As I’ve just recently started work on the sequel to In Honor’s Shadow and the second book in my new Honor’s Path series there’s been something on my mind about the emotional changes that dominate the different stages of a project (at least for me). I’m not sure if this is something unique to myself, though by talking to others I get the impression that most people doing creative work undergo something similar.
Perhaps this will be useful to someone, somewhere. If not, perhaps it will give a bit of insight into my personal creative process.
Fear of Starting
This is something that tends to set in just as I’m getting ready to start working on a new project. It isn’t a gripping, immediate fear. Rather, it subtly whispers in my ear to make me second guess myself.
I’ve seen this take many forms. Usually it is simply my being discouraged by the sheer scope of a project, looking at the mountain of work I’m about to commit to until I begin to wonder “Is this really something I want to do?” Oddly this often manifests as a worry that I’ll simply abandon the project half-done, urging me to drop it now before I get my hands dirty. After all, at least then I wouldn’t have wasted my time, right?
There are plenty of other forms as well, however. It isn’t unusual for me to wonder if the concept is any good to start with. Or if my skills are up to the task. Or worry over if anybody will even care about what I’ve created. The thing is these are all rational things to be concerned over, but simply accepting them is just giving in. There’s only one way to find out, to improve, and that is to force myself to work.
One of the sneakiest types of fear I’ve encountered involved doubts about my research. I started to question if I really knew enough about my setting, and felt the urge to run back to the library and Google to find more information. I very nearly did just that, only to realize it was the same fear looking for an excuse to put things off a little longer. I can always go back to look up information if I find there is something I don’t know, but time spent not writing is time lost.
Believe me when I say it is always worst right before I begin. I’ll feel it grip my heart and refuse to let go. My friends can attest that I’ll begin to question my ability, coming to them and confessing how frightened I am to start, asking for assurances that I can do it. That I am ready. But then, inevitably, it is time to push forward.
Relief of Beginning
I don’t always know where to start writing on a new project, but without fail the moment I begin putting words to paper there is a profound sense of relief. The words are coming now, and even if I’m not 100% confident of where I’m headed at least I can say I’m making progress.
The feeling is all the more profound because of having just shouldered past the very worst of the fear. Oh it is still there, but now it is easy for me to see just how badly I was allowing it to deceive me. Even if I need to make several attempts to find the right way to open the story there is such a contrast to the oppression I was languishing under that I hardly mind.
## The Grind of Work
I’m not sure when the transition to this phase happens. After the first several pages? The first five thousand words? The first two chapters? It doesn’t matter, though. The shift is inevitable, such happiness and joy is just impossible to hold on to for too long.
Perhaps I should say here that I don’t mean to say I find the grind depressing, although at first it might seem this way. Like all work that is worth doing I find it rewarding. There is a sense of achievement that comes with watching the story gradually grow and take form. Every tiny goal passed brings me that much closer to a complete project.
So no, I do not find the work depressing; it doesn’t drag me down. It does, however, need discipline. Every day I need to sit down and put in my time. Some days I’m tired. Some days I would rather do something else. Some days I might even have to go out of my way to avoid things I would enjoy, because at the end of the day I need to write. Those little sacrifices can hurt.
It can also be a very lonely experience. There is this idea in my brain that I am trying to give form, and no matter how close I am to someone it is difficult to really make them see. Often I find myself wondering if even the product will do it justice.
In the end I cling to the promise of what I’m doing, and from that find the strength to continue.
Here is an area that I rarely fall into these days, but despite that it is one I know well. Some call it writer’s block, I call it bad planning. At some point I’ll just encounter a place in the story and realize I’m not sure how to proceed.
It is very easy to let this fall back into fear, giving in to the feeling that I am not worthy to work on this tale, but over time I’ve come to believe that is just the liar inside me trying to draw me back. Inevitably one of two things has happened:
1. I failed to properly plan this section of the story and am seeing that reflected by my inability to move forward.
2. Somewhere along the line I have gone awry and the characters’ actions no longer make sense.
In either case the solution is the same. Sit down and put in the work. It doesn’t matter if I have to rewrite a page, or a chapter, or try idea after idea while only managing to churn out a single sentence. If left alone a “writer’s block” can kill a story. I’ve experienced that more times than I care to admit.
Unacceptable. So I sit down and put in the work, attacking it from every angle I can devise. When that doesn’t work, I imagine other solutions. Then, inevitably, the block falls away and the momentum can begin again. Back to the grind of work.
Editing, Revision, and Doubt
Once the rough draft is finished, and once I have some distance from it, it is time to begin evaluating what I have. Back when I was starting out this was my least favorite moment because I didn’t like to see the flaws in my work. Now I love it, love to see how each change improves my stories step by step even if it is subtle. Still, these moments come with a lot of baggage.
I am convinced it is impossible to properly revise a work without someone else looking over the piece. Oh, I can get very close on my own; I like to believe I’m a pretty good self-editor. Even so, I am constantly surprised by what others find in my work that I completely missed. After a certain number of hours I am just too close to the work. I know how it is supposed to be, so that is what I see, and it makes me blind to what is actually on the page.
However this doesn’t mean I believe it is perfect. In fact, there comes a point where I lose any ability to tell if it is good or bad. By the time I was finished with In Honor’s Shadow I completely stopped making my own edits because I realized, to my dismay, that I simply couldn’t tell if the changes I wanted were good for the story or not. Again, I was too close and had looked at it too long (I’m sure setting it aside for a month or two would have fixed the problem).
On top of all this is the fear that I only think it is good because I wrote it. Maybe others will feel the work is unfinished. Maybe they will think I took it in a bad direction. Maybe they will object to plot details or the conclusion. Maybe they will think the writing itself is shit. All rational, real fears. Guess it is best to curl up and hide, never to release the story.
The project needs to be finished and it needs to be released. Maybe it will be well received. Maybe not. Maybe it will fail outright. Doesn’t matter.
Anxiety of Launch
But of course the decision to pull the trigger on a release doesn’t remove the anxiety of doing so. By this point the project is baby in a way. I know I shouldn’t be emotionally invested in it, but that is very difficult to do. After all the work it is impossible not to care.
The trick is to put those emotions into a constructive place. The work will fail or not on its merits, and regardless I can love it for what I see inside it. Yes, if people shit on my work it hurts, but even though I poured myself into the work it isn’t me.
That doesn’t mean I can’t show it the respect I believe it deserves during the release. I believe a sloppy release is the worst thing a writer can do, even if it is just posting the story freely for anyone to read. It shows a lack of respect, both for yourself and for the work done. If the writer doesn’t care about his story why should anyone else?
So I take care to make sure the formatting isn’t terrible. Try to give things good titles and descriptions. For web releases a major challenge is to make sure proper spacing so the text is easy to read. They are small, easy details. You would be surprised how easy they are to ignore or get wrong.
When I finish a project there is always this sense of joy. It doesn’t matter how small or large the task was, the joy is always there. Yes, maybe it will be more pronounced for a large project (no doubt the launch of In Honor’s Shadow was the best I’d ever felt with regards to releasing my work), but it is always there.
I think that is because the project is done. It is out. In a way that is liberating, because I am free. Good comments of course only serve to stoke the joy even higher, but even if things go completely unnoticed or are roundly criticized I feel happy. Because I’m done.
This is also a trap in a way. It is tempting to just bask in the accomplishment, especially if it is getting a lot of positive feedback. It feels so good I just never want to leave, and that is the trap. There is always another story idea in the wings, ideas are cheap after all, and if I rest on my laurels all that I will do is stagnate. That cannot be allowed to happen.
Not that I cannot enjoy the accomplishment, but I am wary of allowing it to consume me. Pause for a moment, enjoy the fresh breath of air that comes with work well done and seen through to the end. Pat myself on the back. Then it is time to feel where my heart wants to take me next and begin laying the groundwork for the next project.
Because that is what makes a writer. At the end of a day a writer writes. When I’m not writing I can’t call myself a writer. It’s a simple equation. You’d think I would have figured it out sooner than I did.