Thursday, 11 August 2011

The OMG stage

Yesterday I finally started writing a new book. I should have started about three months ago, but I only got my written contract last week, and although my editor assured me that it was absolutely certain, I am a bit superstitious. And... oh well, I just didn't get down to it. There were too many other things.

You would assume that for someone who has written a score of books embarking on a new project won't be a big deal. Yet the anxiety of a blank page is inevitable, for expert as well as beginner.

I have written most of my academic books on the basis of articles and conference papers. This is a lot of work, as everyone knows who has tried. Sometimes I think that it is much harder to turn an assortment of articles into a coherent book. But right now I wish I had something to give me a start. I am writing this book from scratch. I have my proposal and some general ideas, and I know well what I don't want this book to be like, but I really don't know how to begin. I wrote in the proposal that I anticipated that this book would be the most difficult project in my life, and it is true. It's one of those books that take a lifetime to be able to write. But it doesn't matter. Even if it were the easiest thing to write, I'll still be paralysed.

When a student tells me she is in this phase, I can give plenty of good advice. Like: start somewhere in the middle. Start with something you are most enthusiastic about. Or start with the most boring bit, to have it done as soon as possible. I always say that we all have different ways of writing, and there are no ready recipes. Usually I write an article or chapter in my head, then sit down and put it on paper quickly. I can easily write five thousand words in a day if I have it all ready in my mind. The thing with this new book is that I have too many ideas and no clear plan yet where they will go. It does look very neat in my proposal, and obviously whoever accepted the proposal thought it would work, but there is a loooong way from proposal to finished manuscript. Or even to first draft.

So here I am, as helpless as an undergrad writing her first thesis.

Yesterday, after having stared for a while at my proposal, I browsed through my whole archive looking for something to recycle. This is not very helpful, although you can always cut and paste a couple of paragraphs that will have to go after the first edit. Occasionally you find notes from a conference three years ago, which you took specifically for this project and then forgot. So it is not directly a waste of time, but not an efficient use of time. There is a name for it: procrastination.

Today I told myself to stop fooling around and start writing. I divided the proposal into ten separate files and jotted down some subheadings to create a structure. This is what I always tell my students: create a structure, and the rest will come. “Take care of the sounds, and the sense will take care of itself”. Well, it didn't. I got sidetracked and spent some hours on the Internet reading about celebrity children's books. Highly educative, but didn't not take me any further. So I decided that I need a timeline. Timelines are almost as alien to my way of writing as mindmaps. However, I promised in my proposal that there would be a timeline in my book, so I can just as well get it done. Start with the boring bit.

I like my timeline. It is very illuminating. I have never reflected upon the fact that Ulysses was published the same yeas as Just William.

I can keep adding to the timeline forever, but I won't. Tomorrow I will start writing. Somewhere in the middle. Something I am really enthusiastic about.

I know my students are reading this blog, so I envision you all saying: “Serves her right!”


Mr Pond said...

Ha, I have the somewhat opposite problem of having managed a few thousand words before panicking that It's All Tripe. Which then stalls one just as effectively.

Good luck fighting through it. I'll look forward to what already sounds a very interesting (certainly intriguing) book.

Susan Redington Bobby said...

I want to tell you how much I appreciate this topic, especially since I just cited you in a chapter for a book I'm writing. I guess it's gratifying to know that a person who has written many critical books has the same problems getting started as a person just starting out. When I get stuck, I usually go look up more criticism, whether it's related or tangential, and I know on my last chapter your book Children's Literature Comes of Age "unstuck" me :-) Thank you, and best of luck finding your muse, and then caging her so she can't leave...

Maria Nikolajeva said...

Thank you, Susan, although I wish you had rather found inspiration in something more recent I've written.

When I get stuck, I don't read more criticism because I am afraid to get still more stuck, but I can try it for a change.

Susan Redington Bobby said...

Oh, never fear, I just used the book for the Epic to Polyphony portion for background, but also cited from "Exit Children's Literature" which was enormously helpful as I'm writing on Philip Pullman. In fact, it was that article that encouraged me to see if you had a webpage and to start reading your blog :-)

Susan Redington Bobby said...

Well now I've just realized that the publication dates of the book and article are fairly close. I have read your recent articles in Marvels and Tales but not looked at any of your books published in the past few years, mainly because my college library does not have them. I will just request all of them on inter-library loan to read your most recent criticism. Thanks for the tip.