Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Writer's Life: Interruptions

When I first started writing, way back in fourth grade, I worked on one story at a time. It never occurred to me that it was possible to have multiple writing projects in different stages. As I got older, the pile of stories begun and then abandoned grew, too. I noticed how rare it was for me to return to a story once I’d run out of steam. I either wrote it all the way through or it ended up on the Pile of Doom. Through high school and college (summers), I completed more of what I began. My gift to myself after graduating college was to write a novella, and after graduated school, I finished my first novel. (All of these were utterly unpublishable, but they had beginnings, middles, and most importantly, endings.) I was still at the stage of On/Off writing.

Shortly after my first child brought joy and unanticipated chaos to my life, my writing career shifted into a new gear, with both fanzine publications and my first professional short story sale. Over the next decade or so, I had to learn a new mode of writing: On/Off/On/Off/On…. For one thing, I often had only very short periods of time in which to madly type out the scenes I had been rehearsing in my head (see my article, “How I Write When There Is No Time” in Book View CafĂ©’s Brewing Fine Fiction.) For another, I was writing both novels and short fiction. Sometimes I’d stick the shorter works in between drafts of the novels, which was helpful in terms of “clearing my head” so that I could return to the novel with fresh eyes. Sometimes, I had a specific market and deadline for the short story and had to set aside the novel in whatever stage it was in. I would do just that, with no special preparation, and then re-read what I had written to “come up to speed.” Most of the time, that would be sufficient to jog my memory about what I intended to come next. Occasionally I’d be left with the vague and disquieting feeling that I’d forgotten some brilliant plot twist or other element. Such are the risks of being a “pantser” (writing “by the seat of the pants”) instead of using outlines.

Gradually I made more sales, novels as well as short stories, and improved my skill at alternating projects in different stages (Project 1 first draft – Project 2 – outline – Project 1 revise – Project 2 first draft… revise). I experimented with sequential leapfrogging and with handling different projects at different times of day (mornings for revision, afternoons for first drafts, or vice versa). So far, so good.

Then life handed me Interruptions. Non-negotiable Interruptions. The good ones involved having to   It simply isn’t professional to tell your editor, “Yes, I know this book has a tight deadline but I simply can’t set aside this on-spec novella so you’ll simply have to wait until the muse takes a vacation.”
drop whatever new project I was working on for reviewing copy edits, revising to editorial feedback, or proofreading a book in production.

Typically, these interruptions run from a few weeks to several months, depending on the publisher’s schedule and the amount of work. A few scribbled notes sufficed as memory aids for whatever work I was in the middle of. This year was different. Because I had 4 novels and a short story collection scheduled for 2013, I ended up with nonstop revision/copy-edit-review/proofreading for almost 8 months. And I was in the middle of a new novel I was very excited about, one of those “attack novels” that just carries you along as it writes itself. A few notes wouldn’t be enough to re-capture that momentum. So before I closed the folder for that book, I spend several days brainstorming and writing down every idea that excited me about where the plot should go, what crisis points the characters would face, and what emotional notes I wanted to hit. This wasn’t the same as an outline because I wanted to keep as many options open as possible – I wanted a playing field rich in possibilities.  If I’m working from an outline, I’ve already gone through the process of discovery, or a close enough approximation thereof so that I can trust what I have already created. This novel, unlike those I sell on proposal these days, did not have an outline. So when I return to it, I need that original exhilaration and fermentation of ideas more than I need “this comes next.”

The second sort of involuntary interruption involves an inability to write. Not “writer’s block” or, as Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff put it, “writer’s gap” (you know where you want to end up, just not how to get from here to there), but a crisis that brings all creative activity to a halt. It can be internal or external – depression, the death of a loved one, serious illness, trauma, natural disaster, criminal legal proceedings, child custody disputes – anything that rocks us so deeply that the connection to our creative selves is fractured. This happened to me following the first parole hearing of the man who raped and murdered my mother. I went through a period of several years of not being able to write (or, for much of it, to read fiction); all my very tenuous focus went toward surviving from one day to the next. Every unfinished project stayed that way, and nothing new got started.

Eventually I recovered enough to look around at the shards of my career and start picking up what I could. I wrote some new stories, which helped me to rediscover the focus necessary to tackle a novel-length work again. I had a few projects “from before” in various stages of completion. One novel that was at submission level eventually sold. Another I relegated to the trunk, on the advice of my agent, as too scattered and episodic to succeed. A couple of novelettes remain in their folders with a few “from before” rejection slips. I have no idea what to do with them. They have promise but serious flaws as well.

The thing is that when we return to projects suspended because of crisis, we do so as a different people. Interruptions due to crash-and-burn deadlines may strengthen critical skills, but they don’t generally cause us to reach deep into ourselves and emerge stronger but scarred. I’m not the writer or the person I was when I drafted those shorter pieces or that fractured novel. I’m something different. My life has been put back together in a different shape, with a different vision. Maybe at some time in the future, something in those stories will speak to me, but the solutions I come up with then will be very different from whatever I might have done “from before.”

Sometimes interruptions are just that – a diaper that needs to be changed, a revision your editor wants next week. But sometimes they aren’t so much interruptions as they are sideways quantum slips, leaving our lives and our work forever altered.

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