Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bumps In The Road: A Writers Learning Curve...

This Blog is terribly neglected these days. I'm sorry about that. To be honest, while I'm still trying to find a balance between real life stuff and trying to write, I've found Twitter easier to deal with. 160 characters takes less thinking/time I suppose ;) (Please feel free to come say 'Hi' to me if you have a Twitter account!) But for those of you struggling with your writing out there, I thought I'd give you a little update on my progress so far in case you're facing the same inner demons I have this last, long while. Every time I do one of these posts, I second guess whether or not I should and worry about filling the place with doom and gloom as opposed to the optimism we could all do with a healthy dose of, but it keeps coming back to the same thing for me. If what I'm going through helps anyone out there feel less alone with their own problems, then it's worth opening up. So here goes...

First an update: Yes, I'm still working on the same damn book. Yes, I'm still struggling. Yes, real life is STILL getting in the way on a regular basis. And yes, I'm still finding it hard to get my confidence back. BUT - and it's a BIG but - I do feel I've made a lot of progress and probably have the tightest first four/five chapters of my writing career (though chapters six and seven are still causing me problems). Problem is, I'm still frequently deleting large chunks out of the story and just as frequently writing myself into a corner. So, what's going wrong? What happened to the days when I could write a book in three months from start to finish, or eight weeks, or even less?!

Good questions. I think a big part of being a writer, heck, even of being a person, is knowing yourself and accepting your weaknesses while playing to your strengths. I like to think one of my strengths is sheer bloody mindedness (hence a large part of the reason I'm still fighting with this book). Another is determination (hence another reason I'm determined to finish this damn book). But I also know I can be my own worst enemy when it comes to allowing problems to continue for longer than they should, and I honestly think that's been getting in the way of just letting go and losing myself in this story...

I talked to another writing friend who is trying to get back in the game after a long gap, and we agreed that one of the things we had never prepared ourselves for was success. Getting published is a HUGE thrill. There's nothing quite like it when it's something you've wanted so badly there were times you were afraid to let yourself believe it might happen. That's the thing with dreams, sometimes I think we can be better leaving them as a magical, ethereal place in the distance than we are actually achieving them. That sounds harsh, I know, but the truth is, once you have your dream, losing it could potentially be worse than never having it come true in the first place. And if it's gone, what do you dream of next? The first dream is selling a book, the next to see your cover for the first time, the next to hold your book in your hands, to see it on the shelf, to have a reader say they like it, to have the book sell. That's the first part of the journey. Then there's having it sell well - maybe even make it onto a bestseller list! There are competitions to enter and awards to aim for and things like top picks from reviewers. Then there are the milestones of your fifth book, your tenth, your fifteenth, contracts for more books, working with editors who can bring the best out of you and push you to take that one step further than you thought you could go. There are several steps along the way, many hurdles and of course there are achievements to celebrate! ALL of those things are wonderful. I've said it before and I'll say it again; I've been INCREDIBLY LUCKY with my writing career. I weathered several potential set-backs and a lot of self-doubt along the way, but that was all part of the rollercoaster ride and even on the days I found things tough or was ready to toss my computer out of the nearest available window, I was still doing what I'd wanted to do for most of my adult life and both knew and was grateful for how lucky I was to get to write for a living.

Then came: THE WALL.

Keeping in mind how writers have to know their characters and understand why they do the things they do and how certain things happen, I guess it's only natural I've been asking myself what went wrong. The reason for that is partly so I can understand it, partly so I can avoid it happening again. The bottom line is; I'm a writer. I was a writer before I was published, I'll still consider myself a writer even if I'm never published again. It's just something that's in me. Even at my lowest points, there's not a day goes by when I'm not thinking about stories or imagining characters or noticing things that could potentially start a story or hearing voices of some kind or another in my head (and not in a crazy way!). Writing for a living can be bloody hard work. Finding a balance between muse and businesswoman has been a lot harder than I thought it would be.

The first thing I think I did wrong was I burnt myself out. As many women do, I tried to have it all. Two different lines to write for, increased book count per year, promotion, running a website, blogging, traveling to conferences and beyond - and that's before I added things like time for friends, family and the 900 odd animals in my care, never mind that little thing called down time! Women in general tend to have many different 'balls in the air' at any given time. We juggle. We multi-task. We get on with it. I think I had too many balls in the air. Then, when I tried to do everything humanly possible work-wise and problems arose in other areas of my life, something had to give. So what may only have been a burn-out that required a shift in priorities or some re-scheduling suddenly became a bigger issue. I had to drop many, many balls in order to focus on juggling just a couple; a couple that could have shattered if they'd been allowed to hit the ground.

The second hurdle that came my way was that fine line between exhaustion and depression. Every writer knows there are times you have to re-fill the creative well. I think it's something incredibly important on a day to day basis in real life too. If you don't look after yourself first then how can you look after others? That might sound selfish, but to me its more about survival. So add the fact my usual escape into my writing wasn't there thanks to a dose of burn-out, to the fact 'real life' was placing an increased strain on me mentally and emotionally and the problem began to grow. The writer in me wasn't being given the necessary time to re-fill the creative well, while on a personal level I wasn't getting the time to take care of myself so I could help others and work through the day-to-day stuff. It's a downward spiral. And a cycle that's not easy to break.

Then came the usual financial issues so many of us have had to face over the last couple of years. Logistically, if I'm not writing, I'm not selling books and if I'm not selling books I can't make a living. I made a tough choice a few years back to give up a full time, regular wage to become a full time writer. Risky, yes. A gamble, most definitely, but it was working until I hit the wall. Simple fact is, like all of us, if I don't work I don't eat. So if I can't write, I need a job. The time came to find out if I could still write and make my living doing something I used to love more than anything else. So back to the keyboard I came, full of determination...

Except this time, I came back to the keyboard with more information than I had when I was starting out. Back when I wrote my first book, I knew very little about the business end of things. Embarrassingly, I now realize I knew very little about the craft. I can say I know more now, but when it comes to the latter I'm not entirely convinced that's a good thing. I never used to worry about things like structure and pacing and hooks and themes and symbolism and, and, and... And I'm not saying knowing about those things isn't important; it is! But knowing about them has taken some of the sheer joy in telling a story out of it for me. Now my internal editor is MUCH harder to switch off than it was before. Not only that, but I look back at the books I've sold and I'm determined to do better or at the very least emulate some of the work I'm most proud of. I'm second guessing every page, line and at times word as I go along. I'm trying to live up to my own name and be better than myself. There's probably a clinical term for that...

What I've had to do, and am still trying to do, is not be so hard on myself. The first hurdle I need to overcome is simply finishing a book; something I used to take for granted and that frankly, I miss like hell. I'm not exactly back to where I was before I sold my first book, but I have to say it certainly feels that way. Maybe it would have been simpler to have binned this story and all the negative associations I now have with it in favor of something fresh and new, but having had moments where I've felt more like myself when working on it in the last few months, I still feel it's possible to finish it. With that in mind and while being realistic about things like the need to make a living and how beating my head against a brick wall isn't exactly helpful when it comes to not being hard on myself, I've decided to set a time limit on this one. If it's not finished by the end of the month, I'm shelving it. There. I've said it. For the first time since I sold, there's a very real chance I'll be giving up on a story. I've never done that before. It'll feel a lot like failure, but if starting something new is what it takes to tell a story from beginning to end, then so be it. I have to be practical. I NEED to find out if I can STILL DO THIS.

At the same time, I'm also being stricter about taking care of me. I used the term 're-claiming my life' to some friends this week and that's what it comes down to. For over a year, I haven't felt like me. I've become a hermit for starters. Since going to Rome with Natasha Oakley last February I've had one night away from home - yes, one! (and I had to force myself to go!!!) I've been looking at the same walls, the same faces and the same scenery for so long now while getting up and doing the same repetitive tasks over and over again until I go to bed, that it has gotten to the point where there are days I feel like a robot. Even on the last two public speaking gigs I did, I noticed a change. I was SO nervous, incredibly self-conscious, stammered, I think I even blushed a few times and that just plain wasn't me. At least not to the extent where I doubted I could ever do it again. So the first order of business in this area of my life is to LEAVE THE HOUSE. Have laptop, have jeep, can do day trips or weekends away to get a change of scenery and hopefully refill the creative well at the same time. The odd ten minute jaunt to the local village store for basic supplies does NOT count as a break!

I'm still not quite sure where this journey is taking me, but I sincerely hope it brings me back to writing for a living. I'm more than a little scared it won't. If it does, I hope watching someone else battle their way through some difficulties gives others hope, particularly if they're in the same place I've been for the last year and more. Like I said at the start of this blog, I don't want to be all doom and gloom. That's particularly true for those of you reading this who are just starting out on their writing journey!!! Fact is, sometimes it's not smooth sailing. Forewarned is forearmed, right?

And I promise I'll bring you an update at the end of the month on this damn book. Whatever the outcome may be!


Maisey said...

Trish, thank you so much for your post! I know just what you mean about going in blind and then...oh all that I didn't know. Things that are always there with me now. The internal editor, trying to anticipate what my editor will say...all of that.

Thanks for your honesty, I sincerely hope that everything works with this story. If you ever need to bounce ideas around, gimme a yell.

Fiona Lowe said...

Finding balance is never easy and the fulrum needs moving all the time as 'stuff happens.' Getting out of the house each day is great idea, Trish or at least five times a week for a short time ...connects us with the world.
Take care
Fiona x

Anonymous said...

Trish, Your blog really resonated with me. As an aspiring writer I'm having my own struggles with self confidence and second guessing every line. My first sub garnered a detailed R, my second got a request for a full which was ultimately rejected after a year. Then my next two subs took nearly two years to be R'd, and they were just partials. I feel like I've taken steps backward instead of forward and I'm constantly second guess myself.

I do hope you break through the wall soon. I really believe that getting out and about really helps free the mind.

Take care,


Sri Pammi said...

Hi Trish,

Thank you so much for sharing what you're going through so honestly.
And I hope you find that good place and take care of yourself whichever way it is.


Lacey Devlin said...

Hi Trish!

You're not alone in your burn out and you should give yourself a lot of credit for recognising that you had taken on too much before you made yourself really sick. I failed in that seven years ago and I'm still dealing with the fall out, I have no doubt that you will rebound faster.

I genuinely believe that you will find that balance and you know what the signs are now for when you've taken on too much so it won't happen again. With your determination I know you will get back to writing for a living :). Good luck with that WIP!

Romy said...

You are so right about needing down time. I think most women just naturally try to do it all, and do it to the best of their abilities. The only thing that doesn't get the same care and attention as the items on the To Do list are the women themselves!

Here's hoping you have a month in which you getting everything done, do it all well, and still find time for yourself!

Emmie said...

Thanks for sharing this Trish. As an unpublished writer, it's sometimes easy to think that once I get "the call" writing will somehow be easier, or less stressful.

I'm not sure if this makes you feel any better, but it was a relief to read about your experiences and think "it's not just me!"

Take care of yourself. Good luck with getting the writing out, hushing down your internal editor, and refilling the creative well.

Amanda Holly said...

Reading this has left me wanting to crawl down this Internet connection and give you a big hug. Your honesty brings tears to my eyes.

You are so right when you say you've lost confidence - I read it in every paragraph you've just written. I wish I could give you a stern talking too like a mother hen! Just look at everything you've written and all the joy you've given your readers over the years. Of course you still have it.

Writing romance is something that has brought you joy in the past. Your experiences over the past year or so sound enough to make a sane person despair so I don't think you should be beating yourself up about them.

Take heart. Even if you don't believe in you - there are lots of us readers out here who do! Fingers to the keyboard, deep breaths and just pour your heart out. You'll probably find your best work ever will come out of you if you let it!

Just do it! :-)

Marilyn Shoemaker said...

I can see how you burnt yourself out. Stariting the Pink Heart Society, was a huge endeavor for all of you involved. It gave so much to writers and readers. I shall never forget my time spent there.

And then your blog and Yahoo group....honestly I don't know how you did it!

Plus all of your wonderful books, sometimes without a break.

You'll get it back, I'm counting on it! xx

Anonymous said...

I applaud your honesty Trish and I truly believe that the manner in which you articulated your current problems will help others who may be facing similar crises in whatever area of L I F E! So, give yourself credit for that. And also for your humour ... yes it still shines through despite your current travails. And yes, I believe that when one is feeling somewhat inadequate or insecure or whatever damn thing that is BLOCKING progress, that it is very positive to remind and to RELIVE past successes.

Like having a mantra ... "I'm a good writer. I did it before and I can do it again".

I'm glad to read that you have made a decision and given yourself a deadline to continue or not as the case may be. And you know quite well that sometimes writers do have to 'give up' on a particular book and start afresh and it works out better for them in the long run.

I would also urge you to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE ... perhaps go to a library or a cafe to write ... yes I do know you live in the wilds more or less but you have a jeep and a laptop. And isn't that one of the great things about being a writer that one can write from anywhere?

Reading your post it strikes me that you really do need a *break* not just from the problems of the past year but from all associated areas ... and maybe the current script is one of those ... certainly those *four walls* do fall into this category.

And try not to be so hard on yourself. You're a fine writer, a good teacher and a good speaker and you have given great pleasure and help to many folk (AND will do so again) ... but right now help yourself. At times, I fear you give too much to others and the well of *goodness* dries up!

It's ME time for Trish. You don't even have to blog unless you feel the need.

Best of luck with everything!

Take care ...

pp in the ROI.

Anonymous said...

And Trish, I meant to add that despite the problems that your blog turned up ... I did enjoy reading it ... because it was SO WELL WRITTEN! So you can still write extremely well woman!

I hope by now that the current book is swimming madly towards completion but, if not, then it can always be used another time.

Perhaps on many fronts, including your script, it's time for a fresh start?

Couragio Signora!

pp in the ROI

Nina in Ohio said...

Trish - All of us who are unpublished writers have the fantasy that it all becomes much easier when you've gotten one or two under your belt.

Thanks for reminding us that writing is hard work, whether you've never published or you have 15 under your belt.

Whenever you're hearing too much of that internal editor - take a break and chat with a couple of girlfriends - toss some ideas around - have them give you some input or talk about their WIP's. Or hop in the jeep and go somewhere else - find some behaviour that changes your habit.

Start a gratitude journal and in it put down two things:

1) I have a great talent for writing humourous and touching love stories.
2) I have many fans who have enjoyed my stories - who have been entertained for a few hours and taken away from their own ordeals, if even for a short time.
3) I have many friends in the writing community who will be there when I need them.

I have enjoyed your books so much, and consider you one of the premier writers for M&B/Harlequin. Turn off that internal voice and write ruthlessly. We love ya Trish!

Tori said...

Hi Trish,

I actually came across your blog while searching for tips on character visualization. While our genres are pretty far removed (young adult fiction here), the tips and info you've provided throughout are really helpful to this starter with a long time dream.

With regards to your hero/heroine visualizations, I did find that I'm not as barking mad as some have told me. I have specific people in mind when I write (real people I know who could be represented by famous folks), but felt kind of kooky in getting the pics together. It feels as thought I am writing about these people (real), for these other people (certain looks of famous guys and gals). I don't know if that makes much sense.

Anyway, I really appreciate all of the tips, advice and experience you have posted. I will certainly be checking back in for updates.

Just off the point, I actually lived in Cork for a couple of years before moving to the states and getting the ring on the finger :). Ireland is such a beautiful and inspirational country (as is Wales, my country of origin). I miss the land and the people greatly.

CCMacKenzie said...

Hey Trish hun.

As the great Nora Roberts says:

'I do the very best I can as I write the story in front of me. I may have written a better story last month or last year, I may write a better story next month or next year. It doesn't matter. All that matters is I do the best I can in this moment.'

Big Hug Darling and I hope you feel better very soon.


ros said...

Trish, I don't know you at all and I may be saying completely the wrong thing at the wrong time, so please feel free to just ignore this comment.

A lot of what you describe in this post resonates with me very strongly. Not with a writing career, but an academic career. The wall was the same, the burnout the same, the lack of confidence, the second guessing, the hermit tendencies and so on. The expression that most hit me was not having felt like yourself for a year. It sounds very much to me as if you may have clinical depression. Which sucks, big time. But is treatable.

I started on anti-depressants 9 months ago and after the first 2 miserable weeks, woke up feeling like myself for the first time in over 2 years. That was the only way I could describe it. Work is still hard and progress slow, and yes, there are still bad days. But I'm not struggling with that same wall of doubt and unbelief, I'm regaining my confidence and my appetite for life, for friends, for fun.

So, if you haven't already, my advice would be to see a doctor and take what they say seriously. It's not an easy answer because there aren't any easy answers when you are feeling like this. But it really can help.