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I have a psychological oddity when it comes to my own writing (particularly fiction, and particularly longer work). Obviously it may just be a personal problem, but perhaps other people have similar issues:

When I am working on my (longer) writing, it seems like the most fantastic thing in the world to me. I think every word is brilliant. But as soon as I finish it, it seems like the most horrible, talentless, unreadable trash. Intellectually, I know neither impression is likely to be correct. But even though I know this is my consistent pattern, it is almost impossible for me to not experience it as truth.

The "brilliant!" phase is actually kind of helpful, because it makes me happy and excited to write, and keeps me going. But the "horrible!" phase sends me into a depression, and makes it hard for me to edit my work, to let other people read it, to respond appropriately to criticism, or to feel good about submitting the work. Does anyone else deal with this, and if so, have they found a way around it?

  • Look at the bright side - at least you keep being inspired by your work while it's in progress and you can finish it. Other writers may see every finished page critically, get bogged down in rewriting and never finish the book. – Alexander May 14 '18 at 18:55
  • @Alexander Typically I rewrite as I go, but with this project I decided to just push through from beginning to end without any re-reading. It seemed to be working great during the writing, but it made for a big shock when I was finally ready to edit... :o – Chris Sunami May 14 '18 at 19:01
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    This is support, not a solution, but this same situation would happen to me every time I wrote something. I feel the time "away" after I wrote was crucial: it let me see the work with fresh eyes. Keep at it; when you can look at your mistakes without cringing, you've reached a point where it's good enough to revise (rather than just to trash). – Shawn V. Wilson May 14 '18 at 22:47
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    I've seen some of your writing and it is quite good. – DPT May 15 '18 at 13:42
  • @DPT Thanks DPT, I really appreciate that! :) Most of what you've seen is probably my shorter, nonfiction writing which I generally do feel good about. It's the book-length fiction and nonfiction work I'm attempting that is giving me the fits --perhaps because it goes for such a long time without interacting with an audience. – Chris Sunami May 15 '18 at 14:00
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I don't have the major swing you have, from brilliant to horrible; but I understand the sentiment from earlier writing.

I suggest three things.

1) Treat yourself like a child, or at least like a student. A beginner. Write what you want, and when reviewing it, be critical but try to put your criticisms in phraseology you would use with a child learning to write. Figure out what the kid was trying to say, and why what they did say did not convey that accurately, or conveyed that embarrassingly, or whatever. If you think the writing is horrible; get past the emotion and into the analysis of exactly what is wrong with it.

You can try to fix it then, or just make notes in brackets [CHRIS: this metaphor doesn't land / sounds awkward / out of character / cliché / lacks conflict, too much puppetry / etc ]

Or:

2) Every day I read what I wrote the day before and do this, and edit it if I don't like it, until I like it again. If I can't get it right, I will scrap it and come up with a different scene. Fair warning: I am a discovery writer and probably throw out 25% of my writing for this reason.

3) On the longer scale, when I have finished a story, I will edit from the beginning, rewriting anything I dislike, and do that again. This is not an endless loop; I have finished books this way! I am about to begin my fourth pass at a finished story, and likely the last. It is important to be analytical doing this, and not change something (other than typos and grammar errors) just to make it different: Change it only if you know there is good reason to change it.

My most frequent reason, on the first and second pass, is murkiness in pronouns in scenes with several characters; the "she" that was clear to me when I was writing I realize was unclear with two females interacting in a scene; a habit I have been unable to break while writing the first draft.

Other frequent reasons for changes are lack of visualization, poor description of feelings, lack of conflict in conversations, lack of movement of characters. (A style choice, I like to keep my characters physically moving; even if they are stuck in a chair taking a test or reading a letter. If they are thinking, they do that while doing something else, the laundry or cooking dinner or mowing the lawn.)


In general, now that you know you don't like your first draft, don't move very far away from something before you edit it. It is very important to sleep between hammerings on a given section. The point of that is to flush the context from your short term memory, but don't go too many days before your first edit: You don't want to do so much other writing that the general purpose and intent of the scene has been forgotten.

For example, I remember I want to show that Alice is just beginning to fall in love with Bernie, I still want that, but my choices are not getting "love" across; it just seems like Alice is irritated with Bernie. I wanted the irritation to provide conflict in Alice, but I am clearly failing to portray her complete feeling, the scene needs something else, a saving grace for Bernie.

Edit to add: It belatedly occurs to me another issue I found causing this is failing to do what I have come to call writing with a methodical imagination. Specifically, when I write scenes, I methodically step through the senses and personalities of the people involved. What do they see, smell, physically feel (heat, cold, soreness, etc); what is the weather, what is their mood? What should the weather be, or the view, to support the scene? What can I do to create a clash or conflict? Is there anything they can physically be DOING while they talk? I do this to avoid "walls" of either conversation or exposition (info dumps), to create a scene that shows what I can, and tells what I want the reader to know but not dwell on (because showing takes longer than telling). For me, before I did this, my initial scenes were often sketches that felt incomplete, they did not accomplish the kind of immersion I felt reading other authors. I don't say you need a laundry list of every sense they have, I only pick two or three things to highlight. But knowing Alice is exhausted can influence her dialogue, her humor, and her choices. It may influence my word choices, too. The reader may not get "Alice is exhausted", but to me the scene feels better, has a more "unified" mood, if I keep things like that consistent.

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    +1 Thanks, I especially like the advice to approach my writing as if it was someone else's. I'll definitely give that a try. – Chris Sunami May 14 '18 at 16:34
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    Somebody you want to be both helpful and kind to; for me a child or student. I want to provide advice that will help them be a better writer, I don't want to just tell them their work is crap and they should learn to flip burgers. For me that necessitates getting specific about "show don't tell" and other such problems. – Amadeus May 14 '18 at 19:13
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I know, I know, I quote Anne Lamott a lot on here. But it’s because she has an answer for everything!

She says that:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”

Like @Amadeus, she also says that you should edit your work as if a friend (a child is good too) wrote it, and be as kind to yourself as you would be to that friend.

I felt exactly the same way over my first novel. I laboured through that love and hate as it rollercoastered from week to week, editing it half to death on days when I thought it was utter crap, and polishing parts that got cut down the line on days I thought it was great. The idea of sending out my work to anyone unedited filled me with dread and I didn’t let anyone read it until it was polished.

What I didn’t realise is that WE are not to be trusted. WE cannot see the wood for the trees in our own work. We have our darlings and we have those characters we aren’t sure of etc. etc. And a lot of what I thought was great, other readers hated and vice-versa. I ended up cutting work that I'd already edited dozens of times.

So, I don’t do that anymore. It’s a waste of time. Doubt is (inevitable but) a waste of time. Now, as soon as I type, “The End” I get it straight out to a group of readers I trust with my life, letting them know it’s a very rough draft.

The time it takes for them to read is a good break away from the novel. It gives me time to stop thinking about it, stop torturing myself with whether it’s good or bad, time to catch up with friends I haven’t seen for months during the draft.

Then, when the feedback comes, I can look at the work with a balanced view. I get verification over the parts I knew in my heart weren’t working. I get surprises when all the readers agree on one part I thought I’d made a mess of. And I get a thrill when something I felt confident about resonated with everyone.

So, my advice would be, stop torturing yourself. Stop worrying about whether it’s good or bad. Whatever’s bad can be fixed! Congratulate yourself on finishing a book - one hell of an achievement - and get it out there! Trustworthy readers can hold your hand through your psychological oddity!

  • Really crappy advice. Perfectionism is awesome, if you just don't let such silly made-up notions as "finishing" something get to your head. – mathreadler May 15 '18 at 9:47
  • @mathreadler LOL... yes, that is SO SO true!! You never "finish", you just draw a line under it. – GGx May 15 '18 at 9:49
  • The goal is the process of learning & writing, not the finish. You are not gonna learn a tiny fraction as much if you only focus on finish all the time and don't focus on learning. – mathreadler May 15 '18 at 9:51
  • I agree you must focus on the writing itself and developing the skill, but earning a living from writing and submitting to deadlines requires a finished project. Learning is an ongoing process that continues from project to project. Finishing, even if you haven't achieved the 'perfection' you were hoping for, doesn't signal an end to the learning process. It starts all over again on the next project, hopefully without implementing the same mistakes you made on the previous. – GGx May 15 '18 at 10:06
  • Sometimes you can stagnate in one project. By moving forward, perhaps taking on a new and more difficult project energises the learning process. The mistakes/problems become more 'complex', requiring more advanced learning to resolve them. – GGx May 15 '18 at 10:07
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Yup, I'm quite familiar with that feeling, in both my creative writing and my academic writing. (Albeit, it doesn't depress me - it makes me facepalm, grunt my teeth, and start revising. But the frustration and disappointment are definitely there.) What happens is, I have this shining image in my mind, and I'm trying to put it on paper. As long as I'm writing, I'm transferring the shining image to the page. Then, when I've finished, I look at what I've created, compare it to the shining image in my mind, and find it lacking.

When I find I've hit a wall, and it's "horrible", I let a friend I trust look at what I've written and give some advise. Often they can see things I've missed, spell out what isn't working where I just see "horrible", or point out the things that are good, and I've forgotten. The latter is very encouraging. It's friends who help me see the parts of my "shining image" that I did manage to write down. They're a huge confidence boost. (Friends who can't find anything to criticise lose my trust, though: it's honest critique that helps me proceed.)

It also helps to sleep, and start editing afresh the next day - emotions sort of settle down then, it's easier to see things clearer.

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I'm on the twentieth revision of my first novel. Heheheheh. This has been a lot of fun. I have the same specific issues identified by others. Additionally, my characters of necessity (for me, anyway) started out very two-dimensional. Their actions and reactions were predictable, juvenile, their motivations uncomplicated.

It's taking me this many revisions because I keep identifying another scene where a character is behaving like a cartoon - I fix that, and suddenly other parts of the story need to be reworked. So, it's taking a while and I feel your pain.

Chris, I believe you have put some of your work 'out there' either in blog format or something more published, self published, something? yes? You have some experience on feedback there? My experience in scientific writing is that I write crap, yes, but my co-authors help out and then the reviewers do too. It's processive. Maybe that practice of knowing it's crap (but will get better) is important. Maybe some of us need to push through and send the best crap we can write into the world (beta's etc) knowing other brains will find errors in it and help make it better.

I recently looked through reviews of two books I'm considering comparing my novel to. The five star reviews of those books and the one star reviews sound as though they describe different books. There will be people who hate whatever we write, and I think we know that and are trying to protect ourselves from it.

Some people will hate whatever we write. They will. Do your best, put it out there (or don't) and don't let the haters get you down.

p.s. My current revision is on hard copy formatted into a book layout. Font: Times, single spaced, 300 words per ~4x6 page. I strongly recommend reading through your work like this (and on hard copy, not just the formatting) if you hope to publish a book. I'm seeing so many errors I didn't see on my Word document.

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I get the same feeling every time I complete a piece--a 500 word article or a 673 first draft--and feel distraught, and as if I might never write again. But I always allow it to sit for a few days or weeks, and look at it again with a fresh eye.

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