Thursday, August 14, 2014

I'm Not Telling

by Annabeth Leong

I always dodge when people ask me what books I want to write. I even dodge when people ask what I'm currently working on. It's not that I don't have ideas—I've got a file of snippets, beginnings of things, and even more detailed maps and outlines. And of course I'm always working on something.

But these are my rules. I never publicly discuss any work that's not under contract. Even privately, I never discuss any work that's not at least halfway finished. Most of the time, I won't even tell my partner what I'm working on. The only reason I make private exceptions is that it's sometimes useful to talk it out when I'm stuck on something. When I was working on Untouched, I had frequent discussions with one trusted friend. He helped me work out plot and pacing issues, and I'll be forever grateful.

Some of this is superstition. I believe on some level that if I talk about something I want to write, I'm cursing it. I'm pretty sure I have never finished a book that I talked about beforehand. A few years ago, I blogged about a book I was working on based on the story of Persephone. I was really excited about it, and I'd gone through the whole process of outlining (which for me is quite extensive). I thought I was committed to seeing the project through.

Not so. I've got three long attempts in my files. The story just wouldn't work, and I couldn't stick with it, and I felt humiliated because I'd said I was going to do it.

That brings me to another reason I don't talk about works that don't yet exist. Talking about my work publicly, even in the wish phase, makes me feel boxed in and constrained in a way that I don't like. I'm a very productive, prolific writer, but part of what I think fuels that is that I feel free to make abrupt changes. I take things that are supposed to be books and turn them into short stories. I turn short stories into novels. I write 30,000 words, abandon them, write a different book instead, and then go back to those 30,000 words. I change straight pairings into lesbian pairings and back. I weave disparate works together and rework them into one thing.

My writing process is nonlinear that way and it breaks a lot of supposed rules (especially the one about staying faithful to a particular manuscript until it's done—I'd be nowhere if I tried to force myself into that sort of fidelity). I don't like feeling as if I've created an expectation that I'm about to produce anything in particular.

I'm not generally a fan of Stephen King's writing advice (I use adverbs just to spite him, and I revise my work while the printer ink is still steaming hot). I think he's the one, though, who first gave me the idea that I shouldn't talk about work I hadn't written yet. If that idea does come from him, I'll still swear by that one.

King (I think) explained that by telling the story to someone, you prematurely gain the satisfaction of having written it. You get the pleased reaction, the oohs and ahs of excitement, and all that stuff screws you up if you actually then go and try to write it. The thing feels dead, and if something that person got excited about doesn't turn out to work, you don't know what to do. You're not alone with the work anymore—there's someone else in the room.

There's another reason I don't talk about the books I want to write. There are ideas and then there is true, naked want. Getting to that second thing is a process for me, and I don't have access to it off the top of my head.

When Joe from Sweetmeats Press asked me to write a novel for him, he asked me what was near to my heart, what I really wanted to write. My nature is that I always have a lot of things flying around—I have a lot of ideas about everything, and I get excited easily. What I really want is a harder question. It takes work for me to silence myself enough to discover it.

I took a day to sit and plan and freewrite. I love Joe, and I love the work he draws out of me, and I wanted to answer him as best I could. It took me the whole day to get to the seed of Untouched, and it didn't involve looking in my idea file at all.

It wasn't until a good six months into the project that I began to understand why I really wanted to write that book, what there was about Untouched and its characters that I needed to express. When I did, it tore my real life apart for a while. I've said before that my creativity is way out ahead of me as far as self-awareness goes, and that was very much true in this case. I found myself reevaluating many, many things that I thought I knew about who I am as a sexual being.

Because of that, Untouched was an unusually difficult book for me to write—it went much deeper into raw territory than I usually allow myself to go. I like to work a little in the past, with realizations I've already become comfortable with. To finish Untouched, I had to grow as a person and as a writer. The book was a bit beyond my wisdom and my capabilities.

This is not to say that my other work isn't meaningful, or that I make a habit of dashing things off. But I like a little distance between myself and my work—it's easier to work with things I've got perspective on, and it's easier to work when I'm not bleeding from a major artery. I prefer to mix a judicious amount of blood and soul into my ink, not just spew. I'm reserved that way.

Untouched will be out next month, so I've dodged by talking about a novel I already did write. All this to say, though, that the next time someone asks me what's near to my heart, what I really want to write, I'm going to understand that they are also on some level asking what is raw and fresh and dirty and painful and so ecstatic I can't bear it. I'm going to think twice before I answer.

16 comments:

  1. Annabeth:
    I think your position is well stated and a model for writers: respect your process. End of discussion. But because is just can't shut up, I'll add one more level to your reticence about early revelation. Very few family and friends even know I am a writer. (Damn! I used that word 'very' again)

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    1. Thanks for the comment! And yes, that's a good summary—I've got no choice but to respect how my writing process works.

      As far as family and friends, I like keeping that quiet, too. It's better for me when nobody's worrying they're going to show up in my stories or analyzing where things came from. On the other hand, any time I read a book about how to market your work, it starts with, "Send a message to all your family and friends...." A lot of the marketing advice I've seen doesn't seem sensitive to these writing process considerations (or to privacy, or to the fact that you might not be writing in a genre you want to share with your family and friends).

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  2. The stories that come from the raw places are the ones most worth writing.

    Most of my close family and friends know what I write, but I don't know what to say in class notes for my college's Alumnae News so I don't say anything. We have a landmark reunion coming up, though, and the only friend from my college class who knows me on Facebook is egging me on to reveal all in the reunion book. I may. I dunno. "She got an degree in English and only does _that_?" i've actually mentioned my writing in a couple of newsletters for the lesbian alumnae club from my college, but nobody's made any response, so I rather doubt my friend's contention that many of my classmates may have read my (pseudonymous) work and don't know that there's a connection.

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    1. I also have a friend from college who really wants me to reveal everything. She wants me to arrange to sign books at homecoming. I... don't think it's going to happen.

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    2. You just reminded me that I got an email from my Alma Mater that was like "whether or not you attended the reunion this spring, want to fill out this survey?" and I thought, "Why would I go to a reunion? I just earned my degree two years ago... oh wait... 5,6,7... okay, that was 10 years ago."

      What the hell have I been doing for for 10 years?

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    3. Heh, and then there's the matter of figuring out what you're willing to tell people you've been doing for 10 years...

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    4. My alma mater does reunion books every five years. Two reunion books back, I would have loved to talk about my exciting erotica career, but at that time it wasn't public knowledge yet. Whereas when the next update was being prepared, fairly recently, I was perfectly free to talk about erotica—but by then I already felt like a has-been and was disinclined to bother. (:v>

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  3. Damn... I think that Joe guy sent me an email like a year ago... that I never responded to... because I'm working with waaaaay too many publishers as it is. If we ever do "letters to my younger writer self" as a topic, remind me to tell her not to spread herself so thin.

    What were we talking about?

    Oh yeah... I don't discuss anything publicly that isn't under contract. During the creation phase I do often talk to my girlfriend about my work. I actually discussed a non-erotic book at length with my sister (who used to be really judgy but now... isn't) and she helped me sooo much. I'm a very private person in all aspects of my life, so discussing work is hard but actually super-super helpful, especially for a book that was outside of my usual genre (it's a New Adult sci-fi romantic comedy, god help us all!).

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    1. I understand about being spread too thin, definitely, but if you do ever get a chance to work with Joe, I'd recommend it. I've had long conversations trying to figure out what exactly he does to get my best work out of me—and I'm not the only one who feels that way.

      Did you write that New Adult sci-fi romantic comedy? Sounds very interesting...

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  4. Annabeth, I look forward to seeing your new work. Too true that telling all your friends and relatives about your latest publication is not a method that works for many erotic writers -- unless they've reached a phase of life when most of the relatives are either dead or alienated (not available for comment), and most of the friends are other writers. I look forward to being totally shameless after retirement from my day job.

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    1. "I look forward to being totally shameless after retirement from my day job."

      Best sentence ever. And thanks for the kind words about Untouched!

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  5. Annabeth, your posts never cease to amaze me. Your clarity of thought and eloquence of delivery is a delight to witness, and worthy of someone twice your age.

    Not that age has much to do with intelligence, but experience does play a part. (If one chooses to use that experience to good advantage)

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  6. Hi Annabeth,

    "My writing process is nonlinear that way and it breaks a lot of supposed rules (especially the one about staying faithful to a particular manuscript until it's done—I'd be nowhere if I tried to force myself into that sort of fidelity)"

    No one I know has proposed this as a rule. Many of the authors I admire most write in a non-linear manner and work on multiple stories concurrently and/or intermittently. As it happens, I personally do use that kind of linear process, but that's just me. And it's partly a consequence of the limited time I have available for my writing. (Of course, I realize that if writing were a total passion for me, I'd be unable to stop myself from doing that instead of all the other, mostly work-related stuff that takes up my time. That makes me feel a bit inadequate, but what can I do? I am who I am. As are we all)

    As for not talking about a work in progress - I have some of that superstition. I have a rule never to post any excerpts or quotes from a piece until it is under contract. And yet I realize that's totally artificial. Contracts do fall apart.

    Anyway, whatever you are doing clearly works. And of course you've got me wanting to read Untouched.

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    1. I think it would be an interesting project sometime to track where these supposed rules come from and identify their sources. Many of them are contradictory, confusing, or of use only in limited or specific situations. It's funny to me that a rule I find omnipresent and scolding is a new one to you.

      It was a great relief to me to meet people who used the non-linear process and/or worked on multiple stories concurrently or intermittently (Alison Tyler is one person who comes to mind—and no one could accuse her of not finishing work!).

      Sometimes I need a break from things on the Internet that make me feel as if I'm being constantly shouted at. I think the "rule" that you should work on one thing at a time and do it until it's done is useful if one has trouble completing things and needs to combat that. (Or if that's your disposition, as it sounds like it is for you).

      And as you say contracts do fall apart—but one must draw lines somewhere...

      I'll definitely let everyone know when Untouched is out. <3

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