Notes from the Writing Trenches: Dealing with Self-doubt

By Anna Marcus

As any writer can attest, one of the hallmarks of the writing process is a sneaking self-doubt that creeps up on you somewhere around the halfway mark of your manuscript. This is when you feel like everything you’ve written up to that point is complete and utter crap. I have hit this bump many times over the six years I have been working on my novel. Each time it happened, I went back and tried to fix things, but it just got worse. Soon I’d rearranged the plot, changed the point of view, and rewritten the beginning so many times, I couldn’t even remember what the original idea of my story was. Months of work would go by with nothing to show for it. The ending of my novel never seemed farther away than at page 250. I started to think that I would never finish this book.

The Law of Three

I wanted to know, why was I losing all confidence in myself so close the end of my project? This repetitive pattern was really bumming me out, but then a friend of mine told me about the early 20th century philosopher and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, and his Law of Three, which helped me reframe my views on the entire creative process and learn to embrace my doubt.

Gurtjieff’s Law of Three

Gurdjieff’s Law of Three states that every phenomenon in the universe is due to the interaction of three separate forces: Active or Affirming, Passive or Denying, and Reconciling or Neutral. Force One is the active/affirming stage, which we most often feel at the beginning of a creative project when we are excited and enthusiastic about an idea. This active force carries us along for a while, but then inevitably that force meets with resistance, which is Force Two, the passive/denying force, most often experienced by writers as crippling self-doubt. You may be wondering, how does anything get written if we are always stymied by Force Two? Well, according to Gurdjieff, when Force One and Force Two, the yin and yang so to speak, interact with each other for a while, a strange alchemical process occurs. Out of their cosmic dance, a third force comes into being, which is the reconciling/neutral force. This is the most mystical stage of the creative process, and it’s very hard to pinpoint when or how it happens. Through my own experience, I have come to believe it occurs through an act of surrender.

The Hero’s Journey

Writers and storytellers will find the Law of Three very familiar, because it closely mirrors the archetypal story structure of the Hero’s Journey. In almost every story there is a protagonist who starts out very gung ho on their mission to achieve some lofty goal (Force One), but then they get stopped by an antagonist who finds all sorts of devious ways of undermining them (Force Two). Then, just when the Hero has given up all their original ideals and stops thinking of themselves as any sort of hero at all, they figure out a new way of solving their problem, and prevail in the end, although their success may not look at all how they imagined it would at the beginning (Force Three).

I was elated when I learned about this Law of Three. Everything started to make sense to me about what I was experiencing in my creative process. Like the protagonist in my story, I had to battle my own antagonistic forces. After banging my head against the wall for a while, I finally gave up some aspect of my original idea and started to look for a third way. This happened over and over again with every chapter, every scene. The more I went through the cycle, the better I got at recognizing what stage I was in: Force One, Force Two, or finding Force Three.

The Third Way

I remember the point in writing my novel, when I let go of my grand notions of how my protagonist would solve her problem. I thought she would go on an epic road trip and find things along the way that would bring about her reconciliation with her dead mother, but instead she hurled herself off a roof, almost died, and I had to find a different way for her to make peace with her past. It was really hard, but once I accepted the new situation and embraced it, my ending came into view, and I was able finish the damn thing. Even though it had a misshapen head, was jaundiced, and colicky, I loved my novel anyway. It didn’t turn out to be the type of story I thought I was writing, but that was ok.

If you are stuck in the terrible self-doubt phase about your writing right now, take heart. This is only natural. Everything in the universe, including humanity, and all structures and processes, must go through the three forces to come into being. You can count on it, and when you feel the most in doubt, you are actually very close to reaching the reconciling energy you need to finish your project. Trust in this, and let go. A third way will come to you very soon.

My Experiences Participating in NanoWriMo

By Anna Marcus

In the fall of 2016, I was newly unemployed, mourning the loss of one of my dearest friends, and feeling quite depressed. A writer friend of mine had participated in this crazy thing called National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo) the year before, when people around the world write 50,000 words in thirty days over the month of November. She had produced a rough draft of a novel in that time. I was so impressed with what she had done, but I didn’t think I would ever have the time to do such a thing. Then, by the next year, my life had changed dramatically. All I had was time, and 20,000 words of a novel-in-progress that I doubted I would ever complete. I needed a big hairy audacious goal to pull myself out of my funk, and NanoWriMo gave it to me.

Counting Words Obsessively

When I signed up in late October 2016 I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. NanoWriMo isn’t just a writing challenge, it’s a bootcamp, social network, learning platform, and Fitbit for words all-in-one. Messages started to flood my inbox about webinars I could take on every aspect of the writing and planning process. Famous writers were tweeting out motivational words. Every day I clocked my new word count on my personal page on the NanoWriMo website, and they would calculate how many words a day I would need to write thereafter to reach my goal. It was like a Weightwatcher’s Weight Loss Journey graph, but in reverse.

Finding a Community of Writers

I joined The Southern Dutchess County of New York local chapter of NanoWriMo on Facebook, which actually covers a much larger region encompassing Dutchess, Orange, and Sullivan counties. Every week the group held live write-in events around the area, and I joined some of these, crowding myself and my laptop around tables pushed together in the back of a chain restaurant with a bunch of fellow Wrimos. One of the exercises we did was writing sprints. The coordinator (or Municipal Liaison in Nano-speak) would call out a word count goal like 350 words in ten minutes, and she would start a timer. All you would hear was the clacking of fingers on keyboards (and the occasional scratching of a pen in a notebook) as we raced to the finish line.

The great thing about those speed exercises was that they pushed me out of my critical headspace. I didn’t have time to think, “Is this good?,” I just had to write. And I have to say, I wrote some of the best passages of my novel during that month. When the goal was just to pile up the words, I was forced to do more free-writing, which pushed me to take more risks with my story. I’ll never forget one afternoon when I stopped a writing sprint and I realized I had literally just made my protagonist jump off a roof. I laughed at myself and almost deleted the scene, but I needed the words so I kept it in. That crazy derailment shook my plot up and helped me find a more authentic path to my heroine’s final resolution at the end of the book.

Reaching the Finish Line

By November 30, 2016 I had written 60,000 words, and while my novel was not finished (not yet), I had successfully beat my depression and I was a more confident writer. In fact, I participated in NanoWriMo again in 2017, for the express purpose of getting to the end of my novel, and I did that by November 30th of that year, rounding off at 108,000 words.

I didn’t do NanoWriMo the classic way, starting from scratch and writing 50,000 words in one month. I had a novel already in-progress, I just needed a kick in the pants to complete it. Now that I’ve done that, and I am nearing the end of my two-year revision process, I am so grateful for my NanoWriMo experiences. Writing a first draft of a novel should be fast and messy. There is no sense in making it polished, when you’re just going to have to rewrite it many times anyway. NanoWriMo, while a bit gimmicky and silly, was exactly what I needed to get out of my own way, and learn how to write fast.

Writing a novel is a marathon, but it’s absolutely doable if you break it up into small pieces and have a supportive team to cheer you on. If you have always wanted to write a novel or a memoir, this is a great time to do it. I challenge you to join NanoWriMo this November, throw yourself into the process, and when you reach 50,000 words you can get one of these nifty certificates too (and a great sense of accomplishment).

I want to give a shout out to the wonderful, tireless Municipal Liaisons who volunteer their time to run the Southern Dutchess County chapter of NanoWriMo: Rebecca Ramaglia, Tracy Elizabeth, and Rachel Coleman. Thank you for organizing our regional community of writers in addition to writing your own 50,000 words every year. Remember, pantsers are awesome but planners rule!

Notes from the Writing Trenches: Establishing a Daily Practice

By Anna Marcus

What makes a writer a writer? Is it how many publications you have had? Or awards you’ve gotten, or number of book copies you’ve sold? I don’t think so. I haven’t got any of those things yet, but I feel very comfortable calling myself a writer.

In my opinion, the only credential you ever need to become a writer is to practice writing every day. That’s it! No fancy degrees, book deals, or Pulitzer prizes are required, which is what I love about writing. It has such a low bar for entry. That said, it isn’t a pursuit for the flighty and flaky. Being a writer requires nothing short of a wedding vow-type of commitment. “I promise to write every day, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, til death makes me stop…”

How Unemployment Sparked My Writing Practice

I didn’t start writing seriously until I was in my mid-thirties. I’d had a career as a dancer and a dance filmmaker, so I knew a thing or two about practice. I’d spent decades sweating in dance studios, and pushing my body to the max. I knew all about scheduling rehearsals and managing groups of people. What I didn’t know how to do was to sit myself down, by myself, and come up with a story from thin air. That was scary, but also extremely liberating. I loved the idea that I didn’t have to juggle dozens of other people’s schedules, rent space, or raise thousands of dollars to get started. Still, I wasn’t sure how to carve out the time to do it.

I started by taking some writing classes to push me along. They were great, but whenever a course was over, I would drop the ball on my writing. Without any external structures and deadlines, I wasn’t making much progress.

Then in the fall of 2016 I was terminated from my job. After the initial shock of losing my paycheck, my next thought was, “now I have time to write!” I took my unemployment checks, and used them as a grant to restart my novel. I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), and spent that November (in the dark days post election) writing and topping 50,000 words. By the end of that month, I was past the midway point in my first novel, and I had established a writing practice. I was a writer.

My grant from unemployment eventually ran out, and I had to go back to earning a living, but I made sure to preserve some time every day for my writing. Now I get up early, before anyone else in my house, and I write. Sometimes I only get 15 minutes to write in my journal, but it still counts. Most days I get in about an hour. I find that once I start writing, I don’t want to stop. That’s why early mornings work well for me. Before all that day-to-day stuff invades my brain space, I have one hour of creative time just for me. I get the most important thing done first, and even if the rest of my day crashes and burns, I still feel like a success because I did my writing.

Do I write every day? No, of course not. I take at least one day off on the weekends. I also don’t sweat it if other things come up and I miss a few days in a row. If it’s a systemic problem, then I may have to look at my schedule and readjust. For example, we adopted a dog over the summer. He’s a wonderful addition to our family, but he wakes up early and demands to be fed and walked during my writing time. I’ve had to readjust my schedule accordingly. Now I am in the process of shifting my writing time to the hour just after my daughter leaves for school.

The Takeaway

 If you are trying to establish a regular writing practice, I hope my story inspires you. It’s always going to be a personal journey. You may be a night owl and love to write from 11pm-1am every night, or you only have half an hour during your lunch break. It doesn’t matter when or how long you write, just do it every day (or a majority of days), and do it around the same time. When you bake it into you daily routine you don’t have to worry about it any more. It just is. (Again, it isn’t how much or how long you write, it’s just that you honored the time as yours for writing.) Once you do that, you will officially become (with my full endorsement), a writer.

So take a look at your schedule right now and carve out at least 15 minutes every day to write. You can do it!!

Notes from the Writing Trenches: Revising My First Novel

By Anna Brady Marcus

As a first time novelist, for years and years my main goal was to get to the end of my first draft. When I wrote the last sentence on page 420 of my novel “After Alice” (working title), I felt euphoric. I bragged about it on Facebook, and slapped myself on the back. I thought it would just take a month or two for me to polish up my manuscript and start sending it out to agents and editors. This time next year I’ll be closing on my publishing deal, I told myself privately.

I laugh at my naïveté now, and I hesitate to tell you, dear reader, of how quickly I fell from my precipice. First, perhaps out of shear exhaustion, or perhaps from fear of hating what I had written, it took me a good two months to even open my manuscript again. Many people say you need to take a break between the writing phase and the revising phase, and for me it was a major process to retool my brain and take stock of what I’d done before I felt ready to read my book with fresh eyes.

At the advice of an agent I met, I bought “The Last Draft,” a book on the revision process by Sandra Scofield. She is a big proponent of reading and revising on physical paper, so I printed out a hard copy of my manuscript, single-sided, double spaced, on three-hole punched paper. When I picked it up from Staples it weighed about fifteen pounds and barely fit inside the carton! Seeing my manuscript in a huge stack like this made me proud of all the work I’d done, mixed with a double portion of dread. How many pages would I have to cut to get this to a manageable size?

I bought a thick binder to contain the sprawling script, and armed with multicolored highlighters and many sticky notes, I sat down and read my novel cover-to-cover. To my relief, the bones of the book I thought I had written were there, but there were many passages that needed major work – plot inconsistencies, dead ends, unnecessary characters and scenes, and far too many clichés. I really didn’t know where or how to begin to fix it all.

Luckily I had already signed up for a writing class with Julie Chibbaro, and she leant me a book called “The 90-day Rewrite” by Alan Watt. This book breaks down the rewrite process day-by-day into bite-size chunks filled with encouragement, psychological advice, and short exercises to help a writer get a handle on their manuscript. I immediately latched onto the title of this book. Only ninety days! There was hope! I made schedules for myself based on Watt’s process, which follows the general narrative arc of a novel. In week one I would make my new outline, in week two I would cover the dilemma and inciting incident, and so on and so forth. I could practically see the end of the revision already!

Well dear reader, it became clear within a few days that I would not complete my rewrite in ninety days. It took me a couple of weeks just to finish the preparation exercises in the book. I had to redo my forecasted schedule every month, continually pushing out the final date of completion. Nevertheless I plodded on, at my own pace, and I started to actually enjoy the rewrite process. I was honing my craft, smoothing out the plot points, and finding more juiciness in the characters. Slowly, I was peeling away the chaotic layers I’d laid down in the first draft and finding the pulsing heart of my story. I rewrote whole chapters, rearranged the scenes, changed one of my protagonists’ names, and cut out several minor characters. Finally this summer, a year and a half after starting my rewrite, I got to the end of the second draft! This time I didn’t bother to post anything on Facebook about it. I still have lots of work to do. I’m rewriting large chunks of my second protagonists’ chapters, and then I need to check my antagonists and make sure they are truly living up to their menacing potential. When that is done, I will give my manuscript to a few beta readers, and then I’ll have more changes to make based on their feedback. After that, I’ll need to hire a copy editor and get it all proofread and clean before I start to send it out to agents and editors.

I won’t lie and say that it’s been fun and easy. It’s been a real slog to rewrite my novel, but in the process I’ve become much more invested in my work. These characters are like my family now. I owe it to them to get their story right. Writing a novel isn’t about acquiring fame for me, it is about saying what I need to say, listening to the small voice inside me, and exploring the questions that have nagged me all of my life. Ninety days or 548 days, what difference does it really make how long the rewrite takes? I’m not going to give up now, if anything, I’m more optimistic than ever that what I’ve written is powerful and it will be shared with the world, when it is good and ready.

How to Give a Writer Useful Feedback

by Anna Brady Marcus

Reading at Get Lit

I think we can all agree that it takes guts for a writer to read out loud in front of an audience. I remember how nervous I felt reading an excerpt from my novel-in-progress for the first time at Get Lit. I don’t even like to read my work out loud to myself in private, let alone in front of a roomful of people. I remember my relief when I got to the end of my three pages and heard applause. It was like coming up for air after jumping off of a high dive – I was just thrilled to be alive. So what drives writers to do this scary act? The answer is we want to know what impact, intended or not, our words are having on other people. We wonder all the time. Is this going anywhere? Is it interesting? Or in more depressed moods, why would anyone ever care about this besides me?

As audience members for other writers, how can we be supportive and encouraging to each other? Besides clapping, how can we help a writer really understand the impact of their words?

Liz Lerman's Critical Response ProcessI was fortunate enough, in my past life as a dancer, to cross paths with the amazing choreographer Liz Lerman who, with her multigenerational dance company, came up with what I consider the seminal framework for giving an artist feedback. Critical Response is a process of constructive criticism made up of three very simple, yet profound steps all designed to give the artist helpful information they can use.

STEP ONE is to summarize back to the writer what you heard, in either a neutral or positive tone.

Tell them what moments stood out to you, or resonated for you in particular. This is all golden information to a writer, either by affirming what they were hoping to get across, or showing them another side of their story coming through that they hadn’t consciously intended. It is not up to you to tell them if it was good or bad. You can’t know that. Just give them your version of what you heard, and they will know exactly what to do with it.

Critical Response workshop participantsSTEP TWO is to get the writer to ask you questions about what they would like to know.

This can be done by asking leading questions such as: “Is there anything you’d like to know from me listening to your work?” or “What stage of the writing process are you in?” or “What made you want to share this particular passage with us today?” This will open up the writer to tell you what their intentions are with their writing, and give you a better idea of the kinds of information you can provide them.

STEP THREE is to ask the writer neutral questions, in light of what you know they are trying to accomplish.

So for instance, if you learn that they are working on their first draft of a novel and they wanted to know if the protagonist came across as a sympathetic character, you could ask them, “Does your protagonist do anything selfless in your story?” or “Have you shown them being vulnerable at any point?” This is also the time you could ask them about parts of their writing that made you confused such as, “How old is your character in this part of the story?”

Writers chatting at Get Lit

The beauty of the Critical Response Process is that it takes your ego out of the equation and centers the conversation solely on providing useful information for the writer. It isn’t easy to reorient ourselves to another person’s wants and needs, but I promise if you practice this method it will start to become second nature. Even if you only get to step one, you will give a writer a great gift by showing them that they have been seen and heard. So at the next Get Lit, I encourage you to take a chance and go up to that new writer sitting by herself, looking mortified that she just read out loud for the first time, and let her know what a brave soul she is. Your feedback will give her the fuel to keep working on her story and to come back and share it again.