The Choices We Make as Writers

from stickynotethinkers.com

I’m grappling right now with choice. I find choices relatively easy in my everyday life. To me, a decision is never the final say on something, so it doesn’t scare me. But when you are writing for a character, making choices can be a little bit more difficult. Most of my major rewrites have involved choices I made that were lazy. I can be a little lazy.

Occasionally. Let’s not get crazy, mostly I’m obsessive and manic. This can be good for a writer. In the first draft of my manuscript I wrote the entire inciting incident without my protagonist seeing it. She was told about it after the fact. I did this for a few reasons.

  1. I was new to writing action and felt a little intimidated by it.
  2. I didn’t really want go there. It was a lot more pleasant to hear someone else’s account rather than put her — or myself — through it.
  3. I didn’t know her that well.
  4. I had fears it would be a jumbled mess.
  5. Lazy ass.

Now, when I had done all that writing (6,000 words give or take, from the inciting incident to what followed) I began to feel uneasy. I knew that this was not good enough. I knew that I was being a coward, but the thought of cutting all of that and doing it over made me ill and need more coffee. Eventually I gave up. I cut, I rewrote, and it is one of my favorite passages in the entire book. It is emotional and nerve-racking and dark. It also prepared me for future massive cuts (the largest being the last 20,000 words almost completely) and taught me how to be a better writer.

That was a choice I made for the audience, and for me as a writer, it wasn’t for my protagonist. There is a choice I’ve made for her, a decision she actually comes to in the end of the book, that I’m not sure I can live with. It’s a bad choice. It’s murderous and selfish and kind of outside her character. It’s also exciting and willful, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. It’s something I’m grappling with right now. What do I do? I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m also feeling rather lazy.

Why lazy? Why do I keep referring to myself as “lazy”? Because I had felt done, at least, done from the perspective of a writer who’s never been published feels done. Then I made the royally stupid to choice to write a synopsis of my novel (something you need for your agent) and it brought to light this potential flaw. Maybe I’m not lazy, I’m just obsessed. Maybe I should take up knitting or start to exercise, maybe that will distract me?

(*I’m just throwing those out as two options. Two, very boring options.)

As a writer we are forced to make choices as our characters. We are forced to get inside their minds and root around for truth. It makes us feel ugly things sometimes. It makes us shock ourselves. We also have to choose when enough is enough, or when there’s more.

Author Platform Building

Authors with a mortgage never get writers block.

— Mavis Cheek

I have been looking a lot at writing as a profession, and not just an outlet for the crazy inside my own brain. When you sit down to write your first novel the tendency — at least this was the case for me — is to get wrapped up in the new romance. This can manifest itself many ways. I fell in love with my protagonist. I fell in love with her love interest. I fell in love with what she was fighting for, and consequently, against. But, eventually you finish the manuscript, you do your rewrites, and you get it to an agent.

If you are lucky enough to hook an agent, you then have to wait for them to read it and give you notes (if they’re going to take it on) or pass (at which point, chocolate and a bottle of wine may be in your immediate future.) Either way, waiting is involved. I’m an inherently impatient human being. I can blame my father— who is the same way — or the instant availability of entertainment and information in this age — because they have screwed my generation over when it comes to attention span — or just bite the bullet and admit I just can’t sit still. I can’t.

This means I seek the next step. I file a preemptive strike against patience. And I research what authors, especially YA authors, are doing to get their names out there. That is where I learned the phrase author platform. Apparently, romance with your work is great, researching agents is smart, doing the hard work of actually editing and submitting your novel is valuable, but author platform is increasingly vital in this growing, merging world that is publishing.

Publishing is changing. It’s largely electronic now. The audience you are trying to reach wants things now  — I’m not alone!— and they want to know EVERYTHING. They need multiple ways to interact, not only with celebrities, but writers, friends, family, celebrity pets. In other words, if you want to be a writer, you must develop a platform from which to build your following. You must become a presence.

This may send you to a dark room with heart palpitations. You are not alone, I was there earlier this week. But, once you stop panicking, you then start to grapple with the reality, you then develop a plan. Dan Blank writes a clear, cut-the-shit article about it here. His basic take, and here he’s referring to branding (a not four letter word that feels like one):

…it is about communication. Effectively understanding your own purpose, that of your audience, and the ways to connect the two. That’s it, just a word to describe a much deeper and more meaningful process.

He goes on to break it down for us. It’s helpful. Still scary. Why does it scare me? Because it feels like admitting that I’m really doing this. There is a place where you can still go back. I left that place two weeks ago when I stopped rewriting and handed my manuscript over to an agent. I drank a lot that day and watched Batman Begins. (I was gearing up for The Dark Knight Rises too!) It felt like a weight lifted and then was replaced by an anvil. It felt real — the tangible step toward the abyss of publishing or crashing-and-burning.

I already had a blog. I’m gonna be honest, that is the easiest step. Blogging is fun, and as long as your blogging you can feel like you are accomplishing something just by clicking publish. This can be a delusion when you only have three people reading your blog. The real challenge is then producing real interest in yourself. That takes time, consistency, and you actually putting something out their that other people want to read.

On writer Bill Henderson’s blog, Write a Better Novel, he explains that utilizing the planks — haha, since your building an author platform, get it? — of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging is an easy, free way to do that. You still have to be smart about it, though, and not just think by having an account people will magically care. But if you can’t be smart about it, maybe you should be a baker. Of course, if you’re trying to make it as a baker in this day and age you probably need a Twitter account and Facebook page so people can like you. In other words, everyone looking to make a career needs to build themselves a platform.

In the spirit of that, I started a Facebook fanpage. This is separate from my personal, private account, and is set up for me to funnel all of my internet writerly escapades to one, easy source. Check it out if you are so inclined. But further, make your own if you are at this stage. And then let me know so I can like it. We need each other, we reclusive, obsessive writers. Planks laid, platform being nailed.

Method Writing

There are a lot of different ways to approach writing. I don’t know what they are, but I’ve heard they exist. For me there is only one way: voices. I am prepared to sound totally insane here, but when I sit down to write, there must be a voice in my head. This is my narrator. Whether that voice manifests itself as the protagonist (as with my current work) or an observer (omniscient or otherwise), it tells me where I am going. It tells me who I am writing about. It tells me when I’m wrong. 

Writing first person it has become increasingly important to listen to the voice because she has become alive in me. I liken this process to that of a method actor. There are other ways to approach acting as well, but many of the actors we hold in high esteem are the ones who let the character into every part of their lives. This is a hard place to be — I have no doubt, it’s even harder for an actor, what with the actual being the character and all — because some of the control you have over things, over thoughts, or reactions, slips away.

As I lived the story, dug in deeper to my characters existence and what her journey was about, she became a bigger part of me. Life began to filter through her eyes. The life she was living in my novel, and the life I was living in Brooklyn. I’m not going to lie, this has been a little scary. But it has been the only way. My protagonist is one with a lot of kinetic, anxious energy. She’s one with a lot to lose, and at the same time, nothing she’s attached to. When I had a panic attack in a large department store because I was overly conscious of my surroundings, and the amount people who may touch me, I realized things were changing for me.

For the past couple months it has been this way, and I have had to learn to deal. The question I have is simple: Am I the only one who works this way? My first guess is, nope. Also, I am not looking for feedback on where I can get some good psychotherapy, that will not be well-received. Yes, I know I can shop online to avoid hyperventilating in Manhattan. The upside to this is that I have finished a huge rewrite on my novel and my protagonist is now quiet. She seems to be resting. I am letting her, because this book will have a sequel, at which time I may check into some kind of happy farm.

 

Resting like a Writer Should

I wrote a couple weeks ago about how I was filling my time in between this draft and the inevitable rewrites to follow. I expected it to be gruesome. Rest can be a phantom to the mind of a writer. Thinking like a writer is pretty hard to turn off. It bubbles within your subconscious even when you are trying to just watch The Avengers and eat some Sour Patch Kids. The brain of a writer is constantly searching, and it will keep you in a wandering bliss of never-ending rewrites if you let it.

Right before I took my break I was certain that the story was good enough to take the next step, but time away proved me wrong. I received some feedback from an early reader friend. She loved it, but she felt it could be improved. My first reaction was sort of adolescent. I felt like firing back with, Well, I rubber your glue, or some sort of nonsense like that. Instead, I took a breath and reread her comments again. This time I remembered that she was a good reader, and she was also being really gentle. She didn’t tear it apart (as an editor would) she just thought there were kinks.

I took more of a break. I decided that I needed to wait to act. I needed to stew a bit in my dissatisfaction. Every writer wants immediate, glowing reviews. We want our readers to pitch their response at us with such fervor we bend over backwards. They may, or some may, and those who do will be the ones who come to your book signings and follow your blog just to bask in the words of the one who created for them characters they wanted to live with. My friend found a character like that in my story, and this was the greatest compliment she could have given me.

I waited. Watched some more movies and tried to read some more books. Reading was hard. Reading just made me want to write. I am pretty susceptible to the power of suggestion. Someone talks about cheese, my mouth-waters for brie. Someone mentions coffee, I suddenly feel sleepy. I read beautiful writing, I need to put some words together. It’s a viscous and inconvenient truth. So I tried another movie. Another superhero movie. Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring the brother of the guy who plays Gale. The way beefier, kind of shockingly studly brother of the sort of boring guy who plays Gale. Why Thor? It was on Netflix streaming and I’m on a kick from The Avengers. Stop judging me.

Thor was the answer. (Maybe because for two hours I wasn’t thinking about holes in plot or prose, but was drooling over a pretty, pretty boy.) I don’t know why, but something clicked, and once it did, I knew I could start writing again. But I am not yet rewriting. This work will not be seen (or not in this form anyway), but it is work that I have needed to do and never seen a way to begin. It is work that changes how I see things. This work also makes a few sections of the book complete scrap.

Taking a break means letting your mind just be free. Stop writing in your head when your on the subway. Stop relating everything you experience to the plot of your book. Stop looking for answers in other writers work. Stop pretending to listen to your friends when really diagraming their sentences in your head. All these things are the crutches of a writer, and we lean on them to get through the time when we aren’t actually tapping out words. But sometimes, flopping on the couch with a glass of wine in the afternoon and watching a movie is the medicine your overworked writing brain needs. This advice goes for mothers, and students, and working professionals who live on their cell phones. Shit clears when you let it. Stop worrying you’ll lose it if you check out for a few days. Chances are, you may actually find it.

Filling time

Lately, (and by lately, I mean, since Wednesday) I have been faced with a dilemma. Patience is a virtue I am usually bankrupt in. It is also something I must do as I wait for feedback from early readers of my manuscript, including an agent friend of mine. The first couple of days I felt like my skin was being picked at by tiny, flame fingered trolls. I could still feel my narrator inside, running parallel with me, screaming that I couldn’t leave her that way. I know this sounds insane, but truthfully most writers are a little bonkers.

I also began to balk at the idea that this book I had written with ambitions for publications and widespread distribution (lofty goals in this market) was being read by very close, and trusted friends who wanted me to succeed. There reaction will be real, but they are kindly invested in the future of my work. (I hope, I don’t generally run with backstabbing b*tches.) How will it be for me when others with no care for my well-being or knowledge of who I am, read this.

I know what you’re thinking, “You will suck it up and be thankful they read it at all.” I think you’re right. If you aren’t thinking that, and are giving me a virtual edifying kiss on the cheek, I would like to thank you for the sentiment and promptly cry on your shoulder.

In the whirlwind of writing my manuscript I have often been captured by the narrator, drawn in as prisoner by the world she lives in and the fight she fights. Now that the bulk of the work is behind me — unless the consensus is that my book is not worth reading  at all, a reality writers are faced with everyday — the next step will be much different than the last. There will be times when I will have to actually participate in my life without thinking about my book.

It’s been nine months of solid work. Some authors work years on a manuscript, some spend a decade writing one huge story arch (see JK Rowling), while others still pine away on unfinished projects with no hope of an end. In the grand scheme, this experience so far has been relatively smooth. Though from the inside it felt very messy.

So…what am I doing to alleviate the stress of being patient in earnest?

  • Reading
  • Blogging
  • Gathering knowledge about my genre
  • Watching movies! Finding TV shows on Netflix and harping on about how nothing on TV is as good as Mad Men.
  • Playing with Sam — he has had to endure a lot of Zombie-Mommy since I began writing my book. He has handled it with great grace and piles of new superhero figures.
  • Crying. This is involuntary and not at all helpful.
  • Relaxing. Getting brows necessarily waxed, toes painted, back massaged, hair highlighted. All things I let fall during the mad dash.

Now I leave you, but not empty handed. You can ponder with me the cuteness of this pig. (Where do I get one and how can I sneak it past my landlord? ) Also, what makes a person wear stilettos? And should we petition for Pluto to be a planet again? (Ah, the things I think of when I am not working…)

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Sick Day

I’ve been sick recently. Not the sniffles, but a low-down, deep-aching, feverish mess. It was sudden and strong, and it made me feel powerless. I was a body beneath a truck, a woman battered by waves on rock — I had a cold. I do not normally run fever, so the sensation of dry, blistering skin is not something I am used to.

I had the flu once when I was a kid. I remember how disconnected I felt from myself, and how very far away the voices of my parents sounded through the cloud of that fever. This was the first fever I have had that took me back to that time. My eyes ached against the repulsive sunlight and blue sky from outside my bedroom window. That is, when they weren’t falling closed without my permission, sending me into a fitful sleep.

I dreamed off-and-on in this state, and all I can say, is delirium does odd things to one’s creative flow. There were scenes in my head from my manuscript. Scenes laced with pain and passion that I don’t think I fully achieved in the actual work. There was a moment where I was floating, as if separated from the girl in bed, and I thought, You will use this. It will make that moment so much better. 

Sickness can be an incredible fuel to imagination. It can also give you drug induced dreams about Robert Pattinson’s teeth and out-of-control roller coasters. (These two were related somehow.) I recalled the idea that my fever actually helped me with my prose to my husband earlier this evening. He laughed at me and said, “Now you know why so many people turn to LSD.” Is it the same? God knows I’ll never find out. But there is some truth to his statement. Sometimes, being forced into a state of submission can actually bring out the deeper work hiding under your bravado.

Do I recommend catching the flu as a cure to writers block? Not unless you also enjoy writhing in pain and losing a couple days of your life. But, should you find yourself laid out in a state of forced rest, take the time to let your hidden instinct rise to the surface. That part of you that is pressed down by your stronger sense of craft or the pressure you put on your art to produce, and produce quickly. Sometimes a sick day can be just what you need.

And now, some cartoons for you to enjoy, to humorously illustrate my point:

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Manuscript One

I will readily admit that I can be a little bit obsessive. Often, this will translate itself into a tenacity and ferocity in the things that I have my mind on. I am a deeply devoted friend, mother, and wife, which can mean anything from worrying about my son’s sleep habits to giving unsolicited advice. This can be nice or enraging.

Last Tuesday evening (as some of you may know from Facebook) I finished my manuscript. I was gleeful. The excitement of having it all out of me and in my computer created wings in my soul. I had a bird inside. I made sure it was backed up and then promptly danced around the apartment with Sam. We looked like this:

Then I realized there was still so much work to be done that my head was maybe going to explode from the pressure. Okay, okay, you can do this. YOU. CAN. DO. THIS. I then looked like this:

My husband’s enthusiasm was not so easily dampened. He began to typeset my manuscript to make it more fun to read. The result was a couple days where I learned the basics of typesetting. (This is fun when there is no pressure, and annoying when InDesign fraks up.) Thursday morning, Sam and I took a leisurely walk through the neighborhood to a copy center on 7th Avenue. This was a fun trip for both of us because the copy center also sold toys. SCORE.

The copy man gave me a discount. He was surprised by the page volume and I guess felt bad for me. Sam wanted dinosaurs. I got a project folder for the manuscript. When the pages were printed and sat in front of me on the counter I felt that rush again. Nerves and excitement, adrenaline and nausea. Now physically in my hands, on paper, looking like a book, I knew a few things even more clearly than before. I knew I would finish the work because the hardest part was already done. The part of pressing through the creating.

I have a full story. No, it’s far from perfect, but it will go through many more stages before it reaches (or doesn’t reach, because there will always be flaws in anything created by human hands) perfection. This too, is OK.

I have been ensconced in editing since Thursday. I’m a little over halfway through the manuscript. I’m cutting words like nobody’s business. There are a few pages — *see below — where I thought, WTF?!? Those pages will become almost unrecognizable. Eventually the words will be right, and then the obsession will turn into something else.