Therese and her co-blogger Kathleen Bolton have established a reputation for themselves as The People to Know out here in writer-bloggerland. With a zillion (I counted them) interviews and thirteen monthly contributors—professionals from all over the writing and publishing community—their blog Writer Unboxed is absolutely my dream site to bracket this series of guest posts, first and last. (My first Top 10 guest post, Three Layers of Layering in Fiction, went up on their site way back in the end of January.)
It’s been great fun getting to know all these bloggers for writers over the past two months, trading posts with them and learning about their sites, their voices, their knowledge of the field. I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all of them for their fellowship and contributions.
And with no further ado I present to you the grand finale:
I remember being on a long car trip with my family. I was sixteen, my sisters were eight and four. (Yes, that’s a gap!) They were bored, restless, making my parents crazy, and I don’t remember how it started—if it was my mother’s idea or my own—but I began to tell a story.
Once upon a time. . .
I had no plan, and I couldn’t tell you what the story was about, but I remember my sisters being completely mine. Focused on every word, every twist in the tale. Fifteen, twenty minutes passed this way as I threw together words, sentences, concepts, and grew characters on the spot. I freaked out a little bit at one point, like a pilot-in-training who just realized the teacher had suddenly passed out, leaving the pilot alone—alone!—in the cockpit with no idea what to do next.
Then what happened? my sisters wanted to know when I grew silent, but I’d already grounded that plane.
Larry Brooks recently stated that publishing is like toothpaste that can’t be put back in the tube. So is storytelling. I’d had a taste of it, and it was addictive.
I’d also had my first taste of fear. What am I doing? I’m not a storyteller, I’m faking it. This is just a game anyway, it doesn’t matter. Beneath all of that, a truth: I’m afraid I can’t finish this story, tie it together in a way that makes any sense, so I’m going to stop right now before something embarrassing happens here. The End.
Life happened. I took a job with Prevention Magazine as a researcher, then began writing short nonfiction articles for them. My daughter was born. I read to her a lot. And then that old addiction crept up on me. I began writing picture-book manuscripts. When my story ideas grew longer, rangier, I decided to try my hand at adult fiction. And I loved it. I was back in the pilot’s seat, soaring and happy. Maybe I’d crash, maybe I was a fraud, but who would know? There was no audience in my office: It was just the computer and me. Six years later, a happy ending: my debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was purchased by Random House.
And here’s the kicker: two-book deal.
This was a good thing. A great thing. A dreamed-for thing. Something no debut author in her right mind would whine about after being plucked from the masses by Random House. But you know what went through my head, right?
What am I doing? I’m not a storyteller, I’m faking it. I’m afraid I can’t. Along with some new fears: The second book nearly kills every author. What if my agent and editor hate what I write? What if readers who loved the first book hate the second? What if it’s too different? Too similar? My contract says it’s due in two years; what if I need another six? What if I fail?
But a contract is a contract. I worked. I tried to intellectualize a process that for me is typically ¾ pantsing, and felt worse for it. I conducted research, wrote outlines, used literally hundreds of index cards to capture ideas as they came to me, then wanted to toss them all when it was time to organize those thoughts. I alternately felt convinced my work-in-progress was viable and there was no possible way it could be. And though I continued to write, and some days sat in front of my computer for the majority of my waking hours, the words were slow to come. It felt like the definition of a writer’s hell; I was battling a fierce case of resistance.
I overcame it, and I’m going to try to explain how, though I won’t pretend to understand all of it.
- I confronted the possibility of failure.
- I gave myself over to the work.
- I shut the door. . .
- . . .but I remembered that I was not alone.
What was the worst thing that could happen if I failed? I would have to pay back my advance. I would be unhappy with the message I would send to my children. I would lose credibility with my peers. I would have to reevaluate my future. I sat with those possible realities for a long time. I wrote them on paper and stared at them. Long enough, maybe, that something inside me said No. Not acceptable. That’s when #2 happened…
My schedule essentially became this: Wake up. Sit down. Write. Don’t edit. Just labor. Until it’s time to get the kids. Then sit back down. Write some more. Ask hubby to pick up Chinese food. Eat. Sit again. Write. Maximize my time with my family. Sleep. Rise with the sun. Repeat. This immersion technique meant most of my analytical and creative processes were focused on this story. I worked hard to find answers to story problems, ID’ed routes around barriers that might’ve made me doubt the viability of my story as a whole. I began to love my story more fiercely—believe in it all the more, too—as characters came fully to life. It was a positive cycle: work, find problem, solve, be rewarded with new character insights, repeat.
There were too many people in my head—and I don’t mean my characters. I mean reviewers, readers and the publishing professionals who helped turn my debut into a book. I had to consciously recall what had helped me complete my first story: there was no audience in my office—it was just the computer and me. I went inward like that once again.
Second novels happen all of the time. Anxiety over the second novel is common. So common that I was able to derive comfort from knowing that plenty of other writers had successfully overcome this type of resistance. My favorite inspiration? Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech on nurturing creativity for TED. (Olé.)
I recently turned in the complete draft of my second story. I made my deadline. And while there’s still work ahead—edits, and all that comes after—those initial fears have vaporized.
Writing is hard work. Before you’re published, when it’s just you and your story, writing is a little like flying a plane with a pilot by your side. You’re pumped on adrenaline, full of adventure, but you also feel safe. Signing that first publishing contract is like receiving your pilot’s license. You are cleared to fly, baby. But you will still ground yourself and your stories if you give too much power to your fears. Regardless of contracts, of readers and reviewers and all of that, what worked for me was remembering the most sacred and singular of all writing relationships: the one that exists between storyteller and story.
How do you quiet your inner voices to focus on your work? Have you battled back your personal fears and won? I’d love to hear about it.
Therese Walsh is the co-founder of Writer Unboxed—which, if you don’t already know about it, you should—and can also be found on Twitter. Therese’s debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was published in 2009 by Random House.