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Slog and Burn

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. New shiny!

It’s Friday again. How the hell did that happen?

I’m experimenting with getting up a few hours earlier so I can run, then get the kids off to school and settle down to work. This means I’m up at (wait for it) 5AM. Yeah, you read that right.

The good news will probably be increased productivity. The bad news is that I won’t see the squirrels, since it’s still dark. This morning, however, I was watched by a fiery-eyed possum. It was either trying to figure out what the hell I was doing or gauging how thick the glass was between us. Not sure. This made me nervous, but fortunately I was too worried about being upright and ambulatory before dawn to really fear the possum the way I should. Further bulletins as events warrant.

So last week we talked about my first three process-stages of novel-writing–the Shiny, the Explosion, and the Hole. I’ve saved the last two stages for a separate post because, to me, they are the most frustrating, the most interesting, and the hardest stages to get through.

I’m talking, of course, about the Slog and the Burn.

The Slog comes after the Hole–that part in the writing process where it’s not fun anymore, where I wake up and stare at the novel/short story/poem/essay/whatever and I think, this is total crap, I am total crap, everyone is going to hate this, everyone is going to hate me, I will have to give the advance back and we will all starve and the sun will go out and we’ll all DIE and it will be ALL MY FAULT AUGH. It isn’t rational and it isn’t pretty, and the only way through is putting my head down and plodding on. The Hole is pretty deep and dark even at the best of times, but chipping doggedly away at it gets me past the “OMG this sucks” and into the “DIE stupid book/story/whatever, DIE STABBITY STABBITY.”

It’s a subtle change. I quit focusing on how much the goddamn book sucks and and instead start focusing on just f!cking finishing. It becomes an endurance contest, and I think by now you have some idea of just how stubborn I am on a daily basis. (I mean, if you’re a regular reader. If this is your first time, welcome, and let’s just say a brick wall won’t win in a contest with my silly head. I am congenitally stubborn, and single motherhood has only made me more so.) There are some books I’ve only gotten through because I don’t want to let the goddamn thing win, others I’ve finished because of the habit of daily writing chips through the Hole and the Slog, bit by bit.

You can tell I’m in the Slog when I start joking about the Book That Will Not Die. My writing partner actually had a couple of rubber stamps made for me. (One more reason why she is Teh Awesome.) One says “STET DAMMIT”. The other just says “STABBITY” and I have a pad of red ink for it. There is nothing quite so satisfying during the Slog as printing off a few pages of the work in progress and stamping it all over with blood red ink while chanting “STABBITY!” at the top of my lungs.

Look, we all have different methods. Don’t judge.

Getting through the Slog is not easy. But once I finished a couple novels, both the Hole and the Slog became parts of a process instead of “OMG I am never going to f!cking finish this f!cking thing.” It was a small, crucial, welcome shift in my working attitude. Each time, if I just endured through the Hole and the Slog, I would reach the Burn.

The Burn is the point where a story comes together and my writing sessions become subjectively shorter but objectively longer. I’ll sit down one morning and wake up hours later, blinking and needing the loo pretty badly. I have to remind myself to eat–I’ll sometimes feed the kids and go back to the computer, and wonder why I’m hungry hours later–and force myself to do other maintenance-y type things, like washing myself. I start working at white heat, even faster than during the Explosion phase. All my energies are brought to bear on one single point.

The Burn is, like the Explosion, pure creative crack. But it’s the kind of rush I associate with exercise–a full-body endorphin rush from effort instead of the Explosion’s more passive, cerebral high.

Generally the wordage that comes out during the Burn is very clean and lean, and doesn’t require a lot of editing/revising. Once again I have a head full of story, I almost resent anything that pulls me away from working. I put in marathon sessions–my very high wordcount days are almost always during the Burn. Everything in the book just comes together, including things I’d written earlier that I had no earthly clue how they were going to turn out.

The closest thing I’ve ever seen to a visual representation of the transition between Slog and Burn is the classic domino scene from V for Vendetta. Suddenly everything just…clicks over. I finish the book at a gallop, and the flywheel inside my head is suddenly spinning wildly, all that ramped-up energy with nowhere to go. (This is why a recovery period is so necessary for me after each book; I have got to let that flywheel slow down or it will start smoking and sparking. Not a happy cupcake. But that’s a different post.)

This is why I say it’s critical to get into the habit of writing every day and also critical to finish a couple books before you give up on writing. The habit of writing will pull you through the Hole and the Slog; once you’ve finished a couple books you will have a much clearer idea of your own process that will help make the slogging parts of that process more manageable. The “huh, I’ve done this before” is a razor-thin margin, but sometimes it’s enough space to get a handle on the entire goddamn book so you can beat it to death. (It’s not quite as violent as I make it sound. (I’m just in the Hole part of a short story today. It makes me cranky.)

It does not get easier, per se. But knowing your own process at least places the Hole and the Slog in perspective and makes them more manageable. And really, some days “more manageable” is all one can hope for.

Over and out.

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