Tuesday, June 2, 2009

And You Can't Make Me!

Starting about two years ago I went through a period where I was late on every single project I had under contract. And not just a few days, or a few weeks, or even a few months late. We're talking really late, as in moving a book from one year to the next and a couple of publishers sending me "or else" letters.

Being late had never been a problem for me. In fact, I believe I owe a great deal of my early success in publishing to the fact that I could be relied upon to write quickly and without a lot of fuss. At one point I wrote a 15-book series (Circle of Three, which I wrote under the name Isobel Bird) at a rate of one a month. I won't claim these books are perfect, but they're good. And editors liked that they didn't have to worry about me.

But after about 15 years of stolidly plugging along, things changed. I started taking more and more time between books, starting new projects when the deadlines were only months, and sometimes weeks, away. At first I thought it was a challenge I was setting myself, to see how quickly I could get a book written. If I thought it would take six months, I would start four months before the due date. I made detailed schedules of how many pages I would have to write each day between now and the due date. Then I ignored them.

Not only was my lateness a problem from a relationship with my editors perspective, it was also financially disastrous. Like most writers, I live check to check. Often I'm dashing to the bank the day the mortgage is due, depositing a begged-for check to cover it. But with no manuscripts being handed in, no money was coming my way. I started relying on credit cards, with regrettable results. Every time I got a cash advance or charged something (like my income taxes) I told myself the money would "be here soon."

Throughout this time I made regular visits to my shrink, to make sure the medications I take for my tiny little anxiety and bipolar problems were still working. And despite how miserable I was feeling, every time I went I managed to shower, change out of my pajamas, and adopt a cheerful attitude. When I was asked how everything was going I said, "Fine."

It got to the point where, because I kept not writing them, I had three novels due at roughly the same time. I kept telling myself that everything was fine, that I could get it all done and finally get some cash. But every day I got up, sat down at the computer, and spent the next ten hours looking up Tom Petty's tour schedule, poking friends on Facebook, and researching the history of costume jewelry.

And then I had what my doctor later referred to as a slight cardiac event.

Technically it was a not-very-pleasant angina attack. It occurred, probably not coincidentally, following a breakfast meeting with two of my editors, who happened to be in town at the same time but for different reasons. We're all friends, so we got together one Saturday morning over coffee. We had a lovely time. No one mentioned deadlines, and I smiled a lot. When they asked me how everything was going I said, "Fine."

Then, while walking to the subway afterward, my heart started beating irregularly. It's done this periodically throughout my life, so I don't freak out about it. But this time it didn't stop. Then I started sweating. A lot. And then I experienced intense pain in my jaw. This is what a heart attack feels like, I thought as I continued to walk. I wonder if I should do something.

I did do something. I walked four blocks to the Orpheum Theater, where I exchanged some tickets for a show (Spring Awakening) to a different night. I joked with the ticket agent and looked at the seating chart, all the while trying to calm my heart and ignore the sweat that was soaking my shirt. Then, tickets exchanged, I took the train to the Castro, where I picked up some visiting out-of-town friends and drove back to my house. There I changed my shirt and lay down until my heartbeat returned to normal.

I didn't go to the doctor for another two months. Nor did it occur to me that the attack might be related to my inability to get my books written. That didn't occur to me until a few months later, when two days before one of the books was due (and I was only about 50 pages into it) I had back spasms so severe that I woke up screaming. I couldn't sit, which meant I couldn't write, and each new spasm was worse than the last.

Off I went to my shrink, but only because it was time for our next four-month visit. This time when he asked me how everything was I said, "I think I might be a little bit stressed."

He then asked every shrink's favorite question: "Why do you think that is?"

I remember starting to babble. I said something about the books being late and not knowing why and being surprised because usually I do know why I'm having problems with a book and how it was really annoying because I actually liked the books and should be having a good time writing them and oh by the way I kind of maybe had a little heart attack and was seriously considering bankruptcy and. . .

I went on for some time. Then I heard myself say, "I think I have literary anorexia."

And that's when I understood what was happening. Shortly before the start of my "block" I'd released a book for which I had high expectations. Unlike most of my books, it had taken several years to write. It was very close to me. And it went nowhere. After some great reviews, it just sat there staring at me like a lost puppy.

Before that I'd released several other books for which I had high expectations. For one reason or another, each had been a disappointment. And what they all had in common was that their lack of success was not due to me or my writing, but to some colossal screw up on the part of the publisher. One, part of a loosely-related series of which mine was one of six books, had been given absolutely disastrous packaging despite the objections of everyone involved (except the marketing department). After the dismal reception to the first two books in the series, it was decided that the last two books would be salvaged by repackaging them as stand-alone novels. But it was too late for books three and four, which had already been printed. Those were just plopped into the pool and allowed to sink out of sight. Mine was number three.

Over the course of 20 years I've had a number of "This is going to be the one!" moments. And I've become used to them not being the one. I've had a book series for which I wrote nine titles tank because the television show on which it was based was canceled before the books came out (after we'd been promised lucrative tie-ins with Burger King and Spaghetti-O's). I've had books optioned for film by enthusiastic producers, only to have them languish in production limbo for years before eventually dying with a whimper. After so many of these experiences, I thought I was used to it. At least, I no longer allowed myself to hope for anything big.

But apparently I was not as okay with this as I thought I was. Apparently I was tired of picking myself up and starting again, of putting a disappointing experience behind me and launching into a new book with the belief that this time it would end magically. In short, I had become sick and tired of giving my book to someone (a publisher) and having them kill it.

In my mind, the only recourse for preventing this disappointment was to not give anyone the opportunity to screw up my book. If they didn't have the book, I reasoned, they couldn't screw it up and I wouldn't be disappointed yet again. Obviously, then, the solution was to simply not write the books.

I know this makes no logical sense. Neither does anorexia. It's all about trying to hang on to the one thing--the only thing--over which you have complete control. For some people that's food; in my case it's words. The only part of a book that I have any real control over is what I put down on paper. The cover, the marketing, the sales, the reviews--they're all up to someone else. And any one of the people involved in those aspects of my book can screw it up for me.

I don't like that. Apparently I don't like it enough that I'd rather have a slight cardiac event and debilitating back spasms than allow it to happen again. Well, at least at that point I would have.

I'd like to say that realizing what was going on put an end to it. But it didn't. It did make things better, and I did manage to get those books written, but I still resented handing them over. When one of them came out with a cover I didn't love, I spent a few days regretting having "given in" yet again. But I got over it. Mostly.

I recently handed in two novels, both of which have the potential to do very well. My editors are excited. There's been "buzz" in the industry. The film department at my agency thinks there will be good news. I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but I can't help it. And I know that if the books don't sell well, or if the film deals don't materialize, I'm going to be an unhappy camper for a while. That won't change.

However, I am fighting it. I've launched into a new book, which is going really well. For the first time in a long while I'm actually enjoying the writing. Not the having written. Not the will be writing. The is writing. I'm trying to do it without expectations, trying to remember why I liked writing in the first place. And slowly, word by word, it's coming back to me.

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