Eyes Front

By John Gilstrap

Self-doubt is a crippling condition for any artist. (Spoiler: It never goes away. You just learn to manage it.) For young or inexperienced artists–hereinafter called writers because this is a blog about writing–self-doubt can be paralyzing. You write something you think is pretty good, but when you show it to your “beta readers” they have suggestions, so forward progress stops on your story.

The writer’s internal monologue goes something like this: I thought that description of the lightning strike was pretty strong. But if Beta George didn’t like it, there must be something wrong. He said he didn’t like the word “struck” because he thought it was a cliche. And he said Main Character Harriett wasn’t scared enough. I don’t get why she’d be more scared than she is, but if Beta George thinks. . .

I call this navel gazing. No further work gets done on the story because the writer is wrapped around his own axle trying to make Beta George happy–even if it’s against the writer’s own better judgment.

Does this scenario sound familiar to anyone: Mary has been working on her story for eighteen months but hasn’t gotten past Chapter Three. Every time she tries to move forward, she looks back and realizes that what she’s written is terrible. She wonders why she ever thought she could write a book, maybe has a little cry or maybe a big cocktail, and then she goes back to the beginning.

NOTE: Up to and excluding the part where she starts over, this is a process I go through with every book. Twenty-one of them. It’s part of the process. Literally, writing crappy prose is a necessary element of the journey to get to the end of a project. And not just at the beginning of a career. Every. Friggin’. Book.

Having done this a few times grants the advantage of having confidence in the crappy parts. I know that once the creative boiler comes up to pressure and I’m steaming through the story, I’ll be able to take care of damage control. But I have to get up to pressure. I have to move the story forward.

I’m going to share my strategy for managing doubt and crappy prose, and then I’m going to share how I think you should handle it until you feel confident that your boiler is sound.

I start every writing session by rewriting what I wrote in the previous two sessions. Then, when I finish today’s session of moving forward, I intentionally do not go back and edit. That’s tomorrow’s job, after things are less fresh in my head. Rewriting takes about an hour most days, and then I forge ahead. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, I’m really on my third or fourth draft, and all I need is a quick pass for a polish.

My system works for me because a) I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and b) I force myself to add at least a thousand words to yesterday’s count. Two thousand is better, and I think my record is 8,900. I don’t want to do that again.

Here’s my suggestion for others: Eyes Front. Don’t look back. Period. Hard stop.

Pick a targeted word count or a date on the calendar (think 10,000 words or three weeks–a real stretch). Until that milestone is reached, you are forbidden to look back at what you’ve written. Keep the story moving forward. Only forward. Get that boiler churning. Fall in love with your story again. And no cheating! If you forget what you named that guy in Chapter Two, mark the spot with asterisks and keep going.

When you reach your milestone, you MUST congratulate yourself for having met it. If you’re sailing your book at full speed through calm waters, set another goal and keep pressing on. If you need to go back to fix stuff (all those asterisks, for example), go for it. Make all the changes you feel are necessary, but remember that you still owe yourself a thousand words of forward progress.

Don’t let your book run aground while you’re cleaning the bilges.

What do you think, TKZers? Worth a try?

This entry was posted in Writing by John Gilstrap. Bookmark the permalink.

About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

22 thoughts on “Eyes Front

  1. Pingback: Eyes Front - Dooiz

  2. Your process (and insecurities) are very much like mine. Linda Howard called it “zig-zag writing.” Move forward, go back and fix, then move on. I print out my daily output and read it in hard copy, at night, in bed. Makes it look different.

    I have 3 excellent critique partners who see the fixed chapters as I’ve written them, offering insights I might have missed. Whether I accept them or not is my call–it’s my name on the book.

    For my current book, which is a bit of a departure for me, I enlisted the help of some beta readers because I had a worse-than-usual case of Imposter Syndrome. So far, those reporting in loved the book despite my doubts.

    But I have a new editor. What will she think? More doubts set in.

    • My new editor currently has my third in series and I’m full of doubt whether he will mess up the series and my voice or improve it. aaughh! Trust in the unknown is so hard!!

      • Kelly, remember that no one can change a word of your work without your permission. The editor makes suggestions. You make the decisions.

  3. John, I’ve got a question about ‘rewrite,’ ‘edit,’ and ‘draft.’

    If someone asks me how many drafts did my novel go through, I can’t answer it. It’s one draft that’s been continually revised and re-edited. But I never started over with a “second draft” of the novel. This sounds like your process, though my daily routine isn’t as well structured as yours.

    I heard or read Michael Connelly say he wrote clear through his first draft, then went back and rewrote the novel. I’ve heard/read others says the same thing, here on KZB, I think. Does that mean they literally starts with a blank “sheet” (new document) and rewrite or is this just a way of saying they start with the existing document and edit, maybe rewriting certain sections?

    • Eric, I know several writers for whom a second draft means a page one rewrite. That’s the way it was in the days of the typewriter, but that makes no sense to me now that we have computers.

      I think some writers like to see the progression of their storytelling from one draft to another. I am not one of them.

  4. Great post. Very helpful.

    I do the reread of the previous writing session, like you mentioned, to get myself in the flow. I’ve also started using the audible mode to have the computer read the chapter. Man, it’s helped me find things I would have missed with simply reading.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. We have a very similar process, John. I start each day by reviewing what I wrote the day before. This not only gets me back rolling with the story but I also rewrite/edit. I don’t have a mandatory word count I need to reach each day. Instead, I go by scenes or chapters. Same thing, different animal.

  6. Hi John,

    A very timely post! I struggled with exactly the problem you described with my last two novels. Before that, I would write eyes forward and not look back. Period. But, I had great expectations for these last two. In my experience, great expectations lead to self-doubt and lots of second guessing, and also, a lot of starting and stopping.

    I did eventually get them written, rewritten, beta read, professionally edited, and published, but it took longer and was more fraught with self-doubt and second guessing.

    I’m about to start drafting a new novel. I’m going to set a word count goal that I’m going to write to. I’m considering “the edit the previous day’s work first thing approach,” with the stipulation that I must meet my target work count.

    The main thing for me is to maintain momentum. That’s key. Otherwise I get wrapped up in self-doubt and second guessing, slow down, fiddle, stop, start, stop. I want to avoid that at all costs 🙂

  7. Worth. A. Try. Absolutely!

    Every time I read a post like this, John, it’s like eating bowl (small) of my favorite salted caramel ice cream. Comfort food. Like oil poured into a wound. It’s why I keep coming to this room in my computer every morning.

    The struggle is real. I berate myself for the smallest stuff. Like, one of my characters was described as home-schooled in chapter C, but then in chapter E, someone’s having a conversation with her at the high school. Wait, what? So, improvise…she takes a music class at the school.

    Thanks for saying that this never goes away. I can deal with that. It’s too hard waiting and hoping that some day I’ll be a good writer, like Mr. Gilstrap, who doesn’t have to handle self-doubt. He writes the perfect sentence the first time. Someday I’ll be like him.

    Knowing it’s part of the job, like death is part of doctoring, helps me just flip it off and get to it. 🙂

    • You know, Deb, you made me think. When I speak at conferences and such–fully aware that I am fortunate enough to be living the dream of so many in the room–I feel pressure to stay positive and lean on success as inspiration. I figure that nobody wants to hear the dark side of a successful career. Maybe I need to re-think that and talk about the continuing doubt and mandatory crap-writing. Hmm . . .

      • Well, I don’t presume to know if you should change your approach.

        But I do know that when I hear about more experienced authors’ struggles, and recognizing the same struggle in myself, it encourages me to keep learning and growing and listening to folks like you and JSB and the other TKZers. Transparency and vulnerability is a beautiful teaching tool, IMHO.

        Knowing that even y’all can’t edit a blank page so you have to just get the “crap” down is very freeing for us who are still learning the basics. It shows us (not tells us) that we’re pretty much alike under the skin, facing some of the same demons.

        I’d sign up to hear you speak. 🙂

  8. I have always started with a rewrite of the work of the day before because it gets me back in the mental mindset. I may go back a few days if I’m working on a giant set piece like a major gun battle or a huge emotional event like a love scene. The only times I go way back is when I’m blocked because I’ve made a wrong turn, and I need to figure out what it was to change it.

    On the other side of those who are giant balls of insecurities are those who believe they are God’s gift to writers and can do no wrong. Anyone here who has worked with more than a few writers in a critique group or writing class has met one. They accept no criticism, they learn nothing, and they tromp all over others’ writing because they know best.

    Most of the balls of insecurity can move past their problem to write and gain confidence. God’s gifts never do. Appreciate that insecurity, folks.

    • Marilynn, it’s funny you mention critique groups. I belong to one that’s been going strong for ten years. All of us are well-published, and all have won awards for their work. And we are all balls of insecurities about our writing. No Blowhards allowed.

  9. One of my past teachers suggested writers should tape a sheet of paper over the monitor so they can’t see what they’ve written to avoid the temptation to go backward. According to him, the eighth deadly sin was to reread the previous day’s work and the ninth was to correct misspellings, grammar glitches, etc.

    That never worked for me. Rereading pages from the day before put me in the mindset of what the next scene had to be. Plus, I MUST fix misspellings, grammar goofs, etc. before I can go forward. If I don’t fix them now when I see them, I will forget and may miss them during the editing rounds. My early drafts are pretty clean by the time I get to the end.

    Reassuring to hear that’s also your process, John. Thanks for great advice.

  10. Hey John, thanks for the thousand-word reminder. I was dithering about with rewrites today instead of allotting time to forge ahead!

  11. Thanks for the great information! Your post convinced me to get my thousand words done before I commented!

    As a relative newbie, one of the best lessons I’ve learned — often reiterated here on TKZ — is to write the first draft without being picky. It’s a great comfort to know even great writers turn out lousy first drafts.

    One of my favorite quotes is from Nick Lowe who said “Bash it out now, tart it up later.”

  12. My writing process, after six published books, is exactly as you described. Going back over the previous day’s work not only lets me do some editing, it also helps to bring me back into that world. I set a word count each day and try to hit it, but sometimes life will get in the way. No worries. I pick it up again the next day and push forward. I’m writing faster now, less revision in plot, thanks to James’s plotting books, and less revision in character or scene development. Experience does matter. The polish still takes a while, but not as long as it used to.

  13. I used to edit what I wrote the day before as the beginning of my writing day, but not so much anymore. I look at the first draft as raw material. The real writing gets done in the subsequent passes, and those work better for me if some time has passed. (“What was I trying to say here?”)

Comments are closed.