On Working and Over-Working

Today, just this:

writer at work

Well, not quite. I’ve been encouraged to blog about this. This being what’s been going on lately on the writing front.

I woke up last Thursday morning experiencing the strangest jitters and shakes. I was tremble-y and weak all over. My body was warm, but my insides cold. It turned out to be a result of stress. I know, who would have thought I’d be stressed out, right? I mean, I may seem antsy and highly-strung most of the time and have no patience for the waiting game, but I also do things to help de-stress, like swim or listen to Joe Hisaishi and Nell, or play a musical instrument. I promise I’m chill! (Except it’s usually the neurotic ones who proclaim that.)

But no, apparently I was having an allergic reaction to work. Not just work-work, but the other work I do after office hours. In short, my writing. I was stressing myself out because of the thing I love most.

Accomplished writers always tell us aspiring writers that in order to make it, we need to treat our writing as our second job, one of equal importance as our official one that pays the bills.

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I don’t dispute that – writing requires discipline and effort. The only way through is to devote the time and energy necessary to creating the best possible story you can pull out of yourself. So after the nine-to-five (so to speak), I dive straight into my manuscript the minute I get home. No time for dinner. Just munch on some fruits as I pound out the words. Keep going until my eyes can’t stay open anymore. Next morning, wake up at the crack of dawn to swim before going to work.

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This routine seemed to work just fine for a while. I mean, I was hitting word count, getting shit done, living and breathing my story, doing what was required of me at work, and staying healthy. Right?

But it seems I might have been going about this the wrong way, if the recent bout of adverse physical reaction is any indication. Insufficient sleep, for one thing. And an all-consuming obsession to squeeze that story out and hating myself whenever I couldn’t get it going.

write all the words

This led to general frustration and resentment and other unpleasant emotions that, needless to say, made the problem worse. The stories stalled, and ideas spluttered to a halt. I kept trying to crank up the engine, but it just groaned and refused to cooperate. I made note-cards, drew three-act structures, tore down each manuscript to its bare bones, rewrote synopses, trying to get to the root of the problem and understand where I went wrong so I can pick up from there again.

When I wasn’t writing, I felt restless and guilty. (Even right now, as I’m writing this blog post, there’s this voice in the back of my head nagging at me to stop procrastinating and return to the manuscript!) But when I was writing, I felt stuck. Nothing was working.

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My dad remarked the other day that my modus operandi is unusual and not very efficient. “You work in sprints, two-hour bouts of manic energy and then you crash,” he said. “Regular people work at a consistent pace so that they can last longer. A slow-burning flame will keep you going further.”

This is in line with what I overheard a swimming instructor tell his student the other day in the pool: “No one is pressuring you; only you are pressuring yourself. You just need to try. Trying and failing is how you learn.” The kid he was coaching tried and failed gloriously, but managed a perfect length of backstroke by the end of the session.

I didn’t realise that I was creating my own problem until that moment. I was burning myself out because I was too impatient to get what I want. No one is pressuring me; I’m just hurrying myself to get the next book published. And the thing about publishing is that it takes a loooong period of time – years – from conception to publication. If there’s ever one job you need patience for, it’s writing.

We think that, because we’re in our twenties, we need to make shit happen already. It’s been almost four years since I graduated. Why haven’t I achieved something yet? (Okay, yes I published a book, but what about the next one? And the next? And the one after that?) When am I actually going to start living the life I always dreamed of?

But maybe our twenties is the time we lay all the groundwork for the career – and the life – we want in our thirties and forties and beyond. Maybe we need to work at our craft now with consistency and devotion, and focus on putting one foot before the other instead of staring off into the distance and wishing we were at the finish line at this moment. (Where is the finish line anyway? Don’t we just keep setting new goals for ourselves?)

Because like Rilke said,

have patience rilke quote

And like Hermann Hesse preached:

hermann hesse seek too much

And when all else fails, like Elizabeth Gilbert said at her TED talk, maybe all we really need to do is simply return to the one thing we love more than ourselves, “put our heads down and perform with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from us next”.

 

For all the dream-chasers out there, are you sprinting towards your goals or running a slow and steady marathon? Do you occasionally feel burned out? How do you restore equilibrium in your life? I’d love to hear about your writing journey!

 

[Related Story: How Wanting Makes Us Want More]

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Protecting Your Creative Mojo

the world is brighter after creation

Came across this article on my Twitter feed today: Protecting Your Creative Mojo

“If you want a really creative life, full of the color and temperature of your ideal world, you’re going to have to do something drastic: let everyone down.”

Do we really have the courage to do that? It may sound noble to say that you’re making sacrifices to pursue your creativity, but how many of us actually dare to set those creative boundaries and carve out the life we had always dreamed of for ourselves? Maybe someday.

“If you want to do mediocre work and just kind of be average, then yes you can make gray washes of so-so, keeping anyone from commenting, much less noticing. But if you’re trying to do anything honestly creative, chances are you don’t actually have a burning desire deep down inside for blandness.”

In other words, be extraordinary like you always dreamed to. Even if it only means something to you. It’s quite in line with what Elizabeth Gilbert said in her book, Big Magic (which is an inspiring, motivational book everyone should read, IMHO).

“When you let others down it means you are defining your edges. You are deciding what exactly you’re willing to do, where you’re willing to live, who you’re willing to surround yourself with, how you’re willing to work. Those edges aren’t just borders, they are definitions. And for the artistic type, when everything is a possibility, creating definitions is what keeps you on track.”

“We forget to be honest when we’re so busy being polite.”

Ain’t that the truth. Stay true to what makes you YOU, don’t apologise for the things that inspire you or the things you love. The right people will understand, the ones who love you will support, and the haters will be drowned out in a sea of white noise.

Keep pursuing your creativity, keep chasing the muse, and stay inspired!

Joyce xo

Words In Progress

We think it’s infallible. We think just because we have mustered our creative mojo once that creativity will always be palpable, readily at the surface every time we get to work. The problem with this assumption is life will inevitably get in the way. If we are not diligent in how we get to work, the magic dissipates. The wondrous act of creation becomes a memory from the glory days rather than a measurable, living, breathing practice.

There are many different reasons we lose our productive push: our energy levels drop, we don’t have an environment that supports our work, we don’t schedule time to work. It would make sense that if we truly wanted to live a life of creative fulfillment, we would easily be able to just do it. But there are other elements at play when we self-sabotage like this and one of those things is our need to please others.

Unfortunately, as obsessed…

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The Write Life – Staying True to Your Craft

I’ve been hooked on TED talks by writers and creators lately. It was this particular one [Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating] given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love that got me started. I come back to this speech every time I need a pick-me-up while lost in the wilderness of creation or in the pits of despair when things are out of my control.

In her speech, Gilbert talked about the struggles every writer faces: rejection, failure, feeling stuck in the same spot for years, being powerless in the publishing arena and facing things that are out of our control, like market forces and book sales.

On rejection and pushing through:

I failed at getting published for almost six years. So for almost six years, every single day, I had nothing but rejection letters waiting for me in my mailbox. And it was devastating every single time, and every single time, I had to ask myself if I should just quit while I was behind and give up and spare myself this pain. But then I would find my resolve, and always in the same way, by saying, “I’m not going to quit, I’m going home.”

And you have to understand that for me, going home did not mean returning to my family’s farm. For me, going home meant returning to the work of writing because writing was my home, because I loved writing more than I hated failing at writing, which is to say that I loved writing more than I loved my own ego, which is ultimately to say that I loved writing more than I loved myself. And that’s how I pushed through it.

On “going home”:

… the remedy for self-restoration is that you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service, it might be raising corgis, I don’t know, your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.

On staying true to your craft:

The only trick is that you’ve got to identify the best, worthiest thing that you love most, and then build your house right on top of it and don’t budge from it.And if you should someday, somehow get vaulted out of your home by either great failure or great success, then your job is to fight your way back to that home the only way that it has ever been done, by putting your head down and performing with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from you next.

I’m a born worrier. People around me always tell me to stop overthinking. So it’s no surprise that I drive myself crazy going in circles in my head, thinking about potential outcomes (most of them not very pleasant) and obsessing over what I’m doing wrong to remain stuck where I am.

But I often find that losing myself in the story I want to tell not only takes my mind off these worries, it also reminds me of why I’m even doing this in the first place: because, like Gilbert, I love writing more than I love myself. It’s something I would do even if I weren’t getting paid for it; it’s something I do when I’m happy or down or troubled or angry; it’s something I will always do and can’t help but doing because making up stories is already a part of me — it’s in my blood.

I think there are some people who wander in life for years, not knowing what their purpose is, and lucky are the ones who find their calling early in life and therefore have years to work on it. So when you do find your calling, you need to hold on to it, nurture it, and keep in mind why you love it even when there are moments – many of them – when you feel like giving up.

So onward, storytellers. May you always manage find your way back home to what you love, and not waver in the face of failure.

rilke quote

The week of rejection letters

Three weeks into NaNoWriMo and my word count stands at … 28k. Yup, just as I expected. I’m not going to make it in time.

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As Chuck Wendig said,

It’s harder just not to create art than it is to actually sit down or stand there and commit. It’s easier to think about creating something, or to talk about creating something, than it is to actually will yourself to that act — a very difficult, transitional, sacrificial act. It’s easier to think about stories or dream stories or imagine your published stories than it is to actually carve them letter by letter across a piece of paper.

Thinking is easy; dreaming is easier. It’s the doing that feels like carving out your skin inch by inch, but it’s also what gives you the most satisfaction. Now, if I could just hold on to that thought…

Literary agents, however, have had a very productive week in terms of responding to emails. At this stage, any response is better than none. I’m not really a fan of the whole “We’ll reply only if we’re interested” policy more and more agencies are adopting these days.

This week, I’ve had three rejection letters. Nice ones, but crushing nonetheless. I don’t think I’ll ever be immune to the sting. It’s nothing personal, I know. It’s just … you feel like you were soooooo close, you know? They’d already requested the full manuscript for consideration. They liked it. It JUST. WASN’T. GOOD. ENOUGH.

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It’s enough to make a writer want to give up sometimes. If your best still isn’t good enough, does that mean you’re just not cut out for this after all?

At least most of the agents are really kind. I’ve had one who called me Joshua and some who responded with just one line: not for me but thanks.

 

 

Rejection Letter #1:

Dear Joyce,

Thank you so much for submitting Until Morning to Giant Squid Books. Your novel is a fresh take on romantic YA and I have not seen many like it! However, the switching perspectives and long dream sequences did not resonate with us, so I do not think we are the right fit. I am confident that you will find a home for your novel and I wish you the best of luck.

Warmly,
Rachel 

 

 

Rejection Letter #2: 


Dear Joyce,

Thanks again for sending me UNTIL MORNING, and for your patience as I read it. I’m a big fan of Haruki Murakami, and your use of magical realism really reminded me of his work. I loved the way the characters’ lives were interlaced, and how they meet inside Lexi’s dreams of Sam’s paintings. I thought the way you constructed their worlds was very fresh and interesting. I loved the twist of her being in a coma. Overall, I thought the concept of your book was very imaginative.

I felt like I had an immediate impression of each of their characters. Lexi seemed very free-spirited (in her dreams), while Sam has always had a lot of structure in his life and pressure from his father. I wanted to learn more about their characters, to see them develop and expand as I continued reading, and unfortunately, I didn’t see that as much as I would’ve liked. It was interesting to learn that Lexi is much less free-spirited in real life, because it helped give more nuance and depth to the version of Lexi that appears in the dreams. However, I still didn’t feel that I got to know either of their characters as deeply as I wanted to. I also felt that the way they appear to be complete opposites in the dreams, yet become close so immediately, felt a little too perfect and unrealistic. The similarities between them as well (both having a sick mother) felt a little too coincidental to be realistic.

As much as I admired the overall concept of your book, I’m afraid I didn’t connect to the characters in the way I’d hoped, so I have to pass. I wish you all the best in finding the right agent and getting this published.

Best wishes,
Annie B

 

 

Rejection Letter #3: 

Dear Joyce,

Thank you so much for submitting to the Collaborative. Unfortunately, while your concept is intriguing, we recently sold a project that involves a romance conducted via dreaming, and as a small company, we need to be very careful about taking on projects with too much overlap to titles already on our list. I’m sorry this wasn’t a match but I wish you the best of luck in finding the perfect home for your work!

All my best,
Annie S

 


Rejection Letter #4: 

Dear Joshua,


Many thanks for sending us Until Morning.
I am sorry I can’t offer to represent you at this time, but I wish you every success with your writing in the future.

Best wishes,
Gillie

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Can I go wallow now??

NaNo-ers, power on anyway! It’s a daunting task, seeing a novel through to the end without getting held back by rejection or self-doubt, and writing is a much less lonely business during NaNo. But nothing beats reaching the end, you know that.

Also, BIIIIG thanks to everyone who stopped by with an encouraging note or remark – you don’t know how much it means to a writer. *kisses you fervently*

It’s NaNoWriMo!

National Novel Writing Month entails copious cups of green tea, manic pounding of the keyboard, dreaming up scenes, talking to your characters, considering what they’d do in your shoes as you go about your life, and basically being taken over by this snarling, squalling, blossoming thing called the Work In Progress. Anything that helps churn out that 50K-word manuscript in a month.

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WIP is going relatively well so far, considering how it had bucked and stalled like a horse that needs to poop for the first couple of drafts before I decided to take a break from it (let it, um, poop, so to speak).

Page 198 was where it succeeded in boring the brains out of me, so now I’m giving it another try, this time with a structure I’ve never quite dared to attempt before. Narrative within a narrative. Flashbacks (always risky). Non-linear chronology. Something like what Karen Foxlee did with The Midnight Dress.

Once I decided on this structure, it’s like things finally clicked into place. This is what gets me fired up and excited to write the story! This is what’s missing in the first two attempts! This is what makes me dig deeper into my characters!

Okay. *cracks knuckles* *flexes fingers* Let’s do this.

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Just so we’re clear, I’m probably not going to finish 50K in one month. I’m not going to embrace that kind of insanity. But I’ll just try my best and log in the daily word count and see where this takes me.

For my fellow NaNo-ers, here’s some wisdom from best-selling author Chuck Wendig on the writing process:

“We wish the best for our stories. We want them to be great. We want them to win awards and climb to the top of the bestseller mountain and maybe they’ll change somebody’s life and earn us a giant sack of cash which will allow us to buy a jet-boat or an oil drum full of that very rare civet-poop coffee. Maybe a jet boat fueled by civet-shit coffee.”

Yup, that’s Chuck.

“… go forth and write.

Without pressure, without fear, without the expectation of doing anything but crossing the finish line.”

 

And some civet shit-free wisdom from Laini Taylor (please update your blog, Laini – I’m dying for some snippet of your life!):

“Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a jungle in, let’s say, Borneo (because I have a fascination with Borneo). You have a rough idea of how big this jungle is — you’ve flown over it in a helicopter and seen dense green treecover, and you know what’s on the other side. You know where you want to get to, and you have a very vague idea of what’s IN the jungle, but you have no map, and as of yet there is no trail. What you do have is a machete, a blank roll of paper, and a grease pencil.

There’s only one way to get to the other side of the jungle: take out your machete and start whacking. Carve your way forward and forward, sometimes sideways and sometimes back, until you get to the other side. That first time through, you’re going to come across ravines, swamps, viper nests, rivers, all sorts of things you didn’t expect and you’ll deal with them and get around them, over them, through them, in all manner of resourceful ways. And when you step out of the jungle on the far side, what you’ll have in your hand is a sprawling, wrinkled, sweat-stained mess of a map of the territory you’ve just discovered. It might not look very pretty, but it is a glorious thing, a document of discovery. You clutch it to you, and after you’ve rested and healed for a while, you go back to the far side of the jungle and. . . you start again.

This time, with your messy map in hand, you’ll know where to go and where not to go. Some of the things you discovered your first time in, you’ll want to avoid like the plague; others will be perfect, serendipitous things that make the journey richer than you could have imagined when you set out. You’ll know your jungle/story intimately, the good and the bad, from ground level. Outlines, I think, are kind of the equivalent of aerial photography — you get some idea, but you can’t really see what it’s like down below — not until you’re walking through it. And when you find things to be not exactly as they had seemed from the air, you have to adapt.

Be nimble.

The second time through, your passage will be much more elegant than the first, and it will also be less exciting. Nothing will ever be so miserable or so thrilling as that first bushwhack. . . that first exploratory draft. The misery and the thrill are intertwined — that’s exploration for you, taking the leeches and fevers with the discovery and getting to name islands and swamps after yourself! The second time, you’ll know what to expect. You’ll be refining your map. It will get more perfect and less exciting with each pass, and then one day you’ll be done. Done with that jungle and ready for a new one.”

Yes, this analogy is perfect.

Yes, Laini Taylor is perfect.

Yes, I wish I could write like her.

Speaking of whom, yay for more Laini goodness: her short story, which is collected in this anthology called My True Love Gave to Me, has just been released!

Image from GoodReads

Laini’s in good company too: Holly Black, Kelly Link, Stephanie Perkins, Myra McEntire, and more!

And you guys, the UK version has HOT PINK pages:

SO grabbing this from the bookstore.

May the writing gods be with you this NaNoWriMo! :0)