How to Survive Writing a Book: The Rollercoaster of Engagement
By Katrin Schumann
I’ve always loved to dive in and re-vamp a space. Each project starts with enormous energy and hope. I’m excited by all that I can achieve with just a little energy, imagination and hard work—and the price of a gallon of paint.
It recently occurred to me that writing a first draft is not unlike revitalizing a room. It has its moments of joy, anticipation, boredom, dread, delirium (good and bad), problem-solving, and satisfaction. Getting from the start of that journey to the end always takes far longer than we realized or remembered, and is exhausting. It takes everything we’ve got to see it through to the bitter end.
The nine turns, slopes and inversions of the rollercoaster
I’ve been working in Key West and am home in Massachusetts for a few months, working remotely and trying to kick start my third novel. I’m not under deadline, but with a new job, one novel recently published and another coming next year, I know I’ve got to keep going or risk getting way off track.
Here in Boston, my tiny study is sandwiched between the bathroom and the back stairs, in the darkest part of the house. Unused for almost five years, the room had (unsurprisingly) become a repository for all sorts of junk. On my very first day back home, I cleared it out, cleaned everything, and completely rearranged the desk and the overpacked bookshelves.
But friends, that was not enough.
As is the case with most creative people, we are always pushing just a little harder, going a little further, wanting a little more. Status quo is not our comfort zone; we’re most happy when we’re changing, growing, and learning. I decided to freshen up the dull turquoise by painting over it with some sunshine yellow.
One day in, I’m battling a sense of doom, fear, frustration and resignation, and I realized: this is exactly the rollercoaster I’m on with my third novel. There are nine distinct stages to this experience:
In some ways, the beginning is the best. With my painting projects, I choose the color, prep the room, open the can and take a big whiff. Ready to go! I don’t think all that much about how long it will take (just a few days, maybe?) or how hard it might be.
A new novel begins with images and a few words and characters becoming real in my head—ideas are coming in fast and furious. I clear my desk, arrange my notes, hang up my index cards or pictures or maps, and fire up the computer. It’s all about potential, at this point, and the book seems full of possibilities and probablities.
Shortly after this—in fact, after about an hour of painting, or a page or two of belabored writing—it dawns on me that this is a far, far bigger project than I realized (super quick ego deflation).
Here, I begin thinking about all the amazing books I’ve read and how those two pages I wrote are absolutely, totally, undeniably miserable crap. I’ve caught a glimpse of the massive mountain ahead of me and am not at all sure I have the wherewithal to scale it.
At this stage, just keeping going is about all I can do. While my brain yells at me (what made you think you could do this? You will never finish! It will be bad! It’s not worth the effort! Who cares anyway? Do I even have the time to get this thing done??), I push forward I set word goal deadlines which I assiduously fail to meet.
Cleaning up my supplies after a day of smearing paint around is a relief—and getting started up again the next day is almost impossible. The scope of the project seems overwhelming, the window of time has miraculously shrunk, and the necessary energy has wilted away in the heat.
I reached this unpleasant little phase with my third novel. Why am I surprised, when I’ve been here before? Because our brains like to delude us (and it’s a good thing, otherwise we’d never even try).
Some of you will know that I’m exceptionally good at sitting in a chair and staring at a screen for too long, utterly miserable. I am not so good at getting up and changing my mindset. I’m a person of momentum, and whether I’m painting a wall or writing a book, my instinct is to keep going.
Now I know that when it all seems overwhelming, when the ideas have stalled, and sitting my ass in the chair leads to nothing but a few paragraphs of drivel… it’s time to have fun.
I’ve learned that when I keep going I make mistakes. The paint starts dripping on the carpet, my characters become flat. I have to slow down so I can be more careful and deliberate. What's the big rush? Why not give myself some space to breathe and think--time for the paint to dry?
I shower, get out of the house. Run or have a martini. Laugh with a friend or a kid. Roll around on the floor with a guinea pig or a cat (or both). Get out a favorite old book. Fun is integral to freshening up creativity.
Grit is passion and perseverance for long term goals. Do you have it?
Without a bit of idiotic stick-to-it-ness, you won’t be able to write entire books. Books take a long time to write, are complicated to structure, and are difficult to sell—whether to editors at publishing houses or to readers. You need grit to tackle something so epic and exhausting.
But there’s a small voice in the head of every creative person that pipes up every now and then and says, “keep going,” and “this is worthwhile!”
This is when you build momentum. When I’m painting, I launch back in despite doubts, commit the hours, and try to get in the zone, while also taking many breaks. Since I don’t have a deadline for my next book, why not choose to make the process easier on myself? I’ve decided that if I’m going to work for months and maybe years on this, I have to try to make the process bearable. This means being clear about the number of hours I want to commit to this project rather than simply working every hour I possibly can.
I step away from the wall and look at the color, and I see that the yellow will be fresh and cheerful. This allows me to keep going.
Reading anything and everything, I find affirmations everywhere that my ideas have legs. I am deep in my project and the process of creating is immensely satisfying. There is a brief interlude where the nasty editor in my brain is actually quiet and the little voice telling me to keep going gets stronger.
If you are able to recognize this moment, seize it! You never know how long it will last.
Without warning, despair swoops in. I’ll re-read a page I wrote and the realization hits me that this work is trite. It is neither special nor interesting.
In my study, this happened once I had painstakingly finished my third coat of yellow. I took a step back.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. My carefully painted walls looked streaky and unfinished. It was going to need a FOURTH COAT OF PAINT. What the hell?
There’s a little anger involved at this stage, and that anger can be helpful. I’ve committed so much time to this work already, it’s far too late to turn back; I have to keep going. The fury of my disappointment fuels me: Goddammit, I’m going to write a good book or else.
A simple period of regular activity. Things are neither good nor bad. I am a robot, producing words or painting walls. The key here is that I am not rushing or setting impossible-to-reach word goals--I am simply completing my list of tasks, one after another, and I am too tired to care about how good it ends up being.
Finally, the end is in sight! With this comes a surge of excitement and inspiration which I use to make the project sing.
In the case of my room remodel, since I have a ‘bricolage’ interior design aesthetic, I comb through the house for forgotten treasures and underused objects I can fix or paint or cover with a blanket. I frame photos or art, and touch up any last corners with the remaining dregs of paint.
In the case of my novels, this stage is the final revision before the book goes to my editor. It’s when I take all those beautiful ideas I had early on, and make sure they’ve been sprinkled like fairy dust throughout the book. I viciously cut superfluous dialogue and scenes, and I add in phrases that, like gems, are chiseled with infinite care. This is where the magic happens.
What feels better than being done?
I can tell you that hearing from readers who have loved your book, actually selling your books and being paid, getting a chance to talk about your work—all those milestones feel amazingly good. But just as great is the euphoria of finishing a final draft: I’ve done the very best job I can. I’m done.
I’m not there yet—either with the turquoise/ yellow room, or with my next novel—but I’m ready and open to using some grit to regain a sense of hope. What other choice do I have?
Katrins's book THE FORGOTTEN HOURS is an Amazon Charts and Washington Post Bestseller. Her second novel, THIS TERRIBLE BEAUTY will be released March 2020. If you're interested in more from Katrin, you can sign up for her newsletter at www.katrinschumann.com
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann