The View From Book Six

photo by Jonathan Kos-Read

You’d think it gets easier to write a book after the first two or three have been published, wouldn’t you?  Well, it doesn’t.  Ask any writer — each book throws up a whole new set of problems and headaches and makes you feel as if you’ve never written anything remotely sensible or insightful in your life.

Sad, but true.

I’ve just published my sixth full-length novel, in addition to short stories, a novella and some picture books, and nearly all of them have been hell to write in one way or another.  I console myself with the thought that if writing were easier, everyone would want to do it.  After all, it’s one of the few jobs you can do without changing out of your pajamas.  No wonder we love it so much.

The thing I find hardest is plot.  Any story arc I manage to squeeze out of my walnut-sized brain is always an emotional arc – protagonist starts off selfish and sad and ends up altruistic and happy-ish, or at least a bit wiser.  But as to HOW that happens – to be honest, I don’t really care all that much.  This is when I need a team of James Patterson-style clone-assistants or James Frey’s writing factory drones.  “Fill in the story,” I’d command imperiously, and then go back to sleep.

But they probably wouldn’t do it right.  Which would make me cranky.  And I wouldn’t be satisfied with the result.  So I’d have to go back and think about it some more, tear my hair out, phone my agent and sound mournful, tell my husband I’ve lost my touch and we’re going to starve, phone up all my writer friends and ask if they have any plots they’re not using right now, and eventually, drag some miserable bit of story kicking and screaming into the world, slap it onto the pre-existent emotional arc and pray it works.

A fair amount of cutting, pasting, patching, invisible weaving, and airbrushing comes next, and at the end of months of agonizing misery, voila!  A book crawls and scrapes and limps its way into the light.

“Wow,” says the sweet guy interviewing me for a literary festival some months later.  “You make it look so easy.”

And I deck him.

Whenever I do any teaching, I inevitably get twenty-five middle aged aspiring writers sitting around a table looking mournful. “I got halfway through my book,” they all say, “and then I got stuck.”

This is when I think a cattle prod would come in handy for creative writing classes.  “Of course you get stuck you silly people,” I practically scream.  “Getting stuck is what happens.  Everyone gets stuck!”

“Well, so, what do we do?” they chorus in funereal tones.

“You work harder,” I tell them.  “You snap at your family, you feel depressed, you waste time on Facebook and Twitter, you clean the house (but only when you’re really desperate), you devour whole cakes, you pace, you despair.  You read other peoples’ books that are better than any you’ll ever write and you cry.  Eventually you get so desperate that you just write some nonsense, and if you’re lucky, something in that nonsense clicks with something in your brain, and you start to see a way through.  If you’re not lucky, it doesn’t click, and you have to be depressed for another day.  Or a week or a month.”

They stare at me, mouths open, twenty-five identical versions of Munch’s portrait, The Scream.

“Yup,” I say. “That’s what you do.  That’s what I and everyone I know does, anyway.”

Sometimes I feel sorry for them and tell them what Picasso said about the muse: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

Of course working can take many forms, and sometimes the better part of sanity requires going to a 2pm film or sneaking off to ride a horse.

Having said all that, Picture Me Gone was a relatively easy novel to write.  But it took me months to sit down and start it, months during which I can only assume my brain was up there composting material, organizing characters and preparing the ground – so all I had to do was to come along and set up my tent.  They were terrifying months, however, months during which I was convinced I would never write another book.

The book features a man who leaves his wife and baby, and a twelve year old girl who sets off with her father to find him.  No one knows why he left.  I didn’t either when I started.  I didn’t know until about the 12th draft.  It was nerve-wracking, but I wrote on, and eventually he revealed to us all what he was up to.  Phew.

As for book seven?  As of this writing I’m hopelessly, despairingly stuck.

By the time this appears, I expect to be dancing around merrily with total amnesia about how much I hate writing.

“What’s it like being a writer?” I’ll say.  “Best job in the world.”

What holds you up while working through a draft? How do you get beyond it?

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About Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston, educated at Harvard and worked in NYC for ten years before moving to England permanently in 1989. She wrote her first novel, How I Live Now, (released late 2013 as a feature film starring Saoirse Ronan), at age 46. Her books have won or been shortlisted for 19 international book prizes, including the Carnegie medal and the Michael J Printz award. Picture Me Gone, her sixth novel, was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Award . She lives in London with her husband and daughter.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m only on book two and while some things are easier (outlining, researching, plotting), the REAL writing isn’t. It’s interesting to see your take 6 books deep. I love this bit:

    “You snap at your family, you feel depressed, you waste time on Facebook and Twitter, you clean the house (but only when you’re really desperate), you devour whole cakes, you pace, you despair. You read other peoples’ books that are better than any you’ll ever write and you cry. Eventually you get so desperate that you just write some nonsense”

    How true this is! It made me crack up because you pretty much nailed the process.

    Good luck with book 7!

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  2. says

    Wow. You nailed it. A truly unabashed description of life as a novelist. I’ve only written a couple and have started the third. How did I get through them? The only answer I can come up with is that I must carry a little perverse DNA somewhere in my genes that when I’m stuck or hate the story pops up and says “Oh yeah? Really?” and sort of kicks my psyche in the butt and makes me type on. I hate it so much I love it. So I guess perverse works.

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  3. says

    Meg-

    “I got halfway through my book,” they all say, “and then I got stuck.”

    As you see from your students, you are not alone. Many authors discover their story while doing multiple drafts. It can be scary and frustrating. It can feel like all past experience is useless, that the process must be reinvented every time.

    Your are also not alone in coming up short in the middle, and not knowing the end. This is so common. I know it because as an agent I read many, many manuscripts by writers who are not yet as wise as you. They are still many drafts from finished but, not knowing, submit even so.

    In terms of coming up with plot, I have a tool to recommend: duct tape. Stick with me. (As it were.) For characters who are on an emotional journey, the “plot” in a way is the externalization of what’s happening inside. It’s events that enact–in a sense symbolize–the enormous transformation that’s underway. It’s change made visible.

    So, duct tape…when stuck, tell your protagonists to stand still and then duct tape her mouth shut. Now ask your protagonist to *show” us how she feels, to enact what she’s going through. What does she *do*? Take that and magnify it. Make it bigger, unmissable, gossip worthy or even news worthy.

    When characters must move, things happen. Events arrive. The sequence of events that illustrate the steps in a journey of change–think Odysseus’s journey home–is what we sometimes label “plot”.

    One doesn’t have to figure out plot events in advance. Some can wait until draft twelve. What’s important is to trust the process, as you so aptly say, but also to not let despair or housecleaning sidetrack you for too long.

    There are tools in your head, heart and fingertips just as there are in your closet. They’re easier to get out, too. All you have to do is remember that they’re there.

    Great post. It’s going to resonate with a lot of writers, I suspect.

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    • Linda Thomsen says

      Both Meg Rosoff’s article and your comment encouraged and uplifted us, just when we needed it. Humour and empathy always help and can even inspire one. Get back to work and above all, don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. (I know from experience there’s nothing more debilitating — I have MS (and no, wheelchairs are NOT fun) but dwelling on one’s problems, no matter what they are, is lethal.)
      If nothing else, start a NEW book and sometimes that essential spark for your old book flames. Odd unexpected things happen when writing. That’s the fun of it all.
      Plus, those dusty age-old aspects of perseverance, patience, and the longing to do one’s best no-matter-what gradually burst into bloom.
      Shakespeare was right: “Our doubts are traitors,
      And make us lose the good we oft might win
      By fearing to attempt.”
      Thanks again!
      Linda

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  4. says

    I’ve been procrastinating getting started on the next book since April. I plot, I worry, I waste time, I worry, I write a little, I worry. I keep talking to people, saying I need to get started and then wonder where the heck my resolve and determination have gone. Now I don’t feel so very useless. Thanks for sharing that sometimes, it’s just part of the process and to trust it and just keep going. :)

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  5. says

    Meg,
    This reminds me of the Steven Pressfield’s interview with Oprah on her Soul Sunday broadcast yesterday. I read his book, THE WAR OF ART, years ago and his view of the Law of Resistance stuck with me. As he says, the more we want something, the more Resistance tries to squash it – from procrastination to self-negating thoughts about our work. He believes Resistance doesn’t come from us (which is refreshing) but that it’s a force like gravity – it always simply Is. And yet our awareness of it can slay the dragons and we write on.

    I do think writing is a tough journey, which is why it’s so rewarding. I’m also on book 7 (plus a few novellas) and each time it’s exhausting and exhilarating.

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  6. says

    I laughed at this, but felt enormously comforted too. I have just self-published my first novel In the Wake of the Coup. I worry because people tell me I must plan a book out beforehand, but if I try that plots disappear into some unreachable dark place. But one day a few words, a possible title pops into my mind and I sit down and write, often wondering where certain characters and ideas have sprung from. My writing is a journey of discovery, that’s what makes it, for me, such an exciting thing to do.

    And when the ideas don’t seem to work, I take myself off to rejoin the world. So far, as I drop off to sleep or lift one leg across the rim of the bath, the solution to my problem has appeared. Just finished the first draft of my next novel, though I have several lurking on my computer that I’m swithering about. But at present the one I’m working on is claiming my full attention.

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  7. says

    This is so helpful. I started a novel years ago. I’ve gotten stuck many times (largely because real life has been such a challenge that I didn’t have the energy to keep plugging at the book too) and I’d end up putting it aside for ages and feeling like a failure. I eventually keep going back and picking it up and working some more, but I’ve still felt like I should be done by now, that I’ve made it too hard or that I’m just not good enough. It’s so reassuring to read posts like this one and know that it’s not easy and takes oodles of drafts and false starts and patience and plodding determination… it makes me think that I’m not that different from other writers and one of these days I’ll get through it. :-}

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  8. says

    This blog post is one of the most encouraging things I’ve read in a long time. My co-facilitator and I hand out things at the Writer’s Workshop at the local public library and everyone is getting a copy of this tomorrow night. (Links don’t do the trick … we even have a poet in the group who doesn’t “do” computers.)

    Cleaning the house as a last resort is often what will tip the scales in favor of sitting down and slogging. The whole notion of writing just —ANYTHING!—is true, simple and effective for all the reasons you mention above.

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! (Please excuse the caps in this comment. I am giddy with “YESSSS!” and “SO TRUE!” etc.)

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  9. says

    I try to find ‘related’ work – maybe I’ll do more research, or I’ll go back to page 1 and read the whole thing. You have to know why you’re stuck–is it the aforementioned research issue, or a character isn’t exactly who you thought he’d be, or he’s too close to achieving his goal, so you have to throw more obstacles in his way. Writing is work. Once you accept that you have to show up at the office every day and that some days will be better than others, you plow forward. (Coincidentally, I’ve been blogging about the creative process based on a Sisters in Crime workshop I took prior to Bouchercon.

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  10. says

    Oh, yes, I feel much better reading your post. I never, ever thought I could write a book. And then I did. And each successive book I believed was my last. I finished book five this year and now I’m once again getting that “old feeling” again that THAT book was my last. Knowing all writers feel this way has made my day, in a rather peculiar way. Now I know I’ll be able to write book six. Thank you.
    Patti

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  11. says

    You’ve described in astonishing detail what I go through, and I haven’t even published. Somehow I get through. Time and again I make peace with frustration and torment. I invite them in, pour coffee, and try to ignore that they’re trashing the house I don’t have time to clean.

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  12. says

    Great post!

    I saw a hilarious graph on another writer’s blog which I caged (with proper credit, of course) for my own a while back (back before I put my blog on what’s starting to look like permanent hold).

    Here’s the link–Ack, I just realized have no idea how to leave a link-I suck at html. Okay let’s try this:
    maybe this linked worked or maybe not

    If that didn’t work, here’s the address if you’re interested enough to copy and past (honestly, the graph is pretty funny but maybe not worth this much trouble) http://melissadecarlo.com/2011/08/22/on-setting-the-right-tone/

    After all of that, if you’d rather not go there, just picture a v-shaped line with several points along both sides, but the bottom one is labeled, “Dark Night of the Soul.” This is exactly what I’ve experience every time I’ve written a book (and a half a half-finished one that remains a sad illustration of just how easy it is to give up right around that 50K mark)

    I don’t have Meg’s perspective looking back at six books finished and published. I’m as of yet unpublished (well other than short stories and essays etc…but no books. My novel is still in what feels like an endless agent-advised revision process-ARG!) But just knowing that everybody struggles in the middle helped me feel less alone.

    And I love Donald Maas’s duct-tape comment. I’m going to remember that on my next book, when I head downhill to my next Dark Night of the Soul.

    Once again a Writer Unboxed post is a big-time winner!

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  13. Sevigne says

    Meg, you are in fine form. What’s not to love about everything you wrote: It’s all true!

    I do think we have to hear lots of times that everyone gets stuck in the middle. For a long time I didn’t know that. Like you, I often know the emotional arc of the character(s) long before I figure out the plot. it’s scary because plot-driven writers don’t have this problem. Figuring out plots is hard. I don’t want to be decked, but you do make it look easy. No wonder your students are gob smacked when you tell them everyone gets stuck in the middle.

    I hope you are now a happy amnesiac, writing book number 7 in full throttle (lucky number…seven…in magic and other arcane disciplines).

    xxxs

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  14. says

    It sure resonated with me, Meg. I am about where you are, production wise, ie, a lifer. A former professor of creative writing, I used to tell students two things when they got stuck: one, go back to the beginning and see what you started; and, two, see what you can draw out of your character. I recently published the third book in a trilogy that I began in 1989 (not knowing I was going to write two more books about the same characters!) It was great fun (well, the kind of fun writers have) to imagine the characters developing over twenty years. In the third novel, one of the main arcs concerns a young man who existed only as an unwanted pregnancy in the first. In the second he appeared as a boy who liked to make up stories; in the third, an identity thief. To me, plot has to arise from character. I really enjoyed your post. You sound like a kindred spirit and I intend to order one of your books today.

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  15. says

    Great post! As another who has changed careers mid-stream, I was inspired that you wrote your first novel at 46, and decided to buy one of your books – even more pleased when I saw that you write YA books, as I am working on my first. I just sent How I Live Now to my Kindle, and look forward to reading it.

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  16. says

    I can so relate to this!

    “You snap at your family, you feel depressed, you waste time on Facebook and Twitter, you clean the house (but only when you’re really desperate), you devour whole cakes, you pace, you despair. You read other peoples’ books that are better than any you’ll ever write and you cry. Eventually you get so desperate that you just write some nonsense, and if you’re lucky, something in that nonsense clicks with something in your brain, and you start to see a way through.”

    I’m just now pulling myself out of the reading other books and crying bit. My last book was a story I always knew I’d write and once I was done with it I hardly knew what to do with myself. I thought I’d never get another idea, and I’ve been writing nothing beyond blog posts for longer than I care to admit. FINALLY, a story is percolating.

    I’m sure a lot of writers will relate to this post, Meg.

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  17. says

    Trust me: it doesn’t get any easier, even if you know, almost from Day 1, exactly where the plot is going – and haven’t deviated in years.

    You still have to write the thing, to motivate all those plot twists, especially the ones that are both crucial and unique (ie, no one is going to believe he’d do that – so you have some work to do to persuade the reader that yes, he would).

    You still have to show the character, the development, the arc, all the bits and pieces that get a reader to “yes!” at the end.

    And every little bit of it is work.

    So? Like the ladies in your group: the difference between finished and unfinished is called work. If you want to learn how, you can: identify a problem, find a solution, repeat.

    I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
    Alicia

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  18. says

    Bravo, Meg,
    As to what gets me unstuck, it’s usually music — something evocative & either instrumental or sung in a language I don’t speak. Of course, there’s also sweeping the house, or painting a room, or fixing the gate…

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  19. says

    So true, Meg. This reminds me of a saying my dad used to tell us when we were kids: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Writers must learn to work through the rough patches. Take a walk. Get away from your computer. Brainstorm. Consider all the possibilities. Discover the essence of your story. It’s not easy. That’s why so few people do it well. Great post!

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  20. says

    this was better than a lot of short stories i’ve read – including some of mine! ;-)

    munch’s scream, huh? oh i can see that!

    esp liked (and was encouraged by) –

    “…a man who leaves his wife and baby, and a twelve year old girl who sets off with her father to find him. No one knows why he left. I didn’t either when I started. I didn’t know until about the 12th draft….”

    that, i imprint into my mind and heart, “is” heart

    all the (continued) very best meg :-)

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  21. says

    It felt so good to hear that someone else goes through the same trauma even on the sixth book. Here I am on the second and I know I’ll be writing twelve drafts because that’s the only way I can really work through the plot.

    “Sometimes I feel sorry for them and tell them what Picasso said about the muse: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.””

    I don’t think I’d have it any other way, actually. It’s the pain of the process that’s makes the final draft so dear to my heart and so much a part of who I am.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  22. says

    “Of course you get stuck you silly people,” I practically scream. “Getting stuck is what happens. Everyone gets stuck!”

    That’s so succinct and direct. I think I might actually start next year’s creative writing course with that rather than wait for the issue to crop up. And I’ll add this post to the list of recommended reading as it’s a perspective they could really do with. Great stuff!

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  23. says

    Thanks, Meg. Of course that’s what it’s like and I forget it because sometimes I’ve written books that were easy.
    Book ten ( or it may be 13) is the worst yet. The first draft took three weeks about three years ago. I’ve been stuck ever since.
    Just stumbling on now, finding the fog clearing a little and so this was a very timely reminder that writing is like that. It is has really bad bits.

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  24. says

    I always think of the example of one of my books: I wrote it, I considered it Done, and it seemed so easy! why that book flew out of me! Wheehaw! Fiddle-dee-dee- until . . . until I sent it to my editor, went to bed, and woke up on a panic – emailing her at 2 in the morning crying “STOP! STOP! WAIT! It’s not done after all!” and then ripping the bedevil jeebus out of that book while in a fit of panic and doubt and omg omg omg omg omg.

    I shudder to think if I’d have not done that.

    Which is why I shudder to think of every novel – what if I write the wrong book and the right book is nestled inside and I don’t see it and then it’s too late and then . . . *pant pant*

    Yeah -best job in the world, but I have torn out hair and a lost 10 pounds from the last book. I have stress stomach from worrying. I have NYT Best-seller envy stretch marks on my brain. But still, it really is the best job in the world . . . because it’s the only one I’ve ever been remotely good at, and the only one I’m not bored with mere weeks, or sometimes days, after doing it.

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  25. Elaine W. says

    All too true, especially the part about the cake. (Pie, cheesecake, M & M’s)
    But really, what else would we do? I can’t not write. Neither can you.

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  26. says

    Ha ha, Elaine, try me. I spend a lot of time fantasizing about being rich enough to lie in a hammock and just read books for a decade without writing anything. Not going to let go of that dream…..

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  27. says

    Thank you, Meg, for the reminder that we are all normal AND that publication does not make the process any easier.

    I could read your writing all day long. Thank you for giving us Book Six!

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  28. Miranda Myers says

    Great post! It’s very comforting to know that I am not the only one who devours whole cakes instead of just sitting down and working through my writing. :) I have found that sometimes giving up on a project or starting over is a better decision than trying to write when I really have no ideas. When something eventually does turn out right, it usually ends up being worth the struggle. Thanks for this!

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