Tuesday, May 25, 2010

When You're Not the Writer You Thought You Were

I knew what kind of writer I was. I don't mean genre vs. literary, fiction vs. journalism. I mean, I thought I knew what KIND of writer I was, what my method was, how my mind worked and my habits held. It turns out, I was all wrong.

When I wrote Storyteller, I was the type of writer who had to work in silence. My day job is nothing short of bedlam and the time I set aside for writing has always been a blessed and sacred oasis of silence. Outer silence, that is, so that inside I could hear the rhythm and songs of the stories that turned me on so very, very much. These were my stories, my characters, my world-made-by-hand and there was no place I felt more at home. I set huge word counts for myself and wrote with crazy abandon.

After the first manuscript was finished and polished, I started the submission process, got an agent I trust and have been waiting patiently for great news on the series' fate. (The patiently part is a tad generous. Okay, extremely generous, but cut me some slack, alright?) I wrote the second in the series because the story had to come out and, again, silence and discipline were the keys to get me to that blissful groove where the story just flowed.

But then what? We all know how slowly the publishing world works. Writers have to write; it's the only part of the publishing process we have any real control over. So I decided to try a new project, a new genre – mystery. I did my market research, read some of my old favorites, read some great resource books and got underway. My agent liked the project; early word from editors was positive. Things were rolling, right? Wrong!

The first mistake I made was ignoring a teeny-tiny voice in my head saying "We don't want to write this! We don't like this hook!" Not a good voice to ignore during the first chapters of what you hope will be a long series. The second mistake I made was ignoring viral bronchitis that was just setting in. Long story short, the first hook was sent back to be reworked; said rework was rejected again with a phrase I used to find flattering: "We like her writing but the project isn't for us." It's become the literary equivalent of "It's not you, it's me." It's very positive feedback to get, but it starts to feel like almost going to the prom. You don't have a lot to show for it.

Then came the period my family and friends tactfully refer to as "The Set-Back." Let's just say it wasn't pretty; it wasn't quiet but it was blessedly brief. I tore down my writing station. I threw out all my previous drafts of the mystery, notes, etc. I used some remarkably colorful language, even for me. And I completely stopped writing. I didn't know how long I would stop, but hell itself could not have gotten my fingers to that keyboard.

It turns out I was a lot sicker than I had originally thought (which I'm using as my excuse for my abominable and petulant behavior) and I used my recovery time to take apart the image I had of myself as a writer. First let me say that recovering full lung capacity is a hugely enlightening experience, especially when you're ramped up on steroids, and I hit some pretty high levels of euphoria. Here's what I learned:

NOT ALL STORIES ARE THE SAME SO THEY CAN'T BE WRITTEN THE SAME WAY. It's so ridiculously basic, you'd think it a no-brainer but for me it was a revelation. My urban fantasies are full of tradition and new language and violence and in many places read like a dream. It makes sense they would be written in a near-dream state. My mysteries are light-hearted and (hopefully) clever. They need noise and chatter and levity. I don't think they can be written in a silent room. They don't necessarily benefit from the grounding austerity of black coffee. A nice cold Stella Artois has gotten me through more than one clunky scene, despite my old insistence on keeping writing and drinking separate. (Some of you who know me well are probably shocked at that old rule, but it's true.) The effortless word counts of one project can't be expected, and would probably suck, for a different project, so there went another old misconception. Pantsing was replaced with plotting; for the first time ever, characters needed notes.

Over and over, old notions of myself, my habits, my identity went tumbling away, leaving only two irrefutable truths:

I AM A WRITER BECAUSE I WRITE. I love writing. I love telling stories and nobody has the final word on how I get those stories onto the page but me. And second:

WHEN WRITING, CARROT STICKS ARE NEVER AN ACCEPTABLE SUBSTITUTE FOR M&MS. Sorry. I've tried. There are some universal laws that cannot be broken.

So how about it? Ever had your own writer self-illusions shattered? Altered? How did you cope?


YS#1 said...

so glad you came out on the other side :-) And M&Ms are a staple for ANY activity!

Anita Clenney said...

I think as writers we change just like our stories change. And I would choose M&M's over carrot sticks any day.

Jeromy said...

I absolutely love your posts. I am not a writer per se, however, when I read something, I like to be able to feel the author's presence. I can hear your voice, almost like you are reading it to me in your blogs, and that is so refreshing to me. I love Jennifer Lancaster for the same reason.

I think that all creative personalities go through changes in our work and ourselves. It is almost like being a butterfly. There are times that you hole up and collect, times you shut the world out, then the times that you emerge better, more in tune, and definitely more fabulous.

I am an artist, I like to draw, sometimes paint, depends on the mood and what I am doing. I used to only work in a room with the noise of a TV or radio, but it was always alone. I learned that I also got great enjoyment working outside, such as in the park at the pond, until I realized people will walk up and talk to you while you are working and just generally be nosy. That being said, the times that I have actually hauled my sketchbook there have been some of the most productive for me. I go through phases where I will not pick up a pencil for long periods of time, and then of course, at the Holidays, I whore myself out doing portraits like mad. Not the best situation, but money is money right?

Damn the ADHD, I forgot where I was going with this, stupid colorful butterfly, but I do have to say, carrot sticks.....dipped in peanut butter, then chocolate syrup, still counts as diet food. It is a carrot stick after all.

Amos Keppler said...

I never had my illusions shattered. It was a slow process of further discovery and growth.

I set out from the start to make the next novel different from the previous, both in form and content, to always seek new ground.

RaVeN said...

Such enlightening words. You have just opened me up to the experiences I will have to cope with when I start becoming a writer.

I really appreciate the sharing of experiences because in life, the only thing you that nobody can take from you are your experiences.

Good luck in writing!

Anonymous said...

Love this post. I always thought I needed to feel a certain way, be in a classroom, or be under a deadline to write. And its simply not true and frankly hinders me from drawing inspiration from each part of my day. Thanks for the tips and being so open.

SG Redling said...

Thanks for all the support on this. It's a little embarrassing to openly admit a meltdown/tantrum but I guess sometimes we have to learn things the hard way. I too had let an image solidify in my head about "being a writer." Now that I'm picking my way out of the rubble, I'm rediscovering the fun of creating. Oh, and the M&Ms are staying.

Surely Write said...

Loved the post. It was as though you were looking in to my mind as you wrote. If I get one more of those “it's not you it's me" rejection letters, I think I'll scream. You're so close but still so far away. The hardest part is not taking it personally. My first contact will be ending soon with the story not being published. Instead of celebrating this year with a book in hand I will be resubmitting it and waiting, once again. See you at the conference.

gwen morrison said...

Great post! I know so many writers who can relate. There are many days I think about tossing out all my writing journals, tearing down the virtual walls of my own writing "station" and packing away my muse for good. We are a tortured bunch, aren't we? Glad you found your way back, both in writing and in your health.