Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "Can it be anything but a bad sign to feel sick of the thing you're writing?"
Q: Oh, Jerusha! Can it be anything but a bad sign to feel sick of the thing you're writing? I've done well with children's fiction - prizes, sales - and now I'm tackling an adult novel. My agent's feedback is very positive but we've agreed that before it goes out large parts need not revising or editing, but full-on re-working - new scenes, settings, characters - which I'm now doing. I don't know if it's just that I've had such a bumpy ride with this adult book but I have a sense of just wanting shot of it now. I'm one of those writers who loves the excitement of first-drafting, and finds revising and editing dull, though of course essential. But this is first-drafting of new stuff - and yet I'm sick to death of the whole process. I'm worried this means I've somehow made it worse in this re-write! Please bring me reassuring words. Even if you don't mean them.
A: Darling girl, I always mean my words! It's ... well, I won't say it's never a bad sign to feel sick of the work-in-progress, but it's certainly true that almost any stage can make you feel like that, and it doesn't mean that it's the wrong project, or that you've ruined it. The "If it bores you, it'll bore the reader" brigade have a lot to answer for, just as the "Show don't tell" brigade do: there's something in it, but it's not nearly as simple as that. As the writer, you're your own first reader (which is why reading other people's writing is such an essential part of your basic training), and you do have to listen to your readerly reactions. But that feedback loop has several feeds, so if you're going to draw the right inferences you need a bit of discernment.
First things first: being sick of a project doesn't mean it's bad: it may even be a good sign. Emma learnt, back in the Pleistocene Era when she was a drama student, that if you're not (at least intermittently) sick of a creative project, then you haven't done enough work. And yet all sorts of writers send work out half-baked. Not just the real beginners, who haven't yet discovered how different a story looks once you're outside the drunken first-draft bubble and have sobered up for the editing. And some need only one rejection before their pain and fury self-publishes a book which, in the cold light of Kindle, makes them want to die of shame. (For more thoughts about whether to revise, re-work or reject your book, click here.) Experienced writers, too, often realise that they blew (at least temporarily) their chances of getting their work bought, because they sent it out too early.
Just about every serious writer Emma knows will agree that being sick of a project is business as usual. There just are phases when you're bored - flat - uninspired - sure it's no good - sick to death of it. Children's writer Sally Nicholls tells her school audiences that "writing a novel is like having to do the same bit of English homework, all day, every working day, for over a year ..." Of course, in a novel-length project there will always be something you might want to change, and I'm not talking about a perfectly sensible decision that you've done everything you can, and it's time to stop. The difference between hobby writers (and I don't mean that negatively: Emma is a hobby photographer), and aspiring and professional writers, is that the latter override their boredom and their aching bum, and keep working at it. (Although the must-write demon isn't always right, of course.)
So why do writers let themselves send things off half-baked? At one time or another, Emma has seen (and felt!) all of these longings:
- to recapture the free-ranging, open-ended creative joy which was why you got into writing in the first place,
- to stop having to pick away at all the fiddly bits: surely it'll do as it is?
- to get it off your desk, and not looming over every non-writing minute of every day,
- to escape the dreary domestic life with this familiar thing,
- to waltz off with the other novel,
- to get it heard and responded to - because that's why you do it
- to get the pain of rejection over with
- to get on with achieving your dream ... or at least moving on from it.
So, longing to be rid of it isn't a reason to decide that a work-in-progress is a disaster-in-progress - and you, darling girl, are experienced enough to know it. What's confusing your understanding of your own feedback loop is that it's full-blast new imagining you're doing, and so shouldn't you be feeling that first-draft joy? You still love the characters although they've lost their capacity to surprise you, you're having the "fun" of new scenes and places, and yet you're not enjoying the work; ergo, it must be the writing that's at fault.
One option would simply be to shove it in a drawer for a month or three. You could try re-fuelling with some more free-form, early-stage work on something else; something like Emma's every-morning 300 word mini-stories. Then when you go back to the novel you won't be so jaded: the voice will be fresh in your ears; you can experience it more nearly as a reader would read, and see what you think of it.
But it's worth thinking about it a different way. If this is adult-novel length, then everything is perhaps on a rather longer, larger scale than you're used to with YA and children's fiction (let alone the journalism which you still do because like most professional writers you also need a part-time day-job). It's a shock to be working on a much larger scale than you're used to: it over-runs your normal rhythms and stores of stamina. Like footballers who can play their legs off for 90 minutes, but collapse with exhaustion three minutes into extra time, or racehorses who are suddenly asked to do an extra furlong, you're tired.
So you could try the drawer-time not as an aid to discernment, but simply as a rest. Of course, it will delay the true, right moment for getting it off your desk, but it might be worth it. The risk is that you'll lose the over-arching sense of structure and pace which is such a help, and which is much easier to hold on to if you keep on working steadily. Instead, you could just accept the boredom, the sick-of-it, and try to ride out the fears: fall back on your craft and technique, of which you've plenty, to do what needs doing.
But there's one more thought. I know from elsewhere in your letter, as we agony aunts say, that your first job in revising this novel was also to do with the transition from children's fiction to adult: to take the brisk, early chapters and slow, enrich and develop them, leaving more implied and asking more work of the reader. You say you're an excited-first-drafter: are you also a shitty-first-drafter?And yet are you nonetheless trying to bring this new material to the same degree of richness and polish in a single draft? If so, then maybe you need to go back to crazy-first-drafting? Relax, in other words, while you do the basic carpentery of this new stuff; sanding and polishing it to match the others can wait.