The Care and Feeding of the North American SF Novelist

I wrote this shortly after finishing my most recent novel a month or so ago, and it was suggested by several that I post it here, as a signpost for everyone else who goes through this particular wringer. I aim to please.

I finished Palimpsest on deadline by utilizing my usual superpowers of procrastination, panic, and insomnia, and now that I have a moment to breathe, I want to set down here the lessons I have learned about my psychology during times of creative stress and the deployment of above superpowers. I accept that this is how I work, it is how I work best, but it takes a toll on me personally and I want to write my Future Self a note as to What Happens To You While Writing a Book so that FS can chill the hell out the next time a book is due and realize that all this crap is just Part of the Process.

So, feel free to disregard this post if you are not interested in the Inner Workings of a Cat. I may make this a series, for the edification of people who have to live with me, or may date me in the future, or in any way have to witness the ugly, thready, bass-ackwards underside of the pretty tapestry.

So listen up, Cat of the Future!

1. Know and accept that you will put off any given book as long as humanly possible. You have serious lazy components who do not like to work. They like to mess around online and eat things with pesto and watch Doctor Who. You have developed this whole crazy scheme in order to defeat the lazy in you. It works, but you like to live on the edge (it’s probably better if you think of this as being Maverick from Top Gun rather than being a big loser. It will put more swagger and less shame in your step) because you are crazy and thus you never start on time. Therefore, you will be certain you cannot finish it within the time you have given yourself and panic. But! You have never failed to reach a deadline before. Up to now, at any rate, you have had an unerring sense of what you can and cannot do, which is why you are so good at the calculus of procrastination. Take a deep breath. Trust yourself. This is and has always been a repeatable experiment.

2. To that end, you will very likely never achieve the planned-for daily wordcount until the last week or so before deadline. This does not make you lame, or lazy, or a bum. It means you can only type at the rate your brain can create, and even in a hard-burn to deadline, you need peppermint ice cream, cinnamon tea, lots of sex, nights at the movies, and Rock Band to massage and nourish your mind so that it can write more. Do not leave this out or hate yourself for it, you need it as much as you need a computer in order to produce a book.

3. You need about 40,000 words under your belt before you feel like you have a handle on how to write this book (I fully agree with Gaiman that you never learn how to write a novel, only how to write this novel). You don’t have a handle on it, not really, but you’ll feel more confident that the shape of things is clear and solid. At this point, you will panic and think that you will overshoot your contracted wordcount by at least a million words. You won’t. It is a small superpower that your initial estimated wordcounts are always within 2 or 3k of actual final count. You are very good at guessing the size of your babies. You ought to work at the fair. So calm down. You do this because you think your ideas are too big for the book you’ve given them. They aren’t. It’ll be ok. You made these things up–trust that they are not bigger than you are.

4. Your wrists are going to hurt like a son of a bitch. Get wrist braces already, for god’s sake! Also, they will mostly hurt because the last two days before deadline will see your busiest and most creative time. You fall headlong towards the end and it’s great–because of your rather ludicrous mental state at this late date, the end in this draft will always be a little thin, but you will know how to round that out, too, given time away from the ms.

5. Since your revisions include reading aloud to your partner , it is a good idea to make sure there is time to do this before you’ve written 40k more than he’s heard and it takes a whole evening to go through that part and fix it all. Do not under any circumstances think it is ok to skip the reading–it’s where you catch everything wrong and make it better and even if it makes you nervous you have to do it. No single thing is as important to your revision process as this reading. It is not optional.

6. You will, at more than one point, hate this novel above all others and want nothing more than to forget it ever existed. Specifically, you will be worried that it is fragmented and nonsensical and does not hang together as a novel qua novel. You always think this and it is never (rarely) true. Never fear, you have the ability to write truly crappy things, but they usually hurt you like a kidney stone until you go back and fix them. Listen to the kidney stone feeling and fix it if it isn’t metal and then move on. But have faith that the novel as a whole will come as it is meant to, at the rate it is meant to, and that you have a lot of time to fix everything in post-production.

7. When writing a book, you will feel uglier and lower and more worthless than at any other time in your wee mad psychic cycle. You will be cranky and fragile and all kinds of friable. This is because you are a bad shamany thing, and everything is pouring through you into the book. All the good things in you, beauty and faith and patience and tenderness and love, are going onto the page and that means there isn’t much left to make you feel like anything but a slimy bug thing. This is ok. It is the price you pay for what you do and how you do it. Understand that it will pass, and that there are people who love you, and that you are not slimy or a bug. You will recover. You will feel as though you deserve to be seen in the daylight again. This usually takes about three weeks post-deadline. Do not rush it, do not beat yourself up for not feeling better than you do. If you had had a real baby, it would be called post-partum depression. Just be thankful yours does not involve uncomfortable stitches.

Future-Cat, buy yourself pretty things, treat yourself well, go out even if you don’t want to. Surround yourself with people–you will not have seen anyone for weeks at this point. Toast your wee book. Try to feel like a real, live girl. This, too, is part of how you have chosen to work–and you did choose this way. You could have learned to be a good student and write calmly, a little every day for six months, but oh no, you had to be Maverick. So ride your zen, girl. And be cool with the fact that this way requires aftercare. Embrace it and accept it and learn how to deal with it and freaking know thyself. This is, as someone recently said, your place of power. So live in it, buy a throw-pillow, and own it.

That is all. I can’t wait to read your books, Future-Cat! So you can’t go crazy in the writing of them, seriously.

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There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Radish

    How frightening. After a sustained burst of writing [days and days], No.7 is just about how I feel once the frenzy fades and lets me catch my breath.

  2. 2. Ian Thomas Healy

    Wow – this is a really outstanding post. Glory Be to Google Reader for sticking it in the corner as a recommended blog. I see so many reflections of myself in what you have here that it convinces me I am more or less doing things the way I ought to be.


  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    But will Future Cat pay attention?

  4. 4. Andrea Mitchell

    Thanks for this post – it’s so close to what I’m going through at the moment (finished my latest book a month ago), and it’s a comfort to know that I’m not insane. Or, at least, that I’m not the only one who’s insane. Or something. Thanks!

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