Depression and Other Unsexy Truths

So—I’m behind again. By this point, by my own assessment some weeks back, I should be edging up on 75% done with what is hopefully my penultimate draft for Oath. (Not final, mind you, since that would theoretically negate my editor’s feedback, which is not a polite thing to do.)

But in actuality I’m sitting here at about halfway, if you don’t count the spit-and-polish that’s coming at the end. This is, of course, frustrating. I like things to work out in an orderly way. I have this sense that, by the gods, if I make a deadline, it must happen. You’d think I would know better, but well, no.

A variety of things continue to affect this, and I’d prepared a long post about them last week, but in the end it seemed mostly like whining. So today, since I owe you all an update, I thought I’d touch briefly on them (but with less feeling) and explore how they’ve dug their claws into the process.

Now, I know Conventional Wisdom (and Google) suggests that writer blogs are supposed to be these perpetually upbeat things that tell everyone else out there how to Craft better or how to fix all those pesky problems that (apparently) Brock Bookowitz and/or Writerina McNovelface happen to be immune to. You know, golden advice from Writerly Experts and all that.

But I’ve never liked that kind of thing as much as I’ve liked to know what’s actually going on with the writers whose work I enjoy. Because I’m hopeful somebody will enjoy that same thing from me, I make it a point to be as transparent and honest about my own process as I can. Which is probably for the best, really: I’m not a very good liar when it comes to my own life.

So today, true believers, I’m posting about my old nemesis: Depression.

I try not to give Depression the time of day. He and I have a long history, and he has a tendency to crash parties to which he’s not invited, becoming the center of attention for weeks or months at a time, often with catastrophic results.

I don’t like to admit my depression exists. Who would? After all, it’s one of those things that isn’t easily explained even by someone who’s a long-time case (though Allie Brosh over at Hyperbole and a Half does what is probably the best job ever—see Part One and Part Two for maximum effect).

Since Oath was and remains very important to me, my process has included a massive effort to shore up my defenses against such a possibility. Nothing, by Crom, was going to get in and ruin this. Nothing was going to screw this up. Especially not that sneaky bastard Depression.

But of course, like the soul-sucking ninja that it is, my depression found a way to sneak in and wreak its usual havoc. I’m not even going to pretend I’m done wrestling with it, but by this point I can at least pinpoint its role in what has been a multi-month stall on a quick, brutal set of revisions.

I’m pretty sure it managed to slip past my defenses when my fatigue hit. The sheer exhaustion begat fear, and between them they set up a feedback loop of desolation in which everything sounded horrible, every idea was useless, and every attempt to improve the text looked like crap.

I tried to think my way out of it. I tried to write my way out of it. Lately I’ve tried to research my way out of it. But none of those things really seem to help, and it’s occurred to me that this is so because, at the root of everything, I’m sitting at the bottom of a funk.

It’s better than past funks, which I have spent as a disheveled, shambling shell of a human being barely capable of speech (not to mention work or school), but it’s there all the same. And the most insidious aspect of this fact is that it has sucked my enthusiasm for the work right out of my soul.

To make my point, I hit a stage early last week where I no longer cared about the manuscript, the characters, the story—any of it. You know, fuck them, because—well, fuck them.

(I know, I know: real mature.)

This commenced several days of just staring at the screen, despising everything about Oath of Blood, wishing I’d never started it to begin with. This is, of course, irrational.  I’ve put almost a year of my life into this thing, and by the time I’m completely done that mark will certainly have passed.

And if I really think hard about it, I of course do like my characters and the story with which I’ve chosen to torture them. I don’t think I would have hung onto it all this long if the frustration pointed to a real dissatisfaction with the project on the whole.

But the problem was (and to some degree remains) that I cannot find it in myself to care, at least not in the way that carried me before. I’m still working—mostly because I’m stubborn and because I have friends and potential readers who deserve a finished product that’s worth their time.

But functionally? Right now I feel like I have exactly no shits left to give.

Experience tells me this will change with time and effort, but since we’re being honest here (for good or for ill) such is the state of things in the moment.

All of this naturally leads to a sense that I have lost faith in myself, lost faith in the work, lost faith in the idea that the whole thing is worth doing. Another chain of irrational thoughts, yes, but they follow one right after the other, like cigarettes stubbed out in my ash tray, and they are relentless.

I don’t know if others experience the process in this way. Maybe I’m the only one. In any case, the fact remains that writing can be a lonely, desolate thing. You go through the wasteland of your own mind with precious little assistance, and some days, even the best of help isn’t enough.

If I were feeling up to being pithy, I would quip about how I can channel that to write better about being miserable and the existential woe of the human experience—you know, or something. But that’s just a yarn you spin if you want to make infuriating delays and blocks sound epic.

Translation: it’s a bluff. The reality is actually pretty unsexy. It’s not something I’d wish on anyone.

But stubbornly, the work continues, and as miserable as I think I feel right now, the hard hand of experience has taught me that I will be more miserable if I quit. Just about nothing in the world is worse than the ghost of a might-have-been. So—onward. But first I think I’ll top off my coffee.

Apologies, Deadlines, and (Finally) Some Progress

One of the purposes of this blog, at least from my perspective here, is helping me to both own and reflect on my process. Naturally, part of that process is dealing with mistakes, as you’ve seen if you’ve been reading along for even a few posts.

The one I’ll be talking about today is what we could call a problem of time-frame if we’re being diplomatic—or, if we’re not, we can call it issues of pride, overconfidence, and newbie stupidity. Take your pick: it all works out about the same.

A post or two back I mentioned that, until Oath of Blood, I’d never before endeavored to take a long work all the way through the process of editing and revisions. So when I went into the matter, I only had a vague idea of how long it would take.

Consequently, I set out some deadlines for myself and, thinking it would be a healthy motivator, made those public and even hinged a couple of local launch events on them. The first of those was supposed to happen tonight.

Unfortunately, as you can probably gather, that’s not going to be happening.

I sent out messages to that effect to everyone who’d indicated they were either interested in coming or would be coming to those events. Still, I’m feeling like a heel today (and rightly so) for having set those expectations and then failed them.

We could just chalk it up to a honest error or to “the process” or whatever, but I think that’s a cop-out. Instead, I think it’s more an issue of ignorance and pride, mixed with a hefty side of overconfidence.

Consequently, today’s post is an examination of that, an apology to everyone who had indicated they had an interest in those canceled events, and an update on where things stand right now.

The first thing that bears saying is that this is, without a doubt, my fault. I’m not going to blame fate or depression or the numinous process of revisions or anything like that. This is me. I set a deadline for myself, believed with utter honestly that I would meet that deadline, and fell flat on my face.

Now, granted, if I’d gone into my revisions with the knowledge base I have now, I might have been able to finish according to the timeline I set. But the fact remains that I did not. I only had a vague understanding of how the process would affect my ideal internal timeline, and I fumbled this one.

The second thing is that, because it’s my error, I owe anyone who intended to go to those events my unconditional apologies.  I set an expectation and failed to make good on it. I have quite possibly screwed up folks’ plans, cost them an evening off from work, or just plain let them down.

Although I sent out messages to such people letting them know what had happened, I still worry that some of them are going to show up at the predetermined venues, wait around on me a bit, and go home disappointed and angry. If they do, well, I’d say that’s their right.

For anybody to whom that applies, contact me. I will do my level best to make it right for you. 

Third, this is a lesson I intend to take fully to heart. It doesn’t undo any problems the current confusion may cause, but it has taught me a great deal about my own time needs, about setting expectations, and about the “public face” of this whole affair.

Initially, I think I had some erroneous belief to the effect of, If you set a deadline, things will fall into place. That is, of course, some bullshit. Deadlines are good, but they’re not magic. They’re also not helpful if they don’t take the actual time-frame of the process into account.

Which is, to be clear, something I should have known. But here we are, all the same.

And speaking of where we are, I do have some substantial updates for you.

This weekend I’m wrapping up final adjustments to the first act of the story (about the initial 25% of the text). As of now, I am on schedule to send the manuscript back to the editor in early August, as we appear to have broken whatever hold my structuring confusion had on me.

What this means is that while I am, yes, behind my initial schedule, things are moving again, and in a way that inclines itself to both improvement and relatively rapid completion. I say relatively rapid because things like this don’t happen overnight—but in the larger scheme of things, coming out of a three-month rut makes wrapping things up inside a month seem like FTL travel.

Naturally, when I’ve made the last keystroke, the manuscript is going back to the editor, and her schedule is such that she takes about a month. So provided my ability to meet this new deadline, I’m looking at knowing what last tweaks will need to be made by early September. With those adjustments made, we’ll be able to begin the layout process shortly thereafter.

But first things first.

And, again, my apologies.

In Which I Battle Writer’s Fatigue

I knew when I set out to tackle Oath of Blood that it would be a whole new experience, most notably because it would be my first finished novel-length work. Though I’d written a handful of (mostly awful) short stories and had been banging out longer yarns of varying degrees of awfulness off and on since junior high school, I’d never fully finished a novel.

Oh, I’d written novels before. I wrote one maybe a decade ago during a period of substantial downtime and threw it out in a fit of disgust shortly thereafter. Later I penned a duology: two Sword & Sorcery yarns, each about 55,000 words, that are currently sitting on my hard drive and in my cloud storage.

After a fashion, they’re done in that they start, have something approaching a substantive middle, and they end. But they’re also both deeply flawed and will need a thorough rewrite that they may, honestly, not be worth. I’ve also got about 80% of Bannerman of Mercury in a typescript in a box and the rest of it neatly synopsized. But it, too, has its issues, and it’s going to need a lot of love.

So, as I said: I’d written plenty, but I’d never finished one.

Still, at first glance that didn’t seem like a big deal. After all, I had a plan: I’d get advice. I’d hire an editor. And then, using the knowledge gained from such interactions, I’d fix any problems, shine up the text, and be ready to rock and roll. I had this thing figured out. But there was one thing I left out of the equation: the soul crushing fatigue that sets in toward the end of a long project.

Oath, as will be known to those who’ve followed its progress from the start, is edging toward its one-year anniversary as a work in progress. I first had the rough beginnings of the idea in July of 2012, and in August I drafted the initial plan for a 3-part arc. In September I started writingOath (then with another working title), the first volume, in earnest, and right at the New Year I finished the first novel-length rough draft of the thing.

At that point I sent it to some beta readers and an editor, and I had a few weeks off. That was beneficial for me, as I’d just lost my cat of a dozen years. As sappy as it might sound to those of you who aren’t animal lovers, it was a blow to me, and I needed some time to adjust to the loss.

But after that time was up, I got down to the dirty business of revisions. I worked doggedly through the rest of the winter and the early spring, went another editorial round—and realized I had a critical rewrite on my hands.

That was in April, and we’re into July now. With the exception of the short stints when the manuscript has been with betas or an editor, and excepting a 4-day vacation in May, I’ve been staring at it every day straight for fully 10 months, usually from 4-8 hours a day or more, depending on the constraints of my schedule at my day job.

Much of that time has been spent revising. Rewriting. Re-revising. Re-rewriting.

And—to be honest? I’m exhausted.

But I’ve also got a fair distance still to go before I’m done.

And that is the most disheartening feeling in the world.

For those who have written professionally a long time and who are acquainted with the game, I’m sure this comes as no shock. I don’t have any illusions that my situation is special, unless it’s just that I’m especially unskilled at the game. But it is a new experience for me all the same.

I’d thought, going into it, that elements of the process would in some ways resemble writing my graduate thesis. That document was submitted and accepted at around 30,000 words. It took me about 6 months to write, and anyone who knew me during that time knows what a mind-melting process it was. Many coffee mugs were hurled at the wall in frustration. I passed countless days shut up in the office in a disconnected haze, and I probably would never have emerged except that I had to go to campus to work.

But all that paid off in that, in the end, I was confident about the text, confident about what I had to say, ready to walk into my defense and slug it out and graduate. Which is how it came to pass, though it was more just nervous sweating in a suit than any kind of combat. There were no obstacles left at that point. I had, I discovered, slain all the monsters along the way, and mostly it was a nice chat and a thumbs-up—and then some of us went out to lunch and drank beer and that was that.

So inasmuch as I’d been through the crucible that way, I felt I had at least something of a grip on what we might call the industrial side of the writing process: get in, get to work, get through, get it done. Do that, and work like a dog, and the payoff follows inevitably—at least that was the idea. But somehow that hasn’t really transferred. Or, if it has, I haven’t felt it yet.

And again, if you’ve been playing the fiction game for a long time, this probably all sounds normal—that or I’m outing myself as a real hack.

In any case, right now I’m at that low point where, every time I look at the page, my blood pressure skyrockets (and not just because of all the chain-smoking). I stare at the text and I’m overwhelmed with how horrid it all is, and how I’m a piece-of-shit writer, and how I should have just kept on daydreaming instead of embarking on this hare-brained quest—and all this when the plot has never been more solid and the pacing has never been more on-target.

That’s why I know this thing is an illusion.

Granted, my fears about the quality of the text are sound, at least in their way.  I’m a hopeless perfectionist, and I’d like very much to be instantly awesome and up for whatever indie types can win instead of Hugos or Nebulas. And, of course, while I’m better than I was at 13 (thank the gods), I’m not there. And I want to be, not for the bauble or prize, but for the achievement it represents.

Still, at the end of the day, the whole “my work is a boiling cesspool of suck” thing is a phantasm, and I’ve danced with it before. It showed up at the end of my thesis. It’s showed up at all points in my life when it was time to cinch up the old war-girdle and fight on. At times, I’ve come apart and quit. At others, as with the thesis, I’ve pushed through and succeeded.

So I know I’m fighting ghosts. But the thing about ghosts is that they’re hard to beat—at least in conventional ways. At this point the only way I know is to push on in spite of them. But that is, naturally, easier said than done. It cultivates a certain exhaustion that drags at the soul, imparts a sense of things that says, “You will never be done. You will endure this doubt forever.”

That, too, is normal as I understand it. We’re never wholly done with anything, and what looks acceptable now might be a far cry from what would be acceptable ten years from now. Or, as it’s been the case with Oath, even six months out.

The real question, then, appears to be not When is it perfect?, but rather When is it good enough?

In the mainstream market, where one does the dance of agents and publishers and editors and such, there’s a way to know: it’s good enough when They say it is. When They accept it and pay you for it. In many ways, that’s like my graduate work. It was ready when my committee chair said it was ready, and that fact was confirmed when I got to graduate.

But indie is a different game. It’s in many ways only up to me to know when that moment is, and I’m a hard person to please when it comes to my own work. I always see what it could be, if only this—if only that. And I start to think that maybe that’s what’s dragged out the revisions process so long. That hard part is knowing which of those whispers is the writer’s instinct and which of them is the specter of treadmilling perfectionism. Which one is the ally? Which is the enemy?

As of just now, I don’t have an answer, but I’m tired enough to be ready to find one.