We’re excited to welcome Kate Moretti as our guest today. Kate is a New York Times bestselling author of women’s fiction and suspense novels. Her newest novel The Vanishing Year (Atria/S&S, September 2016) is available wherever books are sold. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two kids. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.
I always thought that real writers had this thing nailed. That if I was struggling, it meant that I was a hack, an amateur. But sometimes it feels the more I write, the harder this thing gets, which I think just means I’m learning. The book I handed in was 4 POVs, two colliding timelines and I couldn’t tell if I’d made a mess of it or if the challenge meant that it was the best thing I’d ever done. I was inspired to write about what I came to call my Monster Book because I now know that I’m not alone. Some stories fly out of you, almost writing themselves and others are monsters and both ends of the spectrum are okay. It means nothing about you, as a writer. At least, this is what I tell myself.
The Book Monster: When Writing Gets Hard
I’ve heard other writers say this: eventually you’ll struggle with a book. The plot will unravel, the characters will elude you, the theme will mishmash until you’re wondering what you were trying to say in the first place.
I just turned in my fourth novel, and I’m so happy to be rid of the Book Monster.
Nothing came easily. Maybe it’s a sign that I wasn’t supposed to write this book. Maybe I should have put it away, stuck it in a drawer, left to gather dust for a few years until all the flaws were clear. But, I was on a deadline and this was the book I used to want to write, back when I wanted to write anything, which honestly felt like eons ago.
There are signs you’re writing a book monster, you know. In some ways, it can vague, kind of Supreme-Court-you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-it. You’re one-hundred pages in and what used to feel easy suddenly feels like slog. Is it just the murky middle…Or something more?
You don’t love the characters. My characters were challenging. I didn’t love them, per se, but I did love exploring their fault lines, etched so deeply they felt like my own. I was also fascinated with women as antagonists. I wanted to flip the trope of “woman in peril” on its head.
I initially was exploring that phenomenon of “the good guy.” He’s self-proclaimed, but there’s something sort of off about it. There are lots of legitimately great men in the world (I married one). They don’t walk around proclaiming it. At the time of novel inception, there was a mass shooting, by a man frustrated with his romantic life. He was quoted in the papers as claiming to be a “good guy” who was wronged by women, society, his parents.
My book was not about a shooting. But I was interested in the idea of people who claim to be good people and blame their actions on everyone else. So now, I had a “good guy” who wasn’t always good and an apparent female antagonist. Then somewhere in the murky middle, they switched places on me. I didn’t know them anymore, and that was terrifying.
Plot? What plot? Plot holes, you say? I had canyons. Entire lives could be lost in the wide expanse of all the ways my plot wasn’t holding together. Well, character’s lives, anyway.
My editor asked me: What did I want the reader to believe? I didn’t know, I was turned around and every time I pulled a thread, the whole carefully knitted blanket unspooled. At it’s heart, I wanted to explore why good people – or people on the razor edge of goodness—do morally suspect things. What drives people to terrible decisions?
Unthreading my knot became a tiring, all-encompassing ordeal. I had four points of view. A mom struggling to raise a son on the spectrum when my kids are neurotypical (and I had the sensitivity and determination to get this right). Two merging timelines. A murder.
I was pushed to finish this book because of a contract and a deadline. If I’d been on my own, I might have put it away. We’ve all heard writers everywhere say, “Sometimes you have to accept that this book isn’t your book to write, right now.” Like there’s magic in that, somehow. Whenever I hear this, I want to throw my hands in the air because how do you know?
The thing is, eventually, I did untangle the knots. I did work through some of my musings on this “good guy” who isn’t all that good and an evil girl, who maybe just needs to feel not so invisible.
You’re questioning whether to quit or push through. For me, at least, there comes a time in every book where every sentence feels ridiculous. Where much of it isn’t quite working like I’d thought. But this is different and you know it immediately. I think the Book Monster will scare you, make you doubt yourself every step of the way: every word, every plot point, every character arc.
For those of us writing on deadlines, this becomes a worrying prospect. Starting over means letting down your agent, your editor, your fans. How do you know when it’s the right thing to do? For me, I couldn’t imagine not writing my Book Monster, but I couldn’t even fathom finishing it. I was in book purgatory.
Some books fly out of you, practically writing themselves. The Vanishing Year was easy. The plot unfolded before my eyes, the characters were obvious, their arcs felt pre-established. I’m learning that this is a blessing, but not required, and certainly not a prerequisite for a good book.
There’s a fine line between the Book Monster that is worth writing, but scary, and the book that’s not meant to be written, by you, at this moment in time. It can be a deeply personal decision whether the book you’re wrestling with gets shelved or finished. It’s a lesson in patience, perseverance, and trusting your instincts. But know that you’re not alone.
If I hadn’t had a deadline, I might have shelved my Book Monster. Looking back, I can see how challenging it was, how much I grew as a writer, how scary it felt, and I’m so happy I pushed through. The story I finally unknotted is complicated, messy, intertwined. It’s in need of a shine and polish, but right now, it’s a little bit beautiful.
And best of all? It’s done.
Have you written a book monster? Tell us your scary story!