Paging Julia Cameron!
July 11, 2009 5:26 PM   Subscribe

Published writers, how did you deal with post-sale paralysis?

Nutshell version: How did you deal with post-sale paralysis and write the damn book anyway?

Longer version: So...I got The Call, The Deal, The Contract, even The Check for a non-fiction book with a major publisher. And now I have a January 15 deadline and a contractually-stipulated word count and the flashing cursor of doom and I am just paralyzed.

Though my deadline is in January I need to come in significantly ahead of deadline to give my agent time to read and make suggestions/revisions. My general outline is pinned down and I'd wager I have 10% of an incredibly shitty, incredibly amateurish and dismal first draft written. And here I have stalled, paralyzed and terrified.

Tactics I have tried thus far: bribery, fear, spreadsheets, gold stars, mockery, marathon writing sessions.

If it helps, I have a history of procrastinating on projects until deadlines loom large and then finishing them with guts and glory at the last possible minute. This approach is not an option for this work. It won't be good, and plus it deserves my time and attention. In addition, I am a full-time freelance writer, so it's not like I fear the editorial process or deadlines in general. I'm just scared.

Any advice/suggestions? Commentary on how amateurish first-timers should not attempt to sell books that haven't been completed yet is unwelcome at this point, since all non-fiction sells on proposal and since it may cause me to freak. :)
posted by mynameisluka to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I understand the deadline pressure like you would not believe (seeing as I'm under one right now that's a hell of a lot tighter than yours... and yet I'm on metafilter. Sigh).

As you already realize, it's anxiety that's stopping you, not lack of ideas. How you deal with and get past that anxiety depends on what works best for you.

In my experience, I work best when

a) I force myself to accept that first drafts are always going to be shitty and moreover should be ALLOWED to be shitty -- and that there is no way around this even if my deadline is in a week's time. I recite truisms: far easier to edit words than a blank screen; the worst piece of shit can be fixed, but a blank screen can't; so on and so forth. Key here: STOP editing yourself as you go.

b) I deny myself the internet, because I can get lost on here for hours and it does not inspire me creatively the way that, say, reading a novel does (note to self: DENY YOURSELF THE INTERNET ALREADY!!).

a) I stop fixating on meeting page and word count goals, and focus instead on spending a certain amount of time each day working on the project (you can drive yourself insane beating yourself up for not writing X pages in a day -- and this process of self-punishment only further stresses you out).

d) If I have a reasonably comfortable deadline (and in my genre, that means a deadline like yours), then I make sure I get my arse to the gym even when I don't have the energy for it, because it makes the inspiration flow in a way that sitting around staring at the computer screen does not.

And if all else fails there is always whiskey and sedatives. ;)
posted by artemisia at 5:45 PM on July 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

Now, see what I did there? I have two A's in that list, one B and one D, and no C in sight. But I can catch that on the next round; it's no big deal. Voila: the shitty first draft. ;)
posted by artemisia at 5:47 PM on July 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

Do you think you can get yourself to write for just 30 minutes a day? Try to make it at a time with a pressing deadline--like, uh, the last half hour before you leave your work (not that I would know . . .). I've found that I can bang out about 600 words during that span of time if I have somewhere else to be at the end of it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:01 PM on July 11, 2009

pick another bigger, more important project (lie to yourself here) and use the book to procrastinate on the big important project (that you made up, but your brain doesn't need to know this.)

I find this works for me, ymmv.

Oh, and good luck with the book! Congrats!
posted by titanium_geek at 8:18 PM on July 11, 2009

Best answer: Congrats too!

If I could go back in time to when I signed a book contract, I'd remind myself that the earlier I finished the m.s., the more time and energy I'd have for everything that came next, and there was a lot: Revisions; more revisions; lawsuit-proofing; soliciting blurbs from people; getting word out to potential reviewers; coming to an agreement with the publisher about the title, book cover and marketing direction; making sure the publicist is on the ball; making sure the Amazon page doesn't have errors on it; making sure review copies go to the right places, etc.

Since even big publishers can skimp on editing (the bestselling novelization of Star Trek, for example, has Captain Kirk's dad reaching in Ch. 1 for the "manuel override"), you'll want all the spare weeks you can accumulate to polish that thing...including just leaving that .doc on the shelf for three weeks so you can gain perspective.

In other words, even though the "guts and glory" last-minute approach to crashing deadlines might work awesomely at magazines, if you want to be nice to yourself, you will stop reading Fark and institute a cold ban on the practice this time around. I read an interesting piece by The Perfect Storm's Sebastian Junger about how shocking it was to find out his publisher didn't have anything like the safety net of fact-checkers and editors he was used to at major periodicals, meaning 11th-hour editorial trauma, and errors creeping into the first edition of The Perfect Storm, which meant pissed-off sailors.

Don't freak, you'll do great. Six months is a pretty nice deadline but tell yourself you are going to need that "crappy" first draft done really early, so the stress comes earlier rather than later.
posted by johngoren at 8:55 PM on July 11, 2009

p.s. Oh yeah, I didn't mean to make it sound like you didn't know "guts n' glory" isn't an option. Just agreeing.
posted by johngoren at 9:04 PM on July 11, 2009

Hire a coach. A friend of mine recently did this for his book and it's been great - he has someone he's accountable to weekly who helps him pull through the process.
posted by judith at 9:46 PM on July 11, 2009

Where do you write? I favor a cafe, purposely chosen because it doesn't have internet. Every now and then, the owner will threaten to get wifi just so he can get rid of me but then I remind him that I probably contributed a third of that Audi TT he's driving. Make sure to tip well.

That coach thing is a great idea. Writing groups could also be resources for motivation.
posted by incessant at 11:53 PM on July 11, 2009

Congratulations on your contract.

Could you possibly make an agreement with your editor, or someone else (perhaps multiple people, or a coach like suggested above), that by this-and-this date they will receive a draft, comment on it, then on next-date draft 2.0, comment, then beta 1, comment, beta 2, comment, beta x, then release candidate, then final version, then the fixed final version, then the totally-rewritten-final-version, and so on.

Promise people you will deliver to them on the date, and then deliver. Break it up, maybe this guy gets this chapter, and that guy that chapter.

This gives you a series of milestones and deadlines for you to procrastinate on and then panically work towards on a regular basis.
posted by gmm at 2:01 AM on July 12, 2009

This gives you a series of milestones and deadlines for you to procrastinate on and then panically work towards on a regular basis.


You need regular deadlines that are real enough that you will stress out and do whatever it takes to meet them, but small enough that your pre-established pattern of "finishing with guts and glory at the last possible minute" is still doable. If this means hiring or paying someone else to serve this role of "deadline enforcer" and give you feedback, it's probably worth it.

Whatever you do, you need to build a system for success at the long term goal that's premised on the fact that the best way to predict how you will work is how you've worked in the past, and betting everything on a major change in work habits this time because you'll fail otherwise is a recipe for failure. I.e., you want to work around your weaknesses—going to directly against them much more difficult.
posted by dyslexictraveler at 9:38 AM on July 12, 2009

Best answer: I'm both a published author and an agent, so I've dealt with this myself, as well as providing advice on this to my clients.

When I was working on my last book, I periodically took my notes and went to the library (without my laptop) and wrote big chunks of text longhand. (If I had something I had to look up on the internet, I'd write a note to myself in brackets and breeze past that section.) Then, whenever I was home and had hit a wall in my writing, I transcribed text I'd already written, using that opportunity to polish my first draft and plug in the holes in my research. This system meant that, no matter what my mood was, I had something practical I could be doing to work toward my progress.

Also, I've noticed that magazine/newspaper writers who thrive on deadlines have a particular problem writing their first book, since the deadline seems so far out and the process is so unstructured. Dyslexictraveler is spot on: Creating a lot of intermediate deadlines and making yourself accountable in some way (perhaps to a writing buddy on a similar schedule or maybe your agent, if he/she is going to read your draft anyhow) helps break the process of writing a book down into something more manageable. Really fleshing out your outline so you have a detailed roadmap of where you're going as you're writing can also be helpful.

Speaking of your agent, I'm hoping you've already broached this topic and received some good tips. I mention this only because some clients are afraid to bring up potential problems like this, but agents can really help, since they have so much experience coaching writers through this process.

Congratulations on your contract, and good luck!
posted by carrienation at 11:00 AM on July 12, 2009

Run to your local bookstore and buy "the War of Art". (Not the Lau Szu book.) It may be one of the most profound inspiring books a writer can own. Oh, and congratulations!
posted by bprater at 11:30 AM on July 12, 2009

Shorter deadlines worked for me. I had to have a certain number of chapters to the editors by this date, another batch by that date, etc.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:28 PM on July 12, 2009

What artemesia said (especially a#1, b, and a#2). Of course this is easier said than done, so for moral support, I find rereading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird to be encouraging, especially the second and third chapters, "Short Assignments" and "Shitty First Drafts."

Because you already seem a bit stressed, and perhaps not in the mood to go hunt down a copy of the book, see hyperlinks above for online versions.

Congratulations on your contract!
posted by Ms. Informed at 11:46 AM on July 16, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all so much. After reading your encouragement I banged out a chapter and am figuring out some good deadlines. I WILL complete this book! You all rock.
posted by mynameisluka at 6:07 PM on July 17, 2009

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