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The Care and Feeding of a Small American House-Cat, Pt. 1
Now that I've finished Palimpsest by utilizing my usual superpowers of procrastination, panic, and insomnia, 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 justbeast , 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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This is the greatest thing I've ever read about writing. Polish it, stuff it on a static page, and leave it for the unwashed masses (and your future unwashed self) to relief-read when in panic mode because what is currently being written just isn't happening!

Thank you for sharing this.

Sure. Maybe I'll put it up on the official website.

I'm linking to this on my blog. It's PERFECT.

And I seriously suggest it as a SFNovelists blog post, also.

I'll post it on my day this month. :D

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.

Good lord.

I'm the fastest reader I know-- probably by a factor of 10-20-- and I can't even imagine reading 40K words and editing them in the space of a single evening. That's... superhuman, or something.

(Especially not 40K of your words. I can, and often do, read 40K of, say, Stephen King in a single day, but that's light and breezy, while Catspeak is deep and rich and loamy and takes me weeks of mulling and pondering and rolling the words around like marbles.)

It was a very long evening, I assure you. And I was shocked at how well everything in that 40k looked in retrospect, when I was sure it sucked. It's not the only editing, but it is the big First Pass.

I'm also very lucky in that justbeast is an excellent first reader/listener and the best barometer I know for whether a thing is working. From word choice to emotional impact, he's just tops. So we have this process, and it works really well, but without him? I would take a hell of a lot longer.

Also, Catspeak is Myspeak. It's not so tough for me , I made it. ;)

I am printing this out and tacking it to my wall. I wish I had it in grad school so I had a map for the process so similar to my own. (Insert a day of crying and panicking about how utterly stupid this is and how you will surely fail that occurs right before we sit down and DO it...and that might be me.)

You are wonderful.

It's so good to know that other people go through the same thing, isn't it? Maps are important. :)

Hell, that's me with writing legal briefs, sometimes.

This is me doing any seriously large, long term project at all. Big cross stitch projects, quilts that need to go to new mothers, portfolios that I put together for college or work - It's totally me. Including the things that I spend time doing as the ideas for the projects "perk" in my brain.

I am just totally, insanely in awe.

Meat. Fighting. Wrist-fixing. Added to the list. /nod

(Deleted comment)
Yeah, I think it really hit home after The Orphan's Tales, which is a really specific style. I was feeling pretty good about my writerliness until I sat down to write a different kind of book and my whole Orphan's Skill Set was irrelevant.

I think I understand now, though. I know the next one will be tough.

This is definitely one for the ages.

You know what's bizarrely good for the wrists? Fencing. I spend fully as much time on my computer now as I ever have, but since I started fencing again, just those two hours once a week, I haven't had a twinge. Barring that, though, maybe instead of (or as well as) wrist braces you should get one of those little wrist-excercise-y things to keep carpal tunnel at bay? Your hands are far too precious to far too many people to have to suffer through any kind of repetitive stress injury.

All of these things are probably good ideas.

I'm extremely antsy about getting back into fencing, as we talked about last week--my ex husband is an avid fencer, it has bad associations, I tried it to please him and that worked out about how you'd think. And while I like swords, I don't know if it's really me. Especially since not all fencing schools are as awesome as yours. Sigh. There is a big part of me that wants to.

Yeah, I can definitely see how that would sour it. Maybe you need something similar-but-different, like staff-fighting or sabers or knife-throwing... Or just doing it with justbeast. While wearing a doublet and a feathered hat... ; )

(Though on the point of my school's awesomeness, the matter is simple: move to Ottawa! ; ) The city loves you!)

Says the girl who might be about to move OUT of Ottawa :)

*sniff* Aww, don't remind me... I'm actually totally convinced that all the lovely people I've been trying to persuade into moving here over the years will come in one fell swoop within about two days of my going. Then again, so long as you're here when I get back...

yeah I procrastinate too...

Which is why I like ICU and emergency med... if people will actually die, in 2 min, without help, it makes me get off my ass.

Re: yeah I procrastinate too...

Honestly, I think that's a good cure-all for procrastination.

They should have some sort of transmitters-plus-death-injection setups to people's homework assignments, from the get-go. That'll teach em right quick :)

Good god, that sounds a bit like me with a writing project. Except I usually don't get to determine the wordcounts, and my daily care usually requires coffee or soda and five or ten minutes stolen here or there to do silly shit like play solitaire or chat with a friend. Otherwise: procrastinate for a long time and then OMG OH NOES MUST WRITE! horrible horrible BRILLIANT FLASH! horrible crap god my hands hurt how long can this go on just five kay to go horrible ugh MUSE! one kay blargh shoot me now DONE.

That would have been the short version, yeah. ;)

This is both cool and not all that far off from my own map, and I am going to share it with the other writers that I know. Thank you!

(Also, note to self: Get catvalente's books and add them to the stack of Books by Cool People That I Need to Read.)

Edited at 2008-02-07 08:59 pm (UTC)

These are the kinds of things they ought to tell you in writing workshops but don't. Thank you for sharing it.

When I'm done with my WIP I'm totally writing myself one of these.

This entertained me greatly.

I must say though....egads! That is a mountain of torment to have to ascend for every book. O_O

*shrugs* The other option is not writing them.

That would be too terrible to imagine though. Still, am sorry you have to suffer so much for your work. :/ Can't wait to read the new book though. ^_^

That's exactly the kind of thing that's good to read when you're setting out on a huge, repeatable project that scares you silly every time -- it's all about understanding the fight to keep faith in yourself and what you're doing. :D

"peppermint ice cream, cinnamon tea, lots of sex, nights at the movies, and Rock Band to massage and nourish your mind"

Where can I sign up to help you with the nights at the movies, and the Rock Band part?

And WOW, I thought I was the only one that procrastinated like that. You sound exactly like I do when I'm stalling on a sewing project. Of course, writing and sewing are two completely different things and I wouldn't ever compare what you do to my crap, but I understand fully.

Hee. you live a bit far for the evening-duration stuff, but ConFusion was very good for me in the midst of all of this. Move to Cleveland, that's how you sign up!

So happy to help at the Con. You know I had such a difficult time there, hanging out, eating, drinking,dancing, talking to wonderful people. How on earth did I ever make it out in one piece?

But seriously, anytime I can help you with *anything*, just let me know.


Edited at 2008-02-07 09:51 pm (UTC)

As I freefall towards deadline ... thank you! I so needed to hear this.

Now, we sew!!! I have lots of pretty new beads....

Re: Wonderful advice.

No fair! I want to sew too. *pout*

Edited at 2008-02-08 12:29 am (UTC)

Re: Wonderful advice.

Well, you can come for a weekend sometime. We'll make a regular hen party of it.

With booze, of course.

Re: Wonderful advice.

Booze and sewing? ROCK ON! I'm game, but you might not want to put pointy, sharp things in my hands when I'm drinking.

Edited at 2008-02-08 01:21 am (UTC)

Re: Wonderful advice.

LOL! We will have to figure something out soon.

Re: Wonderful advice.


Good God, thank you for writing that.

So much of what you say here is SO familiar to me, OMG! The pattern, the process, the near-deadline insanity, the shamanic pouring out of the creativity.

You are not alone, Present Cat or Future Cat. Be good to yourself.

Hip, hip, hoorah! for your most recent accomplishment. :)

This applies to so many facets of how I do things. Writing in particular but generally anything Big and Important. I'm going to print it off and nail it to my desk.

Also, for the wrists, knitting has done wonders for my wrists. I went from being unable to use a calcified joint to twinges only when I seriously overdo it. Or fall on it.

Not writing books, myself, I don't have a lot of personal insight. But I read Scalzi's post on his writing method last week, and he pointed out that the first 2/3rd's of his work was figuring out how stuff is going to go, and when it gets to the end, writing it all down is the easy part. But it's at the end, and for him, the daily word-count is a myth. It might be an average daily word-count, but 90% of the writing gets done in the last 10% of the process (or whatever his values were).

In my programming/engineering world, it's much like that. I'll spend two weeks with nothing but some rough sketches, or pondering some of my old logic, and then two days pounding the logic or the hardware design into something usable. And I've noticed while editing this comment, that I seem to tack conditional phrases onto every single thing I write or speak. I should try to stop that, or be more subtle about it, at the very least.

I can't wait to read Future-Cat's books, either!

PS. "You are have serious lazy" hurts my brain. :)

It's a Cat macro. Duh. ;)

I really wish there was some way around the procrastination thing. It drives me crazy, but my brain seems to need as much pre-think time as possible before pen hits paper. I'm working on my first novel, and it's been so on-again/off-again for a while now that I feel like I'm ready burst. I guess that good news? I almost can't procrastinate any longer.

I'm dreading the revision process though. I've never revised anything of that length before. I have no idea how it will go.

you will feel uglier and lower and more worthless than at any other time in your wee mad psychic cycle.


I understand this, and I've heard it said a lot. I just wish somehow we could all have a little more collective compassion for ourselves.

I don't put off starting, 'cos there are so many stories I want to write and life is just too short (very short when you get to my age) but oh, that mid-point despair and the convictions of worthlessness . . . those I know. Those are my neighbours always having a party I never get to!

Thanks for reminding me I'm not alone, not alone.

Okay, break's over, back on my head!

Thank you for this. It's a variation of much of the creative process that's in my head, especially the procrastination. I'm going to put this somewhere that I'll see it the next time I start a project, so that I can have it fresh in my head when I start stumbling on the first steps.

I've only just been introduced to your writing since my wife came back from WisCon this past summer, but I've enjoyed everything that I've read immensely, books, blog entries, open letters, squees of joy... And I'd like to thank you, both for the enjoyment that you've brought to me, and for the words and ideas that have begun to spring from my head since I picked up "In the Night Garden" and fell headfirst into it.

I am so not a writer....well, I thought I was.

I have my own demons to face when writing..mainly getting stuck in chp3 limbo. But this creative process of yours, despite the craziness and the pain, I wish I could write like that.

My hat's off to you.

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