There is a point in every novel I write where I am utterly miserable.  The book is a big mess, full of TKs (“to come”) and notes to myself (“fix this in line with Chapter 22”), sloppy writing and dull characterization.  It feels like it will never, ever be finished, and even if it is, it will be the biggest pile of manure to yet arrive on the literary scene.

I am there now.  It usually lasts 2-3 months, and it is the reason I will procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate until there is no more time—I have to sit my rear down in my chair and put words on the page, day after day after day after day.  All alone.  Me, myself and the blinking cursor and the characters who are nowhere near as charming as I had expected they would be when we first began this journey so long ago.

Day after day after day.

I’ve noticed that it sometimes alarms newer writers when I talk about how much I hate my current book.  Their eyes fly open and they lean in with concern.  “Has it ever felt this way before?” They are afraid that I really am going to embarrass myself, that I’ve stumbled into a the quicksand of writer’s block, that somehow, this will be the end of me.

It’s not. It’s just the process.  I’m miserable mainly because I’m kind of lazy and writing is seriously hard work, seriously hard work.  It takes a lot of physical stamina and mental stamina and a clear head and—

Showing up. Day after day after day after day.

The miraculous thing is, when I actually do get to the place where I have to show up like this, amazing things happen.  I can plan a book as much as I like—write detailed outlines, scene lists, synopses; I can map and collage and color-code as much as I like, but the actual story happens when I sit down, open the window into that other world, and let the characters go, do their thing.  It is only in sitting down, day after day, that I discover that one character, a taciturn ex-soldier, really loves cats, and shows another character a secret about barn cats that has some very strong metaphorical underpinnings for the girl’s journey.  I couldn’t plan that, because I didn’t know it.  It’s only in the writing, only when a character takes a sudden turn into a new action that surprises me, that I learn who she really is beneath her Paper Doll Place Holderness.

Writing a novel is a monumental undertaking, but we do it a paragraph, a sentence at a time.  One step and then the next and then the next.  A quick run back to the top of the page to fix that one word, then on to the next paragraph.  A novel is written one gesture, one action, one tiny goal at a time.  When it seems overwhelming, I can go back to that:  what one thing do I know? I know this character keeps being drawn back to the lavender fields.  What does she do there? What is she discovering–about life, herself, the plants themselves? How does that knowledge change things?

And then….what is the NEXT thing I know?

It can feel sometimes like there are twenty million miles ahead of me, and I’ll never finish at this glacial pace, but day after day after day, I show up and write the next thing I know and the next and the next, and one day, not so far from now, probably, I’ll see that the book has nearly written itself.  That there are a million things in it that I hardly knew before. And what I really had to do, what I have to do every single time, is show up and put my hands on the keys and start writing.

Day after day after day after day.

Do you find yourself despairing at some point in the book?  Is it hard for you to write every day?  When you get to the hard parts, how do you cope? 

 

About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.