Being a Better Writer: The Death Spiral

Real cheery title for the first post of 2017, isn’t it?

Seriously though, welcome to 2017! I hope it feels like as much of a breath of fresh air for the rest of you as it does from me. Though in my case, it’s mostly because I took the last two weeks off.

I know. I took an actual vacation. Cleared games out of my backlog, read a bunch of books, and everything. And you know what’s funniest about it?

I actually had to convince myself to stick with it. There was a period about three or four days into it where my mind was like “What are you doing!? You should be working!”

I’m glad I stuck with the vacation. I was so dedicated to clearing my backlog that it almost was work, but it was a lot of fun all the same. Finally knocking a few games off of that list was satisfying. As was all the reading I got to do.

Anyway, none of that really has anything to do with today’s topic, mind. I suppose if I had to tie together my ramblings, they would come together as “It was a nice break, but I’m glad to be back at work!”

So, about that topic. As I mentioned, it may seem like an odd title for the first post of 2017. After all, “death spiral” doesn’t exactly imbue much confidence, does it?

No. It doesn’t. Which is exactly why I think it makes a good topic for the first post of 2017. Because for many young writers, a death spiral is something they get trapped in with no idea of how to get out. And for the new year? Nothing could be better for some of those writers than realizing it and breaking free.

Right, enough pontificating. Let’s dive right in and answer the question on so many minds right about now: what is a death spiral?

A death spiral (named for this infamous Dilbert strip) is what I’ve come to call the tendency for young writers to get entrapped by their own stories. To get pulled in by “that one project” that they’ve been working on for so long that they can’t see themselves working on anything else. The story that will surely be their magnum opus … someday. If they ever get past chapter two. But they just thought of something that will be very important later in the story, so now they’d best rewrite that opening chapter just to make sure, and …

Sounding familiar yet? For many young authors, it should. Or does. Because they’ve been there. Or worse, they currently are there, and that description above is striking a worrisome chord.

Now, realizing that you’re in a death spiral can be a touchy subject for a lot of young writers. After all, many haven’t learned to “kill their darlings” yet. And, lacking further experience, many of them aren’t sure whether or not they’re in a death spiral. Some are adamant that they aren’t stuck in one. “No, no,” they’ll say. “I’m making progress. Just last week I made the final revision to chapter two! Now I’m rewriting chapter three!” Except … they’ve never made it past chapter four, and they never will if they’re stuck in a death spiral.

What really sets a death spiral apart, however, from a fresh project that is still in its growing stages is the amount of time that has been sunk into it. For example, when looking at your current writing project, ask yourself the following questions. If you can answer yes to even one of them, you may want to consider the possibility that you are stuck in a death spiral.

—Has forward progress stopped in lieu of going back and editing/rewriting what you’ve already written before you’ve made it very far into the story?

—Have you since spent more time editing/rewriting that first bit of the story than you did originally writing it?

—Do you get started on writing new material for said story only to realize that you need to go back and edit/add in something and gone and done that instead? Has that been your experience the last few times you sat down to work on this story? Has it kept you from adding any new material in significant amounts (say, chapters)?

—Have you started this project completely over more than once, writing it to a certain point (likely the same point) and then restarting it again?

—Have you thought about stopping/working on something else, but then decided not to because this story is clearly your best story, or will be when it gets finished?

—Think of the “cool moment” that you want this story to get to. Has any draft of it every actually made it there? Or have they each gotten tangled up in endless changes and rewrites long before?

—Are you actually writing anything, or are you just making small tweaks and changes to the first few chapters of something, telling yourself that when those are ready, the rest of the story will practically write itself?

If you can answer yes even somewhat solidly to any of those, let alone more than one, congratulations, it sounds like you’ve trapped yourself in a death spiral project.

And that’s not where you want to be, nor where you want to be spending your time. In case you hadn’t figured it out by the name, a death spiral is bad. They choke the life out of young writers, sucking away their energy, momentum, and work ethic on a project that will likely never go anywhere.

Not exactly what you want to hear, I know. And, yes, there will be a selection of readers that read this post thinking “No! You don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m just hitting some road bumps! It’ll be the best thing ever!”

And … yes, maybe. Maybe, I stress. Maybe someday. But guess what? That someday is a long time down the road, after you’ve already set the story aside and worked on some projects that aren’t death spirals.

A project becomes a death spiral for any number of reasons. Sometimes young authors are just perfectionists, determined to iron out any number of tiny flaws in the opening chapters before they move on. Other times they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, but don’t quite realize it, knowing that something is wrong, but not knowing enough about their craft yet to figure out exactly what. Which, when they decide to “fix it,” works with about the same amount of effectiveness as a man with no knowledge of cars trying to fix their own by opening up the hood and poking around inside the engine at random (when, spoiler alert, the issue is that they need new brakes). Or maybe the project is just the young writer’s baby, and they’re determined to strike it rich right out of the front gate.

A project can become a death spiral for this or any number of other reasons. But the end result is the same: The death spiral lives up to its name and becomes the endless project, sucking away the writer’s time and effort with no payoff, slowly closing in on itself. It feeds off of the author’s creativity and motive, sucking both dry but offering nothing in the end as a reward.

I know. I was stuck in one for a long time. Way back when I first started to get into writing as a career (right after I published One Drink, actually), I got stuck in a death spiral of my own. I had this idea for a cool horror/suspense story that I’d written a small segment of during college. And so I set out to make it another novella, like One Drink. I sat down and wrote about 15k -20k words … and something just wasn’t working. Something didn’t … click.

The problem was, I didn’t know what. I thought I did, and so I made revisions. After a few days doing revisions on what was the first quarter of the story, I started over and began anew at a different point in time.

The same thing happened. The story ground to a halt. I made changes, tweaked stuff … but it wouldn’t go past a certain point without feeling off, though I didn’t know why. Looking back? I lacked enough experience to handle what I was taking on. But at the time, I just thought I needed another approach.

Cue rewrite three. And once again it began to grind to a halt, though I made it a little further. By this point, however, I’d spent almost a month working on it and going nowhere. And when I stepped back and realized what was happening, how much time I was wasting, I saw only one way out.

I loaded the latest version of the story (the fourth by this point), jumped to the furthest point, and gave it an ending. Here it is, quoted from that ancient project:

And then the reactor exploded and they died.

And then I closed it, never to look at it again (in fact, today’s grabbing of that quote was the first time I’ve ever looked at it since that day four+ years ago.

Because I could see what it was doing to my time. At the same time I needed closure, and I knew that simply walking away wasn’t going to be good enough. I needed it to be done.

And so, done it was. And you know what’s funny?

Years later, some of the ideas I’d had for that little novella reared their head once more. But this time as part of a larger universe, one that, with so much more writing experience, I was able to successfully navigate. And so while that death spiral was dead and truly gone, traces of it later came back in a later project where I knew what I was doing.

That book became Colony. It’s a far, far cry from that original death spiral, but some of the shared DNA is there. The thing was, wrapped up as I was in that death spiral, I lacked the experience and the know-how to do something like Colony (not that I was trying, it was a very different beast).

But only because I got out of the death spiral when I did was I able to go on to write Dead SilverRise, and eventually Colony. I turned my attention to other things, to fresh projects and new ideas that would let me flourish rather than sucking away all my creative energy on what was a dead end.

Which brings me back around to why I felt this was a good topic for the first BaBW post of 2017: It’s a new year, and time for a fresh slate. And I’m sure that there are many young writers out there that are thinking to themselves “This will be the year that I finish my baby! This year I’ll get past chapter four, or twelve, or whatever! This year will be the year I get it done!”

To which I say “Your enthusiasm is admirable, but maybe with the new year, it’s time for a new project.” Maybe it’s time to step back and look at what you’ve been spending so much time on. Examine it. Critique it. And ask yourself “Is this a death spiral? Am I spending my time on a never-ending project that’s going to eat me alive?” Because if so, there’s no better time than the present to get started on something new.

End the death spiral. If you can’t just step away or force yourself to move past that constant stopping point, do what I did and give yourself a short, succinct, sentence or two “ending” that puts and end to it. Close the file. Leave it alone. Sit back, let out a deep relaxed breath. You’re done. The death spiral is over.

Then take all that enthusiasm, all that energy, and put it into something new. Start a new project. A new beginning. Not a retread of the old one you’ve just put away (as I said, I never went back to my death spirals—yes, there was more than one—though I did learn from them and keep a few of the cleverer ideas) but a new one. Something fresh.

Granted, this is good advice all year round, not just during its timely phase now, but do it! Look at your projects and determine what’s actually letting you move forward … and what’s holding you back. Get out of the death spiral; free yourself from its clingy morass.

And then start something new. Put that energy and experience into something else. Write past the dead zone, past all the niggling thoughts of “but if I go back …” and just write until it’s over.

Get out of the death spiral. Start the new year fresh.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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