Jumpstart

April 29th, 2008

I have an erratic career path.

My first four books were written between 1976 and 1981; book number five took another two years to write (I went to the Clarion SF Writing Workshop; I moved from Boston to New York; I worked part time and then full time, I fell in love, I fell out of love.  Life, right?).  I also started writing SF and fantasy short stories.   When I turned in my last romance (in 1984) I kept writing short stories and started noodling around with a story which grew into a book.  It took me more than ten years to finish that book (worked freelance, picked up my acting career again, fell in love, got married, started working at Tor Books, had a baby, went back to work again, left Tor, left the job after that, edited comics for three years, had another baby).  I sold the book on a partial manuscript while I was still working at Tor, and was more than half-way through it–but it still took what seemed like forever to finish.  After I turned in The Stone War I got a chance to do a work-for-hire novel based on a Marvel Comics superhero–Daredevil.  I wrote that book in about six weeks, from a fiendishly tight outline (remind me sometime and I’ll tell you the hoops you jump through to write tie-in novels) and it was fun.  Then I wrote Point of Honour, and almost immediately afterward, Petty Treason.

Then, two weeks after I turned Petty Treason in in 2002, we moved to California.  My writing path since then has been, um, erratic.  And with the benefit of hindsight and a several-decades-long career, I now realize that my writing history is punctuated by gaps.  Some of them very significant gaps.  I am not, nor do I ever expect to be, one of those 2000-words-a-day-year-in-and-year-out, writers.  But there have been times when I wrote consistently, turning out a book a year or so.  And times when I didn’t, when I felt guilty because I wasn’t writing, or because I wasn’t finishing a book.  Guilt, needless to say, butters no parsnips and is the enemy of the creative process.

But a time has come, at the end of each of these hiatuses, to jumpstart my process and get back to work.  What to do?

Here, in no specific order, are some of the tricks that have worked for me:

  • Retyping the stalled manuscript.  Yes, even at book length.  Maybe especially at book length.  Retyping immerses me in the book in a way that merely re-reading and line-editing doesn’t.  I often find myself adding, branching out, finding the places where I went astray, cutting out wholesale chunks.
  • Writing “cover copy” for the story.  Nothing focuses what you believe are the salient points of a story like trying to convey it in a punchy, convincing two paragraphs.
  • Following The Artist’s Way or some similar program.  The Artist’s Way requires, among other things, that you write three pages, longhand, every morning before you do anything else.  When I was stalled on The Stone War this was one of the things that helped get me moving again.  And you don’t have to follow all the rules the Way suggests: Julia Cameron isn’t going to show up at your house at 6am to make sure that you’re writing before you feed the kids, or that you’re making all your “artist dates.”  The right way to do this is the way that helps you.
  • Participating in a writers’ workshop–one where I have to show up in person (nothing against online crit groups; I just found that having to show up was useful to me) and one in which I focus as much on the critiques I’m giving other people as I do on their critiques of my work.
  • Reading stuff that makes me want to write.  What is that going to be?  Sometimes it’s fiction that, in some way, approaches what I’m trying to do.  When I was working on Point of Honour I was reading The Maltese Falcon, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and The Name of the Rose.  If another writer has pulled off a particular technical trick, I may want to read that work for awe and inspiration.

I am reasonably certain that, however long my writing career continues (until they prise my laptop from my fingers, no doubt) there will be lulls in my creative process.  That means I’m always looking for new ways to jumpstart that process.  Got any you want to share?

11 Responses to “Jumpstart”

  1. Kate Elliotton 30 Apr 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Music, although that’s more for short term jumpstarting (a certain tune triggers the feeling it’s time to stop wasting time and begin).

    I think retyping the stalled manuscript is an excellent idea. Also, I’ve suggested “The Artist’s Way” 3 pages technique frequently and used it a couple of times myself. Writing just to get the flow moving, without any expectation that those words will be any good or any use; just for the connections to start waking up.

  2. David Louis Edelmanon 30 Apr 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Terrific post! Oh, and not because I’m stalled on a part of my book. No, of course not. <cough>

    I find that outlining sometimes helps me. If I jump back up to the 50,000-foot view of the novel and try to write a quick-n-dirty synopsis of what I’m trying to accomplish, often I can figure out the problems or find a new way around them.

  3. Constance Ashon 30 Apr 2008 at 4:30 pm

    I like retyping too. It makes what is working jump out as much as what isn’t working.

    The more difficult side of this is that it also shows you how much you’ve changed, and maybe the world too has changed, since the last time.

    Love, C.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 30 Apr 2008 at 9:08 pm

    Gack! Tie-ins!

    But the pressure to do a book in 6 weeks does put the writing juices into action!

  5. Kate Elliotton 30 Apr 2008 at 9:38 pm

    I think one thing deadline pressure can conceivably do is force the writer to stop THINKING (i.e. letting the Internal Editor slap down every attempt at a phrase or sentence) and just write words that can, theoretically, be revised later.

    Here’s my question: after a long hiatus, what is it that one needs or is there any precise way to measure it? Is it that writing is like, say, running, and you need to build up to “get in good writing shape” or is it more like a stream that’s gotten bogged down in a series of deadfalls, rockslides, and backwaters, and has to cut out a new channel to flow properly? Or – some other fabulous analogy?

  6. Madeleine Robinson 30 Apr 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Each damned book has its own requirements, which makes it hard for me to come up with a strategy that will always work. I had to outline The Cutting Edge (sorry Lois: the tie-in book) to a faretheewell, because Marvel had to approve the proposal and then the outline (in the event, I got the okay on the proposal two weeks after I finished the book…but that’s another story). Having an outline that tight was initially intimidating to me–I didn’t feel like I had room to write. But I got over that and found I could write-by-discovery even within that framework.

    With The Stone War I stalled about 2/3 of the way through, and found that a very ve-e-e-e-ry loose outline helped…once I had done the 3-pages-a-day thing for a while to get the muscles moving again.

    I also have found that when my objective in the novel is getting lost in the mist, writing a once-upon-a-time story about the plot. Huh? An example from Point of Honour: “Once upon a time there was a fallen woman who became an investigator…” or something like that.

    As for deadlines, sometimes they are marvelously focussing, and other times they absolutely paralyze me. And I don’t know until I reach one which it’s going to be. At times like that a work ethic is useful…

  7. fritz freiheit.com » Friday link dumpon 02 May 2008 at 3:30 pm

    [...] Jumpstart (DeepGenre) [...]

  8. ehjoneson 04 May 2008 at 10:36 pm

    Interesting post, and it comes at an interesting time for me. Sorry, this is kind of a long and rambling reply, and I apologize if I seem to be feeling sorry for myself.

    After a two-year relationship with my agent, in which she advised me on re-writes to my first novel, assisted me in re-working some of the direction on my second novel, and encouraged me to write something new and out-of-universe (since my first two novels are part of a series), she has decided to release me from my agency agreement. I won’t go into too much detail, but it turns out that my first novel, while being praised as well written and enjoyable by many of the editors who read it, was also rejected by every editor who read it.

    So here’s my question about how to “jumpstart” things, not just creatively, but professionally. On the creative side, how do you jumpstart your creativity for something new, when the something old you’ve been working on for a few years consumes you so much? If my series isn’t going to sell because of something out there that’s too similar, I need to work on something else, but my heart and mind keep going back to book 3… I can’t seem to get a different story going. It’s gotten to the point that I have stopped working on novels altogether, and instead have pulled together a creative team and begun working almost exclusively on comic book concepts.

    And on the professional side, what do you do when your primary work is good enough, but is still being rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with quality? In my case, and much to my chagrin, my series has been called too similar in basic premise to another series out there. The tone is different, and the characterizations are worlds apart, but the very basic premise behind the stories share a few important elements. And without those elements, my stories don’t work. That’s the professional side… is it possible to overcome something like that?

    One thing I think I could truly get my brain around would be one of those comic book tie-in novels you mentioned, but writing one would be pointless unless I already had the job… and you don’t get those jobs on your first time out of the gate.

    So what’s a qualified but unpublished author to do? Other than keep writing… that’s a given, and something I’ll be doing until I’m in my grave, whether I’m ever published or not. But for now, the only plan I have is to start submitting to some smaller publishers myself, without representation, and hope I can get myself out of the slush pile that way. And I can already tell I’m going to miss the days when my agent got me, if not out of the slush pile, at least to the top of it.

  9. madeleine robinson 05 May 2008 at 8:12 pm

    Wow. I wish I had a simple answer for this. I’m having to–at least temporarily–walk away from a couple of books I really enjoyed working on, because their published siblings didn’t sell well in paperback (by “didn’t sell well in paperback” I mean, sold really well in hardcover, but died such a death in mass market that the chain stores don’t ever want to buy anything from me again!) and my publisher has suggested that I try something else and use another name. Ow.

    And despite the fact that I’m working–slowly–on a book that I’m very interested in, that’s a chewy new approach for me, I am still mourning those half-born children.

    Some idiot concrete suggestions: try writing short pieces if you can, even if you can’t finish ‘em. Try some old writers’ workshop tricks (ie., write down ten opening lines, choose three, and write as long as you can on the first one, then go to the next one and write as long as you can, and then to number three, and you get the idea; or try drawing three cards from a tarot deck or illustrated game deck of some sort, and write something that is inspired by the images; or choose three random words from the dictionary–words you didn’t know before–and write a story based on one of them; or…you get the idea. Don’t worry about finishing anything, just get a lot of stuff going and see if anything just won’t let you alone…

    It’s not just to keep writing, but to keep being jazzed about writing, and if you’re mourning a work you may need creative distraction.

  10. OtterBon 06 May 2008 at 12:44 pm

    I wanted to thank you for mentioning The Artist’s Way. It seems vaguely familiar and I think I saw it at a point sufficiently long ago and far away that it might as well have been a different life. At the time I wouldn’t have thought of it as applying to me (and would have considered it too woo-woo anyway). Even now I wouldn’t have described myself as a blocked artist. And yet the “morning pages” technique is resonating with me like crazy and I think is going to be very helpful for digging out of some ruts I’m well dug into.

    Most of the site’s posts about writing and genre fiction are interesting to me, but this one is immediately applicable as well. So, thanks.

  11. Madeleine Robinson 06 May 2008 at 1:20 pm

    I’m glad it was helpful. To be frank, I was very leery of The Artists’ Way when I first heard of it. I don’t much care for prescriptive teaching, particularly where creative process is concerned (I had a colleague when I was editing comics who believed that if you hit all the beats in a five-point-plot the story was bulletproof. “But it has rising action, increasing difficulty, climax, resolution and validation!” he wailed. “Yes, but it doesn’t have believable characters. And some of your beats are soggy,” I said back. It was not a fun conversation).

    Once I realized that I could pick and choose–take the morning pages technique but leave the exercises–I found it very useful. And the exercises might be the core of what works for someone else. There are more ways to do this writing thing than you can shake a stick at.

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