Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Shaking Off a Slump

I apologize for not posting a WIP Weds last week, but I was sick for almost an entire week right before then so I've been behind on everything. (Also, I'm not sure I'll be able to keep coming up with topics, so these may become sporadic eventually or morph into something else or you guys should just give me topic ideas if you have them and find this helpful. I'm not entirely sure it is for anyone but me sometimes...)

The sick and a conversation with a writer friend produced a good topic though: shaking off a writing slump.

I define a writing slump differently than writer's block. "Writer's Block" to me is having the desire to write, but being blocked or stumped about where to go with your idea. Blocks can be large or small, and for me sometimes small things like how to kickstart a scene lead to larger blocks where I think the entire premise of my novel is flawed and a complete breakdown results. (This seems to ALWAYS happen to me 3/4ths of the way through a book, but sometimes it happens earlier or more often or when I'm starting to revise and I feel like something is just not quite right, but can't put my finger on it.) There are lots of suggestions out there for writer's block. I wrote about some of the techniques and exercises I use to fight my way through a block in November on this blog and also talked about stirring up inspiration for a project when you're blocked on Rookie a couple of weeks ago.

I think while "writer's block" can cause the "writing slump," it really is a whole different animal. Maybe I'm splitting hairs and you would lump all of this together or at least apply some of the same treatment plans (and I do do that), but I think the "writing slump" (and I hate the overuse of quotation marks so this is the last time I'll do that, I swear) is when you just don't want to write at all. You might have an idea, one that you think is really awesome, but something--or more likely a bunch of things--have killed off your passion.

I've been struggling with the slump for a few months now. I wrote in depth about what caused it here, but here are the basics. I've been working my ass off and barely making ends meet for a long time now. I worked particularly hard and took on way too much in the fall. I burnt myself out. I felt really depressed and hopeless about my career. Worst of all, I felt like I have no control over it. I worked really damn hard on a book for a year and half, but I don't know when it's going to sell and every time I get asked, "When's your next book coming out?" it was like being kicked in the stomach because I have no answer and it seems really pathetic that it's been so long. It got to the point where I felt really bitter and resentful reading about everybody else's bright and shiny publishing news because it seemed like my career had ended before it even started even though I put all I could into writing and promoting my books. I was overwhelmed by the industry, the industry, the industry. What are the trends? What about eBooks? Self-pubbing? What's hot? What's not? Am I writing something that is already dead? Is my great idea too late? UGH, WHAT THE HELL IS THE POINT?

And that's about when my brain exploded and the biggest, scariest doubt that I've ever had settled over me: What if I don't love writing at all anymore?

This was the rock bottom of my slump. I thought it was over, writing gives me no joy, so I stopped doing it. I only wrote the very essential things, ie. freelance assignments I was already obligated to complete. I barely answered email because even using my computer, and especially all of the social networking that is linked in my mind with my writing career, seemed tiresome and painful.

Since I had a friend in town, I had all the more reason not to write and to shut myself off from the internet. I did a lot of fun, mind-numbing things, which again, are documented in detail here, but basically include a lot TV and movie watching, some old school video game playing, eating crappy food and drinking a lot, shopping a lot, some crafty stuff, and a short road trip.

But then she left and I had a decision to make: try to get back into writing or um... quit, I guess. I have to say all the TV watching made it tempting. I just loved having so much free time and I was still so behind on things around the house....

So I cleaned and I watched more TV and I thought a lot. The idea of life without writing while more appealing than it had ever been before still made me panicky. I decided I need to give it one last try to see if I could still find the joy in telling a story if took the pressure off myself about it being a career, an industry, etc.

My husband and I had a short trip planned, so I let myself putter around before we left and then when we got back, I decided to find ways to ease my way back into writing (or trick myself, depending on how you look at it). My laptop was five years old and pretty damn close to wheezing its last breath, so I scraped together enough to buy a new one.

Now I had a shiny new toy for writing. This pleased me. (It also worked as a guilt factor. If I'm not a writer there is no reason why I can't just share my husband's laptop. So I needed to be a writer again to justify my purchase.) I organized my files and my music. I started tinkering with my WIP playlist again. I finally decided to download and learn the Scrivener program.

"Just play," my brilliant writer friend Jon Skovron told me, advice that applied both to my slump and the use of Scrivener. So I did. (If you are interested in what that entails, I documented my learning/plotting process with Scrivener here.) I've also developed a very low pressure routine wherein I spend half as much time writing as I used to, but instead of spending that time stressing about how much I produce and what else I need to do, I spending it playing. Sometimes I write over a thousand words. Sometimes I write a few hundred, but figure out something new about the plot or a character's name. (This was extremely exciting to me. She's minor, my protag's friend/sort-of love interest's mom, but she does have a role and now a name: Ana Francisca.) Best of all, I still have built-in me-time to watch Buffy and knit or make sundresses out of old concert tees and refuel.

Am I 100% content with this? No. Absolutely not. I still have plenty of worries that I'm a failure and can get all distracted and tied into knots thinking about the industry and my future. But I try to tamp that stuff down. Also, my inner overachiever is screaming that I need to make actual goals and write more, write faster if I'm ever going to get this book done in a reasonable time frame. But I keep telling her that I will, when I'm ready. Maybe I'll even talk about that next week.

I'm definitely wayyyyyyyy happier than I was though. I'm actually enjoying writing and that's what I've told myself is the most important thing right now. A slump like the one I was in is really hard to shake and I don't want to slide backwards--that's why I tried to be really gentle with myself while I was sick. I let myself take another mini-break with lots of TV watching because my body needed it, and when I felt healthy enough to try to do a normal writing day, I worked extra hard not to beat myself up for being slow.

So that's my story and if you are struggling with a slump, my tips are as follows:

1. Wallow in it for awhile. Watch TV, read trashy magazines, play video games, clean your house, cook, make stuff, organize stuff, do all the things both pleasurable and tedious that have slipped down to the bottom of your to-do list until you are totally sick of it or too sick with guilt to keep doing it. If you can, wallow in things that may lead to inspiration. For example I watched a lot of Buffy, Supernatural, and Skins since I knew those may be triggers for idea building and/or storytelling for me.

2. Find ways to ease back in. For me, organizing my files and playing with my story in new software got me tweaking things and eventually writing new scenes. I also started listening to the music that is inspiring this WIP and started reading mythology books.

3. Talk to writers who get it and can provide gentle encouragement. If it weren't for my writing buddies and CPs, I never would have kicked the slump. I talked about my ideas with them and they responded with excitement. I have one CP who I've been exchanging really short bits with. Just a chapter or two, but she doesn't push me too hard, so that I don't feel like I have to rush to send her things. Also, super duper essential, I've got three friends who I check in with every day on Twitter, just so I can say "hey, I'm going to try to write today!" which holds me accountable.

4. Set really small manageable goals for yourself so you don't feel overwhelmed. Get into the mindset that being actively involved with your book, even if you are typing really slowly, but daydreaming about it, is a good thing.

5. Focus on the story and what you love about it, not on the wider where does this/do I fit into the marketplace. Easier said than done, I know, but so essential. Stop those thoughts about query letters, word counts, genre categorizations, and comparisons to other book deals as soon as they start. If this means limiting your Twitter time or canceling your subscription to certain industry mailing lists, do it.

6. Make sure you have time to do those things you found you enjoyed during the slump, especially other creative tasks and any viewing/reading that can fuel inspiration, even cleaning provides good thinking time.

This is what has worked for me. Slowly but surely I'm falling back in love with writing and I've gotten really invested in my idea again, to the point that I'm even waking up and falling asleep thinking about it sometimes.

Since it's still a process for me, and I imagine is something a lot of writers go through, I would love to hear your tips. Have you been in a writing slump? How do you shake it?

Oh and I suppose I owe you a little snippet from my work-in-progress. Actually probably a big one because it's been a while.

*Deep breath* Okay, this is really rough... My main character, Dee (her full name is Perdita), is at the back entrance of a club asking the bouncer if he's seen her sister:

Winston’s lips spread into a wider smile and I notice that he has black ink tattooed inside of them, too, and shiny fake silver teeth. His voice is soft and trustworthy though. “No, she isn’t. I promise. But if you want to look for yourself…”

He steps aside and the music grows even louder. The darkness seems to pulsate, beckoning me.

Then someone else shouts my name, “Perdita?”

And a third person, a woman, “Perdita Branwyn?”

“Shit, I think it’s actually her!” The voices are coming from my right, the direction that boy in the red jacket disappeared in.

Winston steps between me and them, still holding onto the door with his bulky hand. “You need to get the fuck up outta here!” he bellows. “Ain’t nothin’ or no one to see.” Glancing over his shoulder at me, he hisses, “Go inside, Perdita.”

Monsters or flashbulbs…. The Monsters almost seem like the better option, but the the flashbulbs will still be waiting for me when I get out… if I get out. And there is a third option: the path to my bike is still clear.

So I turn and run. Cameras click, my name and my sister’s are shouted, but I manage to get to the Triumph, put my helmet on with sweaty hands and fly away before they get too close.

I feel the end of the feather poking into my ankle bone and silently thank it for keeping me safe.


Suzanne Young said...

Great post! And I love the snippet. As for getting out of the slump, I think I've made it up to step 3. :-)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks for the compliment on the snippet, Suzanne!!! And hey, step 3 is a good place to be. I'm cheering you on!

Wendy said...

Hey Stephanie!

I thought about you recently and had to come and check to see how you're doing. It pains me (seriously) to know you've gone through a rough patch with your writing.

It's good to know you've found ways to approach your writing differently and aren't giving up.

As I have said in a previous comment, I love your writing and am dying to read your next book. Snippets will have to do for now. :)

The reason why I thought of you was because I read the description of an online course Nova Ren Suma is teaching via Media Bistro on writing YA fiction. I thought, if there is one writer I would love, love, love to learn the craft of writing from, it would be you. Have you thought about connecting with someone or some Web site to teach YA novel writing?

After reading this post, I have to wonder, have you thought about self-publishing? I know there is a respectability that (still) comes from being published by a major publisher and that having access to a great editor is invaluable. But crap on a stick, Stephanie! You shouldn't be going through so much frustration when you could easily (and inexpensively) publish the book yourself.

Once the book is published, you'd have an easier time than most writers when it comes to getting the word out about the book because you have so many readers who love you and so many book bloggers who also hold you in high esteem.

As you know, great book sales of a self-published book get the attention of the major publishers.

If you haven't already, I hope you seriously consider it or even think about just trying it out with a novella or something.

Please start teaching online and please publish something on your own! :)

PKJ said...

I'm glad to hear you're being gentle with yourself and easing back in. at the end of the day, it's about loving the work that you do, not all the other crap.


Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Wendy, that means a lot that you would like to take a class from me. Right now the only teaching I'm doing is in Chicago through Story Studio and Columbia COllege Chicago, but I will definitely consider online teaching in the future as my schedule allows (I'm pretty overworked with all my various jobs as is right now) and if I can find a company who would be interested in having me. I'll have to research those. As for self-publishing, I'm not quite ready to take that step yet. Though my Bartender Book hasn't sold quickly, my agent isn't anywhere near giving up hope on it and I'm following her lead. Perhaps I'll visit the idea of a short story or novella at some point but since umm writing short is not something I'm very good at, we'll have to see. Right now my main focus is just to work on this book and fall in love with the craft again. All business decisions and other career choices are on hold until it's done.

Polly, thank you. Yes, being gentle is key right now and loving what I do is the main goal :)

Linda said...

Awesome post! I went through a writing slump a while back and it resulted in watching a lot of TV :P I'm doing better now, but I'm still getting back into the swing of things.

I love that snippet! This project sounds really great!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Good TV storytelling is a perfect slump cure in my opinion, Linda. Thanks for your compliments on my snippet and best of luck continuing to shake your slump!