The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality. (Stephen Pressfield, The War of Art)
For those of you late to the party, I’ve been working on a series of blog posts detailing how I got published—how the process went in general, what I did right, wrong, what might’ve gone better or worse, etc. The idea is that this sort of information might be helpful to other aspiring writers out there. The general process of how things worked was a mystery to me for a lot of the time I spent trying to get published, so why not get some of this stuff out there?
I began with a post on desire and how important that is to begin writing in the first place. I then talked about commitment and beginning a novel, and then consistency and finishing a novel.
Today, the topic is patience.
What do I mean by patience, you ask? Well, two things come to mind.
Thing 1: The long game.
On one hand, there’s the long-term idea of patience in this business. I didn’t know this when I finished my first novel, but patience was a virtue I had yet to learn. Let me put things into perspective for you with a little timeline.
Jan. 2010 Began Duskfall 1.0.
June 2010 Finished DF 1.0.
Sept 2010 Attempted to revise DF. Failed miserably (thanks grad program).
Aug. 2012 Began revising DF (again).
Feb. 2013 Finished DF 2.0.
May 2013 Began new DF revision.
Aug 2013 Finished DF 3.0. Started talks with my agent.
Oct. 2013 Began new DF revision.
Dec. 2013 Finished DF 4.0.
Jan. 2014 Began new DF revision.
Feb. 2014 Finished DF 5.0. Signed with agent. Agent began sending DF to publishers.
March 2014 Began new DF revision.
June 2014 Finished DF 6.0.
Sept. 2014 Began talks with publisher.
March 2015 Officially signed with publisher.
Since I finished Duskfall in 2010, it has been about a five-year process to get it published—and it still won’t hit shelves until 2016.** And, from what I’ve heard, my story is kind of on the speedier side. (There are speedier, though—if someone manages to produce a dazzling, near-perfect manuscript on their first or second draft, well, things will go a lot more quickly for them. If you are one of those people, congratulations! You probably don’t need to be reading this.) So, if you’re a writer looking to get published, that’s one of the first things you need to know: stuff take a long time in this business. That’s just how it is.
That doesn’t mean you should get discouraged, though. Because here’s what’s important: that you get things done while you’re waiting. That, however, is a subject for a later post. So, let’s move on to…
Thing 2: Pacing.
There’s another aspect to patience, perhaps best described as pacing.
I’m a runner. I ran track when I was young (Okay, okay, when I was in middle school—I thought about trying out for track in High School, but the idea of doing all that running sounded awful to me, so I didn’t. Thus all of this comes from my middle-school track experience, which, while fun, was, well, in middle-school…so take it for what it’s worth.), and I loved running sprints—the 100-200M distances were the ones I enjoyed most, largely because I could run all-out for those entire races without having to think about pacing. That strategy didn’t work out so well for me in the 400M, however. If anyone has run a 400M race, you know that it’s basically as fun as getting felt up by rhinoceros in studded armor . But, being the ignorant and head-strong kid I was, I figured I would sprint the whole race, because what else would I do? Well, around the 300M mark, something strange happened. My legs turned to rubber. My lungs caught fire. My vision blurred. I finished that first 400M race, but just barely, and if I didn’t throw up at the end (I can’t quite remember), I know that I wanted to, and felt like I was going to die either way.
Well, having learned my lesson, you’d think I’d start pacing my 400M races a bit. That’s what my coaches tried to make me understand. That’s what my parents suggested. You’d think I’d take a hint.
But I didn’t. Because I was young, and stupid, and thought I was fast (I was in the seventh grade, after all), and literally did not know how to turn down my sprint dial. For me, it was 100% or nothing. So, every 400M race after that first one (and there were many, because despite my ridiculous pacing strategy, I wasn’t slow), I did the same thing. I wanted to throw up and die after every race in no particular order, and I hated my coaches for “making” me run the 4, but I was too stupid and stubborn to change my strategy and pace myself. That, I think, is a large part of why I chose not to do track in High School—I’d burned myself out, essentially.
So how does this relate to writing, you ask? Well, writing is a lot like running. Closer to distance running, perhaps, but the idea of pacing still applies: if I don’t pace myself while writing, I risk burning myself out. If I write and write and write I risk getting sick of what it is I’m doing, the project I’m working on, the novel, whatever it is.
Runners are fans of “listening to their bodies”—if their body is starting to hurt, they slow down, or take it easy until the next run. If their body is feeling good, perhaps they run farther than they planned. It’s a good strategy, and one that I think applies to writing. Because while there are certainly times in which I binge on writing, when I “smell the blood in the water” of the ending of my story and can’t stop myself from writing it, there are times where that kind of writing overload would have negative side effects. A lot of this comes back to what I was talking about in my previous post about consistency: going at it day after day is what’s important. But I need to pace myself for that to really work. If I’m feeling like I can pump out another thousand words, then I probably should! If I feel like I’m on the verge of spraining my brainpan, it might be a good idea to step away until tomorrow.
And, trust me, this kind of pacing requires patience. Because sometimes I get so excited about a scene that’s far ahead that I want to burn through everything else until I get there—but that won’t be too productive, because I might short change those in-between parts, or I might burn myself out and lose that desire altogether.
So how do I pace myself? Well, again, consistency is important here, but two specific methods come to mind:
- I take breaks between projects. When I finish a novel or a major revision, I’ll usually take a couple days off from writing. (Not altogether, mind you, I might write in my blog or some personal writing of some kind, but from writing fiction.) My max, I’ve decided, is three days, because ultimately if I take off more time than that, the desire fades and fades, and becomes more and more difficult to get back. So three days is kind of the magic number for me—I can rejuvenate a bit, replenish the well, and be ready to get back into a project when the time is up.
- Taking a break right after finishing a project is important, but it’s also important for me to spend some time away from that project before I come back to it. When I finish a novel, for example, while my tendency might be to jump right back into it and revise it asap, it’s usually good for me to take some time before I return to it. What that DOES NOT mean is me taking a vacation from writing for a month (believe me, I thought that at one point and it didn’t work out well). What it does mean is me moving on to something else, to another project that I can work on, until my mind is far enough away from my previous project that I can go back to it with fresh eyes.***
So that’s patience, folks. Next week, I’m going to tackle revision.
* PSA: I can pretty much guarantee that this won’t be the only post in this series about patience (hence the 1.0). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about publishing, it’s that things take a looooooooooooooong time in this industry. Patience is key.
** To be fair, DF isn’t the only thing I’ve worked on during these five years—there have been a number of other projects, jobs, an MFA degree, and other things going on—but this is just to give you an idea of how long it took.
*** Of course, having actual editors, agents, and deadlines to adhere to may make this more difficult than it’s been for me in the past, but I suspect the essence of it will remain true. The time I spend away from a project may necessarily become elastic, but the idea of of allowing myself to “refill the well” remains.