A Writer’s Journey (Part Three): Dark Night of the Soul6 min read

by | Sep 20, 2017 | Writing

Note from the Editor: A Writer's Journey is a series that follows writer Mark R. Hems as he weathers the challenging yet rewarding terrain of writing a novel. Series Posts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

The Ordeal

In the last instalment of my writer’s journey I left you at somewhat of a cliffhanger after becoming buried beneath the weight of seemingly insurmountable odds. Working for months without a single day off had left me mentally and physically exhausted, so when it came to tackling the problems with my manuscript, I had nothing left.

And I gave up.

I lost all belief in my abilities and came to the conclusion that even if I could write something passable, the odds of getting it published were extremely low. In fact, one sobering statistic that I discovered from attending the Festival of Writing was that your average literary agency receives around five thousand manuscripts each year. And out of those five thousand submissions, they’ll take on around five writers.

Five. Out of five thousand.

It’s a little like getting a place on The X FactorWriter's Journey

The good news is, just like The X Factor, the vast majority of the other contestants aren’t very good. Even the ones that are, often fall at the first hurdle through simply not doing their homework and not understanding the submission process well enough. Sending out submissions in bulk, insufficient editing, a lack of understanding of the market, formatting issues, inappropriate word count for the genre, purple prose—all are common mistakes that fast track manuscripts to slush pile purgatory.

But none of that mattered to me anymore. I wasn’t ever going to be a writer. I’d tried that and failed.


At this point I need to rewind a bit.

Remember that horrible job I told you about in my first post? Well, one pretty important detail I left out was that I quit that job to write. I had some savings and figured I could get by for around a year before my money ran out. In that time I hoped to forge an alternative career in writing, to break the chains of my former profession and emancipate myself creatively.

I’d put everything on the line.

Which is why I tried so hard to make it work. And why I fell so hard when it didn’t.

Writer's journey

Freddy Mercury, 1991

I spent around six weeks doing very little—watching movies, playing PlayStation, reading, playing guitar and, okay, wallowing in self pity. I didn’t sleep much either. Those nagging thoughts about finishing the novel were smothered during the day, but at night they worked double time. All of those problems with plot and characters and, well everything, re-surfaced and threatened to send me, in the immortal words of Freddy Mercury, slightly mad.

But there was a silver lining. Through the course of my writer’s journey I had learnt a lot about writing. I knew so much more now than I did when I began. I understood plot structure; knew how to create three dimensional characters and character arcs; knew about themes, mystery, suspense, foreshadowing; knew when to show and not tell and when to tell and not show; understood grammar at a deeper level having read books like Stephen Pinker’s Sense of Style; knew how to use semi-colons to separate long lists…

And most importantly I had spent countless hours writing, learning so many little rules that it would be almost impossible to list them.

Moment of Enlightenment (no. 2)

And so, slowly but surely, I ascended the ramp out of the Platonic cave in which I had immersed myself, until my eyes adjusted to the light, and everything came into focus.

With fresh eyes I was able to recognise that trying to fix my manuscript was crippling me, because, having written so much (around sixty thousand words) it seemed unthinkable to abandon it. But what I had failed to appreciate was this:

It’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.

writer's journeyThe manuscript for me represented a destination that now seemed forever out of reach. But the manuscript was just words on paper. And, while having enough words (preferably in a palatable order) to complete that manuscript would have been nice, it was never really the goal. No, the goal was to affect a change in myself. Just like any good character in any good book, the true goal was to grow.

And grow I had. When I looked back and compared my writing from a year ago with my latest stuff, I could see marked improvement. All of those skills I had learnt, all of that study, all of that practice, was paying off. And I realised then that my next book might not be perfect, or the book after that, or the book after that. But one day, if I kept writing, and kept learning, I would succeed.

And so, renewed, revitalised and armed with a fresh perspective, I tried again. From scratch. Well, almost.

One of the things that literary agents most liked about my first manuscript was my protagonist. They asked questions about him that I had failed to ask myself, and, in finally answering them, I became aware of a wealth of possibilities for a new story. A story that I would carefully plan over the next two months.

And so, from the ashes of defeat, a new novel was born.

Join me next time to find out what I learnt about generating a good hook and how I went about planning an epic adventure tale.

Sound familiar? Tell us about your writer’s journey in the comments below.



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