Mr. Earbrass and Me

August 21st, 2006

People often ask me, “What’s it like to write a novel?  How does it make you feel?”  The best answer to that I’ve ever seen lies in one of Edward Gorey’s “novels”, THE UNSTRUNG HARP, or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel.  This slender work has the advantage of also being very funny, unlike the process of writing a novel.

At the moment, I have just finished the final-for-now draft of THE SPIRIT STONE, all 653 pages of it, though I still have to finish the spellchecking (into 2 spelling systems, British and American), which always drives me nuts.  It’s a short drive by then.  I am spaced out, shatter-brained, scatter-brained, and half-witted.   It will take me several days to return to for what passes for normal around here.  My code name for this state is “urk urk”, borrowed frome the “Ernie” comic strip by someone whose name I can’t remember at the moment.  I’m lucky to remember my own.

Kate and I thought it might be of interest if we all discussed what we’re like and what the process is like for us at various times during the writing of novels.  Thoughts, half or otherwise?

14 Responses to “Mr. Earbrass and Me”

  1. David Louis Edelmanon 21 Aug 2006 at 8:53 am

    Right now, I’m spending most of my time either a) skulking around guilty that I’m not finishing book 2 faster, or b) skulking around guilty that I’m working on book 2 and not doing more to promote book 1, or c) skulking around guilty that I’m wasting time working and doing neither a nor b. The common thread here is skulking around.

    I have to admit that the title of John Scalzi’s upcoming writing book, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, has affected my attitude about my writing too. I do most of my writing by taking my laptop to a coffee shop. So now, even when I’m not skulking, I’m feeling like a poseur.

    Of course, when I come up with a great idea or finish a great chapter, I immediately transform into the Emperor of All Time and Space.

  2. Mark Tiedemannon 21 Aug 2006 at 9:36 am

    I have only one habit that has been consistent, which is when I have finished and mailed the &^#^& thing, I clean house. This is a period my mate loves, because I take a week or two, do laundry, floors, clean the bathrooms, throw out all the accumulated whatever that the previous six to ten months has caused to be gathered in, and general do an overhaul of the house.

    Not that I don’t do any of that during the writing period, but it’s far more haphazard, spotty, and irregular.

    This year is turning out differently. I finished two novels–one at the end of January, mailed in February, the second around mid-April, mailed in late May (for various sundry technical reasons I won’t go into here) and began my habit. But.

    The ‘Buts’ will get you everytime.

    I have no contract at present. We all know how long it can take before some editor, publisher, or combination thereof says YES (or even No). I fidget unless I’m Doing Something. A jumped right back into a new novel. (I’m also switching genres on this one, which will prove interesting.) The ritual house-cleaning got only half-done, and we have company coming in soon, but Im not 2/5 into the new book and can’t think of much else.

    This is the point that I actually enjoy–a hundred, two hundred pages in and it feels like it’s going to go all the way. I’m still interested, I’m still eager, and I’m learning my characters. This will pass. By the time I get toward the end, and even more so after the second or third drafts, I will hate it. I will loathe the sight of it. I will hope fervantly for a winning lottery ticket so I don’t have to finsih it. This is mainly because I still have a day-job I can’t get rid of (and want to desperately) and every delay, every rewrite, every twinge of conscience that says “you know that’s not good enough” means it will be longer till I can quit and do this full time.

    As I’m now into the third novel of the year, several other rituals have been forgone, and I’m feeling very…compressed.

    Fortunately, the previous two books passed muster with my agent, which has become a kind of release for me. Permission to go on to the next project. So now I’m doing this. And just now, I’m having fun.

    But the absolute immersion in the process required to make it worht while steals brain space from everything else, so I find myself less observant, sometimes ambivalent about everything, and occasionally an insensitive lout.

    The house still needs cleaning.

  3. Sherwood Smithon 21 Aug 2006 at 10:05 am

    Mark, would you please marry me? Tell your mate I’ll only require you here when you finish a book, and once you clean my house, you may resume your lives.

    I too have a deadline at the end of the month, for a 200,000 worder. . . . but I am not going to bore on about that here. Instead, I want to hear about Kit’s and Kate’s processes…how much of that under-the-gun craziness do we all share, and how much is idiosyncratic?

  4. Sharon Leeon 21 Aug 2006 at 10:14 am

    Well, let’s see…

    There’s the Goofing Off phase, where I am too writing while cleaning, gardening, going for walks, and doing everything except, y’know, actually sitting down in front of the computer and putting words on the screen. I’m fairly amiable during that phase, and prone to initiating Random Drives to the Ocean, or Afternoons At the Movies.

    Then there’s the Honestly, You Have to Get Serious About This phase, in which I do actually sit in front of the computer, and a 500 word day is a Good Day. Still not in a horrible mood, though less likely to suggest Days Off.

    About three-quarters of the way through the first draft, there’s the Ohmyghod, This is a Hopeless Mess phase, where I sulk for a couple days, examine my life choices, and conclude that if I’d continued as a secretary all this time, I’d be retired by now, which would have been Better for Everyone. I listen to a lot of blues during this phase and reread favorite books to prove to myself that I will never attain the level of craft that I find exciting and rich in other writers.

    After the sulk becomes deep and hopeless enough, I grimly gird my loins and return to the computer and begin again, resigned to the fact that anything I type will be Garbage, but determined to See This Thing Through. I often promise myself that I can quit, after I finish this book.

    Around about page 100 of the new draft, something will click and I’ll become excited about the story; I know exactly where the non-working pieces of the first draft snap in, why Character A did This in chapter four and how it ties in with the action in chapter seven. I’m preoccupied in Real Life, absent-minded and monosyllabic. The cats avoid me.

    If I’m lucky, the I Hate This Book phase will coincide with –30– Otherwise, the last few chapters are like pulling hen’s teeth, but the momentum of the story carries the day, and the author.

    Once the book is in the mail, I read, watch movies, talk with my partner (if he happens to be in one of the more approachable phases of his writing cycle), catch up on phone calls and correspondence, and in general assure my friends that I’m alive.

    Also, I clean the house.

  5. Mark Tiedemannon 21 Aug 2006 at 10:42 am


    A useful thing I learned a long time ago, which I pass on to students. Every writer has what I call a Shoulder Critic–a nasty homonculous that sits on your shoudler while you work, whispering constant streams of undermining venom in your ear. “That’s crap, you know it is, why are you bothering? This will never be worth a damn! Oh, what a cliche that was! How can you call yourself a writer?”

    I believe that the substance abuse problems of many great writers come from trying to shut this little turd up. Of course, it seems, the better the writer, the worse the Shoulder Critic. (I grant you, many don’t seem to have this particular problem, or if they do they have wills of titanium that allow them to ignore the little imp.)

    My method, rather than booze or drugs, is to get out of bed at four or five and start working–before the little guy wakes up! –and thereby get a few hundred to a couple thousand words down before his carping starts.

    Eventually, he wakes up, but by then there’s half a new chapter and he actually becomes useful in the rewrite. It’s as if he says “What’s this? You already did it? Well, okay…let’s look at it…oh, you need to fix this…”

    So far, this has been coinsistent. I can do rewrites any time of day, but first draft has to be in the twilight zone of Not Yet Awake.

    Oh, and Sherwood, I am really flattered. I have found that cleaning a woman’s house is one of the greatest aphrodisiacs not talked about in any of the books. But marriage? I don’t think it would work out… (he says in his best Captain Jack Sparrow drawl). But I appreciate your appreciation. (smile)

  6. L.N. Hammeron 21 Aug 2006 at 10:44 am

    Congrats, Kit!

    I think The Unstrung Harp should be required reading in creative writing classes. The Most Truthful depiction of the writing process ever.

    I just spent the weekend reading through a zeroth draft for the first time. This is the phase when I discover that no, the book doesn’t suck — just the climax. And, okay, yeah, I need to trim bits from the first third before the momentum gets going. There’s work to be done. But it is not the gaping maw of sucktasticness it felt like when I finished it a week before.

    OTOH, I could be deluding myself that it’s funny to anyone but me. That’s what I need outside eyes for. And for the stupidities I can’t see.


  7. Tapetumon 21 Aug 2006 at 11:32 am

    I agree about the shoulder critic, Mark. Mine is apparently an early riser, so I end up writing most of my new stuff late at night, after he’s packed it in. Like you, I can edit any old time, but new stuff pretty much always happens between midnight and 3am.

  8. David Louis Edelmanon 21 Aug 2006 at 1:45 pm

    In addition to the Shoulder Critic, sometimes I also get the Shoulder Sycophant. You know, the guy who whispers to you that your work is absolutely brilliant, and so what if you’ve just written three compound sentences in a row with alternative spelling and a few dangling participles? If James Joyce and William Faulkner could do it, so can you! And anybody who doesn’t understand your work is just dumb and uneducated.

    Unfortunately, the Shoulder Sycophant usually makes an immediate handoff to the Shoulder Critic, and then they pass things back and forth just to keep me disoriented.

  9. Sherwood Smithon 21 Aug 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Yes about the shoulder critic, and getting up between four and five. (Only free time I get.)

    Mark? C’mon. My spouse says he wouldn’t mind atall! (If only I could inspire the kids to find housecleaning a turn-on!)

  10. Katharine Kerron 24 Aug 2006 at 3:57 am

    Well, I’m now at that “but have I revised it enough?” stage. I’ve spellchecked, converted my WordPerfect files into Word (which the editors want), got them all ready to transmit on Tuesday next — but I keep wanting to go back and fiddle with them. I am making myself wait, because the editors will doubtless want some revisions, and it’s better to do them all at once, and besides, I need a break . . . BUT . . . but . . . but . . (whimpering sadly)

    The thing is, The Human Mind loves habit. Mine is currently in the habit of working on THE SPIRIT STONE. It does not like to admit that it needs to form new habits, ie, working on THE SHADOW ISLE instead or even — gasp! — taking a break.

    Still, habit can be our friend. Once you force yourself into the habit of writing everyday, you will want to write every day.

    And yes, I too go through the euphoria/depression cycle with my writing. Some days it’s the best thing since Proust, on others the worst since “Eye of Argon”. I think this is a characteristic of being in the grip of the Unconscious Mind, which is even weirder than the Conscious one. :-)

  11. Mitch Wagneron 24 Aug 2006 at 12:12 pm

    I can speak to the power of habit. For about 30 years, I was in the habit of talking about writing about fiction, but not actually doing it.

    Now I’ve gotten into the habit of doing it.

    My secret: 250 words a day. That’s my quota. After 17 years online and 22 years as a professoinal journalist, I have developed extraordinary diarrhea of the keyboard, and 250 words a day is easy. And that’s all I need to do.

    Of course, I always do more, because who can get up and stop after precisely 250 words (well, Rex Stout used to do it, but most people can’t)? You have to finish the sentence or even the paragraph, right?

    Often, I find that 250 words is enough to get momentum going, and I can tap out a couple of thousand words easily. Other times — like this week — the days are filled with alarums and excursions and being chased by bears, and I’m pretty worn out in the evening when it’s time to do fiction, and 250 words is all I can manage (plus a few more to finish out the sentence or the paragraph). But that’s okay, because all I need to do is 250 words.

    A novel is technically 60,000 words. At 250 words a day, that means you’ve knocked out the first draft of a novel in 240 days–eight months. Figure another eight months for polishing, and that’s a novel in a year and a third. Not bad.

  12. Katharine Kerron 24 Aug 2006 at 1:40 pm

    Mitch, if you have a moment, could you copy and repost this on the “writing my first novel” page? It’s a very good comment and should be more widely seen. Thanx!

  13. LauraJMixonon 24 Aug 2006 at 3:39 pm

    Kit — oh, I LOVE The Unstrung Harp! “Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful.” It’s a brilliant book on writing.

    Mitch, that is excellent advice. I second Kit’s recommendation.


  14. Katharine Kerron 03 Sep 2006 at 5:51 am

    “What am I doing in the unused bedroom on the third floor?” I often find myself repeating Mr E’s line . . . except we don’t even have an unused bedroom on the third floor . . .

    I am now in the hideous :waiting for editors to read the thing “stage. This is a truly revolting time for any writer.

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