books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Butterfly Syndrome: Do You Have Trouble Committing to a Writing Project?

 Several readers have emailed me recently with questions I often ask myself:

1) How can I tell if a new writing project is going to be marketable?
2) How do I stop bouncing from idea to idea, frittering away my precious writing time?
3) If I don’t know what to write, does that mean I’m not really a writer?

A reader who calls himself evildemonspork—which I think shows a lot of promise right there—wrote this in an email:

 “I always start stories—creating grand worlds in my head…and then a new one pops in, and I feel compelled to write that instead. The leaping from one to another, without getting more than a chapter done, is one of the things that drives me crazy. I have a lot of ideas and no time to do them all, making me feel like I'm wasting my talent. It gets me frustrated and wanting to stop…even if stopping is not what I really want to do.”

All I could say to him was, “Dude, welcome to the club!”

I call this stage of writing the “butterfly syndrome.” It happens to me when I’ve recently finished a manuscript and the first rejections are drifting in. Like right now.

I want to start a new project, and I’m tired of hearing, “Great writing. Couldn’t put it down. But I can’t sell this right now. Have you got something more steampunk/zombieapocalypse/crafty-cozy/serialkiller-noir/SouthernGothic-with-fangs?”

I’ve never written to trends—following advice I heard many years ago. But these days, trends appear to rule. Why not write something editors are actually looking for?

So I’ll try sprucing up a half-finished mystery with some zombies, or maybe a serial-killer quilting circle. Maybe rewrite my Sherwood Forest tale with corsets and zeppelins. Or outline a new cozy series set in my hometown. Something I could self-publish and sell at craft fairs.

Then I’ll tell myself I should stop trying to write for adults: YA is where it’s happening. YA is exciting and hip. YA writers can publish literary fiction even when they’re not personal friends with the editorial staff of the New Yorker. Hey, I read mostly literary fiction. Maybe I should let myself write it?

But after a day or two on a new project, I’ll think—“Do I really want to spend a year on this? What if it ends up being as untrendy as my last six novels?

So I run off to the next idea. And the next. And then write nothing at all.

Poet Sylvia Plath wrote about this writerly dilemma in her novel The Bell Jar. She told a fable about a fig tree where her heroine sat looking at dozens of ripe, juicy figs, each representing a direction she might take.

She wrote, “[I was] starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose, but…as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Well, I sure don’t want my figs to get wrinkled and black and ploppy, and obviously, neither does evildemonspork. But we’ve been trapped in our own fig trees, paralyzed by our inability to choose. 

As you might have guessed, my personal writing paralysis manifests as surfing through the publishing blogosphere. I’m constantly looking for hints as to what might be less likely to produce those “not trendy enough” rejections next time. But I always end up more confused. Some agents say the future of publishing is dystopian apocalyptica; some are begging for merperson romance; and others want nothing but steampunk, and plenty of it.

That’s why I was overjoyed to run into agent Jim McCarthy’s “I Hate Trends” piece on the DGLM blog last week.

“I think right now we’re stuck between a few [trends],” he says. “Certainly lots more people are writing young adult because they’ve heard that’s where the money is. That also explains the sudden presence of lots and lots more YA agents. Vampires/ demons/ werewolves and other creatures of the night still regularly show up quite a lot in my inbox; there’s also a lot of dystopian stuff trying to cash in on what’s happening RIGHT NOW; and there is a small but dedicated group who are still trying to make steampunk happen (ah, the trend that never was). But by and large, a solid half of everything is always by people writing to the market in the most concerted and obvious way possible. No matter how often I tell people the biggest books don’t follow the trends but instead create them, there will always be someone who’s all “ZOMG, I wrote the next Twilight!”

Eeeeuw, who wants to be the faux-Twilight loser?

Mr. McCarthy repeats the advice I heard in my youth: don’t follow trends; set them.

To evildemonspork, I passed along another piece of advice I heard in some long-ago creative writing class: No time spent writing is wasted. Eventually one project will grab you and refuse to let go.

And a few days ago, that’s what happened to me. I heard a clear voice in my head that compelled me to drop everything and let the words flow. Two hours later, I had ten pretty good pages, and a forthright seven-year-old girl named Brodie living in my head.

My muse was back. And in charge.

Of course, Brodie doesn’t drive a zeppelin or live in a decaying Louisiana swamp with apocalyptic zombies. She’s a tough, funny little girl who wants to be an evil ex-girlfriend when she grows up. She’s not going to let me write to a trend whether I want to or not.

And who says evil ex-girlfriend lit won’t be the next big thing?

It was a reminder that we’re not as much in charge of what we write as we (or agents and editors) think we are. We don’t always choose our projects. Sometimes they choose us. And we have to put in some butterfly time in order for that to happen.

So keep flitting around until you hear that little voice in your head that won’t go away. It won’t be anything you expect. But it will flow. And you won’t be able to stop it. And that will be bliss.

It is the only good reason to write. The rest is a total crapshoot.

So in answer to those questions:

1) You can’t.
2) Go with it. It’s part of the process. The more you write, the better you get.
3) Yup. You're a writer. Butterfly syndrome is part of the package. More on this in my post “How Do I Know I’m A Writer?” 

How about you, fellow scriveners? Have you suffered from butterfly syndrome? How did you choose your current project? Or did it choose you?

50 comments:

  1. Here's my shot at answering the Big Three.

    1) You can't. No one can. William Goldman said of the movie business, "No one knows anything." Applies to the book business, too. Harry Potter, anyone? John Grisham's first book was rejected over and over, was finally published, didn't sell, was eventually republished as his third book and was a huge best seller. The rest is history.

    2) I view this as a positive. Flitting from idea to idea is a sign of riches, not poverty. I think of those ideas as money in the bank from which I can withdraw at any time.

    3) If you write, you're a writer. If you don't, you're not. Writing a book is a messy process, not at all linear and false starts -- or what seem to be false starts -- are all part of the process.

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  2. I don't start a project until that shifty novel idea gets me, at least, a promise ring. And a wedding date would be better.

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  3. I would love to write a detailed reply to your post but my Muse is hitting me over the head with a Periodic Table Chart ("Hey, watch it with the corners wench or I'll pull your wings off!") so I'll just say thanks for writing it!

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  4. While I'm working on my WIP novel, I am allowing myself to indulge in the butterfly syndrome between chapters. The central conflict in the last chapter has been laid to rest. I sort of know what the next chapter has to accomplish but until the characters start speaking to me again, I won't start writing. That gives me time and license to do things like stopping by your blog! I'm sure my writing, once it restarts, will be the better for having done so.

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  5. Great post. I suffer from this same thing. I finished a book, but yet to finish a second. I think I let my head get in the way.

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  6. (EvilDemonSpork) Here, I just wanted to say how flattered and honored I am that you mentioned my question to you on you blog. Really makes my day, thank you :)

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  7. Maybe I suffer from caterpillar syndrome: I'm willing to stick to a project forever, even if it never develops wings. :)

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  8. Ruth--Thanks for the great answers. As an author who has spent some time as a trend darling on top of the NYT bestseller list, you know whereof you speak.

    Bryan--Yes, a promise ring at least.

    Tressa--Another elemental poem coming on? I'll have to check it out.

    Judith--Thanks! Nathan Bransford calls this kind of blog surfing "productive procrastination."

    AJ--That's a great way to put it--we let our heads get in the way of our muses.

    EvilDemonSpork--Thank you! Your questions really made me think.

    Caroline--I used to be a caterpillar (great analogy.) I spent 10 years on one unpublishable book. I still mine it for short stories, but I kept at it way too long.

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  9. Hi! This indeed is a familiar problem. Not just for writers, I think. It's a function of the creative process. I think that creativity may be by definition non-linear thinking. I've had many experiences of putting a current project aside for an idea that insisted on being attended to (w)right now! The problem seems to lie in the sifting of all the ideas and editing. I am primarily a composer, I write many of my own texts, and the occasional poem, or essay for church. I just wrote my annual lenten meditation for the collection at church. I usually think about the assigned text, ruminate, plan carefully....and find when I sit down to write that something entirely different is produced. And for the second year in a row I've found myself in an office writing furiously as the editor throws me texts that the assigned writers have neglected to produce in a timely manner. Plan ahead, and something spontaneously takes over, don't plan and it's still ad libitum. The result seems to be the same.

    As for trends, The Writer said it best: to thine own self be true....

    Richard

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  10. I swear, sometimes my Muse hates me. Throwing ideas at me to the point of distraction. Some of them good, some...meh. I find the one that's most exciting and start ploting it out, seeing if it gets me excited. Sometimes I lose that inital feeling and no matter what I do, it doesn't come back. Wasn't the right time for it, I suppose, so I look at another idea and begin again.

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  11. Great post, Anne. Every story I've ever started I could finish, if I had all the time in the world.
    I spent hours with my feet up trying to decide what the next thing would be - then I wrote the book I'd actually want to read instead *shrug. I loved writing ENCOUNTERS I decided just to hope some one else would love it too. *fingersXcrossed :D

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  12. Safe to say, that's not my problem at the moment!

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  13. I think I've been lucky in that I try and finish one project at a time. Although, getting to the end of the book is something else. Between the muse wanting to take it one way and the characters wanting to take it another, it's really incredible that I can finish it under 150,000 words.

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  14. Don't follow the trend, set them- LOVE that- thank you- currently writing a story, YA and very non Vampirey which makes me nervous since my last manuscript is on hold since most of the editors wanted paranormal fiction. . . but like you I'm going to write despite the trends. . . that being said for every manuscript I write, there are 15 first chapters for books that I did not write. Yes- the butterfly effect is part and parcel of being a writer :)

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  15. Richard--Lovely to hear a composer weigh in. Sounds as if the butterfly thing is pretty universal.

    Darke--I've had that happen too. I'll think this is the "one" only to have it fade when I sit down the next day.

    Elaine--So glad to hear Encounters has grabbed you and taken over. That's when you know it's right.

    Alex--This too shall pass. It's the post-novel debut blues. I think it's an equally typical stage. Not so many of us get there.

    Anne--You've got great discipline if you can focus on one at at time. Yeah--that 150K word problem. My first book was probably 300K. I had to break it into three books.

    Aisha--Good luck in the post-vampire world. I have no idea if all paranormal is going down with the fanged ones. Sounds as if merpersons and time travel are still going strong. But oh, all those abandoned first chapters...

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  16. Another good Sunday post, Anne :)


    EvilDemonSpork: No one can answer the first question. The second one is easier. Instead of thinking of yourself as a butterfly, do what I do. I think I am a busy little bee, buzzing and sucking up all that sweet nectar. Buzz, buzz :)

    Think of the wonder of the salmon pushing up stream while all the other little fishes go with the flow.

    Read every day, write every day and have fun :)

    I thought we all had an original 150-300K novel of the century somewhere in our closets :)

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  17. Well... my Beast of an epic is attempt number seven or eight. So maybe I shouldn't even say anything.

    Still... my characters grabbed me and held me hostage for going on three years. And they won't be letting go soon...

    ;-)

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  18. I keep think about the apocryphal (?) story of Sci-Fi writer _____(fill in the blank) who was cornered by a snooty literary type at a snooty literary party who sniffed, "Oh, be honest ______, 90% of all science fiction is crap," to which ______ replied, "90% of EVERYTHING is crap." If you figure up front that 90% of whatever stuff is flying out of your word processor is supposed to be "crap," and that only 10% will survive and have a chance to be "good," then would that make the dead ends and false starts simply part of a normal process? Seems to be the consensus.

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  19. Florence--so you have one of those novels, too? I think I had five reams of paper stacked up with different versions of it before I decided to dump all but the last version in the recycling bin. Now I regret that, because some of the versions had seeds of other good stuff in them. But that was in the days before computers, so it was all paper and took up too much room.

    Misha--As long as your characters have hold of you, it's important to keep going. I always remind myself that Jonathan Franzen's the Corrections came from one chapter he saved from a novel he'd been working on forever.

    Churadogs--Yes! Theodore Sturgeon's law: 90% of everything is crap. I think it's true for all of us. A professional photographer once told me the difference between an amateur and a pro was--the pros take (and discard) a lot more pictures.

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  20. One way I've managed to handle this is by picking a few projects and working on them one chapter at a time in a cycle (i.e. write one chapter of this one, then write one chapter of a different story). I tend to get burned out if I write one story all the way through before even starting another one and having a very small list of them to work with provides variety without being overwhelming.

    Also, I agree that writing something just to go with a trend is silly. Of course, what I tend to write seems to fall closer to what's apparently trending now, but I'd write it even if it wasn't trendy. If you only write in a certain genre because it's popular at the time, then not much good will come of it.

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  21. Great post and awesome Sylvia Plath reference!

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  22. Whenever I'm working on a project I get a steady stream of ideas for other projects. I summarize each idea as they come up, and then I return to my current project and work on it until it's done. When I'm ready for something new I look back over my summarized ideas and pick the most appealing one from the list. I'm very strict with myself about finishing what I start and also writing down all ideas for future projects. Otherwise, for one reason or another, nothing gets done!

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  23. This is so familiar - I've often compared myself to a magpie, flying about picking up anything shiny in my path, then quickly moving on to the next shiny thing, rarely settling down.

    For me, the way to stop flittering is to form the habit of writing every day, regardless of content. Pick a number of words or number of pages as a goal and don't get up until they are finished. It could be a completely new idea every day - that's fine. So long as it becomes a habit - that's the key. Eventually something will grab hold and stick.

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  24. Yep, I definitely deal with Butterfly Syndrome. I have at least 3 different projects at varying stages. The one that consumes my thoughts one day is the project that gets immediate attention, but the others are always in the background whispering to me--so very distracting when I'm trying to concentrate...

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  25. Anne--you NAILED it with this post. I was laughing when I read your initial answer "welcome to the club." Those new projects are so full of promise without the stink of rejection and doubt. Just last week I dumped 10,000 words of a new novel for a completely different idea. And I too keep wondering if I should be doing YA. Sigh.

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  26. Taylor, Panda and Mizmak--you all sound as if you've got great discipline. Fantastic. We can all learn from you.

    Mawz--Love me some Sylvia Plath. I wanted to be her when I was an angsty teen: write brilliant stuff, die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Well, I haven't written anything that brilliant yet, so the beautiful corpse? Not going to happen.

    Jb--Glad to hear I'm not alone.

    Nina--RIP your 10,000 words. I know how it feels. And yeah--YA is where it's at. But every time I try, some adult voice butts in and ruins everything. Isn't that always the way?

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  27. Excellent post. I chose my WiP, but the one in pre-planning chose me. The main character popped into my head and stayed there. I'm getting to know her while I finish my WiP, and she's spurring me on.

    I don't write to trends either.

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  28. Anne, what a wonderful post! And today of all days is the perfect one for me to read this. Just last night I asked a writer friend of mine to be my Writing Buddy, to keep after me, check on me, MAKE me follow through with what I want to accomplish. What I would refer to as my butterfly syndrome is not different stories and characters popping into my head, (I don't write fiction, and I'm currently trying to complete my memoir)but it's that writer's sabotage of allowing other things to come first..laundry, pay bills, back to desk to write some more, etc.
    Thank you! And with that, yours is the only blog I will read until late in the night!!

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  29. Was it Verlaine who said something to the effect that no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned. To that end (pun not intended) Ned Rorem titled one of his books "Knowing When to Stop". Knowing when, if, or whether to stop or change channels in mid stream is the eternal question for artists. A Writing Buddy is a good idea. A trusted advisor to keep our noses to the grindstone and tell us when we're off track
    would be a very good thing, I think.

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  30. Carole--that's the best situation of all: when your next book starts calling just as you're finishing up the one before. Then when you edit, you can have one book for your left brain and one for your right.

    Becky and Richard--A definite yes on the writing buddy. Sometimes a critique group can give you the motivation. But you definitely need somebody to give you permission to get back to writing when the laundry calls.

    Richard--I'm off to look up that quote. I think you're right about Verlaine.

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  31. Richard--Verlaine was quoting Leonardo Da Vinci. "A work of art is never finished, only abandoned." I'm sure it sounds better in Italian.

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  32. I absolutely recognize that. But sometimes you just have to be bloody-minded enough to finish what you started despite the attractions of other projects, do you not?

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  33. That's what deadlines are for...giggle

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  34. Simon--Finishing what you started is only a good thing if what you started is worth finishing. I know I've stuck with projects way too long. I think you have to listen to your muse. If she's outta there, it's time for you to go, too.

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  35. Picking a project is always hard. I usually just go with the one that speaks to me most, because it's tough to sustain enthusiasm all the way through a rough draft if I'm not completely into the premise :)

    And even if you finish a book and it turns out not to be marketable, it's still great practice!

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  36. Oh, man, that one line description of Brodie makes me want to read all about her. You've got a hook right there, and if that isn't the opening of your query, you're mad. She wants to be an evil ex-girlfriend when she grows up? Swoon!

    I'm a butterfly as well, sometimes--whenever I want to run off to something else, I have to honestly ask myself about my motivation. Sometimes it's more pure than others!

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  37. Settling on an idea and finishing it to the end sometimes takes discipline, especially if the muse has moved on to another shiny new idea. I almost always finish what I start, even if it's a bunch of crap, just because I know I learn a lot about the craft, just by finishing. I hate having unfinished projects sitting around. You can always take something away from whatever you write, that improves your technique for the next project.

    Great post!

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  38. Lynn--You're so right that it's hard to keep the momentum going all the way through a rough draft. Sometimes it's worth it. With me, I guess it depends on how much energy I've put into it, and taking a long, hard look at its prospects.

    Amie--Thank you!! I'm so glad you like Brodie. I've fallen in love with her. And you're right about those unpure motivations. If you're just leaving because you got to the hard part, stick it out and get some manuscript counseling.

    Elle--I guess I just responded to this in talking to Amie--it all depends on you motives.

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  39. I think butterfly syndrome is what keeps the spiral notebook companies in business. That project that wakes me up in the dead of night so I grab for a spiral notebook is the one I lean toward. I'm loving your blog, Anne.

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  40. Poor Sylvia and her figs.

    I can certainly relate to this post. I've also caught myself thinking, "Hey, I have a wild imagination. I can write about werewolves too..."

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  41. I absolutely cannot write to trends. It shows in my writing and feels forced and contrived. Regarding ideas, I have a journal FULL of ideas. They pop into my head all the time but, at the start of each year, I try to go with 1-2 ideas that get me the most excited and take it from there. Sometimes I even follow my own advice! ;-)

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  42. Leslie--Oh those notebooks! I have boxes of them. I'm sure I'll never look at them again, but there they sit. I'm glad you like the blog. Yours is awesome.

    LR--I really tried with the werewolves. But mine always came out funny.

    Liz--Yeah, I relate to the forced and contrived. I guess that's why my paranormal romance always comes out as farce.

    Actually, everything I write comes out pretty funny. I seem to live in a comedy most of the time.

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  43. Ooooh, I feel like I can be helpful here! Like any writer, I have tons and tons of aborted story ideas/attempts. Last fall, however, I learned how to make these partially formed ideas useful: put them all together. You want to write a contemporary romance about two girls and a boy? You want to use the title Bibliophile? You just researched the Gutenberg Bible for a history project? Well, why not put them all those elements together? It's really helped me mix and match my ideas to make stronger novels.

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  44. I'm stuck and I've been stuck for almost six months. I have in my possesion 60 of the best pages I've EVER written (and nearly everyone who has read them agrees with me) but I can not find my voice again. My hard living, tough, baseball beat writer has left me high and dry.

    I have no idea how to get him back. I've thought about ditching it for the YA genre or a memoir or something. But then the more I think about it, the more I don't want to be a part of the 'trend'. I want to be me, in my own voice.

    If people want to emulate ME though, well, I am am ok with that.

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  45. This is probably cliche, but I wrote the book I wanted to read. I've been reading thrillers my entire adult life, but I craved more characterization, more emotion, and protagonists who were less heroic and more flawed and real. In the end, my book turned out kinda old school, but I think that's me - I'm old school. I save the trends for my purses and shoes, and that's about it.

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  46. I've never heard of the butterfly syndrome but I'm sure I suffer from it! I like the idea of writing under inspiration. I don't do that enough. I usually write my quota and quit but sadly I quite when I'm on a roll. I should just continue.

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  47. Yes, I suffer from it too, even though I have managed to complete seven novels, five of which are published (last one is CLAUDE & CAMILLE: A NOVEL OF MONET, paperback due out in three weeks from Crown). But I think I have spent at least 2/3rds of my time on novels I never completed which makes me very sad. I am running out now but want to reread this and comments very carefully when I get back.

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  48. Hopejunkie--that's great advice. It's why we keep all those spiral notebooks. Sometimes putting together two wildly different ideas can create magic.

    Andrea--my heart goes out to you. I've had that happen too many times. I'll be going like mad with this wonderful voice in my head and suddenly it's gone. I have some pages like that. In fact some of them are in the new Literary Lab anthology.

    Jennifer--I'm like you. I write what I want to read and don't find much of. I'm singlehandedly trying to bring the 1930s screwball comedy in to the 21st century. Nobody else seems to think it needs to make a comeback. But my muse won't stop with the jokes already.

    Clarissa--there are two schools of thought on this. Some successful writers never write more than their quota, so the momentum is there for tomorrow. Others write in spurts of wild inspiration. I've tried both. Not sure which works best.

    Stephanie--congrats on the new book! Sounds like something I'll want to read!! But yeah--all those stillborn novels--so sad. I still mourn over mine.

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  49. Jim McCarthy got it totally right. Everyone's looking for the next big thing, not the *same* big thing. And it's true that no amount of writing is ever wasted. It's all practice.

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  50. What a wonderful post! (Selling book at craft fairs -- shoot me now ...!)
    "Southern-Gothic-with-fangs": LOL
    My idea on "following trends": Editors who are "looking for" something that conforms to a trend would seem to me to be followers, not leaders -- like, they're looking for what YOU can do for THEM. I don't think you want that kind of editor, or agent ... it's like, if we want to write something that sells, we could write hard-core pornography but are those the readers we're looking for? Is that who we want to communicate with? Is that what we want to be doing?
    We have to have the confidence to entertain in our own style and let the audience come to us.

    Case in point: Bob Dylan. The audience came to him. And continues to. We can't all be Dylan, certainly, but we can be ourselves and do our thing.

    1930s screwball comedy: YES! I vote for THAT !

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