborghinis and European mansions. Folk will hang off my every word, and soon agents and publishers will telepathically learn of my skills. The talented genius who only needs to edit once. I can see the headlines already.


Edits—Round Two:  Within about a month, I receive the feedback, and of course I do a double take. Can it be? Can it really be? There are marks all over my handiwork, lines of red and blue—disagreements and confusion and SUGGESTIONS. I shiver, bite my lip. AM I GOING MAD? This is probably the worst part, the crushing of my stupid little dreams, the shame that comes with recognizing my naivetĂ©. Obviously, I am a failure. Isn’t it plain I can’t write? I’ll never succeed since I can’t even recognize the clear problems everyone else notices immediately.

After the initial despair subsides, and after the coffee and the chocolate have had ample chance to become reacquainted in my stomach, I roll up my sleeves and dig in once more. Here’s where it gets both trickier and easier. I’ve already done most of the heavy lifting. Now, depending on the notes, my major concerns include fixing awkward wording, fiddling with character arcs, correcting inconsistencies, rewriting passages, adding scenes, and clarifying ambiguities. This draft is harder because I’ve already tightened the writing and started viewing the story as fixed. I balk at drastic changes, cringe at frightening flaws. The clay I am working with is beginning to dry, and now more than ever I’m racing against time. Every alteration I make, every idea I consider—I second guess them all a dozen times daily. I talk to myself and to my rat and to the wall. I procrastinate and play chess (I HATE chess) and draw pictures. Sometimes I cry. But as taxing as this part is, I find I love the challenge, the exhilaration of conquering and persevering.

Soon my bravado returns, and it brings friends. At this point, I start comparing myself with other, published writers. When I read, I edit their novels and laugh at their mistakes, snickering that I would never be so amateur as all that. They’ll be shining my shoes someday when I’m rich and famous. Bristling—glowing—with misplaced pride, I send my darling back to my beta readers, some new, some old. And I wait, certain that this time, they will find no fault. Meanwhile, I confidently reread swaths of my novel, basking in my success until HORROR OF HORRORS, I find a repeated word, an awkward sentence, a misplaced detail. I begin making plans to move to Morocco. Or Lithuania. Or New Zealand. I frantically fill out applications for jobs in sewer maintenance and snake wrangling.


Edits—Final Round:  After receiving feedback, freaking out, and plunging once more into the trenches of my novel, I find my confidence returning, slowly but surely. I tweak sentences, tighten dialogue, find snafus everyone missed. I burn a hole in my thesaurus when my brain explodes. Then I let the manuscript sit for several months while I pretend to be a normal person with normal hobbies like eating, and walking, and socializing. Eventually I realize this will not do, and I read my novel again, shrieking at all the nitpicky grammar problems that just leap off the page. At some point I consider kidnapping a published author and bribing them to fix my book. Instead I hunker down and get to work.


Home stretch:  Finally I’m ready to query literary agents. Tense and sweating, I hover over the laptop, staring at the cover letter I spent weeks perfecting, and I give a startled laugh at my blatant audacity. What on earth do I think I’m doing?

This feeling lasts about as long as it takes to click send, and then my old cocky self resurfaces, cackling all the way. In a few days, I think, I’ll have more offers of representation than there are hours in a month, and I’ll be chatting with agents all week trying to decide which lucky one to choose. In the end, I may have to use the dartboard method. Within the year, my book will be on shelves. I’ll make millions, of course—probably billions. Step aside, JK Rowling—you’re blocking my spotlight.

Then comes the onslaught of rejection letters (some personalized, others form) and the deadening silence. Reality sinks its teeth into my soul, and I whimper. What’s wrong with Little Miss Agent? How does she not recognize my genius? Even that one bright spot, that sterling moment when I unsuspectingly open my inbox and find a request for the full manuscript—even that tarnishes over the months of waiting and wondering.

In an effort to preserve my questionable sanity, I break ground on my next book. And so the cycle begins anew, this vicious yo-yo of Writerdom. This crazy hamster wheel.


  1. Well, this was not what I was expecting, but I definitely agree about how frenetic the first draft writing is. Revisions are typically less "finish it NOW" because the word count means so much less, you know? And as for beta readers -- sometimes they're my saviour, other times -- my irrational side tells me otherwise. And yet are not hamsters content to run the wheel? Words are entertainment for writer as much as reader.

    1. I agree--the hamster is content to run the wheel, though sometimes it slows down and gets swept along. (Side note: When I lived in Africa, we had a human-sized hamster wheel, which was a really great way to lose a finger.) As for wordcount, I pretty much ignore it when I'm editing. I cut so much, it can be depressing (and encouraging). And yes, beta readers--I love them and I want their feedback. But I don't love their feedback. :) In the end though, I am grateful, once my ego has healed.

  2. *headdesk* STORY OF MY LIFE. Writing has a lot of ups and downs to it and you constantly have to be on guard to be able to go up and down and bounce back and not think you're a complete failure even though you feel like it. I like beta readers, but they're a hard pill to swallow. I like drafting, but it's hard to edit. And I don't even dare submit anything because no way, Jose.

    Still, this was pretty accurate and made me smile. Yay you. :)

    1. Thanks! :)

      When I was younger, I never realized how vicious writing could be, how much it would demand of me. I mean, you can sit around all day--in bed if you like--with your laptop and a vat of never-ending coffee. How could that not be eternally magnificent? Hah. And while beta readers can be great, I often wish they weren't quite as good at pointing out my stories' faults. But I've come to accept--for the most part--that I won't get anywhere without them.

      Maybe someday you'll decide you want to submit. But I know plenty of writers who prefer not to share their work, and I understand perfectly. It was bad enough sending my book out to beta readers, and I'm always super paranoid that someone is going to steal my novel/idea.