Dark Nights of Despair

Some years back I co-taught the last two weeks of Clarion with Maureen McHugh, who is a tremendously fine writer. If you haven’t read her collection, Mothers and Other Monsters (Small Beer Press), you must go do that right now.

One of the things Maureen gave the Clarionoids that year–and I got a copy as well–was a sheet called “The 9 Stages of Writing a Novel.” It’s a semi-humorous but at the same time deadly serious guide to what you will go through as you write your novel, and it is useful to be able to look at it and say “Yep, that’s where I am now, all right.” Most of these stages are not debilitating. But stage 6, The Dark Night of Despair, is. And the thing is, everybody gets to that sooner or later. Maureen identified it as something encountered about 2/3 of the way in. I think it can come sooner than that, but it is a stage in the middle, a place from where, if you look backward at the word-ravaged landscape you’ve created to get here, you see only crap; and if you turn about and stare off into the book-yet-to-be, you can only imagine more of the same. It’s crap no matter where you turn. At this point, that mental thing you have that tries its best to flag you when you go off course, which is called the internal editor, turns its spotlight on you instead of your work (because, of course, you’re not doing any work) and begins whispering in your ear things like “You suck.” “What in the name of Buddha made you think you could ever write?” “You’ve been faking it all these years.” “You should give up.” I believe there’s not a single writer I know who hasn’t heard that siren song at some point.

I happen to be hearing it now.

It has been a difficult month or so as a result. Getting scenes fleshed out is like prying an occasional rib loose from my spine. It’s hateful. Frustrating. Part of this is due to what Diana mentioned in her December 17th post on what happens when a writer changes. That’s what I’m doing here–going from fantasy, where my just-about-out novel, Shadowbridge (Del Rey), is getting rave pre-release reviews–to mystery. Leaping onto a different horse, because, well, I want to. It’s a bigger leap in some ways than trading epic fantasy for urban, as Diana mentioned, but mostly it means that in the middle of this book I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see. When I look back, it’s a different landscape than before.

As I mentioned last month, I’ve been working my way through a collection of essays and letters by Samuel R. Delany, collected in his book, About Writing (Wesleyan University Press). Great pieces. And I happened, here in the black vacuum of despair, to come across a piece in which he mentions that he really only knows for certain three things about his craft. I won’t reveal them all (which presumably will force a few folks to go purchase the book). But one of them, advice he took from Thomas M. Disch, brought me up short, because it addresses exactly what is happening in the place that Maureen had identified. Disch says (in Delany’s paraphrase): “The only thing you can do in such a situation is ask of your story what’s really going on in it. What are the character’s real motivations, feelings, fears or desires? Right at the point where you stopped, you must go down to another level in the tale. You must dig into the character’s psychology deeply enough (and thus build up your vision of the story’s complexity enough) to reinterest yourself. If you can’t, then the story must be abandoned.”

And, lo, he was damned straight. Here was, and is, a solution: presume that you have not seen what you’re working with, not fully. Look again. Look more closely still. What are these people really up to? I spent a few days doing this, prodding, pushing, cluster-writing around the people I thought I knew already, freewriting around them, writing scenes out of sequence, and–I hope most fervently–finding my way back into the story, which will be a somewhat different, richer story for it.

Whether my fantasy audience will follow me there is another matter, but as Ms. Pharaoh Francis has already locked horns with that question, I’ll leave it here.

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, our authors, our books, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There are 9 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Chris R

    Have you thought about using a different name like James Clemens/Rollins does?

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Hmm. I might have to try this technique. The question is, does it work more than once per book? Generally I encounter dark nights of despair about a third of the way into a book, and quite frequently thereafter.

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Lately my dark night of despair has come in the midst of revisions. Where it’s so hard to know if the pieces fit together really. The other day, we drove up on the Snake River Gorge near Twin Falls. From less than a mile away, there was no way to tell the Gorge was there. The ground looked absolutely flat and solid. But then all of a sudden, we come up on it and there’s is this gaping trench in the earth that goes on for miles. That’s what I worry about in my novel. What if, when I look over the landscape, am I missing a big gaping fracture? Does it look of a piece but with dreadful, hidden flaws?

    I just can’t tell right now. My head isn’t able. But hopefully a break will let me.


  4. 4. jere7my

    S.C. Butler:

    In my experience, yes indeed, it does work multiple times per book, ‘cos each scene brings new motivations and layers to revive your flagging interest. If I’m banging my head against a scene, digging down to find something I hadn’t thought of, something that adds a new shape or movement to the scene, is almost always part of the solution that (eventually) breaks me through the wall.

  5. 5. Stephen Leigh

    Hope the genre-shift to mystery goes well for you!

    I love Maureen’s chart and have used it in the novel-writing class I teach. I know that dark night of despair well — usually right around the middle of every novel when I find myself becalmed in a Sargasso Sea of Writing, and I start to think that I’m a sham and I’ve lost whatever creativity I had and that I’ll never find my way out of this mess. I’ll start rcleaning the office or doing some of the necessary chores that have accuulated around the house and reading anything non-fictional that has some tenuous link to the novel… so far, every time, there comes this eventual faint zephyr of synchronicity, and I’ll find myself moving forward again.

    But I’d sure love to skip that step in the process!

  6. 6. Gregory Frost

    That’s about how it works for me. When doing the laundry starts to look inviting, I know I’m in trouble. And coming out of it really is a kind of “faint zephyr of synchronicity”–that’s a great phrase.


  7. 7. Mike Brotherton

    “Lately my dark night of despair has come in the midst of revisions.”

    Yeah, that’s where it hits me, too, usually. It’s probably because I hate revisions and that’s the place where that editorial spotlight is shining the brightest, because it now all really has to be right. Polished. Done. And there are these threads that are frayed, scenes where the characters don’t feel quite right, or the setting is a white room and I can’t remember what it really was supposed to be.

    It’s probably because I also write from a detailed plot outline, and even though I spend a fair amount of time on that, there are things you discover about your characters and world during the writing of the first draft that clash with the original vision. I find myself looking around, trying to figure out how to piece it together, and wondering.

    And then I get drunk and work and it all makes sense. I mean, I just work through it, eventually, or I wouldn’t be published. Everyone who has some measure of success finds a way through it. And it seems to happen to most of us, indeed.

  8. 8. Daryl Gregory

    I’m writing book 2 in a 2-book contract in which the second book has nothing to do with the first, and I’m not having a dark night of the soul so much as a dark year. The problem is, I keep comparing the current book to its more handsome, dashing, and already-editor-approved brother. Book 2 is darker in tone, the protagonist less likeable, the plot less linear, the scope more personal and less sweeping… etc. You see my problem: Too much of my thinking is about what the book is not, or about how it’s different from the other one, rather than what the book IS. This is not productive, but it’s very hard to shake.

    But years ago I’d read Delany’s advice by way of Tom Disch, and I’ve repeatedly done the exercise that you’re talking about, Greg. It’s reaped some benefits in a more complex plot and more nuanced characters, but it’s been most helpful in helping me fall in love with the current book, rather than pining for the golden days of book 1. Then a part of me thinks, were you really that confident while writing book 1, Daryl, or are you now just remembering that way? I have a sneaking suspicion when I’m writing my next book I’ll look back on book 2 and think, Why isn’t this working as easily as that one?

    Anyway, thanks for writing about this.


  9. 9. ???????????

    Thanks for another wonderful article. Where else could anybody get that type of info in such an ideal method of writing?
    I have a presentation next week, and I’m on the search for such info.

Author Information

Gregory Frost

Gregory Frost's latest book is LORD TOPHET, the second volume of the SHADOWBRIDGE duology from Del Rey (Random House). Fantasy Book Critic calls Lord Tophet "a richly rewarding experience, it is also one of the few must-read fantasies of the year." And Paul Witcover says of the tale ""His pages bristle with the kind of lively energy I associate with Miyazaki films, and his delight in the stories his characters hear and transform and retell is palpable and contagious." His short story collection, ATTACK OF THE JAZZ GIANTS & OTHER STORIES (Golden Gryphon Press) was hailed by Locus as "a notable collection, likely to stand as one of the best of 2005" and Publisher's Weekly once again,in a starred review(*), went even further in saying, "Frost demonstrates his mastery of the short story form in what will surely rank as one of the best fantasy collections of the year." Recent short fiction can be found in the anthology POE, edited by Ellen Datlow, and upcoming in URBAN WEREWOLVES, edited by Darrell Schweitzer. Visit his website for excerpts, publishing info and appearance dates. He blogs here and here. More on Shadowbridge here. Visit site.



Browse our archives: