History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

01 October 2007

When the Going gets Tough

One of the wonders of E-publishing is how rapidly a book releases after the final manuscript is turned in. Within a couple of months, the book will be edited, revised by the author, copy edited, proofread, formatted and released. Of course, this hyper-accelerated schedule makes for crushingly tight deadlines.

I used to love deadlines. Nothing made (note the past tense) me rise to the occasion and crank out the pages like a ticking clock. Back in the day, I wrote an entire hour-long teleplay for an After-School Special in less than three days. Then again, I was 28 years old at the time, I didn’t get more than five hours of sleep during the entire weekend, and I drank at least forty cups of coffee during the duration (no exaggeration -- a friend of mine who stayed up with me for moral support kept count). All of that stress kept me jazzed even when I was exhausted and my eyes blurred. Everyone loved the story but alas, the screenplay didn't get produced.

Flash forward to today. I have a book on the Loose Id schedule for release on October 30th. Yes, October 30th of 2007. And yes, I’m over a month late turning in the manuscript. Real life has wreaked havoc on my writing schedule -- the painful kind of real life where my dearest friends and family are struck with terminal illnesses and paralyzing grief over the sudden, inexplicable loss of a child. With trauma like that on the table, who cares if I get another erotic romance out the door? Writing romance in the face of this crushing grief seems incredibly trivial.

Or is it? In times of crisis, what is more important than the loving relationships we’ve built with each other? After all, I wouldn’t feel so immobilized by grief if I didn’t love my friends who are suffering so deeply. But when the deadline looms, when my lateness means that an editor, copyeditor, proofreader, and typesetter are going to be pressured to do their work under tremendous time constraints because my book isn’t finished…well, it’s hard not to feel crushed by a tidal wave of Horatio Alger guilt. Harder still to put grief aside for the few hours a day that I need to connect to my book and crank out the words. Changing gears from grief to historical bondage? Not such an easy task.

I sincerely hope none of you has to write in the midst of grief, but it seems to be one of the universal laws that we'll all eventually have to write during a crisis. In the interest of making your writing lives a little easier, here are a few tips on how I’ve been managing to write even though real life has gone horribly wrong:

1. Forget about research.

Legend has it that when John Fowles wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he didn’t do any research until the first draft was completed. I’m certainly not advocating never doing research (what kind of History Hoyden would I be if I spoke such blasphemy?) but now that I have to crank out a draft on a tight deadline, it helps if I keep my fingers on the keyboard and plow through the areas where I don’t have the facts.

Nothing de-rails me from writing like a good long research session. Ergo, my current work in progress has parentheticals like, [insert date of first Regency crisis] and [how old would the heroine have been in 1809 if her family died in The Terror in France and she was in her early teens at the time?] Worst case, I’ll let my editor read the first draft with those parenthetical notes in there. Maybe she’ll even have the answers. I can dream!

2. Schedule emotional breakdowns

This is one of those psychological tricks that sound hokey, but work if you’re willing to commit to it. I tell myself, “From 2:00 to 3:00, I’m going to sob like crazy and not even try to stop. But from noon until 2:00, I am going to put my grief aside and write.” And then I keep the promise to myself to stop writing at 2:00, pull out the omnipresent box of Kleenex, and wallow for the next hour. Knowing there’s a time for grief helps me make it through the scheduled writing time.

3. Take on a persona

This may lead to mild psychosis eventually, but that’s what psychotherapists are for. A half hour before my scheduled writing time, I do a guided visualization, putting myself in one of my characters’ heads. Usually I pick the character whose point of view the current scene is in. I visualize her clothes (or lack thereof), the settings, the things she’ll be feeling, thinking, and saying. OK, hmm, she’s in disguise as a petty thief, so she’ll be wearing cheap shoes. Wood and leather, heavy. They’ll make clopping noises that make it hard to sneak up on her mark. If the pavement is slippery from early morning dew, her cheap shoes will slide on the pavement. I bet she’ll have sore calves by the time she’s snuck down to the docks. After twenty minutes of that, I’m in a different frame of mind, ready to tackle the scene at hand.

Those are the things that are working. Sadly, what doesn’t work anymore is a much longer list. Caffeine no longer perks me up -- now it gives me the jitters and makes me more anxious. Writing in a coffeeshop with masses of humanity doesn’t work -- I find myself wanting to clobber all the rude people hollering into their cell phones. Getting away for the weekend and holing up in a hotel room is no longer a guarantee that I’ll buckle down and write. Telling myself everyone is counting on me no longer works (did it ever?).

Knowing that my “writing through trauma” techniques are in constant flux, I’m looking for more ammunition. I dread the day when my current bag of tricks no longer work for me. Strictly in the interest of self-preservation, I’d love to hear any of your own techniques for setting aside grief (or just the daily grind) and buckling down to write. What works for you? What’s worked in the past?

And in case I don’t manage to respond to your posts promptly, please accept my gratitude in advance.

Bliss to all,

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Doreen, what a cool cover. I'm intrigued to find about more about the Spy Who Spanked Me! I too can get derailed from writing by spending too much time doing the research. Anything but sitting down in front of the computer and putting words to paper. Plus I always find out such interesting things! Poor you having such a tight deadline. I hope you make it!

5:46 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I wasn't under a deadline but i found it incredibly hard to write after my father died. It took me a good nine months before I could write again. I can't imagine what I would have done if I'd had a book due. Probably soldiered through but it would have been very hard.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the advice and good example (since I've got a deadline on the horizon as well). For me, the important thing to realize is that what once worked may not this time.

FEAR used to be my hugest motivator, but I guess I've gotten braver, so now I focus on GREED, as in thinking what I'll spend the money on once I deliver the book.

Anybody who writes from positive motivation out there, I'd be curious to hear from you.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

First: Doreen, I'm so sorry for the loss in family. And I'm sorry you don't have the luxury of all the time in the world to think and feel what you need to about it.

Second: I love, love, love that new book! It looks awesome. And I just finished Bedding the Beast, so I'm ready!

I never do anything but the most necessary research during writing. Like you, it slows me down, so whether I'm on deadline or not I just write. And insert brackets and words in ALL CAPS!

And you've done something very nice for me today. My first contemp (out in 2009) is about an erotica e-pubbed writer. She's tapped to fill a deadline that another writer couldn't make, and the story is released only a few weeks after she finishes it - with lots of editorial scrambling. I am SO glad it can actually be done. I left that research until the end. *snort*

I'll keep you in my thoughts, Doreeen!

11:55 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm touched and impressed, Doreen, with your professionalism and how you managed to handle things.

Some years ago I was acting in a play when I got the news that my first cousin's car had been hit by a drunk driver in L.A. She was on life support. I had to perform every night (and twice on Saturday), while wondering whether she would pull through. Ultimately my aunt and the doctors made the painful decision to pull the plug, and I got that news on a performance day as well.

So I suppose without thinking about it, one of the only things that got me through was taking on another persona, since I could put aside the tension and fear and grief when I was onstage -- I had no choice -- but the minute I had the chance to focus on anything else, like my cousin's situation, I was a basket case.

That is a wonderful cover! And a fabulous title, too.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Writing through grief is one of the all time great challenges unless you are one of those people who escapes into writing. Your suggestions were very useful -- espcially the one about allowing yourself emotional breakdown time.

What worked for me has been dedicating the book to the people who are so close to my heart and suffering so much. It made the book(s) as much for them as for the reader.

Also, incorporating my overwhelming emotions into the story. Writing the scenes that are filled with pain and loss NOW while the feelings are so much a part of me.

Eliminating all the elements of life that make me edgy -- the phone, (I actually turned it off), stopped watching the news and reading the paper, even stopped going to meetings of various groups that I am a part of.

Doreen, thanks for writing that post and sharing what you are dealing with.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Hi everyone,

Thanks for the comments and support. I really appreciate it.

I forgot a fourth item -- Ask for an extension on the deadline! I have a new date for THE SPY WHO SPANKED ME of November 6, which gives me a little bit of breathing room.

Mary, I've dedicated my last three books to people who died -- it's getting awfully depressing.

I love your advice, Amanda. I have had to leave the phone on to be in touch with a couple of folks, but I'll stop taking the rest of the calls.

Pam, as usual you've hit the nail on the head. What works one time won't necessarily work the next. I keep thinking, "If only there was a formula I could repeat over and over and get the same results." But the process is in constant flux. I'm envious of authors who talk about their process as though they have one that always works.


3:32 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I was just thinking aout getting derailed using research ... I can't write my historical fiction without doing the groundwork first, but I sort of give myself a time frame. By "X date" I will put down the research and start writing, and if there are little gaps, I'll make a note in my ms. to go back and find the info, but I can't tell the story if I don't know what these people's lives were like everyday, what world they lived in with enough specifics to paint it for the readers. For me, that's not something I can layer in later ... with historical fiction, the history IS the story in many ways.

With this ROYAL AFFAIRS project, which I've had to create from soup to nuts in only 5 months -- research to deadline -- I've given myself "game show" rules. If you can't get the answer in a really short amount of time, skip the question and go on to the next one. For me, I need to get a first draft of each entry on paper, stitched into a cohesive whole, and on my editor's desk by November 1. So if I can't find something, I can't afford to get lost amid the trees -- I need to navigate my way out of the forest or I'll miss this insanely short deadline.

But sometimes by forcing myself to focus I just HAVE to do something else because the project becomes too intense. I was so proud of myself for cutting (so far) 34pp from the 1st draft ms. (which is way beyond the page count I was given), only to discover this morning that I had forgotten to include 3 entries in the 1st draft document. So now I've added an additional 27pp, for a net loss of only 7 pages! Argh!

What did I do to cope? Surfed the Bobbi Brown site looking at professional makeup brushes! Sometimes I wonder what "professionalism" really means in this business. Does it mean you don't surf the net looking at beauty tools when you're on a short deadline, or does it mean you know enough about your process to realize it's a 5-minute prescription for sanity?

5:23 AM  

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