Living for the Revel (catvalente) wrote,
Living for the Revel
catvalente

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Things I Learned While Writing Deathless

Now that it's just barely behind me and only the long and wonderful (I'm not kidding, I like this part) editorial process ahead--made all the more awesome since my new editor is 2muchexposition , an old friend, I've been thinking a lot about how this novel was a somewhat different experience for me, and, you know, what after-school special lessons I picked up. This sort of goes along with the last post-novel essay I wrote, a companion piece on the subject of the nature and habits of a small North American House Cat.

1. I do not have superpowers, and I cannot do everything.

Namely, what I cannot do is write two full-length novels back to back in three months. Fairyland landed right in the middle of my writing schedule, and I had to finish it before I could work on Deathless, because I can only do one book at a time, and because the YA tone of Fairyland couldn't bleed into Deathless or else, basically, disaster and hilarity would ensue. Deathless starts out with a young protagonist but goes to very dark places, such as Leningrad in 1941. 

What this means is that I had to start Deathless within a day or two of finishing Fairyland, and the biggest lesson I've learned is DON'T DO THAT, CAT, EVER. I need a break between books. Probably at least a month, to rest and recharge, or else my imagination just stutters 3/4 of the way through the second novel. (Beef...stew.) My wells of creativity are pretty deep, but they aren't endless--and that might seem obvious but I had never scraped the bottom of the barrel before. This is why I wasn't able to post to LJ at all--usually I don't drop off the face of the planet like that, but I literally had nothing left for anything text-related that wasn't Deathless.

And I cannot plan a wedding at the same as writing those two books, as well as making arrangements for a pair of lovely people to move into my house and all the other things that needed doing--especially since justbeast , in awesome news, finally got a long-term contract position (that he has to commute to Augusta for, but beggars can't be choosers) halfway through Deathless, and all of the sudden there was absolutely no one to cook and clean, because smoke was coming out of our roof with all the work being done.

All of this resulted in my missing a novel deadline for the first time in my professional life. Man, I gotta tell you. I hated myself while writing the email apologizing and asking for another couple of days--which became 10 days. That may not seem like much to you, but I want to have superpowers. I want to be able to do anything. And this time, I just couldn't. This has been one of the most exhausting years of my life, requiring all my powers just to get through it. I had to tap out. And for me, being 10 days late is a huge source of shame. But I pushed myself too hard, and that's kind of what happens when I don't pay attention to, or even really know my limits. I suspect this means a good, healthy clip for me is 2-3 novels a year--which is a lot, I know. But I am not deathless, myself, and I am in a race with time, to write as much as I can before I shuffle off. Also I keep having more novels in me that just want to be written so badly.

2. Ambition vs. Patterns

I am ambitious in most areas of my life. It's not just dinner, it's honeycomb and whipped brie and bacon on flatbread. And while I don't really like to do the numbers thing--especially since I could never beat jaylake --but usually, when things are going well, I can easily do 8 or 9000 words in a day, and the end of the book comes fastest. I've done 13k in a day, and that's not bragging, it's just how I work when everything is flowing. I have to ice down my wrists after, of course.

On only one day, while writing Deathless, did I ever top 7k. Most days were 4-5k, and that was all I could do. Again, this a "my process is not your process, there is no right way" thing. 4-5k is healthy. But it's half my normal rate, and I really noticed how little stamina I had as compared to writing Palimpsest.

So when I sat down at the beginning of the day, every day I said: this is the day of the breakthrough, and I'll get 9k out and it'll be great! And every day I didn't, and I felt like shit about myself, because I was setting my personal goals based on my ambition, not on the fact that for weeks I had never gotten 9k in a day but once and I was obviously running at a personal deficit, having done Fairyland at that accelerated pace just the previous month.

Not enough manna. Red wizard needs food, badly.

Not just the kind you eat, but psychic food, inspiration, the feeling of sitting on a lot of strata of research and story and enthusiasm. Also sleep. Also, I had vicious allergies the whole time. Nothing was going my way. But I still expected myself to perform as though everything was spinning in ideal conditions. And excoriated myself for not measuring up.

Don't do that. Pay attention to your patterns, not just what you wish your patterns were.

3. I hate the word "was" most of all.

4. If you have a pretty good idea how the book will go except for a GIANT GAP in the last act where you have no freaking idea, you cannot assume it'll just work itself out.

I actually could have met that deadline if I hadn't run face-first into a wall a few days beforehand, with a whole act ahead of me, knowing the end but not how to get there. I hit that wall and I had nothing. I'd been running full out for months on both novels, and while I'm generally an organic writer who works by her headlights and doesn't outline, it rarely happens that I reach for the awesome and it just isn't there. That was Tuesday. I had no idea where to go. Thematically, plot-wise, nothing. I knew where the folktale the book is based on went, but part of the deal with retelling fairy tales is fillin gin the gaps, and my gapfill hadn't shown up for work that day. So I was stuck.

I figured it out on Friday night. I pulled up a blank page and started writing stream of consciousness, asking myself questions about what I wanted, about what I needed the characters to move toward and experience, and it finally came, and I tell you what--it was way, way more awesome than I ever thought it was going to be. It broke my heart. I'm deeply proud of it. But it took a lot more time and furious thinking than I'd budgeted for.

And that goes back to #1. It's not that the creativity well is spent, the water table is just a lot lower, and it takes longer to lower the bucket and pull it back up. 

5. Don't stop living just because there's a novel up to bat.

I really failed on this. When mishamish and babymonkey moved in they walked all over the island every day and I didn't even go outside much, because if I wasn't working I felt terribly guilty. But rest and recharging is not optional, and I need to remember that.

I suppose the last thing isn't really a lesson, but I agonized, up until the very end, over whether I had any right to write this book, as I am not Russian, my family is not Russian, and maybe it's not my business to write this story. I felt so torn and still do. But ultimately, my family is Russian, and for four years Russian culture has been a huge part of my life, which is certainly longer than Japanese culture was, and I wrote two books about that. I was terrified to write about the siege of Leningrad--how do you write about that without making it cheap or another moralizing tale whose only point is "war sucks"? Or writing yet another gringo Russian novel that sounds utterly inauthentic? I don't know if I did it right. I hope I did. I'm glad to have written it and there is so much love in those pages, for Russia, a lifelong obsession of mine, for Dmitri and his family, for these folktales, which are so extraordinary.

It was hard and I'm exhausted now. I think it was worth it. But next time, I hope my future self listens to my very wise past self and goes a little easier on both of us.
Tags: care and feeding
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