Slow Dancing in the Dark: How to Avoid Giving Up on Writing Your Book

Am I doing this right? Do I look drunk? Is he a vampire?

You have your killer opening; you’ve polished it nicely. At least if you’re like me, you can’t help polishing a bit every time you look at it. You’re now fifty pages in, and everything seems to be going too slow, and you’ve lost track of where you were going, and you start to panic and think you’re doing it wrong.

This happens whether you are a plotter and had everything exquisitely planned in advance, or you’re flying by the seat of the pants and have no clue what actually works.

Once you have the first few pages of the book ready, and you are aimed more or less in the direction you will go, you start feeling everything went wrong and the idea you had to begin with is completely impracticable, and… and… and…

Keep calm and carry on. Take deep breaths. The experience you’re having is uncomfortable but completely normal. It’s sort of like having a root canal. Just because it’s unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Trust me.

What is happening at the psychological level is that you’ve now set yourself on one course to write your novel, and part of you – you know, the part that thought writing should be a really exciting adventure – is sitting back there going: “What? This is all there is? This is not fun.”

It’s bad enough if you’re making it up as you go along, because you can just have the nagging feeling something has gone wrong, and not know what.

It’s worse if you’re an outliner, as you might have had that opening happening much faster. Writing an outline is much like dancing would be if there were no gravity. You can make your character do anything and – because it’s impossible to plot all those details without making the outline longer than a novel – you don’t know what the opposition is doing precisely.

Then you come to write, say, a jail-escape scene, and gravity hits you with a thud. Your character can’t do that unless you wish to make the opposition almost comic-opera stupid. So you have to make her escape more difficult, every step more negotiated.

The bad news is that at this point, you can’t tell. All of us professional novelists have read a third or a half of a novel we started long ago and put down unfinished and thought, “How in heaven’s name did I think this made a good beginning?”

On the other hand, we’ve also all read beginnings we abandoned long ago and thought, “Wow, this is really, really good. Yes, I am better now, but this has sparkle and life, and pulls me right in.”

The problem here is that when you’re less than a third (I’m less than a fifth) into a novel, you truly can’t judge it. Worse, the friends who normally read stuff for you also won’t be able to tell you if it’s any good or not.

Beta reader and writer engage in a delicate dance. Don’t try it before you’re ready.

In fact, I must urge you to resist letting anyone see your novel at this stage.

Good beta reading is not only a skill, but beta reading for a particular writer is an acquired skill. The interaction of writer and beta reader is much like learning one of those complex dances like waltz or tango as a couple. It has to be learned and sometimes it will still fail.

When you’re giving an inexperienced beta reader a portion of a book, they’re going to find something. They want to help you.

Having very little to go on, and “knowing” you’re doing something wrong – otherwise why would you ask for help? – they will “find” things you’re doing wrong, even if there’s nothing to find. And since they only have the opening of the novel, they’re going to mostly concentrate on things they don’t know yet.

It is the nature of novels — particularly of science-fiction novels — to reveal things slowly, gradually. Learning how the world works is at least as much part of the fun as the particular story.

But a reader, faced with a beginning and the certainty something is wrong, will almost always demand to know more. “We don’t know why your character is doing this” is one of the primary complaints of people reading, say, the first two pages of a novel. And that’s true. And usually if the novel continues the reader will figure out the whys and hows gradually, as the story unfolds. (Again, this is particularly true in science fiction.) The readers won’t mind this or see the same issue once they have the whole book. But humans naturally concentrate on what they have, without taking in to account how small a share it might be of the finished work.

You’ve started the novel, and if the feedback you get tells you that you need more information upfront, you can’t judge whether that destroys narrative flow or not. Which means getting feedback on this portion will tempt you to sink the book.

Under those circumstances, I loaded the beginning of Darkship Thieves with so many explanations and begs that the novel went in the drawer for years, while I worked on other stuff, until I brought it out, looked at it, and saw that all the extraneous explanations were not needed.

Even earlier, as a very green writer, I did this by telling myself I needed to explain the entire fantasy universe upfront, so that people could just enjoy the adventure. Only when I set it aside and went back to read it did the fifty pages at the beginning of the novel read like “Take notes on this. There will be a test later.” You never got to the explanation, because your eyes rolled up into your head and you fainted from sheer boredom.

Turns out the reason novels introduce information slowly and in interesting ways is that they’re not textbooks. (I know. Who could have guessed?) No one wants to memorize a “list of facts about this world” no matter how fascinating you think they are.

No matter how high you jump, you can’t watch yourself jump.

Of course, the reason you’ll be tempted to do that is the same reason that you can’t judge your own work or your own “writing voice” or any of that.

It’s yours. You’re used to it. You’re not seeing it with fresh eyes.

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, whether you have a detailed outline of what you intend to write laid out and ready to go or you’re making it up as you go along, except for a few salient points, it’s safe to assume you’ve lived with this world and these characters long enough that nothing they do is truly a surprise.

It is possible, with practice and time, to develop a sort of in-between state where you can see the novel both as its creator and a completely new-to-it reader, but you can never develop it perfectly. Being able to see your stuff completely anew would be like lifting yourself aloft on your own arms while dancing ballet. Can’t be done. At best you can jump and sort of see the stage from above, but you can’t see yourself jump.

This is of course the problem of working in a medium where – more than words, character, or plot – you’re shaping the reader’s emotions. The primary purpose of a novel (or a short story or, often, a poem) is to take the reader on an emotional journey of some kind. In fact, words, plot, and character are all tools. You could say what a writer really does is sculpt raw emotion. (Well, you could say that if you want to flatter us!)

And you can’t take yourself on the same journey, because you can’t face the book with completely unknowing eyes – unless you manage to induce amnesia. (And how many times can you do that? And if you do, how do you know how many times you’ve done it?)

So, what do you do? And what if your novel is really boring?

Keep calm and carry on. Trust that everything is going according to plan. Yes, even if you don’t have a plan.

Sometimes you have to trust your complex moves will work out. You won’t crack your head on the pavement.

When a dancer rehearses his part of an intricate choreographed dance, he has to trust that he’s fitting in with the rest of it. That’s sort of what you’re doing. You’re doing what you learned to do, with craft; you’re telling the story your mind has created. Trust yourself and work forward.

Trust that it will be good when it’s done, or at least that you can rewrite it so it’s good. Trust yourself — which can be really difficult.

And you think, “What if it’s too ungrounded and makes no sense? What if it’s too slow? What if it’s boring?”

It might very well be. Or it might not. You won’t know till it’s done. Once you’re done, your beta readers should be able to give you a clearer idea of whether you messed up or not.

Sometimes I still get: “Your opening is slow. This is where it got better.” And then I go back and study whether it’s true or a reflection of that reader’s particular bias. (Yes, that happens too. Some people don’t like novels that start with jail escapes, or novels that start with the character asleep, or whatever. Readers are people too. This is why you need more than one — so you can check them against one another.)

The point is that if it turns out to be too slow, once it’s done, you can always go back and rewrite it. But not until it’s done.

For now, you just can’t tell. Keep your head down. Keep working. Keep your figures in the dance and trust that it all works out.

Don’t let your insecurities morph into an excuse to not write. The world is full of people who started a novel.  There are far fewer people who have finished a novel, let alone multiple novels. Your goal is to write and keep writing.


Images courtesy shutterstock / wtamas /  Leonid Dushin / Alexander Shadrin / Dmitry Yakunin