Monday, May 16, 2011

Dirty Little Secret

From the outside, authors look like gods. They're blessed by the muses, continuously bathed in the font of inspiration. Words pour out of them to sparkle on the page like precious jewels. Contracts appear, one after the other. Titles pile up on their back lists. Visit many authors' websites and you'll see word count meters, where the author displays his or her daily or weekly accomplishments on various works in progress. Tens of thousands of words - hundreds of thousands - the mind boggles.

Some authors are so prolific, you really have to wonder whether they ever eat or sleep. Obviously there's something very special about someone who can generate page after page, story after story, and get them all published.

Well, let me share a dirty little secret. It isn't always like that.

Sometimes writing is like squeezing blood from a stone. It's an insidious form of self-imposed torture. The ideas blaze clearly in your mind. You know your characters inside and out. You're breathless with anticipation as they move closer to one another. You feel their uncertainty, their conflict, their need. You imagine the sweaty palms, the accelerated pulse, the damp scent of arousal. The only problem is expressing all this in words.

You write a sentence, then another, and notice you've used the same word twice in a row. After racking your brain for a while, you sigh and pull out the thesaurus to find an acceptable synonym. Insert synonym and pen another sentence. Oops, the structure is exactly the same as the first sentence in the paragraph, so it sounds stilted. Change things around. Transform a gerund into a subordinate clause. Swap the order of the clauses. Weigh the benefits of using the passive as an alternative to yet another sentence that begins with "She". And so on.

Experienced authors will tell you not to edit as you write, but sometimes I can't stop myself. The resulting prose is far cleaner than if I'd just let it rip, but it's a painful process that really kills spontaneity - not to mention productivity.

Yesterday was like that. I wrote all afternoon and produced only about two thousand words toward my goal of twelve thousand. Worse yet, I really didn't enjoy it.

I could see what I was doing. I tried to push my inner critic aside and just write, but the words wouldn't come. My normally broad vocabulary seemed to have regressed to sixth grade.

Thank heavens, writing isn't always like this. Lately, though, I've found myself so pre-occupied with craft that I know I'm stifling my creativity. It's really tough to control, however.

I've considered getting a bit drunk before sitting down to write. You know, lowering my inhibitions... But I never drink before 5 PM, and I normally write in the afternoons. What I really need is a different attitude. I need to stop thinking of writing as a responsibility and return to the notion that it's entertainment. The more "professional" I become, though, the more difficult it is to assume that perspective.

My time for writing is limited. My output is sparse compared to many of my colleagues at the best of times, so lately there's an edge of panic in my approach, especially when I have a deadline.

Not good at all!

I'd love to know how other authors deal with this problem. Because I'm quite sure that I'm not unique. Writing can be damned hard work. That's the dirty little secret that many of us try to hide.


Jaime Samms said...

OMG!!! it's like you jumped into my sn and wrote that post. That's exactly how it's been feeling lately. Like pulling teeth, and each word is a molar. It's hard, bloody, painful work some days. How I long for the days when a story flowed out without inhibition and presented itself like a jewl for everyone to gaze on. okay. So that never really happened. But in retrospect, it seems like it used to be that easy.

Thanks for this. Nice to know i'mnot the only one.

Barbara Ehrentreu said...

I have learned not to judge myself when I'm writing a WIP. I just put the words down and keep writing until the words no longer flow through my fingers. When I'm at the point where I'm pulling teeth I know the idea I am working on isn't working. I'll stop then and either scrap it or save it. I have a lot of those half-baked ideas saved.:) Usually I don't put down anything unless I have a full sentence I consider is ready. Then I'll start. Sometimes it percolates in my head for a long time and I might even write whole chapters in my head. But when I start writing it's the first sentence and then moves from there.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Jaime,

Yeah, I figured some of my friends and colleagues would identify.

I'm sure that it used to be easier. On the other hand I think that I write more skillfully now. I cringe when I reread parts of my first novel.

I wish there wasn't this tradeoff, though!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Lionmother -

I really don't think it's an idea problem this time. Sometimes it is. But right now, I know what I want to say, and I'm pretty sure it's not bad - I just can't figure out how to say it.

Thanks for dropping by!

Jolie said...

The best writing comes from words that write themselves. When you have to force it the result is usually an awkward jumble. I hate that. I also tend to edit myself, especially changing the first chapter over and over, which sets the tone for the whole book, but eventually it comes out right. What I usually do when I'm stuck is move over to a different story for a little while, so when I come back it feels fresh and new again.

Rosalie Skinner said...

Shhh.. you are revealing the ache behind the facade.
Don't even start on when the ideas stop flowing, and there is nothing to edit. That's when we sweat blood.
Once the ink on the WIP dries, then it is time to apply the editing skills. Before then if the words are flowing, let them. There is always time later to correct and polish.
At least the words are flowing.
Don't tell anyone how bad it feels if the ideas AND words dry up.

Anonymous said...

If the words aren't flowing, it helps not to get too hung up on hitting a high word count (NaNoWriMo has a lot to answer for in that regard, but that's a topic for another time). That only doubles the frustration! If the words really aren't coming, go and do something else for a while, even if it's only hunting out pictures of nice men who might inspire a story down the line. Who knows, maybe that will get the creative juices flowing again...

Liz xx

Maggie Nash said...

Oh crap..I just typed in this wonderfully insightful post and it disappeared! Grrr...

Anyway here are the highlights: (LOL)

Firstly - GET OUT OF MY HEAD! describe me perfectly!

Secondly, lately I find writing sprints using Write or Die (Dr Wicked) helps me immensely. It forces me to turn off the internal editor and just write a stream of consciousness. I can only manage 30mins at a time, but I can get up to 1000 words that way and it's wonderful! Not for everyone though...but it works for me.

I often will shout out for a sprint partner on Twitter...doing it together seems to make it easier :-) Group mentality and all that :-)


Morgan Mandel said...

For one thing, if I did 2000 words in a day, I'd consider that a productive day!

Yes, though I try to avoid it, I edit while I go along. Even so, afterwards I still have very much more editing to accomplish. No matter how many times I read any of my books I can always find something that should have been changed.

Morgan Mandel

Charlie said...

Great Post! How very true. And many times, the 'work' of being an author, building platform, finances, etc., take precedence before we can set down at the keyboard. There is so much more to being a writer than one thinks! Thanks for sharing.
C.K. Volnek

Pat Dale said...

Lisabet, this is a common thorn in the side. If having company in your misery helps, count me in. I think that one possible solution is to take the NaNoWriMo concept and write continuously for a month without editing a single word. When you go back after it sits a few days, you'll be surprised how well it reads before editing. That is, if you're a writer, it will. And you are a writer. I did it three years ago, expecting the result to be crap. What I got was a gritty novel that really tells a story. Mine is coming out next January and I think it's one of the best things I ever wrote. It did take some editing, but no more than the usual MS. An experienced writer once told me, write when you write and edit when you edit, but never do both at the same time.
And then there are the times when the muse shuts down for no apparent reason...
Pat Dale

Adriana Ryan said...

Very nice post! I completely agree - as an author, I've wrung my hands many-a-time, feeling sure that I was a failure and that every other writer out there was pouring out soulful, insightful words onto their electronic documents. Posts like this make writing a not-so-solitary craft. :)


Anonymous said...

Lisabet, I feel your struggle/pain - I've had it myself this past month looking for the first sentence of book 2 in a series. Where to start??? Everything was laid out, characters were screaming at me to get their story moving, but something wasn't right.
For one thing - I have some location research to do, for another I wanted to start with the wrong characters.
I guess in my case, I wanted to direct the story rather than allow the characters to do their thing. (grins)
I get it. There's usually a reason for it - like needed research, or getting in the characters way, or not having a clear enough picture of the ending.
It doesn't matter, when it happens...I never know why it does.
Thanks for sharing, Lisabet. I'm sending you a boost of creative energy...can you feel it? Is it working yet?

Lisabet Sarai said...

Wow! Thanks for all your suggestions - and sympathy! ;^) I definitely suspected that I wasn't alone.

Jolie - I agree with you. My best stories are the ones that appear on the page with the least effort. But I can't allow myself to stop writing just because that effortless flow isn't coming.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Rosalie,

Yeah, I get that too. I call it "constipation of the imagination". And yes, it's the pits!

Thanks for sharing!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Liz,

I certainly agree that focusing on the word count makes it worse. Unfortunately I can't afford to go do something else because I have a limited time allocated to writing. If I don't write then, I don't get a chance to write.

Of course, that may be part of the problem. If I could just write when I felt like it... but that's not feasible given my other responsibilities.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Maggie,

Sorry about that. Google can be a real pain!

What's "Write or Die?" do you have a URL?

I really DO need to up the spontaneity quotient.

(I don't tweet, though. I waste - um, spend - enough time communicating with friends and colleagues on the net as it is!)

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Morgan,

2000 words isn't bad, but on a good day I can do twice that much.

I'll be honest - the self-editing has gotten much more pronounced since I started writing romance. I'm so aware of what the readers claim to want, and all the rules people are always citing. When I'm writing plain old erotica, I feel less constrained.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Charlie,

I appreciate your encouragement. The reading public really doesn't appreciate how much we suffer !

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Pat,

I'd love to be able to do Nanowrimo. I'm sure that it would be a change of pace for me - and that I could do it, too. But right now that kind of commitment just isn't possible.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Adriana,

Yes, it's so easy to fall prey to the self-doubts - to compare yourself to your colleagues and think, "why bother?" That's actually one reason why I decided to write this post. Though it may sound like I'm whining, maybe it will help other authors to understand that they are not alone in their misery!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, KayDee,,

Trying to direct the characters? Me? A control freak? ;^)

You might be right. One factor with this particular story is that it's intended for a specific submission, with a limited word count, and it's supposed to have a lot of sex (). So I keep asking myself, "Do I need this sentence, this information? Does it contribute?"

I need to look at it less as work and more like play, I think.

Maggie Nash said...

Hey Lisabet

Here's the link. You can use the online version for free within a browser, or buy the desktop edition for $10. I have the desktop edition so I don't have to depend on the internet to do it.

I agree Twitter can take up a bit of time :-) I ration myself for about an hour a day. Living in the southern hemisphere means a lot of the time I miss my UK and US friends so I guess that's a plus :-)

Garceus said...

Hi Lisabet!

Actually I feel this way every time I'm trying to come up with something for the weeks post at OGG. Every week I'm scared i'm going to come up with nothing.

YEars ago i thought I wanted to earn a living as a fiction writer. Now I realise how difficult that woould be. You can't fail, you have to write, you have to come up with an idea, and it can;t be the ideas you want to write, it has to be the ideas your publisher is willing to work with, or your agent is willing to market. That's a very hard way to make a living.


Lisabet Sarai said...

Maggie, I tried Write Or Die this weekend. Very cool!! Thanks for the referral. I've signed up for Dr. Wicked's newsletter too. I like his style!

Alice Bluegown said...

Chalk me up as another who edits as they write - I never knew this was frowned upon, but I can't continue with a story if I feel it's getting away from me. I have to go back, find where it's jumped the rails, and correct the problem. If this means I lose a whole session to just fiddling with something I've already written, so be it. And NO WAY could I recommend being even slightly inebriated when you write - the result, in my experience, is invariably gibberish...

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