It’s that time of the week when I answer your anonymous questions about writing and all that stuff connected to it. Every Thursday, I’ll be answering two questions from the Big Damn Writer Question Box.
Q: Do you know the plot before you sit down to write, or do you let the story unfold as you go along?
A: I usually know the main plot or at least the things that are going to happen. Then I sit down and outline with that knowledge and start writing. Then as I actually get into the writing, subplots start to develop and I usually have to fiddle with my outline as I go. But the process of doing the actual writing is really personal and sometimes changes as your style evolves. When I started writing, I would sit down, no character outline, no story outline, I would just go, “Okay, this is a story about” and go, but now there’s a little more structure. But I know people who started out with meticulous outlines, copious notes, spreadsheets, chapter hooks for every chapter, any kind of planning you could think of, and now they’re like, “I’ve got three characters in my head and a loose concept. Let’s sit down and write.” So you might find yourself going from a “plotter” who painstakingly prepares the entire book before you write it, to a “pantser” who just sits down and goes, “Where are you taking me today, imagination?” And sometimes it’s the project that dictates which method you use. I find that a lot of the time, writers have little to no choice as to how they’re going to work from project to project and that listening to your intuition and not trying to hold yourself to a rigid structure of “this is how I’m going to work” will decrease frustration and burnout.
Q: God, this question’s probably vague as can be. As a person who’s been dealing with anxiety, I find your unapologetic writings inspiring and empowering. But I still get these crippling fears, which make me… not write, or at least not publish. When I *do* publish, and someone (kindly!) points out an error (grammar or consistency or logically), I beat myself up over it, whilst knowing that I shouldn’t and this is a chance to learn and/or I am allowed to not always agree with feedback. So every time I publish a blog or something, I’m completely off my rockers for a couple of days, sometimes weeks. In order to not feel that again soon, I stop writing for months, then pick it up again, and go through the same cycle. Do you somehow recognize this? I think my question is: knowing that you have anxiety issues as well, how do you deal with your inner critic?
A: I definitely recognize this. For me, it’s a much shorter cycle after years of publishing. The first week after a book comes out, I’m like, “OH MY GOD STOP TELLING ME YOU FOUND TYPOS I’M FREAKING OUT HOW DID A TYPO EVEN GET IN THERE I WAS SO CAREFUL EVERYONE WAS SO CAREFUL HOW DID WE NOT SEE THESE I HAVE TO FIRE EVERYONE WHO’S EVER WORKED FOR ME I HAVE TO FIRE MYSELF I SHOULD JUST QUIT OBVIOUSLY I CAN’T EVEN USE THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE PROPERLY I AM A MONSTER OH DEATH YOU DARK VIXEN ENFOLD ME IN YOUR EVERLASTING EMBRACE FOR I CANNOT BEAR THE TERROR OF THIS LIFE!”
And then after like five days, I remember I once read a book where the heroine admired the hero’s “trim waste” and that I will never, ever have a typo that bad.
One thing that has helped me over the years, especially in periods of high visibility, is drawing that line between my inner critic and criticism from other people. You really have to work at reminding yourself that just because someone thinks a thing about you or your work, that doesn’t make it objective truth. When I started out, I would crumple if someone didn’t like something about one of my books or didn’t see a character the way I saw them. I had this intense desire to somehow contact these people and explain to them why they were wrong and why my book actually was really good (I did not act on this, thank god). But at some point, I came to the realization that just because someone thought a thing about me or my work, that didn’t mean I had to agree with them. I don’t remember how I came to that realization, but feel free to write that down and put it somewhere you can see it: Just because someone says something about my work doesn’t mean I have to agree with them.
Bonus Question: What is the worst piece of advice you received about writing (that you’ve heard others give out?)
A: I would have to say that the worst and most offensive advice I’ve ever heard given in general was that no romance heroine could ever be a sex worker because sex workers were unloveable. I can’t remember what the workshop was about, but the presenter asked for examples of fairy tales that had been reworked into romances. I suggested Pretty Woman was a mash-up of “Cinderella” and Shaw’s Pygmalion, and the woman cut me off before I could even finish my sentence. She goes, “No, no, no. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is a hooker, and you can’t have a hooker as your heroine. They’re unloveable. A hero is not going to want a hooker.” Later that day, in another workshop, she talked about her book that was set in an old west saloon and said that her heroine was a prostitute, but that was okay because she was still a virgin and didn’t do anything with the men. So I’m not entirely sure that she knew what the word “prostitute” meant in that context.
Either way, I went on to write a romance with a heroine who was a sex worker and the sky did not fall and nobody revoked my romance card. It’s unavailable right now, but it will re-release hopefully later this year, with some updates.
Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!