Sailing Boat alone, by Flickr user Joan Campderrós-i-Canas

The Doldrums


You’re going to run out of wind. Can you still be a writer when you do?

I’m a member of several online writing groups, as well as some meat-world ones. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but I know people who have. I’ve got loads of writer friends, and I host an incredible group for my annual writing retreat…

And yet, writing is something that I do alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a critique partner is cool, and beta readers are important, and I’m infinitely grateful for anyone who takes the time to read my meandering drivel. Other people can form a wonderful, magical support community for my writing compulsion, but I don’t get to spend a lot of time with those reinforcers. I used to have a steady writing partner, but career situations change from time to time, and that person needed to be somewhere else.

And so, every day I get to sit down, just me and my computer, and figure out what the hell I’m supposed to say.

At first, it was easy.

I could bust out 3,000 words a day, no problem. Just the thrill of writing at all was a huge deal for me, no matter the quality of my prose. It was bad, and that didn’t matter. For the first time in my life, I was creating a massively complex system (the story for a novel), and I fell in love.

I finished my first novel in 2006, and that’s when I learned that love wasn’t good enough. I submitted the thing to a host of agents, and got form-letter rejections across the board. One fellow took the time to respond in-depth, but his was a tiny agency (on LiveJournal) with no sales, and I didn’t trust him to rep me.

However, he had some valid points. As much as it absolutely galled me, he was dead right about some stuff. As I began to work around his feedback, my word count dropped to 1,500.

So, I tried again with a new book in 2008, and it came out much the same way, except that Fuse Literary super-agent Laurie McLean responded with a five-page critique. Want to know how it went? (Hint: The critique was good, the book was not.) I still have that e-mail printout, by the way, and it’s a treasured, personal artifact. Philippa Ballantine gave me the referral, and between the two of those women, I’m infinitely grateful.

“But you need to focus on learning the craft of writing and applying it to your storytelling.”

Laurie pointed out some massive, systemic flaws in my writing. She showed me how and why I totally sucked (my words, not hers). She did it politely, with grace, and spent far more time on me than I deserved. Instead of merely revising the pages I’d sent her, I looked at how I could apply her advice across the board.

My word count dropped again. This time, I was lucky to break 800.

I spent a year making extensive revisions, questioning each decision along my lines of prose. At the end, I submitted it again. Again, a rejection came… but this time, it was about my story. I considered that to be a huge improvement, since she couldn’t get past my awful craft on the first submission. “Too many characters. I feel lost,” was the gist of her second rejection.

So I hatched a plan: I was going to write my ideal story in that same universe, set up as a point of entry. I would harness everything that I’d learned over the last few years and create something easy and accessible. I wrote what I thought would be the best Gearheart introduction arc possible–tighter story, fewer characters. I was sure I’d finally knocked it out of the park. My wife loved it, and she’s pretty harsh.

(Oh, and apologies, Gearheart fans. There’s totally an unpublished novel, but I still need to sit on it for reasons.)

Just over a year and a half after the previous rejection, I sent the manuscript to Laurie, heart in my throat. Sadly, she got back to me within a week. She couldn’t get into the new manuscript. The characters were uninteresting to her, even if the writing was there. It was a hard pass, with a bit of “move on” worked in. It didn’t fit her tastes, and I couldn’t fault someone for that.

I was bereft.

When you don’t know the craft of writing, there’s a clear goal ahead of you: become a better communicator. Read more, study more, try harder. In spite of the fact that you’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do, the wind still blows at your back. You can take any criticism and run any gauntlet. I came back to this one agent, year after year, because she told me how it was, and she gave me somewhere to go. She was powerful, but personal, and took a genuine interest in my career.

But then it was gone. She didn’t have anywhere she wanted me to take The Gearheart… just to keep writing books in general. I didn’t know what to do next, and I was afraid to ask. (I’ve always been pretty skittish around agents.)

My daily word count hit an all-time low. I missed a whole lot of writing sessions. I’d been writing The Gearheart stories for the past six years, and without them, I simply didn’t know what to do next.

This is not a post about success.

Yes, I went on to write another book in a new setting. Laurie championed it to my agent, Connor Goldsmith, and Connor sold it to Solaris. Years of hard work and tenacity paid off in a matter of months. Once the ball got rolling, it all went so fast. I owe both of them the start of my career, and I hope to be able to repay their investment in me with many, many more successful sales.

Also, I want to be clear that it wasn’t Laurie’s job to give me a place to go because… wait for it… writing is something I have to do alone.

See, we’re back at the beginning, here. So why did I drag you through that?

Because at some point, the wind is going to die on you.

You’ll be in the middle of your book. The introduction/hook threads are long spent. The end is nowhere in sight. You’ll be stranded in the middle of an ocean of plot, far away from either shore, and it’s all going to fall apart. The fog of excuses not to write a new page will fill your skies and blot out the sun:

The premise of my novel is flimsy.

No one will understand this character.

I need to go back and change everything.

My plot makes no goddamned sense.

People don’t want to read about Alabama.

Melodramatic, I know, but this happens to me with every book that I write. I get to the middle and have a freaking aneurysm trying to figure out what I was thinking when I started this nonsense. I can no longer see the big picture, and the grand plans I used to push the ship (outlines, worksheets, etc.) turn out to be a bit threadbare in practice.

And it happened with my writing career. I wrote three complete books and wound up not knowing where to go next. I suppose I could’ve admitted to myself that writing wasn’t for me, settled into my life without it and lived forever with the massive regret that comes with knowing I could’ve been good at something I cared about. I don’t think anyone would’ve judged me for that.

Maybe that’s when you decide to be a writer: when you have to pick a direction, and just fucking row.

To all of you writers stuck out there in the doldrums, my heart goes out to you. I’m sure there are any number of inspirational books you could pick up. But know that you are alone.

And I wrote this post for you, so that we could somehow be alone, together.

Good luck out there, and I hope to see you all reach the far shore.


Image: Sailing Boat Alone, by Flickr user Joan Campderrós-i-Canas, used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

2 thoughts on “The Doldrums”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.