The nine circles of writing hell

by | Nov 23, 2010 | The Writing Life | 94 comments

With apologies to Dante Alighieri…

We have all probably started ill-fated novels that, shall we say, did not go where we wanted them to go. For one reason or another, either our will or our preparation or the idea failed us, and sure enough, they ended up in novel hell.

Based on the Nine Circles of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, here are the nine circles of writing hell.

Save your novel from these sins, my fellow writers! Repent before it is too late!

First Circle: Limbo

Hello shiny idea for a novel! Should I write you? Should I not write you? Maybe I’ll write a few pages and see how you go. Should I… oohhh Farmville.

Second Circle: Lust

Novel, you are so brilliant, you shine like a beautiful bright beacon, nay, like filigree sparkling in the darkest of unlit nights. Everything you do is wonderful, to change but one of your words would be a sin unto mankind. Whatever you want novel, whether it’s second person stream of consciousness or an illogical plot twist or overwrought prose that makes people blush, you can have it, please take it, it’s yours. I LOVE YOU, NOVEL.

Third Circle: Gluttony

No time to eat. No time to work. No time for breaks. No time to attend to essential hygiene. Twenty-six-hours straight. MUST. WRITE. NOVEL. I. WILL. NOT. BURN. OUT.

Okay, I’m starting to get burned out…

Fourth Circle: Greed

Dude, Stephenie Meyer wrote that vampire book in like six weeks or something and now she’s a gagillionaire. How hard can it be?!

Fifth Circle: Anger

I hate agents, I hate query letters, I hate rejection letters, I hate editors, I hate published authors, I hate unpublished authors, I hate periods, I hate exclamation points, I hate semi-colons, I hate paper, I hate words, I hate the space between words, and most of all, I HATE THIS FREAKING NOVEL!!!

Sixth Circle: Heresy

You know what novel I don’t like? The Great Gatsby. I mean, what’s the big deal?! Green lights and drunks and parties and blah blah blah? What a bunch of trash. I threw that book across the room. That Scott person needs to get a clue, I can’t believe anyone published him. And DON’T GET ME STARTED on how much editing he needed.

Seventh Circle: Violence

Oh, you think you’re reeeeallll clever, don’t you, Manuscript. You think you’re smart and witty and amazing and your characters are funny and you’re going to make people cry. Well, how about I introduce you to my friend MR. SHREDDER!!! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha…..

Eighth Circle: Fraud

Oprah won’t REALLY care if I make up this memoir…

Ninth Circle: Treachery

This novel doesn’t need revisions. I don’t need to write a good query letter. Who needs to take the time to research agents? This novel is gold, baby, gold!!

What could possibly go wrong?

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Art: El Coloso by Francisco de Goya

94 Comments

  1. Deni Krueger

    So…ummm…did Dante happen to offer redemption in the form of:

    10.) Stick in it the drawer. Lock. Throw away key.

    Reply
  2. Terri Tiffany

    LOL Loved this post but sadly I've been to most of those places:(( Trying hard not to with this novel.

    Reply
  3. lexcade

    how true is that… i'm trapped in circles 1, 6, and 7 (one for each project i'm "working on"). fun times had by all.

    Reply
  4. Donna G. Cooper

    I'm pretty sure, with the exception of Violence, I've been through every circle of hell….Somehow I can't stand to shred scraped novels or pages. They sit in a box in my spare bedroom…creating a fire hazard no doubt.

    Reply
  5. C

    You're brilliant, and I love you and I want your babies.
    Serious.

    Reply
  6. Janalyn Voigt

    Thanks for this post. It's great to start the day with a laugh at myself!

    Reply
  7. Leah Petersen

    So not a traditional ninth's circle but I'd add infidelity.

    Oh, hello shiny new idea. Want to go to the laptop with me tonight? The WIP doesn't have to know. We need a little break from each other. Time alone is healthy for a relationship. I'll just write a little of you, shiny new idea. We both know this isn't serious. Just a little fun.

    Holy… that's not really 5k words, is it? But the WIP… But THIS!

    Reply
  8. Raj

    LOL..Brilliant. Been through 1,2 and 4. And hoping never to go through some others. The gold, baby line reminded me of Jerry Seinfeld and Kenny Bania, "It's gold, Jerry! Gold!" 😀

    Reply
  9. Tracy

    You had me at … oh Farmville!

    The 8th Circle was just the icing on the cake.

    Reply
  10. Bryan Russell (Ink)

    I'm etching the current manuscript on plates of solid gold. Just to be sure.

    Reply
  11. Porter Anderson

    Don't stop there, Nathan. Let's get right on to Savonarola's INFELIX EGO, or "Alas, wretch that I am," 1498.

    What WAS in the water in Florence?

    Reply
  12. Ike

    Wow, I remember a variation of these days at age fourteen probably up to eighteen. This is why we plan our writing. Fantastic humor, though.

    Reply
  13. Kristi Helvig

    You make hell sound fun–these are awesome (and true). 🙂

    Reply
  14. Nate Wilson

    It appears my circles have formed into a hellish Venn diagram from which my novels can never hope to escape. That's not good, right?

    Reply
  15. Roberta Walker

    This could be a pie chart for me! Seriously, a good laugh after a(nother) rejection letter start to the day.

    Reply
  16. AngelB35

    I hang out in the fifth level a LOT…

    Reply
  17. Mike Koch

    Hmm, circles of hell. I like it, but I'm going to squash them all into tiny squares and use them as foundations for my next book. Thanks.

    Reply
  18. Daryl Sedore

    Nathan:

    A descriptive look at the ego and its various degrees of self-righteousness.

    To understand this list and the places the human mind will take us on our internal journey through the written word onward can be as terrifying in its veracity.

    Daryl

    Reply
  19. Carol Riggs

    Informative as well as painfully obvious why you're a writer, Nathan! Good stuff. ;o) Have you started on a new novel, huh, huh?

    Reply
  20. See Elle Oh

    Love, love, love this post! Hilarious and so true.

    I feel like the Second Circle is really common for novice writers, especially poets. There's a tendency to believe things are perfect just as they pour out of you, and that revision is blasphemy. I know I've been there.

    Reply
  21. Chuck H.

    Been there, done that . . . and that. . . and that . . . and that . . . and that . . . and that . . . and that . . . and that . . . wait wasn't there supposed to be a frozen lake around here somewhere?

    Reply
  22. Mister Fweem

    The secret, I hear, is to have as many novels going as there are levels, so if you're stuck on one, you move to another.

    Reply
  23. Amanda Borenstadt

    Oh, yes, I've visited the seventh many times! Bwa-ha-ha

    Reply
  24. Elaine AM Smith

    OK I so I laughed out loud – I'm still not descending into the land of initialisation.

    Ninth Circle – Treachery
    I, the flowery novel, covered in clichés and bejewelled in adverbial everythings, know I need to be nip-tucked crisp and ironed out smooth but neither I (nor you mother) will tell you. HA!HA!HA!

    WV: psyndio – HP/Voldemort spell for sending people into psychosis?
    Got it! 😉

    Reply
  25. Sandra Ulbrich Almazan

    What happened to the Circle of Despair?

    Well, no wonder you got rejected, no-longer-shiny novel. Your plot stinks, your characters stink, and I couldn't write my way out of a paper bag with a sharp knife. I'll never be a published writer, so I might as well play Farmville all night.

    Reply
  26. khanes

    I just think you are brilliant. That was great. I think I'm in the "anger" phase where I stopped sending out query letters. They all suck. Time to buy the Sell Your Novel Toolkit, I think!

    Reply
  27. Joann Buchanan

    This was funny, and yet oh sooo true…he he he

    I believe when I wrote the bones to I AM WOLF, I was sitting there thinking wow, it's finished!! Then my editor got ahold of it.. When he was finished, it was a bloody mess. I listened to him though, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience.

    Reply
  28. Stephanie McGee

    Oh my heavens! I needed this laugh today! Thank you!

    My favorite would have to be "Heresy." I just didn't get that book. We read it in 11th grade English and it was my least favorite. (Followed closely by Huck Finn.)

    Though I do love "Violence" because I used to shred copies of my manuscript after I'd finished editing those sections.

    Reply
  29. Matthew Rush

    Geez Nathan! That was depressing. I kept hoping for some kind of happy ending there …

    Oh. It was the Nine Circles of Hell you say? Okay, I get it.

    Really it was pretty hilarious. Next time you should do the 12 step program for getting published.

    Reply
  30. gabi

    So funny, I laughed out loud!

    Dante is fantasic and your interpretation… brilliant. "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" pretty much sums up the writing process perfectly.

    I think Dante would be pleased to see his words being put to good use. Bravo!

    Reply
  31. lindsey lane

    Hmmm…I wonder if Winston Churchill was channeling Dante when he wrote the following: "Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public."

    Reply
  32. Hannah Jenny

    lol!!

    Mine has been stuck somewhere in Limbo for awhile–but my favorite stage is Gluttony. I'm planning to indulge in this over the holidays, oh sweet novel thou awaitest me patiently! (don't worry, my family will pull me away to eat and interact with them)

    Reply
  33. arlenewritesromance

    Another great post. I laughed … I cried … I saw myself running through the stages with my current WIP.

    Reply
  34. Kristi

    Fifth circle here. Angry and bitter.

    Reply
  35. Sharideth Smith

    i'll give you an uh huh, a yep and a pretty much for good measure.

    Reply
  36. Sheila Lamb

    With @Deni – the tenth circle of being shoved in a dark cabinet. It's resting until the tempestuous circles of writing hell have calmed.

    Reply
  37. Anne R. Allen

    So funny and true. I bask in your brilliance.

    Reply
  38. Ishta Mercurio

    LOL!!!

    Awesomeness. This post is pure awesomeness.

    Reply
  39. Julia Rachel Barrett

    Pretty hilarious! Thank you! I passed through these stages long ago – now I'm much more philosophic, %#@&^%@!

    Reply
  40. raine

    This is priceless, lol. 😀

    Reply
  41. D.G. Hudson

    There are many kinds of hell. Sometimes we let ourselves fall into one of those 9 levels through lack of passion and commitment. Have confidence in your idea, but listen to the revision angels.

    To remove yourself from any of those levels, simply impose discipline and get an enforcer (Ideal reader, crit group,or spouse) to ensure you write, write, and write some more. Then you must revise, shop the book around, etc.

    Perhaps Nano is one of those hells? (you write until you drop or else) I'm just saying it could be.

    Interesting post, Nathan, with thanks to Dante for stimulating your imagination.

    Reply
  42. Rebecca Stroud

    There's only nine circles? Uh-oh…

    Have a great Thanksgiving, Nathan.

    Reply
  43. Ada

    I love this post so much. I was about to go all #7 on my manuscript.

    Does this mean all writers are crazy people?

    Reply
  44. Diana

    LOL

    I can't wait to see what you come up with for purgatory. 🙂

    Reply
  45. Anonymous

    Know what? I will continue to have my net novel in my blogspot for some people to copy and print. It's more EXPENSIVE that way. They have to buy INK and bond paper from the store and they will have to learn Math. By the time they printed my stories each "copier" is spending at least $50.00 for the ink and $6.00 for the paper.Then they can copy and print again another novel for their own perusal and eureka they will have to spend more than that for ink and bond paper. Who is gaining here you tell me? The INK store of course. Now where can we dump the snow?

    Reply
  46. Anonymous

    Nine circles of writing hell. Might there be a writing purgatory as well? Why not a writing heaven, where epiphanies about writing's many impermeable membranes are ascendent?

    Reply
  47. Steppe

    I'm looking at my first big story as a training novel; therefore it must be finished no matter how absurd. I'll do anything to finish including burn in hell. I just like to finish stuff and learn whatever lessons must be learned. It's all good even writer's hell. You gotta have skin in the game to relate to other peoples thoughts and struggles.

    Reply
  48. Janiel Miller

    Hahahaha! Excellent. This explains a lot.

    Reply
  49. Janiel Miller

    How 'bout the tenth circle being "Making a Typographical Error in your Comment Identity thereby taking people to the wrong and slightly strange blog."?

    Reply
  50. Mira

    Ha! Clever, Nathan. 🙂 I'm realizing that changing this from a work blog to a personal blog will give you more opportunities to stretch your writing chops. Yay!

    For me, I skip all the rest and start at Hell level number 9, and I do this without having written the novel. I don't mean to be immodest, but I'm very efficient when it comes to descending levels. It's a sort of gift.

    Thanks for the post, Nathan.

    Reply
  51. toni

    hahaha so tragic, and so true. XD

    Reply
  52. scotthanley

    You seem to have had this experience! I know I have…

    Reply
  53. Nancy

    After reading this, I think my first NaNoWriMo pep talk next will be titled, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." It might not be the best way to raise morale among the troops, but at least it would be honest.

    Reply
  54. Other Lisa

    Okay, so where's the Circle of Hell where the novel tries to kill you? Because I've spent a lot of time in that one.

    Reply
  55. Anonymous

    Brilliant . Take a bow , Nathan .

    Reply
  56. Kerrie T.

    Oh, okay. I get it. There are NINE circles. That's why it's taking me so long…

    Reply
  57. Debbie Vaughan

    I must be stuck in the fifth circle, except for the hating the manuscript part. It does help explain my free read, Query This Sucker! Memoirs of an Angry Author.

    They do say write what you know…

    Reply
  58. Lillian Grant

    Nathan, have you been spying on me?

    I needed to laugh today and this really hit the spot. Not sure what circle I am languishing in at the moment. Nice to know it's not a circle reserved especially for me.

    Reply
  59. Liz

    Hah, love this!

    Reply
  60. Kristin Laughtin

    Only you can make damnation so hilarious.

    So are we going to get versions of the Purgatorio and the Paradiso?

    Reply
  61. Julie Musil

    Awesome! And some of these levels look strangely familiar.

    Reply
  62. Laura Pauling

    I hit each of those levels with every ms I write. I don't think it's avoidable. 🙂

    Reply
  63. Carson Lee

    "I hate the space between the words….Mwa ha ha ha ha" LOL

    Reply
  64. Kathryn Paterson

    This is awesome. I was just commenting to someone yesterday that I was in the ninth stage of revision hell, so I feel your (our, everyone's?) pain.

    How's the new job working out, by the way? Congrats again. 🙂

    Reply
  65. Nathan Bransford

    kathryn-

    Really good so far, thanks! I'm enjoying it a lot.

    Reply
  66. February Grace

    *Standing Ovation*

    And if you had any idea how hard it is for me to stand right now, you'd know how much I really loved that post.

    ~bru

    Reply
  67. heather

    so i'm hovering in the most beautiful arc above the 5th and 7th circles, travelling back and forth between the two.

    i love this post, nathan, really, but where are our precious pearls? you know, the ones you drop into our cyber laps that tell us what to do to get out of these circles?

    (still love ya!)

    ~heather

    Reply
  68. Bethany

    I laughed! How many of us have been in pretty much every level at one point or another?

    It's just the sort of comraderie pick-me-up encouragement that we're not alone laugh we all need 🙂

    Reply
  69. J.C. Martin

    I agree with Leah: infidelity can be another sin! I'm currently spreading myself between three novels and a short story collection, but shh…don't tell any of them that!

    Reply
  70. wry wryter

    Third Circle:
    Opening scene, Romancing The Stone. Author finishes novel…tears, no tissues, no paper towels, no TP with which to wipe her tears, post-it works. Ah…the joy of finally finishing, what…you mean it’s supposed to be published.

    Ms trite says:
    From the loft of heaven, ideas come, and if into the fires of hell they descend…visit the purgatory of writers, isle one, Staples, multi-purpose, 20 lb, 500 sheets…START OVER.

    Reply
  71. maimoonamelange

    Will you marry me, Nathan Bransford?

    Loved the post. It left me in snitches. Love your blog, though it doesn't always leave me in snitches.

    Reply
  72. cgalucas

    Very funny indeed… and oh-so-painfully true.
    But seriously, The Great Gatsby is boring.

    Reply
  73. Anonymous

    8. Become a literary agent.

    This will guarantee traffic at your site.

    People will read your blog, chiefly because they'll want to leave a sugary sweet comment so that you, the literary agent, will see their name and their face (and hopefully remember it fondly… when you reject their work). What these people fail to take into account, however, is that in all likelihood you'll be moving on to something else within a matter of months anyhow.

    Becoming a literary agent is also a great way to get your novel published – so really it's a win win situation: you end up getting published, and you end up with a large following!

    Keep it in mind, however, that every now and then some clever personage will see right through your ruse, and leave some class of antagonistic comment behind.

    That's alright though because, having modeled your style on that of Sauron's, from The Lord of the Rings, you love any opportunity to act in a dictatorial fashion… and can simply delete that person's comment.

    Happy Thanksgiving to Nathan and his family, and to all of my American friends south of the 49'th!

    Reply
  74. Nathan Bransford

    anon-

    Haha… wow. If only my life were actually that planned out. So much less stress.

    And a Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

    Reply
  75. Marti

    All so true!

    Happy Thanksgiving, Nathan!

    Reply
  76. Marjorie

    That's why I do the marjorie-cartoons. They are quick one shot deals, and all the mistakes serve to make the work funnier.

    My blog, marjorie-digest, has a new batch of poems… created from a unique concept. They are pithy and set in stone.

    My attention span these days is too short to even attempt thinking about a book.

    Nathan, since you are no longer a literary agent, check out my blogs and let me know what you think. I know you will love the marjorie-cartoons.

    Reply
  77. Jim Bessey

    This is one of the funniest, yet scariest, pieces I've ever seen from you, Nathan.

    Loved it, start to finish. Still laughing, two days later.

    Reply
  78. joannehuspek

    Very humorous, and yes, I have experienced it all. Great post!

    Reply
  79. A.M Hudson

    Oh boy, that was funny–because it's so freakin true!!! Even the Stephenie Meyer comment. I'm at the point now where I'm saying…"I hate publishers, and what the hell were they thinking when they published THAT?"

    However, I happen to be smart too, so, I know that if they keep on rejecting, it must be me–not them. Hence, I am scrapping my under-appreciated novel, and starting a new one.

    Then, when the new one is published, I'll sneak up on them with the first one!!! He he he!!!

    Reply
  80. Christina Strigas

    That was great! So true, true, true of every writer who has attempted to write a book or has thought about it in his head (or her head).
    Hilarious!

    Reply
  81. Herrin

    Great list and all things authors are very much prone to.

    Reply
  82. Jodi Cox

    You don't say how to get out of the ninth circle and get some where.

    Reply
  83. Danielle Frost

    This is hilarious! In makes me so chagrin to say it's completely relatable. We all have out own lovely circle of writer hell. Back when I had a blog as a teen it was all for fun. Launching a blog and website from scratch is terrifying! Talk about feeling like a dear in head lights. I appreciate the humorous light you've shed on this though.

    Reply

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ABOUT NATHAN

Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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