Repetition is soul-destroying. I don’t know at what point exactly rereading Tell Us No Secrets, the psychological thriller I was writing, turned into a new kind of torture. Maybe it was the 10th time when I found myself thinking, Who cares about these characters? This plot is tedious. How could anyone be remotely interested in this book?
Self-doubt and anxiety don’t help the writing process. I would sit staring yet again at the words I’d written, wondering if I should press “delete” and keep pressing.
If only I could have written it in one perfect go. But who does that?
Every author must go through this, I told myself, even the great ones. Dickens probably got fed up with David Copperfield after too many reads. Harper Lee may have thought, Really? Is Atticus Finch believable?
To dig oneself out of the too much rereading pit requires strategies.
One is to take a break from your book. Leave it alone and go do something else for a few days or a week. This can be effective, but not in the long run. Unless you take a substantial break, you go back, feel buoyed for a while, then inevitably, reread and get stuck again. They’re still the same words, the same characters. Doing the same things.
Or you can try to put yourself into the mind of a random reader, reading it for the first time. Swerve the memory cells in your brain and look at it afresh. Adopting the mantra “I’m a reader, not the writer” is useful in many ways. Though it’s hard to carry off when you’re writing a thriller and can’t pretend you don’t know the big plot twist at the end.
Biting the bullet and actually showing it to people you trust for their take on it is a gamble—if those people give good feedback, or if they make suggestions that give a new slant kickstarting your creativity, it’s brilliant. If they make negative comments, or suggestions that vary wildly, you can end up dispirited and confused.
It took a while to find the two methods that helped me, the only two that had no potential drawbacks.
When the repetition factor is at its most depressing, find a scene you’ve written that you know works well. My family has a tradition: Every December, we find a movie theatre showing It’s A Wonderful Life and go to watch it. As much as I love that film, I was actually relieved when COVID made going to see it for the umpteenth time impossible.
I know, though, that however many times I watch it, I will still flinch when the drugstore owner hits George Bailey and makes his ear bleed. And my heart will always lift watching Jimmy Stewart running through the streets of Bedford Falls in the snow shouting, “Merry Christmas!”
There are times rereading your book when you can think, Wait, did I write that? It’s actually good, no matter how often I read it. Find those passages, bask in them. Then assume that there are lots of others like it, that if you weren’t so jaded, you might think your book is full of them.
My fool-proof fallback position is embarrassing to admit. I came upon it accidentally when I took a break and watched television one afternoon. Scrolling through the channels, I landed on a made-for-TV movie. Some of those are brilliant, some of them are not. This one was awful. I loved it.
Comparisons are odious but they can come in handy. From that moment on, whenever I reread and despaired, I’d search for the worst sounding made-for-TV movie I could find. The ones with hopelessly silly plots, the ones with stock characters and dire scripts. I made myself watch one of those, so I could think, Well, at least my book is better than this. And this was made into a TV movie. There’s hope.