I’ve been doing a lot of internal excavating lately. A lot has been weighing on my mind, and one of those things is my paralysis when it comes to producing a completed work. I’ve been trying really hard to understand why this happens. The only way to understand something is to know it. Last night I visited my sister in and we went to see Alan Alda lecture together. During the drive home, I took an in-depth look at my writing process.
Writing the first draft is relatively easy for me. I mean, there is a certain amount of kicking and screaming, but that’s mostly because writing is hard. We all know that. It takes a great deal from you, especially once you learn to put pieces of your heart inside each word. I can write the first draft of a short story in one day. I can write a novelette in about two weeks. It takes me a month or more to write a novel. (I’m working on writing faster, but that’s another post for another day.) I push myself to get through it, get it out, and then I walk away.
I leave it in my filing cabinet. (There is something really validating about printing out a manuscript, tucking it into a neatly labeled folder, and then cramming it into a full filing cabinet.) When it’s time, I come back to it. I try not to put a number on this amount of time. I don’t always have a choice, though, which is why deadlines can suck. If it’s up to me, though, I let myself forget about it. The best time for me to come back to a manuscript is when I accidentally find it while looking for something else.
Then I read through it. I always tell myself, “Oh, I’ll just read through it, no editing.” Inevitably I’ll find some kind of mistake or think of something I’d like to add, and then I get up and grab a red pen and highlighter. Occasionally, I’ll already have them on hand “just in case.” By the time I’m done reading through, I have a ton of notes for the next draft. I often take manuscripts or parts to my writers’ group, and I have a solid network of beta readers. (I would, however, love to have a one on one critique partner someday who writes in the same genre[s]. It would be so nice to swap manuscripts all the time. If you’re out there, I’m looking for you.)
Obviously, I start making the changes. I always save the first draft as a new file. The first is usually named something like thisisthetitle_04012013, so I’ll save the second as thisisthetitle_05042013, using the dates to figure out which draft is newest. It works for me at a glance. I picked up the habit in college, cemented it when I used to write HTML and PHP files, and have adapted it for the writerly life. If you want to steal it, feel free. I don’t remember who taught it to me, but thank you, wherever you are. It’s saved my ass on many occasions.
I really enjoy the making changes part. I guess you would call that revising or rewriting, but I just look at it as “search and replace.” I have a copy holder, so I stand up my printed-out, red-penned first draft, scan it for notes, search my document for key phrases, and make the changes. It cuts down on time, and is also a hat trick from my coding days. (Now that I think about it, a lot of my web design habits have followed me into authorhood, and they actually work really well for the trade.) When I’m done, I walk away yet again.
This process might sound cut and dry, but I don’t when to stop. I often get stuck in the revising stage, because I start over-analyzing everything and obsessing to the point where I can’t move forward with the manuscript at all. It becomes this gargantuan beast in my mind, unconquerable and hungry for my own fears and insecurities. The more I think about it, the worse I feel.
If I just throw myself into it, I feel better, but the second I start thinking about when to call it done, I freeze up again. I know it’s all just that head game all authors play with themselves, but it’s a totally different thing to be stuck in that rut. I also know that if I could just get over this issue, this fear, I will have that momentum I so desperately want. In a way, my writing life is similar to that of one of my characters’ lives. I’ve been dealing with this cycle since the end of 2011, when I decided to get one of my novels published. I struggled with it all throughout 2012 and finally self-published Sade on the Wall, and now I’m in the same boat with Ermengarde, (Cowardly) Zombie Slayer.
I know that no one is perfect. There is no such thing as the perfect book. Yet I get freaked out by the thought of having to produce a finished product, and get in my own way. I have come to recognize my problem, and have learned it the way I know how to make a pot of coffee. I just don’t know what to do about it.
While thinking about all of this, I also discovered that my problem’s roots lie in my self-doubt, the ceaseless questioning of every decision that I make. This is a personality trait that I am unable to rid myself of. I am incredibly self-aware, and I am aware that as humans, we have the ability to rewire our brains—Alan Alda told me so last night—but I am at a loss as to how to do this.