This is the fourth Writer Unboxed post I have started in as many days. I now have all these partial posts, each of at least 800 words, sitting on my desktop and determinedly not being the post I need them to be.
That seems to be happening to me a lot lately. If you follow me on Twitter or FB, you probably heard my cyber-bellow of frustration and gnashing of teeth when I had to cut 7,000 words from my manuscript. The manuscript that is due in less than two months and is only partially baked—and that’s being kind.
What you did not hear was my silent primal scream that lasted two whole days when I woke up to the fact that I was writing the wrong damn book and had to delete the FIRST TWO HUNDRED PAGES OF THE MANUSCRIPT.
(Have I mentioned it’s due in less than two months?)
So it comes as no surprise really, that I keep making false starts with my WU post. It’s the mode I appear to be stuck in.
I even know why. It’s Fear. Not only is fear the great mind killer (thank you Frank Herbert!) it is the great word killer, and creativity killer, and all-sorts-of-things killer.
I keep asking myself how I, a seasoned writer with fifteen books under my belt, could have taken such a wrong turn, how I could have gotten so utterly sidelined. And again, the answer is Fear.
My first clue was the painful slogging part. Yes, writing can be difficult—like figuring out an especially tricky puzzle can be difficult. But this time it was if I had to hike 100 miles to a distant quarry, dig each word out of the rock with my bare hands, then cart it back over the 100 miles (of rugged terrain, mind you) and wedge/hoist it into the manuscript. And sure, there are stretches of writing in each book that feel like that—but never, for me, the entire process.
My second clue should have been that nothing felt organic to the characters or their situations. That wonderful, alchemical process of turning ideas into living, breathing characters on the page simply wasn’t happening. It was a series of constant, conscious decisions as opposed to ever finally beginning to flow out of the characters themselves.
It’s easy (and oh-so-satisfying) to gash my teeth and rail at the writing gods, wondering why this had to happen. And why it had to happen NOW—with this deadline bearing down on me like a freight train. But of course, neither the timing nor the why of it is a coincidence.
Fear sauntered into the room, made itself comfortable, and refused to budge.
So of course I stumbled. How could I write fearlessly and authentically with that great, unwelcome guest soaking up all the creative oxygen in the room?
My fears were the same garden variety that all writers have—fear that the book wouldn’t be good enough. Fear that I wouldn’t do the story justice. Fear that it wouldn’t live up to the expectations set by book two, which was in itself hugely different from book one. Even worse, I had always known that book three was going to be my most ambitious book—what I wanted to do within the story was risky, maybe even riskier than what I did in book two. And suddenly, my own creative ambition terrified me.
Even worse than that? I didn’t have time to write a big, ambitious book, dammit, I was on deadline! Once again I was writing the impossible book on the impossible deadline, only this time my muse just said, “Feck it,” and left the room, and into that vacuum waltzed Fear.
(Gad, do you see how pervasive and corrosive it is? Once you let it in the room it multiplies like COCKROACHES. Or ants. Or kudzu. Until it is utterly unmanageable.)
Also? Because I was working so hard to bring tension and drama to the page, I found not only was I writing the wrong story, but it wasn’t even my story to tell. The themes and issues weren’t ones that sprang from some genuine place inside me but were things I was creating in order to force the story.
Not only that, but sometimes the subtle, more nuanced ways of building drama and tension take longer and are more challenging than more overt forms of drama, and without realizing it, I was trying to take shortcuts.
Now some would say the professional thing to do would have been to just keep slogging along, meet the deadline, and leave it up to my editor as to whether or not it was going to work. But to me, that felt like cheating or fraud because I knew the manuscript wasn’t what it should be—what it needed to be.
So I took a deep breath, and maybe a shot or two of whiskey, then called my editor and let her in on the news. Because she is The Best Editor Ever, she immediately extended the deadline by a few weeks and focused on the fact that I was on the right track now and that was what was important. And of course, she is not only a saint, but she is RIGHT. (No, you can’t have her, she’s MINE.)
It is hard not to think of each of those wrong words as having booted the right one out of its place in the manuscript. But really, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we have to write the wrong ones to recognize that they are wrong.
Sometimes it is only the wrong turn that will get us back to the right path.
Sometimes we simply have to kiss a lot of toads before we find our prince.
Sometimes the choices we realize we don’t want to make are the surest way to begin recognizing the choice we do want to make.
How do I know I’m on the right track now? Because it’s working. It’s pretty much that simple. The turning points are appearing, right where they should be. The character’s growth arc now makes me shiver with anticipation rather than dread. There are lots of cool things I cannot wait to do in the story—things that weren’t there before.
So now I have a little more time, a clearer compass reading, and a true north to steer by. However, I must be truthful and tell you that Fear has still not left the room.
I wish I could offer all of you—offer myself—a cure for fear. Perhaps a lovely little ritual involving candles and incense and chanting fear-be-gone three times. Or a sweeping of the room with willow branches. But that is not the answer.
I’m afraid that the only way to deal with fear is to just buck it up and do what you need to do anyway—even with fear clinging to your back like a demented monkey.
Which once again brings us to the transformational aspects of writing—of any sort of creativity. In the process of creating something, we not only make art, but we transform ourselves as well. Either through the stories themselves or the struggle to get them down on paper, something in the process forces us to deal with and rise above certain issues and hurdles we might not otherwise face, let alone conquer.
Writing this book still terrifies me. Just like writing this post kind of terrifies me because it is leaving a cyber-trail for anyone who later dislikes the book to follow. They can come back to this post and say Ah, see? She did screw up royally. She even knew she was going to screw up.
But I’m going to write the book I meant to write—the book I need to write. And yeah, I might screw up. But I also know that if I wrote the book I wasn’t meant to write, I’d most assuredly be screwing up even more.
Do I feel like I’m letting my publisher down, missing that deadline? You bet.
Do I feel like some of my readers will be disappointed by the 18 month wait between books instead of merely 12 months? Of course.
Do I need to do this anyway? Absolutely. Because the most important thing I owe to my publisher and my readers is my best effort, and fear will get in the way of that Every. Single. Time.
And so today, I am like a little kid who is shouting into the dark that there is no such thing as monsters under my bed, in the hopes that it will be true. As part of my ongoing struggle with Fear, I’m throwing the doors and windows open wide to let the light pierce the dank, musty corners where Fear resides.
I’m hoping that by confessing to Fear, by naming it and calling it out, it will reduce some of the power that it holds over me—that it holds over us all.