Saturday, May 8, 2010

When the Well Runs Dry

Scott D. Parker

(Note: This is not meant to be a pity party on my behalf. I’m just calling things as I see them.)

What do you do when you think everything you write sucks?

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. I’ve nary written a non-blog-related creative word in a couple of months.


Well, the day job has drained all the creative marrow out of me. Hate to say that since I fancy myself a fiction writer but it’s the truth. In the six years I’ve been at my present company, I have never worked as hard as I did this past March and April, to say nothing of this past week. I’m a guy who can get all his work done in the 9-to-5 workday and go home without a care until the following day. These past weeks, I’ve had to take my laptop home multiple times just to keep up. It was rough. But I got through it, much to my employer’s happiness.

That’s not the entire story. For most of March, I was consumed with reading. Not multiple books, mind you, one single book: China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. To say that it blew my mind is an understatement. It’s an incomparable piece of fiction that is almost a genre unto itself. The story took a hold of me and didn’t let go. I had to know what came next and how Mieville was going to challenge my vocabulary with his prose stylings. I consider it a milestone reading experience.

What Perdido Street Station (and Neil Gaiman’s first Sandman story earlier this year) did was shake the foundations of my writing. It didn’t make me doubt I *could* be a writer. I am one. The challenge was what *type* of writer am I. That is, what style suits my particular talents. Then again, a voice in my head makes me wonder if I even have the talent.

The internet community is riff with writers who write one style or genre of story. They do it wonderfully and their stories are always fun to read and enjoyable. My problem is that I like so many styles and genres. My juices get flowing when I read crime, mystery, SF, fantasy, adventure, western, historical, and, in very small doses, romance. I get scatterbrained when it comes to what I want to write. I want to write it all. But I start doubting myself, my ideas. I spread myself too thin. Then I start doubting not my ability to write a story or novel, but to write one readers want to read. And I’m the first reader and the ideas I’m coming up with suck.

Now, veteran writers--those who have written a lot of words--probably have had similar doubts as I have. Moreover, they probably did the obvious course of action: write in a bunch of different genres to determine which genre best suits their writing skills. That’s probably where I am now. But it gets me hamstrung. No sooner do I try out a romancey mystery than I want to jump into a SF adventure. This change of focus usually happens in the middle of a story of one style.

All this whining is just that: whining. Pure and simple. As a professional tech writer, I have to juggle projects. I can’t stop writing one manual in favor of another because then both would be behind schedule. Similarly, as much as I would like to write that SF story while writing the mystery, if I divide my attention too much, neither story gets done. Again, it’s a fundamental edict but I’m just laying it out for my own edification.

Perdido Street Station’s strength was so great that my other reading also wilted in the face of such a magnificent novel. After I finished the book, I was a little spent. This kind of thing happens to me when a book lands on my TBR pile and utterly changes the way I think about writing and reading. In fact, it took me weeks to figure out what to read next.

The problem with reading a book like Perdido Street Station is that doubt creeps in. In his blog, Anthony Bourdain wrote that authors shouldn’t read great books during the composition process because of the damage to one’s own writing ability. I scoffed at the assertion, thinking that good books foster more good books. The more I thought about it, however, a certainty began to creep into my head. Maybe Bourdain is right. But to follow that rule means you have to stop reading altogether when you’re writing (for how else can you guard yourself from stumbling upon a truly great novel from your TBR pile). And that runs counter to Stephen King’s rule of thumb for writers: read a lot and write a lot.

I also won’t stop reading. How can I? It’s in my blood. I might tailor my reading to the style of story I’m writing. Run through the Gabriel Hunt books while I write about my railroad detective Calvin Carter. Read a mystery while I write one. This isn’t hard. In fact, it may be something other writers already do.

On his blog, James Reasoner ruminated about overloading (overdosing?) on fiction. Ironic from a fiction writer and me, a guy who wants to do it. But I think the answer is yes, and it bleeds into writing, too. Almost makes me want to stop blogging for awhile. Or stop reading. Or just stop writing.

I’m a big fan of symbols and imagery. The tagline of my SF/F blog, SF-Safari, is this: “Rediscovering the lost civilization of literary science fiction & fantasy and all the menagerie along the way...” In my writing now, I’m searching for that one story that’ll kick everything back into overdrive. Heck, there’s a part of me that is convinced it’ll never be found. That’s what scares me. That, for whatever reason, my current drought of anything creative will not end.

What do you do when you think everything you write sucks?


Gerald So said...

I've been through similar dry spells, and for me the answer is not to think about what I'm writing; just write it. This is not a radical notion. Every story starts as a super-creative brainstorm. Only after this first, nonjudgmental stage do I begin self-editing. Self-editing too early of course cuts creativity short.

If I break the creative process into smaller steps, I avoid thinking my writing has to be too good at any one point. The only time it has to be excellent is when I finally post or submit the story.

David Cranmer said...

Concentrate on a certain steampunk western. That would be best. Ok, inside joke outta the way, Gerald said it best: "creative process into smaller steps." That's the ticket.

Michael Bracken said...

When you start thinking everything you write sucks, stop reading quality literature. Find and read the worst piece of shit in your TBR pile--or go to the bookstore and find something terrible.

At some point you'll realize, "Hey, I've had diarrhea that didn't smell this bad."

Put that book or story in your writing space where you can easily see it. Every time doubt creeps in, look at it and tell yourself, "My writing is better than THIS, and THIS got published."

Then everything you write will act as literary air freshener to drive the stench of someone else's bad writing from your workspace.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I can tell you this--I am never going near Perdido Street Station. Give me a mediocre book any day. After reading a McEwan or Coetze, I am numb with desperation.
I read the best writers when I am on a vacation and can't write. By the time I get home, I have forgotten how good they are.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I agree with Patti - read the best stuff for the time when you aren't trying to write. For me, I always read outside of my writing genres when I am writing. So no mysteries, suspense/thrillers when I am working in a book.

Often the evil editor in my head tells me my work isn't good enough. That's when I force myself to write at least a page or two every day...those one or two pages a day then turn into three or four and I start to roll. Once the story really starts to take hold and gain momentum, I forget to question my ability to tell it. Until I have to go back and edit. Then I start the process over again.

Scott D. Parker said...

Gerald - I know that I'm not the only one but sometimes, a dry writing spell is like when you can't get to sleep at night and you think you're the only one in the world that's still awake.

David - Smaller steps. Check. Steampunk western. Check. But what if the small steps aren't good...? Work through them.

Michael - Man! That is the funniest (and most truthful) thing I've heard in a long time. However, I usually find the bad books to be old ones. Wonder what new books fit your category?

Patti - If I know in advance a book is going to be great, I read it in a special time. Perdido snuck up on me. I didn't realize it was going to be so good and paradigm-changing.

Joelle - When I was writing my first book, I actually didn't read while I wrote it. Sure, I listened to audiobooks but I ceased reading. Perhaps I'll try that again. And I appreciate how 2-3 pages turns into 5-6. There will be a day in the near future when I look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. I look forward to that day.

Thanks to everyone.

Michael Bracken said...

I would hate to name any book as being particularly bad. After all, even a bad book is usually written with good intentions.

However, the worst books I've read this past year were romances. This isn't an indictment of all romances because I've read some good ones as well. It's just that when a romance goes bad, it seems to go really, really bad.

Barbara Martin said...

If I hit a snag in my writing, I read or do needlework. Sometimes working on sections of a current work-in-progress will help, and worry about the transitions later.