I appear to have become completely nocturnal. Am now wild-haired as well as wild-eyed. Badly need a shave, too. God, I love being an author. –Neil Gaiman
I love that quote, and had it as my signature on the old Black Library forums for ages. In the last stages of finishing something I’m always distracted, twitchy and usually tired – a day job, for all its benefits, doesn’t allow me the luxury of becoming completely nocturnal although I know I would if I could. There’s also a weird swing between exhilaration and exhaustion, the excitement at seeing the closure of a project coming up and the weary wondering why it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.
I’m put in mind of another Gaiman anecdote, from the writing of American Gods. (I had a hunt on his blog to find it but haven’t been able to – if you know where it is please let me know so I can link it.) About two-thirds of the way through the book, the writing had become mired. New words were exruciatingly hard to push out, and everything he’d written up until that point seemed lifeless and worthless. The book, he was convinced, was an unsalvageable mess. He couldn’t understand why writing it had seemed like a good idea; he couldn’t understand why writing had seemed like a good idea. He soldiered on through this for a while, but apparently in the end he got on to his agent and explained that he couldn’t go on, couldn’t do this, he was so sorry but he’d wasted everyone’s time, he wasn’t a writer, this wasn’t going to work.
The reply he got was words to the effect of “oh, right, you’re about two-thirds through it, right? Happens to everyone. Keep going and it’ll pass.” Which left Gaiman with not only the realisation that he wasn’t going to get out from under the book, but also with the rather annoying news that what he was going through wasn’t even terribly special – it was just that two-thirds-of-the-way blues. I’ve heard similar stories from quite a few other writers who hit the mire at that point. Not just “this isn’t going well”, but “this was a waste of time from the start, this’ll never work, I was stupid to think I could ever pull this off, oh shit I’ve spent all the advance and now I’ll have to give it back…” Happened to me the worst with Crossfire and the least with Junktion but it hit with every long piece and a couple of the shorts.
What makes it worth it is what happens a little while after you clamber out of the far side of all that. If the two-thirds mark is a mire, then the final stretch you hit after that is like a freshly-powdered ski slope. Suddenly you can feel the story moving under you and carrying you along as it rushes down to the end. Suddenly the plot threads start neatly arranging themselves into place; suddenly you can look back along the story and see all the work you’ve done with this weird, vivid clarity. Story elements that didn’t seem to work when you wrote them, or that even had you uncertain of what you were going to do with them, suddenly mesh neatly together in patterns you may not even have consciously realised they were going to take. I remember reading a Garth Nix article describing that experience and how exhilarating it is. The story’s rushing towards its end so fast that you can feel your blood humming with the speed and your hair whipping back in the slipstream.
I’ve found that that second point on the progression isn’t as universal as the first (hah, figures). Blind was a slogging drag to the finish line, but I definitely had that pedal-to-the-metal feeling finishing Legacy and Junktion and with some shorter pieces like “Seven Views of Uhlguth’s Passing” I was lucky enough to have it all the way through the piece. There’s a reason that I often go home from my writing nights bouncing with each step, grinning like a loon and humming to myself.
As in so many things, simple self-knowledge is a powerful tool and being able to navigate through a long writing project knowing about the phases I pass through is very valuable. It doesn’t do away with them entirely but being able to say “Agh, this is going nowhere, why did I ever think I could- wait, huh, stage one of the Gaiman-Nix” is a huge step up from not having that recognition at all, especially when I know that so many other writers with so much more experience than I go through exactly the same thing.
I keep finding parallels between writing and exercise, and this is another one. Experience doesn’t take away the horrible sensation of hitting the wall during an exercise bout, but it allows you to recognise it for what it is and think “okay, I’ve been here before, I can do this” instead of “oh shit oh shit what’s happening I’m going to die”.
Anyway, just something that’s been in my thoughts a bit lately.
The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”
I was shocked. “You mean I’ve done this before?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients.”
I didn’t even get to feel unique in my despair.
So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.
Note to producers: “Neil Gaiman turns bank robber” needs to be a movie.