The Stages of Hating Your Manuscript

I finished a radical revision of Together is Enough this week and I’m so very close to finishing Brave in Heart. So incredibly close. As a reward, I made the catastrophic mistake of picking up a book that shares both a genre and a setting with the former. It was a lovely book. Character-driven, tense but believable, politically progressive, compelling, and concise. Just terrific. After I finished, I said, “Damn it! I’ll never write anything as good as that!”

Those different processes — writing, editing, reading — are part of our lives as aspiring novelists. But they bring with them almost predictable attitudes towards our works in progress. I think it plays out something like this…

When you start drafting, you’re enthusiastic about your project. Out of all the ideas you have, this is one you’re writing now. So you naturally think it’s going to be awesome.

Then, you start writing and you hit the first plateau. It suddenly doesn’t seem so awesome anymore. If you’re like me, this happens at about 20,000 words.

After a lot of hemming and hawing, you push through and finish the manuscript. As you type those words, those lovely “the end” words, it is so gratifying. “Gosh darn, this project is awesome,” you think.

You walk away from it for a while. Maybe you share it with a close friend, partner/spouse, or critique partner. And as you work through their feedback, or your own first (post-finishing) read, it hits you: this manuscript is terrible.

Why oh why did you want to work on this project? And why did you write it this way? Awww jeez, you have no business writing fiction. None at all.

So you walk away from that manuscript and go on to (or back to) something else. Maybe it’s something new. Maybe it’s a revision of something old. But it gnaws at you: the one that got away. And eventually, like an unsolved puzzle box, you can’t resist tinkering with it.

You cut a scene there and some backstory here. You eliminate pages of unnecessary description. (Seriously now, I have an adverb problem. Can you tell?) You change POVs. You rewrite the opening a dozen times. You change character names. You punch up the dialogue. You enter it in contests. You show it to more people.

Somewhere along the way, you start to think, “This isn’t so bad. In fact, it might be okay.” You might even start to believe that. And then you make the error of reading your manuscript again, start to finish, and all your confidence evaporates. Maybe you, like me this evening, read something that’s in some way similar to your manuscript, and from there, you might as well go home.

In A Moveable Feast, which is one of my favorite books about writing, Ernest Hemingway says, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all good writers have it.” Which is all well and good, but I think that shifting attitudes toward one’s work are part of the process. My shit detector works, but only from a distance. When I’m in it, I lose sight, you know?

Which is a long way of saying that I never like my manuscripts. I often actively hate them. Sometimes I think I’m getting close, but it’s really all just a matter of degrees of loathing, which makes me wonder why I’m doing this. But then I think about how I felt when I read that book tonight — the one in the same genre and with the same setting as Together is Enough, except, you know, it was really good — and then I know: because someday, I want to make someone feel all those things too. Someday I want to write something that good.

I haven’t yet, but I will.

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