Friday, January 21, 2011

Failed at Installation

My guy has a little control board sitting in a box on his work bench. Not an unusual thing; on the equipment he works on these boards are pretty common now. When one burns up or fails, he has to swap them out. It must be under warranty, too, because the board's box has a big yellow Return Information label on the top.

It's the label, not the board, that keeps distracting me. It has a check-off list of seven reasons for the return:

Failed at installation
Failed after storm
Changed board during troubleshooting
No defrost
Too many defrosts
Incomplete defrosts
High utility bills


I wish we writers could return ideas to the muse that way. The checklist wouldn't even have to change that much:

Failed at installation: I never got past page one. Oh, look, cookies.

Failed after temper tantrum: Oops, I just accidentally on purpose killed off all the characters. Next story!

Changed during troubleshooting: While I was editing this I got this idea. It's way better than this one. So I'm going to write that.

No writing: Love the idea, have no clue how to write it. And I'll probably talk about it forever but not one word is actually going to hit the page.

Too much writing: The manuscript is two thousand pages long and that's just chapter one. Do you think I should get trim down the thousand-year war of the orcs and the dragons? Maybe cut it to five hundred?

Incomplete writing: I got to the third chapter and then gave up. Which publisher accepts partials again?

High utility bills: I can't write this, I have to do stuff for my day job before I get fired and they turn off my power again.

Although I hate beginnings, I have no problem starting novels, and I'm also fairly adept at getting through the middles and wrapping up the endings. My biggest problem in the past was never finishing anything. I'd start approaching the end of the story, my energy and enthusiasm would begin to lag and I'd get bored with it.

Boredom sets up a writer to be easily distracted, and more tempted to set aside the WIP to do something else. I used to start sneaking away from the manuscript to work on other stories, and then found myself growing more resentful every time I went back to the old story, until I gave up on it. It's the classic oooh bright and shiny new idea syndrome combined with poor time management. I always put keeping my energy levels high as a priority over finishing my stories -- which is why there are about ten boxes of unfinished manuscripts in my storage closet.

You can't sell 2/3rds of a novel, and that was what motivated me to deal with my problem. I knew I was fighting myself, not the work, so my habits had to change. I made a new rule: never start anything unless I was going to finish it. That spurred me to be a lot more selective about ideas. I also started quickly outlining the new ideas that came along to distract me and then set them aside versus working on them.

I still felt the same dip in energy at the 2/3rd done mark, and a deep sense of resentment over never having enough time to write everything I wanted, so to address that I focused on training myself to write faster. I also forced myself to write through the tiresome, boring draggy final third of the story. As the finished manuscripts began piling up, I saw a gradual change in my attitude. The rush from a new idea began to pale beside the weary satisfaction of having nailed a story from start to finish. I also felt more like a writer, too -- I wasn't just having fun anymore; I was making a real effort. I wasn't playing or dabbling, I was working.

I don't consider any writing to be a failure; you can learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. Occasionally taking a hard look at all your unfinished or unsuccessful ideas and stories to evaluate them for their flaws will arm you with knowledge. You'll identify your weaknesses, and may even bring to light a pattern in your writing process or story habits that is proving counterproductive.

So if you could add something to the muse return information list for a story that didn't work for you, what would be the reason?

9 comments:

  1. "It's the classic oooh bright and shiny new idea syndrome combined with poor time management."

    "I knew I was fighting myself, not the work, so my habits had to change."

    This is where I am. I might not be in the exact same house, but I'm drifting around the neighborhood.

    Do you have any advice for HOW you made yourself work through it?

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  2. Shawna wrote: Do you have any advice for HOW you made yourself work through it?

    The mindset is important, certainly. Personally I had to make the jump from writing-as-fun to a writing-as-employment attitude. I began writing every day, and set up a writing schedule for the first time both to have a chunk of the day committed to the work. Even with the schedule I didn't have a lot of time to write, so I started giving up leisure activities like watching television to make more time to write. I stopped backtracking and rereading and messing with what I wrote, and separated my writing and editing into two separate tasks.

    When I felt the urge to abandon a project back then, I used to get up and walk around the house and think about the story and all the things I loved about it for a few minutes. Sometimes I put on music (which is probably when I started my habit of using music to help visualize story.) If the chapter I was working on was really dragging, I'd think about what element I could jack the wattage up on and make more exciting. Then when I sat back down I'd usually be more enthusiastic. If not, I made myself write anyway -- and this can be the most tired, awful writing you'll ever do, but it does train you to keep going no matter what.

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  3. I'd have to add User Error to the list. Where I have a *great* idea that just gets worse and worse the longer the story goes on, until it's totally irreparable. Like a toaster in the shower.

    At some point my editing/ rewrite skills and interest might be up to tackling them. Right now they just get dumped in the computer somewhere.

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  4. The "One isn't enough and two is too many" syndrome.

    I wrote a story that I love. Yes, it needs tweaking. What story doesn't. I know many published writers who tell me if they could, they'd re-edit certain areas of their print books because something else came to mind after it went to print.

    So, I love my first and have shopped it around a bit and so far, no luck, but in the meantime, I'd started a second in what would be a three book series. However, since my first didn't really go anywhere (at least not yet ;o) ) I've asked myself why I'm bothering with the second, so it sits, waiting...waiting...oh, and forget the third!


    How do you get past that?

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  5. LOL That's funny. But terribly true sometimes.

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  6. J wrote: I'd have to add User Error to the list. Where I have a *great* idea that just gets worse and worse the longer the story goes on, until it's totally irreparable. Like a toaster in the shower.

    I had a poem like that. It only took me about a thousand lines before I recognized the shreds of my bright and shiny idea among the ruins. When I feel like I'm getting too full of myself I take out that poem and read it. Or simply imagine anyone else reading it. :)

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  7. Theo wrote: I wrote a story that I love. Yes, it needs tweaking. What story doesn't. I know many published writers who tell me if they could, they'd re-edit certain areas of their print books because something else came to mind after it went to print.

    Oh, yes. Got a whole shelf of those.

    So, I love my first and have shopped it around a bit and so far, no luck, but in the meantime, I'd started a second in what would be a three book series. However, since my first didn't really go anywhere (at least not yet ;o) ) I've asked myself why I'm bothering with the second, so it sits, waiting...waiting...oh, and forget the third!

    How do you get past that?


    Before I sold my first contract, I always finished a manuscript before I tried to sell it. While I was submitting the first book, I'd write book two as well, and outline book three. But without a sale that was as far as I was willing to write ahead -- two books. It just wasn't practical for me to invest any more of my writing time in stories that depended on the sale of the first book to even have a chance at being considered for publication. From there I moved on to something new.

    Consider how much time you want to invest in these books, and don't factor in the editorial feedback (if any) that you're getting. What do you the writer want to do? If you love your idea and want to write the second book, and you're willing to invest the time in that, go for it. That's what I did with StarDoc, and when I signed that contract, I delivered two complete manuscripts immediately.

    Also, don't discount considering something else while you're working on your second book. Why not alternate between writing the second book and outlining a new venture unrelated to your trilogy idea? Or outline a bunch of ideas. Giving yourself other options helps if you get to the point where you want to set aside the trilogy. It also will help if you sell your trilogy and your editor asks, "So what else are you thinking of writing in the future?"

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  8. Am I the only one who thinks those reasons make an interesting sort of found poem? :)

    I have the same problems as everyone else - the boredom/New Shiny Syndrome.

    I think it's rooted in a fear of failure, that let down of "this isn't as good as it was in my head," or the "but then I'll have to show it to people" - a sort of fear of change. While we're working on the book, we're just in the middle of working on it. But as we come toward the end, we have to finish it and that creates certain expectations.

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  9. Atropa Rainwater11:49 PM

    Thank you Lynn. All of that was really enlightening, and most of it was really funny too.

    I'm at that point where I've begun to see myself as a "novelist" even though I'm not published yet, instead of a "wanna-be." My work habits have changed drastically in the last few weeks because of it. Like you said, it changed from playing to working, and it feels awesome!

    But I still have problems with the bright and shiny ideas + time management. I'm working on those though, and seeing a little improvement each day.

    Thanks for the great post and answering the above questions, which were also great. I'm off to go make words now.

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