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.