The Agony and Ecstasy of Novel Writing

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I’m not a novelist. I never will be. But on a regular basis I get to watch fiction writers spin their magic.

Well, it seems like magic to those of us who don’t have the gift to tell a story, to create a believable character, or to put the reader in a setting so real he grabs his winter coat on his way out the door…only to discover it’s a sweltering summer day.

I recently read an article from The Atlantic by Joe Fassler that tethered my fantasies about what it’s like to be a novelist. The article writer has been interviewing renowned novelists for five years about their writing process. I thought those of you who labor over each word you tap into existence on your computer screen (whether your skill lies in writing fiction or nonfiction) would appreciate several assurances of normalcy the article offers us.

The Magic Resides in the First Paragraph

Stephen King will labor over a novel’s opening for days, months, or even years. For him, the only way he can spool out the rest of the novel is to find the right first paragraph. And sometimes hunting for it can be an elusive task. Fassler writes,

The right first paragraph, when he finally finds it, casts a kind of spell, what King called an “incantation,” that makes the finished story seem somehow inevitable.

Self-Doubt Never Dies

Fassler found that, regardless how renowned a novelist became, self-doubt never dissipated. The journey to the end of each novel was wracked with reasons to quit. Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told Fassler:

It’s like climbing a mountain—you get some fantastic views when you pause or when you get to the top, but the actual process can be tough.…I wish I could enjoy the process more, but I think I’ve come to accept that for it to work, I have to be uncomfortable.

Unmet Expectations

Each interviewed author came around to expressing that they had a golden orb of an idea of what their novel could be. But the actual work fell far short. Rather like a cheap, plastic rose bears only a vague resemblance to the actual flower.

Fassler points out that Amy Tan likens her writing process to painting a portrait a single pixel at a time, only to abandon 95 percent of all her research and draftwork. All this in the name of searching for the right string of words.

Other authors admit to the reality that, on a given day, the majority of what they write will be bad.

Yet they soldier on.

Novel Writing is for the Undaunted

Fassler summarizes the key link between all the novelists he interviewed in this way: “The willingness to be content with what is less than perfect: That’s the quality that appears repeatedly in my conversations, the defining trait that every writer seems to share. You might call that ‘stubborn gladness,’ as [Elizabeth] Gilbert does…You might even say it requires a ‘certain grain of stupidity,’ as Flannery O’Connor once did. Whatever it is, literary art is produced through the dogged acceptance of short-term floundering. It’s the resolve to continue laboring in the service of a task with no clear beginning, no clear end.”

Sounds awful–and wonderful–doesn’t it?

What writerly quality do you relate to the most? How do you corral it so you stay productive?

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31 Responses

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  1. I love hearing from writers. Thank you, Janet. When I think of my favorite novels, it’s hard to believe that the author could think it’s less than perfect, when it’s so perfect to me. But I think self-doubt is always something I can relate to. I struggle with things I say or write … wondering if someone thought I meant this or that.

  2. Thank you. It helps to know self-doubt is a common theme among writers. I remind myself of that and press through. So, the last book could have been better? The next one will be.

  3. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Thank you, Janet.

    This reminds me of Emily Dickinson, who not only felt much of her work had not met her own expectations, but fought on many fronts, as seriously ill, she wrote from bed.
    It may be the fleeting satisfaction of completing something and saying “The End”–but that satisfaction doesn’t last long before we attempt a new challenge.
    Maybe it’s to escape through our characters’ imaginary battles, and believe in most cases, we/they will win, no matter the imperfections in creating those struggles.

  4. “On a given day, the majority of what they write will be bad.” So I am not the only one who deletes more words than I keep. That’s a comfort.
    * I figure that it’s taken the Author and Finisher of my story 60+ years, and he’s God. There are days, surely, when he shakes his head and says, “That would have been better deleted from the get-go” (my errors, of course, never his). He keeps giving me the grace of a do-over. I try to grant myself that same grace.

  5. Carol Ashby says:

    A career in research is great preparation for writing fiction. You know going in that there will be dead-ends and “failures” that are really only experiments that point you in a different direction that can lead to success. The secret to ultimate success, in research or writing, is striving for continual improvement and not quitting just because something goes wrong or gets hard.
    *As I used to remind my research teams when we hit a snag, “With this much manure, there has to be a pony somewhere.” It may take some shoveling, but hard work while keeping our eyes on the end goal, with a dose of prayer to make sure that goal is the one God wants for us, can help us corral that pony.

  6. Janet, what an interesting post, and thank you for the link to the article which inspired it.
    * I’ll probably have my writer’s card revoked (had my man card revoked this morning for admitting that I enjoy doing laundry), but none of these – save one – really resonates with me. I do feel self-doubt, but it’s in my ability to connect with a modern audience, as both my style and outlook are archaic. I don’t doubt my writing skill nor my ability to tell a good story. I may sound as arrogant as a silverback who’s just seen “Kong: Skull Island”, but it’s more akin to the realization a pilot gets through a sudden ‘gelling’ of hand-eye coordination and situational awareness that he can fly anything with wings. It’s not something that can be either learned or taught; it’s a gift. And I suppose I’ve just doubled-down on ego.
    * I’m a little bit nonplussed by ‘unmet expectations’. I don’t look at anything I write as a work of art; it either communicates the message adequately, or it doesn’t. There are always things that could be improved, but personally, I’d have a hard time tolerating the process if the product was a plastic flower compared to the glowing American Beauty of my psyche. I tend to hit pretty much what I aim at (which may mean I set the bar too low).
    * I guess I really look at writing the way I look at building an aeroplane in my living room (and didn’t THAT surprise Barbara when she first visited my house). It’s a long series of tasks, some tedious, some nerve-wracking, and all exacting; I mean, if the workmanship isn’t good enough the machine will kill you. Every set of blueprints has some errors which you find only on assembly (two solid objects cannot occupy the same physical space no matter what the dimensions imply), and every builder misreads drawings (“I kept trimming it and it’s STILL too short!”). But if you keep at it you’ll get it done, and one day there really will be nothing else to do but get in, start the engine, and fly the thing (no, you CAN’T be a beneficiary on my life insurance policy).
    * Those days are behind me now, but while there was satisfaction, there wasn’t ecstasy, and the only agony was found when I drilled through a piece of aluminium into my hand.

  7. Sherry Mondragon says:

    I can relate to the unmet expectations. I can see the story in my mind and feel what I want to evoke in my readers, but find myself hesitating on the brink of the work, afraid that I won’t be able to make it as wonderful on the page as it is in my head. But then I just have to step over the edge, like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, to find there really is a way where it looked like there was nothing but a fall and deadly crash.

  8. Janet, like you, I look with a bit of awe toward those who captivate my imagination with a good story. Even as a young child, my favorite time in school was that wherein the teacher had us lay our heads on our desks as she read to us. I would have been content to lay there all morning and let the story continue.
    Alas, I cannot tell such engaging tales, so I write nonfiction, and yet (unlike Andrew) I identified with every one of your italicized points. I have the opening of a new manuscript complete – the story of a playground incident that occurred when I was in the 5th grade. It is written, saved, and I love it, but have written nothing further on that work. I am consumed with self-doubt, despite that fact that others have described my work in glowing terminology. I am never satisfied with the final product, revising, tweaking, and finally saying “It has to go out the door!”
    The most obnoxious question/accusation that swirls within my head is, “What could you possibly offer anyone through your writing? What makes you believe you have anything to say that others would even want to read, much less be helped by?”
    But like you said, we soldier on.

  9. Angie Arndt says:

    *“Magic” is a great way to describe when I “see” the ultra-wide, IMAX, 3D with Dolby Surround Sound beginning and ending of my story. But the closer I get to the middle, the more I understand Flannery O’Connor’s quote (leave it to a Southern girl to get right to point). I know it’s that old dragon, Self-Doubt, raising its ugly head in my mind.
    *Perseverance is my St. George. I keep spilling bits and pieces of scenes onto my computer screen, keeping the old adage, “you can’t edit an empty page,” in my mind. Whether it’s editable doesn’t matter because even if I throw it away, it still solidifies the story in mind.

  10. I love this. It is encouraging to know they even after all the writing they have done still face the things I face. Although, being highly creative, it doesn’t take me months to come up with something I believe brings across what I want to bring across. I love music, and spoken word. I love the meter of the words, and the sounds and the meanings that come with the sounds. I always read my work out loud multiple times. I write poetry, and at times it flows out like water. Yet, there are other times, I put down what I have, and let it soak, and let it percolate in my brain and heart until something is birthed.

    Loved this post and shared it on my Facebook, for writer friends and friends who wonder what it’s like, or have the dream of “one day” writing a book.

    Thank-you Janet.

  11. Lisa Bogart says:

    Perfect. Just what this floundering author needed today.

  12. Henry Lee wrote a short poem that might be a useful spur to writers:

    “I see no gleam of victory alluring,
    no hope of splendid booty or of gain.
    If I endure, I must go on enduring
    and my sole reward for bearing pain – is pain.
    Yet though the thrill, the zest, and the hope are gone
    something within me keeps me fighting on.”

    * It speaks to me in a different timbre; moving zombie-like through this despairing morning of a Doors-like “Roman wilderness of pain” I have been told directly that I do have that certain grain of stupidity for not giving in, and giving up. Hopeless fights are by definition futile, last stands are both messy and heartbreaking to watch, and maybe the loving critics are right.
    * But I cannot help but think that there is an Author, and while his pen is now dripping red misery through my hours there WILL come a glorious swift sunrise on the dawning of hope fulfilled, for did He not once write something quite similar?
    * I want to see that dawn at journey’s end.

  13. I do find it comforting that other authors–even famous ones!–find writing novels in general so difficult. For me, even though I love it, it often seems like the majority of a first draft is like pulling teeth, though with brief interludes where the words do flow and it’s a delight. It’s also true that I often feel the story isn’t at all meeting up to my expectations–at the same time, though, it seems that in the end, after multiple overhauls and revisions and times of feeling despairingly inadequate to tell this story, I generally am happy with the results, imperfect as it is…but also very aware that it can only be attributed to the grace of God. Which is, indeed, a good place to be. 🙂

    Praying for our Books & Such family affected by the fires today!

  14. Jenny Leo says:

    In her book on the creative process, Growing Gills, Jessica Abel describes the unmet-expectations truth this way: “You have to be able to live with the discomfort of knowing what you want to be able to do, and not being able to do it (YET!) and putting it out there anyway.” (By “putting it out there,” she is not necessarily saying to publish work that’s not ready, but to willingly share our WIP with others to get feedback we can learn from.) Humbling, but a necessary part of the process, and it’s a comfort to know that many of “the greats” feel it, too.

  15. Daphne Woodall says:

    Getting inside the head of artists is most appreciated by other artists. Whether it’s a line of thread, an ink line, a musical line or a typed line we face our inner doubt, hopes and aspirations to make a difference by touching a fellow human with our creative endeavors.

    Thanks for sharing your words Janet.

  16. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Have to make one more comment about a discovery I made earlier today concerning this topic. I enjoy drawing, and was working on an animal portrait as a gift. Well…I don’t know how many times I had to go back to make corrections (revisions?) after I thought it was complete. Couldn’t seem to stop making those changes, thinking it could still be improved in some way. Whether drawing or writing, changing pencil strokes– or words– will only lead to more of the same!

  17. I heard this wonderful interview with Neil Gaiman on the radio. He called his agent part way through writing a new novel and told him that the book was terrible and he couldn’t write it and it would never be anything but junk. He was floored by his agents response. “Oh, you’re at that part of the book.”
    What do you mean? He asked
    Apparently, Gaiman called his agent and said this, every single time he wrote a book. Every time. He was amazed. He didn’t remember thinking that all those best sellers were horrible, only the book that he was on right then. Then the agent said, “Yeah, all of my authors do this.” Gaiman was horrified that not only did he doubt every book he’d ever written, so did all of his agents other authors. He was not even unique in his feelings of despair. I love that.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I can verify, along with Gaiman’s agent, that at a certain point most authors decide the current WIP is trash. The agent’s job is not to throw said manuscript away. Our ever-expanding job description…

  18. JANET, I LOVE TO HEAR OTHERS HAVE THE SAME PROBLEMS I DO AND I’M STILL WORKING ON THE FIRST PARAGRAPH. DEVLEOPING THE STORY LINE FOR MY NEWEST BOOK WAS THE EASY PART AS GOD GAVE IT TO ME IN A DREAM. THE HEARD PART WAS FILLING IN THE BLANKS TO CREATE AN EXCITING 114,000 WORD MYSTERY NOVEL THAT DID JUSTICE TO WHAT GOD GAVE ME. I’M NEVER SATISFIED THAT IT’S AS GOOD AS IT COULD BE BUT IT’S DONE.
    THANKS AGAIN.

  19. Wow this is absolutely true in every way! It is wonderful and awful all wound up in one big messy ball. I am a paper gal so the way I work best is by throwing everything into cheap notebooks, but because I get easily overwhelmed with too many stacks, I sometime struggle with my own way of getting it all down. Recently though I discovered an app which I can take my ideas and lines and put them on my desktop, organizing them a bit more. It has helped me so much, but still — what kept me from writing anything down for a very long time was that I knew when I started writing, it would mess up the perfectly pretty image in my head. And it has lol.