Holding steady

Ah, the new police state. Smell that vigorous surveillance.

I am determined to get through the rest of the setup before the Big Showdown today, so this will be short. I’ve hit the treadmill–I saw no squirrel activity, though Mercutio!Jay fluttered through at intervals to keep an eye on things. I think the silence is wearing on his nerves too, because he didn’t alight anywhere except the middle of the yard, where he could see anything sneaking up on him due to the shorn grass. Further bulletins as events warrant.

And now I’ve got the end of the world to plot and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped. And it’s sickly humid today, though cooler than yesterday. Time for ice water and a hellbreed congress while I play a ton of Rob Dougan and wish he’d put out more bloody CDs.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Process, Part I

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. Check us out!

I’ve finished somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty books. A good proportion of those are on the shelves. Yet, every time I sit down to write, it’s still a struggle. I still have the long shoal of “nobody will like this, it’s going to be shit, everyone will hate me” and the “Oh GOD why won’t this BOOK just DIE stabstabstab” and the terrible nerves before every release and the same jolt of pain when I read an awful review. I keep thinking time will mute the sting or that I’ll figure out how to do this whole thing without the emotional cost, but so far, I haven’t.

I wonder if any writer ever does. Certainly none of the ones I’ve spoken to have ever admitted it to me.

The last Kismet book has been a slog so far. It broke free this week, and I have the sense of accumulating momentum which means I am going to finish, which I’d spent some terrible hours laying in bed in the dead of night doubting. During the day I’m much too busy to doubt, but sometimes at night…well, the night always has teeth. Every single book I’ve finished, published or not, I have doubted it. I doubted when I started, I doubted after the first flush of enthusiasm wore off and the slog set in, I doubted when I finished, I doubted while my agent read it, I doubted while the editors read it, I doubted through every fucking revision and I doubt now.

This is a huge part of the reason why, when I am asked to give advice, I begin and end with write every day.

I point out things like John Scalzi’s excellent Writing: Find The Time, Or Don’t of Suzanne Johnson’s Excuses, Excuses: Writer’s Block because I think they are good advice. Often, I am depressingly unsurprised at the number of comments such essays receive along the lines of, “But what about XYZ, which means some people don’t have TIME? You’re being unfaaaaair!” Or the ever-popular comment where someone takes what could be a good respectable daily wordcount and wastes it whining about how they don’t have time to write, but they have time to show the author of an essay the Error Of Their Ways. Or the “of course YOU have time to write, it’s your JOB!” I wish someone would have told me that when I was desperately working my ass off and going to school, writing in minute chunks filched from job, study, and sleep. It would have been nice to know that was optional instead of the struggle for survival I mistook it for.

I write every day because I must. (And partly because I’m afraid of what would happen to my brain if I didn’t.) The everyday habit gave me the stamina to get through my first finished book, and my second, and every other of the thirty-odd and counting. But it also did something incredibly important: it taught me about my process.

My process shares some commonalities with other writers’ processes, while being unique as every writer’s is. But at least I know what it is, now. It was a damn sight harder to finish a book when I couldn’t look at the other ones I’d finished and say, oh yeah, I remember this part where I think it fucking sucks and nobody will ever want it and I feel like crying. Yeah. I remember–this isn’t the end of the world–it’s a stage in the process. I’ll get over it. Those first few books were literally murder. The first time I finished a book and had a week of emotional wind-down I thought I was going insane. The second, I’d forgotten all about the first–but by the third, I was starting to grasp the fact that there was an emotional cost to what I was doing, and I needed time to deal with the snapback. Which means today, I can schedule in time for the snapback to occur, and let it happen.

Just like I can tell myself, of course you feel like you want to quit. You always do at this part of the process. Keep going.

I am a firm believer in the truism that one doesn’t know how to write a novel, one can only guess how to get through the novel one’s writing now. Each one’s different. But thankfully, the process will begin to be clear to you, and that process tends to change much more slowly than the novels do. Your own general process for successfully finishing a novel (or a short story, an essay, a poem, what have you) is something you can plan for, anticipate, fine-tune, and generally learn how to work your way around.

But you can’t do that anticipating if you don’t know your process, you cannot know your process if you don’t finish anything, and you stand a much better chance of finishing something if you write every day. I say every day, knowing full well that for experienced writers there may be days off, when the mental work of building the story is happening but not much occurs with the fingers on the keyboard. I say every day, knowing full well that I could be wishy-washy and say “regularly” and hopefully avoid some of the “but I CAN’T!” that seems to pop up in the comments of posts like this. I say “every day” even though I know as soon as I say it, someone will pipe up with “but my process is different and I’m published!” and that’s OK. I say “every day” even though I know, my God do I know, Life Happens, things happen, and you may be called away from writing by an emergency.

I say this because if one says, “Write regularly” you can write once every six months and consider that “regularly” and you might die of old age before you get close to producing publishable work. I say it because I consider it to be the reason why my career is as (moderately) successful as it is. I say it because I consider that discipline crucial if you want to write for a living. I say it because I can have the rule of “write every day” and have occasional Emergencies that I am flexible enough to accommodate, but the needle of habit, discipline, and need gets me back up on the horse as soon as possible after the dust has cleared. Telling myself “write every day” is a foundation that makes it possible for me to even recognize I have a process.

Next week I’m going to talk a little more nuts and bolts about my particular process. But I want it to be absolutely clear that I consider the commitment to everyday writing as a precondition to recognizing one has a process early enough for it to do any bloody good. I firmly and fervently believe that writing every day gives you the chance to find your process before you get frustrated and decide you’d rather do something else with your time. Which is fine and well and good if that’s what you choose, but if I can point out a stumbling block and what I think is the best way around it, well, I will.

So. That’s out of the way. Next week, we’ll get nitty-gritty about just what my process entails.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Oh, Smiley

Cranky, cold, and nauseated. Yep, it must be Monday.

The only update I have to offer on the ongoing SquirrelTerror is that Squirrel!Neo appears to have won whatever struggle for dominance there was. The backyard is now his territory. Even Tuxedo Kitty and the Siamese from down the street (they observe a studied ignorance of each other that reminds me of some married couples) will not venture into the yard while Neo is hopping about. He came right up to the sunroom door while I was running this morning, put his little paws on the glass, and turned his head sideways, fixing me with one beady little eye.

I’m really hoping he’s not going to hack into the house thinking it’s the mainframe.

And really, I don’t blame the cats. He’s a squirrel with kung fu, for Chrissake.

Anyway, links!

* A hilarious little piece on dating writers. My favorite is #6. Why? Oh, no reason…

* Mental Floss with 10 ways to learn stuff while procrastinating online. Don’t look at me like that. We know who we are.

* John Scalzi. Writing: Find The Time Or Don’t. I could go off on a rant but instead I’ll just point and say: there. What he said. WHAT HE SAID. Writers write. It’s that bloody simple.

I’ve been reading a lot of le Carre lately, and I have to say, I’m pretty much in love with George Smiley. Round, retiring, expensively but badly dressed, academic, bumbling, and very moist, still, Smiley is my type of guy. Plus, every le Carre novel rips your heart out in one way or another, and I’ve finally got to the place where I can enjoy that in fiction again. Thank goodness.

Well, off I go to nurse what I suspect will turn out to be a cold. Plus, the next scene is burning up inside my head and I have to get it out or I’ll start shuffling around, mumbling, and occasionally laughing at nothing…

…oh, damn. Too late.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Five Deadline Things

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. There are giveaways and contests this week–check us out!

Today’s cool links:

* Denise Little on sell-throughs, in which she explains some of the Byzantine math publishers and writers have to deal with.
* Dame Jenna on countering the counter drive, the contradictory urge not to write.
* Dame Rinda’s path to publication.
* Dame Toni on dating for novelists. I should add that Toni is braver than I’ll ever be–I’ve permanently given up on dating.
* Victoria Strauss, on why getting published is not a crapshoot. (I have such a girl crush on this lady right now. It’s embarrassing.)

Last Friday I wrote about the cost of writing, and Reader Jessa S. had a great question:

Usually I lurk, but I had to respond. I’m writing my latest story on the tightest deadline I’ve ever had. The energy is coming (8 lb bucket o’ cookie dough instead of choco espresso beans) but I’m nervously watching the gauge, wondering how much of that energy is left (a mere 7 1/4 lbs, I’m guessing).

Maybe you could write another of your infinitely practical posts about where/how to siphon fresh energy? I’m down to the bone here (other than that 7 1/4 lbs) and it feels like there’s no place else to draw from. What do you do you’re trapped in a closed system of you and the story and the deadline?

This is a great question, not only because the questioner has realized that energy isn’t free. It’s got to come from somewhere, and when a deadline is putting you in thumbscrews, you have got to find a way to get it done. Preferably without totally burning yourself out, because you will lose a lot of time recovering from burnout afterward–time that could be better spent working on a new story.

Unfortunately, I have very little to say about siphoning fresh energy, mostly because I am a single mother and fresh energy ain’t happenin’, sugar. Instead, I focus on budgeting the energy I have pretty tightly, and that’s what I’m going to write about today. The good news is that the system isn’t quite as closed as you think. It’s not just you, the story and the deadline; it’s you, the story, the deadline, the minutiae of daily life, the timesuck, and the priorities.

Methods for dealing with this deadline situation are extraordinarily individual (just like writers) and I’m going to warn you: the advice I am about to give may not work for you. As usual, take it with a grain of salt and keep firmly in mind that you may need something different.

That being said, I’m going to go ahead and give you the five things that help me when I’m under deadline and I suspect I may not have the energy to reach the finish line. (Yes, this happens. It happens a lot.)

1. Pad your timeframes. The preparation for a deadline starts before the actual contract is signed. Don’t agree to turning a book in in under nine months if you know it usually takes you 11-14 to write it. I like to recommend at least a month’s worth of wiggle room when telling your agent/editor when you can reasonably turn the book in. Use this padding with care and caution. You do not have to go overboard and ask for five years to turn in your next novel/story/whatever; but that extra month can give the work time to lie fallow and get an extra polish before you send it in–or it can save your ass when Life Happens and you’re scrambling to get done in time.

2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Okay, so you’re in a crunch. Your month-or-so of padding is rapidly disappearing. This is when it’s time to get ruthless. Do what you have to do to cut timesinks out of your life. Turn off your router if you’re an aimless Internet surfer when under pressure. (I’m a big fan of Freedom, actually.) Tell your social engagements “No, I can’t,” and stick to it. Be honest with yourself about where your timesucks are and nip them in the bud. Get out your trusty kitchen timer and work in 15-minute increments all day. Let the laundry take care of itself for a couple days, if possible–and that goes for other kinds of housework, too. You don’t have to live in a sty, but you also don’t have to use the housework as avoidance. (GUILTY. I will just say right now, I’m guilty as hell of this one.) Write down a list of your timesucks and cut them temporarily out of your life. If writing is not a priority, the chances of your deadline (whether self-imposed or not) go down exponentially.

Plus, if you cut out the timesucks, that leaves the energy you would be spending on them–ta-da!–for writing.

3. Practice self-care. If I cut out exercise while I’m under deadline, I get cranky and even less inclined to work. Also, if I don’t plan my days pretty carefully, I can end up with anxiety-based insomnia, which just adds to the pressure. Part of prioritizing is knowing what you have to do to keep your body and mind in fighting–AKA, writing–shape. I am so not a health nut, but I’ve found out that if I don’t sleep, exercise, or pay attention to what I’m eating while under deadline, the results can be catastrophic. Which just stresses me out more and makes for an even more miserable time trying to meet the deadline.

4. Stop and dream. Okay, this is going to sound counter-intuitive, especially with #2 above. Bear with me.

Part of prioritizing is understanding that writing takes emotional and creative energy, and that well of energy needs to be refilled, or more accurately, dredged. One of the ways I do that is by setting a timer and laying down on the couch or the floor, and engaging in ten-fifteen blessed minutes of high idle. I either let the book play out inside my head like a movie, sinking into it as if I’m watching it, or I don’t think about the blasted book at all and engage in high-octane daydreaming, sometimes fueled by music. This not only relieves a great deal of mental and emotional pressure, but it clears out my pipes, so to speak. When the timer rings, I’m ready for Round Two with the book, and usually a knotty plot problem or two has been resolved. I’ll realize the resolution as soon as I sit down and put my hands to the keyboard. I don’t know why this works (I have a couple guesses, but nothing concrete) but it seems to be an integral part of my process, and it makes everything move much more quickly. The drawback is the seduction to just dream and not write–hence the kitchen timer, and my iron-clad limit of two of these sessions per day, maximum.

If you have a comparable strategy, good. Do what you gotta. For me, those ten-fifteen minutes where I don’t have to do anything but daydream are a crucial steam-valve, and they let me work much more efficiently. And those sessions are far better for me than comparable time wasted surfing the internet or doing avoidance housework. Sometimes a writer is working hardest when they’re laying on the floor and staring.

But only sometimes. Heh.

5. Keep your agent and editor in the loop. If you’re having trouble or Life Trauma, tell them as soon as possible. Do not withdraw into a hole because you’re embarrassed. Being upfront about difficulty is professional. Retreating into the hole is being a prima donna, just like overplaying whatever difficulty you’re having. This is a delicate balance to strike, but if it was easy it wouldn’t be called professionalism, now would it?

Most editors are fine with things not quite turning out as planned. They’re human beings. They understand. You make their job easier by letting them know what to expect from you and how things are going. You also make their job easier by padding your timeframes up front and taking care of yourself so you’re not a hysterical mess when you turn the damn book in. You also make your own job easier when you’ve talked to the editor and s/he reassures you that the world will not end and you’ve got a little more time.

I realize a lot of this falls under preventative care rather than finding fresh energy, but as I’ve said before, fresh energy just doesn’t happen for me. I set out each day with a limited amount of hours, and I can’t cram any more in. Do I fall from grace and spend time surfing when I should be working? Yes. I’m human too. Discipline doesn’t rest in performing perfectly or being a machine. It rests in the continuous effort to get back up on the horse when you fall off. The more you practice self-care and timesuck avoidance as a matter of course, the more it will become a habit when you get down to the crunch, and the easier it will be to actually turn the damn internet connection off (or the television, or *insert your favorite timesuck here*) and get that work done.

Of course, a little cookie dough now and again never hurt anyone, either.

Thanks for the question, Jessa–and good luck!

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Three Things Thursday

I have very little to say for myself, being occupied in sorting out the tangle that Angel Town wants to turn into. So, three random things on a Thursday:

* Note to self: don’t ever buy cheap Q-tips again. You will regret it for MONTHS. It’s worth a couple extra cents to get the cottony goodness. Apparently Q-tips will be joining the short list of Things I Try Not To Skimp On, which also includes toilet tissue, coffee, and enrichment materials for the kids.

* I am at the stage where I just have to keep repeating, “You always feel the book is total crap at this point. Work through it. Put your head down and go through. You can’t fix what you don’t write.” Of course, the signs that I’m at this stage include staring blankly at the monitor, a sudden overwhelming urge to do housework, frequent rounds of whispered cursing, the urge to listen to the book’s soundtrack over and over while I’m running, and the frequent despairing thought that perhaps I should change careers. Go back to school and be a plumber or a paralegal or something. That thunking sound you hear is me hitting the desk with my head. Repeatedly.

* Our cats have gone insane. It’s like they’ve never seen rain or squirrels before, though this is impossible because they’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest all their lives. I can only surmise that they are two-marble beasts–they can only hold two marbles in their head at once. For example, the locations of the food bowl and litterboxes. If you try to shove something else in–like the idea that there is, yes, a screen that is ALWAYS pulled to at the sunroom door, or that windows are solid–one other marble, say the location of the food dish, will fall out, and crazed leaping and OMGWTFBBQLLAMA will occur. Therefore, the only marbles EVER in their furry little heads heads are the food bowl and the litterboxes, and anything else is a perpetual surprise.

I consider this an exciting, if terribly nervous, way to live. And I know I shouldn’t laugh at them, but I can’t help it.

Anyway. I’m going back to slugging away at Angel Town. One of the cats is perched in the window right now, staring at a squirrel in the front yard and making that throaty little oh please oh please sound in the back of his throat. He’s going to leap in a few minutes, hit the glass, slide down, then give me a filthy look as if I’m to blame.

Of course, I will be laughing too hard to care.

Peace out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Rain

I stood in the rain today for a few glorious moments. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the end of a parched summer is a time for celebrating. Or so I think, and I suspect the yellowing lawns around here would agree. Today’s rain is only a prelude; we’ll still have some dry days. But this means cleaning out the gutters and mowing the lawn a few more times before winter. It means we’re about to embark on the long gray days I love, and everything is going to smell green.

Of course, the rain is cold and penetrating. If you don’t have a warm dry place to go to get out of it, your feelings are going to be different. Still, I love the rain. It’s part of why I live here. I tend to be a winter writer–something about the gray and the damp turns me inward and hikes my productivity like nobody’s business.

So, the story is calling today, and I think I might’ve found the point that was stopping me up. It just means I need to make some decisions. Some bleak humor would be good, too. Of course, any of the humor in my books is going to be bleak. It just works out that way. The only time I seem to genuinely write something happy is with occasional short stories.

Maybe it’s the rain.

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