Saturday, February 9, 2013

MY BRAIN IS A JERK: a post about writing with (and in spite of) perfectionism

A post about writing! I don't know what I'm going to say yet, only that I want to respond to a reader's comment and see where it takes me. This post is for Tiffany Marie, and by extension, for all the other writers like us, to whom it does not come easily. 

Tiffany Marie said this in a blog comment (and I asked if she minded if I quote her here):
"I'm a writer at heart, it's what I've wanted to do since I was a child. It's just that when I sit down to write, more often than not, it feels as though I'm standing on the wasteland of a destroyed beach where a massive tide has washed ashore and brought with it kitchen sinks, rotting and eviscerated animal carcasses, the sun-bleached bones of giant sea creatures, unexploded World War II bombs, the remnants of an oil spill....

I wish I could just grab the edge of the waterline and flip it outwards, back to sea, like flipping a comforter, and let it take all the clutter, and fear and self-doubt with it. I just know there are villages and haunted wrecks and tunnels that lead to other worlds and points in time under all the junk.

Hopefully, one day."

Okay, so, first of all, I want to read that book. You know what? I want to read both of those books. (Yes I know that's not what she meant.) I want to read the bombs and sea creature bones one as much as I want to read the wrecks and tunnels to other worlds one. Obviously Tiffany Marie can write. Just from her blog comments, I can tell she has has the kind of imagination and skill with words that, to me, make for really exciting writing. So what's the problem? Why not just sit down and write a book? 

Well, I'm guessing here, but my guess is this: because for some of us, our brains are double agents. They are our allies and our enemies in one. On the one hand, they're Little Red Riding Hood toting this sweet basket of goodies, and on the other, they're the Wolf, ropes of saliva strung between hungry teeth, ready to rip us to shreds.

Or, wait. How about this? It's like your brain is holding out cake to you, and every time you reach out your fork, it bashes you with a hammer. OoOoOoh that cake looks so goOoOoOoOod ... OUCH! No, really. It's like it gives you a clear view of the thing you want, but actively prevents you from getting it. 

Look at this great idea! It's all yours and it's lovely, oooh betcha can't wait to write it, huh? Forget it, you'll never do it justice, you can't have it, I'm going to put a glass dome over it and preserve it in its uncorrupted form forever. Go wash the dishes!

It's so weird that the same marvelous instrument that brings us imagination and wordplay, narrative instinct, memory, detail, and other amazing things, is the same son of a bitch that whams us with indecision and doubt and self-loathing and creative paralysis every chance it gets. Brains can be jerks. Mine is.


And I don't happen to believe that jerks can be reformed. Once a jerk, always a jerk. My brain will forever be a jerk. So here's what I've learned, in my years tussling with this brain. It's a life-long wrestling match, this is my condition, and at any given moment I have the choice to ...

a) fall victim to all the well-known pitfalls of perfectionism, as they manifest in my particular case. Maybe I'll spend all day revising a chapter, only to decide at the end of it all to revert to the previous draft anyway.

b) daydream of an alternate reality in which writing is easy and books practically spill out of my ears. Follow daydream to logical conclusion (wild success and wealth), naturally ending up browsing Italian luxury real estate.

c) begrudge other writers their seeming ease; feel woeful; comfort myself with chocolate or a nap.

d) read a good book, because hey, it's inspiration, it may just give me the oomph I need to figure out my plot or whatever!

e) be very, very strict with myself, like the mean nun in Catholic school stereotypes and make myself lay down word after miserable word, dammit, feeling defiant and spiteful the whole time, hating every second of it.

f) trick myself. Be endlessly resourceful, by knowing my particular jerk of a brain well enough to fool it into doing what I want it to, while maybe even enjoying itself a little bit!

So what do you think? Look, I do all of these things. I've been doing all of these things all my life, because that's how long I've wanted to be a writer. But it was only fairly recently -- last ten years or so -- that I broke through to option 'f'. Maybe you got to 'e' and you thought that was the right answer until you kept reading. And option 'e' might work for some people. I do have to be strict with myself, but let's talk about option 'e' for a while. 

We'll call this the "mean nun approach":

I think this one goes along with the conventional wisdom, the same "established fact" that would have you believe that The Way To Write a Book is to get through a shi**y first draft, come hell or high water, and then make it better. This is not a bad way. It works for many, many people. It does not work for me. I am unable to bond with a shi**y first draft. I can't care about it enough to keep at it, and if I force myself to do it anyway, I'll just hate it more and more until it's beyond all hope of redemption. What's worse, the misery of the process will make me hate and fear writing itselfI'm sure many of you have slammed into the brick wall of this process again and again and felt certain that there is something wrong with you. Maybe even that it means you are "not a writer."

I would say ... there is something wrong with you. With us. I mean, it still feels that way to me, even though I've "conquered" it to some degree. It very much feels that way to me right now, after a frustrating afternoon of doing option 'a' even though I so know better! (Damn. It.) What's wrong with me is that I have a really uptight brain, and that makes it very hard to do this thing that I want to do, and that sucks, but it doesn't mean we're not meant to do it. It just means it's hard. Whatever. Lots of things are hard. Every time I sit down to write I wish it were easier. 

To tell you the truth, right now I am writing this post instead of writing my book because it's just one disaster after another today, from 'a' to 'c' with a craving for 'd', because sometimes ...


Right at this moment, ugh, it really does. My brain feels beyond my power. Why do I get so hung up on every scene? Every moment of every scene? Why can't I just move forward, knowing as I know that I can always come back? It's so dumb, so infuriating. How many times in my life have I spent all day on a page? On a paragraph

This is perfectionism. It's not funny. If this sounds like you, know that you are not alone. And know that there is hope. I'm telling myself this as much as I am telling you right now, because on a day like this I need the reminder too: if you don't give up, you will win. If you really freaking dig in your heels and swear to yourself that you are going to find a way, and you show up day after day and try, you will win. 

So, about "trying": How do you try? 

How do you try to write your book?

I guess this is "process" but it's bigger than that. It's not just about whether you use a computer or a notebook, or whether you outline or not, or work in the morning or at night, or in a cafe or at home, etc etc. It's about your brain, and getting it to do what you want, as often as you possibly can and for as long as you can, and this will be different for everyone. AND. It will be different for you from day to day.

Anecdote. I took an illustration class my first semester of art school, and the teacher, Barron Storey, was kind of a wild-man of mixed media, a sort of unconstrained id of artistic freedom. I, by contrast, had only taken watercolor classes up to then, and watercolor is a medium of control and planning. There is a fluidity to it, yes, but there is also its insidious "unfixableness." With oils or acrylics, you paint right over a mistake, but a ruined watercolor is a ruined watercolor, period. And "purists" don't even use white paint. In a "true watercolor painting," you have to know in advance anything on the paper that you want to leave white, and to make sure not to get paint on it. It's called "saved whites" and it's the persnicketiest of things. Well, this was kind of all I knew of painting, going in, and I think that the single most important thing I took away from art school (after Jim, that is, who I met in that very class :-) came from Barron Storey, who said this:


That's it. Best creative advice I ever got. Purity sucks. There is a clan of people in the world to whom "saved whites" are important, and one can decide to join that clan and paint that kind of painting. Or one can TRY EVERYTHING ELSE. Rip up their painting then collage it back down with matte medium, draw on it with India ink then attack it with oil paints. Finger paint, transfer on a photograph, haze it all out with white acrylic and newspaper. TRY THINGS. 

What does this have to do with writing?

I think this anecdote needs a little bit of context. See, the whole reason I went to art school in the first place was to avoid writing. I had already graduated from college with an English degree and the plan was to be a writer. But ulp! how does one just do that? I didn't know! I wasn't ready! I didn't know what to write, how to write, how to make myself write. None of it! And it seemed to me suddenly urgently clear that I was in fact meant to be not a writer at all but an illustrator! Duh! Which meant starting at the beginning, and learning all of that stuff. So I didn't write, and didn't worry about not writing, for years, because I was "an illustrator" now. Ha! This is all very silly, of course, and very obvious avoidance in retrospect, but it's also very lucky, because art school had this unexpected effect of making my creative issues clear to me, and forcing me to deal with them in a way I had been able to avoid with writing. I think that an MFA program would probably have done the same thing, now that I think about it. Maybe accountability was what was important, and having to produce work. I had to develop actual tricks to get around my hangups, and I did!

So skip ahead to when I started dabbling with writing again, I had this new attitude, the anti-saved-whites attitude of "purity sucks." Basically: roll up your sleeves and do what you have to do. It's not how you get there that matters, it's where you get. And with this attitude came fortitude, resourcefulness, determination, and an ability to enjoy the journey even when it wasn't going perfectly. 

This is still vague, so let me try to make it clear what this meant in my actual writing life. It comes down to the question from above: how do you try to write your book?

Once upon a time, this was how I tried to write books: I started at the top of a page and wrote some words. Maybe under the heading "Chapter One." I looked at the words for a while, then crossed out or deleted them, then wrote more. Crossed out or deleted those. Started a fresh page. This could go on for hours. Days. Sometimes I'd break through to an entire paragraph, sometime an entire page. Very rarely, an entire chapter. I never got any farther than that. Instead, I'd revise the chapter, or start something new, or daydream about being a successful writer. That's it. I was utterly resourceless! Feeble! Committed to failure, practically engaged to it! 

I would say that that approach is the soulmate of "saved whites." It's conservative, no funny business, start at the beginning, just sit down and write, dammit. It's how one imagines a book is written, if one is not being imaginative. Like, how non-illustrators imagine that illustrators just sit down and draw, and that magical, complex compositions and realistic renderings simply flow out of them without recourse to resources like reference or sketches? Non-writers, I'm guessing, imagine writers sit down, type out "Chapter One," and proceed to write the book. (And some writers do. *cat hiss*)

Agatha Christie, working

If your brain is ill-suited to this process, as mine is, you can either keep failing, or try something different. You can TRY EVERYTHING ELSE. TRY THINGS. Journal about the tone of your story, what you want it to feel like, or challenge yourself to freewrite the scene twice from two different points of view. (Or five.) Think about the reaction you are trying to elicit in readers--how do you get it? Make yourself think up ten ways to start the scene that are more dynamic that what you have now, or get into the character's head and ask what they would really do in a given situation. Be them. Consider major changes to your idea, audition them, and be open to the possibilities of increased awesome. There is always the possibility of increased awesome! Just ... try everything. 

In "NOT FOR ROBOTS" (a series of writing essays I posted in ... 2006 maybe?) I talk about "writing with a machete strapped to your thigh," and writing "exploratory drafts" instead of "first drafts." That's all attitude (which is everything!). I talk about brainstorming and freewriting, which are techniques I use now that are much more aggressive than my old lazy methods. You can read more about this there, and please feel free to ask questions in comments (here), I will really try to respond (Tiffany Marie, I'd love to know if this strikes a chord at all, or if it doesn't really sound like your own struggles.)

The bottom line is: my brain hasn't gotten easier over the years, but I've learned how to work harder and better, and I've learned that it works, and knowing that is a big part of the battle. I've done it before, I can do it again. I know what I have to do, and I know that if I keep doing it, a book will be the result. And that, because of the way I work, allowing myself to be deeply invested in every moment and to spend more time with it than is probably healthy, and to rework everything as I go until it feels right, I am able to love it, and be sure of it, which is something that I accept that I and my brain need. 

So I had a sucky day today. Well, that happens to me sometimes. Sometimes the suckiest days are motivating, as they can be so miserable as to serve a "never again" purpose, and make me buckle down the next day and produce, dammit. And I truly believe that sometimes the only path to the "right way" is through a dozen wrong ways. Hopefully not more than a dozen! Sometimes I even get it right the first time or second, and that's wonderful, but if I don't, I keep at it. Because I really want to be a writer!

Do you? 


tonya said...

I needed this, exactly. Thank you so much. I have been "trying" to write a book for a couple years--an interesting book, a book that lives inside of me, a book I love, but can never seem to write except in dreams. (I write so many dream words I should be a dream NYT best seller.)

I sit down to write, my brain brimming with exactly what I want to say, but I can only seem to write a paragraph--maybe a page, if I'm lucky--before my brain shuts down and I'm left empty except for utter disgust with the words I've managed.

In the last six months or so, I've given up entirely, convinced myself I'm not meant to be a writer. That my writer brain is much more suited to the fringes of editing and critique than creating anything itself,

It helps to know successful authors, whom I admire, and who inspire me, go through the same. Thank you so much for sharing your solutions, but mostly just for sharing your struggles. It helps, and it's given me hope.

Thank you again! <3

Olivia Haberman said...

I'm echoing Tonya--this is exactly what I needed right now. Thank you.

Cristina said...

thank you for this. I have gotten better at coaxing my brain to cooperate with me when I need it to, and it's been through letting go of what I though writing a novel should look like. When I'm stuck, or my brain starts telling me that every single word I'm writing sucks to the nth degree, I don't give up anymore (like I used to) I walk away from my computer and pick up a notebook and write there instead. Because you know, that's not my actual novel, so it's okay if it sucks. And usually I end up pushing through that moment of resistance.

And YES! when I read Tiffany's comment I thought the same thing! I want to READ HER BOOKS!

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant post. I struggled for so many years when I first started writing books, and I still struggle now. I used to write a few paragraphs, maybe a chapter if I was lucky, and then I would re-write said paragraph. Over and over again, until I thought it was perfect. Then I would move on to the next scene and do the same thing. In the end I would only ever manage about ten pages of a story before my brain would give up and tell me it was all awful and I should put aside all thoughts of being a writer, cause it just wasn't going to happen. And I did, for ages.
Then I heard of NaNoWriMo and I had the permission to turn of my inner editor brain and write for a month, it didn't need to be good. It was like having creative freedom again, I didn't worry about how brilliant the story was or stress that each section had to be perfect before I moved on. It was wonderful. And that was how I wrote my first ever novel. It was awful, but it was there.
So that's how I write all my drafts now, not necessarily in a month, or during NaNoWriMo, but without looking back and worrying. I push forward until the draft is done.
Thank you for writing this post, it's good to hear that this is something most writers go through, because sometimes you can forget that and get bogged down, thinking that you are the only one it ever happens to and that means you shouldn't be a writer.

Yeti said...

Okay, first the gushing: You are an inspiration and when I read DOSB it made me stop faffing with my novel and get down and finally work properly at it. Although I may never write something so brilliant and touching and funny and sad (yes I cried! Kishmish is all I'm gonna say)BUT if I could write something that had even 1% of what DOSB had then I would be ecstatic. I've got stuck sooooo many times. I've tried ten different ways of plotting; tried different ways to coax my brain to write; eventually allowed myself to be less precious over what I write to get the bare bones of the story down so I can then layer on the flesh and chop organs out and move appendages around. I've a very long way to go but I've reached the furthest point I've ever reached and that makes me happy! You, Laini Taylor, have inspired me to do this an the fact it does not come easily to you AND you are honest aabout it is an inspiration and a motivation. Thank you. Okay, gushing over :)

Leigh said...

Laini, I think I needed to read this post right now. Thank you for writing it. I'm going through my own period of "I've always wanted to be a writer but I just can't/don't write, so maybe I'm not supposed to be a writer after all..." It gives me hope that you went through the same thing!
How old were you when you decided you wanted to be an illustrator instead? And then how many years did you do that before you started to dabble in writing again?
How did you decide in the end to go back to writing and start working on that again?

Laura S. said...

Everything I want to say after reading this post would be an echo of the comments above. So I just want to say thank you for this encouraging and motivating post, Laini!

Cathrine Bock said...

This post (as well as the "Not for Robots" essays) perfectly describes the way my jerk of a brain works (or, more precisely, doesn't work). I am still trying to find my way as a writer. I read a lot of author blogs, writer advice columns, etc. searching for that secret method, believing that one day it will all just "snick", and perfectly formed novels will come falling out of my fingertips. I know that this will never happen, but it gives me hope to see that a successful (and brilliant!) writer suffers from the same perfectionist jerk brain syndrome that I do.

Johana Vera said...

I don't think I ever read a post writen by someone else that paints an exact picture of how my brain works.

I've read your books and they are amazing. I'm not saying this to suck up. If I'd thought your books were bad, I'd tell you.

They are the kind of books I'd like to write someday. I could list about a hundred other amazing books that made me feel this way, because, as you said in your post, it's easier to procrastinate by using the "search for inspiration" excuse. How can reading a book be a waste of your time, right?

I usually find myself staring at my computer screen with a vague idea of where I want my story to go but unable to get it there. For example, the book I'm working on now has about nine chapter writen. And I find myself incapable of continuing because I know in my gut they're not as good as they were in the planning stages in my head. I've been editing them sporadically for months, and get this, I know exactly what's the next scene I'm supposed to write. I'm just afraid. Afraid that it won't be as good as it's been safe inside my head for so many months. It's silly. Objectively, I know this. But I take my book seriously (contrary to evidence) and I want it to be good.

I'm not a parent, but I have a little sister that's 15 years my junior, and sometimes I feel like her second mom. My feelings of failure regarding my book are similar to the fear I'm sometimes assaulted with that I'm gonna be a crappy sister to her. What if I'm never a good enough writer to give my awesome idea shape?

I've read many posts of this topic, and every writer gives different advices. But so far, yours is the only one applicable to me because I think, based on what you wrote here, that we share many writer-traits. And by this I mean, our brains are a jerks.

Thank you for giving me a virtual kick in the gut today. Maybe I'll even try and write that torturous scene and see how it fares in the real world.


Anonymous said...

This is great! Thanks for the encouragement.

Elizabeth Poole said...

Thank you for this post. My brain hates me, and sometimes it feels like I am the only one with writing issues. I read blog posts by other writers and they talk about one thing or another hard, but they are never specific about it. So it's easy to assume it's just ME. I start to think maybe there's something wrong with me, and I personally suck.

Reading your blog posts helps me realize otherwise.

I've written and even finished books before, but my perfectionism has never allowed me to query them. I would revise them, and some time later decide they were crap and I should just focus on my next book, because THAT one will be good enough.

Five trunked novels later...

I finished a rough draft the other day, and instead of feeling happy, I felt like a failure. The ending was awful. Truly awful. I mean, the last few scenes I wrote one word sentences to just sketch out what is supposed to go there. It's that bad.

Every time I get half way through a book I get brilliant new ideas. These are genuinely better than what I've already come up with, but then I feel lost. Do I start over with these new ideas? Do I keep going?

I've done both, with mixed results. Starting over doesn't help, because I'll get ideas in the middle of THAT draft. Also, rewriting is even harder than first drafting.

This time around I tried to get to the end, and I told myself I needed to just finish THIS draft. So I did.

The worst part is this happens with EVERY draft I've ever written. So it's part of my process, and a part I haven't figured out how to manage yet.

So thanks for this post. It gives me hope.

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing this. Very encouraging. Finishing my last story was a bit of a slog and I kept telling myself just get it done, I can fix it in rewrite. But saying that didn't change the fact that Sister Pious of the Order of Cerebral punishment kept hitting me with the Yardstick of Writerly Woe to get it done.

Kristan said...


Robin G. said...

As all the other comments have said, this was just the post I needed to read today. It's extremely comforting to know that I'm not alone in these feelings and to see that someone with a similar condition has not only completed books that got published but continues to struggle with this problem, and yet, has made progress. I feel a lot better about my strict teacher techniques and my techniques to trick myself into writing. Now I'm excited and hopeful about my writing for the week.

Suzie F. said...

Oh, Laini, thank you very much for this post. I've known that my brain works this way for a long time, but I haven't been able to overcome it. As a result, I have four partial novels written. I enthusiastically start with all sorts of ideas for characters, conflict, plot and then I simply can't. move. forward. I force myself through a scene and I'm stuck again, I lose the flow. And then the doubt creeps in.

I've recognized recently that part of my perfectionism complex has to do with order. I've always been hung up with starting on page 1, Chapter 1 and moving the story forward in order. Skip a chapter? Never! Write a scene that may or may not happen later because I felt like it? Not a chance.

*sigh* I don't know why my brain craves this order, this control, but I'm trying to break it (stubborn little thing) with my current WiP (which I started 2 and half years ago! grrr) But for some reason the idea of free writing, writing something that isn't specifically for the WiP makes me freeze up. Which is weird because I loved journaling when I was in my 20s.

Anyway, sorry to ramble. But it's a relief to know that I'm not alone. And if you can work through it and write amazing novels, then just maybe I can finish mine.

Heh, heh maybe we could all form a Jerk Brain Club :) Thanks, again!

Lillian said...

Thank you so much for this post. I've been working through the same issues and have come up with some answers, but not enough. And, it hasn't helped that this past week, some non-writers asked, "So, aren't you finished with that book yet?" "Yeah, how long have you been working on it?" (Laughter)

But, reading that you (and others who've posted responses) have the same problems help me feel like a writer, not a failure! Thank you again for this post, and for your novels.

Kaye M. said...

This post is what I need to hear. It's what I should already understand for myself. And yet, every single time I set out to pave a road for myself and my future, I find myself bruising under the blows of what I believe is another, more overpowering talent.

Sometimes, I feel as though I'm the crow in that old folktale, strutting about in the feathers of the peacock and putting on airs about being a writer. My writing is too plain, my stories not woven out far enough or with enough dazzling patterns to catch a reader's attention properly.

Even Tiffany Marie, who seems to have the same problem as I do, seems to be able to put her words together perfectly and wonderfully.

And yet, I know the only thing I can do is push on. Maybe one day, you or some other talented author will read my stories and tell me that I'm talking nonsense. Maybe I just need to find my style.

In any case, it's obvious I have a very bad case of the Jerk Brain, and it doesn't want to let go.

Karen N said...

I've been grappling with this issue myself and have decided that the two hemispheres of my brain are at war every time I sit down to write. The right side is the intuitive, emotional storyteller who wants to pour it all out on the page, "correctness" be d*****. The left side is the rational critic who comes in so handy whenever I'm in editing mode but who stinks as a storyteller. So whenever I have writer's block, I can't get the left side to shut up. Your post gave me some strategies to muzzle that pesky left hemisphere when it starts acting up again, so thank you!
I discovered your books a few years ago with Lips Touch: Three Times and have been in awe of your lyrical fantasy every since. I have a couple of your "Laini's Ladies" hanging near my computer for inspiration--they're quite charming, sassy muses.

crissy said...

Laini, it is clear you were meant to be, and are a very talented, creative and determined writer, but you are also genuine and kind enough to share your struggles. Do you see, based on those willing to comment, how many you've inspired to follow their passion, inspite of our jerk brains? Thanking you for taking the time to motivate and teach us. I think I like you more for your capacity to comfort, relate and help others than I am a fan of your brilliant story (which is really saying something bc DOSB / DOBS are my two top favorite books/ stories, ever. And Im not just saying that bc I want to be best friends, even though I really do! :) Im sure every writer, reader fan of yours thinks this way after reading this post, but I thank God, truly in prayer, for your beautiful and inspiring books and for you sharing this beautiful and inspirational post. I very much needed and enjoyed both. Oh and the cat hiss was awesome!! You are so freakin awesome :)

Anonymous said...

Liani, I don't know if you ever read books that make you admire the writer and hate them at the same time... that's kind of how I felt after reading the Karou books. You know that feeling when you think 'man this writing is incredible' and you almost want to kiss the words on the page, because they are placed together in that beautiful harmony that is just so so rare.. and then 'dammit, I should quit, I should just quit, who am I fooling, I can never write anything like this'

Yeah - that's how I felt after reading your books.

Even though it sounds really weird, I am actually paying you a compliment here. My jerk of a brain is I mean… :D

So thank you for this post. I feel like some jerky brain shackles just got lifted and I can start writing again.

(If only I weren’t at work right now. Damn rent and bills and stuff like that. Can’t we just live on a fluffy cloud and channel inspiration the whole day..)

roxanne s. sukhan said...

A brilliant post!

Sarah Sequins said...

Laini, my brain is a jerk, too! A particularly mean one. This was exactly what I needed to read.

Because it turns out that I really do want to be a writer. I've spent a lot of time denying it. I studied music, and then science, in college (yes, I went twice) and then used a shoulder injury as an excuse. I even told myself that writing is too emotionally taxing for me at this point in my life.

But I spent an hour tonight writing the kind of story I would have loved as a kid, and an emptiness has been filled. So I have to keep going and tricking my jerky brain no matter what. <3

Thanks! You're awesome. It's brave and generous of you to admit that you have an ornery brain.

Charley Robson said...

Fantastic post Laini! I'm forever getting into battles with my Giant Jerk of a brain, but as you said, a good old-fashioned THROW IT ALL ON THE PAPER AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEEEEE! ususally sorts it out. Namely because I have a "yes" or "NO NO KILL IT WITH FIRE" approach to things, so I can work out what I want pretty quickly and then just get on with it.

Another amazing post! You're awesome :)

tone almhjell said...

Well, my brain is a slob and a worrier. They should hang out.

Wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you just described my brain.

I have two different beginnings, I have no idea where the plot's going, my heroine won't talk to me at all, my hero made a deal with Death to save his brother's life but won't say what it was...

At times I think my characters hate me. My brain hates me. I swear I've written the book in my dreams 100 times over but can't get it on paper.

So yes, this was what I needed to hear.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for working so hard on your writing because I LOVE all your books! I'm a busy mom to three "special needs" children and reading is one of the daily pleasures that keeps me sane. THANK YOU for contributing to that! I'm excited to see what happens to Karou next.

FBF said...

Thank you so much for writing this post! I think this is exactly what I needed to hear right now. I'm getting so much pressure right now to choose a career, and the only thing that I keep coming back to is "writer." But the way people keep advising me to write doesn't work for me, and this post gave me the inspiration to keep trying.

Anonymous said...

As a hopefully future i always go through the A-F process me with my free writes. I find it makes me a better writer so when a spark of imagination comes on for me I say "challenge accepted!"
- Miranda K

Anonymous said...

writer* I'll need a good editor
-Miranda K

Pua; Bakin' and Tendin' Bar said...

I was lonely. Thank you for helping me to see that I wasn't alone.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I feel extremely gratified to know that I am not alone in riding this roller coaster of inspiration and utter disgust through the mud.
It is encouraging to know that skilled and successful writers such as yourself feel this way too; victory is possible after all, even if not as forthcoming as we might wish.


Anonymous said...

Another thankyou to add to the list! Glad to hear that even published writers think that they shouldn't be writers because they can't or don't write sometimes. And I nearly went to art school (after my degree in writing/lit) because I had the same exact thought, that maybe I just wasn't meant to be a writer so I should pursue my back-up plan. This is the stuff they should teach in college courses and they don't. They just don't teach you that it's normal to feel like this.

Doug said...

Such a fantastic post! PURITY SUCKS. I'm going to upload that, Neo-style, into my cortex, so I can have it with me every day. Thanks Laini!

- D. said...

Thanks so much for this post Laini!

Your 'Not for Robots' essays have been my writing bible ever since I found them, belatedly, at the end of last year. That said, I really needed this today. I've been doing (a) to (d) all weekend!

It seems that there aren't that many writers out there with our jerk brain configuration (lucky them!). For a long time, I thought that perhaps I wasn't a writer because while everyone else was getting ahead employing strategy (e), it wasn't working for me. (My NaNo works being a great example of this...let's not talk about it...)

Like so many others, I succumbed to paralysing self-doubt and became quite skilled at avoidance strategies. I went as far to avoid a creative job, ending up in a grueling corporate grind that was the perfect excuse for not writing ("I'm too busy!" "I have no time!")

But it was sucking my soul dry, and after 3.5 years, I had to admit I was an empty husk, cleaned out of joy and creativity, sapped of all energy.

But after Not for Robots, I'm trying EVERYTHING ELSE! and it is so liberating and I've discovered the fun in writing again!

So thank you Laini for letting us know we're not alone, for the fantastic coping strategies for those of us living with Jerk Brain Syndrome and for being so honest about your writing process / struggles.

We love you!!! <3


Laini Taylor said...

Tonya, I hope you are "ungiving up"! The book will burn inside of you until you find a way to get it out! You CAN!

Olivia, ditto!

Cristina, I've done that too, shifting gears to a notebook. It can really help! And yeah, writing a book doesn't "look" like I thought it did! It's messier.

Laini Taylor said...

Laura, that sounds like me! (the writing paragraphs over and over!) Great that you could make NANO work for you! I did it once and it was the miserablest of mean nun experiences. But I have, even since then, sort of longed for that quick draft approach, and wished I could do it! Maybe some day. One thing I've learned is: never say never!

Yeti, thank you! And good luck :-)

Laini Taylor said...

Leigh, I was in my mid-20s when I went to art school, and my mid-30s when I finished my first novel. So that's a lot of years, learning that lesson. Ah well, I do love doing art too. Though I happen to be a better writer than artist!

You're welcome, Laura! Thanks for reading :-)

Cathrine, solidarity! Yeah, damn those perfectly formed novels. Ah well. There is so much more satisfaction in it this way, when you finally do it. Bright side? :-)

Laini Taylor said...

Johana, hi! Yeah, that's a perfect picture of my "old" way of working. What I'd suggest trying is opening a document or starting a notebook dedicated to brainstorming and thinking about your book, where you can hash out all the things that might happen next. I get all my plot ideas that way. (Also, thanks for the nice words! Not sure if you really meant it, but if you don't like an author's book, please don't tell them! It's horrible when that happens :-(.

Slayground, :-)

Elizabeth Poole, oh no, your brain doesn't hate you! It's let you write FIVE BOOKS!! You're one of the lucky ones! Ha. But seriously, within the confines of this "condition", that's a pretty amazing achievement. It does suck that you can't enjoy it or feel awesome about yourself, which you SHOULD. Yay you!!!! How do you like revising? For me it's the best. I love it. Have you revised your five books? Can you fall in love with them that way? Is there someone you can get feedback from?

Laini Taylor said...

Bernard, good on you for getting it done! And ha, to the yardstick of writerly woe! I know it well!

Kristan: <3 too :-)

Robin G, I hope it's a great writing week for you!

Suzie F, four partials! Yeah. That's a definitie symptom :-) You need to crack down on yourself. Have you heard the term "slutty new idea"? Do not give in. Develop a habit of completion! As for writing in order, I relate to that. I do it too. For me, the book is an emotional tower of blocks, and it needs to start with the foundation and build. I couldn't skip around. That said, if I'm super-stuck on a certain section, I *will* bracket it with a note on what goes there (sometimes several pages of notes) and leapfrog over it to the next thing. Usually I bash my head against it for far too long before leapfrogging it, but hey, we wouldn't be here if we were fancy free! Don't try to force yourself to work against your brain, but DO find/develop ways to cope with your particular hangups.

(Welcome to the Jerk Brain Club! :-)

Laini Taylor said...

Lillian, oh man. *stifles non-writer* Yeah. It's impossible for a non-writer or even a non-perfectionist to imagine what it's like. Lucky them. How long have you been working on it? I have readers right now asking me why my next book is taking SO LONG, and I have to say: it isn't! It just takes time!

Kaye, coveting is the worst creativity-killer. I suffered from that so badly making art. I would see all these amazing artists and just want to give up. As much as possible you need to insulate yourself from that and just nurture your own voice in a safe and cozy environment. That might mean only reading, say, nonfiction for a while. Have you tried that? Give yourself time to clear those voices of comparison out of your head? I do that often when I'm in the middle of a novel. (for time reasons too). I'll only read nonfiction and comic books for a spell, something totally different from what I do. Just a thought!

Hey, all, I'll be back later with more individual responses. Thank you so much for commenting!!!

persnickety_jen said...

"Once upon a time, this was how I tried to write books...I never got any farther than that."

Lord, I could have written that paragraph. In fact, I think I actually *did* write something shockingly similar in my old blog while bemoaning my own cursed perfectionism.
Sometimes, I think my inner story gremlins wouldn't shout so loud if I wasn't aware of how well I can compartmentalize my perfectionism for my day job. There, in that specific arena, I can muster my inner-zen and say "I can't afford to spend days and days editing minutiae; this needs to go out!" And I make progress and the pages go out and the world does not fall to its knees if every sentence isn't the Best. Sentence. Ever. But that zen-like focus totally disappears when I go home and try to work on my own WIPs.
...I think I need a plaque or something that says "I give you permission to suck." Because, when left to my own devices, I expect so much more from myself than I do from others.

LinWash said...

This is exactly what I needed. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Lynne Matson said...


And I totally get it. Very well-put, Laini. :)

anne said...

you are a writer. so I guess all this travail you go thru w/your jerk brain is what needs done :)
congrats on your perseverance and dedication-- we benefit!

Anonymous said...


How did you get inside my brain and write exactly what I needed when starting major revisions! You are amazing and your writing is amazing, and it's so incredibly awesome to get a peek inside your brain and realize that it's not a ROBOT brain : ) Loved your not for robots posts, and I love this pep talk! I'm printing out the last paragraph and taping it to the wall above my laptop!

You rock!


Dawn said...

Dearest, loveliest Laini,
A friend recommended your books and I just binge-read (nonstop) DOSB & DOBS and love, Love, LOVED them! Ah, Karou! Ah, Akiva! Sigh.

Though there was lots of nasty snarling and gnashing of teeth when I learned I'd have to wait A YEAR to read more (so mean).

I am sorry to hear you had a rotten writing day. Here's hoping you'll take your frustration out on your characters (that's right you rat bastards, now you're going to get it!)

And 'Go You' for responding to so many of your commenters!

Oh, Lord. Now I have to prove I'm not a robot...

Tiffany Marie said...

On Saturday I was taking a constitutional when I suddenly fell into a wayward hole and spent 3 days falling into varying shades of darkness. There were laughing things and hissing things and unmentionables.
After a day or so of falling, the dark became water and I grew gills and webbed fingers and toes. I swam further and further down the hole until suddenly I popped out into an ashen sky filled with cawing crows. A number of them alighted upon my arms and shoulders, clinging and flapping their midnight wings. They lifted me a ways and then with a massive shudder and a heave, dove down towards Earth with me clutched between.
My stomach attempted to claw its way free as I watched the ground come closer and closer, and then a house came into view, my house. Suddenly, the roof parted and I landed in my chair at my desk. Rivulets of ashes and sea water covered my skin and I coughed up a shiny black feather.
In front of me, the glare of my computer screen slowly came into focus as my heart rate began to slow, from feathered to human. On the screen was Laini Taylor's blog and a most intriguing, inspiring, lionhearted entry. I began to read and succumbed to the beguiling voice of a most enchanting literary goddess.
And so goes my excuse for why I'm just now seeing and responding to this incredible post. I just saw it yesterday and truly my heart was beating like a birds and my eyes may have been turned into portholes brimming with the errant salty water of a wandering sea.


Tiffany Marie said...

Yes, screw purity! Right now my brain is an uptight Jerk that peeks at me from behind corners, pursing its lips and running away, but I don't want my brain to turn into a repressed Catholic school girl "breaking free" by falling into the backseat of some random guy's car either. I want it to be a kickass keytar playing warrior, Destroyer of White Space.

I loved A-F. It's like a 12 step program or the 5 stages of grief for a writer, and each one of those is so me! We have to fight through it, do we not? We have to because we are warriors of the written word. I kept wondering why it never became easier for my Jerk brain (I LOVE that). Now I realize that maybe it won't and if I stop looking for something to change and start accepting who and how I am, it may just be the catalyst of release to just write, no matter the process, as long as I DO it. But oohhh, I too lament the hours...days...spent on a single paragraph. Writing and rewriting...just to discover the first wave was best or giving up altogether. Sometimes it takes revisiting something I thought was finally "perfect" months later to realize another way is better.

You've helped me to see something else as well. I have to try my best to be successful at this Thing which I have such a passion for. I owe it to my son to show that I won't back down because something's hard. I won't crumble into bits because the path isn't easy. He has to see that strength and perseverance are necessary elements of one's character. I don't want him to give up on his own dreams.

Love love LOVE and infinite possibilities.

Btw, I think you must be stuffed with stardust and moxie. I want to have a girls night out with you where we reverse gravity and jump off of this planet into space. I know that the stars would catch us in their net because you're their kin and we could explore for a while and sing sea shanties to the memory of Galileo as we float on our backs in Saturn's Rings and sip the raspberry essence of space.

Now, my journey goes forth to a land that is Not for Robot's! :)


P.S. Your cat-hiss made me snort-giggle.

Anonymous said...

I'v started a journal on my writing, just to rant about the awesome things I've found and for when I get stuck. It's helped somewhat.

Writing is very confusing when all you have is vague ideas and halls full of mist. There are mirrors that give a glimpse of things, but I don’t know which one is right or not, should I shatter the mirror only to discover that the thing that lurked inside was what I needed all along? There’s the faint sound of voices and laughter, but those things have been swallowed up in time and I’m left wandering a place where I look out to the sea thinking I’ll see something only it’s an endless place of fog…

Laini Taylor said...

Karen N, I think that is right! I feel the same thing. Yes, it's incredibly handy with editing and revising, but so NOT with first drafts. Ah well. I do love editing and revising!

Crissy, thank you :-)

jsngill, YES I do feel that way! I totally cover other people's talent! I think it would be weird not to have that reaction sometimes, it would be like Nicholas Sparks or something, arrogance personified, you know, to not be totally swept away by the talent of others? How can one help but feel some jealousy? There are so many talented people! But I really think that talent is a small piece of the pie chart. The far bigger slice is determination!

Laini Taylor said...

Roxanne, thank you! :-)

Saturday Sequins, yay! Good luck with the story! It's a challenge to rekindle the fun and enthusiasm when things get tough or stale, but that's the job: keeping the enthusiasm alive. That's a MASSIVE part of the job.

Charley, hi! It sounds like you have your inner editor well in hand :-)

Tone, my dear, sigh. Yes, our brains should hang out. And our children, and our husbands, and our SELVES. For REAL some day. Some day SOON!!!

Unknown said...

Thank you for this excellent post, Laini. Big case of Jerk Brain over here as well, so I find comfort in knowing that others are fighting (and winning!) this same battle. I am now in the process of submitting my first completed manuscript to agents, and oh how the Jerk Brain loved getting the first rejection letter last week...
But I will have the last laugh, oh yes! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!
Thank you again for your wonderful insights and beautiful, inspiring, magical books.

Casey McCormick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aubrey said...

I'm finding this post a little late (53 comments later!) but what you said really resonated with me that I feel, that I just have to respond, even if you end up reading this or not :) I'm kind of at this stage where I don't really know what in the world I am doing or what my goals really are with writing. I literally just picked it up again, started my own blog, and played around with some ideas. I am where you were, frustrated, unsure of my writing creative ability, etc. There's one thing I'm sure of, I love writing and I love reading what others are writing and I absolutely love this new blogging-writing community. I'm stuck between, fear and uncertainty, and paralyzed with even knowing how and where to start. So, this is turning into a much longer "comment" than I intended! Any further advice would be much appreciated but I mainly wanted to say THANKS!!

Marina Novello said...

Awesome post, thank you so much. I'll save this for those days when I feel like writing is impossible thanks to my brain. Thank you!

Laini Taylor said...

Bridget, ha! That's me!! Always have so many beginnings, but I find that often I can use many of them, just of course not all as beginnings! And my brain too is always presenting these great plot mysteries and whisperings then sitting back smugly to wait for me to come up with a clever solution :-). I wrote about that for a speech once. It's maddening, but hey, that's where the best stuff comes from, when you set yourself a big challenge! And your characters do NOT hate you!

Anon, even with one child it's hard to get the time in. I really can't imagine. Hugs and strength to you! XO

FBF, do what you want/need to do. The thing with writing is it's 100% up to you to figure out the way, there's no diploma and job application process to pave the way. You just have to write. DO IT!

Anon, "challenge accepted" is a good attitude :-)

Laurence King said...

Thank you, Laini! I needed to hear all this, because I, like you, am plagued with perfectionism. I navigate from a) through f) on a daily basis and push through it the best I can. God, it's hard! But knowing that I am not alone in this is oh so reassuring and comforting. Thank you for baring it all to us; it helps so much. XOXO

Laini Taylor said...

Pua, you're welcome :-)

Sequoia, yes, victory is possible! It's all about hanging in there.

Heidi, I agree that there isn't enough discussion of creative difficulty. I think a lot of people just don't want to admit it. I always think of this great term from my Renaissance lit class: "sprezzatura" -- it was the idea of the appearance of effortlessness; I think specifically of a courtier maybe staying up all night composing a sonnet that he will then pretend to compose spontaneously the next day. And I know there are people who really are NOT plagued by the same creative difficulties, but I think it's just something that's not that talked about. But I want to talk about it! I hate thinking how many books aren't getting written because of this perfectionism issue, and this idea of "what it should be like." :-(

Laini Taylor said...

Doug, you're welcome!

- Diyana, on the contrary, I think there ARE a lot of writers with varying degrees of perfectionism/blocks. I think there are so many more than we know, because too many of them aren't finishing their books! I hope you are throwing yourself at writing again with wild abandon :-) There's a great quote: Attack your next book with enthusiasm unknown to mankind!

Persnickety Jen, sister :-) Honestly, I couldn't even have that plaque around! Just the thought of sucking, let alone granting myself permission, it makes my shoulders rise up around my ears. I have to allow the potential suck in such small doses, like scene by scene, and then scramble to erase all evidence of suck! It's so funny. (Read: NOT funny!) Like someone is going to see it before I'm ready???

LinWash, you're welcome!

Lynne and Anne, thank you! :-)

Katie, good luck with the writing!

Dawn, :-). You don't have to prove you're not a robot! It's okay. We will still accept you even if writing comes easily to you. It just gives us more ammunition for self pity, ha ha!

Laini Taylor said...

Tiffany, *hug* I am glad you found your way out of the hole. I hope you kept the coughed-up crow feather. Frame it. It is evidence of survival. A trophy!

Destroyer of White Space, yes! But ... how about Elegant Destroyer of White Space? Personally, I need the "elegant" in there or I start getting scared :-). Destroying is all well and good, if one does it beautifully ... ha ha ha!

As for accepting that it won't get "easy," yeah: probably not. But it does get easier just by virtue of the earned belief that you can do it. Scene by scene, it's still a process, but there is more faith in the process. Also, even at my most irritated with myself, my brain, I can still be grateful that I am the way I am, because I know absolutely that my books wouldn't be what they are if my brain were more mellow. I think it's not necessarily a bad thing to insist on getting something "right." I'm talking "right" according to one's own instincts. I read too many books where I wish the author had been influenced by a bit more perfectionism! The key is to find/develop the tricks that can keep you making forward movement, even in the midst of the mania. Not every day, maybe, but overall.


Jennifer Morian Frye said...

Wow. Just wow. This is just so....exactly what I needed. I came here on a whim, because it has been a while, and I just posted on my blog about this very fear....and Harry Potter....

Would you mind if I link to this post?

Thank you Laini. Really.

Rachael H.V. said...

This could not have come at a more fortuitous time. My mother - who is my soundboard for all my ideas God bless her - and I were talking about this just today. It's a matter of sitting down and doing something, even if it is unconventional to your normal standards.

I loved your post and probably wouldn't have checked out your blog if I didn't love your Daughter of Smoke and Bone series - honestly, Girl Scout promise love it.
The thing I find most daunting is not the idea of writing and finishing it, but surrounded in the muck of paralyzing fear that the thing will wallow on some editor's desk and be tossed aside because it isn't mainstream or like wide enough for whatever target audience is most likely to buy. It's not so much as writing it as it is that. So many publishers don't take unsolicited manuscripts, and even if they do, many just read the first few chapters and if no grab, no sell.
Reading this is inspiring, but still, the pitfalls are many and the odds seem terribly overwhelming. Persevering is the best thing to do, dig your heels into the battlefield, and stare that curmudgeon of of an idea to do what the hell you want.
Thanks again :)

Melanie said...

Laini, thank you. You are so brutally honest, it's breath-taking, and yet you know how to give advice like a boot up the proverbial. My brain is a total jerk; I feel like I'm stuck in a revolving door, always just missing the exit. But before I read this post I started thinking about one of my characters from a different perspective. Now I think I might have solved a major plot problem!

Tiffany Marie - your prose is beautiful. Believe in yourself. We can all do this.

Tori said...


I started following your blog because I loved Daughter of Smoke of Bone so much I wanted to know what else your brain was noodling. (ALL my nieces got a copy.)

The writing advice and how you let us in on your process has been an unexpected boon. This post a big example. (I also like how you hang all your chapters on clothes pegs to get a sense of the "whole.")

Thank you very very much for letting us in and sharing your tricks and how your mind works.

It's brave and fig-spirited and you deserve all the success that comes your way!

(Just wanted to say.)

Back to fooling my brain!

P.S. Any advice for plot?

kathleen duey said...

Hello! Wonderful post!! My brain is much like yours in many ways. I have found ways around and into and over and under....
and trying all the things always works best for me. Hope to see you somewhere this year.

Britney Gulbrandsen said...

Thank you, thank you, a million times THANK YOU for this post!

"Or, wait. How about this? It's like your brain is holding out cake to you, and every time you reach out your fork, it bashes you with a hammer. OoOoOoh that cake looks so goOoOoOoOod ... OUCH! No, really. It's like it gives you a clear view of the thing you want, but actively prevents you from getting it.

Look at this great idea! It's all yours and it's lovely, oooh betcha can't wait to write it, huh? Forget it, you'll never do it justice, you can't have it, I'm going to put a glass dome over it and preserve it in its uncorrupted form forever. Go wash the dishes!"

This is a perfect description of what I'm dealing with right now. I have this story idea that I love. I want to write it, no scratch that, NEED to write it. But everytime I sit down to try, I just can't seem to get it right. It's been really hard on me because I'm starting to doubt my ability as a writer. I'm wanting to give up on it all together. So I distract myself: do laundry, read a book, blog, feel sorry for myself, daydream about what it must be like to actually be a published writer, etc.

And that's a huge problem because writing is my dream. It's always been my dream. It's that thing that makes me feel whole. I can't just give up. So thank you for reminding me of that!

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