It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated my author site, and for that, I apologize. I’m a bit in awe of my friends and colleagues who actively maintain blogs while working full-time. I realize that there’s no secret: it just takes work. I’m going to try to update more frequently. With Pile of Bones coming out (July 30), I need to spend more time online, connecting with potential readers and generally being available. When I was working on my first novel, I imagined that I would one day experience a glorious book tour. Maybe the book would even get its own cardboard cut-out. The reality is that publicity has become DIY, and in order to create and maintain a network of readers, you have to search for them.
In the meantime, I thought I might write a little about surviving deadlines. If inspiration is the fun daimon—the one who whispers in your ear: “Get drunk! Visit a park! Call your ex and transcribe the conversation!”—the deadline is the daimon who shuts down the party. Even unpublished writers have to deal with deadlines. At the university where I teach, our creative writing students are expected to produce new material each week. They can’t simply cite writer’s block as an excuse, because they’re being graded on their output. There are certainly weeks during which I can barely produce a few words, let alone the solid opening to a short story, or a well-crafted poem. Writing under a deadline can generate enough anxiety to keep you up all night, but you won’t be getting anything done—instead, you’ll be playing online games, hysterically updating your Facebook status, and imagining what would happen if you skipped town and entered some sort of Writers Protection Program.
If you work in the nebulous area known as genre fiction—i.e., if your novel can be clearly marketed to a specific audience—then strict deadlines are a part of your life. Most publishing houses will require you to produce a novel each year, and many of the Romance houses will ask for more than that. There are well-known SF/fantasy writers who produce 2-3 books per year. These are writers who have achieved a level of literary fame, but they still work according to this schedule, because it’s virtually impossible to support yourself by writing alone. These are not ideal conditions to be working under, but the publishing industry needs to meet the demands of its audience. Just as an actor has to take on multiple roles over the course of a year, an author has to commit to multiple projects. Only about 0.5% of writers, at the very top of the fame pyramid, are able to take breaks between projects. I usually tell my students this on the first day of class. I’m not trying to be cruel, but many of them want to write fantasy or science-fiction, and I think they ought to know what they’re getting into.
When your manuscript is due in a year, and you’re already working full-time, writer’s block has to be carefully managed. It certainly exists, although not to the extent that we see in cinema and television, where idealized writers who haven’t produced anything in a decade are moaning about their lack of inspiration. If you were actually trying to live by your writing, and hadn’t produced anything in one year, the situation would be fairly grim. Some people discount writer’s block as a kind of literary hobgoblin. What Tyrion Lannister would call a “snark” or a “grumpkin.” I believe that it does exist, but not as some kind of wraith that wants to suck your soul. It’s more of a multi-layered type of exhaustion, which strikes artists and academics, as well as professional writers. In order to work beneath a deadline, you need to find ways to defy writer’s block, without pushing yourself to the point of physical breakdown.
Here are some strategies that I’ve learned for surviving deadlines, while still maintaining some semblance of humanity.
1. Do not write every day. I once posted, quite arrogantly, on a forum that professional writers should write every single day. I was dumb, and wrong. You should write when you have the time and the energy for it, but if the tank is empty, then give yourself a break. The key is to learn what “empty” truly feels like, because it’s different for everyone. Sometimes, if you’re a bit tired, you can push through it with a cup of coffee, some lively music, a walk around the block. Other times—when you feel like you want to pass out—what you need is a hiatus. Writing when you’re completely tapped will only produce that sad paragraph where you’re describing exactly what’s happening around you: “The sun was hot. He was sweating. The fan buzzed. The cat was asleep under the table.” Save yourself from this self-reflexive narrative, and go have a nap.
2. Make use of coffee shops. Even smaller towns will usually have several. If you can find a place that’s relatively quiet—or at least a place that has ample seating—then you should be able to work in fits and starts. Nobody expects you to produce a chapter in a few hours, but an iced coffee and some pastry power can often get you through a page, before you know it. Although coffee houses have their own distractions, these are far less than what you’d experience at home, with your books, and your TV, and…oh, it’s been a while since I’ve watched that DVD set, maybe just one episode of Firefly. Going to a café implies purpose, and sometimes you can actually guilt-trip yourself into writing. It’s an ideal place to work for a few hours, and once the chair gets too uncomfortable (or someone puts on a Katy Perry CD), you can go home. That allows you to break up the workload. If you happen to get a second wind, you can always go to a late-night diner. Often, changing your environment can have a kind of “re-charging” effect.
3. Remember that you don’t need a perfect manuscript, you need a finished manuscript (this is also true of academic theses). Hammering out a draft is more important than honing each paragraph, regardless of whether you’re a “basher” or a “swooper,” in Kurt Vonnegut’s terminology. Honing comes later, once the material has had some time to ripen. If you run into a wall, then try to write around it as best you can. You can always return to that point later. If the wall seems insurmountable, then give yourself a couple of days to really think about it, but resist the urge to obsess. The answer may not arrive until you’re further along in the writing process.
4. Distract yourself with other creative material. Read widely, watch quality television, spend some time in darkened theatres, listen to music. All of these media have the potential to be inspiring, but you also have to really offer your attention to them. Mute the voice that’s telling you that you should be writing. Turn up the Manu Chao, or the video game soundtrack. Make notes while you’re watching films and TV shows. Go see a play, where the experience is interactive. Sometimes, writers will read an exceptional novel, and think: I could never do that. Imposter syndrome. It’s as real as writer’s block, but you have to be more direct with it. Just say: no, I’ll probably never write something exactly like that. But I am, currently, writing something that’s interesting, and I’m sure I can learn something from what I’ve just read.
5. Leave your house. Spend time with friends. If life is merely what gets in the way of your writing, then you’re doing it wrong. You can’t always be observing. Sometimes, you have to participate. Allow yourself to get sloppy, make mistakes, get hurt, take risks. The worst thing you can do is be surrounded by your friends and family, while thinking: I should be writing. Instead, think: I am one lucky asshole, to have these people in my life. Put down your anthropologist’s glasses, and pick up a glass of wine. If something particularly literary happens, you can write about it some other time. But just as often, these moments remain elusive, and impossible to revisit. That’s what makes them shine.
6. Try to enjoy the process. Writing is awesome. It’s seductive, and powerful, and it can transport you to unfathomable places. Simply finding time to write—even a few hours in a day—is an outrageous luxury that most people don’t have. If you’re one of the lucky ones, then pause, every once in a while, to feel satisfied. You get to tell stories, and make up worlds. People whom you’ve never met—and will never meet—are going to read your work, and be affected by it. That’s a magic spell: creating some small change, good or bad, in another person’s life. Don’t shy away from it, and try not to complain (too much) about the work that such an enchantment requires. Just say the words, and step back. Someone has heard you.