Monday, December 28, 2015

The Agony of Writing



Photo by JE Theriot
LUCY BURDETTE: Since my holiday company has departed, I can turn my thoughts to the new year, wondering what I’ll write and how I’ll get it done. And get your suggestions of course.

First of all, I always have doubts! Every book. KILLER TAKEOUT will be my fifteenth published book and I still get stuck every time in the middle. Where is this book going??? What’s the point? Why is she doing this? Who will ever want to read this?

A few things help keep me sane in this situation. One is to keep writing. Apply butt to chair and write 1000 words a day. It also helps to write out a sentence or two the night before about what I will cover the next day. Another good tool is brainstorming with my writer friends. They are invariably generous, and fresh eyes can see paths out of my plot when I feel hopeless.

I also heard two wise quotes while I was at the New England Crime Bake in November that I plan to keep right beside my computer. The first from Elizabeth George:

“When your story stalls out on you, you’ve played your hand too soon.”

And Peter Abrahams/Spencer Quinn suggested when a writer gets stuck: "Think about the engine that drives the story."

How about you dear Reds? Do you ever have doubts when you are in the middle of the writing, or other non-writing projects? How do you get past them?

Photo by Anokarina
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I have doubts ALL THE TIME. Seriously. But I just keep going. I'm  from the "chip on the shoulder" school of life, so I think of all the people who told me I couldn't do fill-in-the-blank and then say, "Yeah, screw you — I'm going to do it anyway. Watch me." I had this conversation with writer and neighbor, Alice Bradley, the author of LET'S PANIC ABOUT BABIES (http://alicebradley.net) . And we decided the two keys to writing are red wine and anger. We weren't really joking.


HALLIE EPHRON: I really don't want to talk about this as at this very minute I am in the pit of despond. I go into full panic mode daily. The only cure is writing. And then writing some more. And then fixing what I wrote.

photo 


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Constant panic, all the time. And when I sometimes get that glimmer of...hey, this could be good! Then I freak, because maybe I am fooling myself. People say to me--how's the book going? I say--I have NO idea. And how can that be?
I think the middle is the most difficult, because it has to be riveting and fast-moving and meaningful, but it has to get seat-of-the-pants writer me to a place I don't know where is. Which is pretty funny!
I say to myself, every day: ADVANCE THE STORY. ADVANCE THE STORY.
I say: what would really happen? What would this character think? How would they feel? How would they react?
Then I say to Jonathan; I can't do this, I stink.
Then I get a good idea.
Always.
I hope.


RHYS BOWEN: What a bunch of neurotics we are! I wonder if there are any writers who just churn out book after book without worrying? Nora Roberts, maybe? Danielle Steele and her stable of secretaries? Obviously James Patterson. When I finish a book I always think Ill never have another good idea ever. Then I do... So keep believing, Hallie.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Always middle-of-the-book panic. Why did I ever think this was a good idea? No one will believe this story! And then there is always the underlying panic of "What about the next book? What can I possible write about?" Really, the only time I'm not panicked is when I'm actually writing and I'm in a scene and the characters start talking to me... Sometime around mid-book I have to stop and block out the rest of the book, or I am absolutely paralyzed. I don't know how seat-of-the-pants writers like Rhys do it. Although I guess we all have to figure out the same things, we just do it by different methods.


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Pit of despond here as well. I picture me and Hallie slogging together through one of Dante's less pleasant circles of hell - maybe the one with all the cold rain and mud. I complain and complain about not having any time to write because of all the other things going on in my life, and then when I do sit down to the computer with a few hours, I think, "I have nothing to say. This book sucks. Why did I think this plotline was clever? My characters are cardboard." Etc. Etc.

My one consolation is the knowledge that every other time, I've managed to finish the manuscript and it didn't turn out too badly. Insert big-ampitheater rendition of "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow" here...


What do you think Reds? Does this sound surprising? Familiar? Suggestions?

58 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

I wonder if the panic/doubtfulness is common to everyone who is involved in creative work?
I don't know that I have any suggestions, but each of you ladies write such wonderful books . . . I've never read one that I didn't absolutely love. I hate to think of you struggling through this panic/pit of despond state; does it help to know there are many of us who love your books and can't wait to read the next one?

Kathy Reel said...

The good news here has to be that it does all turn wonderfully in the end. However, I can imagine that the pressure to turn out yet another book that readers will love must be intense at times, and, like Joan, I don't like thinking of my favorite authors feeling at all inadequate to the task. Each and every Jungle Red author brings excellence to the craft of writing in every book you write. As a reader and reviewer, I can tell you that it is exciting to know that you will love everything an author writes.

And, I know that it's not nearly as stressful, but I go through something similar with my reviews. I will think that I can't possibly do a book that I love justice in my review or capture the thrill of reading it. I sometimes think that I just don't have it in me this time. And, then a friend will read one of my reviews and tell me how she enjoys them, and I decide that maybe I can write another one after all.

Edith Maxwell said...

Completely familiar to me, and as a newer writer, you Reds CANNOT believe how reassuring it is that you all muck through the pit of despond, too - and come out the end with sparkling brilliant books.

Today - today! - I'm starting a brand new book. But that pit will be staring me in the face in a month or so, and I'm going to bookmark this blog and come back to reread it at that time.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

WHere did you find the photo of that Scrabble board???? Or did you make it, Lucy?

And Joan, that's interesting. Yes, it is SO reassuring to know readers love the books--but than again, what if they don;t love the new one?

Oh, don't get me wrong--it's ALL wonderful, and love my work, and I am lucky, and I count blessings every day.

I also fully realize that if it's not difficult, I'm probably not working hard enough. So difficult is good, it really is.

FChurch said...

This is what I love about the Reds--you are so honest about the process of writing. And for the pit of despond/despair, there IS NO CURE. You just put one word in front of another and keep going. And going and going. And you get a glimmer of an idea on how to get to Plot Point B, then C, or if you fly by the seat of your pants, you get an idea and Plot Point B is revealed--and then, the work continues as you revise and revise yet again. And we readers are rewarded with a beautifully written and crafted book that appears as if it sprang fully created from the mind of the author. Then we cry--Do it again! Do it again! And you do, because you can't help yourselves--this is what you do, who you are--writers!

Mary Sutton said...

Every time I sit down to write, I'm pretty sure I'm writing dreck. But then I give it to my critique group and they like it. So...

I've come to think that if you don't have these doubts about your work, you're probably in trouble. Thanks for being honest, ladies. And keep up the good work!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Hank, I made that board from my Bananagrams set--it came to me while procrastinating:)

And Joan and Kathy, yes it definitely helps to have your support--thank you!

Edith--join the neurotic club:)

FChurch, love that description--thank you!!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

We wonder that same thing Mary, are there successful and good writers who don't hit walls? It could be, as we're all different. Or maybe some folks don't have time to despair...

Kristi said...

Oh, I love all of you for writing this.
I so needed to read this post right now.
And I shared it with all my writing friends.
here's what i say to all of you - YOU GOT THIS!
xx
Kristi

Kathy Lynn Emerson said...

Been there . . . every single book. Nowadays I just resign myself to knowing the rough draft will stink and console myself with the knowledge that once something is written down it can be fixed.
Kathy/Kaitlyn

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Thank you Kristi--hope it helps you slog through the slow days...

Kathy, exactly. No point in worrying about that first draft. But words that aren't on the page can't be fixed!

Libby Dodd said...

It's like painting a picture. There is always that point (or several of them) when I look at the canvas and wonder what on earth I think I'm doing.
But as they said in Shakespeare in Love, we don't know how, but it all works out (my paraphrase).

Debi Huff said...

Thank you so much, Reds, for showing us that even YOU have slow, sticky places when you are writing. I somehow thought all YOU needed to do is sit down with the idea and in just a few short hours, there was your finishd book!! (Not really but you DO make it look easier than it actually is). For those of us who are just starting out it really helps to see what you go through and know that "keeping on keeping on' really works!! Thanks so much for all of your brilliant writing and generous encouragement to the newbies among us.
Hugs,
Debi Huff

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Yes Libby, I bet it is like painting! do you have a rough draft like we do writing a novel or story?

Debi, you're welcome. and thanks for the very kind words. Keep on keeping on is the only way:)

Hallie Ephron said...

Is it the same with painting a picture, Libby Dodd? How interesting... Seems like a good reason to work in oils which you can paint over.

Love you all, because misery loves company.

ericrickstad said...

ALL THE TIME! I repeat the mantra: Trust the process. It will come. Trust the process. It will come.

LynDee said...

Yep. All of this. And thank y'all so much for sharing—it's helpful to the rest of us to know that even the Reds get the mid-draft doubts. :)

What's helping me, as I'm in the late-middle of a draft now and alternating between "this is going to be the one where they all find out I don't know what the heck I'm doing, isn't it?" and "how in the WORLD am I going to cram all the things that have to happen before the end into 20,000 words?", is knowing I've done this before. I stop pacing (I pace when I'm flipping out about a new book. Can't sit still.), I breathe, and I say to myself (out loud, because writers are a little crazy) "Devil didn't have the cross, and Cover Shot didn't have the second bullet. The rough is never perfect. Just get it done so there's something to work with." And then I can usually go back to my chair and follow my characters on their merry way. Being in the scene is the only time I'm not panicking.

So nice to know I'm not alone! :)

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Just dropping by to say hi! Thanks for the encouragement, everyone... And it is nice to know one isn't alone in the pit of despond!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I hear that from artists all the time, Libby. SO interesting. I can barely imagine painting something. So fascinating how our brains work.

Yes LynDee, I agree..just get through the first draft. I am in revisions rich now, and it is such a joy to excavate what I really meant--and toss the rest. And it's there, it really is, sometimes it even has more meaning and connection than I realized!

Aw, Debi, thank you. ANd Eric, it certainly works for you! I am such a fan…xo

Cyndi Pauwels said...

As much as I'd love to ease all your pain (empath that I am), it does me good to hear I'm not alone in that pit of despair I've been stuck in for the past week or so (blaming it on the holidays, of course, but still...).

Although it's also rather depressing to hear it never gets any easier.

But as everyone says, we just keep writing!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

It does get a little easier Cyndi, because we know we'll crawl out of the muck at some point:)

Kait said...

I can only say, thank you.

Are we neurotic because we write, or do we write because we are neurotic? That is the question. And,having read books by all the Reds, I can only say, YOU LADIES ARE GREAT and I bet even your shopping lists are well crafted and witty.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Wow, JUST got a horrible review from a regular here on Jungle Reds. Gosh, thanks. But I'll put it in the arsenal to use during the next novel's pits of despond with the red wine!

Cyndi Pauwels said...

Lucy, I'm not quite to the self-confidence level to believe I will in fact "crawl out of the muck," but this post/thread does give me hope!

And I'm with Kait - everything the Reds write is awesome. ;-)

Karen in Ohio said...

Oh, no, Susan! Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed, maybe, but that's no reason to take it out on you.

As a nonfiction writer, up til now, I can say there is a distinct difference in writing fiction. Once I did the research and had it all organized, it was never an issue to write straightforward facts and data, whether it was for newsletters, magazines, online, or books. The hardest part, for me, was deciding what topics to write about in the first place, but I've never really had any kind of block. Even when I felt I was in over my head with an assignment, just sitting down to hammer it out was never an issue.

But fiction is a whole nother deal. Creative writing, description, character development, plot, place and time--there are so many choices to make! No wonder it freezes writers; every whipstitch and turn can take the story in a completely different direction.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

I don't mind bad reviews (comes with the territory), but it's strange to get one from someone in the Jungle Reds "community." Really, just trying to process.

Rhonda Lane said...

Aggh. I can't imagine the sense of panic with a deadline looming, let alone two -- or more -- books a year.

Shaping up my first book is bad enough, thanks to the struggle between "Perfect is the enemy of good" and "Make those pages pristine." I spend a lot of time frozen in the triangulation of fire between Doubt and Fear. (I was going to say a "self-destructive threesome," but this is Jungle Reds, so I need to mind my Ps and Qs. Or maybe that was a better metaphor after all? See what I mean? Which phrase works best? Which will the audience appreciate? What would the character say in that circumstance? Aggh... .)

Anyway, the longer I'm exposed to this business, the more I see every book as a miracle. Y'all continually amaze me.

Triss said...

The middle of the book is always panic time. Always. Every single time. (So comforting to read you all share this) I always swear that next time there will be a complete outline. (Never gonna happen) The cure is to just keep going, however hopeless it seems at the moment. At a recent party, I met a few people who are aspiring writers and asked me for advice (Very flattering. As if I know....) Mostly I said, the secret is not a secret. It's "hands on keys, butt in chair." Daniel Handler puts it like this, and it's worth memorizing: "a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” One word after another until they finally wake up and fly right(They will. They will)

Kathy Reel said...

Susan, I can't imagine someone giving your books a bad review. I know that my reviews were all singing your praises because I love the Maggie Hope series to the moon and back. In fact, I gave myself a non-fiction book for Christmas related to your research, Code Name Pauline, about the WWII special agent. And, I introduced Maggie Hope to one of my best friends, who can't get enough of your intrepid character. I know it must indeed be puzzling to get an unfavorable review from someone in our wonderful Reds community, but please know that you have so many fans and people who are completely smitten with your writing. Hope you're feeling the love I'm sending your way.

Kim said...

As usual, I'm chiming in late from the West Coast. And as usual, the Reds have perfect timing. Thank you for this Lucy. I have just finished one book and am starting on the next and I haven't heard a word from my agent and I can barely write for the anxiety. But this post, and all of the Reds' responses to it, have eased the anxiety ... a bit :) But a bit is more than none at all!!
As for the bad review from a Red, Susan ... hmmm. That is so strange. I consider this community one of support. Not false support, but the kind of support that would find positive ways at all times to approach each other's work. And I'm with Deb - I love Maggie Hope. I love your stories. And I love the way you have added a new dimension to the world of mystery novels, while maintaining a kind of Nancy Drew quality that is so dear to me. More red wine, more anger, and more great Maggie books!! XOXO

Becky Muth said...

I'm in middle-of-the-book panic right now. Thanks so much for a great blog topic, and for making me feel less alone. Now I'm off to go advance the story!

Deborah Crombie said...

My friend Gigi is a quilter. She has made quilts that are just stunning, truly art. But she says that with every quilt there is an "ugly quilt" stage. She gets to a certain point and thinks, "This is THE ugliest quilt anyone has ever made. Why did I think this would possibly work??"

So now when I'm in the pit of despair over the novel in progress, we call it "Ugly Book." "This is the UGLIEST book anybody ever tried to write, etc...." Makes me laugh, and that helps. It also helps that I have friends who repeatedly, and patiently, remind me that I feel that way with every book, and so far none of them have been horrible when they were finished. So, onward...

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Well, my take is that this person's politics don't jibe with those in MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANT.... Not my problem. And thank you for the support.

kate said...

I have 'scheduled' panic points... I freak out at 15k words. That's the point at which it becomes real, when I realize that all of my disconnected scenes need to become something.

Then I panic in the middle because I definitely don't have enough story. And how short can I write my first draft still call it a first draft?

And finally, I seriously consider stopping all together when I get to end because how am I going to connect what I know is going on with what I've actually written?

What I've discovered though is that I don't panic as much if I know I'm just panicking. So that's good, right?

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

You guys are giving me the giggles--Rhonda, showing not telling us her struggles, Debs with Ugly Book (yes!). Kim, I know that feeling too--my agent has had something for a while:). they are so overloaded, no word most often has nothing to do with us!

Susan, sorry about bad review:(. Hallie's advice is probably best--we shouldn't look at them at all. And it will be buried shortly!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

I don't look at reviews, but since this person is part of the Jungle Reds' community, I follow him on FB, Twitter and blog. Well, not anymore.

Kim said...

Thank you for that reminder, Lucy, that our overworked agents don't ignore us on purpose. Oh, I am so thankful for this post today. To my Reds: XOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO!!!!!!!!!

Mark Pryor said...

This is very affirming to read, I think sometimes writers forget that they're not alone with their insecurities. I just finished book six in my series and told my wife that I know it's rubbish, my editor will hate it, and how the heck do I dare start the next one?! Same as ever, she gives me that reassuring smile and says, "That's what you say with every book."

True. It's a cycle but having read books by all the Jungle Red Writers, I know it's a cycle that can be broken. That IS broken every time, by force of will, by fingers on keyboards, by bums in chairs. Keep up the great work!

Nancy Eady said...

Every so often (more than I'll readily admit to), I'll write passages in my novel and as I am writing them, I'm also thinking how terrible this section of writing is, and when I finish, I think "that's the worst thing I've ever written." When I go back in a day or two and take a fresh look at it, it's usually not nearly as bad as I thought it was to begin with. It's never perfect, either, but it's something I can work with.

Hallie Ephron said...

What's weird, Nancy, is that sometimes I'll write a passage and think WOW, this is so great. So eloquent. So poetic. And of course dontcha know eventually it's going to get cut. That's really what it means to 'murder your darlings.'

Ramona said...

I have begun a new (non-fiction) project, and I've started it 42 times. I hate all 42 openings. I've been thinking about driving nails into my knuckles so I don't have to try #43. Is that what you mean?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

You know, I have a system to embrace it. That 'Oh-my-gosh-this-is terrible moment' has happened SO many times, in TV reporting, too, but it's ALWAYS (knock on wood) followed by the breakthrough.

So now when I get to that point, I think--YAY! I'm at that entrance to the good part!

And MArk, so funny. My husband and I have exactly the same discussion. Which I often try to end by saying, well, yeah, but this might be the time it's TRUE.

And then he says: You always say that, too.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

I was thinking the same thing about Mark's wife Hank--I've heard you quote Jonathan with the same reassurance many times! So great to have someone in your life to shore you up in weak moments.

Oh Ramona, ouch--we won't advise nailing knuckles! How about moving on to another section:)

Pat D said...

You writers must be perfectionists, or trying to be, to fall into the pit of despair with your stories. Don't be perfect, be real! That's why we love your books.
Susan, I read Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante a week or so ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the history lessons. The person who rejects a story because he/she disagrees with some of the politics of the time is going to miss out on a lot. So as we said in junior high, tough beans. Their loss. Reds, and friends of Reds, I appreciate your despair and agony you suffer in your writing process. I cannot match it. I can only enjoy the end products as a reader. Just keep movin', just keep movin'.

storytellermary said...

I just want to bring you all some tea and cookies. I appreciate the hard work you do, and wait eagerly for the next book, but I don't like you to be suffering in a pit of despair. Hugs and love and faith in your ability to work through the puzzles. <3

Deborah Crombie said...

Always up for tea and cookies:-) Thanks very much, storytellermary. We appreciated you!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Thank you, Pat D., Kim, and Kathy! Storytellermary, I'd love to share in the tea and cookies! And now, back to research....

Reine said...

Debs.... Ugly Book? It is so hard to imagine you ever think that. So grateful you get past it!

Reine said...

Susan, I read that review. That was not just a bad review. It was nasty. And a slam on your readers. It sounded like he was getting off on it. Shame on him.

Reine said...

Fiction has to get sucked out of your brain. Very unpleasant process.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, thank you, dear Storyteller Mary! LOVE the tea and cookies..and the company! zoo

Reine said...

I'm smiling at Storyteller Mary who always has encouraging words and says them nicely with tea and cookies.

Cynthia Kuhn said...

Definitely in touch with these writing emotions! I agree that the only way through them is to keep writing. You are all both inspirational and wise. Thank you for this post!

Susan C Shea said...

The only time I don't wonder what I'm doing is the start of a book, the first 10,000 or so words. They twinkle and shine and the future looks so bright. Interestingly, all or most of those words go by the time I'm finished with the last edit!

This was a fun and timely topic, thanks, Reds!

Leslie Budewitz said...

HA. Late reading this b/c I spent the day panicking. :) And followed the bottom in chair rule, mostly, and wrote 12 pages, but 2 probably come much later in the book, and man, I can hardly wait for tomorrow morning b/c I know what happens in the next scene! Maybe. Until I get there. But as Debs said, when I do, it's heaven. I'm trying to think ahead, make the story decisions, then write them out -- and sometimes I manage and sometimes I don't.

Gad. I used to be an outliner, but this ms and the last one have simply refused!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

thanks Susan and Leslie. I agree those first 10,000 words are a cake walk compared to what comes next.:) Leslie, hope today goes well too!

Ellen Kirschman said...

Sorry for tuning in a bit late. Thanks for a great blog. Elizabeth George's comment “When your story stalls out on you, you’ve played your hand too soon” applies to me. So does Hallie's comment about red wine. I was stuck until I met with a writer friend for advice with my work-in-progress. After a little - okay, more than a little - red wine, she helped me see that I had started the book in the middle.

Michele Dorsey said...

Sorry I'm late to add to this, but I couldn't help but add another Elizabeth George quote from Crime Bake. “These are only words and I will not let words defeat me.” Considering embroidering a pillow or getting a tatoo with the quote.