I’ve just read over the second pages (proofs) of The Soldier’s Wife.
This can be a traumatic experience. It’s often at this stage (if not earlier) that the writer is convinced the book is utter crap: boring, repetitive, flat, and without a spark of true creativity.
I’ve learnt to recognise those moments. I think of them as the doldrums, when there is no wind in my sails at all. This is when it’s very very helpful to have an editor (and in my case a husband) to say, ‘No, no, Pamela, it’s a terrific book’. This is one of the most important but little regarded duties of an editor (or a writer’s partner).
Every writer I know goes through some moments of self doubt. When it comes relatively late in the process, you know you’re pretty safe; you’re just suffering from reading too many drafts of the same material. Put it aside for a few months and it’ll be fine.
But what about when it comes early? What about when you’re half way through a manuscript and you are suddenly convinced that it’s no good?
My suspicion is that, if it really is sudden, you should ignore it and keep writing. Pretty soon the desire to find out what happens next, and how it happens, will kick in and override the anxiety.
But sometimes it’s not sudden. Sometimes it’s a slow, creeping suspicion. Sometimes you become gradually disenchanted – with your characters, with your world, with your plot. What then?
Well, that depends. If this always happens to you – if you have a pile of unfinished novels in the bottom drawer (or the archived hard drive) then my advice to you is: ignore the anxiety. It’s just fear that you’re not good enough. And you never will be good enough if you don’t finish anything.
If you are thinking to yourself, ‘I can’t let anyone see this’, then don’t. Accept that you are writing solely to improve your craft, or for personal pleasure, and have at it.
But finish it. Don’t get distracted, don’t get afraid, don’t start that shiny new story which is bubbling away. Just keep going.
However, if it’s never happened to you before – if you are a blithe finisher of things – then getting a second opinion might be a good idea at this point. This is why I love writing courses; even if you don’t learn a lot, you are likely to meet people you can workshop with.
The best friend a writer can have is one who will say, ‘This is not good’. And then tell you exactly why. And if one, or two, or more of your beta readers agree that it’s not working, why then it might be time for the bottom drawer. Not everything we write can be good.
But don’t throw it out. Because in five years’ time, you’ll be thinking about needing one more character in your new book, and you’ll suddenly realise that this is where the main character from the unsuccessful novel really belongs. Or you’ll think, ‘The story was not good, but the world was great. I’ll use the world and ditch the people I put in it.’ (Been there, done that.)
Never throw anything away. Because not only can you recycle it, but when you become a famous writer and universities and libraries are competing to receive your papers, they will want everything, especially the stuff you didn’t use, because then they will have stuff about you that nobody else does!
I’m glad to say that I didn’t sail into the doldrums when I read the proofs of The Soldier’s Wife. I hope that’s a good sign!