A few facts about fiction to help you overcome writerly angst

Oh the angst! Oh the woe of the empty screen! Oh the self hate!

Oh the bullshit!

Angst–self-doubt/-hate/-loathing–may be a product of your personality type, but it’s not a prerequisite for being a writer. Unless you actually write about it, angst has no practical literary purpose that could not be better served by diligence, reflection, earned skill and application. Like any worthwhile vocation, writing is hard work but rewarding, otherwise why do it?

Angst can be a lazy route to feeling literary, but most of the professional writers I know – including myself! –  are quietly industrious with a confidence in their ability to get it right… eventually. That’s the biggest secret for avoiding angst; When writing, hide behind the next draft.

However, especially when drafting what you hope will be your debut novel, it is easy to fall prey to this sort of thinking. Here then are some facts about fiction that have helped me. Perhaps they’ll help you…

1. Your draft is not the finished product

This just takes us back to hide behind the next draft. You can usually only do one thing with each pass or draft. If the writing seems flat in your first draft, that’s because you’re wrestling with the plot!

  • The books on your shelf or Kindle are the product of several drafts, and professional editing. After several drafts and professional editing, your book could be just as good. The only way to find out is to finish the novel!

2. The end of your first draft will improve the beginning of your second

Even if you are an outliner like me, only once you really know how your book ends, once the characters have become people to you, only then can you bring vivid depth and texture to the start of the book.

  • Writing a novel is not the same experience as reading a finished one. Complete your first draft so you can feed it into the next!

3. No passage is standalone

Any chunk of text gains – say – 50% of its power from the rest of the novel, and an unseen 25% from the zeitgeist. So if you take any passage that you’ve written, yank it out of context, and hold it up to the light, it will seem to lack power.

  • Context is king of the gobbet. You’ll only experience your text in context through the distance created by completing your draft. So get on and complete your draft!

4. Fiction is not telepathy

Finally, the prose does not transfer a vision from your head to that of the reader. Rather it evokes a vision using words. When I write…

blood-drenched dagger

…I have no idea whether you and I “see” the same dagger. However, that doesn’t matter because it’s the emotional impact and story implications of the dagger that matter.

  • The reader builds the vision. Don’t worry about sharing details that don’t affect emotions or plot. Instead, get on and finish your novel.

* * *

Now, get back to work. That’s where I’m going…

EDIT: A friend of mine adds…

“I certainly read it as saying it can be an advantage, and I find that incredibly problematic. 

I’m a child of elite academics, I grew up in Princeton and New York, success was measured every step of the way by SAT scores and how “well rounded” and high-achieving your activities were. I still get flak for only having an “honorable mention” as a national merit scholar and only getting my Silver award in Girl Scouts. It was, basically, a culture where that attitude was totally normalized – you work like crazy and your mind is screwed up, but you exploit it as an advantage, and that’s normal because hey, doesn’t everyone have a therapist? Have you tried mixing Adderal and Xanax yet? Oh and tell us, how’s your Fortune 100 internship going and which clinic are you using to freeze your eggs so you can put off having kids until you’re 45?

It’s not okay. It’s insane. I’m just realizing that it’s actually *not* normal to get out of uni and immediately take the GRE, GMAT and LSAT “just in case”. That’s the kind of culture this is talking about and contributing to, and it is absolutely toxic.

Just as a hunch, I searched for “The New Yorker” on Franzen’s wikipedia page, because he seemed like exactly the kind of author who’d be in that necessary coffee table accessory of the liberal elite. Yup. Looks like he’s one of their regulars. I’ve probably read him, then, in one of the many back-issues my mom still sends me when she’s done with them.”

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  1. […] you read my blog, you’ll know I’m not a great fan of authorial self loathing and all that angst. […]

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