Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Yin and Yang of Writing. Pt 1.

Thanks again guys for all the comments welcoming me back and cheering me on!!! I've missed you all more than you know and it really does feel AMAZING to gradually come out the other side of this. But I said I'd come talk about it some, so here I am. And if the clouds come visit your house after this my SINCERE apologies. I just think sometimes it helps to know we're not alone on the dark days. Those people who say writing romance is easy? They wanna try making a living from it sometime and see how they get on! Just ask some of the TV show presenters who tried it this year... yuh huh... nuff said...

I think one of the biggest problems we all face is the contradictions. You kinda have to have a dual personality to write romance. And when you're digging deep into emotions on the page on behalf of your characters it can be hard not to either have it leave you feeling emotionally drained, or to balance the happiness you're writing compared to the tough things you may be facing in the real world. We have to be 'optimistic hearted' enough to believe in the power of love and that happily ever after's still exist - pouring our heart and soul onto the page - while at the same time having a really thick skin so we can deal with criticism and sales figures and harsh reviews. Romance writers, in my experience, live life on a bit of a knife edge. We can be bubbly and fun to be around and we can go through wine faster than some people go through oxygen, but we can also be incredibly insecure and unduly critical of ourselves and no amount of wine can help on the days we just plain feel like we SUCK.

How I feel we deal with this, after a few years of getting to know fellow authors, all comes down to personality. In just the same way your voice does when you're writing. And in order to deal with the hard times you gotta know yourself pretty well; particularly if you're someone like me who doesn't have a partner or family that lives in the same house who can distract me when the slump sets in. I know me. I've had a few decades to get to know me and to understand why I do the things I do - basically what my coping mechanisms are and where my strengths and weaknesses lie. A big problem I had this year were the extremes of my personality. Unlike the little faces above, I have a tendency to either be yellow or red - if I visit green at all it's as a brief skipping stone from one to the other. I can have extreme, bouncy, on top of the world yellow days - but I can also have dreadful, crawl under my duvet and stay there red days. Now normally, thankfully, I have enough yellow days to balance out the red. This year, those yellow days were few and far between - or certainly felt like they were - and weren't celebrated and enjoyed nearly enough. So the red days increased, and before I knew it I was in depression mode.

THAT'S when the 'I suck' voice gets louder in your head. And the louder it becomes the more it effects the house of cards we writer's live in.

  • The I Suck voice makes you question every single word you put on the page - aka over-editing.
  • The I Suck voice combined with over-editing means you become obsessed with things that shouldn't matter until the book is written - aka you forget to tell the story.
  • The I Suck voice complete with over-editing and not telling the story leads to avoidance - aka your word count goes nowhere and procrastination sets in.
  • The I Suck voice with a distinct lack of word count means you put yourself under undue pressure - aka looming deadlines to be missed.
  • The I Suck voice plus the pressure of late deadlines means your muse packs up and leaves due to poor working conditions and you don't get paid - aka your finances begin to waver and the rest of your world begins to fall apart...
It's a slippery slope my friends. And while each of these things is happening, the I Suck voice is slowly but surely tugging you over the edge at the bottom of that slope and dropping you into the pit of despair - while you're trying to write what will ultimately be a HAPPILY EVER AFTER. Now if your story has something deep and dark to explore then the accompanying mood the I Suck voice will bring your way will probably help. But if, like me, you tend to be about the funny and the ironic and the quick witted then you're pretty much stuffed because for me:

Personality + Mood = VOICE.

As writers we'll talk a lot about the personality types of our characters. But I don't think I'd really thought about my personality type as a writer all that much until this year. I knew how I worked, yes. But what I've discovered is it's another of those extreme contradictions when it comes to my personality. When I work with horses I'm very organized, methodical, I stick to doing things the way I was trained to do them and if I was packing for an event or for travelling with horses I would have lists and a specific way of packing and so forth. When I write? Not so organized. I'm not one of those people who can get up and stick to office hours and a specific word-count every day. I write when a scene is clear in my head and while the words are flowing I keep going - even if that means going without sleep for a couple of days. (I've discovered 36 hours without sleep is my limit) When the words stop or I find myself writing something crap I go have a sleep, let things mull over for a while, daydream, talk out loud as if I'm the characters - and when another scene is clear in my head off I go again. Not particularly healthy I know, but it's what works for me. Doesn't however, help when the I Suck voice is sounding loudly inside my head. No muse = lack of daydreaming scenes = lack of words to take a run at. I've tried being more organized and outlining a book scene by scene from the start and sticking to a daily word-count, but you know what? A part of me then finds it tough to tell the story. Cos I know what's gonna happen. There's no 'adventure' to it for me, like there is when watching a movie for the very first time. And there's no room for those little magic touches that so often appear when you're a panster. I'd miss those. My books would be much 'less' without them. So I'm chalking this quirk to my personality down to an artistic nature that is part of my so-called 'natural ability' to write... however, in my experience...

Natural Ability + Ambition + (too much) Education = LOSS OF VOICE.

This I've discovered, is an occupational hazard. And again, it's another knife edge. Your voice is what sells your first book. We're told time and time again it's all about voice. Voice can't be forced or taught in my opinion - it's a huge part of your personality, your personal experiences and opinions and therefore a big part of yourself goes into every book. I think that's why we get so attached to them. We get emotionally involved. Sometimes we literally bleed on the page. But as a series/category romance writer in a mass market, we also have the pressure of producing time and time and time again without becoming too repetitive. Some phrases and words will come up in every book because as individuals we'll use those phrases and words when we talk (a lot of people who know me from my pre-writer days say they can 'hear me' talking in my books) but we don't want the stories themselves to be too repetitive. So once we have a few books under our belt we get ambitious, we look to stretch ourselves, so we do what anyone does when they want to learn more - we read up on the subject. And this my friends? Is a DANGEROUS THING. Now I have strong opinions on this, so I expect there to be people who won't agree with me, but I really do think you need to know yourself pretty well before you delve too deep into books about writing. In my opinion, and without it being big-headed, I don't think natural talent can be taught. Methods can be, patterns can be, themes, commonalities, etc etc etc but you can read a hundred books on writing and know them all off by heart and you can fine tune what you already do - but you can't make yourself into a writer if you're not meant to be one. That's harsh, I know, but it's true. Some people can study writing for years and never finish a manuscript. Some people can have the best, most original idea in the world and can't translate it onto paper. There's an intangible that can't be taught. Full stop. Messing with that intangible can have horrific results in my experience. Because what does it do when you read too many books on writing? It can make you even more critical of your work than you already were. And when that happens what appears in your head even louder than before? Yep, that's right, the I SUCK voice. And this last eighteen months or so, what have I been doing? Yes. I've been reading more about writing. At a time when doubts were already setting in. A part of my personality is also masochistic. I know a great many writers who are the same. And this is where I'm gonna kinda contradict the whole point of this long post by saying:

Misery doesn't always love company.

Sometimes it FEEDS OFF IT. Which brings me to the pressures of online promotion and guest appearances and online communities versus writing time and having a life... But I'll come back to that in my next blog...


Lorraine P said...


Thank you for being so incredibly honest. There is so much in this post that is completely spot on - it definitely chased a few of my clouds away...

Here's hoping that your "I suck" voice stays vanquished because you most definitely don't!!!

Jenna Bayley-Burke said...

You are right on about their being such a thing as too much education. I wrote my first without knowing a darned thing...and the panic of thinking I 'should' know the 'rules' has never served me well...

India said...

Ah Trish-- you're so right. On everything, but in particular on the invisible struggle of the long haul. Didn't we all think that the biggest mountain had been climbed on the day we got 'the call'...?

Glad you've reached a plateau, honey and here's wishing you a lot more sunny yellow days in the coming year.

Janet said...

Maybe screen writing books aren't good for pansters. On account of screen writing being very very structured.
I love reading how-to-write books but what really makes me super- critcal is reading a super-duper book in the line I'm aiming for.

I've just finished reading the incredibly witty (and tender) Her Her Real Life Hero (Tender Romance 20005) and was immediately struck by the thought that I'd never manage write someting as good as this. It sent me right back to the writing books. (Now reading: Creating Unforgettable Characters)

Anonymous said...

I applaud you for being brave enough to write such an honest and open post.

As for craft books?
For me there are two parts to creating fiction of any kind.

1. You have to have a story to tell

2. You have to know how to frame that story in the most effective and compelling way possible for the reader.

Two separate elements, and I'm sure we all know people who have great stories but are clueless as to how to write them down.

Now I love to read and write crime fiction where struture is crucial for maintaining suspense over a book which is 120k to 150K.

I have total respect for the 'pantsers' who are able to sit down and type up the dream scenes from their head which 'the girls in the basement' bring up on silver platters.

I am sorry to hear that your girls ran off with sailors and have only just come home, exhausted and with empty purses.

Sorry, I am rambling, when all wanted to say was HUGS for having had such a bad time.
Happy writing, R

Marilyn Shoemaker said...

Just wanted to stop by and wish you dear friend a Happy Christmas. Thanks for your dedication to the genre and your writing is brilliant!


Nina in Ohio said...


Just finished His Mistress, His Terms and LOVED it! Can't wait for Ash & Gabe's story! And for some inspiration, check out the picture of someone that dated my younger sister - he's still a hunk!