The soft shelled writer and the monster of despair.

Among the many things that delayed me last year, and some that made writing virtually impossible, it might have been that I was molting.  (I’m still not sure about this, btw, but it is possible.)

I was, as I’ve said, also very busy with non-fiction, overcommitted on my blog, and other serious issues, including the health problems that might have been influenced by these other problems.  The health problems definitely influenced my writing, (and reading) but that is something else.

I’ve taken steps to deal with the blog overcrowding.  I’m trying to do no more than three original blogs a week, not counting the two chapters (Rogue Magic in ATH on Friday – this week, tomorrow – and Elf Blood here on Sundays.  I will confess that I will be quite happy to cut that down to a chapter a week, as soon as Elf Blood is done.)

I’ve also taken steps to cut down on the massive amount of non-fiction I was doing.  That’s fine, also.

This brings us to the remaining problem that has dogged my writing for about a year.  This was that when I did have time to write, when I had time to sit down and type out a few words, everything I wrote read like pure blah.

And this is what I want to talk about.  You might not get to the point that you’re overbooked on writing for your blog, or group blogs, or whatever.  You might get to the point that your dayjob (which is comparable to non-fiction writing) is squeezing out your writing.

If that happens, you have choices to make and ways to cut down, and you might or might not be able to do it.  Took me a year to even realize that I should be cutting back (though people had told me that.)

But the other one is something you will run into.  I guarantee you will run into it because every writer who is working even mildly hard at it, runs into it sooner or later.  And if you’re writing really hard and really fast, you’ll hit this point harder and faster.

There is a system of analysis that says that absolute raw beginners at any art or craft will overestimate their competency.  And right after there is a period where people judge their stuff too harshly.  By and large, this is true. I started writing too long ago to be fully aware of it – though I have seen other people going through this – but I was aware of it with art which I started doing in my forties.

When I started out, I was in awe of my own art.  Then I hit a period when everything I did seemed horrible.  I still feel that way, which is why I need to start doing art again and get part the hump.

I think in writing this is responsible for a lot of new authors who never get off the launching pad.  They write their first stories and everything gets turned down; then they get just enough better that the stories they try to write next feel like sheer crud – so people walk off.

That is good to an extent – and you know I’m not of the “if you can be discouraged, you should be” pov – because if you can’t handle that first instance of molting, you won’t be able to handle all the others.

Because what is not normally spoken of, it’s that this cycle of “best thing ever” and “OMG, I suck” is eternal. You don’t go through this once and then you’re done.  You go through this over and over and over again.

After a while (I figure crabs feel this way too) you get used to it. You know you’re in the middle of the molting.  This doesn’t make it any more comfortable or easy.  You know you’re changing, but you don’t know what’s on the other end of the change.  You don’t know if you can finish the change successfully, or what is on the other end of the change.  We all have heard of authors who go backwards, rather than forward.  (What I’m finding, though, is that these people are usually suffering from some illness or brain issue – so maybe we shouldn’t worry so much, but hey, I still will, and you probably will too.)

So everytime I hit molting, I panic.  The first step of it is not to know what’s happening.  I just know that everything I write is crap.  (Which can happen, if I’m ill or perhaps very tired, frankly.)  When I hit this step and I can’t move forward, I send my stuff to my beta readers, (two of them writers on this blog) who are known not to pull punches, but who also aren’t going to take my “I feel like I suck” as the invitation to find stuff to tell me that is wrong.  (At this point the book is first draft and there will be a ton that’s wrong, mostly at that point typos and continuity, but that shouldn’t make me feel like it it sucks that badly.)

If my betas come back and say “oh, this… uh… is slow” then I know that it’s either that I’m ill or tired (no, I don’t, naturally, now write badly without other factors.  Okay, maybe I have a huge head, but I don’t think I do.  You see, I write a tons of words every year and there are things I can do with my eyes closed.)

However, lately what my betas have come back with is “oh, wow, this is great.” Or “It’s really different, but I like it.”

That answer means “You’re molting again.”  This time it’s really, really bad because I’m in early molt.  That means I can’t even see clearly what is wrong with my writing – I just know something is wrong and it makes me feel insecure and scared.  The next phase of the molting, I start pinpointing what is wrong.  I can say “Oh, I need to push my pacing a bit.”  Or “I need better foreshadowing” (Both things I’ve gone through in the past.)

Actually right now, because I think I’m doing this mostly subconsciously, and I think in this molt I’ve already started changing.  I just can’t pinpoint what has changed, or if it’s better.  So it just feel strange: kind of like sleeping in a strange bed.  You don’t know what is wrong, and you feel out of it a bit.

The last time I did the “subconscious molt” was while writing Soul of Fire, and it wasn’t till I started the book after that that I realized I had molted and that the book was a huge step up in plot.

In the same way, I think I’m molting with Through Fire.  And I’m experiencing the same issue, which involves feeling dissatisfied and keeping getting pushed out of the book.

I have now, more or less identified that it is molt.  And that is is subconscious molt, because my absolutely trustworthy first readers are telling me that this is considerably better than anything I’ve done before.

So, I will now get through it by pressing it as hard as I can.  But it’s still going to be odd and uncomfortable.

So, what do you do if you’re molting?  Just keep running as fast as I can.

There are monsters of despair out there ready to eat the soft-shelled writer.  People can get crushed and give up at any point (unless they’re making millions… and sometimes even then.)  So, keep running.  That monster of despair is going to eat someone. Don’t let it be you.




  1. Unfortunately, the closest thing I have to a day job right now *is* non-fiction writing, and so whenever I am writing I feel like i should be working on that. I’m being tempted into trying some text-to-speech tools to eliminate the “hands stiff from too much typing” portion of the problem so I can maybe get some of my fiction out… currently considering taking a story I created which was formatted to be a TV series, and turning it into a serialized web novel on something.

              1. Peter has many nice things to say about Cheetahs, including that they’re the most domesticatable of all the wild cats. Should we not let him in on this discussion Robert and Mr. Dave won’t be having?

                1. Odds are, the conversation won’t be happening toward the end of June. And there won’t be a new Pascoe to captivate the masses. Just sayin’. Or am I?

              2. You might try a Savannah cat, if you don’t mind the $3000+ cost, have plenty of room, and if your state allows them. (Because they are a serval cross, some states consider Savannahs wild animals and require you to have the appropriate federal and state permits and inspections.) And be aware of some of the behavioral problems that can develop in later generation crosses.

                1. That was actually plan A, until we looked deeper into the cost and went, “&%$(@#&!!!!” I’d prefer a cat that acts like a dog, as far as that goes. Honestly, while I love the idea, I’m not fond of the price-tag. We’ve talked about adopting retiring military dogs, but I’m a little leery of bringing in wonderful pups who only last a couple of years. The heartache is most not attractive.

  2. CLEARLY what is wrong is that you’re not checking off enough Diversity Boxes and pushing the message hard enough. Step up in that department and surely you’ll be writing sheer gold.

    (As if it wasn’t obvious.)

          1. I didn’t mind leaving, since I’d hung on too long, watching one particularly nasty liberal and her clique of acolytes abusing the post rating system the blogger had added to help enforce their leftist beliefs. I went head to head, lost almost all of my positive “Karma” and decided to leave. (I had been banned once for pointing out some bit of the blogger’s hypocrisy – I can’t remember exactly what it was.)

            On the plus side, it helped convince me that publicly sourcing rating systems in an open forum is not necessarily a good thing, and is open to manipulation.

      1. Build a big enough pyre, and you could end up with molten Phoenix.

        (Makes me think about a kid’s story I’d like to re-read, “David and the Phoenix.)

  3. What do I do when I suddenly think my writing stinks? Curl up in a ball in the corner and whimper? Umm usually I drag out really old stuff. “See how much I’ve improved!” And write in a whole different universe, so I get rid of the stale feeling. And doing some editing, some covers. Read something that isn’t research. Hunt for that “Sheesh! Call _this_ a bestseller! I can write better than that!” feeling that got me started in the first place.

      1. I look at other people’s writing (Kris Rusch and others) and I ask myself– why is my writing not as good? The reason? I haven’t been writing at a professional level for 30 years… It’s the difference between being a good electronics tech (which I was) and being a master electronics tech (which is my husband, who has been in electronics since he was 15 and is now over 65). 😉

  4. Last year was a monster year for me too– and now that I have been writing and editing (a couple of novels of the last two years that I couldn’t see to publish) I find that as I go through them now, I actually feel better about them with some added improvements. Also I got rid of my editing job with a content farm– it took tons of energy and time for a low amount of money.
    So I see where you were going — and I was your secondary shadow. 😉

    We’ll see how we do this year-

  5. Hmmmm. I’m beating my head against a wall to make myself finish the required revisions to Non-Fic #2 and to catch up on academic reading in my field. I’m also fighting my muse, who wants me to be researching WWI. I loath WWI, especially the Western Front (Muse says “Cool it. I want an Eastern Front alt-history novel about the family of a minor character. And you need to work on reading and research for that fifth Colplatschki novel. What do you mean you planned to stop with three and that this would be five? Suck it up, buttercup, and go read about Rudolph II.”) And I’ve got to get the website finished and opened for business.

      1. Number two [Elizabeth of Donatello Bend] will be out in late April – early May (got delayed by publishing the first prequel to the Cat series, early April release), number three [Elizabeth of Vindobona] in November (possibly earlier), a novella out Jan 2015, book four [Elizabeth’s Empire] in Feb-Mar of 2015. All are done, but my copy-editor takes some patience.

  6. Ms. Hoyt: the references to the health issues made me think of another analogy, one which I experienced. I was working hard to be ready for my second attempt at an Ironman distance event (nearly finished the first one when I was taken out by cramps in the run). About two months before the event, I came down with sinusitis and bronchitis at the same time, two afflications I had never suffered. I got through them with the magic of medical steroids, and a month later was hit with them again. I’d never been that sick in my life. And the cause was, simply, Over-training. I’d been working too hard for too long, without enough rest, and made myself sick as hell (and missed the second Ironman).

    From your description of the amount of work you’ve been doing (and the health issues), it sounds like you also have been Over-training. Hence, cutting back is a great idea. It will probably refresh you in ways you can’t yet imagine. Best of luck with it!

  7. You remind me of a quote I came across a while back (don’t know who “Ira Glass” is but this quote nails it, I think):

    “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

    1. Yep. That’s about it. And the only way to get through it FAST is to work faster. I did most of my “writer’s growing” in the year I was writing novels during the week and a short every weekend.

  8. If you’ve never read Gerald M. Weinberg, you’ve missed a treat. Next gift-giving opportunity give the geek in your life a copy of “On Becoming a Technical Leader.” Mr. Weinberg, in addition to having lots of sage programming advice, has sage WRITING advice.

    He pictures skill acquisition as a series of plateaus. You improve, and then you plateau. After a bit you improve more and plateau at a higher level. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Though your performance plotted over time looks almost like a staircase, there’s a difference. Just before you start the climb to the next plateau, your performance DROPS momentarily.

    It does because: you have acquired new technique, you’re using it to good effect, but haven’t integrated it fully. This makes your performance lower until you integrate the new trick with all the old ones. Once you grow comfy using the new technique, your performance rapidly advances to the next plateau.

    This thing you call molting is the same phenomenon.

    1. Was that Weinberg? I had forgotten.

      Somewhere in the literature on mastery and skills and whatnot, I’ve come across the notion of plateaus. Basically, we tend to learn and improve in fits and starts, gaining a level in a rush, but then spending some time at that level. And, on occasion, we may even need to back up a bit to push on to the next level, especially when we have been comfortable at the current level. One of the famous examples I have read about is that apparently Tiger Woods, despite being on top of the game, decided that he needed to improve, and went all the way back to basics, driving, putting, rebuilding his game from the start so that he could improve past his current top-level plateau.

      I was just thinking about what learning slopes and plateaus call for from us as learners. Especially the plateaus which call for persistence, reflection, and a certain discomfort. The rush of the learning slope is exciting, and we really enjoy that hard striving push. But then we hit a plateau. It takes a certain persistence, a determination, a kind of grit to keep going, to keep practicing, even though the heady rush of the slope has fallen behind us and faded. The plateau also requires reflection because it provides a quiet time to rest, consolidate, and regroup. You need to take advantage of the plateau to get the most benefit from the recent slope, without giving up or stopping because you passed the slope. You also need to relax, to step back from the mad dash and push, and admit that you have reached a plateau, it’s time to rest a little bit. Finally, you need a certain kind of discomfort. The plateau often beckons for us to settle down and quit striving. Yes, you get to rest, but be prepared to refuse to settle down, to refuse to quit looking for a new way to grow.

      Plateaus, molting — the idea that we progress, then consolidate that improvement, and then need to push on again. Kind of like a hiking trip, where we push forward for a while, then set up camp and enjoy the view from a new campsite for a while, and the next day, pack up and push on. Not that there’s anything wrong with the place we’ve been, but there is still so much to see!

      Time to crack the shell, huh?

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