Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Mid-Project Crash

Hello, hello!

In some ways I think being a writer is a bit like having manic depression. There are huge, massive energy-boosting highs, followed by big, almost self destructive, lows. It's like a wavelength, our emotions go up and down all the time, up to the highest we know, and down by equal measure to the lowest depths we inhabit.

Let's say the highs are composed of the 'writers' high' (as I've seen it referred to in some texts), that being those times when you sit down with a scene beckoning, and you type like fury as the thing plays out in your mind. Between 4 and 7k words can just splurge out, and they're pure gold. The scenes are vibrant and alive, with the characters in full swing. Hours fly by, and you don't even notice, and woe betide anyone who breaks your flow!

Another high would be the satisfaction that comes with a completed story. One big high with a finished first draft, and another with a completed, polished work.

And another, huge high, with an acceptance for a short story, or a contract for a novel. Big, big emotional highs.

But we also have the lows. Yeah, you sit down on Monday and rattle out five thousand effective words, but come Tuesday, all you want to do is grin and watch telly. Something strange happened, and you can't account for it, but you don't really care. Come Wednesday, you're thinking, 'damn, I better get my act back together.' Come Friday, you're thinking you're never going to make it as a writer, and everything you ever wrote was garbage. Despair sets in.

And then there are rejections -- usually vastly more numerous than acceptances, taken in-stride most of the time, but occasionally, you've got that Friday feeling, and a rejection gives an extra kick and it's all doom an gloom.

So we have this situation where it's possible to fly high as a kite one day, and within the week, be doubtful and questioning everything, and within hours of that, the cycle can start over again as we sit down, suddenly inspired, and start flying high again... and so on and so forth.

Sometimes, though, a particular project can go into the 'damn, I should get my act together on this,' stage, but continue to resist. Some novels stall, some shorts beguile, and I'm pretty sure that every one of us has a story which has been consigned to the realm of 'I might look at it and try a revision one day' category, which we also know really means, 'I no longer give a damn about this.'

What's to be done?

I think if we could identify the no-hope stories early enough, we could save ourselves a lot of heartache. And I also think that there is a case for 'laying aside.' Not just for a few days to get perspective, not just for a few months to come back with fresh eyes and more skills, but the willingness to lay a story aside for years, on the basis that 'this sucks right now, but there's something here, and I want it in reserve for Lordy knows when.'

I know we all do have such a category, and regularly drop things into it, but I think all the nightmares could be taken out of this scenario. It's not so much, 'I can't write, I can't do this, I can't see what it needs, I can't, I can't, I can't...' I think it's more the case that, 'this ain't working right now, it's not the right time for this thing.'

A novel takes up a lot of dedicated time. Years, usually. Creating, and honing, and panning, and chopping, and revising, and rewriting, and editing... it can take a long time. Getting stuck once in a while is part of that. Like all writers, I want my latest novel to shine, to draw readers like a magnet, to hold them like gravity, and to speak to them on visionary or world-view-altering level. Fully engaged, is how I want my readers to be, and I want to employ every trick in the book, and some unique ones, in order to accomplish that.

But if my novel stalls at 14K words, I need to know what's going on, I need to know if this is: a) a short term lull in creativity, or b) a complete standstill, from which recovery will never happen.

We don't know. When a project grinds to a halt, we have no way of knowing if that's a terminal moment, or just another low.

I think we can use the wavelength theory to gauge this. I think that if an anticipated upsurge doesn't occur, that's when the project should be slid across onto thin ice. If it's then the cast that the project does not inspire over the duration of time in which you'd normally expect two, maybe three highs, then it needs to go in the bin.

And when I say 'bin' I mean, looking at it side-glance, but not really looking at it. I mean, consigned to the hard drive, with forlorn love, with echoes of passion, fingers reaching for it, but not quite connecting. Toss the story like a Frisbee. If you truly love something, let it go, if it loves you back...

Ellsea, of FM, recently revealed that she's been working on a story that she originally devised over three years ago. Three years!

It came back.

I think this is a viable technique. Yes, a novel can be forced out of a reluctant mind. But if the fire isn't there, if it really stalls and writing it is simply a case of making up the number of words, then I think it is time to cast the thing to oblivion.

Relative oblivion.

Given how much time a story takes to write and polish, and given the phenomenon of constant improvement among writers, I don't think we have the time to mess about trying to make things work when they're clearly not going to in the immediate future. Grab that next idea, and run with it.

Then when the creativity slows down, the the harder times come again, watch the wavelength.


Ink said...

Lots to chew on here! Definitely keep stories and ideas around, as you never know when they'll come back to life for you. A couple stories about my most recent novel:

Story 1) The idea for that story was one I worked out a few years ago. I did some planning, played around with various finer details... but it never came together. I liked the premise, I liked the challenge of it... but I didn't have that jolt of need, that sudden understanding of voice and vision that makes a story suddenly clear. So it sort of fell away, and I basically forgot about it. After the Overly Large Fantasy was finished, I was kicking around a few ideas, mentioning them to my wife... and she brought up that old idea I'd forgotten. And I got that sudden jolt! I could see it, hear the voice in my head, see how I wanted to do it, the POV, the techniques... It was just there. Within a couple days I was writing.

Story 2) Midway through writing the book I had knee surgery, which meant a few days away from work and writing. And even when I came back I wasn't about to hunch over the keyboard for a few days. At two weeks I could have written... but didn't. I'd lost the rhythm, the immediacy, of the story. Two weeks became four... It took a decision simply to say "okay, now, back at it." I read what I'd already written, fiddled with a few things, and then, back in the voice of the story, I continued on. Writing went great, and I was soon finished, lickety split.

So... sometimes you put things aside, but hold on to them because you never know when you're gonna get back to them. After this novel and the Overly Large Fantasy are squared away, I'm going to pick up and revise a novel I wrote six or seven years ago.

Now, having said all that... the last time I didn't finish a story I was writing was probably in the fifth grade when I tried to write a fantasy novel or two (ah, Tolkien and D&D... such cruel mistresses). Maybe I'm stubborn... but I think more of that is simply that I don't rush into writing stories. Usually when I write something it's been percolating awhile. I'm not a good "starter'... I need a pretty strong blast of energy to start something, and if it has that much energy at the start I'm fine. It takes less to continue a story, at least for me. Once I'm inside a story it all sort of flows, and then it's just carrying through and getting it down. I almost always have the basic story idea complete in my head (if not all the twists and turns along the way), so I've never been stopped by a plot blockage either. I've never had trouble finding solutions to minor concerns.

So, for me, there really isn't (or hasn't been, so far) such a thing as a mid-project crash (outside externally caused delays). The crash, if anything, comes at the end. Is this any good? What can I do with it? I've put aside completed novels at this stage. But they're there, hanging around. I mentioned the one I want to revise... and there's another that I would like to take the main premise and some details from and then completely rewrite. Another might make a couple short stories... or a novella-ish sort of thing. And my first novel will likely continue to sit on a shelf as a big learning project (though my Mom loves it...).

Bookworm1605 said...

I think there definitely is something to the mid-project crash theory. I've been in a writing funk for a few weeks now and I've wrestled daily with the concept of forced writing versus that free-flow high energy burst writing that I've experienced in the past. There's always a new project calling my name from just over the horizon, bekoning with a dose of that high energy, but I'm afraid that if I give in to that urge I'll become a perennial starter who never finishes.

After giving this much thought, though, I've recently had a revelation that borders upon an epiphany. A lot of my energy gets sapped away because I start out with a clear vision of my world and characters and the conflict, but not the resolution.

Perfect example: I'm winding up a rewrite of I Stand Alone. The second half is getting a complete overhaul, mostly because of you guys' comments. But, I made the same mistake when I set out to do the rewrite that I made on the original. I tweaked the world and added conflict but I didn't completely flesh out the resolution. As a result I blasted out the first half in a day or so and then foundered. For weeks now I've moped around this story and just about decided that I must not be a writer because this would make the third short story I started and couldn't finish. Then I had a day off during the week and I got some quiet time to really think about it. I tied Daisey the rabid Jack Russell up so she'd leave me alone and forced myself to fully think the story through.

Boom. The energy came back once I had a clear idea of where the story ended. Now I can hardly wait to get the chance to finish it. Once I'm done with this rewrite I'm going to apply the same principle to those other stories sitting on my hard drive.

I guess my point is that everyone is going to suffer from a crash at some point. The key is doing a bit of self-analysis and getting to the real reason behind the stall.

Ink said...

That's interesting, Book. I don't think I ever really start writing anything until I have a pretty good idea about the ending. I guess I'm just not one of those writers who writes blind, and goes wherever the wind takes them. I usually let an idea ferment until the main points are clear. And I think the ending's always pretty clear from the start. I liked endings. I can do endings. Beginnings, on the other hand...

Damyanti said...

Longer projects do stop midway, or even earlier than that. This is because tho I more or less know what happens in the end, I have not much clue how to get there.

So the idea gets started, a few thousand words, then I let it stew while I add a few ideas in.

For short stories, I have stories at various stages, and usually quite a few incomplete first drafts which I keep re-visiting from time to time, and one fine day, poof, I finish one, then another.

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