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?

Labels: , , , , , , ,