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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

It’s time for me to start work on a new writing project, aka a new novel. And this endeavor has forced me into taking a look at the writing angst I’ve been feeling for the last month or so. It hit pretty much the moment I finished the previous novel.

Something I’m fond of saying is that one of the most important parts of being a writer is learning how to emotionally manage yourself. Because being a writer can be emotionally brutal (as can being a musician, as can being most kinds of artist). So if you want to be in it for the long haul, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with all the fun experiences that go along with it: the rejection, the waiting, the insecurity, the criticism, the solitary nature of the work, working on big, long-term projects, being able to finish, finding self-discipline, finding focus, handling the inner critic, etc., etc.

I had such a lovely time writing BEAST GIRL that most of my writer neuroses have been exceptionally quiet all year. My biggest worry was that my moving would derail the rough draft, and once I got over that hump okay, I had a relatively easy time focusing on the writing and revising in a calm fashion. A calm that shattered once I no longer had any work to do.

Suddenly the decision of the next project seemed a lot more weighty than it had before. I came up with a bunch of ideas, and then I came up with a bunch of reasons why I shouldn’t do any of them, or why I should do all of them, just so I could spend a nice period of time dithering and working out all that pent-up writing stress. (This makes it sound like I did this on purpose, but I can assure you it was entirely accidental.)

Finally, late last week, I decided to talk out my decision-making problem with any writer friends who were willing to listen. I talked and I dithered, I wrote summaries and dithered some more. I’m quite exceptional at the practice of dithering. And by the end of the day, it struck me.

This wasn’t about choosing which novel to write next. It seemed to be about that. That was certainly mostly what I was talking about. But that wasn’t my problem. My problem was in managing my writing-inspired emotions. My problem was FEAR.

I am underneath a giant spider. It is scary.

I am underneath a giant spider. It is scary. And also reminds me of LOTR and Harry Potter simultaneously.

Once I realized this, I was actually much more cheerful, as I have confidence in my ability to wrangle neurotic writer feelings. I was afraid agents wouldn’t like BEAST GIRL. I was afraid no one would like the next novel I wrote either. I was afraid it would be hard, and maybe I’d get stuck, or else I’d just be writing very badly, or I’d finish only to have all the agents say, sorry but I already have several manuscripts just like this one. Which is all fine and good, and the fear is real enough, but there’s nothing I can do about any of those things. I can’t control whether anyone likes BEAST GIRL. I can’t control how smoothly (or not) the next novel goes, or whether it ends up being like other novels that hit agents’ desks a year from now.

Recognizing the lack of control gives freedom. If my problem with choosing the next novel project was fear, then there was a simple solution. Choose anyway, go for it, be flexible, and see how it goes.

In conclusion, I am now hard at work at the brainstorming/researching/outlining/ figuring out stage of my next novel. Am I scared? Yes. Gloriously so.

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This week I’m going to the World Fantasy Convention, and I’ve sat here trying not to write about it and to write about something else instead, but my focus is already over there in DC, so I’ve decided to embrace that.

I’ve been making something of a point of spending a bit more time with writers locally for the last several months, so I am not in dire need of writer time stat, which has definitely been true in the past. But even so, there is something special about WFC, having so many friends that matter to me all under one roof.

I’ve been thinking about why the writer community has been such a robust presence in my life. I don’t have any solid answers, but I think it helps that it encompasses many people and is spread out geographically. And of course, we have our passion for writing in common with each other. And they aren’t as often a part of my daily concerns, which means they enjoy the benefit of perspective.

Perhaps it also matters that writers tend to be people who have thought about harder aspects of life. I mean, we spend tons of time crafting crises for our characters to live through (or not), so it’s much harder to avoid thinking about grief or disappointment or betrayal or what happens to a person when under pressure. As a result, I wonder if there is less fear when someone else brings up one of these topics because we’ve already been forced to take a look at the issues we have with them.

Or perhaps I just meet a lot of writers and therefore a lot of the wonderful, supportive people I know are writers.

Writers in action! Photo by Andrew Williams.

Writers in action! Photo by Andrew Williams.

Regardless, whenever something goes off track in my life, whether it be writing-related or health-related or social-related or something else, I turn to my writer friends and they are there. They give me advice, they offer support, and sometimes they just listen and give me the space to be me in all my messy glory. I share my news with them, both good and bad, and it feels like we’re in this together, this not being publishing or other writing-related things so much as life in general.

All communities have problems, of course, and the writing community of which I am a part is no exception. We talk about the problems a lot, and that is as it should be. And all individuals have their strengths and weaknesses. I am not trying to paint a picture of a perfect utopia here.

But on an individual level, these are people who have my back. They are indignant on my behalf when I am poorly treated, they send me care packages, they are generous and happy to help when they are able to do so. When I am sick, they send me nice tweets. When I am sad, they text with me. When I have great news, they celebrate with me. And I strive to do the same for them.

It might not sound like much: a tweet, a text, a book in the mail. Many of them live far away, and I don’t get to see them in person very often at all. But you all have heard enough of my theories about life by now to know how important I think the little things are. They matter.

So I guess the writer community is a robust presence in my life because I choose to make it so. It makes me happy. And it is filled with people who think the little things matter, just like me.

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My friend Danielle suggested that I write a post about my novel revision process, and since I just completed revising my most recent novel, now seemed like a good time. And while I’m at it, I’m going to talk about the submission process too. And then you will understand more about how my life works.

I revise very little while I’m writing my rough draft. My main goal is to keep writing and finish the draft. Occasionally I’ll go back and fix some little thing because it’s distracting me. And if something major breaks, then I might have to do more (like add a few scenes or even start over). But in general, my rough draft is not revised as I go.

Once I have the rough, then I print out the entire manuscript and read it to see what I’ve got. While I’m reading, I make a new chapter-by-chapter outline of everything that happens and how many pages each chapter is. (I do this when I’m reading a novel for critique as well. It makes it so much easier to keep track of everything.) I also take a lot of notes. I’ve also probably taken a lot of notes while I was writing the rough draft of things to check on and things to change. So I take care of all those notes and clean the prose up a bit (enough so it won’t be completely embarrassing) and that’s draft 2.

This is the point where I give it to my first reader. He reads for larger scale issues; he is a structure genius, and he also reads for plot, character, world-building, theme, voice, etc., etc. I use his notes to generate a third draft.

Then I hand it to a few more readers. They too read with the big picture in mind, although they also give me more scene-scale notes (and sometimes even smaller scale stuff). They also sanity check how my changes worked out between drafts 2 and 3, which is super helpful since I can’t always tell if I’ve gone too far or not far enough with changes (or nailed them, which does occasionally happen). From their notes, I plan and execute draft 4.

If I’m feeling unsure of draft 4, I will give the novel to a few more readers and make more changes. Once I am confident about the strength of the book, I do final clean up. This involves a novel-wide search for adverbs and another search for the word “that.” I sometimes search for other overused words as well. For this novel, I read the entire book out loud to assist my search for errors and check rhythm, especially of dialogue.

While I’m doing this last clean-up pass, I’m also starting my query letter and my synopsis. The query letter is basically a sales pitch of the novel, sometimes similar to what one would find on the back cover of a book, one page or less. The synopsis summarizes the entire novel, also ideally in about a page. I’m also updating my agent spreadsheet.

Once I am finished with the novel, the query, and the synopsis, I begin querying agents. This means I email my query package to agents (which depends on the agent’s guidelines, but usually includes a customized query letter and perhaps some sample novel pages and/or the synopsis) and keep track of submissions and responses. Depending on how things go, I could spend many months doing this. At the same time, I am beginning my next novel project, generally by doing whatever work I need to do to select the project, and then brainstorming, researching, and outlining.

The length of time all of this takes can vary a lot depending on the length of the manuscript, the extent and number of revisions, the schedules of readers, and how smoothly the rough draft goes. I do have some target dates in mind by the time I begin a rough draft, based on the premise that the project will go fairly smoothly. And since I don’t write a huge amount of words every day, I can generally adapt as I go when there are snags. A lot of my writing time is actually spent thinking.

So this is my writing, revision, and submitting process. Each writer has their own process: some revise a lot as they go, some have readers as they go, some use a lot more readers in the revision process, some use less. The important thing is figuring out what works.

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I want to write about solitude today, and finding myself uncertain as to how to begin, I looked up some famous quotations on solitude.

From these, I ascertained that people are very divided about the idea of solitude. Some people love solitude, finding it absolutely essential to their well-being, while other people wouldn’t choose solitude if they had another choice. Solitude is simultaneously viewed as exalting and painful, beautiful and tragic.

I found a reference to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I located my copy, given to me when I was a young artist myself, and started flipping through it, and now I want to read the whole thing again. He references solitude several times in its pages. I particularly like this passage:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you.”

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

There is this common idea that solitude is helpful and perhaps even necessary for artists to develop their own voices (and visions) and do the work required of them. Certainly writers have to sit and be focused inside their own heads while writing, even if they are physically surrounded by people. For some other types of artists, solitude is perhaps less critical.

We each have our own capacity for solitude, and that capacity can change over time and in different circumstances. It can be deliberately expanded (meditation retreats, anyone?) and it can be deliberately contracted. Within limits, of course.

I have been craving more solitude recently. I hit the point far more quickly than usual when I must take time for myself. It’s not simply laziness or fatigue, although I am tired; it’s a strong need for the space to introspect and just be. There is so much going on inside of my head right now, and it’s not that it’s so very private in nature but rather that it feels like the kind of thing I need to sort out for myself, with the occasional helping hand along the way.

Perhaps solitude is important not just for creative work but also for personal change. It’s almost as if I need some time to get to know myself again.

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I read some writing advice recently that I think is useful both for writers, and for the people who would like to understand what our lives are like a bit more clearly:

“Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first 10 years. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.”

–ANDRE DUBUS

This is so very true. Nobody cares deeply about my writing except me. Which is why I can be kind of a hard-ass when it comes to my schedule. And why I care so very much about my priorities and goals. Because if I don’t care, that’s it. They will never happen. End of story.

Becoming good at things takes a long time. Even if some of it comes easy to you, it takes a long time, just less of a long time. It took me twelve years to become as good at singing as I wanted to be, and really more like fifteen to get it completely secured. I took off maybe a year during that period of my life, and the rest of the time, I sang and sang and sang some more. Even when I knew I sucked. Particularly when I knew I sucked.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

When I first started writing, I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I don’t know if you can be, really, right when you’re starting out. There’s an experimental phase, when you try something out. See if you like it. See if you’re at all good at it. See if it has any meaning to you. See if this is a thing to which you can devote yourself. Because not everything will be. And if it’s not for you, then it’s not only okay to quit but a good idea. This level of commitment is not for everyone.

I noticed the shift when this changed for me. When writing became a true calling. When I realized I’d be writing anyway, even if I couldn’t turn it into a career. When writing became less about the desperation of wanting a particular project to sell and more about doing the work. When the writing became more interesting and all-consuming than what would happen afterwards. When whether this novel sells or not became less important because I’m already thinking about the next several potential novels to write.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I don’t care about my career or that I don’t care about publishing my novels. I do care, and I take the necessary steps towards that goal. But I care about the writing itself more, and knowing this makes doing the business and career stuff much easier. I want to become better not so I will then become published (although that would be great) but because I’m interested in becoming better for its own sake. I no longer have to look for external validation to reinforce my commitment. I’m committed, full stop.

The early stages of becoming a writer are so very much about not quitting. And putting in time and practice, and finishing things. And finding a way to hang in there through the rejection and the failure and the process of becoming better. And falling in love with telling stories, over and over again.

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“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

Nikki Giovanni

When I was in my twenties, before I was taking writing particularly seriously (I was still solidly in the musician phase of my existence), I wanted to write a book fictionalizing my experiences during my year living abroad in London. It’s possible my experiences were interesting enough to warrant such a thing. Maybe. Or not.

But one problem that niggled at the back of mind, even then, was the pesky little question: what novel would I write next? At the time, I had no other ideas, a proposition that blows my mind since I’m now swimming with ideas. But all I had to go on was my own experience.

I feel like there’s this autobiographical stage that many writers go through around when they’re starting out. But I agree with Nikki Giovanni: there may be one novel firmly based in personal experience, possibly even a few, but ultimately that well is limited.

Empathy, on the other hand, can be an infinite resource from which to draw. Empathy allows us to see other perspectives and imagine reactions to different situations.  And when we consider those cases of outstanding writers with a very limited life experience–Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters spring to mind as the usual examples–we can posit that these writers possessed a very well-developed sense of empathy that allowed them both to glean as much as possible from the experiences they did have and to write so far beyond that experience.

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

However, I do think empathy can be developed through experience. This can include experiences of the imagination, whether that be solely our own imaginations set loose or a collaboration with creators as we read novels, see plays, or watch movies and TV series. It can include our own experience navigating through the world. And it can include the information we come across that informs our understanding of how the world works.

The key, then, is to avoid writing solely through experience, but instead to use experience as a practice ground for developing the empathy that can potentially last through an entire career.

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My friend uses the phrase “having a literary life” to mean, as far as I can tell, having a traumatic childhood. You know, the kind that would feature in a literary short story or possibly even form the foundation of a brilliant autobiographical debut novel with a two-word name, like White Rain or Sublime Bodies or Orchids Burning. (Maybe I’ll call mine Broken Magnolias, after the magnolia tree branch in my backyard I accidentally broke when I was six or seven. It would feature a call-back to Duras’s famous Moderato Cantabile, although in my novel the magnolia would symbolize a loss of innocence instead of female sexuality.)

Carolyn See wrote a book for writers called Making a Literary Life. It concerns establishing a regular writing routine (I think this is the first place I read about having a daily word count), becoming okay with submission and rejection, and writing charming notes to writers you admire.

By both of these metrics I have a literary life. But I would like to offer a third metric.

When I think about leading a literary life, I think of the way writing pervades every aspect of my existence. And don’t think I’m exaggerating; it really does.

When something bad happens to me: well, at least this might come in handy for my writing someday.

When looking for a place to live: does this feel like the kind of place I could write? is this part of my story of myself as a writer?

When engaging with the world: I am curious about all the things because you never know when I might need this knowledge or experience for a project.

When being impulsive: It feeds my creative well when I’m leading an exciting, romantic life. Plus this will make a great story later.

When not being impulsive: I need to focus on my work.

When wallowing: Tragedy! I am experiencing tragedy! Now let’s pour this all out into a cool creative project.

When socializing: If I understand people and their behavior and motivations more thoroughly, then think of the interesting characters I can create.

When out and about: People watching. More people watching. More people watching.

When appreciating the small, the mundane, the ordinary: This vividness of experience will translate so much more strongly on the page. Telling details for the win!

When making decisions: I want to lead the kind of life I wouldn’t be bored to write about, and be the kind of character I wouldn’t be bored to read about.

Such is my literary life.

Books books books!

Books books books!

 

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