Monday, June 13, 2011

A Writer's Quest for Focus and Balance (Stephanie Kuehnert)

So I finally sent a revised version of the Bartender Book to my agent on the 26th. (You may remember from my last post that I'd really wanted to send it on Friday the 13th because of my whole lucky 13 thing. Well, as my husband pointed out 26 is double 13!) The last week or so of revisions (the process of which is recounted in detail on my blog here) was intense. We're talking working from 9 or 10 am to 1 or 2 am (yes, you read that right 2 am, not 2 pm) on the revisions with breaks only to feed myself or my cats.

Since I'm a total masochist binge writer, I totally loved it. I was in my zone, progress was sometimes slower than I wanted it to be, but I was happy, in tune with my characters and my story. But now I am at loose ends. It seems that when I don't have a reason to be focused like a deadline (whether it's one I invented for myself or one I was given), I lose all focus. Also when I don't have one primary task like "finish revisions" and instead I have a bunch of smaller tasks like "try to write a new scene," "write a blog entry," "catch up on reading other people's blogs," and "make a grocery list," I become extremely overwhelmed.

The Bartender Book has been my primary focus for a year now. I was going back and forth between two books for a while, then my agent tried to sell one on partial, failed, and said I was going to need to write fulls for her to shop. Knowing that I'm a slow writer as is, I decided that I had to pick one project to finish. I chose The Bartender Book, a decision I spent many months regretting, but then I finally got in the zone and was pleased. During that time I've flirted with a couple of other ideas, had two "affairs" like April Henry described in her post (though those dalliances only resulted in 15 pages or so each and a bunch of jotted notes). And now it is time (I hope!) to begin working in earnest on either finishing that partial that didn't sell or one of those affair books.

Of course there is a massive difference (at least for me) in the way I write when I'm starting a project and the way I'm finishing. I am now used to spending hours on end in front of the computer screen, happily tapping away. I can't really do that on a new project. In fact now it's been so long since I've started a new project, I've kind of forgotten how that works. Plus I have a couple of things holding me back. The biggest one is that I don't know if my agent will thing my revised Bartender Book is as solid and ready to be shopped as I do, so part of me wonders if I'm just going to start something and then be called back. Part of me would find that incredibly frustrating, but there is a tiny little piece of me (really really tiny, but it's there), that would be slightly relieved because then I wouldn't have to take the risk of starting something new. You see that's my other problem. I learned the hard way that I really only can do one project at a time, but my self confidence has been shaken so much in the past couple of years that I can't decide which is best.

I took a long weekend away from writing and just read, hoping it would revive me. My plan is to write a solid 25 pages plus a rough sketch of both of my two "affair" books and reexamine the partial that didn't sell, then go over them with my agent and critique partners to figure out which to pursue next. I also had this glorious idea of leading a more balanced life than I have been as I finished up the Bartender Book. I will actually start seeing/talking to friends on a regular basis and responding to email in a timely manner and blogging again and reading blogs and magazines and I bought all these books on craft plus there is my massive TBR pile....

Ever since I left my full-time job in September of 2008, I've been seeking this kind of balance and a routine that left me feeling well-rounded rather than constantly playing catch-up. I only work 3 nights a week, so it should be a lot easier than when I worked 5 days (or before that when I was juggling grad school with two, sometimes three jobs), but it really isn't.

There are only two things I know for sure:

1. If I don't start the day by writing, I will either never get to it or if I do get to it, it will be sporadic and sucky.

2. Word count goals don't work me. I get hung up on them instead of focusing on the story.

I've tried to come up with a routine for myself that involves writing 5 days a week in two or three 1.5 hour increments with 15 or 30 minute breaks between. Then doing all the online stuff like blogging and emailing, plus carving out time for reading each day. Then I have one day a week to run errands and play catch up and one day a week to hang with friends or do something I want to do.

I tried this last week and it worked really well.... on Monday. The rest of the week totally crashed and burned and I got next to nothing accomplished. Part of this is because some seriously crazy stuff was going on in my personal life last week that made focusing on anything else next to impossible. So I'm going to give it another go this week (even though this week is already going to be thrown slightly out of whack because I'll be out of town on Friday and Saturday).

The problem is while I was so good at turning off my internet and hiding my smartphone during revisions, I'm having a hell of a time doing that to focus on my new ideas. I used to just plunge into a story, writing whatever scene took my attention, but now for various reasons (self-doubt, nervousness about what will come of the Bartender Book, and every book just being a new process), I can't really do that anymore. So I'm looking for tips, writing friends. How do you get the motor running on a new project? How do you bring focus and balance to your writing life?

5 comments:

  1. I am still slowly building up the confidence with my writing but I never force things. If things aren't working then I know it shows in the writing so I will go for a walk or do something else that is fun and takes my mind off it. I normally find then that whilst I have been doing that other thing my mind has been thinking and re thinking the writing and suddenly an idea will come. So I write down that idea and normally find that I write more than I meant to and suddenly I am back in the swing of it. Although if that doesn't happen I used to get quite annoyed with myself which would kill all creativity - now I think OK so I have to push that aside and not beat myself up and it's amazing how much easier the writing becomes when I am kinder to myself. That might not help everyone but I've found it helps me.

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  2. Maybe if you're a binge writer, you should just *be* a binge writer, and not try to force yourself to change? Use these in-between times to relax and catch up on the things that get put aside during a writing binge.

    I don't have any magic answers, of course--just a suggestion!

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  3. I am exactly the same with word count goals. They have never worked for me. I get distracted by constantly checking the word count instead of just letting the story flow. ergh.

    To help with a new project? I usually have to just not think about it. At all. Then the ideas suddenly start flowing out of nowhere, and assuredly, at the most inappropriate times. But hey, whatever works. :D

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  4. I'm also a binge writer...(I go on what I refer to as "Crazy-Writes," where I do nothing but write for twelve hours a day.) I HATE first drafts ("hate" should be in bold print and italics), so I try to give myself just really out-there page count goals on drafts. (I know "page count" sounds scarily close to "word count"...) Anyway, point is, if I give myself insane goals, I don't have the luxury of overthinking or second-guessing anything. I just have to roll with it. Many times, I find myself thinking, "Oh, yeah, this is SO going to get cut when I revise" as I plow through a scene...But so many times, amazingly, it DOESN'T, and I'm grateful that I didn't talk myself out of cutting it during drafting...

    Another thing that helps as I write? Home renovations. It's amazing how much clearer the world can look after swinging a sledge hammer...

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  5. Thanks for all your thoughts and suggestions, guys. Ali, you are so right, it is essential to be kind to yourself as a writer or writing does get frustrating. That is something I have to keep reminding myself.

    Jennifer, to a degree I can and do do that. When I can binge, I absolutely will, but the problem is I can never binge when I'm starting a project, only toward the end or doing revisions, so I have to trick myself into starting one so I can get to the binge, lol! I think I came up with something though!

    Here is my new trick guys! Lydia, it might work for you because it is about butt in chair rather than word count. I have the exact same probs with word count as you. http://stephaniekuehnert.blogspot.com/2011/06/15-hour-writing-challenge.html

    Holly, high five for the fellow binge-writer and first draft hater! I can't do the insane goal thing because my story gets way too out of control hence the butt in chair method instead. But home renovations, I like that!!! And cleaning and rearranging furniture...

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