Gonna try to kick it into a higher gear

bike_gearsI haven’t exactly been unproductive for the last nine months, but, well, no…since finishing my MG novel last summer, I’ve only completed six short stories, and I’ve done two revisions of Enter Title Here (soon to have a name change, according to what my publisher is telling me) and one revision on my MG novel (as well as assorted other revisions).

When you’re writing all alone, it’s easy to know when something is finished, because it’s finished when you say it’s finished. But once you get an agent and an editor (or, in my case, four editors) involved, then things become different. Everything goes through multiple rounds of revision. You spend a month revising, then you send it off and it’s gone for a month, and now you have a month or two to work on other things. It’s pretty choppy.

I draft things pretty fast (when they’re working), and I have no trouble switching focus, but even for me it’s gotten hard to get used to the idea that I’m always going to have several things going on at once. For instance, right now I’ve got:

  • Enter Title Here (YA) — My debut novel. I’m currently working on line edits that’re due May 6th
  • On My Knees 4 U (YA) — My popstar novel. Currently it’s wending its way through Disney, and they’re going to give me word on whether or not it can be my second book. Even if they want it, though, it’s going to require a fairly significant revision.
  • Everyone Hates You (MG) — I’m expecting notes on this from my agent any day now, and, knowing him, it might need to go through multiple rounds of revision before it can be put on submission.
  • Hugs and Kisses (Literary) — My sociopathic mom novel. I sent this out to a number of friends for their comments, and my plan is to revise this sometime during the next year?
  • Sequential Events (Literary) — The novel I’m currently working on. I’m about halfway through at the moment, and I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to write the other half. Hopefully it’ll be after I finish line edits on ETH.
  • ” June”(short story) — This is a short story I wrote. I think it’ll only be a day or so of work to revise, and then I’ll send it out.
  • Three other stories — I’ve mostly either revised or abandoned my MFA stories, but I still have three that I think are worth sending out

And aside from all these books, I also need to do something about my debut. The self-promotion thing, you know? I’m on all the social networks, but there are other things to do. Mysterious mystical magical other things, whatever those might be. And I also have my consulting work.

Finally, too, I think it’s important to make time to just write. I’m not like all of these people with a huge backlog of ideas that they’re planning on writing. I have no backlog. If Disney turns down the pop star novel, I have zero idea what my next YA novel will be. The way I come up with stuff is by sitting down in front of the keyboard and writing things until finally something coalesces. And I think it’s important to make time to do that. In my opinion, given the way I’m working now, about one third to one half of my writing time needs to be exactly that sort of less-structured writing.

None of this, truth be told, adds up to a full-time job, so please don’t think I’m complaining. What I’m saying, though, is that I feel like I’ve once again approached one of those breakpoints in my life where my ambitions have started to exceed my ability to carry them out. Given the way that I’m currently working, I’m not organized enough to do all of this stuff. For instance, my MG novel was completed last July. I only sent it to my agent at the beginning of March. Between that time and now, what work did I do on it? Very little. I went through it once and cleaned up some stuff. Then I sent it out to two friends for their comments. I made the comments. And that was it: 20 hours of work on 6 days. But the lack of that work led to a six month delay!

There’s a concept in manufacturing of limiting the amount of inventory you keep on hand. Inventory is money that’s just lying around, in the form of spare parts and not-yet-sold products. The quicker you can sell those products and use those spare parts, the quicker the money can come back to you and be reinvested in the business. In my case, inventory is everything I’ve written that’s waiting for revision. And when it sits around, it’s not doing anything for me–it’s not making me money–but it’s still draining time and attention. Furthermore, it means that I’ve become the bottleneck in terms of my career’s progress. In publishing there are so many potential bottlenecks where your career can slow down–agents, editors, the economy–and it doesn’t make sense for me to add to that w/ my own dilly-dallying.

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how to structure my time so as to work on everything at the moment when I need to work on it. Fundamentally, my problem is that I feel like I need to produce new material, not just because it’s important, but because I enjoy it more. However, I feel like if I’m quick to revise something, then I’ll wing it to an agent or an editor, and it’ll come back to me needing more revision. Thus, if I focus too much on revision, then all I’ll end up doing is revising.

What I need, probably, is a two-track system. Either to spend a portion of each day on revision. Or to spend a few days in the week on revision. That way, my writing has less pressure. I can take my time in writing new things, because writing new things doesn’t hold up the revision process. And my revision will still get done.

I don’t know if that will work. Maybe I’ll find it too difficult to switch projects in that way.

However, that’s my process. Whenever I start to face constraints of this sort, I just try more and more things until something finally works.

I’ve noticed that I oftentimes face a pause, or a slowing-down, when I finish the first act of a work-in-progress

73a5c139f2eb2835d8e6b7e870cc9619I’m up to 30k words on this book. I’ve been doing this thing for the past year where I write an outline for the book and then delete it. Having an outline means I know what I’m aiming at. But deleting it means I’m free to deviate from it whenever I want. This book is much less structured than any other book I’ve ever written, so the organization of detail is based more on effect and intuition than it is on story logic. So I realized today, while writing the fourth chapter, that it was going in a different direction than I’d intended and that meant that I could shuffle around some other things and the result was that I very definitively completed the first act and, at the same time, found myself with little idea of what’s coming next.

The most common stumbling block for me, when writing a novel, is the first chapter. There’s so much to do in that chapter. You have to establish voice, tone, theme, conflict, setting, characters, etc, and I find that if the first chapter (and, especially, the first scene) aren’t correct, then I can’t write the rest of the book.

But the start of the second act is also something that gives me pause, because I find that this is the place where the rules of the novel are often allowed to change. Novels become different between the first and the second acts, because in the first act the character isn’t yet acting. The first act, I find, is where the character is deciding what they want, and whether or not they want it badly enough to overcome the obstacles ahead of them. Whereas the second act is the one in which they do things. And when characters start doing things, the novel can switch up the rules a bit.

Sometimes this is dramatic. For instance, in many novels–especially literary novels–new points of view will be introduced at the start of the second act. I think that’s because the protagonists in these novels often don’t have much to do, so a sense of expansiveness can be created by opening up the world and allowing you to see the main character from a different angle.

In many genre novels, this is where the mode of action becomes apparent. For instance, my novel Enter Title Here is, at its core, a crime novel. It’s about someone who commits a tiny immoral act and has to commit more and more horrendous acts in order to avoid being punished for their crime. But that’s not really apparent until the start of the second act.

In other YA novels, the second act is where the book firmly establishes itself as a thriller or a romance or an adventure novel.

Anyway, the other thing I’m trying to do is I’m trying to avoid starting each writing  day with a blank page. What’s worked well for me so far is to write a few paragraphs, at least, of the next chapter before I go to sleep, so I have something to work with in the morning.

In the case of this novel, Sequential Events, I walked around the block a few times and finally came up with an approach that I think will work, so now I have at least a thousand words of a sixth chapter (chapters in this book are averaging 5-7k words).

I don’t think it’s possible to write well without a bit of divine inspiration…

Inspiration-light-bulbApril isn’t the cruelest month for me! I officially feel way way better. And along with the increase in my mood has come a concomitant increase in productivity. Shockingly, I’m 25k words into a novel (it’s working title is Sequential Events) that I think I might actually finish. I don’t have the mystical mind-to-keyboard connection with this novel that I had with Enter Title Here, but I do feel like this one might be good.

I suppose there are writers who can produce good work when they’re depressed, but I have no idea how they do it. For me, the moment I started being able to enjoy life again, I also started being able to visualize this book.

However, a good mood is not sufficient. I’ve been trying to write another book since September 1st. According to my records I’ve spent 316 hours and 131 writing days on the attempt to figure out what I ought to write about, and I’ve only just sort of come up with it (maybe…there’s still a chance that the book will fall apart). I honestly don’t know what I could’ve done to come up with it faster.

I recently read this Lynda Barry book What It Is? which is about starting with an image and attempting to work without self-consciousness. The book talks about writing in the same way that children draw pictures: you draw a line, and then another line, and then you get a sense of what it is, and you keep adding lines, more or less by instinct, until you’ve got it.

So I started to do that, and it did help. I got a short story out of it. And one of her exercises led me to a chapter that I though was going to be the opening chapter of a novel. But when I kept writing that novel, I got really wrapped up in an entirely different chapter, and anyway…I don’t know.

My point is, I don’t know that you can just power through and write a book. People talk about how they have more ideas than they know what to do with. That’s not me. I can generate ideas by the job lot, but I know exactly what to do with them–most of them are just idle notions that should never be turned into real stories. Finding an idea that can sustain my interest is extremely rare. And I don’t have a set way of getting to that point. I mostly just flail around until something happens. But sometimes that means months of flailing. And then, of course, I write the book in a few weeks. For instance, I fully expect to be done w/ this book by May 15th (at the latest).

When I’m really working on a book, it doesn’t feel like something I’m creating. It feels like something that’s flowing out from some unconscious place. I think of that as ‘inspiration.’ And I don’t know what can be done to make that inspiration come.

I think some things can kill it. For instance, if you don’t get into the habit of writing, then you’re unlikely to be able to channel the inspiration when it does hit. If you’re too self-critical then your sense of inspiration can become afraid to throw ideas out there. And if you’re not self-critical enough, then you can spend way too long pursuing ideas that aren’t very good. But mostly it’s just about waiting…