Monday, September 6, 2010

Lies and Misdemeanors

I did something terrible recently.

I lied. Worst of all, I lied to myself.

A few weeks ago my writer friend Tananarive Due posted a great blog on writer’s fear -- on being productive and fearing it’s all crap, or being afraid you can't finish what you started...the whole nine yards. It was a great piece, summed up much of what the writing life was like, and I added a comment that she had really pinned it and gee, I was sure glad I’d gotten over all that...

When I read her blog I was in the middle of a major sorting of every box piled up in my loft and pouring out of the closet after my January renovation, a summer of stripping off old layers. I had decided it was what I had to do to move forward on book three and my new status as a committed novelist, a professional writer who takes his work seriously enough to do every day, in an environment that doesn’t get in the way. I was riding on a pasteurized memory of the year I’d spent writing my second novel, “Blood Pressure”, on the tail of my first, and in remembering had somehow edited out all the long nights of facing down the one year deadline like it was my execution date. Not to mention that really fun period about halfway through when I was convinced that I had leapt off the wrong cliff with no parachute and was headed for the rocks, not the starry skies...

Oh, I could go, on, but why torture myself?

What I thought I could knock out in a few weeks became a two-month project as life demanded equal time while I shredded, donated or trashed much of my past. It was in the middle of that, when I was writing only a little, now and then, on a serial novella I wanted to complete before I went back to the third of the Vampire Testaments, that I felt warm and secure in my writing - when I wasn't doing it. During this process, it was just a side thing to do when I’d gotten through another box, after paying the bills, cleaning, shopping for groceries and all the other endless distractions writers use to procrastinate.

Because my days were so filled with going through the boxes and re-organizing my life, I was able to delude myself that I was still in "process". After all, I’d finished enough of the novella to show it to my writing group, added notes to the novel file, and I was -- well -- thinking, yes, thinking about it a LOT, constantly in fact, why, I might even have one of the characters doing this very thing, clearing out the detritus of his life, which makes this all research, and it works so well in the new book...

Uh huh. A week or two after I posted my comment on Tananarive’s site, I was preparing to go back to work for real. The writing group had liked the novella more than I had expected, and I’d submitted enough material that had come back on a plate as shredded and fried as ropa vieja to know that if they were as complimentary as they were, I might actually have something here and might have to take it seriously.

Then I finished the boxes.

The endless physical labors suddenly ceased and it was done. Oh, I still have two chairs to refinish and reassemble, and a coffee and dining table to clear, but the massive task I had set before myself, taking a brief break from the third novel to prepare myself for a fall of free writing was done. No more excuses.

Writing time was here.

And it all came back -- all my old fears -- the first day I sat down at the keyboard to revisit the novella, to flesh it out and stop taking the shortcuts to characters and depth I had allowed myself on the first draft. I had to buckle down, do research on questions asked, expand moments I‘d danced past after pointing them out, and make the whole damn thing more real. Just leap in, wallow in it, dive under and breathe it in until it was as easy to live on as air and I could move through it like an Olympic swimmer.

I panicked. This sucked, I said to myself, as I reread what I’d written. Did the group really like this? Why had I listened to them? Sure I have a story, but who cares about this guy? How do I fix this? How did I get through two novels in the first place? Aren’t I just doing this to avoid the third one, the big one that pulls the trilogy all together like the last flip of a magician’s wrist as he reveals his last illusion? Wasn’t that all I was anyway, just a cheesy magic act splashing stage blood on a tacky set built by stoner high school kids who didn’t care and were just doing it to get out of detention?

Oh, I could go on. All the things Tananarive had said were true and I was reeling under self-doubt and recrimination, all in a voice so familiar and convincing I couldn’t disbelieve it -- my own. Except that the devil has many faces and this time I recognized that the voice wasn’t really my own, the one I should be listening to, but the one I’d spent ten years in therapy tracking down.

So I pulled aside the curtain, and there he was. I dragged my personal demon into the light and sat him down, stroked his hair and assured him I still loved him, as I do all my monsters. I gave him fresh fruit pie and cookies to quiet him down while I went on with the rewrite, plowed through as if I knew what I was doing, because -- and this is my only secret formula -- no one had to see it again until I was sure I had it right.

I Googled away to add elements of reality to the fantasy, found facts that fascinated and interested me, and made what I’d written already make more sense. I dug deeper into my characters and let them speak until I could hear them well enough to listen. I filled in the blanks of their past and sat at the keyboard more and longer as old mental muscles cramped from limited use stretched out again to carry the weight.

At some point, while I petted my monsters to keep them quiet and pushed ahead as if I wasn't terrified, the wonderful thing happened; I got so lost in the story that I forgot I was afraid of it. It became not just a comfortable place, but someplace I looked forward to visiting each day. I finished the story, went over it again and again, watching it improve, tucked in threads, snipped off loose bits, added more where it was bare and thinned it out in places it was overdone.

I printed it out and am ready to read it one last time and decide how I feel about it, then I send it out to a couple of writer friends from the writing group (who of course I now feel were all GENIUSES for seeing the potential in this thing) for a last look. Despite my terror at facing that blank page again after so long I got it done, enjoyed the trip, love the result, and am looking forward to leaping back into the novel.

So, I apologize to Tananarive for forgetting, when she reminded us all so well that the most successful writers in the world can still have that “Blank Page Moment”, so the rest of us should just accept it and do what the most successful writers in the world do -- keep on keeping on.

And I apologize to myself, for lying to me. I will remember next time not to get too cocky, too sure of myself. Writing is always new, each page the “undiscovered country” and it’s the one journey you can never be sure will end as you expect it to -- but that that’s half the fun.

(To read the post by Tananarive that inspired this, go to:


KeVin K. said...

Beautiful as always, Terence.
And personally very timely for me; uncannily so.

My first novel was a book rescue -- the book packager had lined up authors for an anthology when the publisher had decided only novels for the series. None of the anthology authors had time for a novel and I got named as a good under-pressure guy. The packager gave me a paragraph description of what the novel should do, I sent them back a 2400-word outline. They panicked, so I sent them a 3600-word revised outline. With 90-days until deadline they had no choice but to give me my head. I wrote a 93k novel in 87 days. When I submitted an 1800-word proposal for a second novel, they gave me 120 days. I produced a 113k novel in 98 days, then had to spend two more weeks cutting it down to 96k due to layout/production requirements.

So when, in March of 2009, I decided to write my first original mystery novel I decided to go easy on myself. My target was 90k ms ready for submission in 160 days. A new novel seemed the perfect birthday gift to myself. I felt sinfully self-indulgent.
Until my third week of compulsively tweaking my outline and re-researching my character bios. At first I blamed it on my thoroughness -- I needed a 2002 public transit map of Charleston, SC, to put my character on the right corner of King Street. Then I told myself the lack of pressure -- the fact my pay did not depend on meeting a deadline -- hindered my ability to focus. Unlike all those times I wrote and submitted short stories on spec with no problem meeting my self-imposed production schedules.
It took me nearly a month to admit I was terrified. I was a fawn in the 18-wheeler headlights of my original novel. I wrote no words that sold -- and few I kept -- in the second half of 2009.

I decided to devote 2010 to overcoming my fear of writing by setting myself a goal of (I think) 600 words of fiction a day, every day. Posted my daily totals on my Livejournal for a while. I produced and sold two short stories in the first two months.
Then real life hit in the form of losing my job, getting a new job in, losing that job, and starting my third job in mid-July. Wrote no keepable words of fiction (with the possible exception of resumes) in that period.
In mid-August I set a goal of writing an original novel beginning on my birthday, September 2. I gave myself six months.
On August 23 I was told that my job was changing again -- this time a step up. Beginning September 1, my new bosses put me in charge of developing mental health case management services for children and adults in a 3-county area. Last week was a madhouse whirlwind and there's little chance of change for the near future.
With all this on me, I gave myself permission to table my writing yet again.
Except you've got me thinking that's not right. It's not fair to me and not fair to my writing -- to the stories I have yet to tell.
I've got three families to see today and about six hours worth of typing treatment plans and inpatient reports and notes ahead of me.
But tonight I'm going to write.
Not my mystery novel -- getting back on that horse will require too much preparation, too much opportunity for procrastination. And for the same reasons, not a media tie-in story; getting up to speed on developments can be a time sink.
It'll be a short story and it will be original -- beyond that I have a couple of ideas but no plans. Tonight it'll be me and the blank screen. And this time I'm not the one backing down.

Thanks, Terence.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've been there. I just didn't describe it as well as you have here. By now at least I seem to have learned that every time I get to feeling cocky, the world is just about to knock me on my ass.

Terence Taylor said...

@ CG -- I call it the Frosh Syndrome -- every time you reach the top of one level, you reach the bottom of the next... ;) There's nothing so deflating as walking out the door a Senior and into the next a freshman with no clue as to what's happening. That's how I feel now, and am keeping Indiana Jones in mind -- that scene getting the grail when he bows his head in penitence and doesn't lose his head...I'm trying to stay humble. Get that nose in teh air and you trip over things at your feet. ;)

@KK -- a page a day is 365 pages in a year. I haven't written a full novel in less than a year yet, so am looking forward to being able to push out two a year or more, like Jonathan Mayberry who I met at Book Expo. He writes 2000 words a day and was doing four projects when I last talked to him.

I too am trying to build back up to daily writing and page count while I can, and build up to what is basically 8 pages a day. I can do that and have, when its all I have to do, which is seldom the case.

But it's like the Pilates classes I started again after a year off - it hurts like hell at first. Patience and no judgment, knowing you will never think its enough. Progress over time.

I am getting so zen in my old age... ;)

Shauna Roberts said...

Timely for me as well, Terrence. Lately, I have to keep asking myself for each thing I start doing, "Do I really need to do this or am I really avoiding finishing those stories out of fear?"

Liane Spicer said...

...and for me. It's been embarrassing to discover just how badly I've suffered from paralyzing fear. It's daunting to realize this is something I have to live with and come to terms with for as long as I choose to write.

Chris Stovell said...

What a marvellous post - thank you - it really captures that Fear of Writing. (And no, I shouldn't be here, I'm taking a 'break' but now I'll get back to it.)

Carleen Brice said...

Guilty here too! I can SO relate to this!