Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Unsolicited Advice--Part One: My Two Personalities

So today I’m going to talk about the artist’s temperament, and I know some of you may look at me funny, with my chipper posts and my tomato-scented hands, and wonder what on earth I have to say. Maybe not too much—but I’m going to say it anyway. And here’s why. This is stuff I learned the hard way when I was younger, stuff I had to figure out myself. And maybe even if I’d been told, it wouldn’t have made any difference—maybe it’s something that people only incorporate through experience. But why turn up an opportunity to offer unsolicited advice? That said, here goes. *takes deep breath*

Writers live on a spectrum of emotion apart from normal people, which is why others look at us like we’re crazy—they just can’t relate. Frankly, even last year I didn’t understand myself well enough to care for Liz Brooks as well as I could have. Long hours would pass unnoticed as I stared at my shelves, imagining my book crammed in between Ally Carter and Ray Bradbury. Seriously, though, who could really blame me if they cared to stand in my shoes? Creating a world and peopling it with characters—it’s intoxicating. It’s no wonder I was drunk on my two thousand plus words a day. I would lovingly print my work at the end of each session—snatched between classes and supper—and I would add those sheets of paper to my binder. As the days went by, I developed more and more endurance—I could write larger quantities at a stretch. It was exhilarating. So I’d reread and make comments and revisions and plans; and I’d track word count and thickness and page numbers. Truth be told, I wasn’t committing any great writerly sin—after all, I hardly think you can call shooting yourself in the foot a sin. But you still wouldn’t do it on purpose.

Here’s where I went wrong. I spent those moments reveling, letting the pumpkin spice coffee get to my head, letting the achievement get to my heart, letting the future get to my nerves. I had a countdown (and I’m not dissing countdowns, but more on that later). I had a count-up. I measured weekly progress and monthly progress. For someone who hates math, I did an awful lot of calculation. This much closer to getting finished. This much closer to revising, and querying, and publication, and sequels. *hyperventilates* It wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t healthy for me, it wasn’t healthy for my mind, it wasn’t healthy for my career. Because the more I got myself all worked up before supper, the harder I crashed before bed. It took me the longest time to realize that I was making those natural emotional swings that come with being a writer much worse.

And you know what happened? You know what the end result was of all that calculating and measuring and rereading? I burned out. Summer came, and I was done. I’d so well acquainted myself with the flaws in my book, I couldn’t see any hope. Like a kid given a barrel of candy, I had eaten myself sick. Fortunately, I was working away from home for the summer months—I wouldn’t have had time to write anyway. But still, it was the principle of the matter. It was the way I left it. Because I told myself that I would get back to DSS—that after three plus years of dedication, I was not going to restart that old cycle of quitting. I had lasted this long, I couldn’t fail now. But all the while I knew deep down that the same pattern would reassert itself just like it always did. I would reach a point where I could go no farther, and I would give up and start again, and I would never succeed. Never ever succeed.

What it boils down to is that I let my personality—I let my weaknesses—control me. I didn’t know how to fight it—I didn’t know to fight it. I just knew that it got harder and harder every day to ride that roller coaster. And I knew that I was miserable.  Writing was like a sick frantic joy that wasn’t a joy at all—like the high you get from drugs that leaves you lower than when you started. Was there something wrong with me? Was I going crazy?

And I don’t remember at what point I realized I could change my circumstances. But somehow I figured it out before it was too late. I needed to do (or not do) several things. (And here’s where I get to break out my dubious list-making skills.)


1)   I needed to take a step back from my work. I didn’t need to stop, I just needed to remove myself emotionally. Fine, write for a while. Print your work even. But then file it away and forget about it. Eat supper, enjoy your family, read someone else’s novel instead of your own WIP (without comparing the two in your head), and then get to sleep at a decent hour.


2)      I needed to not over-evaluate my work. Enjoy it, yeah. And be honest with yourself about its merits and faults. But don’t go around telling yourself you’re a genius and you’re bound to be a bestseller. It may happen—it may not. You don’t know the future. So don’t set yourself up for a harder fall than you have to. But also don’t be too down on yourself. If people tell you you have talent, then believe them, whether you see it or not. One thing I learned about singing that really fits here is confidence. When I’m singing and I’m nervous, I sound bad. But I hit notes I don’t even know I have when I just act like I can. Look at your work through the corner of your eye, but never straight on, if that makes any sense. (If it doesn’t, just pretend I said something about puppies.)


3)      I needed to not compare my work. DSS is fantasy, so I mostly spent my time appraising Eragon and Inkheart and similar volumes. But I wasn’t limited to those victims. I think I can safely say I spent at least thirty minutes a day reading snatches from just about every novel I own, telling myself that I was just as good as them (or better). And most anyone who has read DSS would agree that I wasn’t.


So this is me—this is what I wish I had known. And you might be very different. Perhaps what I said is irrelevant. To which I say, good on you. But remember that your opinion of your book is going to change more often than the position of the minute hand on one of those maddening analogue clocks—you’ll do better if you remain objective.

But there’s something else you should know about the artist’s temperament. It may seem like the worst Achilles’ heel out there, like a curse that every creative person is doomed to bear. Here’s the reality though:  it’s not a curse—it’s a tool. (And I learned that this year, so I’m sort of reminding myself as I prepare to query.)

When I’m writing a rough draft, my first instinct is to keep reviewing my progress. And I inevitably get down on myself. But if I blithely plunge ahead through the tangled jungle of my thoughts, remembering scenes the way I intended them and not the way they stumbled onto the screen, I begin to grow arrogant, convinced that my work will be the best and that it will hardly require any polishing. And if I keep this arrogance in check and don’t indulge it, it masks itself as confidence and insulates me from the truth that I’m merely producing junk that will take eight times longer to polish than it did to spew out.

If I work in a quick enough time frame, say NaNoWriMo, I can ride those arrogant fumes and avoid major bouts of writers’ block as well as the times when I question my sanity in choosing a career I’m no good at. But then, once the novel is finished and I set it aside to let it rest, the arrogance fades and I am ready to be a little more objective about my intellect. I reread my word-puke and notice all those glaring faults right away. Right then and there is the hardest part, because I can literally feel myself sinking, and no matter how much I see it coming, it’s still terrible. So once I’m finished rereading, I take a step back, wait a day or two until I level out a bit, and begin revising.

Chopping and fixing and restructuring aren’t fun at first. It takes a while to get used to tearing my baby apart in order to make it better. But my low gives me the objective view point that my high cannot. Suddenly my beautifully crafted sentences reveal themselves for what they are—what I couldn’t see before past my pride—ugly little bits of pretentious foppery. Out they go, replaced with something better. (Hopefully.)

Writing is a lot like surfing. You ride the waves of your natural emotional highs and lows. You learn to predict them by feel, like Bethany in Soul Surfer. Even though they are incredibly dangerous and some literary shark is bound to chomp your arm off (sorry), it can be a wicked great ride if you do it right. And like Miss Hamilton, you start at a disadvantage, but you don’t have to stay that way. But believe you me, it takes ages of practice and hard work. In fact, I’ve been at this for ten years, and it’s only clicking now. So be patient.


Note:  About graphs—I am in no way implying that they are evil. So you can put away your pitchforks—they’ll be no tar-and-feathering today. In fact, I recommend graphs. They can be very encouraging, and I really enjoy visualizing my progress. My problem with DSS was that I was obsessing over the graphs, on top of other things. Basically, just remember, all things in moderation except moderation.

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