Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Flattening the Rollercoaster

Do you feel it? That you live and die a little with your stories? It's a wild ride, this writing gig. Peaks and valleys. The post about confidence made me think about something, along with a prompt from something Wanu mentioned the other day. It struck me that I might not have told you that I once had a literary agent. Did I? I figured I must have at some point... but then I started wondering. Perhaps I didn't?

And the reason I bring it up now is that I learned something from that experience. It was a few years ago now, for a book I wrote called A Love More Desperate,, a sort of surrealist war novel. The day the agent offered representation was a beautiful, happy, wondrous day. It was a day of validation, one which I'll always remember. It was a bright day in a time when I was mostly seeing black ones. I was trying to work while going to Teacher's College, I was planning a wedding, I was overworked and exhausted and just diagnosed with Colitis... and my father had just died. And then an agent asked to represent my novel.

It was a beautiful thing. Over the next while I worked with the agent, revising certain elements in the book. And then it was ready to go, and... the agent passed away from cancer.

As good as that first day was... this one was bad. Emptiness, really. It took awhile for it all to sink in. My hopes severed, loose, like a rope suddenly untethered. Life was interesting, too. Moving, starting a family and a new business... I put the book aside. Right choice? I don't know. But I was burnt out with it, I think. And maybe writing in general, or perhaps it was just a time to deal with life and grief.

But the writing spark hit me again, of course, once life settled a little. I started writing some new things, found a new space in my new life for the written word. But, looking back, I realized I'd learned some important things too. That sense of validation, that acknowledgment from an agent... while a beautiful thing, it was not something to stand my hopes on. Confidence, faith, belief... these have to lie somewhere else, otherwise I'd always be riding that dangerous rollercoaster.

I think what I learned was that I had to seek validation in the writing itself. It had to be something inside. It had to be inside both me and the story. It had to be something I strived for and reached on my own. The validation, the true satisfaction, had to come from my own sense of things, my own happiness with what I'd written. The rest would come after, and it would be what it was. It would succeed or not. But my hope, my faith, would not be tied to the whims of a capricious publishing world, but rather to my own simple stories, to words that I could shape, to words that could believe in.

And now? This is the year that I'm going to pick up that novel again. I'm going to make it anew, and take it on a trip... but it won't be on a rollercoaster. A train, maybe. Heavy, solid, hard to knock off its tracks. Slow at first, perhaps, but it has speed, a growing momentum. Hard to stop, those trains. I'll be in the dining car, relaxing, enjoying the view. I won't know the destination, but I know I'll be happy wherever it takes me.


Wanu said...

This is a fascinating area.

I think confidence, validation (sense of, and need for), pride and the desire to improve authorial skills all kinda writhe around each other.

I don't know if I've mentioned it on the blog, but I've spent the last few months head-butting the keyboard.

Figuratively speaking.

Trying to improve the way I handle characters and their personal journeys. I'm finally seeing improvement, which means a lot to me on a personal level, although it has yet to be verified in critique, or by the market (I wanna hit a couple more home runs, in my own mind, before I put this new skillset on display).

That sort of self-assessment does carry an element of triumph. But publication, the big "Yes, we'll take that," from an editor is a much bigger, 'Boo-Yakka!' feeling, a sense of having hit the bullseye, seeing damned well that you've done so, and starting to celebrate.

The difference between self appreciation and external validation is where things get a bit odd, I think.

On the one hand, that axiom, 'Write for yourself' holds true - that's where your own style and voice will come from.

But, on the other hand, simply assuming that you're a writing genius and refusing to believe that your work could be improved could be a form of delusion and prevent an author from raising the bar on what they do.

I find this interesting because of all the shorts I've written, my favorite kinda sucks if held to a template - its fairly cheesy, the narrative distance on the MC is quite remote, there's back story in the second paragraph... the story itself is somewhat ambiguous: its just a quick-fire look at near mystical possibilities that provides no conclusive narrative on the matters at hand.

I know it breaks a lot of rules, and I am struggling to find a home for it, but I love it!

I think we'll always have stories like that, odd ones that please us as authors and readers to a high degree, and to which we'll maintain a personal loyalty, even though the market may disapprove.

And then, I think, it can go the other way, too. One of my worst stories, to my mind, was bought by the first editor I sent it to!

There's an odd thing with this, because you want to be published with things you're proud of, and I wasn't proud of that, so seeing it in the public realm wasn't an entirely comfortable experience. Still, the fact it 'made it' got me punching the air, and other people who've read it seem to like it. I guess it's just me on that one.

None of this is static, though. I think it's important to understand where a story can be made more reader friendly, or more poignant, or clearer, or more visceral. That craft side, I think, is more composed of the desire to improve, and (if you have it) that tends to be threaded direct, it plods on while the other emotions do their oscillating thing - from confidence to agony, from pride to despair...

The journey definitely is bumpy, but I think the 'train' thing is that constant aspect borne of dedication, while all the corkscrews and big dippers are just natural challenges and exhilerations along the way.

Like other areas of life - how many times do people think, 'I'll never get this done on time,' or 'God, how am I going to get out of this mess?' Writing issues and workplace issues bear some similarity in that respect.

A builder once told me that he accidentally broke a water pipe in someone's house while doing a fairly simple job. He said the whole place got soaked, there was thousands of dollars worth of damage, and he could see it happening. He got stuck because he put his hand over the hole to block the leak, but that held him in position, unable to go outside and turn the water off. He said he looked around in that moment, realized that the small job he'd come to do had just turned into weeks of work, which he'd have to do for free. It mesesed with his schedule and finances, and it messed with the client's schedule and finances, too. He was like, "It was the worst situation, but... it passed, these things always do in the end."

I think the workplace can get like that. Writing can definitely get like that, and I think the emotions of being in a complete fix are broadly analogous to a 'down on writing' phase. Confidence gets shocked to the background for a while, but there are more important things driving you during those times. Dedication, mainly.

Sarah Jensen said...

Ink, the eloquence in which you write is something that I aspire to. Not necessarly for my Young Adult novels, but for everything else. You too Wanu.
I enjoy reading this blog, because it inspires me. Just as going to church each week tunes me up, this blog does the same.
I agree that if you are doing this for the recognition alone, then it's a sore trip of disappointment. But if you write because it's a love, then even if things don't work out the way you thought or wanted, then you're still okay. I believe everything can be comparable to life. It is often through our worse times that we grow and understand. We learn beauty.
Without pain and heartache, we can't know and appreciate joy. Without death, who would truly appreciate life?
The same holds true in our writing.
Thank you for sharing your journeys with us. I enjoy the ride.

Ink said...

Thanks, Sarah! Much appreciated. And I agree with you completely. It's such a tricky thing, though, not getting overly caught up in that outward validation. You work so hard on something... you send it off, risk rejection... and so acceptance is fantastic. And it's not like I don't want to enjoy that moment. I do, and hopefully I'll fully enjoy all the good moments in the future. I think what I learned was just that this can't be the foundation. Your first judgment of your writing's value can't be tied to the whims of the world.

I think you're right, in that it starts in the process itself. You gotta love doing it, actually sitting and punching out the words. As long as you can do that the time is never wasted and the experience will always be important and worthwhile. And if you're happy with what you've done... well, rejections mean less. And success is a wonderful bonus.

Whatever my ambitions, I try to keep that in mind. Success is a bonus. Hopefully that will keep my fat head from getting too much fatter. :)

Ink said...


Yeah, I'm with you there. I think that necessary self-satisfaction comes with hard work. It can't be a sort of assumption, a sort of "hey, I'm a genius, and my first draft is pure genius too, so I'm just gonna swing with that and not bother revising..." I like the challenge, the need to revise, to work at it. I think it's satisfying to work and work and work... and then finally have it pay off, and the story comes out the far side just the way you want it. That easy success... that's the Dark Side calling! Or Merve... ;)

Wanu said...

Hey, Ink. Yeah, I don't think success comes easy in this game! I'm going to spiel, too, although you've probably read this already.

Totally, Sarah, I'm quite sure that those ups and downs tend to be composed of equal strength. The bigger the problem, the more gratifying the resolution.

I wasn't sure whether to bring this to the blog, so I posted it elsewhere, but I'm going to talk about my latest 'down on writing' phase, which is currently becoming a fairly huge up phase. I think downs and ups necessitate each other, like yin and yang, you really can't have one without the other. Or, at least, if you had a hugely long down phase, perhaps that would make you quit, and maybe then find something more rewarding to do (i.e. if a person is writing, but they're actually much more gifted to, say, play tennis or something).

Someone once said to me, "This time next year, you'll be amazed at how much better your stories are than they were the year before."

I think that's true of every year in which a writer looks back. I like that, and I love seeing authorial improvement from year to year, but there are times when gaining authorial improvement is painful/confusing/has thrown me out of my groove/made me think of jacking it in.

Learning some things is very difficult. My biggest weakness is in character revelation and bringing the MCs thoughts and emotions to the reader in an immersive, easily-empathized-with way. It's a helluva shortfall for a writer and I've started writing stories specifically to play with character handling methods. For months, this has been dogging me silly.

It's a frustrating thing, because sometimes, when I'm in the flow of creating, decent character work just pops out and nestles nicely into the sequence on the page. But it has never been consistent, and no matter how many editing swoops I make, I'm often hesitant to break up the scenes with new character-revelationary additions. Like I don't allow the space for it in the pacing of the sequences, and then the character aspects become difficult to introduce.

The worst thing about this situation has been that I 'know' and understand character handling. I've read plenty of writerly material on the subject. It all makes sense, and I 'get it', and can appreciate how other authors are using the techniques, but when it comes to actually doing it for myself... gah!

Some things are like this. With, say, grammar, you can learn some, and then use it straight away, but something more nebulous, and less easy to move into intuitive use, damn but that takes work.

In the first few months of consciously thinking about my character handling, and trying to address the problems, my ability in that area got arguably worse!

I've believed for a while that 'down on writing' phases are triggered by too much technical pushing during the creative process.

Certainly, I've struggled with the whole character thing so much that, at times, it has given me serious pause, like, 'if I can't get to grips with this, that's it, the stories are never going to be good enough,' or I've rebelled and thought, 'maybe I just don't write that way, maybe my visual clues are the strength in this writing, and deepening the character work will harm my style,' or even, 'if I can't get inside the characters, maybe I should write screenplays?' or, 'maybe I shouldn't write fiction at all?'

I hid in non fiction for a while, and eventually the juices started flowing again. I had a bash at a short, experimental story with a view to getting inside the MC and staying there.

I screwed it up, and kinda lost sight of the MC in the latter stages of the story, but there was a helluva glimmer there. I got an encouraging comment on the character work in critique, which brought about a real ray of hope - some nice external validation that things really were moving along. That helped.

I have now re-written that piece, and the MC has a full story arc, and the deep handling of her is consistent throughout the story. I might have gone overkill, but I'm happy to lay it on a bit thick while getting to grips with this a bit better. I seriously look forward to the day when I can recognize exactly how much character needs to go in, where, and where to draw the line.

It's a bit like climbing a mountain. Sometimes, we really don't do all this for other people, some aspects become very personal, and actually making it onto the peak is a purely internal fulfilling experience. Others can shout up, things like, "You're nearly there!" but standing atop the thing, looking around, is entirely appreciated from your own perspective.

In terms of ups and downs, I think the best way to keep your chin up is to try and keep perspective. During the dark times of struggling, when a habitual problem or something becomes incredibly difficult to tackle, things can get pretty bad.

I think it can become a very short-sighted time, worsened by the facts that:

a) real life friends aren't likely to listen to something like the character-work anguish of a writer. I mean, how often do you appreciate someone telling you about problems they have at work? I consider that it's the same sort of thing. Or, I suppose, someone who does Karate bemoaning the fact that he can't get his side-thrust kick right. You know what I mean? It's just a weird thing to talk about; and,

b) other writers can't necessarily help. Certainly, they can help to identify problem areas, but working on those weaknesses is entirely down to you. So something like my character handling becomes quite a personal struggle.

I think, because of these things, a writing problem can grow all out of proportion, and hence the thoughts: 'I shouldn't be doing this, its never going to work...' etc.

It was good for me to look back over all the things that have happened in the last couple of years. Doing that gave me an immediate frame of reference, because there have been a number of encouraging developments, including publication.

I'm generally quite upbeat about writing, and it's rare for me to hit a 'down on writing' phase, so this prolonged one came as something of a shock.

One big problem knocked my confidence, and I thought it could mean 'the end' as it were. But there are so many other reasons to keep going, so many other pointers that things are actually going quite well, that it's odd to think something that really doesn't mean all that much (in a 'in the grand scheme of things' kind of way), and that only takes time, hard work, and maybe patience, could wreak such havoc on my overall sense of progress.

I'm impatient, too, which doesn't help.

I really think that it is okay to have big writing problems, and that it's okay to charge at them, and that it's okay to ease back, and that the depths of turmoil are met, in an equal and opposite fashion, by the ultimate feeling of achievement that hits when you reach the other side.

Hard work, climbing mountains. But a hell of an achievement to reach the top.

Ink said...

Hey Wanu, I think learning often follows that pattern, with a "conscious" stage followed by an "unconscious" stage. When you're learning something, developing new skills, you start using it, but you do it consciously because it's not natural yet. It can seem awkward because it hasn't become comfortably mastered yet. But after a bit of practice, a bit of experience, suddenly what was a conscious act becomes a matter of instinct. The skill has been absorbed amidst the others and surfaces unconsciously at need.

And I think the more experienced you are (and talent don't hurt either...) the easier it is to develop new skills for particular tasks. So, Ian McEwan wants to learn a new technique for something... and it probably doesn't take long. Talent, vast experience... he'll incorporate that new skill into his toolbox very quick indeed. Whereas a young writer will probably fumble about a lot more, trying to find a way to make it work, to make it mesh with everything else.

I think that really goes for most human skills, and with something as complex as writing even more so. It's easier to get stumped. I mean, I think the process is the same for, say, learning to drive, but the basic skills are much simpler. Writing, though... ever changing and amorphous, the tricks are not as easy to see, understand and incorporate in a natural way... especially when you have to find a way to make particular ideas work not just in general terms, but in regards to your specific style (or possible styles, if used in a variety of different works).

I always just figure if I keep playing around with it the technique will fall into place. At some point, anyway. :) Call me an optimist!

Bookworm1605 said...

Man, that's tough, Ink. Not to make light of a person's death--I certainly feel for your erstwhile agent's family--but that's rotten luck.

And Wanu, I certainly commiserate with you, being down in the valley. Been there, done that. Tore my tee shirt. (you know, as in the Biblical tearing of clothes and gnashing of teeth associated with general misery)

But my questions is, as a writer of fiction, do you really want to flatten the rollercoaster? Aren't the highs and lows of the emotional spectrum the stuff good narration is made of?

Of course, you are referring specifically to the emotional trauma associated with writing itself, as distinguished from the broader agonies of life. I know what you mean in that regard as well. I've gone through a slow progression that I'm sure most of you guys can relate to. At first, I wrote in complete isolation. No one saw my work. It was too private. Too personal. Now, you guys who write some mainstream stuff have it a little easier IMO when it comes to handing a story to an aquaintance for a looksee. Purveyors of Weird Menace are to be cautioned when it comes to handing out their manuscripts. I did it once and the poor guy still won't/can't make eye contact with me.

Then I discovered FM and internet forums and some others of like mind who could better appreciate things like the plight of a werewolf abducted by aliens. At this point critters became my audience. I wrote to them, for them. I had no desire to submit anything for actual publication. Maybe I was afraid of rejection. Maybe I was terrified that this would reveal the fact that my writing was junk. Or...maybe I was happy with an audience of a half dozen or so. My various states of psychoses rose and fell upon the words written in critique of my stories. I took everything literally (heh,heh) and radically rewrote entire stories based on single crits. Then somebody kicked my butt (W!) and got me to start sending stuff out. Haven't hit paydirt yet but the favorable notes I've gotten from editors have encouraged me. I have now moved from that hyper-focused-on-crit stage into something else. I appreciate the feedback and I follow all of it that is good but I have a strong enough sense of my own style that I can use what I need and discard the rest. I think I still aspire to that next level, Ink, that you are talking about. That place where you can find self realization and fulfillment from your work, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Wanu, something in both your posts struck me. I understand you are in a funk with your writing and you specifically mention characterization. You also mentioned your published works, wondering about how your favorite story hasn't sold but another, GN I presume, did get published. You should think about GN and the processes you went through when you wrote it. I bet that it was a fast write for you, instinctive almost. That particular story really hits on your quirky sense of humor, so I bet it rolled off your keyboard. My point is, I think you can try too hard sometimes. I know stuff like characterization has to be intentional, but I still think you can make it more natural. I'm trying to do more development of my characters before I ever start writing--trying to make them into real people ahead of time--so that when I write I don't have to think about what they'll do. They'll just do it.

Wanu said...


I totally agree with that, and I think the driving analogy is spot-on, along with the extension for the complexity of writing (and self appreciation/assessment of it).


My answer to your question is: as much as I hate the lows on the roller-coaster, I definitely want to keep the whole shebang.

Do you ever watch Scrubs? It's quite surreal, and mainly produced for comedy kicks, but there's a nice underlying theme that the hospital where all the characters work is a big, demanding, monster of a thing which is difficult to appease. It's like an achievement to work there while maintaining a social life, and sanity. There's also the sense that the characters in that situation wouldn't have things any other way.

That's how I feel about the ups and downs.

And yes, that area... I quite liked GN, in all of its incarnations. The story I wasn't so keen on was called Take a Risk. Part of the reason I disliked that story was because it wasn't an original idea: I took an old gambling tale and realised it in an urban environment with a housewife MC. I wouldn't count it as plagiarism, because the original fable is only about four lines long, but on the other hand I kinda wish my first sold piece had been completely original. I suppose the actual story isn't bad, but then, the bones of it have stood the test of time already! Never mind, let's look at this other point...

You're right to look at the area where (what Weird Jim calls) author enthusiasm is stifled, and no longer comes through a story after a post-crit revision.

That's definitely something to watch for, and something that I was doing to my own work for the longest time.

I'm pretty sure I don't do that anymore (and my answer to dealing with it is coming up in the March edition of Vision!).

It is always a threat though. I think the best work does come from a flowing use of everything you're comfortable with at the time of writing. First drafts seem to improve with time, and that's hulla helpful when revising and editing. I don't mind stopping to think about stuff when running out a draft, though. I've hit my first major snag with Making of a Hero, but I still know what I want down. It isn't quite coming off the way I want, but I'm aware of that, and confident that the margin of error is easy enough to work with when I come around to polishing it.

Author enthusiasm is a big thing, and it does jump out of a story which contains the real energy of an author's own interest. That is easily subdued, and it's possible that I'm subduing some of my prose with this overly conscious approach to character handling. But I kinda think, at the same time, this is really going to be worthwhile in the long run. The big, hooky, lovely stories might not be coming off my press at the moment, but the ones that are coming out are basically going to contribute to a much stronger stable further down the line.

Churning through dodgy stories, I think, can be viewed as a negative side effect of conscious effort for a while, but as soon as the techniques under scrutiny start to move into the intuitive realm, I think that's a bit of magic, a seriously alchemical result of what's been put in the pot beforehand.

Ohhhhh! Do you see what I did there? :D

Ink said...

I agree with what you guys are saying. I think what I'm talking about is sort of like a writer's insulation. What I don't mean is that I think writers should be a flatline, and go through their writing in a catatonic state. We all have natural peaks and valleys, and I doubt we can really change that. Sometimes we'll be up and sometimes we'll be down.

But I think we often let the outside world affect that ride too much. If you're down, and someone says "You suck. You're the worst goddamn writer around"... that might send you into a huge dive. Even if you're at a peak, and someone says that, it might send you quickly into a dive. I think this is what we have to guard against. And even positive feedback, if we place too much emphasis on it, can be misleading and create a sort of blind arrogance.

So by flattening the rollercoaster I think I mean flattening those unnatural peaks and highs. So, flatter... but not completely flat. No pancakes, please. I like that image of insulation. Heat has to come from within... and we need a little protection against the cold of the world.

It's a bit like an addicition, I think. That's the analogy in my head, a sort of drug addiction. People take a drug to raise that peak extra high... but when you bottom out you often sink extra low. You're tampering with your natural peaks and valleys, exaggerating them artificially. And after awhile your peaks will only reach your old average feelings, and the lows will be way low... until eventually you need the drug high just to get to "normal", and beneath you a great abyss has opened up...

I think writing is a bit like that. The world tries to distract you, tries to mess with your natural peaks and rhythms. Now, we're human, it's not like we can avoid being swayed by anything, ever. I mean, I get a novel published my peak is going to jump up there, I'm guessing, and a rejection is going to peg me down a little. But I think it's important not to get too caught up in that. You don't want to crave that high. Better to take it in stride, I think, and still keep focusing on the important things. Focus on the writing for the sake of the writing. And day to day life. My kids are more important than any book I'll write.

Maybe it's about grounding my ambitions, about understanding why they're important. To me, that helps (though it isn't always easy).