creativity vs. commerce

I don’t tend to write a lot about craft because I’m fully aware that what works for me as a writer probably won’t work for you. (It very likely won’t, actually; my process is a little weird.) But in an effort to update the blog more than once a week, I wanted to share this revelation I had over the weekend.

I’ve been feeling a little stymied creatively lately. Several things keep happening. I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to just get another book done already. (Now that I think about it, the last novel I finished a first draft of was Out in the Field, which was completed about a year ago. I actually wrote the first drafts of Four Corners and Show and Tell in 2011.) Anyway, I’ve been really struggling with where I should focus my energies, and that has resulted in a somewhat crippling lack of focus; I keep starting new projects without finishing them.

(Novel-length projects, I should clarify. I’ve written a handful of shorts and a novella in the last eight months.)

And then I hated everything I wrote for a while. My writing had lost some of its charm. I wrote a story last September that I liked for its plot, setting, and characters, but I thought the prose was too spare and the sentence structure too choppy. I even had one beta say of something I wrote that it didn’t sound like my voice.

What is happening?

I think a lot of it was the pressure I was putting on myself and the panic of seeing 2013 laid out before me with a whole lot of nothing on the pub schedule, and then I think the writing process became more about Getting It Done than anything else, which kind of took away my enjoyment, which in turn made the writing not so great, and so on.

I had a self-imposed deadline of mid-March, but last week, I made the decision to let that go. Getting It Done was much less important than Writing a Good Novel. So, if it takes me the next six months to finish a book and make it good, so be it. It seems arbitrary, but that decision was freeing in a lot of ways.

Look, I’m all for setting goals. Goals are good. Goals keep us on track, goals help us plan ahead. But I think the lesson here is that churning out a book just for the sake of churning it out is not a good strategy for me. I have to feel passionate about a project in order to write it well, and if I’m more preoccupied with the deadline than the story, well, you can guess how that goes. (And as someone who periodically suffers from pretty intense anxiety, I am always going to be preoccupied with deadlines if they exist. It’s why I don’t think I will be selling stories on spec much anymore.)

Which brings me to my current project. I’m getting back to basics and writing a m/m contemporary set in New York. (I just got tagged to do another Next Best Thing post, so I’ll talk about the story more next week, but the gist is that it’s an opposites-attract romance.) I wrote the first 30,000 words in late December/early January and then promptly got stuck. The key issue was that there just wasn’t enough conflict. The characters met, they had some romance and hot sex, and then any impediment I threw at them seemed stupid and easily resolved. So, I got my writers group involved and handed them the first four chapters. They had a number of really good suggestions, particularly for how to introduce more conflict.

I spent a good chunk of this past holiday weekend working on the story. And, honestly, for the first time in a while, working on it felt more like crafting a story and less like churning out words. One of the characters is an opera singer, so I made a playlist of my favorite arias. (Listening to a lot of opera will make everything seem more dramatic.) I introduced a new character and moved some scenes around. I did some research. I wrote about 6,000 new words. I am so in the heads of these characters that I know them well now. And it all felt really good in the way writing hasn’t in a while.

So here’s hoping I don’t get in my own way again.

I think it’s one of the problems of being a working writer. What we’re told—and what I’ve seen in my own royalty statements—is that putting out books at regular intervals keeps readers interested. But how quickly will my readers drop off if I start putting out crappy books?

Like, the other night, I was having a conversation with someone in which the question was posed: What if you had written 50 Shades? I joked that I could retire. But my friend pointed out that I wouldn’t be okay with having written a book that was so critically reviled (I’d never forgive myself for putting out a book I knew was sub-par) and, more to the point, if I made all that money, I could stop writing, but would I want to? No, absolutely not. Writing is super important to me, it’s how I stay sane sometimes, it’s a creative outlet, it’s the thing I’d like to be doing most days. I wake up thinking about my stories and go to bed thinking about them. I would be incomplete if I gave it up.

But then commerce gets involved. Writing is a creative outlet but it’s also a business. I want to write full time, and therefore I need to sell enough books to sustain that. Then again, I think there’s something to be said for making your next book as spectacular as it can be, and I certainly aim for that whenever I’m working on a new project. Out in the Field did pretty well, I think in large part because of word-of-mouth more than anything I did beyond writing the best book I could.

So it’s a fine line. But for the sake of this project, I’m going to concentrate on writing a good story for a while. I’ll worry about the rest later.