Thursday, March 6, 2008

Process, Perfectionism, and Paralysis

Process, perfectionism, and paralysis are three things I’ve been thinking about a lot this week both because there is a big discussion about them on a teenlit yahoo group I am a part of and because I’m trying to kickstart new project(s).

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I thought this whole thing would get easier after I’d written and then sold one book, but no. I was finishing up work on my second book when the first book sold. Since it took a year for the first book to sell, I probably should have been closer to done, but the second book was a real struggle as I know I’ve mentioned and my agent was focused on selling my first book anyway (without her, I would have given up on writing. I swear, she was so determined to see IWBYJR get published, almost more so than me. She’s the dream agent.), so I took my sweet time.

Then after IWBYJR sold, the “perfectionism” thing kicked in. It took me three months to get the manuscript in shape for my agent and by that time it was mid-summer and I was prepping for IWBYJR revisions and my agent was on vacation, so I had to wait a while for notes. We didn’t actually talk about it until late fall after IWBYJR revisions were complete. My agent admitted the she felt a little on the fence about the second book, that it was really in that gray area between YA and adult and she wasn’t so sure if my editor would buy it for that reason, but she asked me to just tighten it up a bit over the next month and said we’d send it to my editor on Jan 1.

Sounded great to me, one of the perks of my job is I get nearly two weeks off around Christmas, plenty of time for the minor revisions my agent wanted. But then came total paralysis. I needed to impress my editor big time because I wanted to keep working with her, she is amazing, MTV Books is amazing, and I don’t like to let go of amazing things. Hell, if I could have I would have kept my job from grad school even though it paid 10$ an hour because it was so amazing . I do what I can to hold onto amazing. But I thought, ‘my second book doesn’t have a hook like IWBYJR. It’s way different. And there is something about it that has been bugging me for the two years I’ve been writing it.’ I tried to sit down with notecards and study the arc of the story. I obsessed to the point that three days before New Years, total breakdown. Like me sitting around, just staring into space, obsessing on the novel, but unable to figure anything out. Eventually my (very supportive but not at all a writer) boyfriend, got me to talk through the plot with him and then convinced me to let it go for a few days. So ultimately I got it in to my agent almost three months later than I wanted to. And I still don’t think it was perfect, but if I spent any more time with it right now, I’d probably break my laptop.

Now I’m free to go on to the next thing and I should be totally relieved because I’ve had three different stories and a memoir idea brewing in my brain for about six months now. But part of me is still paralyzed. I need to know if my editor likes the second book before I can go on, which is silly because either way, I’m going to want to pitch her another project idea, either in hopes of a two-book contract this time, or in hopes that I will be able to continue to work with her on something else while my agent shops Book Two elsewhere. But I’m paralyzed because I’m still freaked that none of my ideas is as good as or preferably better than IWBYJR. And I can’t decide between ideas because I want to know what my editor would like better or what my agent would like better and now I’m in this whole new world where I am not just going into a project because I want to be entertained by writing it for the next year (or three, as that is traditionally how long it takes me, though I am definitely aiming for a book a year from now on…). I know I need to get out of that mindset (or at least learn how to balance my desire to please others with writing for myself) and I think I could if I could just get the process going…

I seem to be stuck there as well. Like I don’t know how to fill blank pages with the stories that have been percolating in my head. I’ve been doing the 100X100, but only writing about 100 words a day, which is a let down for me. (Though my word count/slow pace has been bugging me since I’ve graduated because I’m used to periods of binge writing that I can’t get with a full-time job). I can’t believe that I’ve written two books, but am at a loss at what my process really entails.

Part of it is because it takes me so long to write a book that I forget what the early stages are (and this time I plan to blog about them so I have a record of sorts, and hopefully my readers won’t get too bored with this indulgence) and part of it is because in the past I’ve always written like a student.

On the yahoo group I referenced earlier, writers are talking about outlining and scripting and planning, and I think I must be weird because I really can’t outline until I’m a ways into the book. I discover my stories in scenes. This is because I started seriously writing while in college and in my Fiction Writing classes, every week we did a little exercise called “Take a Place.” It began with us going around the room doing a word exercise, where you just said words that came to mind and listened to other people’s words and “saw” the images they triggered. Then, once warmed up, we went into the place where the story we wanted to write that day took place and started to see the details and tell orally. Eventually we would write the scene in class (or the beginning at least), read aloud for instant feedback, and then went home and continued. These scenes would evolve into a few chapters a semester and often times they were non-linear, which worked fine for writing IWBYJR.

The second book was different. I was finishing up school and not in class, so I wrote independently, I wrote linearly and that worked because the second book was a redraft of something I’d written years ago so I had a barebones structure or outline to work with. Though, honestly, part of me thinks the second book might have come harder because I didn’t do my “writing the strongest scenes first” method. I feel a bit like a teacher’s pet adopting this method I learned in school as my primary writing process, but I think it might really be…

We’ll find out. Fortunately I have a writers group with people I went to school with and one of those fabulous people lives two blocks away from me, so we can meet once a week and do our little nerdy writer exercises. We start tonight. I think I need to give myself permission to do that for a few weeks to discover the story instead of going the traditional outlining and character sketching route. It might also narrow down the field of what I want to work on next if one particular story keeps coming to me each time.

I still feel a little weird about it. Like this makes me a student writer instead of a bona fide grown up writer. But then again, the thing that made IWBYJR great was the strong scenes and imagery (even more so than the musical hook) and it’s key to get to that place again, right?

I’ll keep you updated. But in the meantime, I’d be happy if other writers (or anybody) want to share their tips for getting the creative juices flowing, please do!


Amanda Ashby said...

Great post, Stephanie and unfortunately it's something I'm oh, so familiar with! Before I sold my first book I was a prolific writer but after I got an agent and a sale everything slowed to a halt as I tortured myself with a whole heap of things I thought I needed to do.

I wish I had a solution to all it, but I don't. However, I have figured out that the busier I am with things, the less my brain can think and that's often a good thing!!!

Fingers crossed for book two!

keri mikulski :) said...

Excellent post, Stephanie. I feel the EXACT same way. Staring into space, paralyzed, I've been there. But, I have to agree with Amanda. The busier I am, the better. New projects, new adventures, new assignments pull me away from obsessing over everything. Thanks so much for sharing.

Amy Addison said...

Wonderful post, Stephanie! Once I sold, the perfectionism (and accompanying paralysis) really started to creep up on me. For me, those are the times I know I need to rely on my process, and it will get me through. Like Amanda and Ker, Keeping busy helps, too...less time to stress out and think.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Amanda, Keri, Amy! It's so good to know that what I'm going through is totally normal. And thanks for the advice too! I am pretty busy lately, hopefully it will help!!!