The No Good Horrible Very Bad Writing Day


“*cough, cough* Spock! Must…make…word count! Save! Your! Self! *groan*”


I’ve been thinking a lot about process lately.

On THE DIVINERS tour (the subject of a future blog), I was asked often about how to write—what my process was like, if there were any rituals or shortcuts to know, whether I outlined or plunged ahead, and how you know if you’re doing it right. And time and again, I’d stand there, blowing out a gust of breath that ruffled my bangs and then I’d squint as if this might connote “serious thinking” of the sort that presages a very wise, succinct answer instead of the rambling meditation on “Oh, beats the hell out of me; I usually have a snack” that would follow.

This morning, I turned off the Internet and tried to dive back into DIVINERS #2. It’s been two months since I’ve had concentrated writing time and so this felt very much like an awkward first date between two estranged but hopeful lovers:

Person #1: “Ah. Yes. I remember that little opening scene in Chinatown. That was…fun.”

(awkward pause)

Person #2: “There’s a lot of blank space. And I don’t know what the dog means.”

Person #1: “True, true. (beat) But the description of the sky is sort of nice.”

(awkward pause #2)

Person #2: “Mostly. I guess. If you like that sort of thing.” (beat) “They’ve put the cookies out now.”


You get the idea.

I vowed that I wouldn’t stop myself. I’d write unfettered and worry about fixing it later as countless writing advice columns advise. Or I’d write the story arc of one character only, following his or her story through to the end, then I’d do the same for the others. I’d write a big, thrilling scene filled with scary scares. Or no, a heartfelt romantic moment which would thaw me out and get the writerly blood moving through my veins. I’d write a kiss. One kiss scene. How hard could that be? It involves lips. I have lips. I know how they work. It doesn’t even involve research.

As I watched the minutes ticking off into bigger chunks of time with nothing but the removal of two lines (one of which I put back in, then took out again), I began to dissolve into a puddle of panicky doubt and self-flagellation. (Self-flagellation: Now puddle-shaped!) That’s when the awful questions started: “What if I can’t do this? What if this time, I’ve truly bitten off more than I can chew?” “What if I’ve used up my supply of useful words over the last six books and now I’m only left with the word equivalent of stale Ramen noodles and wilted lettuce with which to craft my story?” “Perhaps I should outline? I should outline. Smart writers outline.”

I’d start to outline, then feel stymied because—and here’s the important thing—I don’t write this way.  It is as unnatural to me as a salmon-and-peanut butter sandwich. I am not built this way. I, who am too chicken to ride a roller coaster or leave my house without food in my bag (Hello, Donner Party!), have only one extreme sport in me and it’s writing. I plunge into the unknown morass of my novels armed with some weird ideas, a handful of nascent characters, vague connections, a tingling in my Spidey senses, and the hope that it all comes to something. I trust. I have faith in the story.  

Reminded of this, I’d tell my binders-and-color-coded-index-cards-and-post-it-notes self, “Yeah! I’m a free spirit, maaaan!” Whereupon I would rip off my hairnet, let my pixie tresses go free and sing a French chanson about liberation and the inevitability of death. (This all happens inside my head. Just in case you’re playing the home game. For the record, I am in a café surrounded by other writers on deadlines who don’t give a fig about my inner turmoil or the French as far as I know.)

And so I was forced to sit with my shitty, uncooperative novel just…thinking. Wondering. Connecting. A host of “What if…?” scenarios played around with like Scrabble tiles, trying to build a word pyramid with what I got. “What does this all mean?” I ask myself. “How do these seemingly disparate ideas and events come together in a meaningful, satisfying way?” “Who are these people? What matters to them? And why does this story mean so much to me?” What’s it all about, Alfie?

These are, of course, essential questions and a necessary part of the writing process. But in the midst of it? It doesn’t feel so great. Those “lack of an appreciable word count” writing sessions feel like failure days. It’s interesting that I associate “quantity” with success. I get grumpy about the frustrations of the writing process and impatient with myself and the story. “Why don’t I just KNOW these things already???”

Because I don’t. Because the act of writing is the act of discovery. Because shedding our armor in order to become vulnerable enough to wade around in the uncomfortable, the unsettling, the painful or the revelatory is done bit by slow bit. Because some things really are a little beyond our reach and the eventual grasp of those things is what makes the writing so satisfying on some other future day.For now, I’m going to write on something a little less frustrating just to remind myself that, hey, it’s also fun.

And since they’ve put the cookies out, I’m going to have one. It seems rude not to.










32 thoughts on “The No Good Horrible Very Bad Writing Day

  1. I’m big on outlines–live for them, really–but sometimes your first plan isn’t what’s best for the story! It took me a while to learn how to be flexible and move off the beaten path (but not too far off. Hello, Donner Party 😉 )

  2. It is sort of amazing to me that even though I do in fact have lips, and I have in fact used them for the purpose of kissing on more than one occasion, when it comes time to write about kissing I somehow manage to forget all the details that make the kissing exciting. #WritingIsHard

  3. Pingback: The Diviners (by Libba Bray) « Ringo the Cat's Blog

  4. Pingback: The No Good Horrible Very Bad Writing Day - PHILOSBOOKS | PHILOSBOOKS

  5. Thank you for this.

    I spent last night writing plot questions and lists of things that I know don’t happen in my WIP, trying to figure out what does. It was actually really helpful – I was able to isolate some specific issues, and I realized I need to dig into a particular character more. But at the end of they day, when I went to my little word count spreadsheet and wrote in that big fat zero, it felt awful. Thanks for reminding me that I’m not the only one who has days like this, and that it really is an important and necessary part of the process. I think I’ll go have a cookie now.

  6. “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.” –Michel Foucault, in Martin, L.H. et al. Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. London: Tavistock, 1988. 9-15. Print.

    Thank you for your post. Since I teach college-level academic writing (whatever that is), I often find myself giving students all sorts of sage and researched advice about how to overcome the blank page. I frequently invite (read require) students to engage in activities such as outlining, brainstorming and free-writing, knowing full well that what works for one will not always work for another. But lately, as I try to write my own texts, even for my yearly merit review, I feel the panic you describe and troubling questions follow. When I was a college student (hundreds of years ago), I could write a twenty page paper in a heartbeat and stories galore, and enjoy the experience. Now sometimes writing a sentence sometimes feels more challenging than reassembling a car using a big box of mixed up parts (see what I mean). I surmise that this is due to the wider audience I must appease and the seemingly higher stakes associated with the pieces. Or I am just losing it. In either case, at such times I remember the words of my thesis advisor, “You’re putting too much pressure on yourself. If you have to, just write me a bunch of crap, and if I know you, there will be something amazing in there.”

  7. Love, love the line, “Writing is an act of discovery.” I just finished my first novel and was hoping that the second one would organize itself a little better – not so many drafts – outlining is foreign territory and I’m afraid it would take the fun out.

  8. thank you, m’dear for a lovely post. I sent you my book yesterday and I cryptically hinted that I needed your “advice” on in-the-drawer book #2 … and that’s my big giant question for you: exactly! the ramen noodle feeling! how do you combat the fear that, you know, there’s just one good paragraph / pamphlet left? Just cookies? What kind of cookies? Are they the magical kind, with drizzly chocolate on top?

    Also, speaking of being back from book tour — what % of your work time is devoted to writing vs. thinking about writing vs. marketing ?

  9. And that is why I love you as a writer. I don’t even care if I’m in my twenties…I love dry humor and smart-aleckness when I can find it. I keep telling myself I need to get back into writing…I think it dumped me in the most painful of ways.

  10. hi, ive been reading your gemma doyle triology for the second time, and am currently reading rebel angels. I know it has absolutely no thing to do with this picture, but ive been wondering about some of your characters, like the poppy warriors or philon the centaur or the water nymphs, the untouchables etc… pretty much how all of them look like. I would like you to post some pictures or send them to my email ( which is ) please cause I can’t find any on the internet. Thank you!

  11. Oh man, I have been in the self flagellation puddle-especially with this book I’m on now, my first written after nabbing the all consuming pub. contract. A lot. I’m sorry that you have dipped your toes in as well…at least sort of…selfishly speaking it’s nice to know that I’m not alone there. I can never just outline the book and write to it…I veer almost immediately and then wail loudly around page fifty when I have no idea what I’m doing. EVERY single time I hear you mention your process I feel better, so thanks. And I’m so having a cookie too:-)

  12. Hey i just finished reading your third Gemma Doyle book. I was only recently introduced to your books and so read them. I kinda have a couple of questions.

    1) Can you make a fourth book and bring Kartik back? he’s like my fave charactor.

    2) What happens to Fee? Does she finally love again?

    3) There is so much more you could do! You could write like four more books and it would be awesome! Do you think you could make Kartik come back? PPPLLLLEEEAAASSSSEEE?

    I am an young authur in middle school and hope to soon publish my first book, do you have any advice?

    -Aeslyn Kony

  13. Like trying to finish word count on my translation work with the dead lion breathing down my neck. I kept on getting distracted and wishing I was doing something else…. Ah, cher Dieu, que c’est folle! ^^

  14. Hi Libba , I loved your book the diviners it was just full of surprises. When I finished the book I was so happy to have read this book I love your work I hope the second book of the diviners will be coming out soon I just can’t wait!

  15. Wow. what to say first. In your honour (I’m writing a British historical/parallel fairy tale world novel, so I am reveling in using the ou- Mirrour, honour, colour–you get the picture) I am eating my daily allowance of dark chocolate as I sit down to write this reply to having read this Blog and more importantly, THe Diviners. (Incidentally, I did 4 and half years without sugar; I don’t know how now!)
    First of all, I LOVED the wind personification as it makes its way through NY–reminds me of the fog at the beginning of Bleak House; I don’t how many contemporary writers dare use this technique–but you really pull it off, and it shows up in smaller quantities throughout the book. Since you’re writing in the 2lst cen, and not the 19th, you couldn’t start the book with Wicked Wind, instead you cleverly start with YA characters and a Oiuji board and Naughty John emerging from the dark bowels of demon land–but still, it works, and as a historical writer myself, i UNDERSTAND the jillion little bits of research it took to put together those few pages. The very tip tip of the iceberg, Allen Ginsburg here I come.
    Secondly, I love the uncle and Creepy Crawlie Museum is so Fabulous!! I too, LOVE natural history museums, love natural history, period, ( I just picked up a copy of the Platypus and the Mermaid at a local bookstore I like to haunt, where the books line the floors as well as the shelves–like people who move to trailers and bring 50 years of belongings with them) do, or like some of the professor friends whose offices I occasionally get to inhabit, so nice. It’s such a wonderful premise, place for the book, the Benton is also great. Perhaps my favorite ‘desc’ metaphor line in the book is when the old lady’s lace hem along with salt (to ward off the coming evil) trails like ocean lace in her wake. I love that!
    I also have a series of serial murders in the book I am writing; based more an a tweek of Frankenstein; so I loved that aspect too; and part of what I really liked is how you give us cameos of the people are going to die (all except for Gabriel, who is already a minor character, does he come back later undead?) before they die–instead of them just showing up as bodies on floors and crime scenes. I love that.
    SPeaking of meaning, and ‘what’s it all about Alfie?” like why do I slave away, torturing myself writing these people? I bought your book at Powells on the day when I traveled to Portland because my 28 year old son who was a fantastic man, father, professional–had just been found dead by his wife on the bathroom floor of a heroin overdose, and the whole house was declared a crime scene, and she had to leave with my two and four year old granddaughters, after being grilled by detectives, finding her husband, the only love of her life (she turned 25 the next day) stiff in rigor mortis, awful beyond all imaginings, but for the police, it was all routine; and it made me think of the OTHER side of crime/murder stories, that are as routine to us as texting in the grocery store line–and i had a bunch of books checked out on Death In Victorian Culture, Stiff, Corpse, Blood work, death and dying around the world (you name it, I am a total bibliophile, belonging to three libraries here); and on the way home from Portland I have to question myself, WHAT the FUCk does it all mean? How can I write a historical fiction, why aren’t I writing that memoir about being the mother of recovering heroin addicts instead? about the real evil in our society, one of them being, addiction! People are dying. all around. a couple of dozen of heroin overdoses of young people just in my small circle in the last year.
    But my brother, the same one who turned me onto A.S. Byatt and goes to places in the world and reads the literature of the place there–says, write your novel, he tells me this on the way home in the dark, J. k. Rowling started writing AFTER her mother died, as a type of tribute–write your novel Instead of the true story he says, because the metaphors the meanings, the characters will last. That is why Lords of the Rings is still powerful, because it is metaphor, the metaphor of the ring of addiction, not literal stuff Tolkien was thinking about after WW I.

  16. Okay, this is the last part of my reply. Reply Part two. I accidentally shot my reply off into cyberspace; I am so NOT adept at this tech-communication thing, –So I wanted to say, about meaning, metaphor, I really got and also liked your parallels between the moral/religious/fear paranoia/eugenics of the time, and today with its right-wing corollary! I go to a spiritual group of “recovering” people from mainstream religious backgrounds, we share our horror stories and hope, I know you have your own. So thanks for putting that in!
    And keep on writing, even when it doesn’t seem to matter, because it does. You can’t save the whales, but you can make beauty, truth in the world. Writers HAVE to write. Are you going to be doing any more later book tours or conferences on the West Coast?
    If so, I’d like to try and get there. For now, I am going to go back into my other historical world realm, bring on the mesmerism–and WRITE!! (Damn, but some more chocolate would really help!)

  17. I am a 63 year old nursing instructor. I just finished reading a Great and Terrible Beauty (I can’t figure out how to underline), and I LOVED IT! However, there is one thing that baffles me. Who is “Sarah Rees-Toome/Circe” now? The story states that she is still living, but I can’t figure out which person she is in Gemma’s life now. It is making me crazy! I just purchased the entire Trilogy from Amazon because I loved it so much. Maybe I can find out who she is by reading the sequels. If one of your readers and fans has figured it out I would appreciate a hint. Thank you so much for a great read and an engrossing tale.

    Donna L. Vendetti

  18. Threaten yourself with a donut. If you can’t focus, you have to smell it before you do anything else.

    (I hate them too)

  19. Hello There. I found your weblog the usage of msn. That is an extremely well written article.

    I will be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your
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  20. Oh dear – I needed this.

    Today was a horrible day for me, writing-wise. Food-wise, I had some yummy ice-cream, so all’s good 😉


    You are one HECK of a writer (for lack of better words 😉 )



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