Needing Help Doesn’t Mean You’re a Bad Writer

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Needing Help Doesn’t Mean You’re a Bad Writer

In my career as an editor I’ve always built follow-up time into every contract I offer so that authors know if they need anything—to clarify a point, sound out an idea or bounce it off someone, rework an intention, or get a set of eyes on revisions as they’re working—I’m here, their “beck and call girl,” as I always joke. The handmaiden to their creative process.

But in more than a decade of working as a developmental editor, I’ve always been surprised at how rarely authors use their allotted time.

One of my favorite parts of being an editor is witnessing what always feels like alchemy: I hold up a mirror to an author’s story and offer objective feedback on what I see…and then weeks or months later it comes back to me magically transformed, even richer, deeper, and more affecting than it already was.

But lately I’ve been spending a lot more time working directly with authors between edit passes: brainstorming sessions; long calls where we meticulously go through the “x-ray” of the author’s story (this is a tool I often suggest for balky or complex stories you can see more about here) and hammer out structure or character arc or plot together; emergency “troubleshooting” calls when an author is feeling stuck; working out a game plan for revisions that may be especially vexing or complicated; reworking an approach that may not be fully resonating for an author; or sometimes just offering a good old-fashioned pep talk to an author whose confidence may be flagging.

Recently I’ve offered expanded notes to help authors home in on the story they intended to tell and how to most effectively express it on the page; links to articles that may be useful in conveying an idea we’re working on; even offered access to some of the webinars and online courses I’ve given on a certain topic that may be something the author feels she’s struggling with.

I thought at first it might be in my mind–maybe I was just noticing more of these types of added editorial assistance that have always been part of the process, but a quick look at my calendar over the past year reveals that nope, indeed it’s dotted with many more than usual calls and consultations. And several editors at pub houses I work with have made the same observation.

But here’s what almost every one of these expanded edits have in common: At some point the author apologizes for needing the extra help and expresses discouragement with their own talent and skill because their manuscript needs so much editing and revision–especially if they’ve had a long, successful track record as a published author, as many of the writers I’m talking with lately do.

To which I always offer a version of the same response–which regular readers have heard me say numerous times: This is a completely normal part of the process. It is the process.

I’m always a bit in awe of how authors take pages of editorial input, and then entirely on their own process it, determine what resonates for their vision, and incorporate that onto the page. I recently likened it with one author (on another troubleshooting call!) to feeling as if I hand them a bag of groceries and a few weeks later I magically get the most astonishingly delicious, beautiful cake.

But here’s a valuable writing (and life) lesson I learned from the Great British Baking Show–even with a recipe, even with a dish you may have made perfectly hundreds of times before, even if you’ve been baking your entire life…sometimes the bread doesn’t rise, the souffle falls, or you accidentally used salt instead of sugar.

Writing, like baking, is an ephemeral art, affected by so many factors. With baking it’s temperature, humidity, altitude, quality and variation among ingredients, and hundreds more.

In writing there are equally as many factors that might influence an author’s creativity: time, mood, life pressures, stress, worry, complexity of a certain story, writing in a new genre, self-doubt, even hormones–and far too many more to list.

If flour and yeast and eggs are temperamental and unpredictable, imagine how much more so a faceted, endlessly complex human being is.

Think of how easy it is to get derailed in even common everyday situations: You’re out of coffee, giving you a headache that derails your productivity, which makes you miss an important deadline, which gets you yelled at by your boss, which decimates your self-esteem, which comes out in snapping at your spouse, which hurts his feelings, which sparks a fight, which leaves you feeling sad and alone on a day you desperately needed love and comfort.

Or a pandemic suddenly shuts down the world and throws everything in your life into uncertainty and fear and forces you to reimagine nearly every detail of your and your family’s daily lives for more than a year…while the world around you grows more polarized and angry than it’s been in generations, maybe even within your family itself; democracy is under attack; global warming marches on….

Is it any wonder that authors may lately be having more trouble with writing than they’re used to?

Is it any wonder that authors may lately be having more trouble with writing than they’re used to?

It’s worth saying again: This is normal. You are normal.

Athletes suffer from injuries or conditions that may hamper their usual performance. Most of us wouldn’t decide that negates their talent or skill as an athlete; it just means they may need more practice and coaching than usual to push through that impediment and get back to peak form.

It’s been a rough as hell year, authors. Honestly it’s been a rough as hell five years, as the world many of us thought we were living in slowly began showing disturbing fissures we had no idea were there.

But life–like good story—is always full of challenges and setbacks, suffering and pain, uncertainty and insecurity. And artists are often the sensitively calibrated barometers of all those tribulations.

Life, like good story, is always full of challenges and setbacks, suffering and pain, uncertainty and insecurity. And artists are often the sensitively calibrated barometers of all those tribulations.

Be gentle with the delicate equipment of your soul. Reach out without self-castigation for the help and support and solidarity and reassurance that are available to you, that may help hold the torch in the darkness when you need it.

Do not judge yourself or your talent or your worth for that. This is human, and it’s normal.

Trust me, those people will one day need you to hold the torch for them.

Over to you, authors: Have you noticed it’s more difficult to create lately, amid these unsettled times we’re in? Have you reached out to loved ones, a creative community, a professional, or anyone who can help you through those challenges, or do you struggle through alone? What techniques or coping strategies have you discovered to maintain your belief in yourself and your art?

10 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi, Thanks so much for your post. Timely for me.
    I’m working on the initial revision of a first draft of a mystery, hopefully the one I’ve always wanted to write. So far the product supports Ernest Hemingway’s conclusion on the quality of first drafts. Getting it written was slow and painful, like pulling teeth.
    I figured now that I know pretty much where I’m going, it shouldn’t be as bad, but it is. It’s only my second novel, so I don’t know if it’s always like this. Your post, that it ain’t easy, and that’s normal is most encouraging.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 24, 2021 9:26 pm

      I’m glad this was encouraging, Bob. It’s true–writing and editing can be really challenging. You’re orchestrating so very many moving parts, creating fully fleshed human beings and worlds…balancing that against the conventions of storytelling to most effectively hook readers and keep them hooked as you take them on a long and often complex journey. Be kind to yourself–I always say no one would pick up a violin and expect to play a concerto–even if they love music. Writing is a craft and a skill, and editing even more so because you not only incorporate all the many skills a writer needs to have mastered to hone and develop and deepen the story, but must also be able to see your own work objectively enough to know where its weak spots may be. Musicians practice for countless hours a day, year upon year upon year, before they’re ready to play Carnegie Hall. Keep at this craft if you love it–I can’t promise it’ll ever be “easy,” but you will gain confidence and skill with every word you write. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
  • Lainey Cameron
    June 24, 2021 6:19 pm

    I resonated so much with this one! Being in the midst of trying to gentle with myself right now, when writing is not progressing as fast I’d like due to other life factors. You are always the wisest!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 24, 2021 9:27 pm

      You are always the kindest! Thanks for this comment. I’m glad you’re taking it easy on yourself. <3

      Reply
  • A very sensitive and emotionally supportive article. Thank you, Tiffany.

    Reply
  • Olga Oliver
    June 24, 2021 7:45 pm

    Ah Ha! Thanks so much for this post. Have been having strange thoughts – well, damn, why not just quit, cease writing, take it all to the dump – these are new kinds of thoughts coming our of my head, absolutely I’ve never had such insane thoughts. I’ve searched and searched for reasons – not ever thinking . . . well honey, who do you think you are? Are you the new “Miss Strong”? . . . you’re treading around in a lot of messes, so sit down, calm thyself . . . quit writing ?? now just a second, that’s a new thought . . . none of that, then I read your post Tiffaney. – Ah Ha again . . . many thanks.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 24, 2021 9:29 pm

      Ha! Thanks for that direct glimpse into your psyche. 😉 I’m very happy to hear the post was encouraging. There’s no reason to ever quit creating–unless we quit enjoying it. Otherwise, just take a step back when you need to and breathe a little…ask for help when you need it…and hang in there. Glad you stopped by.

      Reply
  • Nicole Brooks
    June 25, 2021 2:11 pm

    Such a timely read for me, as I’m over a month into a total creative freeze and have recently began scouting for professional help (which makes me feel like a failure because I can no longer do this on my own). Covid, a big letdown on my last queried MS, switching genres, a death in the family. Did I say Covid? Sigh. Thank you for this Tiffany!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      June 25, 2021 6:09 pm

      I’m so glad it eased some of the pressure you may have been putting on you. Creatives often flog ourselves so hard–and I can’t think of many other fields where we’d judge our skills by the occasional need for input, help, or support. Thanks for the comment, Nicole.

      Reply

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