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!