The angsty writer symptoms of a minor concussion

Two months out from the deadline for a novel with more than usual riding on its success, I don’t feel super confident about crafting a post full of wise advice for writing more effectively, or engaging more meaningfully with readers, or bravely addressing big social issues, or achieving a better work/life balance. The last few weeks before the deadline tend to be a time of weariness and anxiety, characterised by too much black coffee, over-consumption of sugary foods, snappish words addressed to the other members of the household (the dogs, in my case), and restless nights visited by repetitive dreams of failure. You know those dreams – they feature scathing reviews, book launches attended only by the author’s family, interviews in which the author is made to look a complete fool, and being constantly late for things.


Then there’s another kind of dream, in which your editor sends you a so-called ‘structural report’ which may just as well read: This novel stinks and needs a complete rewrite. You have one month to do it.

Oddly enough, these symptoms visit you even when you’re fairly happy with your manuscript. I know I still have a lot of revision to do, but I’ve budgeted the time so I’ll submit the thing by the required date, barring catastrophes. I’ve been through this twenty-odd times before. I should know what I’m doing. But I’m coming back to it after a couple of years off, and that seems to make a difference. Those unproductive years were a time of personal distress (the death of a beloved dog under violent circumstances) and career setbacks (a mismatch between what I truly wanted to write and what was deemed commercially viable.) So I was derailed from my usual pattern of producing one substantial novel per year – my readers have had two years with no new book. Unsatisfactory. Demoralising. What could be done about it? Was it the end of my writing career?

Sometimes you just have to wait until the time is right. I did emerge from that fallow period. After a couple of fails, I crafted a proposal for a series I felt excited about writing; one that my agent thought he could sell. The novel I’ll be submitting soon is the first in that new series. So it’s overall good news. But it would be easier if the good news, on its gleaming silver platter, didn’t come with the wobbly side dish of anxiety and self-doubt.

I have a very strong feeling I’m not alone in this experience. While every writer is different, there are certain times in the development of a novel when we’re all sure our work is rubbish, and never mind how many great reviews or stellar sales figures we may have had for earlier books. Often it’s about a third to half of the way in – the soggy bit in the middle of the cake. But I think others, like me, experience major doubt towards the end of the project, even at the very point where the story has maximum momentum. This part is great. But what about that part? Maybe I should have written the whole thing in first person. Or in present tense. Maybe I didn’t research shipping lanes, or embroidery methods, or the genealogy of the kings of Meath quite as thoroughly as the story requires … Character A springs to life in every scene, but is Character B rather a cardboard cutout?

This is the time to be brave. To accept that our chosen profession has its ups and downs like any other, and that no matter how well we do artistically or commercially, we’ll never be completely satisfied. And that is probably as it should be, because as creative artists we can always learn. We can and should always strive to get better. It’s the time to start believing in ourselves, and in our capacity to grow.

Thank you, Katherine. I have Harry’s photo prominently displayed in the living room, and I do feel his wise presence in the house (he looks a little disapproving when the other dogs misbehave.) Wherever we go after death, I feel sure he will be waiting for me there.

It interests me that you’ve mentioned my post being transparent and David called it disarmingly candid. An excellent topic for a future WU post, perhaps by someone other than myself, would be the divide between the authorial persona – the one we project to the public, our readers, the media, our editors, agents and publishers – and the real person underneath, often a lot less confident and positive. I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the need to present the face of self-belief and positivity in every interaction with the public. It feels like less than the truth sometimes.

I think the answer is to build the talk or blog or whatever around something we feel genuinely excited about. I did a presentation at a library last night, focused on traditional storytelling and its influence on my work, and read aloud a passage I knew was good from my work in progress (it included snatches of song.) Very positive response from the audience, a mixed group of library patrons not all of whom were already readers of my work, and lots of book sales.