Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Know When To Hold Them, Know When to Fold Them

Quote: “There are some books which refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn't because the book is not there and worth being written -- it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and if you fail to find that form the story will not tell itself."
- Mark Twain

Music Playing: Welcome Home by Coheed and Cambria

Okay, so today we’re going to talk about some Important Issues, and we’re going to get some things off our chest, okay? Okay. Glad you’re on board.

First of all, I have mentioned “my current book” or something of that nature to indicate the book I was preparing to write occasionally. What you guys didn’t know is “my current book” did not refer to the same book this entire time. It’s changed several times. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way, but that’s just how these past few months happened. I don’t mention titles because I tend to change book titles a lot. But these past few months I have experienced a writing issue that is ugly, very ugly if you’ve never actually experienced it yourself: sometimes the book idea isn’t ready to be written yet. And it’s hard to know the difference.

Deceptively simple, but it’s true. Sometimes you have a brilliant new idea (or loads of ideas, in my case) but no matter what you try to do with the idea, you can’t come up with ANYthing for it.

This is scary. This is very scary.

In April I decided I needed to start seriously thinking about my next project. I started thinking about the various book ideas I have, but none of them seemed right. They were interesting enough, but I wasn’t “in love” with any of them. I didn’t lay awake at night thinking about the characters. I didn’t drive to work thinking about the plot. I didn’t get a shivery feeling in the pit of my stomach when I thought about the book in general. When I tried to develop the idea, I used every brainstorming trick I knew, and still nothing. I liked the idea, but didn’t “feel” the book. I didn’t have that “it” feeling, that burning passion for the story.

It’s okay, I told myself. You’re just not sure where the story is going yet. Give it some time.

So I did. I gave it some time. I brainstormed, I built some of the world, but the idea still didn’t catch fire.

Then I thought, Maybe I’m rushing this idea.

Sometimes I need to let an idea sit around for a while, like that Mark Twain quote suggests. Sometimes I just haven’t found the right form to tell the story in. I decided to release this idea back into the stream since it wasn’t big enough to be caught, and caught another promising story idea I had (yes, I am mixing metaphors, work with me here).

The same thing happened. No matter the process or time I gave it, I still didn’t fall in love with the story. I never felt like I was inside the world of the story. It didn’t feel completely right. This happened to me three more times.

For those of us counting, that a total of five times I tried to tinker with a book idea and came up with nothing. It’s not for lack of ideas, trust me. I told myself it was just because I was so busy with the wedding and moving, but deep down I was afraid.

What if I never fall in love with a book again? What if I’ve lost it? What if I never feel obsessed with a book idea ever again? What if I only ever feel mild interest in the ideas, and nothing more?

For those of you who think this sounds sort of New Agey, I don’t know how to explain it better. When I write a book, I have to feel this burning sort of obsessive passion for it. When I am in the beginning throes of a book, I go to bed thinking about it, I wake up with the character’s voices in my mind, I dream about the setting. If I get to the point where I am not in love with the idea, but I write it anyway, it comes out like crap. I know because I have done this before. I wrote a book before the idea was ready, and it turned out to be half baked drivel.

In order to write, I have to feel like I am living inside the book, breathing the characters, tasting the air around me.

The pressure to write was awful. Friends in real life who knew I was working on a book would ask how things were coming along. When I answered slowly, they would press for more information. Invariably they would say I needed to just sit down and write it. The terrible thing about this sort of phase, is no matter how you explain it to other people, it just sounds like excuses. Procrastination. “Oh, the book isn’t ready yet.” “I need to let things simmer a little while long.”

This extra pressure wasn’t helping. I know my friends meant well, there are plenty of time a writer needs a kick in the butt from outside forces, but it just seemed like confirmation that I would never fall in love with a story idea again.

But instead of sticking with any one of these ideas, like the “rule” goes, and pressing on, I set all of them aside, and did nothing new. I tried to ignore the voice screaming about how I am a has-been before I ever was. I tried to ignore the gentle pressure from friends and family. I forgot about starting something new, and concentrated on reading, editing, and worldbuilding. And the rest of my life. Heaven knows it’s been pretty hectic.

Then I started getting interested in a character idea. Instead of immediately working on that spark, I just thought about the character. Instead of dumping some firewood onto the spark to start a fire, I just let the spark grow. After a day or two, I “wrote about writing.”

Writing about writing is fun, and slightly crazy. It’s basically where you write about what you’re feeling, like a conversation with yourself. I find it very helpful. I wrote about what I wanted to write, about how frustrated I felt, how I felt like a failure, how I was worried I would never write anything ever again, and so on. I also started writing about different ideas that fill me with excitement (I’ve mentioned this list of interests before, and let me tell you, situations like these are where it starts paying off).

From there, I am starting the slow, gentle brainstorming process. My character idea is attaching himself to another book idea I had, and stuff is starting to catch fire. But it’s not boiling yet, and that’s okay. I am being patient, and just trying to fan the flames a teensy bit.

Now that I have had some time, and the crazy voice isn’t screaming that I will never love another story idea again, I can think more clearly. And I realize now the idea that the creative part of me can go away is absurd. I know some people think their creativity can go away, and a lot of authors talk about the creative process as though it’s this mystical commune with the aether, but I really think it’s just a matter of your state of being.

Creativity feels harder sometimes because you’re stressed or tired or anxious or any number of other things that can get in the way. But that part of you is still there, waiting. Sometimes you have to go after it with a hunting knife, and sometimes you just have to sit and wait for it, but your creativity is a part of you. Writing certainly feels mystical, but I don’t think it will just vanish with a puff of smoke.

You have to learn how to trust your writing instincts, friends. You have to remember that your writing process is valuable, but it’s also flexible. I once read a writer’s blog, and she said she hasn’t written a book the same way twice. Every time a book gets written it’s in a slightly different fashion. I know we all have writing “rules”: processes and methods we’ve tried that do or don’t work. It’s great to know what works, but I just want to remind everyone that these rules you have are self-made.

Sometimes you have to break those rules, and that’s okay. We’re rebel writers after all!

So. I can’t be the only writer ever to have experienced something like this. What about all of you? Have you ever worried about where the creativity comes from? Have you ever tried so hard to make something work but it refuses to? What did you do to “fix” it?


  1. There are plenty of times I have been unable to write. Breaking up with my first fiancée. Losing my job. Stress is definitely a suppressor to creativity. But there was also the matter of my own commitment. I made every excuse under the sun why I wasn't finishing my projects. X was more important. Y wasn't any good, da Vinci died with 100 unfinished projects, etc etc.

    I don't go from one story to the next even though I try. I'll have a couple false starts before something clicks and I can keep going. In between finishing WANTED: CHOSEN ONE, NOW HIRING, I tried writing a YA, a post-apoc sci-fi, and an epic fantasy before my current work sunk in.

    Here are my observations, and you are free to disagree:

    You sound like a closet pantser. I know you like to brainstorm and outline and plot, but I think it's inhibiting your writing. Sit down. Write. When you're done with that chapter, write the next one. Which leads to:

    Don't be afraid to write crap. It's a first draft. Wait, it's not even a first draft. You said so yourself. It's an exploratory draft. You write it. It's drivel. You revise it. It's awesome. That's the rule for everyone.

    Writing when you're obsessed: You need to get past this. If you wait for this, you'll never finish a book you are happy with. Inspiration is awesome and it can lead to awesome things and a high word count in a small amount of time. But inspiration is the dots. The writer draws the lines that connects them. How long will it take you to make your picture out of dots instead of lines?

    I'll have a new manuscript I want you to read at the end of the year. If you're still struggling, I'll feel extremely guilty for taking your time. So not for you, but for me, go write your book so you can read mine and make it better.

  2. "Writing when you're obsessed: You need to get past this. If you wait for this, you'll never finish a book you are happy with."

    People say this a lot and I agreed. BUT I think there's a misunderstanding here. I too can only work on a project that I'm obsessed with. But it's not about that rush of inspiration that makes you want to write faster than you can type. It's not about writing when you're obsessed. It's about being passionate about the idea, the project as a whole.

    I NEED to feel that passion. I need to have crushes on all my characters. The lying awake at night... But that doesn't mean that all the writing is easy. There will still be scenes that are hard to get through or times when it's a struggle to sit down and keep going. But the passion and the obsession are what makes me trudge on in spite of everything.

    Believe me, I've tried struggling through a project without the passion. Doesn't work. And the result is awful. How could it be good if you don't love it?

    There will always be more ideas than books. I go through several ideas too before one clicks. And I go through periods where it takes longer until I find one. Sometimes due to stress (and you've had a LOT of that, Liz) and sometimes because my creativity is busy elsewhere. But you WILL find a story that clicks again. It's like clothes. You have to find something that fits you. You just have to keep trying them on. ;-)

  3. Please ignore the typos and other mistakes... It's too hot. :-P

  4. I love my niece Diane. She is an amazing little girl, precocious and a joy to be around. She was an ugly baby. I mean, jump away and scream because you think the mother is holding a goblin ugly baby.

    During the course of a novel, I will love it. Then I will hate it. I still love it because it's my creation, but the characters are flat and the pacing is off and the word choice is just stupid. It's a piece of junk so horrible why do I even continue? It's one ugly baby.

    I still love it. And I finish it. And I let it become the amazing piece of art I know it will become. If I only worked on it when I loved it, I'd never finish anything.

  5. That's my point. It's unconditional love. You love it even when it's ugly. :-)

    Though, to be honest, I've never had that thing where you hate your book. I will have doubts and I'll worry I'm doing things wrong and that no one else will ever want to read it, but I never hate my book. Even later when I start to see all the flaws. I may hate the work I have to put into it but not the book itself. I always love my characters, all the way through.

    If I don't, I don't get through the first draft. And it's not like I never write anything. I've written four novels in three years which, considering major changes in my life during that time, is not too bad. ;-)

    But I guess we just work differently in that respect. :-) Not everyone can have the same process.

  6. This is what I know:

    Mild interest isn’t going to help me when I am first starting a novel. Call it what you will, but if you only feel “meh” towards a novel before you even sit down to write, you’ve got problems.

    I think my problem is half of me is a pantser and then other half wants to plan into oblivion. I have done both, and nether resulted in a finished novel. I actually pantsed (we’re playing fast and loose with what’s a noun and verb today  ) two novels in this period of time, and lost interest half way through for both of them. Mostly because I wrote everything that was interesting to me about the idea, and then didn’t have any other ideas. This is where having an inkling of a plot helps, because then I remained interested throughout the rest of the novel.

    I will resurrect these half baked ideas, but I will wind upevising them into a real first draft, and not the Zero drafts they are right now.

    When I talk about being “obsessed” with a novel, I mean interested in it. I am not waiting for the clue bat of inspiration, because that happens to those who are working on their novels. You get what you put in. I mean I wasn’t really interested in my various ideas at all. They didn’t excite me, I didn’t want to know what would happen next.

    No matter what, I will have a finished draft by the end of the year. And honestly, I am hoping for two.

    And the idea of an ugly baby made me laugh out loud.

    Thank you both for your input on this!

  7. I was at my old publisher and a woman in my department had a baby. She brought in pictures and was passing it around. One of the print project managers asked to see it and said, "Ohhhh, how cute!" before she even got the picture!

    How do you know, lady? That might be the ugliest damn baby in the world. Don't "oh cute" until you look and can actually confirm the baby is cute.


    So do you need a group brainstorming session? Should we start throwing ideas at you and see what sticks?

  8. I guess it's just the knee jerk But it's not always true...

    Hmmm, that might not be a bad's what I am trying to do anyway, just come up with various ideas and see what catches my fancy. Group brainstorming sounds fun.

  9. I don't know. If you're not feeling it, it won't work. The plus side is that you're not at a loss for ideas. Maybe you should move on to another one? The one that's hot in your brain! The one that you dream about and think about ever second of every day!

    I've never really been stuck like that, so I'm afraid I don't have any better advice. I've the kind of brain that lays everything out before hand and then I just have to write it. Sure, I get caught up sometimes (stress, busy, what have you), but it's not the story. Not really. It's just me being lazy. LoL.

    Best of luck!


  10. First, remember all that is going on in your life right now. You just got married. You are in the middle of moving, and know that you will be away from your dh for a period of time. You still have your day job. You need to pack just another box or twenty. You may even be tired. I'm tired just thinking about all that!

    Second, distance can be a good thing. I remember as a child, I played the violin. I QUIT it totally one summer, but in the fall, a friend talked me into going back to it. And then I played and practiced with more interest, more passion as I improved. I needed that total rest from it.

    It is possible you need to just step away from the keyboard for a while, focus on other things that are more important. You are currently very divided in your life - so much happening, all at once. The words will still be there, the stories will be there, later, when you are more focused, when you are ready.

    Just a thought.

  11. OMG, that is exactly what happened to me the year before last. Then last year I went to grad school, could not work on fiction for a year, and this summer, I'm inspired again. The forced hiatus from writing fiction did wonders for me.