On Writing and Anxiety or: Where’s Chapter 24?

603px Serpiente_alquimica
Those who are still awaiting chapter 24 of As Long As She Lives or who were used to seeing my “goal” and “ch? posted!” posts more regularly, will have guessed that I’m struggling a bit, at the moment.  I could plead “writer’s block” and pretend I don’t know why I’m having trouble, but that would be a lie and undermine the whole point of this blog about my writing process – namely that it might help someone struggling in the same way. So, at the risk of putting off any future agents or publishers (as if this would be new to anyone who works with writers) I’m going to share the true nature of the issue: I suffer from anxiety. I was diagnosed when I was twenty and though I’ve learned a lot about controlling it in the twenty years, since, it’s overpowering me at the moment.

The source of my current anxiety is not unusual or unique in any way – fill a room with writers or creative types at the same stage of a project and I doubt you could find more than one without the same concerns.  I’m anxious about finishing this important draft of the project I’ve spent more than two years planning, researching and writing; about finishing it to a standard I am proud, or at least not embarrassed, to post publicly and; about finishing it by October 31st, the date I have given to a few people for potentially exciting (and therefore, because its me, further anxiety inducing) reasons.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that a new idea for a novel has formed over the last several weeks and is tempting me with the sunshine and orange-blossom scent of all new stories.

I could, as I often have, give in to the new story, tell myself I’m burned out and need to work on something else for a while, but I don’t want to do that, this time – not just because of the potentially exciting things, or because I don’t want to disappoint my small-but-cherished band of readers (though I don’t!), but because I want to be able to just be professional, conquer my anxiety and finish this thing!

So, I’ve been pulling out some tricks I use to undermine, if not stop my anxiety and I’m going to share them (and their accompanying technology) with you because a) admitting to it is one of those tricks and, b) the chance that some of these techniques might help others makes the whole horrible feeling seem potentially useful, which also helps

The basic concept is to break the work (which, on a bad day, could just as easily be getting ready for dinner with friends, as writing a novel) into smaller, more manageable tasks and then creating a sense of accomplishment by noting the completion of those tasks. To some, especially those who identify as “pantsers” this is all going to sound a little OCD but that’s okay that just means that this post is not for you 🙂

General tricks to undermine the anxiety :

1) Talk to someone – a friend, or a doctor if that’s warranted – and tell them you’re struggling, whether you know why or not. No matter how many years of experience we have being ourselves, we’re not always the expert on the subject! In fact, it was a friend who pointed out that I was in the midst of a prolonged anxiety attack, this time, after I had been telling her how disappointed I was in myself and that I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just do it, when I’d been going so well until the last couple of chapters. I honestly hadn’t been able to see it.

2) Be kind to yourself – not over-indulgent, but when we are frustrated mean, judgmental words can pass through our minds or even over our lips about ourselves and they only serve the anxiety Ouroboros.

Writing-specific tricks I’ve implemented:

1) I’ve outlined the next three chapters in enough detail that “what happens” is clear, and I “just” need to slip inside my characters’ experience and write that onto the page. (This is by no means as trivial as the one-sentence description makes it seem!)

2) I’ve put those outlines onto the Asana app (which I use daily, anyway, but not with quite as much detail) making each major detail of a scene a task which I can check off as I complete it, and – this is key – I’ve unchecked the “hide completed tasks” button so that all of the completed work (including the previous 23 chapters) is nicely greyed out and I can feel a sense of accomplishment and see how little I’ve yet to do in comparison.

3) Do you know about Writetrack? It’s a web-app which allows you to set wordcount goals over a time period and works out how many words you need to write per day to get it done (this post I wrote in 2011 describes it in more detail, it’s basically the same but with more features, now.)
I logged in to Writetrack and started a new challenge for myself called “Finish before Nano”, starting yesterday and ending on October 31st.  It is true that Writetrack is better for initial drafts rather than polishing drafts, since it’s all about word-count but after I’d entered the workload weight for each day according to the commitments I have coming up, the per day requirement to get the approx. 30k I have left to re-draft and polish made the whole thing seem less monolithic (which is the point, afterall.)   *note: if logging my daily word count seems like a doubling up of the checking off lists in trick number 2, that’s because it is: the point is to have as many ways that I can support a sense of achievement as possible – we’re talking about max-strength anxiety attack, here! 

4) I dealt with the temptation of my new story by a) giving myself one hour to jot down the basic structure of what is running through my head, so that I don’t worry I’ll forget it and, b) promising myself that I will be able to write it – soon. Hence the title of my new writetrack challenge, “Finish before Nano” – if I meet my goal for As Long As She Lives my reward will be to dive into the new story with all the added fun of the Nanowrimo community.

That’s it so far, but I’ll also be getting back to putting up chapter goal posts after I’ve posted chapter 24.  Now , I just have to put the plan into action, so I’d better get to it. If all goes well, my next post should be announcing that chapter 24 is up!

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