I’m a chronic list-maker, filing system conceptor, three-ring binder organizer, and chalk board / white board scribbler. I have outlined the steps for How to Do Everything from completing the in-progress great American novel to preparing fresh green beans five tasty ways. Yet, everything is not done. Doneness is elusive.
Obligatory work that breeds on a regular schedule (grading papers, scrubbing the toilet, getting the old Chevy an oil change, buying groceries) aside, what’s the best way to complete a large project? For a creative project, I know the process is intimate and different for each individual, but there have to be some guiding principles.
I believe the first principle is deciding to have the discipline to try and figure out what your principles need to be. You have to be honest about your weaknesses and also figure out how to structure your time to take advantages of your strengths.
I have rarely come through a big project convinced I took the most efficient route. That said, the efficient route may be impossible when creating original works, as the working and doing of each component opens new doors and lends new knowledge to the creator. I am trying not to sound hippy-dippy about this, but I do think it is a bit of a mystical feeling for artists, especially writers, to look back at something and think to themselves, okay, that thing there is amazing and full and bright…now…how did I do that? How can I do that again end up with an equally brilliant product? Or for those of us that haven’t sent brilliant work out to the masses yet, how do I finish my big stuff in the first place?
This is where anxiety comes in–there are expectations! Personal expectations for a level of artistry and quality are bad enough, but what about expectations from others (editors, agents, colleagues)?
Despite the evidence of this writing sample, the key here is organization. Organization is simply an arm of hard work. We’re going for efficiency here, remember?
What I have found out about myself by trying to be organized, efficient, and diligent at this novel writing is that my brain does not respond well to various organizational schemes/goals: daily word-count or page-count requirements, namely. The horror! I thought it seemed like a simple idea, an ambitous idea. Oh, the pages I would have if I could have just followed through! I would be golden right now. I abandoned my goals. God forbid, I abandonded my goals.
But, not really. The real goal, the big goal, is the same. I’ve changed how I’m judging, assessing, and organizing my process. Instead of telling myself “Write for four hours today,” or “Finish writing scenes X, Y, and Z today,” or “Gain 10,000 words by next Friday,” I say things such as “Research Milli-Vanilli,” or “Browse images of Regency style furniture,” or “Research differing opinions on preparing Bolognese sauce.” On some days (insecure days) a to-do list like that feels like cheating. But in reality, it is these types of to-dos that lead to scenes getting completed and characters getting developed.
I’ll (eventually, heh) write a follow-up to this: more ideas on how to organize (thereby complete in an efficient manner) a large creative project. I have some specifically writing-related strategies and tools I’ve discovered. If you have any strategies/tools/organizational tactis you’d like to share, please do comment.
How can a writer judge progress on a manuscript? The problem is that the writer can be his only true judge of progress, as much of the ‘work’ he does is indecipherable to others. So, he is the ultimate judge, and he is also the harshest critic. He judges not only the work, but the creator. Forget objectivity. The spectrum of judgement flows from Manic Optimism to a feeling of Wildly Irrational Doom.
The contemporary-gothic-cinderella-pop-music-new-england-island novel fills me with excitement and, at times, dread. The pages are not writing themselves, for sure. Mistakenly, I thought I was at a point to chug through scene-writing, when in fact I am now drowning in research and complex lists of questions for my characters. I have a chunk of the manuscript written, but it is half as long as I’d planned it be by this date, this time in July.
My friend Stephanie, over at Natural/Artifical, posted recently, “Oh Yeah, That Writing Thing.” I could have written many of her words. Stephanie writes,
In other words, Second Novel has suffered — from both a lack of attention and too much attention. From endless brooding and constant avoiding. From comparisons to award-winning work, comparisons to my friends’ work, comparisons to my own work.
It’s safe to say that I pretty much beat the crap out of Second Novel.
It’s no wonder I felt beaten in return.
As writers, we are the dictators of our work. We are the slayers of our work. We build nations. Then we let our people starve. It is because we are ambitious and confident. It is because we are lazy and unsure. Doomed to fail! It can all seem doomed at times. With creativity and creation there is euphoria. With euphoria there’s always a down. We can’t escape the oscillations, and we never will. Stephanie, clear-headed and not doomed, writes,
I’m learning that sometimes I need to cut myself a break. Which doesn’t mean giving up or taking a vacation, but it does mean going easy on myself when the writing isn’t moving as quickly or as smoothly as I’d hoped.
This is true. Our hopes for our work are always overly ambitious. We just have to remember that, and then we can calibrate our emotional reactions to how we perceive our progress and give ourselves a break. Maybe we can do this, or maybe we will always be falling into holes and then diggind ourselves out again. I’m trying to move forward, as is Stephanie:
I keep asking them questions, scribbling down their answers, and trying to make sense of it all. And I’m not there yet, but certain aspects are becoming clearer. I just have to keep moving forward. I have to remember that I don’t need all the answers yet.
Today I put a wildly huge amount of notes into a black three-ring binder in an attempt to organize (or perhaps quantify?) my work, a big chunk of which is questions, scribbles, and more questions. Most of the questions will not be answered today, but the mere conception of the questions was a type of work: progress.
Today was a particularly tough day on this odyssey, this journey of completing grad school. I needed to print the final copies of my thesis. My computer, since Windows Vista is such a cranky vengeful dictator, has decided my printer is now invisible. So, I had to get the file over to another computer and try and print from there. And then that computer auto-updated itself and restarted, interrupting the print job. And then it took about a year to open everything back up and print what I managed to print, which was only three random fragments of the final manuscript, and then I ran out of paper. Don’t ask my why I didn’t think printing five hundred pages was going to be a big deal. I was sure I had a couple of reams in the office closet; but as we can see, actually finding extra paper in the closet would not have been a matching episode in the progression of my day. Which item does not match this set? Oh, they all match => all are crappy. The existence of the paper would have been too CONVENIENT. Or NICE. Or LUCKY.
And then my desk light went out and the dead bulb was stuck in the lamp and I couldn’t make it budge. I had to give up, lest the glass shatter in my hand. So then it was dark, and I had to face the fact that I COULD NOT EVEN ACCOMPLISH SUCH A SMALL TASK AS CHANGING THE LIGHT BULB. And then I realized I should have mailed my application for an absentee ballot a while ago, but I didn’t because as we can see someone stole my concept of time within the last week.
At least comps are over. At least wasabi peas exist. At least it is not hot outside. At least Tide To-Go pens are awesome. At least there are new episodes of The Office….I better stop before I talk myself out of my writerly grad-school moodiness. This evening’s task remains: print three copies of said thesis, hopefully without any grand procession of error.
“What should we do?”
“Do you have a book you don’t want?”
“The Ikea catalog?”
“Wait! Don’t use the 2009. You can use the 2008. Here.”
And that was the end of the gigantic roach and the 2008 Ikea catalog; farewell, good friend.
I’m returning from my hiatus. I haven’t been blogging lately because I have tendinitis in my hands…from typing. How freaking LAME is that? No, I didn’t tear my acl doing anything amazing, nor did I get scathed by a bullet while doing anything extra-amazing. I’ve been on a big dose of naproxen for a while so things seem to have eased up. I vowed not to do too much typing, but I just had to finish revising my novel or my head was going to explode over the fact that I only have TWO WEEKS and ONE DAY left until my comprehensive exams. Given this timeframe, I had to get that damn book out of my hair. So, I finished typing it. I would call it a failed novel. I love the characters and absolutely adore several of the chapters, but …I’m confident that next time around I’ll have a good go at it, a good go at a novel that actually has a PLOT. Heh. Anyway, there are many things I would like to write about right now–what? I shouldn’t be typing so much? This is true. Therefore, I’ll limit myself to replying to Stephanie, who tagged me with nineteen questions, and then I’ll get back to making my notecards for comps.
1. What are your nicknames? I don’t think I have any. Well, some folks probably call me a bitch, but that’s more like being called a name rather than having a name to be called by.
2. What is the first movie you bought in VHS or DVD? As a kid I remember a lot of taping from t.v.; I know I had Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland (the super awesomely-creepy version with Sammy). Both of those were the kind of recordings where you had to jump up and press pause on the VCR when a commercial came on to try and avoid taping it, and this was never accomplished 100%.
The first VHS I bought for myself was in high school. I might have been 16. I joined a music video buying club, which I cannot remember the name of. It was sort of like Columbia House, but I received VHS in the mail. I suppose that is where some of my hard-earned money from working at the grand Target went. The only bands I can remember from those tapes are The Lemonheads and The Breeders. Remember the bowling ball?
3. What is your favorite scent? I like lavender. I also like authentic nag champa.
4. What one place have you visited that you can’t forget and want to go back to? Boston.
5. Do you trust easily? Trust has to do with my intuition. I may intuitively trust you upon meeting you. It’s that easy. But if there’s any unease, then no, trust will not come easily. I trust my gut.
6. Do you generally think before you act or act before you think? Think. sometimes for a very long time, which is not always a good thing. Sometimes expedience in action is wildly appropriate. Sometimes thinking for too long = putting up with b.s. for too long.
7. Is there anything that has made you unhappy these days? Dear Horse Flies, Where the f— are you coming from and what do you want with my house? Please go away. You are huge and loud and your big buggy red eyes squick me out. Thanks!
8. Do you have a good body image? Do you mean image as in my imagination, or image as in the public perception? Who knows. I’m sure folks say things like that girl always wears that same dress, because that’s how I am.
9. What is your favorite fruit? Clementines. Fresh cherries are good too.
10. What websites do you visit daily? Aw, let us not spill all our secrets.
11. What have you been addicted to lately? Fine-point sharpies, decaf Colombian coffee in the late afternoon, making lists.
12. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is? Edearing, creative, and amazingly hard-working.
13. What’s the last song that got stuck in your head? Nick Cave’s Bring it On.
14. What’s your favorite item of clothing? A black sleeveless v-neck dress with thick cream lace along the hem and the neckline.
15. Do you think Rice Krispies are yummy? I don’t know, the cereal might be good on top of ice cream, pre-soggy stage. As for the treats, I like them if they’re vegetarian, which they very rarely are.
16.? I’m mystified.
17. What would you do if you saw $100 lying on the ground. Pick it up, and then order in some Thai food and place an online order from Old Navy.
18. What items could you not do without during the day? I think I need my make-up, my coffee, and my computer, and things with which to make lists.
19. What should you be doing right now? Um, making more NOTE CARDS about ALL of the novels and short stories and things and things and things…..for comps in TWO WEEKS. Cough.
I am tagging EVERYONE, because the last step of this game is requiring more decisiveness than I have right now. Pretend you are in the exclusive eight.
Stephanie over at Natural/Artificial has had some awesome recent (09-09) posts about REVISIONS. We are talking about revising a novel here. I love reading about Stephanie’s experiences in being totally sleep deprived and busting her ass more than she ever has in her life, because I’ve known her for years and I’ve known myself for years, and I’m busting my ass more than I may have ever before also. Also, who wouldn’t want to look at pictures of Hot British Actors and Steph’s Adorable Doggies? I love her advice of creating a scent for your project; I will do that next time around. Send me suggestions for scents for a Contemporary Gothic Romance set on Nantucket. My advice to all writers on a manic spree: Take care of yourself enough so that you don’t get sick. I’ve been teaching an 8 a.m. class, taking one grad class, starting up various editing duties again, working to be a competent and pleasant and inspiring mommy, studying for comps which are in FIVE WEEKS, revising my novel which must be complete in FIVE WEEKS, and I get sick. FIVE WEEKS! F-I-V-E.
Of course, I could also be sick simply because the new semester has started and I’m spending much more time downtown, or I could be sick because my son returned to preschool at the beginning of the month, or I could be sick because I started going back to the gym. THERE ARE HUMAN SIZED PETRI DISHES EVERYWHERE, PEOPLE. Anyway, I will get over it. Because I have to.
Is anyone a veteran of NaNoWriMo? I’ve been resistant to the idea for some reason…..oh yeah, grad school and mommy-hood, those reasons. However, I feel pretty grounded now when it comes to working and writing. I have a spiffy new office on the bottom floor of my place; my office used to be upstairs. I hadn’t estimated what a positive change moving the office downstairs would be. Now, I can’t imagine how I ever worked upstairs—right now I’m sitting next to a ten foot by five foot panoramic window. I kid you not.
My primary work-related goal for the rest of the year is to complete my MFA degree. Comprehensive exams are the last two weekends in October. I’ve submitted my novel to my advisor, but I’m unsure of how much revision will have to go into that manuscript. Hopefully, that won’t be that big of a deal. So, October. I’m teaching the mini-mester, which also ends in October. All of this everything-culminating-in-October business got me thinking about NaNoWriMo, which is in November. Besides revising the MFA thesis, completing a directed reading, and continuing to work for the magazines I work for, I don’t have much else work-stuff going on until I graduate in December. Wait, that somehow doesn’t sound like not much else all of the sudden. I felt very optimistic about it last night. Eh. I will plan on it. I’m telling myself I can do anything for a month. And it would be awesome to have two completed manuscripts in hand, even if one is a rough draft, by the time I graduate.
I’ve been researching modern adaptations of the Cinderella tale for my directed reading. I’ve also been reading a lot of Joyce Carol Oates, as well as a huge chunk of short fiction in preparation for exams. I keep coming back to the ideas of Gothic romance and horror. I’ve become slightly obsessed with Nantucket, or more so the idea of a small New England island with lots of empty big houses in the off-season, old history, isolation, the water, the fog and cold. I think I’ll let all these ideas brew for NaNoWriMo…perhaps a modern spin on the Cinderella tale and the Gothic. I’ll go with a young male protagonist Byronic hero. A haunted house estate. A devious woman femme fatale, a love interest damsel in distress, a villain. A mystery hereditary curse.
I came across the following quote while studying for comps today. I found it inspirational, even as trite as that sounds when I’m trying to maintain an ironic distance from myself. Here I am at my desk, trying to study everything there is to know about the history of the novel and the short story. I’m trying to know it all, in detail, for comprehensive graduate exams. But I want to know it all, anyway, in order to know what’s come before and to know how each artist has manipulated the craft.
Having the life of a professional, full-time writer is my
dream long-term goal destined vocation. I’m one of many with said inclination, I know. But, what is “full-time” and how much time is optimal for producing good work? I know there are some writers who claim to write for truly six to eight hours a day, but I think anyone that can maintain such a schedule, for more than a couple of weeks, harbors a specific type of mania. I had one of those six hour days yesterday.
It’s euphoric, and depressing, to come to the end of a large project. Yesterday I finished a novel, a novel I’ve been working on, in sometimes misguided directions, for years. Since 2003. So, that makes five years. Of course, this isn’t the first time I finished it. I finished it, as a collection of fifteen short stories, back in, oh I don’t even know. I reworked that material and tried to pass it off as a novel for a workshop in 2006. Then I decided, at the end of 2006, that the entire thing needed a different chronological structure and a new point of view. Profluence. So.
Over the last week or so I was nearing the end of this year-long rewrite; yesterday I rewrote two, glaringly wrong, chapters and did a huge chunk of superficial editing. I can’t believe some of the stuff I wrote in the past. Things like “The girls collapsed
to the floor.” Duh. For the most part, editing consisted of crossing out phrases. Dumb phrases.
Working though a novel-length manuscript led me to to feel alternatively masterful and idiotic. There is a type of mania that sets in when really nearing the end of something, whether it be a large work or even a short story. (Maybe it’s just the caffeine.) But then, when it’s over, I’m completely drained. It’s a crash, intellectually and physically.
Having years of work wrapped up into one tiny ball of art is also a tenuous reality to carry around. Now what? I don’t know. I felt productive in one sense yesterday, but my accomplishment wasn’t concrete enough. That same day I polished four short stories and sent them off. Submitting stories was a concrete action to take. What of the novel? It’s a computer file. Who knows if it’s any good. Sometimes I know. But you can’t know always about those things, or else what fuels the bursts of mania to make everything more and again and again?