As I have mentioned multiple times in the last two days, I finally finished the revisions for BLACK WOLVES, the first volume of a new epic fantasy series. I wrote two days ago about what a difficult book this has been for me to write.
I have early drafts of different versions of the opening going back to 2009 before I was overtaken by Cat Barahal’s story and wrote the Spiritwalker Trilogy. As it happens, the opening I have now is not any of the multiple iterations I trotted through their paces over the last five years.
What I haven’t discussed is what my long-suffering editor at Orbit Books endured during this long writing process. She was both kind and patient during and after my father’s illness and death. In Winter 2014 I was able to start working on the book again. Writing this book was like carving a path through molasses with a feather.
Every time I sat down two overwhelming thought processes dominated my thinking.
The first was a constant unceasing voice second-guessing every single decision I was making, what I call the Hyper-Energetic Overly-Critical Internal Editor Who Can’t Shut Up:
“You shouldn’t do that. It won’t work.” “if you did it that way it might be better.” “I wrote that scene but she should put the cup down on the tray not the table” “This is too (sentimental) (violent) (political) (boring) (feminist) (not feminist enough) (static) (dense in world building) (focused on family relationships) (ridiculous) (simplistic) (complicated).”
The second, not surprisingly, was the other voice, the one many writers have struggled with, the one that says, “this is all pointless and awful and you should just quit now. In fact it would be merciful not just to you but to all of us if you would just quit.”
These two voices are not the same but they often get intertwined.
I believe the second voice springs out of our deepest fears as creative people and as people who often have to overcome obstacles of lack of time, lack of support, lack of belief, discouragement, physical and economic challenges, prejudices and bias, concerns that we ought to be doing something more practical or “worthy” by other people’s standards, that what we’ve done hasn’t been good enough and can never be good enough: The list rolls on and on.
It is a crisis of belief that ebbs and rises; I think it is part of the human psyche exacerbated and amplified by damaging conditions and other external obstacles that impact our ability to create. Grief, depression, stress, severe anxiety: All feed into that voice. Sometimes we have to deliberately find ways to comfort the voice to quiet it; sometimes the only option is to ignore it or try to shut it away. A visualization I sometimes use is to imagine setting the voice behind a door and closing the door.
The first voice (for me) has a different role. An Internal Editor is necessary because that is the voice that helps you-the-writer edit, improve, change, meet the challenge, and come up with something that isn’t the same thing you did last time.
But when the Internal Editor gets on that hyperactive treadmill it is so debilitating.
At some point in Spring 2014 I called my editor, probably in despair, and she patiently let me talk on and on as she does.
And then she said, “Don’t think. Just write.”
I actually wrote down those words and posted them on my computer as a reminder.
Not because I shouldn’t think when I write, but because I know (but have to remind myself) that when my head cycles into that over-thinking stage, it doesn’t help me proceed with the first draft, with the upwelling phase of the writing where I have to allow my subconscious to work so that the best connections and ideas can bubble up into my conscious writing brain.
Later (at a normal volume) the Internal Editor is crucial and necessary. But if you write a first draft as I do (and not everyone does), then too much thinking in the first draft gets in the way of the tangled process through which I unfold and discover my story.
I did try to “think” less and second-guess myself less as I went on. I did finally finish a mess of a first draft and turn it in (usually I turn in a second or third draft but in this case I had to move the draft off my desk and take some deep breaths). I got a long long editorial letter in tandem with a long long phone call.
Revisions went much better although they took a long time. By this point the Internal Editor — now speaking at a reasonable volume — was much happier and therefore more incisively useful. The Internal Editor is never useful to me when it is being hyperactive; then it is just telling me that I should move the salt shaker six inches to the right while standing on my left foot. But when the Internal Editor is working in tandem with my writing brain, they can get an amazing amount of work done.
For months in the Spring and Summer of 2014 every morning when I woke up my first thought was, “this book is broken; it will never work” accompanied by a leaden wave of despair.
Last week I woke up and I had a flash of a thought. “What if the book isn’t going to work no matter what I’ve done?”
I realized at that moment that this was the first time in weeks I had thought about the book as (potentially) broken. I had just experienced a normal flash of anxiety, not the punishing despair I had fought through. The realization gave me a sense of peace, a reminder that even as we struggle through the despair, we may also find the light.