Taking a bite out of the cheese

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What you may not know about me is that I have a PhD in literature. Writing the dissertation came after I did all my coursework and then took and passed my comprehensive exams. By the time I got to my dissertation, I had an idea what I wanted to write about, but I didn’t have any of the research or the writing done. It was liking being a mouse and staring up at an Everest-sized pile of cheese. Where to start? What to do first? Panic set in and I froze like a deer in the headlights.

Eventually I figured out I just had to start. The whole mountain had to get eaten and I had to do it. There was no right place to begin, so I just had to pick a place and go and see where the research took me. Same with the writing. Once I had reached a tipping point on the research, where I felt like I knew enough to actually say something, I had to go about writing in the same way. Find a place to start and spiderweb out from there and eventually find a form and shape for the dissertation. Eventually I finished it and graduated (you can read the whole thing if you want. It’s on my website).

I discovered that starting a book is much the same process–no surprise there. But what did surprise me was that embarking on revision is much the same. I just got notes back from my agent (the fabulous Lucienne Diver) on my 4th Horngate book and it’s got some problems. I knew this on some level, so I’m not entirely surprised. But the revisions are pretty major–and this is before I hear from my editor. But it’s got to be done. And the process is about the same. I do have a starting point in that the book already has shape and structure, but now I have to improve on it

It’s going to involve some significant new words, a fair bit of cutting, some reorganization and rethinking. So it’s a big project. Cue deer in headlights and panic. But this is the process of writing. It’s nothing new. But it’s funny how the revision can be as terrifying as the starting. I guess I start to question whether I can pull it off. Whether I can capture what I want to in the text, or if I can fix what’s bent in the book.

Here’s the trick. You eat the mountain one bite at a time. One moment at a time. One day at a time. You stay focused on each little bit that you’re doing and not on the mountain. That’s crucial. Don’t ever look at the mountain.

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15 comments to Taking a bite out of the cheese

  • Bird by bird, eh? Great advice – and particularly apt for me today, as I’m beginning a huge new project that has me more than a little afraid!

  • Ken

    For me, I’ve got to look at the mountain. Just a glance, really, nothing more. If I take a real look at it, then it becomes something that I’ve got to handle all at once and that’s not the way to be. Once I’ve got that glance, then I can focus on what’s in front of me and get that one thing done and then move onto the next. Maybe I glance at the mountain again (has it gotten smaller?), but then I go back to what’s in front of me and keep chipping away at it. Whatever methods you use to plan out your next work, it all gets written in the same way: One word at a time.

    This was a very timely post for me because I’d been doing a bit more looking at the mountain than I should have. Thanks Diana

  • Di, I used to panic when I got a rewrite letter. And yes, it was like a mountain with no clear path or map on where or how to start and how to get there and … and like Ken, I always looked at the mountain. And often — very, very often — cried.

    Eventually, I learned to read the rewrite letter and put it away for a few days until my brain could assimilate all the details and see where the fractures and faults in my mountain were. I never understood at the time, but during that downtime, my creative hindbrain was making a map of the changes that I would have to make, a map I coudln’t yet see.

    You can do this. You can devour that mountain of cheese and create something wonderful out of the results! We are here for you!

  • This is one of many things that Di and I have in common. I also have a Ph.D. (and I also am represented by Lucienne, I also write fantasy, my first series was also about mages with birds of prey, and so on and so on…) I might glance at the mountain, but I’ve gotten better about not panicking, about keeping in mind that the work gets done day-by-day, bit-by-bit. Nice post, Di. Best of luck with the rewrites.

  • I’m like Ken–I have to look at the mountain. I don’t the experience with writing yet, but I’m learning (more slowly than I would like) that the coping mechanisms I’ve developed in my other work-life are frequently helpful with writing. So once I take a look at the mountain, I need to focus on one small part and start there. This was a great post for me today, since I had forgotten this and have been staring in terror at the huge mountain ahead of me!

  • Bite by bite. Smaller pieces. Thank you for the reminder, Diana. *goes back to working on the synopsis and NOT worrying about other story-issues* … now just to remember to chew my food.

  • Mindy: when does the fear go? I really want to reach that point. Tell me it does. Please?

    Ken: My problem is tearing my eyes away. I have to make myself. But you’re right, having a sense of the whole is important, even as you take the bites.

    Faith: I tend to put them away too. But this time, it was weird. I totally agreed. It was like my subconscious had figured it out and I just needed the kick to start doing it. So the real issue is just the size of things and as always, the fear of being able to pull it off. But I’m starting to get used to that. It’s the writer disease, I think.

    David: Thanks. How was writing the diss different from the novels?

    Sisi: isn’t it crazy how slow the learning curve can be sometimes? No terror-staring!!!!

    Laura: chew the food (writes a note to self.) yes. That. BTW, what do you think of the latest with Grimm?

  • Razziecat

    This strikes a chord with me, too. My mountain is my WIP; the farther into it I get, the more problems I see. Looking at my original notes, I can see that I lost my intended focus and let the characters go off all over the place (figuratively and literally). I keeping wanting to go back and reshape things, but when I do, the story stalls. It’s hard to keep up the forward momentum when I see so much work ahead in potential revisions!

  • Razziecat: in this case, tunnel vision is your friend. I’d probably mark down the issues you see for revision and keep going. That way, you can revise as a whole, knowing what exactly you’re heading toward in the end. Of course, that presupposes that you need to change things up in order to end the book. My! But aren’t I helpful? Seriously though, I tend to really think that getting the draft done is the necessary first step. So . . . tunnel vision is your friend. Good luck!

  • Diana, let’s just say that I think I’m *very* glad that Grimm is being renewed for another season. Too often the good shows only get to scratch the surface before getting canceled. (Or they pull a stupid move and try to tell the story over again from square one in Season 2 did, like Heroes did. Bah.) Looks like with next episode, Grimm’s going straight to one of the world’s big issues.

  • Laura: Squeee!!! I didn’t know it was renewed!

  • […] the meantime, I’ve got a post on attacking revisions/novels on Magical Words today. It’s about eating the […]

  • Di, you nailed it – staring at the mountain instead of watching the path in front of our feet is an easy way to disaster. When I’m writing, if I think too hard about the project in its entirety, I panic, and don’t know which way to turn next. I’ve seen people come to the dance studio for a lesson or three and quit because after three lessons they aren’t performance-level.

    And now, another bite of cheese for me. 😀

  • Di – In all seriousness – I think that the fear is crucial. It keeps us on our toes. I suspect that I wouldn’t be afraid if I went back and wrote exactly what I’ve written before. It’s the stretching that is frightening… Or maybe I’m only saying that because I’m procrastinating :-)

  • I’m not even on the editing yet, but I’m looking up at the remainder of the climb on first draft of the trilogy right now and going, “why does this last leg seem bigger than the first two?” It’s a little daunting thinking of the wrap up on this thing. I’m considering taking a break to write something else and do a little research, work on the synopsis and bible for the third book, etc. Hopefully come back to it refreshed and ready to tackle the climb.