The Emotional Milestones of Writing A Novel: A Handy Guide!

I have written –

*checks notes*

– too many novels by this point. Like, I should stop. I’ve done enough damage to the literary world. Okay, no, I’m not going to stop (ha ha ha suckers), but regardless of that, I have written a metric diaper-load of books in my relatively short time as a novelist.

And in this magical journey where I headbutt my monitor again and again until the bloodstreaks form words and become novels, I notice that I  hit the same emotional milestones during every book, in roughly the same order, at roughly the same points-of-completion.

I said as much on Twitter the other day, and at first it was just a joke. Oh ho ho, look at these funny peaks and valleys — joy and misery, ever intertwined! — when writing a book. But as I chewed on it a little bit, softening the thought jerky, I started to believe that there might be something here worth really looking at. Because the first time you write a book, this is new. And it feels new for a couple-few books after, and each time the emotion hits you, you’re unprepared for it. They’re like birth contractions that, were you to not realize they were coming, would scare the ghost right out of you. But once you start to codify them, once you begin to expect them, you find a new kind of comfort level: your little authorboat is prepared to more take on the churning waves.

The other thing is, I’ve found a lot of authors share similar milestones — maybe not in the same order or at the same points, but they seem to hit them with some regularity just the same. Plus, oh so many of us penmonkeys share that almost perfect (or perfectly disturbed) combination of 50% Extreme Narcissist and 50% Self-Hating Weirdo. We’re like a red balloon — blown up big and floating high, but ultimately devoid of anything but hot air!

Ha ha ha *loud weeping*

Ahem.

With all that said, here are my emotional milestones:

0% — Sphincter-Clenching Panic

I imagine that this is what every divine creator thinks before He or She barfs up the world in a projectile vomit of light, sound and life — it’s just raw, unmitigated panic. It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff and staring down at Who Knows What. Clouds, snow, pure white chaos, total emptiness. Tabula rasa. The canvas here is perfect. Untainted with my meager, caveman scrawl. I know as soon as I write the first word it’ll be like whizzing in the snow — just ruining a perfectly nice thing. And there’s so much pressure at the beginning. YOU NEED THE BEST FIRST SENTENCE BECAUSE READERS WILL PUT DOWN A BOOK IF THEY DON’T LIKE THE FIRST THREE WORDS, says some advice probably somewhere. At the end of the day, it’s easier to not create than it is to create, and that’s this moment. Fuck this moment. You push on. You piss in the snow, you jump on the cliff, you shit up the canvas. Because it’s what you do.

5% — Slow And Steady

Writing a book is an act of wandering through a new house in the dark, and at this stage I move hesitantly through. I always feel like I should be writing faster, and I seem to forget that it’s totally normal to have to push harder at this stage to meet word count. I don’t have momentum. I haven’t yet memorized the lay out of the house — if I move too quickly, I’ll stub a toe or knock over a vase or wake the owners. I can’t move quickly yet. I don’t have patterns, don’t have a sense of the space. Here I struggle to meet my 2,000 words per day. That’ll change. I always forget that it’ll change, though. Because dumb.

10% — I Am The God Of This Place

Ten percent in — usually meaning the first 10,000 words or so — I feel like a boss. I’ve taken the jump and here I’m falling, but the falling is exhilarating. You deploy the parachute. The fall becomes controlled. I’ve laid out the opening of the book, introduced the characters, kicked shit into gear with some kind of problem or incident. My heart is a power ballad. My brain is a mastermind. I command everything. When the reader asks you if you’re a God? YOU SAY YES.

11% — Oh, Shit

And the crash after the high. It’s amazing how quickly the worm turns. I think this narrative hangover arises because for those first 10,000 words, everything is roughly lining up with your expectations. Outline or no, you still probably have a pretty good idea what’s going on — but here’s where the train bucks, swaying back and forth as it goes faster and faster. For me, it jumps the track here. Already little things have conspired to change your own expectations of the story, and at 11%, I start to realize that no matter how good my map is, it’s still pure theory. It’s a crayon sketch by an ADHD preschooler. So, at 11%, I have to reckon with the fact that my book is not going to match what I have in my head or what I have clumsily scrawled on a cocktail napkin.

20% — Septic Dread / The Internet Is So Shiny

Somewhere around this point I’m just… man, I’m easily distracted. I’m a raccoon hypnotized by a scattering of shiny nickels. It’s not because I’m failing to feel the book. It’s not the same kind of panic. It’s because writing a book is… scary? Revealing? Like you’re sometimes sticking a tap in the dead center of your chest and letting pure heart syrup come gurgling out. It’s fear, mostly. Fear of finishing. Fear of again ruining something that you started. A book is so much better when it exists in a perfect, impossible, uncreated space. It’s like a child. The idea of a child is perfect before the kid is ever born, but once it is, suddenly it’s poop and tantrums. It’s awesome, too — but boy howdy, do you get those poop and tantrums. So at this point? I’m feeling the fear again. This time, less panic and more incalculable dread, and it manifests as distraction, usually with social media or some other aspect of the Internet. The solution: fire up Freedom, turn off the Internet for 45-minute intervals, and push like you’re giving birth.

25% — Restless Leg Syndrome

I’m back in it, and the way I get back in it is right here — I get antsy so I start to fuck shit up. I pivot the plot, I give it a twist, I escalate conflict or struggle. Something that makes it feel like its progression is not preordained, something that surprises me a little bit and surprises the reader.

33% — Old Man Lost At The Mall

This is my first real I SHOULD QUIT WRITING THIS DUMB BOOK moment. Everything is dumb. I hate what I’m writing. It doesn’t live up. I possess the urge to HIGHLIGHT ALL and elbow the delete key and then laugh as it all goes away in the blink of a suicidal cursor. (This actually explains why so many of my earlier efforts at writing a book sputtered out at the 1/3rd mark.) The most toxic version of this replaces the hate and manifests as an almost demonic seduction where the succubus behind my intellectual shed hisses a come hither invitation and beseeches me to drop this hot turd that I’m presently writing and instead write this much better, much cooler book. “This new book will be the corker,” she whispers, and I say back, “Corker is not a sexy word,” and she says, “Shut up, you’re overthinking it,” and I say, “That’s usually my problem,” and she says, “Seriously, just be quiet and start a new book instead because it’ll make you feel good,” and I say, “I LEARNED IT BY WATCHING YOU,” and then I shake a skillet full of a fried egg at her and then I tell her that this is my brain on drugs and — you know, I feel like I’m losing the thread here a little. Point being: at this juncture I often want to quit what I’m writing and go pork a new manuscript behind the old one’s back. The way I fix this? I jot down notes for AWESOME NEW BOOK and then I hide them from myself and get back to fucking work.

50% — Destroy Boredom With Hammer

If you’ve never written a book, trust me when I say: it’s boring. It’s not universally boring, but it takes a long time and it’s more a marathon than a sprint, and eventually you start to feel like, uggh, god, what am I watching golf? It’s like watching two narcoleptic koala bears making love — you’re just checking your watch asking if anyone is going to pop their cookies or what. So, I find it necessary to resist that boredom and whenever I start to feel bored, I worry the audience is going to feel it, too. I willfully counter boredom here by again just kicking a big fucking hole in the story. I shake the baby until it cries. (Pro-tip: do not actually shake babies.) I blow something up. It’s barbaric yawp time. This is doubly important at the 50% mark because here’s where I start to get that mushy middle problem. The story sags like an elderly scrotum if you haven’t been doing the appropriate nether-clenching exercises. Or something.

66% — You Know What, Just Fuck It

Once again, I hate what I’m writing. Happens roughly at 1/3rd, happens roughly at 2/3rds. Now it’s less about what’s to come and more about what’s already happened. Here’s where I start to really doubt what I’ve already put down. I start imagining ways I’ve screwed everything up. Sometimes it’s not imagined — here is also where I start to realize plot problems or mistakes I’ve genuinely made. It seems like I’m building a house on a shaky, shitass foundation. It’s a house of cards and, psychologically, it’s already falling down. Impostor Syndrome is the new king on the throne: suddenly it feels like I’m just a kid wearing Daddy’s overalls, like I stowed away on the boat and finally, finally this is the book where the rest of the crew (other authors, publishers, the audience) will figure out what an apple-cheeked poser rube asshole I really am. It’s bullshit, of course. The errors that have been made can be fixed later. And it’s probably nowhere near as bad as I think it is. Further, writers write, and that’s that — doubt does not make me an impostor, but doubt is a pesky monkey who hides so well on your back you can barely see him. Best way forward is to just write past it. Onward, upward, the only way out is through.

75% — I Got This, And Besides, It’s Too Late Now

For better or worse, I’m in. Committed. I know how cuckoo that sounds — it takes me 75% to get emotionally committed to the story?! But it syncs up right about at 3/4 through. I feel like, hey, even if this whole thing is a smoldering trash-pile of old Chinese food and melted mannequins, it’s my pile, damnit, so I might as well build it as high as I can and finish what I started.

90% — Dominoes Tumble

This has been true of every novel I have written — but I tend to write the last ten percent of the book in one day. I sit down and I think, “Maybe I could finish this,” and then next thing I know I’m soaked in sweat, the air tastes of coffee and hot metal, and my fingers throb. Before me: a story lays complete. It’s got that toe-curling orgasm vibe to it — like, you know it’s gonna happen, and you couldn’t stop the choo-choo now even if you wanted to. (And no, I do not regularly refer to my orgasms as “choo-choos.” Man, that would upset my wife. CHOO-CHOO IS COMING INTO THE STATION, BABY. CHUGGA CHUGGA WOO WOO. I am so sorry for even putting that image in your mind. I feel enough shame for all of us, it’s okay.) I think in part it’s because when writing a novel, you’re carefully lining up dominoes — straight lines, up hills, through PVC tubes, around a sleeping monkey — and then the last ten percent is me knocking them down. It’s a clamor and a clatter as they fall. Gravity and momentum have the tale, now. Writing the end of a story, I feel like a man possessed — like I’ve been huffing God Vapors out of a crack in the ground and I am now just an instrument for divine execution.

100% — Clean Up / Cheez-Its / Whiskey / Ice Cream / Nap

Guh, buh, wuzza, wooza, fuzzy, flooza. I’m wiped at the 100% mark. Buzzing and tired all at the same time. My brain is full of bees at this stage, but none of them make much sense. It’s just the humming of wings. So, I save everything in a thousand places, I power down, and I towel off. Then: snacks, whiskey, more snacks, aaaaaand pass out.

110% — *Loud Breathing, Blank Stare*

The next day is just like — *wind whistling through a bottle, a vulture endlessly wheeling in the sky, a piece of trash blowing across a desolate beach* It’s oblivion. It’s why I need a day to gather my bearings. Or, ideally, a week. And then, once the elastic in my brain has snapped back –

0% — Sphincter-Clenching Panic

*fires up blank document, bites lip*

Here we go again, motherfuckers.

* * *

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62 comments

  • Oh, my god. I finished a novel I’ve been working on for months and months today. At our house 100% has primal screaming and the seasonal Girl Scout Cookie addendum.

  • I’ve gone into literal empty nest syndrome at 100%. The story is out of my head, thank GOD. But… the story is out of my head and there’s just nothing else in there right now. When I finished my last one, I couldn’t talk to anyone for several hours, I just laid in bed and soaked in my own victorious pity. When I woke up the next day and had to go to my real job, The Parting Glass came on my Pandora station and I broke down in my car in the parking lot at work and had to compose myself before going in. I STILL feel different and that was months ago.

    Post-100% is so much harder than I expected it to be.

  • That’s just about right. Except, when I wrote my first book, the percentages seemed all screwed up. I mean, when I first reached 50%, I was excited to be halfway done, and the next thing I new I was only 25% finished. The same was true formatting, then publishing. And that 99% number seemed to be never-ending, except for the times when it dipped down to 75%. There’s just something funny about the mathematics of writing. And my background is math, but I love writing, and it still doesn’t work out. :-)

  • Writing is an emotional journey at every turn. For the author as creator. For the author’s family (thanks to the author). Then for the publishers’ editorial team (thanks to the author). And finally for the reading public, who get a totally different journey out of it, though still maybe not the one intended by the author when they wrote the character arc.

  • I think I need to read this every day for the next week, just to make sure I remember I’m not the only person who feels like this. Thanks, Chuck, your one of the best coaches/motivators I’ve ever met. You’re great at cutting through bullshit

  • That is refreshing. Its always nice to actually hear, people say- hey, yeah me too. We know we all go through the same problems but still, as they occur, we think we’re the only ones being tested by some humiliating novel bully.

  • Well at least now I know I’m getting the emotional stages right for my own w-i-p! As for anything related to its quality? Hmmm, ask me again when I reach that magic 75%…

    Thank you thank you thank you Chuck. I so needed this! I needed to know that even awesome writers think they suck and their novel sucks harder at more than one stage in the journey. There’s still hope yet for the rest of us! (There is, isn’t there? I did interpret that right?)

    Time to fire up the Irish-cream-flavoured coffee and get back to work then…

  • I love how you phrase things and I concur with ElctrcRngr– you are the best motivational speaker/coach I’ve ever met. (virtually, but you know what I mean)

    I need to post this as my desktop or something. And try to remind myself I CAN DO THIS.

  • At least now I don’t feel so bad for going through similar stages. Thanks Chuck.

    And by the way, I have serious faith that the narcoleptic koalas could be the greatest YouTube video of all time.

    • Um, yea, like that sudden realization on your first edit that everything you wrote is complete skunkspray, or the first time that you can acknowledge that there might be diamonds in that pile of dung after all? Writing is a joy ride compared to editing in my experience.

      • February 3, 2015 at 12:58 PM // Reply

        Totally agree. And when I’m on like the 3rd edit and realize I left out some really important stuff…jump off a bridge time! Then I make another cup of coffee, watch a few YouTube videos, do a load of laundry…and eventually go back and fix the damn thing. Again. (That is, in fact, exactly where I am today. It sucks).

  • Yes, yes, and yes. Currently I’m torn between that 110% as I just finished something last week and am waiting to hear feedback and the 0% fresh start panic. I feel like standing in the corner and flapping my arms uselessly. Thank you for “shit up the canvas reminder.” That’s where I’m headed now.

  • 33% sounds disturbingly familiar. If you don’t mind answering, how many book attempts were thrown in the wood chipper at this stage? (I’ve got two. Four, if you count the ones I shredded at 33% editing.)

  • ts nice to know that I’m not the only one who sits there looking at the words & thinking “this is a steaming pile of crap.” Then go back & say, oh this is pretty good. When did my desire to write turn me into a schizophrenic? Thanks for sharing, its shows us weary minded their is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

  • Thank you! That’s all I can say. You described by writing process to the T. I think I am printing that list you have at the top of the post and putting it on the wall by my computer for future use.

  • It’s nice to see this put into words. It’s therapeutic to read, when we’re stuck in the machine, overwhelmed by the emotional roller coaster and too busy getting words down to stop and think about it.

    I’m at 75%, but I see that 90% mark looming in the distance. That sound of all those pieces falling–I know it well. I’m already in a cold sweat.

  • Reading this I find myself so happy. Trying to explain all this to my family and friends I would always get that ‘you-are-so-crazy’ look, its a great feeling knowing other people deal with this too.

    Unfortunately I’ve finished my second draft of my first novel and in the beginning I was flying high, everything was amazing and then all of a sudden I slammed into the ground and now even looking at my novel fills me with so much dread.

  • Hrm, apparently my 11% Milestone is actually “You’re-A-Fuckin’-Sham-Stop-Wasting-Your-Time-And-Take-Up-Something-Useful-Like-Garbage-Collection.” Followed shortly by my Muse going into her Tourette’s level bout of inspiration, flagellating with me with ideas like a spastic dominatrix.

  • You’ve captured every step of the journey, Chuck, with your usual enthusiastic imagery! Nice job–it’s great to know I’m not the only old man lost in the mall.

  • I have reached an entirely awe-inspiring level of whoredom with how many new-and-so-much-better novels I run to meet behind the shed. Trying hard to get used to this manuscript monogamy thing.

    *seductive voice beckoning from behind shed*

    *puts on noise-canceling headphones, buckles back down to write the WIP*

    I’m getting there. Thanks for the pep talk, as usual.

    Lisa

  • Oh man, it’d be funny if it wasn’t so true (I’ve never written a novel, but there’s a similar process for really long academic papers. Oi). I’m saving this for future reference when I feel like weeping under my desk. I really appreciate it!

  • As always, brilliant. I’ve only finished one long form “novel-length” piece, but I remember the day the dominoes tumbled. Sort of. Kinda like you “remember” your first acid trip. Only, at 105%, I realized that I was actually only at 95%, and there was this last little bit of business to do. My current WIP is part of the series, and I feel kind of like the God of All This Shit, if God was cranky and sleepy. Does that make any sense?

  • Yup, like, the editing bit. Rewrite rewrite rewrite. The final full-stop on the last page of the first draft is like 10% of the work done, and now the REAL SHIT begins. Aiieee. What the hell is this about? Ohmigod I get it now. Is that what’s in my head? THE SHAAAAME. Rewrite rewrite psychotic break rewrite. Anyhoo.

  • I am currently working on my third book. My goal this time around is to not take a whole year to write one book (I use to stop for months at a time). I’m actually hoping to write two. I started writing in 2012 and took all of last year to edit my first train wreck of a book. But this year I am kicking my writing into high gear!

  • February 4, 2015 at 6:01 PM // Reply

    Okay, I can’t decide which I like better: the subject or the wording used here! I found myself laughing at the imagery (could’ve done without the train bit since being the daughter of a train fanatic, it brought some troubling images to mind) even as it eased the tension of the thought I suffered through this alone.

    You have SO captured the ordeal of writing a book in terms anyone can understand–even us would-be penmonkeys. It’s encouraging (and scary!) to know that even seasoned writers go through these moments of self-doubt, hatred and more self-doubt.

    I have a feeling I shall be referring back to this article many times in the future….

  • Love your book-as-house metaphor: that sense of exploration – “Ok, so this room is like this, and I came through that door from the hallway, and if I look out of this window I should see the back yard and part of the side of the … what, the kitchen? The downstairs shower-room? OK. And upstairs, immediately above this room is … don’t know. Shall we go discover that now? Oh but hang on – there’s that other door across the hall – maybe we should go there first …”

    Reading a new book is exactly that same process.

  • The only thing this is missing for me when the initial premise euphoria when you think “this could be the greatest book ever written. Nay! It will be better than that!” Then you sit down to plot or write it and, yeah, poor sphincter.

  • March 10, 2015 at 1:59 AM // Reply

    Very accurate timeline of emotions- especially that long sprint when you realize the end is in sight. I’ll admit to crying and gently pressing my lips to the computer screen at the end of first drafts. Try not to be wearing gloss if you do that.

  • Finishing a book for me is like that scene in The Shining where he enters the hall and as he keeps walking down it, it keeps distending further and further out in front of him.

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