When my latest draft of The Broken Heavens came back from my agent with the dreaded, “start over” notes, I felt dejected and exhausted. I had been churning out a great deal of work on that project very quickly. I’d also been doing my monthly stories for Patreon, and of course, writing all day at my advertising job. I was tired. Tired of the release schedules, the deadlines, the failure after failure to hit said deadlines, and most of all, tired of writing novels that were performing well enough to keep me in the game but not well enough to ensure I could do it for a living longterm. I was tired of the grind that seemed to be going nowhere. I wasn’t even getting the satisfaction of feeling like I was leveling up. Even the writing itself, the creative process, wasn’t fun anymore. Just work.
I seriously considered just cancelling the contract for the book and just… not writing anymore. Everything I touched for months before and for some time after just felt like crap. I put out a couple Patreon stories that were like squeezing blood from a stone, and I wasn’t happy with them. I felt like I was churning, churning, churning, but going nowhere. I had two outstanding stories due to markets that I just had no inspiration for whatsoever. I hated writing. Worse, after a couple months of this, I realized I was developing The Fear. The fear that I couldn’t write anymore. The fear that I’d never write anything good again. The fear that this was it, that this was all I got, that my career was over, unremarkably, at 37.
Seth Godin calls this period in one’s career or creative pursuits “the Dip.” The Dip is that dreaded slog between creative breakthroughs where it feels like you’re expending an incredible amount of effort but not seeing any sort of improvement or gains from it. These dips are generally when most people quit their creative pursuit and go on to something else. When you start a new creative pursuit, like I did recently with painting, it’s exhilarating for the first few months or year, because you get so much better so quickly. You can sit back and – in the case of the painting – literally SEE improvement from one painting to the next. I lined up four paintings I’d completed over four different weeks once, each on the same subject, and it was amazing to watch the evolution of my skill. But after about a year or so, my improvements painting by painting have slowed down. When it comes to painting, I don’t mind this, since I’m doing it for fun. Writing, however, is my vocation, my passion, and it’s always been my goal to be the absolute best writer, to be exceptional at my craft. To achieve that means that I need to continually strive to be better, to improve my skills, to level up. I have been grinding hard on this for several years, and it took that book bouncing back to make me realize I truly was in a Dip. Nothing was leveling up. It was just me going through the motions. I hated the Patreon stories I was writing. I hated the novels. I felt like a huge failure, like I’d lost the magic that was my creativity. It felt like I’d reached the end of my potential, and there was nowhere to go from here. It felt like I’d never write anything good again.
Being aware that I was in a dip helped me get through it. I re-read Godin’s book. And then I went back to the library and begin digging up books on subjects I found interesting, in particular books about microbes and utopia; stuff that was different from my usual war-and-plants-and-bug interests. I needed to fill up my brain with something new. I took a lot of notes, skimmed a lot of texts. I wanted to experience the magic of discovery again, the magic of putting together all of these disparate things into some greater amalgamation that nobody had seen before.
I also decided it was time to go back to a series and setting that I enjoyed, that was fun, and so I wrote “Paint it Red,” a novelette set in the God’s War universe featuring my favorite “let’s be bad guys” bounty hunter, Nyx. I let myself wax on in that one about the scenery, the characters, the world. I felt the big set pieces coming together as I wrote. I experienced that wonderful feeling of throwing out the old outline as I came up with a far more exciting and viscerally interesting story as I was literally writing it. Sure, I was still grasping for inspiration. At one point, angry that I couldn’t come up with a better place to rob than a bank, I did a Google search (really!) for “interesting settings” and somehow stumbled on a video of a rat temple in India. That video sparked my imagination, and all of a sudden I had a bunch of shape-shifting parrots bound to a temple and a kid with a key wrapped around his heart that had to be dug out of him with a machete and we were off to the races. Giving in to the creative process is a wonderful feeling; when all your synapses are firing as they should, making strange and exciting connections, that’s when I feel good about the work I’m doing.
For the first time in a couple of months, I was actually having fun with the creative process. I even had time to edit the story before I posted it to my Patreon backers. I was proud of the work I’d done, and most importantly – delighted by the process itself. I also found it easier, finally, to sit down and outline some stories I owed to anthologies. Last week, understanding how burned out I was, I took a real vacation – not just from my day job work, but from novel writing work as well. I put an out-of-office reply on both my work AND my personal email. It meant I didn’t see email from my agent announcing a foreign rights sale and confirming another offer until nearly a week after I’d gotten them. And you know what? The sky didn’t fall. The world kept going. The deals didn’t disappear. I was able to step away from all the deadlines and worries and gnawing-on-my-failures-wank from my life for a whole week. I came back to the keyboard feeling relaxed and refreshed and… genuinely happy for the first time in many months.
The time away – not just from my work, because I’ve been sitting at the keyboard a lot, just not producing – helped me regain my focus. As my spouse points out, much of the time I feel I’m spending “writing” is actually time I spend feeling guilty because I can’t write, or because I feel that what I’m writing is utter shit. That’s not “writing” time. It’s my time with The Fear. So much of my writing time has been taken up talking with The Fear that I couldn’t figure out why shit wasn’t getting done. It certainly felt, emotionally, like I was working REALLY HARD. But arguing with your fear isn’t working. Feeling bad for not working isn’t working. Being angry about not working isn’t working.
So much about this business is being able to forgive yourself while you wallow through the dip and the fear that it unleashes. Many of my writing peers, and many of those in the generation just before me, dropped out of the business because of the dip, and the fear. I know people who got great advances and whose books tanked, and they bowed out. I know people who tanked right out the gate who bowed out. I know people who did well right off but were so fearful they couldn’t do it again that they bowed out. These terrible times in our careers also keep coming. They aren’t a one-off. I had a lot of trouble writing after my first contract was cancelled, and trouble writing when my publisher stopped paying me for my first series. I faced the fear when another book went out of print while yet another publisher of mine went through a sale. And I faced the fear when a book didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped it would. And here I am again, just six years into this novel career, and I’m there again, fearing that I’ll never level up, I’ll never break out, that my whole life, all that remains, will be one big churn.
Fear can be negotiated with and overcome. I know this from dealing with it so many times over the last six years. But it always comes back. It does this because we all know we have a shelf life, an expiration date. After all, we’re all going to die. So every time we face a failure, we think, “OK, this is it. For real this time.”
When writing becomes a job, so much of the joy of creation gets lost in the fear and the failure. What I’ve found is that the only thing that brings me back is the work itself. It’s finding the joy in the process, of silencing my inner critic and just telling myself, “You’re just having fun right now. This isn’t for anyone else.” It’s how I felt when I came up with a cool narrative idea for my next book. The excitement of what I could achieve bubbled up in me, the excitement of the challenge, and then there was the fear, the fear that said, “You can’t pull this off. No one will like it. Your agent will hate it. Your editor won’t understand it. You aren’t good enough to do that.” And that voice, you know, it took the joy out of the idea.
So you know what I did?
I told that voice to fuck off. Because no one needs to see that book until February. And I’m going to allow myself to have fun until then. The fun, you see, is the only thing that I can count on to bring me some joy in all this. Eliminate all the fun stuff, and it becomes a true slog, a teary roll toward a meaningless deadline.
I love writing. I love the creative process. I love the magic of discovery. But the fear comes with all that. The fear never goes away. That’s why, if you want to have a long career, sometimes you have to work through the fear anyway, and trust that you can find the magic again on the other side of the dip.