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The two types of creative exhaustion

I’ve been exhausted for the last few days, so I thought I’d take an afternoon off and tell you about the creative struggles and draining process that goes into actually writing novels – both to give myself a break from writing, but also to give you a “behind the scenes” tour of my work in progress.

I’ve previously done some research on creativity and have decided all creative fear comes down to just two basic insecurities, which have to do with quality and quantity.

The first question is, can I even do this?

I’m dealing with that now as I write “Thirst” – the sequel to my vampire dystopian novel “Taste.” Luckily, I’ve finished some novels before, and I’ve even finished some sequels before. So I know, historically, that I’m capable of writing books, even “good” books, though we’ll discuss that later.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Even though I have a pretty good outline; even though I LOVE my ending and I think some of the scenes in this book are AMAZING, right now I’m just cresting 20,000 words. It’s mostly rough, and I only have about another month to finish before my preorder deadline.

So of course, I’m feeling the pressure. A lot of you may think it’s silly to give myself hard deadlines and make myself work harder or faster, but I’ve learned that:

A) A book I write quickly is in no way worse, and actually sometimes better, because I focus on it in a short time frame.

B) without a hard deadline, I’d spend all my time procrastinating and getting nothing done.

I think deadlines are important to my process, even if they are stressful, and I know I am CAPABLE of meeting my deadline: I just need to write at least 2,000 words a day for the next 30 days (which, will leave me zero time for editing, so ACTUALLY I need to write 3000 words a day, which is possible, but challenging).

If I force myself, I can write 3000 words in a couple hours, then spend the evening thinking about the next chapter or scene, and start again the next day. The problem is, from right here – where I am right now – I can’t see it all at once. I can’t see how all the chapters are going to come together, because I can’t see the later chapters or scenes until I’ve finished the immediately preceeding one. So even though I know it will/should all come together, it’s still terrifying writing into the void, because… maybe it won’t.

This fear creeps in, and makes it harder to sit down and write those words, because the mystery of the unfinished 50,000 words I still need to write this month are overwhelming. Also, creating worlds from nothing, even though it is satisfying, is also cognitively draining. There are so many things I could be doing with my time that don’t leave me emotionally and mentally drained; creative writing and fiction in particular is draining. Even the prospect of needing to write the words is exhausting, and if I do manage to write for a few hours and finish my words, I’m a vegetable for the rest of the day, capable of little more than naps, junk food and Netflix.

The second question is, is this good enough?

This is the one that really paralyzes most first-time authors, and I already have some advantages here:

  1. I define “Good” as “my readers will enjoy it.”
  2. I’ve built and audience and done my research so I KNOW what my readers will like and how to entertain them
  3. I’ve practiced enough to know that I’m capable of writing high quality fiction – my books review well

So I don’t have that crippling fear that I’m wasting my time, or that nobody is going to buy it and like it. I also don’t have the delusions of grandeur most authors deal with when writing their first book (after doing no research and having no audience, but still deciding their book is going to be a miraculous NYT bestseller because they love it and so will everyone else).

HOWEVER, I am doing something new this time around, which is working with cowriters. And while, on the one hand, it means I get to develop projects much more quickly, it can also mean I have more work to do in the editing and revision stages, which is where I am now.

I tend to edit slowly than I write, because I revise heavily – about 2000 words and hour. Right now I’m working on an alien invasion romance. I’m excited about the story and we have a really strong start. We’ve finished a rough draft and now I need to clean it up and get it ready to publish. But it’s going so slowly – a couple chapters a day – and part of me is starting to worry that it won’t be good enough, because it’s not good enough right now.

And actually, this is totally normal. It’s normal to be dissatisfied with your first rough draft, which is just about getting the basic story in the right order. That’s stage one.

Stage two is the 2nd rough draft – that’s when you START fixing the story and making it emotionally satisfying. It’s when you flesh out the characters and scenes; add conflict and tension; fix the cliffhangers and hooks at the end of the chapters. And even if it’s going really slowly, I also know I’m making real progress, and the book is getting better.

I’m frustrated because I know it’s STILL not good enough. After I finish this round, I’ll need at least one more pass to fix details, smooth my revisions and check for errors (before sending it off to a proofreader, who will find typos). Which means possibly another week or two of work on just this one book… when I have several more in the pipeline PLUS the vampire novel I talked about earlier.

There’s nothing wrong with making slow, deliberate progress, and forcing yourself towards burnout by overextending yourself isn’t wise. On the other hand, I’ve been writing fiction for several years now and haven’t been able to go big because I’m limited by my production speed. My goal for this year is to finish some full series, and several sequels, so I can spend more time and money advertising my books to reach new readers – but none of that can happen until I finish more books.

I also want to make sure the books I put out are the best possible versions of themselves; that they aren’t rushed or sloppy, but I have a hard time letting go (I have friends who write a first rough draft and send it straight to an editor; I still need at least three full revisions before I’m happy enough with the story to share with anyone else – but writing cleaner first drafts might be the solution for me as well eventually).

Every author has their own process, and I don’t expect readers to pay extra for the author’s effort (they should pay for the results, ie the finished book – just because an author worked 10X harder doesn’t mean it’s a better book or worth more money).

As an author, I’m trying to figure out how to publish  better books with less time and effort, by paying attention to my process and expertise.  But I also think it’s important to share the creative struggle; that this isn’t just fun and easy all the time; that writing books is challenging, difficult and often times can lead to exhaustion, depression and even a sense of hopelessness (most authors will spend years writing unsuccessful books; and even though I’m planning on becoming moderately successful, there are other things I could do with my time that would pay a great deal more).

But I do this because I love the challenge; because I love telling stories and I love hearing from readers who have enjoyed them; and because it’s a skill I’m determined to master, in this lifetime, even if it takes me decades of practice. Hopefully, my commitment to the craft will pay off, and my dedication will infuse my novels with a recognizable literary style.

PS. If you’re a creative person and you’ve dealt with any of these frustrations before, let me know in the comments. If you’ve read my books and enjoy them, let me know!