On The Detestation Of Your Manuscript: An Expedition Into The Dark, Tumultuous Heart Of Authorial Self-Hatred

You’re sitting there.

You’re writing.

It’s going good. Or just okay. Or whatever. Your fingers are moving, your brain is barfing up ideas, and sentence by sentence, this story comes to life.

And then: this radar ping, where you unconsciously send out a signal to test your self-worth as a writer to ask the innocuous question, hey, how’s it going? and the ping returns back less like a sonic ping-pong ball and more like a fucking cannonshot clean through your authorial sails.

Boom.

Wind through the ragged hole.

And suddenly you’re going nowhere.

Your boat, frozen in panicked waters. The icy, paralyzing slush of disdain for the story you’re writing now, the story you wrote five years ago, all the stories you wrote and will ever write, ALL THE THINGS YOU THINK AND FEEL AND ARE OH GOD YOU AREN’T AN AUTHOR YOU’RE JUST A WHISKEY CHIMP WITH POOPY HANDS, YOU’RE JUST A PARAMECIUM GIVEN OVER TO A BOUT OF SELF-IMPORTANCE, YOU’RE JUST A WORTHLESS MOTE OF gaaaaaaah

Deep breath.

Okay, listen.

This happens to all of us. Well, most of us. Certainly there exists some shiny happy shit-smiling authors who just toodle on through their manuscripts like they’re robots crapping gold coins into a gold bucket and wiping with gold leaf paper and every word they write is a delightful fucking bluebird whistle. And, frankly, good for them.

But the rest of us… mm, yeah, no, we often end up hating what we’re writing.

For me, this happens at three potential points during the draft. It happens at:

a) 33%

b) 50%

c) 66%

The panic, the self-loathing, the gravely sucking sense of uncertainty — it always seems to hit right around this part. It’s not always bonafide hate. Sometimes it’s just a sinking feeling. Or a massive wallop of doubt — like, massive-massive, meaning, it feels like someone just built a mechanical donkey out of PURE DOUBT ENERGON and that mecha-doubt-donkey just kicked a crater in my chest. And that chest-crater is now leaking all my faith in myself and the book I’m writing into the ether. Plus, blood. Lots of blood.

So much blood.

The way through this is fairly clear.

Deep breath. Have some tea, or an adult beverage of your choice. Enjoy a cookie. Leave the manuscript alone. Then, come back. The bad smell may yet be hanging about — push on through that miasma of self-loathing, and write your way through it.

A lot of time, what you’re feeling is the same thing we all feel about… well, all the normal life shit. A change at work! A new project. A new dog. A toddler going through growing pains (and in a way, that’s what this is, too, with your manuscript: growing pains). Hell, when I clean up a room or clean out the fridge, there’s always this part where I think I’m doing more damage than good. Creation works that way, sometimes. I remember watching be-afroed artist Bob Ross do his groovy 70s happy clouds thing on PBS, and 90% of the way through the show I was like, “Bob. Bob. Bob. You’re fucking it up, Bob. You’re in a tailspin, plunging toward the earth. Give up now, you easygoing motherfucker. No way you can pull this out OH SHIT IT’S A BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAIN VISTA is that a little springhouse oh goddamn it’s a little springhouse — BOB ROSS YOU MAD BASTARD YOU DID IT AGAIN.”

I didn’t even trust Bob Ross.

So, it stands to follow that I don’t even trust myself, sometimes.

It makes sense, really.

Creation is hard. Itchy, uncomfortable. Sharp, jagged edges. Bones growing through your pre-existing carapace. And the vision of what you have or had in your mind will never really match what ends up on the paper because between YOUR BRAIN and THE STORY exists all this uncomfortable liminal weirdness, this airy interstitial insulation, this crass reality that feels like you’re trying to operate fine motor controls with fingers swaddled in half-melted marshmallows.

And writing a book is a long process. Far more marathon than sprint. It’s easy to run a sprint. Hard-charge over a short distance? Sure. Can do! But a marathon, man — hell, the most I’ve ever run is two miles and to be honest with you, I often hit trouble at around the same times as I do with a novel (third, half, two-thirds). Writing a novel is tantamount to wandering a dark forest. You’ll always have those times when it feels like you can’t see the stars, that the thicket has grown too deep, that the way out will never be within sight. But then you keep wandering and — okay, sure, sometimes you get eaten by a GOBLIN BEAR because they can smell your fear-pee — eventually you push through the shadow and the bramble and there’s the way forward again.

Writing is cyclical. The worm turns.

The creative process is tumultuous.

It’s normal.

It’s normal.

I’ve been writing professionally for (cough cough) almost 18 years now and been writing novels professionally for the last… jeez, it’s only been three years, but it’s been like, ten novels with like, another seven on the way) and this happens to me most of the time. Not every time, and if you write a book and don’t feel that sense of swerving drunkenly through an icy intersection, that’s okay too. But I’m just saying: the fear, the terror, the chaos, the howling void of self-hatred?

It happens. It’s okay.

It’s okay except when it’s not.

It’s not okay if it keeps going. It’s not okay if it starts from word one and follows you around like a stalking incubus. Maybe that means you’re dealing with issues of depression, maybe it just means something is really wonky with what you’re writing — it’s the wrong-size shoe hurting your little toesy-woesies. That isn’t okay, and it’s probably not normal. You might wanna take a long look at that, cut to the heart of it a little bit and see how it ticks.

But for the rest of you — the rest of us?

It’s cool.

Keep writing.

It’s not you.

Creation isn’t painless.

Doubt is illusory — a haunting specter without substance.

And remember: you can always fix it in later drafts.

Now quash your fear, fuck the doubt-ghosts, and finish what you started.

* * *

30 Days in the Word Mines: an advent calendar for NaNoWriMo or other daily writing adventure, offering up a platter of every-day tips, tricks, and thoughts to get you writing that story.

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65 comments

  • You are an amazing writer! This is one of the best insights I’ve ever read into the wonderous-beautiful-hell that is writing novels. I’m going to hang onto this for the next time I’m in that place with the doubt donkey–you are awesome. Thanks for sharing this. I’m telling the world about it.

  • Painfully true. Lately that feeling has been hitting me whenever I even think about writing…but I think it’s real-life stuff leaking into my writing. It’s not, probably, that I’m depressed, but writing requires me to have some measure of clear-mindedness, emotional openness, and adventurous spirit or problem-solving capability. And what with all the random crap and troubles going on in life-life right now (the life where I interact with other people instead of characters on a computer screen), I don’t have the creative, emotional, or often physical energy to write. I can’t be emotionally honest writing about fictional people when I’m drained at the end of the day by real people. I am spending all my problem-solving capabilities on non-writing-life problems. And scraping by. Until things even out a little, my prolonged writing break is going to become even more prolonged. I used to be able to use writing as escapism. That doesn’t seem to work for me anymore. Whether or not that is a good thing, I’m not sure. I often hear, “Writers write through everything no matter what.” Bull. Shit. I no longer believe that that is a good or even healthy paradigm.

  • Now I’m going to have to put a sign up above my computer that says: “Bob Ross, you mad bastard, you did it again.” Damn inspirational! Haha.

  • I stumbled upon your blog by random chance and now I can’t stop reading. I feel more motivated than I have in a while! I just passed the halfway point on my NaNoWriMo book and I am definitely feeling the hate – but I shall survive. Thanks!

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