Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I'm cheating on my book

So now that we've worked the elements of each act all the way to the end of our story (theoretically...), we're going to go on to rewriting.

But, well... there's a little problem I've been having, and it's time I confessed.

I seem to be writing three books at once.

How did that happen? I’m supposed to know better than that, aren’t I? Wouldn’t I scathe a student up one side and down the other for not focusing on one project until it was done?

Well, I’m not exactly a student, though – and as a screenwriter I juggled multiple scripts at various stages of development all the time, I had to, it’s just the job.

But books are different. They’re so much bigger. Can you really compare the two?

I think I know how this happened, actually.

First, I’m in transition. The Universe in its wisdom has decided to revamp every single aspect of my life in a major, bone-shattering way, and it’s been – special. So it’s not all that surprising that all that upheaval from all directions would start to reflect itself in my writing life.

Second, I just turned in two projects, one right after the other, my paranormal that comes out this fall and a book I wrote with three fabulous other female authors, four interconnected novellas that make up an – apocalyptic – story of its own.

And everything always looks different, disorienting, when you are finished, truly finished, with the immense task that writing a book is.

So it’s not so very surprising that I’m not entirely sure which of the three projects I was toying with - before I had to power down and finish these last two – I want to go back to, now. I don’t even know who I am, anymore – how the hell am I supposed to know what I want to write?

Now, some of this is just rhetorical. I KNOW which book I have to finish first. That would be the one that’s almost finished, duh. It’s unfortunate that I had to leave off on that one at the very worst possible time to leave a book – 3/4s of the way through a first draft, that Slough of Despond where you realize that you never had the slightest bit of talent to begin with, that in fact elves wrote your last four books, along with everything else you’ve ever written, and you might as well go do that other thing that you can’t do because no writer is really equipped to work at anything else, but you better figure something out fast, because your writing career is officially over.

I’m sure none of you has the slightest idea what I’m talking about.

But yes, that’s where I was, and that’s what I had to face when I picked that book up again. Sheer, unadulterated panic ensues.

Now, as I tell my students, as writers we have to push through that section, it is not optional, because it’s exactly the emotional and physical predicament that our CHARACTERS are experiencing at that point of the story… when there is no possible solution to anything in front of them, or us, and we have to have that experience together to get to the final battle. The process is cleverly, sadistically designed that way as part of the magic of storytelling.

And the truth is, I have hit this wall in every single script I’ve ever written, and all six novels, now, and I have always, every single time, gotten through it. That’s a pretty damn good track record.

But it still feels like dying, every single time.

And there are particular elements about this particular book that are making me more nervous even than usual. First, I’m adapting my own short story as a novel. So the gremlins are whispering: This is a short story. What ever made you think it could be a full length novel? You’re stuck because THERE IS NO MORE TO WRITE. Fool.

Also, it’s my first YA. And it’s way too dark to be a YA. Oh, I know, everyone says there’s no such thing as too dark for a YA anymore, but trust me, there is a limit, and I am it.

So that’s Book One. I had 170 pages when I stopped. Clearly need to finish that one first, but - see above.

Book Two is a huge departure for me. Agent loves story. Brilliant group of author friends love story. It’s something I’ve been thinking of for years but finally figured out how to actually do it. Okay, it’s a bit of a departure, urban fantasy, I guess is what I have to call it, and suspenseful, but not so dark as usual, but I was wanting to write something not so dark. Started it back before I had to finish the last two projects and got 85 pages pretty fast. Went to NY for BEA and researched locations, fabulous trip, lots of ideas, should be able to jump right in, no problem, right?

Except that this is the first thing ever that I’m writing in first person. What in hell made me want to do that? I don’t even READ first person. Add to that, it keeps feeling like it should be first person present tense. Aaaaah!! I am completely paralyzed. Go back and rewrite it in third? Push forward but switch to third? Push forward and try first person present tense? I’m not paralyzed, I’m comatose.

So, enter Book Three. Book Three was an idea I was toying with at the same time I was thinking about doing Book Two. More along my usual – very adult, very dark, half crime thriller, half supernatural, or maybe the characters are just crazy… there is an emotional core to it that intrigued me, characters that felt already real, but Book Two felt like a Bigger Idea.

Only once I came up for air from the two just-finished projects, I couldn’t get Book Three out of my head.

And you know how it is about that book you left behind, especially when you are struggling with your current project. I KNOW you know. I have a friend who calls it “the bright and shinys”, but let’s be blunt. It’s the ultimate forbidden fruit. You know you should be committed to your relationship, and you are, really you are… but….

So I was just toying with it, really, a little harmless brainstorming on the side, and suddenly, WHAM!!! That whole book is in my head. Can’t stop thinking about it. And Book of Shadows is out and I’m getting the reviews and the letters and realizing – oh my God, I really am writing a very specific thing and these people who are reading it are expecting that very specific thing – why on earth, when I’m just starting to hit my stride with my particular brand, would I want to suddenly jump track?

My readers would LOVE Book Three, it has everything that they say they read me for.

And it’s in third person. Unless I make it first person. Which I might.

So that’s where I am. Utter chaos. Confusion. When I know – I KNOW – that the only possible way to maintain a career as an author, or any kind of writer, is to FINISH WHAT YOU START.

Well, but this last week, the smoke is starting to clear. I think. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I have been writing five pages a day on Book One. Mind you, the book went off on a tangent that when I reread it might belong to a different universe entirely, but it was so fascinating I just had to go with it. And I was able to remember, barely remember, but remember, that THE FIRST DRAFT IS ALWAYS GOING TO SUCK. It doesn’t have to make any sense. Whole sequences can be thrown out. My only job at this point is to get to The End. Once I reach that happy place known as the Second Draft, I know I can make it happen. I always do.

And you know what? I think I needed to have the release of that illicit brainstorming on Book Three to break through my paralysis on Book One. The utter absurdity of juggling three books took the pressure off all of them. Maybe even Book One got jealous and stopped playing so hard to get when it felt like it was losing my attention. Yes, that sounds completely insane, but can YOU explain how writing works? I thought not.

So now I think I have a plan. Five pages a day on Book One until The End, no excuses, and after that’s done I can do whatever I want on either of the other two for the rest of the writing day. I can live with that.

And the moral of the story? Well, it just goes to prove my number one and only rule of writing.

WHATEVER WORKS.

Really. Whatever gets it written, is gold.

So here's the question. Have you ever cheated on one of your books? How'd that work for you? Humiliating disaster, or creative breakthrough? Can you have multiple projects going, or are you a True Blue?

- Alex

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How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)

What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)

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Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.

23 comments:

Summer Ross said...

I thrive on multiple projects, I'll write poetry, short stories, and work on a novella. sometimes, I'm roughing it through all of that and homework from college. I'm a chaos kind of girl.

elfarmy17 said...

I'll have a big "gold rush" on one story, then have a blank spell where nothing much gets done, and then slide into a slow-but-steady routine where the novel gets done as well as other random projects.

jnantz said...

I'm true blue WHILE I'M WORKING ON IT, but when I get stuck, and that downtime develops? Um, yeah, well, there was this one time, and see, what had happened was...

It resulted in breaking the ice and helping me find what works for me as a creative process all at the same time. The truth is, the other project has a much bigger feel to it, and neither may ever be published anyway, but I finally (after 6 months of trying to plan and failing) have the whole story worked out. So maybe a little cheat like that is just what the creative part of the brain needs?

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I'm a monogamous kind of gal and I write start to finish, so typically I only have one project at a time. Still, there's that half-finished novel that I was persuaded would be wildly difficult to sell. I abandoned it, but it keeps calling to me...

G.R. Yeates said...

Similar thing happened to me last year, Alex.

Right down to writing a project that was in first person though mine was very bizarre and Burroughsian in style. Writing my own Naked Lunch in three months was a weird little experience.

I think it's a part of the creative process in that we follow a certain groove, cultivate a particular style, for a while and then end up jumping to doing something completely different.

After that, we then do come back to more familiar territory pretty much as you have described.

I think it's the mind's way of saying it needs to do something fresh and radical to flex dormant creative muscles. It's made my writing stronger as result and the work I've done this year is, I think, my best so far.

Whether everything you write 'works' or not I don't think is necessarily the point of such a phase. It's about getting certain things out of your system so your writing can evolve. I think that's as important from the more practical side of things as it is from an artistic point of view.

So yeah, I'd say embrace the crisis, let it carry through and don't panic because it will all come together and make sense in the end.

.Greg.

Paula R said...

Hi Alex, what a journey. I am just starting out, so I am going with one book at a time. I actually have several started, but my focus is on that one. I seem to get impotent when I think about working on all four ideas. You are a trooper and I am loving that mantra...whatever works. Thanks for the lesson.

Peace and love,
Paula R.

RhondaL said...

I'm cheating on my series. Book One's first draft is done. I need to be revising, except the first paragraphs don't want to cooperate. I switch 'em, I change 'em. Days pass. Oh geez.

I'm also turning idea for Book Two into a Premise because I'm not gonna get lost in the swamp of the panstateria again, like I did with Book One, no sirree. So, I've been working on that, too, especially on a notepad while stuck in waiting rooms.

But then I was on the train and saw an incident that set my mind in motion. I stayed up til 1 am banging away at a summary all the way to the Mid-Point.

The Book from the Train has nothing to do with my series, and it keeps drawing me back from time to time.

Anonymous said...

oh Alex, I'm so glad to hear this!

I'm plotting a book that I started in an online writing class in July and while I was doing that another book idea with a main character formed,popped into my head.

So, I am still trying to work on my first project, and this new main character, this girl or woman actually, just won't shut up!

She keeps talking to me and I keep saying , "not now, not yet"...but I can tell, I'm losing ground here. I'm at least going to have to start with some notes very soon, just to get a little peace of mind!

So thanks, because I was really afraid of having 2 projects going at once!

Christy

Winter Hansen said...

I loved this post! I'm not the monogamous gal by nature, only by discipline, but all of a sudden, I've got a summer full of mischief and there are two rough drafts to finish but trying to figure out which to work on is driving me crazy. I've defaulted to the WHATEVER WORKS mode. It's all we can do, but whatever you do, keep the ball rolling, right. Thanks for your awesome and inspiring post. We are not alone.

Gayle Carline said...

I only do one book at a time. Can't help it - I've only got one story in my head at a time. Not only that, it's the only story I'll ever have in me, ever, and as soon as I finish it, all my words will dry up and I'll never write again. Until I think of the next one. BTW, I did the short-story-into-a-novel experiment. I now refer to it as my beautifully written piece of crap. I wish you better luck with yours. MUCH better luck.

Anonymous said...

I started a novel and shelved it for another when I realized that the first was like a gassed up car with a destination and no road map, GPS.... The new project led to a sequal just as easily and both are now in various stages of editing. Both of those stories were like friends driving up while you're packing the first car and searching for the map. 'Hey, wanna come with us?' Everything just seemed to be in place: friends (char.) beckoning to me, the car gassed up, map in hand, destination determined. I've now returned to the first book and am rereading your posts to try to plot that route! Thanks, Debbie.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, well, COLLEGE, Summer. That's the time to embrace chaos, if ever there is one! Good for you.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jake, yeah, maybe it's time to admit that we all need that little project on the side.

As long as we are committed to FINISHING our main one.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Jeffe! You may have a point that the LONGING for that forbidden project can be a powerful motivator, too - to finish the current WIP and get to the other.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, what a great post! Very wise. I did find at RWA that the authors who first published about the same time I did were having the EXACT same multidimensional crisis I am, and it was comforting to talk in through with them. It does seem to be the creative nature to want to break your stride just as soon as you hit it.

And you, writing your own personal Naked Lunch? Terrifying..!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, I would SO cheat on a series! I don't see how you can't. I haven't even been able to commit to one, yet.

Book from Train, hmm... I bet that's a good one.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Winter, I bet you're right that summer has something to do with it, too.

No, we are not alone.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Debbie. Everyone's making me feel so much better about this! Of course we all have half-started projects lying around, that may or may not go anywhere, but we need to play. I can freak myself out so easily, these days.

Lorena said...

So I finally unearthed your card from where-ever-did-I-put-that after RWA and am now immersing myself in these posts hoping that screenwriting tricks will help me break through my blocks to writing the high-tension scenes I like to read! So...thanks for making your experience available!

I tend to have way too many projects going at once. New stories are seductive. And I worry that if I don't write at least SOME pages, I'll lose what was going through my mind to begin with.

So I don't think it's bad; I think it's a sign of creativity, at least as long as you don't end up with 40 unfinished mss sitting around gathering dust. (Not that I have 40 of them, really....)

laughingwolf said...

yeah... something always seems to pop into the old bean and i run with it for a while... and yet something else rears its ugly head... then another

eventually they all get done, but don't ask me how i got there, cuz i have no clue

R.J. Mangahas said...

Multiple projects? Hoo, boy. It worked okay for poems and stories, not so much for full length plays and novels. I was lucky to finish SNAPSHOT. And when I say finished, I just mean first draft (translation: huge mess). While writing it, I tended to drift off into other things if I got stuck. It's a good thing I was able to get back on track, otherwise the book would still be sitting unfinished.

N. R. Williams said...

Hi Alex, I just found you. Currently I am finishing the final edits on my epic fantasy, soon to be released. At the same time I have four in this series partially written and I am starting a short story series. My epic is third person and my short is first person. I thought it would be much harder than it is turning out to be. The most difficult thing in all this mess, is finding time for family.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I'm cheating on a book right now with an older book. Hope to get it submitted to several places in the next week and then I can get back to my poor, lost book that's been around for 2 years.

I do often cleanse the palate with a short story though.