The Talking Cure

This year my friend William Neil Scott and I are trying out a weekly “water cooler” discussion, that we’ll have on IM chat and then post on our respective sites. Neil is the author of one novel, Wonderfull, and a friend met during my Ph.D. studies in Calgary.

Writing is such a solitary discipline, in which you are almost never accountable to anyone, and without external imposition, your day can feel structureless and it’s difficult to develop strong work habits or even feel that you are engaged in a form of work. My hope is that these regular chats will not only keep me posted on what Neil’s up to, but also help me get a clearer sense of what I’m up to, and help me feel more accountable.

As well, we’re both interested in offering something of a window into the actual working process of writers, the nuts and bolts, something that often gets glossed over. So without further ado, here’s our first installment. Future installments should be a bit more dynamic, as we actually get some work done and can talk about the process of doing so.

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William: How are you feeling about the New Year?

Jonathan: I’m feeling overwhelmed but positive. Very behind on paperwork and other aspects of my teaching contracts, for a variety of reasons, and my offices and apartment are messes. But I’ve settled on a new way to organize my “stuff” and time and I am optimistic that once I get over the hurdle of settling into my new schedule and getting my physical stuff organized, and making full use of my iPhone-as-PDA, I will move into a nice rhythm and be quite productive. I already feel less stressed out, though I am frustrated how little I’ve been able to work on my own projects, vs. book reviews and bureaucratic paperwork, so far this year. You?

William: Well, let’s stay with you some more. I’m more interested in the mind-space you’re entering after the successful year you had in 2010 with the launch of Clockfire. Does that make it easier going in or does it raise the stakes for you?

Jonathan: It makes it easier in some ways, because I’m over the “sophomore slump.” Although it does raise the stakes a little because I feel that the book is a success, and I have received glowing reviews to bolster that feeling. I actually withdrew my submission to Coach House of a manuscript I’d hoped would be my next book, so that I could polish it and pull/replace about 40 pages, so that (if they accept it when I resubmit) it will stand as a more solid follow-up. I don’t know how much I should worry about these things, which are almost totally irrelevant in the long run, but in the short term your “trajectory” is visible to readers.

William: Right, because this is your second book. Are second books as frightening as they say?

Jonathan: I had a lot of space when Ex Machina came out, because it was almost totally ignored, simply because it’s less accessible book, although BookThug did as much as they could do to push it and I remain completely happy with them as a publisher, and hope to work with them again when I have the right project. I was certain that Clockfire would be better received, because it is more immediately approachable, so I didn’t feel any fright as it neared publication, aside from the normal “soon they will realize I’m a fraud” jitters.

William: I’m mostly interested because I look at how I handled the space right after Wonderfull came out and I didn’t handle it well. It’s still a situation I’m managing and hoping to change for the better this year.

Jonathan: Could you talk a bit about what you mean when you say you didn’t handle the space well after Wonderfull came out?

William: I didn’t have another book in the wings at that point, which is a piece of advice I’ve heard again and again. I think why that advice works is that it keeps the machine going and doesn’t let you think about or dwell on any negative experience or expectation. Wonderfull, for me, was largely successful. I had a great time with NeWest. The book got some awards. Some good reviews, but almost just as many critical. I came away from that book feeling that I could have done better but wanting to prove myself with the second. And that sort of thought for some people can become venomous. Rewriting and redesigning the next book, trying to get it perfect, getting paralyzed. I would have avoided a lot of that if I’d just had another project, even if it was one less developed, to send in.

Jonathan: Well, it took me almost three years from when I finished writing Ex Machina to when it was published, so I had plenty of things “in the wings” and I am willing to bet that was a lucky break, although collecting rejections (very nice ones) for over two years was a bit frustrating at the time. I also had three books accepted for publication before Ex Machina was actually published, although I’ve since pulled one (because it wasn’t yet under contract, and requires more serious redrafting that my co-writer and I don’t feel compelled to do, having lost our enthusiasm for the project, for the moment). So I’m not sure how I would have felt otherwise, but I expect you’re right, and having other projects going was beneficial for my headspace. How do you feel this year will be different for you?

William: Well, part of how I feel this year will be different is this: what we’re doing here. What I’m hoping this weekly (or whenever we can do them) check-ins will do is keep me honest and focused about moving forward. I’m trying to treat this as an ongoing
discipline, which I didn’t before. As I’ve mentioned to you before, I’ve never consistently written. I’ve done fits and spurts, but it’s never been a day in/day out for me and I want that.

Jonathan: Yes, I’m trying to “practice what I preach” a bit more this year, regarding the whole working daily. I really think treating the writing as professional work, being accountable and businesslike, is the best way to alleviate anxiety. And just focus on the work, playing, having fun, getting good stuff on the paper. Without all those other worries, re: publication and whatnot, in your head.

William: Exactly. I think the mental bogeymen are always, for me, the worst parts. I’m my own worst enemy on this. But yeah, that’s the plan for right now. I’m splitting the year into six months. For the next six months I’m working on two fairly large projects and then after that I’m hoping to send out as well as publish shorter fiction online.

Jonathan: I have mostly been organizing and trying to get things off my desk, in a physical way, to clear a space in my head and schedule to write uninterrupted on a regular basis, but so far I’ve had a hard time adjusting and have just been doing articles and reviews I’ve owed publications. And still sorting out my writing priorities for the year. I picked up a calendar and later today will begin putting down my major projects and planning the year. My major priority will be to finish my novel though, finalize the draft and send it out. How has the year gone so far? I’m frustrated but optimistic, but that’s to be expected as the term begins and paperwork for the previous term comes due.

William: Honestly, this first part has been more juggling than anything else, making way for really getting into a steady pace of work. I was pretty sick over the holidays and a lot of organizational type stuff I wanted to get done didn’t get done.

Jonathan: I wasn’t sick but I’ve had a pretty similar experience. But getting this “juggling” and organizational stuff done right now will pay off over the year, for both of us, so it’s not wasted time.

William: Nope, not at all. So yeah, sounds like between organizing and nailing down some vague type goals into more concrete plans, we’re pretty much good to go.

Jonathan: Let’s talk a little about our websites, since the idea is to put this up on both. What do you want your website to be this year?

William: Yes. The website. My goal for the website is to get back into regularly updating content (probably starting with this) and then in July putting my own fiction up there that I’m hoping to put together at the end of the year in a sort of micro print run.

Jonathan: Self-publishing a collection of stories from the website in print form?

William: Yes. Like I said, very small run. Working off a similar model to what people working in web comics do. Which I think we’ll explore more fully in a future one of these check-ins.

Jonathan: Okay. For me, I want the site to be more of a resource for other writers. I’d like it to be a place I would go, to get some insight into how other writers work, if it weren’t my own site. I will be dumping other content on there, but primarily I want to
do this water cooler series, do some more thoughtful reviewing, and revive my 8-Ball interview series.

William: Yeah, I’ve really liked what you’ve done in the past, getting interested in other people’s work.

Jonathan: Final thoughts?

William: Maybe some mini-week goals? For me it’s just 10K words. A small amount, but enough to get me started.

Jonathan: That sounds like a big enough amount to me! My real goal is to get my whole organization system implemented and get back on my regular writing schedule. In terms of the “work,” I want to have rewritten/polished the first chapter of The Crow Murders. I guess we’ll talk next week-ish and see how it’s gone.

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