Friday, November 19, 2010

The Story That Ate My Brain

Great visit with some gifted/accelerated/fabulous kids -- including my niece -- at Holmes Middle School in Wheeling, IL yesterday. So many great questions about so many different things. My favorite, however, was the one I had the most difficulty answering. A girl asked, "How do you know if your work is any good?"

I said, "You have radio U-SUCK playing in your head, don't you?" The class laughed, and I went on to recommend Bird by Bird and told her that she had to focus on the feelings she was experiencing as she wrote. That if her writing was moving her, she had to trust that feeling. That she was the writer, but she was also her own first reader, and that if her work didn't move her, well it wasn't going to move anyone else.

And that's true, except when your despair and self-loathing drowns out every other feeling. Or when you've read your work so many times you have it memorized, and everything on the page sounds like the worst kind of cliche, and you're about as emotionally responsive as the half-dead ficus in the corner of the dentist's waiting room. The truth is, a lot of times you don't know if your work is any good. But you keep working anyway, in the hopes that you'll find your way to your story. And if helps any, kids of Holmes Middle, you're not alone . We all feel like we're right in the middle of the story that is eating our brains, and will, we are sure, be the death of us. Welcome to the wonderful world of writing. The thrills! The glamour! Who knew?

Right after I got home from my visit, my agent called with the good news that she liked my latest novel, and the somewhat deflating news that she wants me to revise the whole thing from the POV of a different character. Or maybe it was the POV of a chicken or cumulous cloud, I'm hazy on the details. I can do it. I can't do it. I change my mind every fourteen seconds or so. Maybe more coffee will help. Maybe the cats have advice. Maybe I can hire the children of Holmes Middle to write the book for me a la James Frey . I'll pay them entirely in Mountain Dew and Warheads. We will call ourselves Patheticus Gore and make a million little dollars. Or at least, I will. (Don't look at me like that. Kids love Warheads.)

But I wasn't lying when I told the kids that revision was my favorite part of writing. That I'd much rather wrestle with a malfunctioning manuscript than face a blank page. What I'm not sure I got across was the little period of mourning you endure when you hear that your story -- your baby -- is kind of cute but also a malformed and quite possibly psychotic, that it's got no arms, a couple of extra legs, fingers poking from the top of its wee furry head, and a single eyeball where its nose should be, and that the eyeball is staring RIGHT AT YOU, demanding you love it anyway. And when you stop feeling sorry for yourself, you find that you do love it anyway, and you get back to work.


  1. >>We all feel like we're right in the middle of the story that is eating our brains<<
    That's exactly where I am in my current WIP, Laura. Sometimes I think it will be the death of me. Thanks for reminding me that I'm not alone.

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  3. Thanks, Carmela! Reading Kristin Cashore's post on the story that was eating her brain made me a little less alone, too. But I wonder if this is how we're supposed to feel when deep into a project. Challenged almost beyond our capabilities. I mean, if it wasn't hard, would it be worth doing? I don't think so.

  4. Hello Ms. Ruby,
    Your commentary around revision causes me great anxiety. I dislike revision and it always makes me freeze up. I respect anyone who can even consider such an undertaking.
    I have to admit that I've not read your books but my son loved "Wall and a Wing"" when he read it this summer. Amazon, at least up here in Canada, kept delaying delivery on Chaos King and finally admitted that they couldn't deliver at all. Luckily I found a copy at a library (once I gave up on watching for the Fed Ex to arrive) so he read it last week. He is wondering if there is a third book forthcoming and i am wondering if there is a problem in distribution of the second book?

  5. Hi Gerald,

    I have to admit that revision causes me a lot of anxiety, too! I've gotten through more than 3/4 of this revision and froze. I'm reading other people's books right now, always a good way to unfreeze. (Or conversely, fall into despair because of the worry that you might never write anything as good).

    I wasn't aware of a problem with the distribution of The Chaos King, but thanks for letting me know. I can ask my publisher about it. As far as a third book in the series goes, I've been thinking about it, but then I had some other contracts to fulfill first. I can't given any specific dates, but I do mean to write a third. As soon as I know more, I'll put it up on the website.

    Thanks for writing!