On Writing Despair (Juicebox Mix)

Hi, kids. Y’all gather ‘round. Mama wants to talk to you about writing despair today.

Everybody got a juice box, a snack, and a lovey to hold on to? Everybody found a comfy chair? Got your laminated list of “Inspirational quotes from writers!” which you culled from the Internet?

Well, Look. At. You.

Okay, let’s get started.

First topic: NONE OF THAT IS GOING TO HELP YOU, SUCKERS! YOU ARE LIVING IN A FOOL’S PARADISE! WE ARE DOOMED! DOOOOMED!!!!

Sorry. Mama’s a little hair-trigger today, kids. Sip your juice box. Doom goes better with juice.

Oh, lambs. I try to laugh at life. I do. When the cat pooped all over the white bedspread, did I fall apart or make a cat-fur purse as a warning to the other one? No. I did not. I said, “Hahaha! How very Geoffrey Rush in ‘Quills’ of you, Little Squeak. Your protest is noted.” And then I burned the bedding. When the basement flooded and the ShopVac became my best friend, did I curse the rainy skies and crumbling New York City infrastructure? Well, yes. Yes, I did. But I did it with a laugh and a twinkle and online shopping. Because I’m a survivor.

But sometimes, kids? (Sigh.) Sometimes, a girl just needs to eat buttercream frosting right out the can on her front stoop wearing the same pajamas she’s had on for three days straight while shouting, “Whaddayoo looking at? You never seen a serious writer at work before? I’M ON A DEADLINE HERE! MOVE IT ALONG, SPARKY! And your little dog, too.”

The writer’s life is so misunderstood.

But let’s talk for a moment about despair. That’s what you came for, right? (Unless it’s the cursing, in which case, stick around.)

For the past several months, I’ve been hard at work on DIVINERS #2. Every morning, I wake up and say, “Today, it will start to make sense. Today, I will make the story bend to my will.” And then I dance to “Cool” from West Side Story. As one does.

But you know what, my little doves? Sometimes the writing does not want to play your little reindeer games. Sometimes, the writing is for shit. And no matter what you do, no matter how hard you go at it, no matter how many different times you rewrite or wholesale reimagine scenes, you just can’t crack the code of your book. It’s like trying to predict what toddlers will do. Still, you keep trying, because this is the gig. As I always say, if you’re swimming and you get tired, nobody says, “Well, just stop swimming then.” That would be bad advice.

When Them Old, I-Can’t-Write-This-Novel Blues have their claws in me, I tend to think it’s because I haven’t learned the magic writing solution yet. If only I could change my process, I think, this madness would all go away and I could watch something cheesy on Netflix, like “Satan’s Reform Driving School” or the Paducah Dinner Theatre’s musical production of Beckett’s “Happy Days” using finger puppets.

I can sense some of you out there nodding along, giving up the chuckles: “Riiiight. The ‘Just Change Your Process, Luke’ Solution. We’ve all been there. I give you five minutes before you cry and try to alphabetize your spice cabinet.” *

Talk to five different writers and you’ll probably get five different answers about how the writing process goes down for them. There are “pantsers” and “plotters” and everything in between.

Me? My brain seems to work in a chaotic, symphonic fashion. I swear to you that I am incapable of linear thought. This is the bane of my existence, y’all—like I’m an IKEA chair missing the little L wrench that puts it all together. I just know that I don’t instinctively say, “Hat goes on last.” No. Left to my own devices I say, “I’m supposed to remember something about hats here. Hats remind me of Victorian gentlemen, which makes me think about the struggles between the English and the Welsh, which makes me think about that amazing John Cale song, Buffalo Ballet, which makes me think about the American West and America as a concept and also trains and smoke and the insubstantiality of both smoke and the American Dream and dammit, I’m not wearing any pants, am I?”

While it may be interesting to think about all of those things, it’s not particularly helpful if what you want to do is write a fairly coherent book and deliver it on time. Or leave the house wearing pants.

{Pour Mama some of that apple juice, will ya? And hand over that Hostess Sno*Ball so nobody gets hurt.}

For me, writing a book is ugly-messy, with lots of off-road driving, dead ends, false plot lines, crazy ideas that go nowhere, and many scenes that just have to be thrown away as I revise. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a generous amount of self-loathing attached to my method that no self-help book seems to address. Like my process is the filthy, shit-covered kid holding road kill by the tail while everyone else is clean and pressed and lined up neatly for the class photo. My method is an ass, frankly, and I’m thinking of not inviting it to Thanksgiving dinner this year.

I know what you’re thinking: Why don’t you just outline?

Oh, you. You are a clever one. Come on over here and let me SLAP THAT CLEVER RIGHT OUT OF YOU!

Why don’t I “just” outline? Because I can’t.

Oh, believe me, I’ve tried.

Many, many, many times.

No. Zip it. Put your hand down. Put. Your. Hand. Down.

Don’t make me turn this blog around because I will.

You want to hear about outlining? People, let me tell you a never-give-up story as meaningful as Jesus turning water into wine even though not one of those sorry-assed Cana wedding feasters put a little something-something in the Lord’s tip jar…

Despite knowing that I DO NOT HAVE the outlining gene, that I am a hands-on, dive-deep, I-will-find-the-story-as-I-go writer, I still foolishly think an outline will solve all of my problems just the way I thought if my mom let me buy Love’s Baby Soft cologne from the drugstore back in eighth grade, it would take care of my dateless problem.** When I hear other writers I admire talk about their outlining, I sit slack-jawed as if they are demi-gods bringing fire back from the mountain. I want to be them. Desperately. I want to sit at that hip table in the cafeteria and soak up their organizational, linear cool. I want to believe that I am a writer different from the writer I actually am. Like I want to believe that I can wear skinny jeans. And so I make the attempt with every single book I write.

{Who’s got a hanky? Mama needs a hanky. This part’s sad, kids. For Chrissakes, look away. Give a woman her dignity.}

Here’s the ugly truth, y’all: For DIVINERS #2, I have ten different outlines dated at points throughout the last year. There is one called “Microplot” done at Holly Black’s house in July 2012. There’s one called “Big Bad” which is, predictably, the scary supernatural storyline. It’s mostly a series of questions like an elaborate game of Who Knew?: “Can the ghost cross water?” “Is there more than one spirit?” “What happens if X meets Y?” “What are the rules of this supernatural world?” “What’s something that’s as creepy as dolls? Answer: Nothing. Well, maybe Ted Cruz.” There’s an outline called “Character Threads” and one called “Alternate Threads” and one called “Backstories” and one called “Series overview.” There’s an outline called “New Outline” and one called “Yet Another Outline” and one called “Help Me, Baby Jesus” that makes it all the way to Chapter 29 before it devolves into scribbles down the page—thoughts and snatches of random dialogue and notes like, “Need to make up some cool ghost hunting equipment here.”

All of the outlines end this way, abandoned in some terrifying, Guillermo Del Toro-style orphanage of incomplete organizational tools where bad things will come out of the closet to gobble them up. War is hell; so is outlining.

I cannot outline because at some point, my mind rebels. It smokes a cigarette and looks all Bruce Willis and says, “You know what, Sport-o? This whole thing will work better if you just let me play it my way. Don’t make me paint the lines on the road. Let me find the road, ya dig? Let me decide if this is really the road I’m driving or not. Yippee-Ki-Yi-Yay, Mofos.” And then my mind puts on a leather jacket and fist pumps the sky in a vaguely 80’s-era Judd Nelson gesture. My mind’s got some issues.

{More juice! Gimme the whole box, kid, and stop your sniveling. There’s no sniveling in writing. We go straight to existential dread and body-wracking sobs. Go big or go home.}

So, after six novels, five plays, and many short stories, I know this about myself. And yet, I can’t accept it.

Inherently, I feel that I must be dumb and wrong. That if I were just better at this writing thing, it would be easier. It is my fault. I am a fraud. Real writers don’t struggle this much and they don’t blow through deadlines. This is the bad song playing in my head. Thom Yorke sings it with XL falsetto pain.

So I try again. Because I’m a goddamned optimist, kids. And don’t you forget it.

I write the same scene ten different ways, trying to find the way that works best. Often, I go back and rewrite an existing scene because I’ve come at it from the wrong emotional angle or because I’ve come to know more about the characters and the choices they would make or the words they would speak or the feelings they would have. Sometimes I find what I’m after. Sometimes I don’t and that scene is thrown out like acid-washed jeans after a ‘90s theme party.

To date, I’ve thrown out thirty-nine scenes in DIVINERS #2. THIRTY-NINE SCENES! People, I can’t even count that high! Somebody had to count it for me!

Some of those scenes are only a few paragraphs long, sketches begun that I realized weren’t quite right: “Huh. Now that I’ve got the supernatural llamas on the ship, I’m not quite sure what to do with them after the demonic limbo contest.” But quite a few are many, many pages long. They’re complete scenes crafted with blood, sweat, and tears over time. Precious, precious time. But still, they are wrong, and they must die. Like my dreams.

{Here, squirt the cheese right into my mouth, like this. Listen, kid, you just worry about the cheese. I’ll worry about my cholesterol. Yeah, I know I smell like your grandpa smelled when the catheter broke. Can we not mention that?}

Can I tell you a story? A sad one? Okay. Snuggle up. About two months ago, I realized that maybe I was maybe a little too close to the novel to see it clearly. Sometimes I tell myself little fibs to get by: “You deserve a Frappuccino.” “Fox is bringing back ‘Firefly.’” “They never made ‘Jaws 3.’” “Maybe the novel doesn’t suck; maybe you’re just too close to it.”

It passes the time between leg waxes.

So I asked two of my good writer buddies, writers I trust implicitly, to read the first three hundred pages. As delicately, but honestly, as possible, they confirmed what I felt in my gut: The novel was a stone-cold mess. Kids, I don’t think there’s anything more disheartening than working your everloving ass off on a book that you just know in your gut isn’t working. It’s like trying to find a taffeta bridesmaid’s dress you can wear again.

I thanked them, then I went for a walk, blasting Green Day on my iPod. I hit the drums very, very hard. It’s possible I might have drawn a mustache on a few of my author photos. But then—then I sat down and started in again. Because you can’t stop swimming, right? Right.

{I love it when you agree with me. You know, you really are very nice people. I feel like I could talk to you about anything. Here, have some squeezy cheese. Open wide—Mama’s sharing mood may not last.}

My Spidey senses began a-tinglin’ like that time I accidentally sat on the electric blanket with the short in it at my Aunt Esther’s house. Maybe I’d finally found my answer! I pursued this new idea, crafting a brand-new opening, threading it through additional scenes. Then I watched in soul-sucking horror as that fell apart, too.

This happened six more times.

I don’t like to tell you bad stories like this. But pain is how we learn.

In the solitude of my writer’s cave, which has all the charm of an Eastern Bloc apartment building circa 1971, I sat with my laptop, some index cards, two blank sheets of paper, and a water bottle. {Hydration: It’s important.}

I tried organizing scenes on notecards.

I wrote out emotional arcs on paper.

I tried writing scenes that come later in the book, hoping that the deeper emotional wounds of those scenes would lead me in a circuitous route back to what was wrong with the first three hundred pages.

When that didn’t work, I went back to the beginning and wrote my sixth new opening chapter, carefully crafting it to set up the reworked plot so that it could segue seamlessly into the new, restructured second chapter, which had previously been the tenth chapter. (I have shuffled chapters like someone running a shell game on 42nd Street.) I snapped the new chapter in place, read it over and felt my stomach knot up as I realized it simply wasn’t going to work. I tried shifting Chapter Two into Chapter One’s position. I tried rethinking the rules of my world in such a way that it would allow me to try yet a third way to open the book. I rewrote the old Chapter Two (now Chapter One) without its related follow-up scene to see if splitting the action made more sense. It didn’t. In fact, I’m not even sure this paragraph makes sense. It makes my head ache, that’s for sure. You know what? I’m going to look at videos of Stevie Nicks to make myself feel better.

{Stevie doesn’t care if I finish this book or how hard it is. She wrote “Landslide” which is awesome. She can coast and do the witch dance forever. I wish I were Stevie. “Oh mirror in the sky…what is love…can the child within my heart be sacrificed to the goat gods in exchange for a working plot…”}

Despite all that effort, my book was still nowhere. I was stuck. Hopelessly stuck. Forlornly, impossibly, despairingly stuck. Trying-to-explain-evolution-at-the-Creationist Museum stuck. I could feel that awful ballooning in my throat that signals the onset of an ugly cry, and as I have some modicum of public restraint (shocking though that may be to some of you…), I decided to bid goodbye to the writing cave and head home.

So that’s where I am—lost, frustrated, terrified, and still facing a countdown clock whose every tick-tock reverberates inside my head like the drums coming for The Master.

One of the wonderful parts of writing a series is that you really get to immerse yourself in the world you’re creating. You get to spend a great deal of time digging into your characters, getting to know their wounds and strengths, reaching greater understanding over time. As someone who really enjoys the serial as a form, this is terribly exciting and addictive.

The negative aspect is that series, by their very nature, require stringent scheduling. Anyone who has ever waited five years for the next installment of a beloved series can understand how that feels. We want it NOW.  (I know I do.) But sometimes, the novel isn’t cooperative with your time frame. And then the panic starts.

To date, I have blown through two deadlines. This does not make me feel good. I am a punctual person, and the thought that I am holding up other people makes me feel really awful. And when your reason is that you simply can’t seem to “fix” your story, somehow, that feels doubly awful. Because then the bad thoughts creep in: What if I can’t write it? What if I’m just not good enough/smart enough/fast enough/clever enough? Dumb. Messy. Wrong. Slow. Fraud. Hack.  

The bad thoughts are paralyzing. They lock up your thinking. And so much of writing is thinking. Thinking takes TIME. Thinking forces you to question everything you take for granted, to get past what feels too easy, too pat in order to get down to what feels real and right and true for your story. They don’t tell you this on the Internet, and I think that is just mean. {You’re mean, Internet! Go away until I need to Google weird shit again.}

They don’t tell you just how much time you’ll spend with your palms pressed against your head screwing up a perfectly good hair day as you mentally spin out a series of chess moves. They don’t tell you that you’ll be sitting in a restaurant smiling politely at your dinner companions nodding along as you pretend to listen while secretly asking yourself, “Does that thing I’m doing with the dog in Chapter Three really work?”

I don’t know, kids. I don’t know.

Well, peeps. Sun’s getting low in the sky. Or else that glaucoma’s come for me at last. This has been real. I’m so glad we had this time together to talk despair. Thanks for the juice and the cheese. And, uh, yeah. Novel writing is hard. Deadlines suck but are necessary. Tip your waitress. Stay in school….stop looking at me with those big, baby animal eyes. What else ya want from me?

Oh. Right.

I think this is the part where I’m supposed to buck up and tell you something inspiring, like, “Hey, at least I’m not digging ditches,” or, “Somehow it’ll work out. It always does.” And it’s true: I’m not digging ditches. And it probably will work out. Or I’ll ask Barry Lyga to bring me the cyanide caplet as part of that blood pact we swore to each other during the dark days writing our last books.

But I can’t tell you how or when this will happen. I can’t tell you why I can’t seem to break through to the other side of this story, why it’s so elusive right now. I can only try to be patient with myself, to remember how much I love writing and all the reasons why this particular series is so meaningful to me and to remind myself that I am working on something that’s really challenging me and forcing me to push into unfamiliar territory as a writer, to adapt and grow and learn new skills. And that it feels really scary because it IS scary.

I only know not to stop swimming.

Now, pick up your damn juice boxes and get back to work. Mama’s got an idea for that demonic llama cruise ship…

* This actually happened during a bad writing spell. But at least afterwards, I knew where to find the cinnamon. Next to the cardamom but before the cumin.

** It didn’t. Not even a little bit.