It’s the pits

If Gustav Dore did photography.

According to Dante, the Great Inferno has nine circles (I checked on Wikipedia – such is my commitment to this blog). 

It’s pretty standard fare: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery. Notable residents, of interest to writers, apparently include Homer, Ovid, Lancelot and Guinevere.

Having detoured from that to the awesome artistry of Gustav Dore (have I mentioned that I’ve been into his work for decades?), I started to ponder what a Hell for writers would consist of.

Here are nine circles of hell that every writer will relate to, to some extent:

1. Writer’s Block.
2. The first draft.
3. Editing.
4. Negative feedback.
5. Plagiarism.
6. Rejection.
7. Comparison.
8. Circumstance.
9. Neglect.

Writer’s Block
You know you want to write, or even what you want to write. But every time you pick up a pen or face the keyboard, it’s all white noise and a blank mind.

The first draft
It’s like the muse’s way of testing your commitment and stamina. That shitty first draft is a hard won treasure, a holey grail (plot holes, usually) you will overcome monsters and challenges to acquire. And it hurts almost every step of the way, especially at 10,000 words and at the halfway point.

This level of hell has a lot in common with house renovations. Go too far and all the character and charm that first attracted you is destroyed (or covered by MDF – it’s the same thing). Too little effort applied, or not enough attention to detail, and the whole thing will look like a rush job. 

Negative feedback
It can mean different things to different writers. For some, it’s anything short of high praise and the trumpeting of angels. For others, it’s anything that’s not actually constructive – i.e. the feedback gives you something to work with. I was recently told by a friend that the published version of my fantasy, Covenant, was much harder to get into than an earlier version. I was pleased with that because he went on to explain why. Any feedback that sounds like it has come put of the mouth of a petulant three year-old probably falls into this hellish category.

Three forms of this one come to mind. One: you inadvertently discover you’ve closely followed someone else’s style, past the point of homage. Two: you’ve copied parts of the text or an entire plot. Three: someone has copied you. This can happen accidentally in writing groups.

Ah, the bee sting of every writer’s existence. Submitting your work is an act of faith and courage. Rejection says that, on this occasion, you wasted your time. It does get easier with time, and these days at least you save on printing, paper and postage, but it’s still a door being slammed in your face.

Mostly, this is a self-inflicted hell. You can research the ages that other famous authors either wrote or got a life-changing contract (or any contract!). You can also find out how well your friends are doing. And both Bookseller and The Author are great sources of potential discontent. If the question is, “Why me, Lord?” then the answer is surely, “Why not?” (And vice versa.) However, wherever you are on the writing continuum, someone is doing worse than you. Trust me.

This is a tricky one to define, but essentially it’s obstacles and reverses that are totally outside your control. Think along the lines of ‘my dog ate my homework’ and you’ll be getting close. Every writer knows someone with a vignette to share, even if it’s a friend of a friend. My own, oft quoted tales of this nature relate to:
1. The editor who died before the contract could be signed (and the replacement editor who then rejected the book instead). A double-whammy of writer hells.
2. The indie publisher who went out of business just before my book was set for launch.
3. The publisher who asked for a full, only for me to find out it had been an over-enthusiastic intern and the package was returned to me two days later.

To my mind, this is the deepest, darkest circle of writerly hell. It’s the not knowing and creeping back into the pit of your own self-doubt. It’s the publisher who took over a year to respond, and the ones who never did. It’s the agents and editors who replied ‘very interested – send more’, only to be too busy (even for an email) seven months later. And who, when chased, say their books are full for at least the next year. It’s the bookshop that happily takes your samples and never calls you. 

Despite all those hellish pitfalls, redemption is available. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. 

You write until you finish. You edit diligently. You seek out meaningful feedback and you act on it. You target your submissions intelligently, and you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You accept that you’re only in competition with yourself, and even then it’s about how you grow as a writer. Perhaps, most importantly of all, you don’t neglect yourself as a writer. You nurture yourself with inspiration, well-being and perspective. Remember, you’re a writer – who said it was supposed to be easy?


  1. Freya Morris says:

    Blimey! What a path we have chosen to go down eh? When you put it like this, people must think we are mad to even consider it.

  2. Chloe says:

    Thanks for the reminder that first drafts are always and necessarily crappy. I needed to hear that at the moment! It's so tempting to abandon drafts because you know the writing is bad, but the writing could be good if only you'd get to the end of the first draft and give yourself something to work on.

    Now you just need to select the punishments for each level – that's the most entertaining bit of Dante's inferno (being forced to run perpetually, being buried up to the waist in ice etc.) But perhaps here each level is its own punishment?

  3. Hi, Freya. You may have a point. I have had people say to me in the past, "What's the big deal? It's only made-up stuff."

  4. Hi, Chloe. I think that's an excellent prompt for a blog post of your own – one to which I can direct people at the end of this one!

  5. This covers it quite well, unfortunately. Chloe's punishment idea is brilliant. I'm especially wishing for that in response to neglectful booksellers right about now…

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