Friday, 23 April 2010

Walking The Writer's Tightrope

I read somewhere this week (I'm sorry I can't remember where - if anybody knows, please leave a comment and I'll add a credit) that writers have to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at all times. These are, to the best of my remembering:

1. I am a good writer, good enough that it's worth me working hard to write and to submit my writing for publication.
2. I am a bad writer, I need to be working hard to improve my writing and my submissions for publication.

Notice the phrase that's the same in both ideas? Yep - it's "working hard."

This resonated with me. I need to believe I'm good at writing to give me the confidence to keep writing and sending out story and book submissions in the teeth of regular rejections. I also need to believe I'm bad at writing, so I don't think my first drafts consist of deathless prose and therefore develop hideous arrogance which would mean I NEVER get an agent - and so that I keep working to improve my skills and abilities. Maintaining both beliefs feels a bit like walking a tightrope: I wobble between one and the other.

Working hard at writing involves further balancing acts. It's not as much of a struggle for me to prioritise writing as it is for many people. I don't have children, or adult dependents; I work for myself, so I can take time to write during office hours if I'm not too busy with jobs for clients; I don't have to work full time, so sometimes I can award myself whole writing days or weeks. I'm good at time management, organisation, motivation. Yet still, sometimes, it's difficult.

I think this is partly because I'm impatient. Eight thousand words into my first draft (in ten days! Lookee lookee at the word counter!!) and I can't wait to be finished. Yet I know it's no good rushing (and if I ever forget this, Debi's voice kindly appears in my head to remind me). But I had such a lovely plan. I was going to write 1000 words per day, up to and including today, which would give me 10,000 words. Then this weekend, when I have no work or social commitments, I was going to write 2500 words each day, to make up for next week when I won't have time to write anything. That would give me 15,000 words to leave alone for a week and then review.

So why is the word counter still at 8000 words? Because yesterday I had an email outage which required several hours of extra work to deal with, and there was no slack in the system. And I was completely knackered. And today has been very full-on, so I haven't written any words today either. Instead, I revised my plan to 1000 words a day over the weekend, and ending up a week behind schedule on the WIP, with only 10,000 words to review after a week.

It really doesn't matter. Looked at objectively, the world would lose nothing if I stopped writing altogether. In fact, it might gain: I'd have more time for my family and friends (although I'd be so crabby that they probably wouldn't be very appreciative), for myself, for my paid work and for my voluntary work. If being a week behind my (self-imposed) schedule leaves me less knackered and better able to face the Week From Hell next week, that will be a good thing. After this weekend, I won't be back to my WIP until Monday 3rd May at the earliest, as I have to work straight through next weekend. And I worked straight through last weekend. So this weekend I think I need a break more than I need the satisfaction of an enormous word count.

This again necessitates holding two more completely contradictory ideas in my head:

1. I must work hard to finish my WIP in a timely manner.
2. It doesn't matter how long I take to write my WIP.

I often find it hard to get the balance right between these two ideas. I'm sure impatience is partly to blame here, too. I spent so many years writing my last book, I can't bear to think it'll be that many again for this one - even though I know it might. Judging from the experiences of friends, if I ever get published, I'll need to write a book a year, so it would be useful to get the hang of writing more quickly. But here's another writerly paradox:

1. I must set myself deadlines and stick to them
2. I must be flexible about my deadlines when the need arises

Aarrgghh!!!!! All of these are doing my head in!

How do you walk the writer's tightrope?

16 comments:

Karen said...

With great difficulty, and a lot of falling off! When the chips are down and I want to meet a deadline I just put my head down and get on with it - the rest of the time I'm more flexible.

It's so true about all the contradictions and paradoxes - I guess we write because we have to!

Debs said...

I love this post and can completely relate to it.

Right now though I think I could do with either a) finding a way to clone myself, or b) figuring out how to make 27 hours in each day.

I do tend to work better to a deadline though, so maybe I should just get on with it.

Captain Black said...

Thank goodness for safety nets.

SueG said...

I guess I tell myself that unless I have signed a contract and someone is truthfully demanding something from me by a specific time, then the deadline is all my own. And if it only matters to me, then I can be flexible and not beat myself up about it when inevitably other things, like life, get in the way. But the great thing about this is that when I do then get down to it, I write more efficiently and, perhaps, even better. yep, it's crazy.

JJ Beattie said...

This - particularly the first part - has come at a good moment for me. I found myself uttering those awful words "why am I doing this?" just yesterday...

I have no wisdom to impart but thank you for reminding me that we all walk a fine line and it's not just me.

SpiralSkies said...

This writing lark really is like walking a tightrope - it's a shame 'they' don't give us one of those special balancing pole thingies when we embark upon it.

How I yearn for the extra secret hours in every day I've ordered that no one else know about, simply to keep up with those I so admire.

My words of wisdom are simple: 'You can't put a deadline on a thing of beauty' and 'oh get on with it and stop whingeing'. Yeah, it's all a poxy paradox. But we love it, right? *Nods in a convinced sort of manner*

Queenie said...

Karen, I fall off too...

Debs, I could do with those as well, if you figure it out let me know, OK? ;-)

CB, absolutely.

SueG, it's not just me then!

JJ, glad it was helpful.

Spiral, *nods back trying to look equally convinced*

HelenMHunt said...

I'm in the 'obviously I just need more hours in the day' camp. But since that isn't going to happen, I just muddle along and hope for the best. And take an occasional nap.

Carol said...

I have no words of wisdom to impart (Ha, no change there then!) but I wish you all the luck in the world and I know you can and will do it!

C x

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Oh dear, I relate to this very much. If it's any consolation, the whole of life seems to work like this. For instance, I have recently embarked on a brand new, totally different and very demanding career. To be doing this at the age of 40 and also as the parent of a 1-yr-old makes the whole thing even more difficult, and one of the things I keep having to do is remind myself that both (a) I am good and can do this, and (b) I am not that good and need to work very hard to get better.

And then there's the thing of sticking to deadlines yet also cutting yourself some slack...

I used to struggle particularly (when I was a full time writer) with that one. I have a tendency to put unrealistic, or at least highly ambitious, expectations on myself. But I also believe (in theory) in going easy on people (including oneself) and remembering that health, relaxation and happiness are always more important than deadlines. So I would yoyo constantly between beating myself with a big stick for not meeting ambitious targets, then beating myself with a big stick for beating myself with a big stick... argh.

It's all the same thing really, and I still haven't worked out how to reconcile these two Very Important Life Things:

(1) You must work hard. You must strive for new challenges and new horizons. Humans thrive on being productive, and concrete achievements make you feel good.

(2) You must relax. You must be kind to yourself. You must maintain a work-life balance; be realistic; be flexible.

Theoretically you can find a middle way where these two things are not in conflict, but blimmin' 'eck, it's hard.

I suppose all I can say is that targets, deadlines and the seeking out of criticism are important motivators / improvers and it's always good to be moving forward and achieving new things.

BUT you should stay realistic, flexible and kind. Unexpected things happen. And you need encouragement as well as realism. That's life. It's a yin/yang thing. Cut yourself some slack, remember to praise yourself when things go well, and most of all:

Do unto yourself as you would have yourself do to others.

Or as the Buddhists say: Be kind to yourself.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

P.S. Even if the book takes 3 years to write (which is how long it seems to take me, no matter what I do), then you can console yourself that if you hadn't pushed yourself, it would have taken even longer. And it will be a much better book than if you had done it in that mythical year. And because of your original deadlines, it will always *feel* as though it's only going to take a year, and you don't have to sit at the outset knowing you have to wait 3 years until it's finished. And anyway published writers may be asked to produce a book a year but often don't, and often through no fault of their own. AND people in those circs are generally writing full time. AND they have immovable deadlines, which focus you like no other thing. AND anyway you may be guilty here of selective focus. Is it really true that every published writer you know is producing a book a year, or are you focusing on a very specific subset? There's something to be said for being one of those part-timers who produces a book every few years for the whole of their writing life, is never a full time writer and quite possibly has a better writing/life balance as a result.

Ee Leen Lee said...

is there a tightrope? i thought it was more like a precipice?
great post btw

Queenie said...

Helen, naps are fab, I should have been born in a siesta country.

Carol, thank you.

BS, wise words as ever, my dear.

ELL, I know what you mean! And thank you.

Debi said...

Tell you what makes me chuckle and that's the amount of time I spend complaining I have no time ...

I have a strong feeling the internet is not our friend in this. But then there's another contradiction because it's also given us so much of value in terms of sharing experiences and skills, meeting wonderful new friends etc etc.

I do have an anxiety though that we might sometimes spend more time analysing than actually doing ...

Queenie said...

Debi, you could be right. But then, doesn't effective analysis enable more effective doing? Or is that another paradox? I dunno - think I'm going to have to stop thinking about all this or my head will explode!!

Pat said...

'I must be flexible about my deadlines when the need arises'
This is almost a religion for me - to keep my sanity.