Current work: Modern Heat
Listening to: various show tunes
Reading: Crazy for You, Jennifer Crusie (enjoying so far)
My pal Julie Cohen is probably the first person I can remember using the phrase ‘crows of doubt’. It’s very appropriate: writers are very prone to doubts, and it feels like a crow pecking away at you. (Vicious birds of prey, they are, too.)
Gillie asked me to do a post about dealing with them, so here goes. I should add that this is from the perspective of a published author – unpublished authors might find (2) below useful, and (6) for submitting to the editor, because the only way you find out if you can do it is to try.
So. An attack of the crows. How do you deal with it? Look at why you’re having this crow attack, and that will help you work out the strategy to deal with them.
1. You’re about to start a new book – and, as the saying goes, you’re only as good as your last book. I know a lot of authors who have a crow attack at the beginning of every single new book. So actually, this one’s a positive one, because it means that you’re worrying about whether your readers will like your new book. The fact that you have your audience in mind is good: you’re concerned about their reaction and you’re determined not to cheat them either by rehashing the same old stuff, or by not being fully engaged with what you’re writing. These kind of crows are welcome because they can keep you sharp and stop you being complacent. Just tell them to shut up because you’re on the case, take a deep breath, and go for it.
2. You think you’ve taken a wrong track with the book – you’ve lost your way and it worries you. As a result, you might find yourself playing solitaire or doing Sudoku or (insert your procrastination tool of choice) rather than facing your book. The crows are telling you that you’ve written a pile of crap: and maybe you have. Re-read it. Go back and look at your original plan (if you’re a planner) and see where you’ve deviated (remember, this might be a good thing – when a book takes on a life of its own, it means it’s working) and where the holes are in the original. What’s stopping you going any further? Talk it over with your editor/agent or a trusted friend who’ll let you brainstorm ideas without telling you what to do. Or – and I admit this is going to sound flaky to anyone who doesn’t write fiction – talk it over with your characters. If they’re 2D they won’t work. If they feel like real people to you, they’ll feel real to your reader. So talk to them and find out why they’re stalling. It could be anything from their name (yes, really – changing the name will change the character) to their occupation to the background you’ve given them, or that you need to dig deeper to find the real conflict. Find out what the problem is and fix it. (And note that if you leave it until the last minute, you’re going to have to work stupid hours to meet your deadline, and that in itself might be enough to paralyse you. Get on with it or negotiate a deadline extension, but deliver on your promise.)
3. This is the way you always work – you get to a point in the book where you really doubt yourself, and it’s the same point every time. I think it was Neil Gaiman who said that he rings his agent, tells her his book is crap and he’s junking it, and she laughs and says, ‘Oh, you’re at THAT stage again,’ and reminds him he’s done the same thing for the last few books. As an author, you’re often too close to your work to see that pattern (or you forget it in a burst of authorial paranoia). What you do is mention it to someone who’ll remind you that you do this every time. Then you’ll think about it, realise they’re right, and you’ll be able to ignore the crows and get on with your work.
4. Your ed has given you really big revisions – so you’re thinking that you’ve lost your ability and can’t do this any more. Firstly, if an editor doesn’t think you can fix it, she won’t give you revisions. She’ll reject the book completely. Revision crows means is that you’re too close to the book to see where the real diamonds lie; a good editor will be able to spot them and tell you what you need to do to polish said diamonds (aka give you revisions). There’s also a possibility that your writing is about to move up a gear. My friend and fellow author Lilian Darcy has told me several times that when you’re about to move up a gear, often you’ll get really big revisions. Remember, you CAN do this, otherwise you wouldn’t have the contract to start with. Take a deep breath and tackle the revisions. Or if you don’t agree with what your editor says, come up with constructive alternatives for the bits you don’t agree with and negotiate a compromise that works for you both. I normally say yes to everything, sleep on it, and the next morning ring/email my editor with ‘this bit doesn’t work for me – how about I do this instead?’, and we work it out between us. (My ed, I should add, is fabulous and knows exactly how to get the best out of me, and is very happy to bounce ideas around.)
5. You’ve had a bad review – umm. As an author, you’re going to have to develop a thick skin, which is easier said than done. Put it this way: you might love a book but your best friend doesn’t like it at all, and vice versa. A bad review is ONE PERSON’S view and not everyone will share it. Also note that your editor bought the book because she liked it – and publishers are in business to make money, not to be charitable organisations, so they will only buy something they think will sell. Even so, bad reviews hurt. Moan to your friends (if they’re authors, too, the chances are they will have review horror stories of their own – and they might be worse than yours, which will help you put it into perspective), eat chocolate, go and play some music or whatever it takes to make you feel better – and then put the review out of your mind and get back to work. Oh, and keep copies of the good reviews. It’s useful to re-read them when you’ve had a bad one, to remind you that other people do like your work. (And the fact you remember every single word of the bad review and can’t remember the good ones… Hey. Welcome to being an author.)
6. You’re about to try writing a different sort of book – it’s a step into the unknown. It might work; it might not. The only way you’ll find out is to try. So ignore the crows. Revel in the chance of some creative freedom and just write. What’s the worst that can happen? Rejection? Think of it as a learning experience. It might be that your book has legs but you’ve queried with an editor and it’s the tenth similar pitch she’s had in two days (so try a different editor). Or it might be that this particular voice/genre doesn't fit you – but it could be a springboard to something else, or reaffirmation that you were doing the right stuff for you in the first place. It’s not wasted work because you’ve learned from it. And if it does work: celebrate!
© Kate Hardy 2009