The Varied Emotional Stages Of Writing A Book

I’ve talked about this before, and I certainly like to joke that my creative process takes a certain path, and that writing a book tends to go through a certain set of stages — and that remains true but as I write book after book (being fortunate enough to have a rather large slate of books released in a very short amount of time), I’m learning that while many of these emotional pivot points seem guaranteed, what isn’t guaranteed is the order in which they present themselves.

What follows are many of the, erm, feelings I seem to experience while writing books. I can experience these feelings week to week, day to day, even hour to hour.

(Oh, and the solution to many of these is simple: just keep writing. Get it done. Fix it in post.)

1. Everything Is Awesome

STORYTIME DANCE PARTY. Everything is fireworks and rainbows and hoverboards. Sometimes you’re writing and everything just feels good. Shit just works. It’s like a day where everyone is on time and you find money in the pocket of an old jacket and it’s lights and colors and you can smell numbers and taste dreams. You feel like, this is the best thing I’ve ever done, this is the next level, all the words are lining up like they’re supposed to. It’s high-fives and blow-jobs. It’s cosmic cunnilingus from the gods themselves.

2. Everything Is Nuclear Dogshit

Ahh, the emotion that so frequently follows the everything is awesome stage — this is the crash after a high, this is the hard landing after a flight, this is the doom volcano erupting in order to end your civilization’s Golden Age. You hit this point where nothing works. All the words taste of ash and pee. Your entire book sounds like this inside your head: BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BUH BUH BBBBBT FZZZZ AAAAAAAAH. You’re not even sure you’re writing in your native language anymore. You seriously contemplate not only deleting the manuscript, but actually hitting your computer with a hammer so that no remnant of your awfulness may remain to poison the lovely world to which you should have never been born.

3. Everything Is Distracting

Hey, guys, Twitter is on! So is Facebook! Hey, an email. Hey, new iPhone game. Hey, the finale to last night’s Favorite Show was on. I don’t wanna miss it! Jeez, what’s the weather doing? What’s the weather doing in Chicago? Toronto? Capetown? Xibalba? How’s the moon? Is the moon good? HA HA HA look at this funny meme where they take kangaroos and dress them up as the Queen of England and then they punch children. Goddamn kangaroos, you hilarious. Ooh video games. And candy. Dopamine delights! Don’t I have some cocaine? COKE BINGE, that’ll help the writing. Jeez, what’s the weather doing? COKE BINGE PART TWO! Did I write any words today?

4. Everyone Is Bothering Me

People won’t shut up. The dog won’t stop farting in your office. A toddler is at your door and it’s not even your toddler. The trash truck is outside rattling cans and they’ve been there for — *checks watch* — 47 minutes. Car alarm. Phone calls from your mother. Overzealous helper monkey. Just as you start to gain a little momentum, something undercuts it — and then going back to the words feels like just getting going again.

5. Don’t Worry, I’m Doing Things That Feel Like Writing!

I’m researching! Worldbuilding! Outlining! Reoutlining! Re-reoutlining! I’m reading about writing! I’m reading about publishing! I’m finding celebrity photos of who should play my characters in the eventual movie! Now I’m Photoshopping them because I wanna know what Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence’s children will look like (SO GOLDEN, LIKE LITTLE HUMAN OSCAR STATUETTES.) I will now take time to imagine what my book cover will look like. So photorealistic! Now I’m tweeting — I mean, “building my platform or brand or base or audience or something professional-sounding.” I’ve written nothing today! Ha ha ha *weeps*

6. The Blank Page Is A Terrifying Polar Expanse Where I Will Die

It’s a big blank page. Tabula rasa, baby. It’s biggest and emptiest on the first day of writing, though nearly any day of writing can see you confronted by a new page, devoid of words. Some writers get excited. Me? It freaks me out. It’s too big. Too white. I feel like I’m just gonna shit up this pretty snowscape with my trompy stompy dirty boots. It’s like a mountain before an avalanche. It’s like the white light of death. It’s the sheer infinity of potential. The unrefined expanse of utter possibility. And anything I do feels like ruining it.

7. Course Correction: Glue, Duct Tape, Bubble Gum, A Sextant

You realize something’s wrong. But you don’t feel like fixing it. So it’s clumsy patch job time — so you MacGuyver the story, making swift changes with the dearest hopes you can fix it in the edit. (Any beta reader would be like, “Why does the main character suddenly become a woman? And his magic talking sword just became her magic talking shotgun. Where’d that wombat come from?”) The attitude is basically: WHATEVER, FUCK IT, NO TIME TO FIX, MOVE, MOVE, MOVE.

8. I Made A Wrong Turn At Albuquerque

You realize something’s wrong. And it went wrong about 100 pages ago. Which makes the last 100 pages a miserable, meaningless wander into the wilderness. Devoid of value. Epic waste of time. You suddenly see no way forward without going back and fixing the part where your character stepped on a butterfly and ruined everything you stupid character. Behold the gut-wrenching, sphincter-clenching dread of deleting 100 pages from your manuscript. Your tears will taste of printer ink. Your mouth will taste of char.

9. Oh, Crap, None Of This Makes Sense At All

That terrible moment when you realize the entirety of your story hinges on a thing that doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a plothole so much as the hole in a well-tied plot-noose. If the character on page ten would just do the logical sensible thing and throw away the Doomed Widget of Kjarn, the entire book falls apart. You realize suddenly that everything hangs on a broken hinge, the whole conflict held fast to some kind of Escherprint logic that throws the whole tale into the fucking woodchipper. “Wait, the main character could’ve just pushed a button in the first act that would’ve solved the whole thing? OH GODDAMNIT.”

10. Old Man Lost In A Shopping Mall (aka, Me In A CD Store, Circa 1997)

You wander. Aimlessly. You’re pretty sure a plot will come along and introduce itself eventually? The characters seemed like they had motivation but nothing is really happening? The conflict seemed like a good one but now seems as tense as a damp shirt draped over a drooping clothesline. You just keep writing because that feels like what you’re supposed to do.

11. I Should Not Be A Writer And My Soul Is Forfeit

This can happen at any point. Before the day’s writing begins. At the day’s end. At the book’s end. In the middle of a fucking sentence. It’s just — wham. You hit this point where existential panic throttles the little writer that pilots you. You’re suddenly all, “I can’t do this. I am not good at this. I can’t hack it. I should not be a writer. I am not a writer.” And you start looking for an eject button or a trap-door. You hit the Select All shortcut and contemplate stabbing the delete button with an angry finger. Dread and doom and lifeless void. Breathless fear of failure, fear of success, fear of judgment. Grave uncertainty. Dry mouth. Squeaky hiss from the back of your throat. Everyone is better than me, you think. My cat would make a better writer.

12. I Wrote Four Words Today (“The Trickled Pee”)

Every word is like extracting a rotten tooth with a pair of rusty needle-nose pliers. It is a day of great effort that yields nearly no result. A rich, full fruit tree with one fucking apple dangling.

13. I Wrote Forty Thousand Words Today (“Drinking From The Firehose”)

The words won’t stop. You can’t stanch the flow.  Story geyser. You’re not sure if it’s a firehose shooting top-shelf whisk(e)y or a cannon lobbing gobbets of sewage — all you know is, by the time you’re done you’re trembling and frothy with sweat and you just wrote like, 15% of your book in one day. It’s like a fugue state meets automatic writing.

14. Picking Nits

You’re afraid to move forward and so you hover, or even drift backward, editing the work as you go. You just can’t stop messing with it — like fidgeting with a hangnail instead of letting it heal. Does it come from a lack of confidence? A fear of moving forward? An obsessive nature? No matter the origin, it undercuts momentum. Like repeatedly stopping to tie your shoes during a marathon.

15. Meh

Says it all.

16. I Love This One Line So Much

One sentence out of everything you wrote today is beautiful and powerful and impactful and it makes all of it worth it. All the doubt, all the terror, all the existential dread. One sentence, its component words shining like scattered diamonds. One line, giving you the guts to move forward without hitting delete and going downstairs to cry-eat a handful of cake.

17. It Sounded Good In My Head

Your brain is such an asshole. You had an idea. It unfolded into a book. With characters. And plots. And ideas emerging from other ideas. And then you started writing it. And now you’re like, “This is just… this is dumb as shit. It’s stu… it’s so stupid. The Muse lied. What the fuck was I thinking? Oh, god. I’ve wasted so much time on this.”

18. I Hate This Character

You know characters can be unlikable. But readers have to spend time with this character. Worse, you have to spend time with him, too. And now you despise him. He’s a wanking, preening peacock. Or a dickish dickhead who just dicks everything up. He’s precious. Or dumb. Or irritating. You just wanna punch him in his doofusy face. You’re now seriously considering killing him off at the midpoint of the novel and quietly installing a new protagonist. Goddamnit.

19. I Love This Character And Cannot Hurt Them

The character is the best. You understand her. She’s already been through Hell and suddenly you don’t want to put her through any more. You’ve lost empathy and found sympathy. You’re supposed to be throwing her into a pit with demons and yetis and ex-lovers and sharp pointy sticks and instead your greatest urge is to coddle and protect and keep her safe.

20. This Subplot Just Took Over

It’s like an invasive species, this subplot. A root that started small but now it just choked out the biggest tree in the forest without you even realizing it. You’ve created a subplot that is way more interesting than the main plot. Crap crap crap crap crap. On the one hand: yay for a compelling plot. On the other hand: boo for having to rewrite the whole story to make it work.

21. Wouldn’t It Be Cool If…

A flash of inspiration! Like a spear of light pinning your mind right to the story. Revelation and epiphany! Wouldn’t it be cool if [insert cool plot hook here, maybe something featuring orangutan spies or jetpack ladies or some kind of time-traveling pterodactyl paradox].

22. Wait, Shit, That Doesn’t Work

Your balloon animal just popped. The cool idea you just had? Won’t work. Wilting story boner. Sad trombone. Cool idea cannot justify its own existence. Back to the idea factory.

23. I Have Way Too Much / Not Enough Story 

You’re 50,000 words into the story. And you realize one of two things: a) “Hey, I’m almost done this bo… oh god I’m only 50,000 words in and the book is already done? This is supposed to be an epic fantasy!” or b) “Holy fucksocks, I’m 50k deep and I haven’t even introduced the main character yet.” You have not enough story or too much. You are feast or famine. You have underwritten or overwritten. Cue the cold saline rush of terror.

24. Everything Just Clicked

Hear that sound? It’s the sound of dominoes falling together in a neat line — it’s like the playing card in a child’s bicycle spokes. Everything clicks. Everything works. Everything makes sense. You don’t know if it’s good or right or how much you’ll have to fix but none of that matters. Because it all feels right and your march to the end of this story feels suddenly ineluctable — forward progress is now unstoppable. You can do this.

25. Apex Or Nadir

The ending. Game over, man, game over. You don’t know if it’s the height of art or the deepest pit of poo-slurry. Maybe it’s all 1s, maybe it’s all 0s. You have no perspective, but what matters is, you’re done. And finishing a story — particularly a whole novel — comes complete with a host of its own divergent emotions. Maybe you feel excited. Triumphant. Tired. Spent. Maybe you’re hungry. Are you hungry? You’re probably hungry. Maybe you’re happy it’s done. Or mad because you want more. Happy-mad. Mad-happy. Who knows? Whether everything is sheer apotheosis or just raw open ass, you did it. You’re done (for now). Walk away as the building explodes behind you. Go have a snack and a nap. Then hunker down for the edits.

* * *

127 comments

  • I feel as though this strangely reflects my non-writing experience in building my business. Of course, it’s *tied* to writing and writers, so maybe it’s contagious. ;)

  • This is my new favorite terribleminds blog post. Like ever. EV. ER. It is so hilarious, and so true I want to get it tattooed on my body. (also: it’s inspired me to A) possibly/maybe/no not totally ready yet to tackle some dreaded edits I haven’t looked at since I got them back a few weeks ago due to personal stuff that has sapped all my editing motivation mojo or B) tackle the manuscript of my latest writing project I haven’t looked at at ALL for a few months, since I finished it (to keep me away from dreaded edits of project 1 that I still can’t face).

  • This sums it up. This is exactly what it feels like writing a novel. It is also hilarious (mainly because we can relate to every word here.) Thank you for a pleasant number 3.

  • I love this… I go through every stage and this make me feel in good company as apposed to crazy-ass-pants! I’m in stage 11 right now and want to bury myself in candyfloss. Sounds like a great way to go. :)

  • And all these indisputably true moments occur *before* the query goes out to agents, or the submission goes out to publishers. I can think of another 25 moments then!

  • Finished the first draft of my novel two weeks ago. It’s raw open ass right now, but there’s hope! I went through every single one of these phases, and will revisit this list before I jump into revisions. Thanks for helping me laugh through the agony.

  • This is the most perfect thing written about writing a novel ever! I laughed so hard! The trickled pee one was so fucking perfect. Thanks for this!

  • I”m somewhere between Meh and no. 24. I’m basically sitting on a half done book that’s outlined to the T and everything is going where it’s supposed to, all is well, but… meh? I have some odd internal apathy that has nothing to do with the book. And it’s not like I don’t want to write… maybe I’ve figured it all out and it’s boring now? No idea.

    I know me though, I’ll come back to it. I always do.

  • Thank You. I am all of the above. I am now convinced I am a writer. You have just made my day. (Tomorrow I will probably hate you.) (But at least both of us will understand why.)

  • Yup, I’ve gone through every one of those emotions. And, to finish a book (no matter the quality) is like bathing in liquid gold. Of course, not the liquid gold bath that the dragon brother in Game of Thrones got, not that kind of bath of gold.

  • It hurts, but it’s funny so I cry and I laugh. Then the laughing makes me cry more. When I’ve washed my face and blown my nose and come back to the writing it’s all covered in tears and snot. Again………………….

  • Number 23 describes me exactly during last year’s Nanowrimo. That epic fantasy turned into a massive fail.

  • So awesomely true. Although you missed one, which maybe you’re lucky enough not to have experienced:

    Get so sick that you can’t sit at the computer, and agonize about how useless you are and the lost word count days… welcome to the end of mlikeek. Today will be the first day back at the computer.

    And it is also amazing how just squeezing out words every day helps get past most of these. Eventually. But miss a few and that blank page becomes a supernova of terrifying blankness, and every attempt to put down a few words to atrack it seem like the worst crap you’ve ever written. Keep writing forward.

  • Too true! I hit stages 9 and 11 today. I went from feeling like my serial project was “the best thing I’ve ever written, EVER”, to “what was I thinking? This is awful! The characters aren’t captivating or relatable, my villain is obvious, his motivations make no sense, my core concepts are all flawed, and the world I built couldn’t possible exist, even in fiction.” It’s possible that I’m overreacting, but, it’s kind of crippling. Not to fear, tomorrow, I’ll have a different stage. I hope.

  • “I wrote four words today” Thank God I’m not the only one who has days like this.

    Lately it’s been more of the drinking from the firehose, which I treat with a cautious joy because I don’t want to accidentally staunch the flow.

    You should do one of these lists for editing.

  • OMG SO funny! too true! oh, the agony/ecstasy/apathy/euphoria! Right now I’m cycling through Stage #5 (obviously) after writing a lot yesterday….just enough to leapfrog me to a kind of hell zone, pinballing between Stages #11 and17. Well, WTF. Onward! :-D

  • Thanks for this.
    Think I’ve been in #11 for a couple of weeks now.
    And #5, researching HOW TO WRITE, FOR IDIOTS (What Were You Thinking Anyways?).

    Am at the point where I can’t match the story to a plot structure (MetaMyth? W? 3-act? 4-act? Dramata-whatsit?). Story seems to have several story arcs so could make 2-3 really short lousy stories or 1 long convoluted story w/ inadequate buildup to a letdown of a climax. Yeah. I’ve never been an outliner, but now I’ve tried (80 pgs in MSWord??) also summarizing was useful, but somehow major sections get left out.

    Crisis points happen too early and are met with too much maturity on MC’s part. Examining Main Char’s motivation yields muddy murk. Not sure what exactly is wrong w/ MC (plenty, but what specifically?) or how it will get fixed in story. *blow big fat raspberries here*

    Sorry for vomiting in the comment section; don’t have any other outlet. *pities self then feels embarrassed*

    “Thanks for listening! Smiley-Face! ”
    grrr.

  • March 19, 2014 at 3:23 AM // Reply

    Probably the funniest and truest rundown of the agonies of writing. My wife, my family and my friends never had to be tied to the torture rack of writing. You’ve nailed so many of the thoughts that plague my mind while attempting to create something, anything, that isn’t fit to line the litter box. I take my hat off to you. You are one hilarious dude and indeed a teller of truth. Now, I guess I have to buy one of your books. Warmest regard from a fellow sufferer.

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