On forcing a new project out of your unwilling fingertips

A couple years ago, I had huge writer’s block, which I documented here. I couldn’t seem to commit to a project. I had a bunch of ideas, but none of them really grabbed me in the heart … except for one, which I attempted to write pantser-style in a great rush of inspiration. Then I hit a brick wall 50k words in and the whole thing went to pot. Inspiration was gone. My faith in my ability to write new stories was cracking. Apparently I lacked discipline. Vision. Probably both.

I eventually returned to a previous project that needed serious work, and decided to rewrite from the ground up. I spent a gloriously satisfying time getting that into shape over about nine months. But last fall, when I was ready to query that one, I started getting writing anxiety.

Because here I was again, about to enter the mushy time when a project ends and another must begin (for my optimal happiness as a human person thingy). But which project? How? Forthwith and henceforth? Was I going to get stuck again?

I was scared. I didn’t want to go back into writer’s block land.

So I decided to try an experiment. I’d commit to one of my ideas–didn’t matter which–and September 1st, I’d start pounding out the words. It didn’t matter if they sucked. Nothing mattered except the pounding out of the words. I’d write 50k words in the month of September. Then and only then, I promised myself, would I allow myself to take a step back and consider if this was the project I wanted to continue on with.

Worst case, I’d spend a month on something only to trash it.

But even in that worst case, I’d be working on my craft instead of dithering about wondering what should I work on today?

“It’s an experiment,” I said to my husband as I put my word count goals up on the fridge for all to see.

Then I picked a project at random. Last time I’d gotten stuck, it had been in a complex high fantasy with a magic system I couldn’t begin to explain to myself. So this time, I’d do a murder mystery. That felt straightforward, if tricky. I wouldn’t overthink it, either. Hot blond gets murdered in the woods. Bam. Go.

I already figured this would be my most superficial story ever. It would probably be cliche, full of tropes, and totally expected. But it didn’t matter. I was going to grab onto it like a lifeline and write my way through September come hell or high water.

50k words felt like a fair shot for any story line. I applied myself to the task.

By the end of September, I had a big old mess of 50,000 words. It wasn’t a coherent story. The order of scenes made no sense. The characters weren’t doing the right things. There was kind of a mystery. And there was kind of a murder.

BUT! I had done it–no small thing amidst the daily duties involved in three small kids and a full-time job. Aaaaand I had characters. They had names, and were starting to have personalities. There was something like a plot brewing.

I was going to continue. October 1st, I scrapped the first document and started a fresh, blank new one. Same story, same characters, but now I knew a little better where I was going. Two more months of writing followed. The structure got ripped apart and rebuilt. Characters completely changed.

Then, some time in December, my sister read it. And . . . hated it. She would never say that, but yeah. Her exact words were, “It was like watching a train wreck. I couldn’t stop reading, but it was not fun.” Then she added, “Oh, and I have no idea who your main character really is.”

WHAT? Not fun? And a COMPLETELY BLAND PROTAGONIST? As soon as I recovered from this painful (but productive) blow, enter another huge rewrite. INSERT MORE FUN. Insert humor. Make it less dark. Define Main Character. And on and on.

Then my husband read it. More problems were identified. More tears were shed. The structure had to be changed . . . again. After a day of crying about my story’s problems and the lack of love it was receiving from my readers, I set to work again. Over Christmas, I problem-solved, wrote new material, and changed the beginning.

But by the end of January, I had a manuscript I was proud of. I was ready to query.

The little project that started as a FORCE YOURSELF TO WRITE experiment had turned into an actual finished story. With characters that I loved. Themes that moved me. A plot that made me giggle madly.

And most importantly: the story gave me five happy months of work that stimulated me, made me excited to get up in the morning, and added that extra layer of joy and interest to my life.

In conclusion: if you’re stuck, like so many writers before me have said, just write. Practical ways to do that:

  1. Give yourself a goal. If you’re externally motivated, share it with others.
  2. Pick a genre and story line that doesn’t intimidate you.
  3. Free yourself of ANY EXPECTATION other than words on the page. Your story has permission to suck. Your scene progression doesn’t have to make sense.
  4. Write a stupid scene, just because you can. No one has to see it. Write a stupid character. Don’t worry, you can erase it later if you want. Just write. And I can promise you . . . by the end of your goal, there will be something there.

Creativity doesn’t always start with a bright shiny idea. Sometimes it starts with you, casting yourself into the mud of a new project and thrashing about. It feels like a mess. And it is. But it won’t be a mess forever.

 

Ah, Ye Querying Trench of Hellaciousness

Querying. Ah, querying. It’s a necessary part of a writer’s life when they’re seeking traditional publication. It’s that exciting next step that happens when your novel is DONE. You’re contacting agents–lovely people–and opening the door to the opportunity of making that magical artistic connection with someone who will further your work in so many ways. So I can’t be dissing on it too much, despite the lurid title of this post.

But I gotta tell you, I haven’t been as blue as I was the other night in a loooooong time. Here’s what’s going on: I just started sending out batches of queries for my new project. The first week, even as the first rejections flowed into my inbox, I was mostly like, “lalalala, oh yeah, this is what I expected, look at me, I’M TOTALLY FINE, I’ve done this before and this time it’s not affecting me AT ALL, let’s just HAVE A GOOD TIME lalalala.”

And then, on day #8, a rejection came in and just walloped all the la-la-la’s right out of me. Maybe it was the couple specific things the rejecting agent mentioned that hurt. Maybe it was because I let my first feelings of insecurity have a voice, and what they said was oh my word my novel is CRAP AFTER ALL. No one wants it and no one is ever going to want it. Or maybe it was just time for the happy-charade to be burned away to reveal the truth: that rejection hurts. Even when you expect it, you can’t fully armor yourself against it. We’re humans for goodness’ sake, not killing robot cyborgs.

So. Here I am. No longer in Happy Queryland. It turns out that querying sucks and was always going to suck.

But instead of going on some kind of depressive rant (okay maybe I did that a teensy bit already but I’m totally moving on), I’m going to use this opportunity to remind myself of a few things to celebrate.

  1. I wrote and finished a novel. YES I DID. After a huge episode of writer’s block and a year of creatively fallow ground, I kept at it and finally did it. THIS IS AWESOME.
  2. I have put my work out there. Yes, I am getting rejected, but I am strong enough to take it. It hurts, but it’s not killing me. THIS IS AWESOME.
  3. I love my story. I wrote something I would proud to put my name on. THIS IS AWESOME.
  4. I know that the writing in this manuscript is so much stronger than my first manuscript four years ago. I have progressed as an artist and as a writer. The evidence is in these pages. And my progress doesn’t stop here–my next manuscript will be even better. I can keep growing and improving–the rest of my life! THIS IS AWESOME.

I have to admit, upon further reflection, that part of feeling blue and depressed the other night wasn’t the querying and rejection. Honestly, compiled with that was a feeling of listlessness and lack of purpose. There was a moment when it hit me, once the kids were in bed and I found myself in the mood to write, that I had no project to work on. *cue horror music and creepy shot of steep stairway leading to dark attic*

Yes, for a writer, having nothing to sink their teeth into can be scarier than a chainsaw-wielding maniac in the attic.

And realistically, I won’t have that for awhile (the project) (the chainsaw-wielding maniac is more in the ‘never’ category) (one hopes). Because I have to make something new from scratch. Unlike a lot of the rewriting and revising work I’ve been doing this year, now when I sit down at the laptop, what’s looking at me is a blank document. I don’t have characters I’m comfortable with, or a world I’ve built, or the basic outline of a plot waiting for me. I’m at square one. Make that square zero.

Gosh, Square Zero is uncomfortable.

At best, it’s like climbing the sliding side of a mountain. You try to make some progress but slip back down. You’re not even sure what mountain you’re climbing, or why, or if you’ll reach the top or if you should find a different mountain.

With this new Square Zero stuff, I’m also trying to get some positive perspective hammered into my thick skull:

  1. Yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty when you’re in between projects. So ENJOY it. Experiment. Get that one crazy idea out of the box and flirt with it for a night or two. Is it annoying you? You have permission to toss it aside. This could be fun, if you let it.
  2. Focus on recharging, artistically speaking. I’ve been so focused on writing this year, I’ve only read ONE BOOK. ALL YEAR. This amounts to criminal. I need to max out my library allowance and read, read, read. I need to watch some movies. See what shows are out there. And through it all, open myself to inspiration.
  3. I need to remember that my worth is not measured by what I’ve written. As an accomplishment-driven person, these periods of what feels like “non-accomplishment” are especially hard. What a great opportunity to ground myself again in what really defines me–which is never my output.

Are any of you in the query trenches? Any of you at Square Zero creatively? I’d love to hear about where you’re at and what you’re learning.

Drafting: fast and messy or slow and clean?

I’m experimenting with a new way of writing.

In the past, my story ideas have resulted in explosions of speed-writing, typing as fast as my fingers can because I have to get the story out. I’ve done it this way three times, and all three of those it’s been intensely enjoyable. And let’s face it–there are definite advantages to doing it this way: it gets done. Powering through until you type the very last sentence, without questioning yourself or what you’re writing, is like riding a roller coaster. You almost feel like you’re being carried away by something stronger than yourself, and there’s nothing you can do but hang on tight and ride it to the end.

However, writing that way does produce a messy, messy draft. And let’s face it–messy drafts can be a bit overwhelming to tackle during revisions.

I went back to one of those stories recently, determined to whip it into shape and make it query-ready. What I found was discouraging–a villain who didn’t deliver, a plot that didn’t get as exciting as the lead-up promised, overly verbose descriptions of this and that, all-over-the-place POV (point of view)–holy cramoly. It felt too messy to salvage, and every time I tried to revise in a significant way I felt trapped by a heroine who, upon further reads, I realized was unlikeable.

At this point, I could have shelved the story. But honestly, I never considered shelving it. I loved the story and the characters as I knew them in my mind–it just wasn’t translating to the page. So. I’ll scrap it, I decided. And start fresh. Same story, same characters, new writing. New, awesome writing. New, awesome, super-tight writing.

I’ve been working on it for a couple months now. It’s a very different experience, because I already know the substance of the story. I (roughly) know where it’s headed. I know the characters. So it’s more of a matter of getting there in the right way. Finding the right scenes. Knitting them together in the right sequence.

This time, my focus isn’t GET THE STORY OUT AS FAST AS YOU CAN. It’s get the story out right.

It’s slower. A lot slower. It involves combing over material that I’ve already written and messing with scenes–their content, style, sequence. It involves deleting stuff that doesn’t work. Tweaking, finagling, squinting at a line and just sitting with it. The writing, compared to my fast and messy drafts, is leaner and tighter. But it’s taking a looooong time. Sometimes a couple hours’ work only results in one tiny new scene. Or a couple scenes slightly revised.

One of my fears in going about it this way was that it would be a passion-kill. That by going at a snail’s pace, somehow all the excitement would bleed out of it. That hasn’t been the case. True, it’s not the fit-of-passion of my speed-writing, but it’s very enjoyable. When I open the manuscript, there are no rules like there used to be (go go go go go FAST!). Instead, there’s latitude. I might do some new writing. I might go over some old writing. I might focus on the opening scenes (again). I love the reminder that, in writing, there are no rules. As long as I finish it, it doesn’t matter how I got there. And that is very freeing.

By the end, I think (I hope) it will be a relatively clean draft. Of course it will require the usual post-draft steps–revisions, critiques from readers, more revisions, resting time, more revisions, and all that good stuff. But I’m excited to produce something that isn’t a mess.

What about you? Do you write slow and clean, or fast and messy? Do you find one way better than the other?

The scrapping of a novel (and its rebirth)

Last you heard from me, I was coming back to work from my maternity leave, and expressing small (okay, medium) amounts of terror at the thought that it was also time to kick my creative life back into gear.

My creative life had been in neutral for pretty much a year. Plus, with another grey Chicago winter upon us, for the good of my soul (and my family’s happiness, so much of which is tied into my own happiness), I need to be working on something. A ridiculous short story? Sure. An unpublishable novel? Sure. A collection of poems about minestrone? Whatever. As long as I’m excited about the project and committed to seeing it through, I’ll do anything.

How about a project about me, Mom?

Uh . . . all I got is this:

You are so roly

your rolls bedazzle me, son

let me squeeze them now.

(No, it doesn’t rhyme, my son)

(It’s called haiku)

Anyway, there’s something about having gumbo bubbling around in your creative cauldron that just makes it harder to be sad/down/depressed/eating chocolates and popcorn because you’re not sure what else to do. Whether or not the gumbo is edible at the end–well, that’s not exactly the point.

The point is the process.

Everyone says so.

I say so.

Anyway! I blogged about choosing among my bajillion ideas and committing to a project, and I’m back to report that I HAVE COMMITTED.

And the project I picked makes a lot of sense. It’s a project I wrote and revised last year. Then it sat on the computer. I thought about querying it, but then I didn’t. I think part of me realized it wasn’t ripe (good job, Jenna’s Subconscious). When I opened up the document recently, I cataloged its problems. Unlikable heroine (again! Ugh). Slow pacing. Too much gratuitous description. Way too many scenes that didn’t further the plot. A cool set-up with a less-than-cool pay-off. Etcetera, etcetera. The thought of fixing it (mangling it and then trying to restitch it all back together) was too much (not to mention I didn’t want to create a Frankennovel), so there was only one solution:

I scrapped the novel, gathered its ashes into a small, sooty pile, and will henceforth try to birth a phoenix kind of a thing.

In other words, same characters, same story, but new writing. New pacing. New scenes, new dialogue, new structure, new new new.

The benefits of this are clear–I know the characters pretty well. After all, I’ve written a novel about them before, albeit a crappy one. I know the story and happen to love it, too. But there’s enough mystery in how I’m going to pull it off in this new and better-paced, page-turning way that I’m feeling that familiar exhilaration/fear.

Last night I was typing away and I felt a wonderful surge in my chest.

“I can do this!” I said.

Five minutes later,

“I don’t think I can pull it off,” I said.

Then I remembered–this is what it’s like to write a book. A wave of confidence followed by a wave of fear. You’re holding puzzle pieces but you don’t see how they’re going to fit together. You’re not even sure, in fact, that all the pieces are from the correct puzzle.

Sometimes the words flow. The scenes make sense. You’re on a roll. And, other times, like the Grinch, you sit there until your puzzler is sore, without typing a word, and you think I’m never getting out of this one. Then, in the middle of a hot shower as you’re singing Rudolph the Reindeer in harmony with an imaginary Fred Astaire, suddenly the solution comes to you and you rush out only mostly rinsed because you’d better write it down before it all evaporates.

The up-and-down of confidence and fear–it’s been so long since I’ve felt it.

And it’s good.

It’s the process.

It’s what I’ve been wanting. Waiting for. Longing for.

Hallelujah! Bring on the challenge.

The logline: why to write one (hint: getting more full requests!)

What the heck is a logline? I asked myself as I reviewed the submission requirements for an agent near the beginning of my querying journey about three years ago. Google informed me that a logline is a one-sentence pitch, or hook. It should clearly state the central conflict in your story. The components of the conflict are three: the protagonist, his/her goal, and the antagonist. You also have to think about conveying the setting, tone (quirky? dark? both?) and uniqueness-factor of your story in only a handful of words.

In other words, when it comes to the loggo-lino, strip it down. We’re talking about doing surgery to identify the spinal cord of your story. Don’t tell the world the full background of your trauma-laden heroine, why she chose to be a vegan chef and why she’s always been interested in graphic design but feels held back and how her dog Spot is truly a comfort on all those lonely nights and how her freckle, if you look close, is actually a miniature tattooed map of the cosmos.

Actually, do tell me about her freckle, and then why it’s a problem. Like this.

When a vegan chef finds that her freckle is a miniature tattooed map of the cosmos . . .

yeah, that has a good ring to it. What next?

. . . predicting the end of the world, she must devise a plan to save the human race–in twenty-four hours.

I will call this novel The Freckle of Lisa.

And it will be a trilogy.

And it will be a bestselling trilogy.

And I will never write it.

Anyway.

The internet told me that, as an aspiring writerly person, I should have a logline ready to fling out in elevators at all the potential agents and editors I was going to meet at all the conferences I was going to attend.

SUMMARIZE MY GORGEOUS MULTI-DIMENSIONAL, DEEP, COMPLICATED NOVEL IN ONE SENTENCE? I screamed.

FORCE OVER A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS INTO ONE FREAKING SENTENCE? I screamed.

FOR A THEORETICAL EDITOR IN A THEORETICAL ELEVATOR IN A THEORETICAL LIFE WHERE I’M CHARMING AND BOLD AND ATTEND CONFERENCES? I screamed.

IT’S SHEER MADNESS TO EVEN–

and then I passed out because all that screaming renders one breathless.

Thankfully the field in the submission form was optional. So I left if blank.

It wasn’t until two years later that the logline came back into my life via the back door.

There I was, sitting in front of my computer and contemplating the insane and awesome event that is PitchMadness, followed by #PitMad on Twitter, and I realized that it was time to write a 35-word pitch for the two novels I was querying. And even more challenging: a 40-character pitch for the Twitter event.

I opened up a blank Word doc.

I stared at it for a while.

Clearly, I wanted to cover character, setting and stakes–stabbing (with words) the heart of the conflict–and leave room on Twitter for the genre and event hashtags. Wow, this was going to be hard.

And it was . . . but it also wasn’t.

At the core, it was awesome. Condensing years of work, two novels of over a hundred thousand words each, and plots that I had labored over for so long, into a handful of words–let’s just say the experience was like scrubbing down with a powerful loofah. It hurt a bit, but then you step out of the shower all steamy and pink with your new skin, and you feel great. Refreshed, clean, empowered and beautiful.

So I challenge you, whether or not you’re planning on participating in events like PitchMadness or PitMad, to write 40-word summaries of your projects. I liked what I wrote so much that (with slight changes) I sent out a fresh batch of queries with the zingy plot summary right at the top, and whaddya know, my percentage of full requests ratcheted up significantly.

Turns out that having a logline is productive even if you’re not bold, charming, attending conferences and riding in elevators constantly.

Some helpful posts on the mechanics of writing a dang good one can be found here and here.

 

Now go forth and write loglines, my gorgeous writing friends! I promise you won’t be sorry.