Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Lessons Learned in the Pressure Cooker

Well, other than the line edits, I'm done with the first two books in the new Twisted Tales series for Pickwick Press, a new Children's imprint for Phoenix Books. YAY!!!!

And.... drumroll... I have release dates (October 5, 2010 for both) and covers! And they're up for pre-order on all the online retailers. Check them out!

But most of all, I feel like I learned a lot of lessons. I suppose one should expect to learn a lot of lessons while in the midst of one's first book contract, but the lessons I learned weren't necessarily the ones I expected to be learning. D'uh. I guess that's why I had to learn them, right?

1. I can write way faster than I ever imagined.

I had 4 1/2 months to write two 80K length books. And while they were simple in that they were based on fairy tales, they were decidedly NOT simple in their structures because of the "you decide the outcome" feature of the series.

2. Something will always come up to throw a wrench into your plans.

I knew from watching my friends and from reading writers loops that authors often have requests thrown at them from their publishers, without any regard for timing or their deadlines. I knew this. BUT, I didn't expect the number and frequency of such requests. Or how they would throw me off and take me out of my flow. And all that's before my personal life intruding... family and friends, eye infections, colds, daily life...

3. It's not smart to drop everything else in your life.

Dropping everything while under deadline seemed smart to me when I made the decision. It was only 4 1/2 months. It was my first contract. I figured I could stop doing "optional" things like--opening mail that wasn't obviously a bill, deleting SPAM, doing my personal blog, updating my website to, like mention the sale, cleaning my house, talking to my family, answering personal e-mails, taking care of myself and my life--until the books were done. Turns out, this was dumb. Very dumb. I may have met the deadlines, but of course more writing things have come up... I have a bunch of opportunities in front of me, all with urgency.... So, I'm not really any less busy now, PLUS I have a very messy house and stacks of goodness knows what that landed in my mailbox. And these tasks seem monumental to deal with now, whereas with a half hour every couple of days... I could have kept up with it all. At this point, I can't even remember all the e-mails (personal or professional) I put off until later... I kept putting people off with, "Just wait until March." And so they didn't understand why I was still busy in March (editor's revision letter -- plus, um, my own revisions because I turned in such a hot mess) and why I'm still busy now. Worst, I stopped going to the gym and gained weight... Basically I let my life fall apart. Not so smart in the end.

4. Eating right and exercising is worth the extra time.

Kind of related to #3, but while under so much pressure, I figured I'd give myself a break in terms of eating right and working out. So, I ate too many thing sold at coffee shops. I ordered take out too many times. Now I feel like a slug. A fat slug.

5. You can't change who you are.

I know I'm a last minute panic person. Always have been. And when I have a deadline (whether self-imposed or not) I always make my schedule knowing my nature. Usually I set out a schedule I think is doable, leaving myself a few days off, and knowing that likely I'll fall behind, but will be able to catch up at the end. Problem with this deadline was I didn't have the luxury of a reasonable, doable plan from the start. When I divided the amount of work over the number of days (with no days off) I already had to produce more per day than I'd ever done before--even during a Nanowrimo situation. Nano seems easy peasy, now. Right from day one, even before I got behind and it all started to fall apart, I knew I was in trouble... And so it was a lot of stress.

6. I'm not good at tricking myself.

If I could change one thing, I would have stopped work on the first book, the Cinderella book, in early-mid December. That was the book that I'd already done a detailed outline for. (Did one for the proposal that sold it.) That was the book I'd already started and developed characters for. That was the book I had time to let my critique partners help with. If I'd stopped working on Cinderella in mid-December, that would have divided the time between the two books pretty evenly. But my deadline was January 3rd, and my editor wasn't interested in getting it before that (because she was on vacation in late December) and so I took every last minute to finish. So, not only did I not have as much time to do the second book, I also had to do revisions and line edits for the first book, as well as meeting several other unexpected requests (for marketing materials, etc.) during that shorter period of time. I think I had about five weeks to do the second book, total, and going in all I had for book 2 was a title and concept. No outline. No characters. No book. In hindsight, I feel like a superhero for pulling it off. And in the end, I actually love my Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer book. :)

7. Good friends will save you.

I don't think I've ever, in my life, felt quite so much panic as I did this February. And my friends came through for me. In late Jan/early Feb, even though she has 3 small kids and had just moved, Sinead met with me to go over my outline. Even though she has 2 small kids and deadlines of her own, Molly read the first scenes for me and met to give me some ideas. Then the weekend of Feb 20-21, I was basically only at about 33K in, and I knew some of that I had to trash. And not only was I behind, I still had some HUGE logistics/world building and story decisions to make and I could not think. Brain was frozen. Just kept going around in circles chasing my tail. (As Molly would say, I kept looking right, over and over, when the answers were off to the left...) Molly and Sinead came over that weekend and let me talk through my issues and told me which of my solutions worked and which ones didn't, and where I was making things more complicated than I needed to, and just as important they reassured me that everything was going to be okay and it wasn't the absolute end of the world if I had to send a near first draft to my editor, that I wouldn't be the first writer to ever do that... And I calmed down and wrote about 53K in the next ten days and did a quick second draft of the entire 83K in three days (the fastest I'd ever revised a book before that was four weeks. I prefer to have six weeks for revisions. I'm a reviser...)

8. If I take time off right after a book, I should plan something busy but satisfying and non-writing related.

Instead, I planned a short trip away that ended up being miserable, because after so many months of relative isolation, a vacation by myself wasn't what I wanted or needed... and I was still too anxious to relax. Plus the weather sucked, so I just felt sorry for myself. Didn't feel like a break at all. Just added to my stress.

And I think the biggest lesson, one I'm still learning, is you should stop and smell the roses. Cliche, but true. My dreams are starting to come true, at least things are moving in the right direction, again, but through this process I felt too panicked to rejoice and enjoy it.

So, let's pop the champagne now!

What lessons have you learned under pressure?


Karen W said...

Maureen - first off - congrats on finishing! And sorry you had to learn the hard way. Second - you are so lucky to have such good friends who live nearby. Kudos to Molly and Sinead!

I've learned all the things you mentioned and more. While I prefer to be on time, sometimes it's just not possible with a full time day job. So, as is the case with this book that was due May 1st, I ask for an extension. The last two books were on time (Nov 1st and then I had to turn around and write 60k by Jan 1st. Plus I had to turn in a detail synopsis by December 1st on the book I'm writing now.) After that, I was so burned out, I couldn't write. I ended up taking a month off. So I started Feb 1st. And this book is like you described - pulling teeth! Unfortunately, my writing friends live in NJ (Hi Steph!) and Georgia, ie; far away. And now I'm in the midst of line edits and Art Fact Sheets for the November book. So this book will be late. A month late. And even then, I'll be writing like crazy.

Sinead M said...

Maureen, it is unbelievable what you managed to get done in such a short time, and knowing how intricate the structure of those books is, makes your accomplishment even more impressive.

Glad we could help, but honestly, I'm still feeling major guilt that I couldn't read the full of the sleeping beauty book...

Kwana said...

Great post. Big congrats to you on finishing and meeting all your goals. I'm so proud of you and happy for you.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Great post Maureen. So many of those points resonate with me.

And I will say I'm a little jealous too that you do have that writing support so close. I never thought I needed it. I thought writing was a loner thing.

But this blog has changed that. It keeps me connected to that writing side of myself.

And yes you guys are in Canada and Karen is in Texas (Hi Karen!) but we're all only a post/comment and email away.

Can't wait to read the books. The covers look amazing.

And Karen - stop beating yourself up! Your deadlines have boarded on the crazy/insane side too. An extra month or two isn't going stop the HQ machine!

Eileen said...

I've learned that:

* outlining doesn't kill the magic. * simply getting myself to sit down and open the computer counts for something.
* sometimes you have to trust your gut.

I've also learned that junk food doesn't make me feel better. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to actually INTERNALIZE that lesson, hence the entire sleeve of Oreos that disappeared during the last day before my book was due. :-)

Sue said...

Maureen, congrats on finishing and on the beautiful book covers. I can't wait to read the books. They'll be fantastic.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Those are all good and I think while Sinead and I were watching you from safely outside the pressure cooker - we were glad to be of assistance in any way.

I like your lessons in balance - I often don't have a choice about balance, that pesky family keeps demanding attention, but I do often let working out slide and then, sort of like Eileen, I hit the neighboring bakeries like a viking maurader. And nothing keeps me on point in the writing like working out. Followed shortly by some drinking.

Good lessons, Maureen. I hope the pressure cooker is never as hot again.

Molly O'Keefe said...

And Karen! Yikes is all I can say

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