writing rengeek magpie mind

July 2014

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can't sleep books will eat me

i can make it longer if you like the style

Huh. Look at that.

I wrote 202 words so far this morning, while ostensibly Not Writing. And it's all stuff I like, full of the sort of character detail I feel was been missing from the book so far.

I kept telling myself, don't worry, you can go back and put it in later. Just write the damned thing. And it all felt rather thin and hopeless and contrived, rather than something that was naturally growing out of what the characters wanted and needed.

And I think I've figured something out, honestly. Which is one of the things I'm doing wrong, in terms of not respecting my process, and buying into other people's fiats about How Writing Is Done rather than, you know, sticking to what works for me and always has.

I think the problem dates back to 2006, actually, and when I was both working full-time and trying to write Undertow (fondly known around the house as Undertoad, and if you are picturing a frog in a cape with a U on his chest and a secret compartment in his ring he fills/with an Undertoad super energy pill!, I bet you're about my age). As you can imagine, getting that book written in under half a year under those circumstances about killed me. But I did it, and it was done.

Then, later that year, I finished New Amsterdam under unrelenting deadline pressure, and then--fast forward to winter of 2007, when I got to write Dust on an even more unforgiving schedule. (In here, I also managed to finish All the Windwracked Stars and By the Mountain Bound, but both of those were well ahead of schedule, and I did not get stressed out about them.)

Anyway, this year there's been a bunch of short stories, novelettes, and novellas written to tight deadline, some of them coming right down to the wire. Some of those include Seven for a Secret, The Red in the Sky is Our Blood, and The Tricks of London. Also, I've been working on Shadow Unit, which is comprised of six people who like to work right up to deadline... and me. Who is not happy unless everything is squared away four months in advance of when it's needed. I'm sort of notorious with my editors for handing in the option novel the day they accept the last book of the previous contract, actually....

So I've been forcing myself to do unnatural things. Or, I should say, things that are unnatural for my creativity. By nature, for example, I'm a putterer. I sit down with my file, I poke at it, I write 200 words, I wander away and go play Bejeweled for a while until I think up what happens next, I come back and write another 400 words... sometimes, when I am consumed by an inspiration, I write an entire novella in a weekened--or a week. (I wrote "This Tragic Glass" in two days. I wrote "Lucifugous" in a week.)

But that's rare for me. I don't have consistent 2K or 3K days unless I am in the homestretch of a story, and I already know everything that happens and it's just a matter of getting it on paper.

Usually what happens is I write a bit, I come back, I write a bit more, I put it away for a while, I come back and write a little further. This is why I often have multiple projects going at once, or novels with fifty or a hundred pages written sitting there waiting for me to get back to them one of these days.

In other words, my work habits as a writer are everything they (you know Them? The Creativity Police?) tell you not to do.

And since 2006, I've been trying to do it "right." Sit down for four hours a day, or eight, and write straight through. Work on the project that's under deadline--usually a tight one. Write in a linear fashion, get the draft done, push through, and then go back and fix things later. Get myself in situations where editors (rightfully so: editors have deadlines too!) are pressuring me to hand in work before I feel like it's ready.

And as a direct result, I've been miserable. Miserable with my work, often unsatisfied with the quality of it--in the sense of, if I had been able to put that draft away and come back to it six months later to revise, it would be a much richer and more well-developed story, not in the sense of I don't think it's any good. But I think some of it could have been better if I'd had more time to work it over. Because my stories tend to be constructed by, you know, my brain, I find that often they require me to add a lot of linearity, surface narrative, and patency to make them accessible to other people.

Anybody who has read my Criminal Minds posts is probably intimately aware of the fact that my brain processes narrative through the meta first and the text second, and that really does not work out so well for most readers: my revision process is mostly composed of going through painstakingly and making sure that there are deductive links between ideas as well as inductive ones. Yeah, you guys laugh. I know I'm famously obscure. You should ask truepenny or stillnotbored how much sense my stories make before I go through an explain everything in great and painstaking detail that I can't imagine anybody would want to read.

So what I'm discovering is that, for me, "doing it right" is doing it wrong. I need my deadlines at comfortable remove: I can't work with them breathing down my neck. I need to be able to putter and poke at things and get up and wander around and let my brain whirr on the hamster wheel rather than attempting to be disciplined and productive. I need to not ever let myself get to the point where an editor is doing a potty dance for a story, because it freaks me out but bigtime, and once the guilt and stress and OMG I HAVE TO FINISH NAO piles up, my work pace slows to a crawl, I become stressed out and avoidant, and I flame out all over the place while trying to force myself to just work on the important thing, for crying out loud.

In short, I work like shit under pressure.

Take the pressure off, and I produce like the deadline is tomorrow and I am racing to fill it.

And I think what's happened is I've allowed myself to get caught up in the general habits of writer society, to some degree--the OMG DEADLINE WORK WORK WORK Nanowrimo word-racy thing, when really what I need is more of a death-mosey. Quotas are bad for me, because if I set one, I will kill myself trying to reach it, rather than writing the story I have as it develops for me.

Now, I do not recommend anybody else adopt my work habits. As I've said elsewhere, I'm the poster child for how not to finish a book. Except for me, somehow, it works*, and in fact it works better than focusing down and thinking hard and setting stringent quotas.

Because if I try to do that, my brain starts throwing diva fits about how it can't WORK under these CONDITIONS!, and it's death spiral city. And dude, if I don't protect my creative process, the cat starves.

Which reminds me. Coffee break's over. Back on my head.



*(I think maybe it works so well for me because I get so much real joy out of finishing things. My serotonin reward comes when I type "the end." So I do not twiddle endlessly with commas and sentences once something is finished, because it's finished, and I am glad to see the back of it. No, I also do not have the typical writer problem of having trouble releasing.)

Comments

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"Death-mosey" is my new favorite word.
Mine too.

(Anonymous)

"Death-mosey" totally cracked me up. Reading this entry was a little eerie, because, aside from the multiple projects and the ability to completely screw over one's instincts and write like a lunatic, you have described my writing process perfectly.

To me, it's like gardening. Putter, putter, putter. Nip off this, plant that, trim back the other. Wander around waiting for the light to fall on the right place so you can realize what goes in there.

P.
Sorry, that first anonymous comment was me.

P.
diffent strokes for diffent folks.. Trying to think of a single relative of mine that is/was good at doing stuff the way other people do. Still thinking................I'll get back to you on that...
I think I love you for this. I struggle to accept the "do what works for you" advice, because I've always learned that there are one or two, at most 3, proper ways of doing things (TM), and that's the way it is. But to have someone who's a successful writer put out in public that the generally-accepted Right Way to Write™ doesn't work for her is beneficial to the part of my brain that keeps poking me and saying "UR DOIN IT RONG." Because I see some of myself in your description, and the knowledge that there's someone else out there whose brain works even slightly like mine can kick that little section of my brain and say, "There is no wrong way." Each kick helps.
The only wrong way to do it is one that doesn't work.

or, you know. If it ain't broke, don' fix it.
Now, I do not recommend anybody else adopt my work habits. As I've said elsewhere, I'm the poster child for how not to finish a book.

Except...I think that your method is probably what will work for me as well. I find myself doing the same thing - writing until it sputters, then surfing the internet or leaving the computer, then coming back later. The problem was, like you, I was feeling like a failure for not hitting x words a day. I was rolling along great with writing up until April of this year, when I slammed into a brick wall. Part of that was the vacation I took, but I think the other part of might have been that I'd started to really focus on wordcount as the achievement, instead of the storytelling. I think another part is that I as got further along, I realized more and more how much was just flat-out wrong for the story, and how much was going to be changing in the second draft (if I had to estimate, I'd say 75% or more will be different).

You should ask truepenny or stillnotbored how much sense my stories make before I go through an explain everything in great and painstaking detail that I can't imagine anybody would want to read.

Honestly? I'd love to read one of your early drafts, so if you're ever looking for a new person to do that, please make a post.

I'm a lot like you, in that I prefer to have things done well ahead of time, as opposed to screaming along to a looming deadline. As you've amply proved, you can do it - but it doesn't make you happy. I'm the same - I'm well-known here at my "real" work for being able to pull things out of the fire in an emergency, but I hate it, and it makes me grumpy as hell.
Part of the puttery process is that it ensures that there is no such thing as a complete early draft. Because I also revise as I go, another no no, and something I tried not to do with Chill. Because of course, on 'should' finish the story and then go back and revise it, right, rather than endlessly fussing with stuff that's already written?

Wrong.

I discovered that if I don't go back and poke at that stuff and fiddle with it, I have no feel for the story or where it's going, and no love for it, and i don't inhabit its spaces or play in its fields. It's empty and foreign, and I'm not at home there. LOSE.
I think humanity spends too much time worrying about the "rules" and the "right way" to do things. I include myself in that, btw.

Really, have you ever watched a child take on a project? They dip their toes in, then dive in, then wander away until the mood taked them to dip or dive again.

If it works for those who aren't caught up by the rules yet, what makes us think we know any better?

Go with what works for you. It's better for you, and better for the story. :)
Hey! I write like that, too.
thankyouthankyouthankyou for describing this/"coming clean"! To know that going balls to the wall is NOT natural for you, as it isn't for me, makes me feel less like throwing myself off of a roof every time I sit and make myself finish x number of words. I've been doing NaNo and I've yet to get used to that nagging voice in my head that wants me to put down anything for the sake of hitting a mark rather than follow my usual path of thinking over the words and sentences to be sure that they're full and right. "Their" rules are often for the birds.
FWIW, Undertow is my favorite book of yours so far. :)
I'm glad you like it.
I am yet another putterer -- I hiccup my way through lines, stopping to stare at the wall, talk to a passing cat, play Chuzzle. I get up and wander about and do laundry. And write a few more words and repeat. My killer is that this will only work if I do this most days. I can survive one day or two without putting down new words but more than that and I'm on the slippery not-writing downslope, embalming myself in bad tv and stress until somehow the almost-sort-of routine coughs back into pained action. I take forever to warm up: the motor is sticky and stubborn and runs on distractions.
If there was a spectrum between your method and the deadline/wordcount method, I'd fit closer to your end but still in between. I don't like deadlines, but I find that occasionally it helps light a fire under me because I also have a tendency toward procrastination. In addition, sometimes the pressure forces my brain to think outside of the box and come up with total crack... but it's brilliant crack that somehow works.

Have you seen this new "Write or Die" widget? A friend showed it to me, and I recoiled in horror. The very LAST thing that I need is to be made to feel as if I suck because I didn't happen to type a certain amount of words each day (or each minute!). I'm sure that method might help for someone else, but for me it plugs right into that writer's neuroses. ("I suck! Want to hear how badly I suck?" "But that story you wrote was awesome!" "Well...maybe... but this one sucks and I'm sure it's evidence that I suck!") I tried NaNoWriMo several times, and it really didn't work for me except in getting out a bunch of words I wasn't happy with, and really really REALLY wanted to revise while I was typing. (My inner editor is like Frau Farbissina as a dominatrix.)
I've seen the widget. It's not for me.
Now that I have Happy Brain Pills that allow me to function, I'm sort-of relearning this (you need to work to your process, not the rules of what your process 'should' be), along with re-learning how to, well, function. I'm glad you write these introspective posts because it's good and helpful to be reminded that I've got to respect my process, and I'm not the only one who struggles with it.
Hurrah for taking the right liberties for one's self!

*Death-mosey* just slays me, but mostly because it makes so much sense...

Now. I still haven't quite figured out what the optimal is for me. For a while I was pretty sure I was only happy writing when I was totally reinventing Mine Process, but that may have had something to do with being Very Young.

I do know that busy-ness outside of writing is all I need to be bountifully idea-stricken. The whole beautiful frustration thing...
Hi, this post just explained a lot to me.
<3
Oh?
Thank you for this!

The process you mention is one that I have a tendency to do, which is why I am only now, as I enter my sixth decade on this mud-ball, pursuing my childhood dream of becoming a real writer. I have always been told that I just don't have the 'discipline' to write professionally. If that is so, then why do so many writers I admire work in a manner similar to yours?

One thing I would like to mention is that the people who set the "rules" teach writing and never seem to be published writers. Hmmm. Connection there?

Discipline is finishing things. However one finishes things is good enough discipline.
I'm a regular 2-3k a day writer - when fate, the universe and life with cats and teenage sons permits. But I'm also one who likes stuff well squared away in advance of deadlines - no last minute rushes for me, thank you very much indeedy. I can do it, but I very much prefer not to.

I was the girl who always did her weekend homework on a Friday evening. I was the bride who was early for her own wedding. These days, I have come to peace with my inner swot (not sure of the exact US translation there...)

What am I trying to say here? That no two writers I have ever met work in precisely the same way, so it's all about finding the way that works for you. All 'They' can do is offer advice which the aspiring writer is free to adopt, adapt or discard as they see fit, without prejudice etc.

I do my very best to remember to say this when I have my 'Them' hat on, as I will this coming weekend, teaching a creative writing seminar alongside desperance whose work habits are about as far from mine as it's possible to get!
Oh, thank God! And here I was thinking that if I didn't get up at 5 am, crack my knuckles, and go bounding along like a husky in the snow for a thousand words before I got on with my day, I was doing a piss-poor job. I've always had a number of pots at a slow simmer on the fire, and felt like a dilettante for their slowness, despite evidence of eventual productivity. With NaNoWriMo, I felt like the missing detail/richness you describe: flatness unrolling relentlessly! All plot, no heart.

Do you ever find yourself working on the "wrong" thing, almost like writing-as-cat-waxing? Does it make you feel guilty, or just productive in a different way?

Having an editor our there to look at your less-than-perfect stuff when it's done, and occasionally poke you to see if you're alive, is of course something I dream of. But I suspect it's really a matter of balance: interest in your work = good; potty dance/pressure cooking your stories = bad. If ever I get well-known, I will remember what you said.
All writers are fruit-bats -- but they are not the same fruit-bat :-).

If your way produces pay copy by deadline and a happier, saner, Bear, it can't be wrong.

And in fact it sounds perfectly reasonable. Also, your having done "successful" work forcing yourself to try other styles makes your firm belief that what you naturally do is best for you even more convincing.
Seeing how everyone handles things differently has been really interesting. The exchange between you and truepenny was particularly fascinating.

I write till I can't, which usually means that I need to recharge the brain with other stuff that makes me go like food, reading, music, whatever before I figure out how to do what needs to come next. (Or it means the husband and boy just came in the door and I'd better save what I've got right now, or the boy's enthusiastic flailing about as he greets me and encourages me to come play could kill it.) It takes me ages to slip into the okay headspace where I'm able to put words down, and sometimes that's only a little while before I have to stop because of family constraints or appointments. Sometimes I can use the 'setting an alarm for X minutes and just writing till it goes off' technique because I tend to wander away mentally from writing (or worse, allowing the siren song of the Internet to distract me; I am a bad girl). Sometimes I have to hit a certain number (either words written in a day or the total words in the MS) to feel like I've had a satisfying work day. I have to trick myself a lot when I get into the 'I suck/nothing works' mode. Deadlines help and don't, at the same time: they give me structure and a sense of discipline outside my own work ethic, but they also give me Teh Stress.

Most of the time I'm just happy to have more words/plot/book at the end of the day than I did when I started.
I wonder if this has to do with the listening to music thing...listening to music seems, to me, to fit better with a puttering style of writing than with the "push on no matter what" prescription.
This is a great realization. You clearly have an Unquiet Mind that likes to gnaw on things, and it produces all kinds of cool stuff in that process. It's too bad they don't make a word-count type gas gauge for hindbrain progress, so your boss would have something better to measure by. :)

Edited at 2008-11-12 07:36 pm (UTC)
It's true. Brain squirrels. They never let up.
For what it's worth, that's how I work. Trying to force myself to produce doesn't result in the book being done faster, or slower--it just means I'm miserable while writing it. And if I wanted to be miserable, I'd have a real job.

For me, the reward is also getting to the end; but there is the additional reward (often) in finding out what happens, that seems to be what drives me on those occasions when I'm going without an outline.

Point being: Just what you said: you have to find the system that works for you, just as you have to learn what lies to tell yourself in order to do your best work.
Yes. Absolutely. I have been trying to be a Real Writer for the past few years, and it's screwing up my zen.

Give it a while, and the book *will* write itself.

You are wise.
Oh, thank you for posting this!
You are very welcome.

BTW, I'm halfway through The Grand Tour and <3<3<3<3<3.

Ahem.
I have only one thing to say to you about all that: fuck the creativity police.

In fairness, there are writers who need the manuscript pried out of their cold, dead hands. But I really think I'm probably not one of them.
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