Ignoring everything but the writing

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I may have mentioned this before, but when I began writing The Forest of Hands and Teeth (which ended up being my first published book) I was convinced it wouldn’t sell.  But I was okay with that because I loved the story and I became obsessed with writing it.  So, for much of the initial drafting the story existed only in my own head (and whatever I’d read aloud to my husband) and that was it.  Beyond that, I had few expectations and for that reason all I could really focus on was writing the story.

That all changed once I hit 30,000 words.  I’d recently become friends with a published author who I admired greatly and we’d both begun new fantasy projects that were outside of what we’d traditionally written.  We decided to trade stories and so I sent her what I’d written.  I’m pretty sure that the moment I hit send on that email I wanted to simultaneously vomit and weep.  Sending those first chapters out made me feel incredibly vulnerable because I felt like I was taking a lot of risks with my writing: it was a new voice, a new POV, a new tense, a new genre — everything was different and I had absolutely *no* idea whether what I’d written was any good.

Her response was fantastic  —  positive to the point that she said when I was done she wanted to send it to her agent.  I was utterly floored (and I probably floated around the ceilings of our house for days afterward).

And that’s when the writing became infinitely more difficult.  Before that point I was just writing this crazy story that I loved but believed would go nowhere.  Suddenly, I was writing this book that might have a chance.  It won’t surprise anyone who knows me, but I suddenly couldn’t stop thinking about things like how I would draft a query letter, how I would pitch my book, what the market was like for such a project, what would happen if it did/didn’t sell. 

Namely, I became really really focused on everything *except* the writing.  And when I was actually writing I examined every word wondering if it would get me closer to this dream or push me farther away. 

Finally, my husband (who is a huge supporter of mine and a fantastic first reader) said, “Enough.”  I wasn’t allowed to talk about anything relating to the book that didn’t deal with the story and the writing.  No more discussing agents or pitches or the market (at least in relation to what I was writing).  No more obsessing over the future — I needed to get back to the basics and focus on what I could actually control: writing the best book I could and enjoying the process of it.

He was right and to this day I *still* think he’s right.  Just recently I was talking with a friend who was at about the 30k word mark on a new (fantastic!) project but had hit a wall.  As often happens, our conversation veered toward things other than writing — we talked about marketing, print runs, future projects, blogging, the market and I suddenly realized what the wall in the middle of their project was: that author was letting outside worries impact how they felt about the book.  It was no longer about the writing.  And my advice was the same my husband gave me: “Enough.  Stop letting those outside factors keep you from writing this amazing book.”

Of course, I’d be a hypocrite if I advised anyone to fully ignore those outside worries and just focus on the writing.  Writing can be a business and as such there are concerns beyond the words on the page that have to be addressed. But sometimes we let those concerns turn into what my friend, Ally Carter, calls The Crazies.  She has a *brilliant* post on the subject here (seriously go read it and then bookmark it for future reference).

Can we always ignore the noise that sometimes exists around writing?  No.  But at the very least we can recognize it for being the distraction it is.  There are times to focus on things like querying and pitching (like, for example, when you’ve written a book rather than only the first 30k like I had).  And there are also times to focus on the writing.  The challenge is in finding the balance between the two. 

As for me, after spending the last two days working on my to-do list rather than working on projects with looming deadlines, I know what I need to focus on tomorrow: the writing.

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13 comments to Ignoring everything but the writing

  • HarryMarkov

    I’ve been having the same issues with my writing, especially once a friend told me that she was talking to a publisher how lovely my first chapters are and how they need something like this in their line-up. This I have to tell you did more harm than good and I’m still not done with the complete revisions even though the project is completed. I’m falling more and more in love with the story, now that I’m conscious of where I wanted to go the first couple of tries.

    I like to call this event not the Crazies, but the Attempts at Omnipresence. You try to think of ALL there is and you can’t. So you suffer and you can’t write.

  • Mm hmm, I can see blogs and Twitter and Google being a drug. I definitely have let market concerns get in the way, and I think it took me longer to finish because of it.

    My current problem is a modified version of this. I’ve finished, and I’m compiling a list of agents to query, but I’ve been hesitating because self-doubt tells me that no one’s gonna like the story. So I stop working on the query letter, and go do something else of equal importance (reading, beta-reading) that keeps my mind off things … but it also keeps me from actually sending out those queries.

  • It takes me the entire day to look up, research, and send to agents/publishers. Makes me feel as though I’m blowing writing time, though it’s necessary. Last time I did it, I sent to three places and took up the whole day of writing time. My first query to an agent took me nearly all day to write (and it still wasn’t all that good, on reflection), and 20 minutes with my finger over the mouse button to send. However, once I did finally hit send, the second time was easier, and the third easier still. Though I still agonize over the query letter and requirements, which burns most of my time. And now I just stuff the rejection into an email folder and move on, because fretting over why it might have been rejected when there wasn’t any reason on the letter, just takes up more precious time. 😉

  • Time. If I had a genie in a bottle I’d wish for more of it, except that I knwo I’d pay for the gift in the end. What a great post. Thanks, Carrie.
    (Putting blinders on and diving into the writing.)
    Faith

  • Great post, Carrie. This is a real blind-spot of mine: a constant struggle not to get obsessed with sales numbers etc. Point taken.

  • Such stellar advice! After a week long vacation, I came home to 500 emails, and realized less than 10% needed my response. I decided to ONLY start checking email at 3pm on strict writing days, and twitter and Facebook are only allowed on my phone now…it’s SO easy to get distracted…ahem, so guess I’ll go write 🙂

    You all rock, BTW, I LOVE these articles!

  • Well put. I’m particularly bad at letting one “legitimate” project drive out another until none of them get done. Last night I mentioned a passing idea to a friend who said “hey, you should write that up and…” And I just spent most of a 2 hour final exam looking up references to stuffed alligators in Shakespeare.

    Mind you, I think this might actually turn into an interesting article and I need friends who say “go do that!” They keep me working. The problem is that I set myself a Jan 1 deadline for my fiction WIP that’s looking increasingly unlikely. And I’m about 1/4 done with an article on chastity in the Middle Ages. And that viking ghost story keeps banging around in my head. And my students’ papers ain’t gonna grade themselves. My head is turning into a merry-go-round. I need to get off, pick up ONE project, and finish it. Then I can play with my new alligator shiny.

    (Daniel – I don’t think you’re wasting time, though I sympathize with how time consuming submission is. You’re getting your stuff out there! That’s awesome.)

  • Sarah, there’s more than 1 stuffed alligator in Shakespeare? I can only think of the apothecary in R&J.

  • AJ – Stop that! Let Sarah work! 🙂

    Great post, Carrie. I don’t obsess so much on market and sales and queries and such anymore, but I still haven’t learned how to shut out the rest of real life (and the “Ooooh, Look! Shinies…) and stick with one project through to completion.

    Right now I’m going to blame Kalayna. Her post has had me reading about and comparing Scrivener and all the other Way Cool Writers Tools out there instead of writing.

  • jiah

    Well, I’m more of a beginner in writing, and have never published, but I have some variant of the problem that Sarah mentioned. I keep getting these grand ideas, but I need a lot more discipline in sitting down and working on each one. Several times, when I’m halfway through a story, I get a “better” idea and move on, thus leaving a trail of unfinished stories behind me.

    Another problem I encounter is that often I spend a lot of time plotting, but lose interest once the plotting is done. It’s like the story is already out of me. Maybe that’s why I never started a novel, only plotted several. With short stories, I just start writing without plotting and somehow I end up completing some. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, just how I’ve been doing things.

  • I spent this summer working on a book that may or may not ever sell. But I loved writing it, in part because I didn’t worry about the extraneous stuff while I was working on it. For the first time in my career I simply wrote what I wanted to at a pace of my own choosing. It was one of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had. All by way of saying in response to this post, “Yes, that.”

  • SophiatheWriter

    Thank you Carrie! Since we don’t have your husband, this is the clarion call for the rest of us. 🙂 I’m going to try to tunnel vision myself.

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