August 20, 2009

From the Purely Theoretical FAQ for Writers

Remember how I was going to have an FAQ page? And I carefully blogged each question and then was going to put them all up on 2 FAQ pages, one for writers, one for readers-writers-cats-retiredNorsegods-everyone so I could answer the FAQs I get by email by saying “HEY! I HAVE AN FAQ PAGE, and the lookit, the answer is ALREADY THERE FOR YOU!” instead of sorting through my Sent File for an HOUR and not finding the answer I already wrote in response to someone else who asked the same question (hence the name ‘frequently asked’) and NOT finding it, so rewriting it for the umpty-th time?

Yeah. And remember how I was going to organize my closet? And have a mailing list? And stop accidentally closing MS Word to play 4 hours straight of World of Warcraft? And how I was going to paint the kitchen goldenrod and stop eating any food after seven PM and clean my office and organize the HEAPING CABINET full of loose, well-shuffled family photos and find a new hairdresser (Mine retired FIVE months ago, yes, five, when she had her fourth little darling baby...) to get my hair cut and colored and how I said I was going to learn to make REAL French cook-it-all-day authentic cassoulet?

Well. I am sure I am going to do ALL THESE THINGS. Any second.

In fact, just today, I went to my HELL PIT of a closet and dug through all my tops, and put the ones that no longer fit but are nice in a pile for Good Will, and put the ones that are irretrievably stained and raveled in a pile for rags, and then I came down to here to CHECK EMAIL really fast and ended up sitting here writing THIS for more than half an hour now, abandoning those careful piles of sorted tops on the floor of the closet to get kicked around and dug through to find the shoes under and mixed in with the laundry and put right back in the closet to be sorted through again another day when I have more moral fortitude and do not come down to check e-mail and find an FAQ in there.

Here is the FAQ that just came to my inbox via my MOMWRITERS yahoo group:
For you published authors, are you still seeing room for improvement after [your book] is published or are you blissfully happy that it is "done"?

Okay I have a three answers here. A craft answer, a mystical butthole answer, and a pragmatic truthful answer.

CRAFT ANSWER: I spend 75 – 80% of my writing time on revisions. I draft in huge awful hunks of steaming word poo. I start when I know the characters and they have gotten very LOUD in my head, and when I have such a strong sense of the PLACE that I can smell it. Then I I draft very, very quickly, discovering the plot as I go, trying to hear snatches of voice, just putting words on paper and giving myself total permission to let Every. Single. One. of those words relentlessly suck.

To me, drafting is like going out to a fetid, sludgy slow-moving, bug-infested creek in the 100 degree swelter of a Georgia August and using my HANDS to dig out nasty hunks of silt-y clay. Revising is getting the clay back to my airconditioned studio where I have China Green Tips tea and wafer thin cookies waiting on for me and a cat is asleep on the floor by my feet purring and pretty birds are chirping sweetly just outside, and I shape the clay into something that pleases me.

Your mileage may vary, but I think revising SHOULD be fun because it is probably going to take up more time than the writing. It can be VERY VERY satisfying, like that high flying feeling I USED to get from the act of creating/drafting, until I got some DISTANCE from my own work and became savvy enough to recognize my drafts were raw and only conveyed the story to ME, the person who could see it all in her head ALREADY.

Now I get that flying soar thing from making bad sentences into good ones that say precisely what I mean and do several jobs, or when I find the exact metaphor that makes a moment clear or amusing or chilling, and I call that feeling BEING IN THE ZONE. Being in the zone is better than cocaine. A lot of younger writers I talk to only GET IN THE ZONE when drafting, but you can absolutely get there revising, and if you find that ZONE, you won’t care how long the revising takes, because the ZONE is why we do this. That flying feeling where we make it so, Number One.

MYSTICAL BUTTHOLE ANSWER: It is done when you know it is done. This is very cryptic and makes me sound like I’ve been smoking ZEN and eating heaping spoonfuls of MYSELF until I am SO delightfully full of ME that I need to be paddled and told to get real. But it is also true.

There comes a point when your story says what YOU want it to say. Sometimes it is not what you THOUGHT you wanted to say, but it is TRUE. You see it is true and right and good. You can SEE this point approaching in a more practical, less ZEN-SMUG way when your crit partners are not HAVING TROUBLE FOLLOWING or getting bored by backstory or saying HERE YOU TELL WHEN YOU NEED TO SHOW or complaining about CRAFT ISSUES.

At some point their crits will be mixes of praise and ways you could make your work more like what THEY would write, because there isn’t anything else to say. But that’s just a road sign that you are approaching your destination. When you get there, you will learn to know it and you will say, “Yes , this is my place, here I stop."

PRAGMATIC ANSWER (and my favorite, because I am pragmatic to the point of mental illness): The book is DONE once I sign off on the COPY EDITS. When book is going to press and each WORD change costs Hachette THOUSANDS of dollars and I have signed a paper SWEARING not to change any more words, THEN the book is DONE.

This is a good stopping point. Publication as opposed to SHOPPING. If you SHOP a book so DONE feeling that you would rather kill yourself than revise a single line, then you are going to be a huge diva-pain in the behind of your editor, and your editor ONLY wants to make your book better and help you be more successful.

SO before you shop it, get it as perfect as you can, but stay open to ideas and input---stay INSIDE the world of the manuscript. Keep it familiar and in that MUTABLE stage where you can go in and feel organically how to change a line without tumbling your whole house. Keep the MS alive and the world you created accessible and open to you. Keep it like that, close to you, until Copy Edits are done. And then you STOP. Forever.

The WAY you stop is, you fall in love with the NEXT book, and spend your time and hope and love on making THE NEXT BOOK say exactly what you want it to say.

Are my finished books perfect in my eyes? No. But they are what they are, and I am rightful-proud of them. If I do see flaws in an earlier book, my focus is not on regret, but on not making that mistake again in my CURRENT book. Moreover, I doubt I would change the published books even if I could. I COULD look back and say, IF I WERE WRITING THAT PARTICULAR BOOK NOW, I MIGHT DO THIS OR THAT OR THIS. But I seldom do that. Because NOW I would not be writing that book ANYWAY. My thematic interests refocus from year to year as I grow and think new things and ask new questions, and NOW I am writing the book I am writing now.

I learn and go on, and when I look back at done books, I say only, “I made that! I MADE THAT WITH MY BRAIN! And wow, but I FREAKING love that thing I made with my brain. Yay. And NOW? Now I will go make something else.”

Posted by joshilyn at August 20, 2009 8:52 AM

Did you read my to do list? Because I am going to do all those things too, except of course the FAQ part on my famous author webpage, seeing as how I don't have one of those.

If you really want to get organized, check out Wish I could say I've done all that she recommends, but I'm planning on it. I really am.

BTW, love all those books you've made with your big brain and I wouldn't change a thing!

Posted by: Lori B. at August 20, 2009 10:00 AM

Ok. This is just creepy. I was in the middle of composing an email to you about this same situation- where my "being shopped" novel is concerned. Whatever are you doing in my head?
I'm still going to drop you the note, because I have another question... and then I think I may owe you one closet organization- which in a sick way excites the OCD part of me.

Posted by: linda sands at August 20, 2009 10:00 AM

Great post, Joshilyn. Thanks for sharing so much. This is helpful stuff to aspiring authors!

Posted by: Lisa Katzenberger at August 20, 2009 11:00 AM

This was way more important than organizing your closet :)

Posted by: edj at August 20, 2009 12:07 PM

i freaking love what you made with your brain too and anxiously await the new brained creation.

Posted by: Trish at August 20, 2009 1:13 PM

Thanks for answering here AND at the board. I would love to choose door number three but as my manuscript is nowhere near publishable, I will carry on editing the living daylights out of it.

I can't say that I am in the zone for edits at the moment. Not sure if I need a "system," a better attitude or a personality transplant but I am hoping to dread the edits less in the future.

Thanks again!

Posted by: Nicole Amsler at August 20, 2009 6:39 PM

Yesh, when and where is that Next Thing That You Have Made With Your Brain? No pressure. Never mind that we can now level in PVP. Or all the time I spent doing that last night rather than writing my next scene (I totally understand the feeling of digging up chunks of clay while getting bug-bit). I am much more concerned about the temporal and physical location of your Next Brain Thing, because all your Brain Things are fabulosity. Again, no pressure ;-)

Posted by: inkgrrl at August 20, 2009 7:36 PM

Next brain thing: Finished.

Title: Backseat Saints

Status: In production

Release: June

NEXT Next brain thing: 20K words in.

Thank you so much for asking :)

Posted by: Joshilyn at August 20, 2009 10:00 PM

I too am eagerly awaiting Backseat Saints. And your blog continues to threaten me with Nose Beverage.

But, quick! QUICK! It is not too late! Grab two bags, paper, plastic, or otherwise, and DUMP those piles of clothes, one in each bag!! Quick, before they get all un-sorted again!! Then grab the top rag out of the rag-bag and tie the rag-bag closed with it, so you can tell the difference between the two bags!!

Because piles of clothing that are temporarily sorted but not completely taken care of attract WASPS! BIG ones that try to give birth and raise their offspring on your deck and eye you, waving their antennae in a vaguely threatening manner, whenever you attempt to go outside! Whose stings you are allergic to! I know from experience! Do not let this happen to you!


Posted by: JMixx at August 20, 2009 10:31 PM

I like the part where I get to say, Wow, I read that! I read that thing that Joss wrote using word, WOWC, and huge mental health numbers and I like it...okay I .... LOVED It to pieces.

It's kewl.

Posted by: Cele at August 21, 2009 12:52 AM

. . . and weren't you going to give away a book every week starting in June, and I snickered all sarcastic-like and said "Riiiight"?

Oops, sorry, my to-do list is equally sad, and I'm not even writing amazing books at the same time! At least you've got good, artistic excuses.

Posted by: Brigitte at August 21, 2009 6:43 AM

Wait wait! I DID do a give away every week in June, didn't I?

Girl who stopped Swimming
April and Oliver
The Pretend Wife
and then the BETTER U Fitness kit?

I would have had Sheila Curran's book in June too but my interview questions got trapped in her spam file and she did not find and return them until July.

I think I get to claim victory for THAT resolution.

PS I will post a pretty cool give-away later today, too. :)

Posted by: joshilyn at August 21, 2009 6:58 AM

That was fascinating to read. I am not an author....have given up that dream, mostly, at least the writing fiction part...but I am a preacher, and my process for sermon crafting is very much the same.

Except it happens nearly weekly, and I consider it done on Sunday afternoon when I am crashed out on the couch.

Posted by: Beth at August 26, 2009 10:31 AM

Hi, I have a bottle of Straretto (you posted something about it several years ago) and can send a photo of it to prove it. :)

Posted by: Anita at August 29, 2009 5:21 PM

NO YOU DO NOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Posted by: Joshilyn at August 29, 2009 10:33 PM