Monday, April 15, 2013

Comparison is the thief of joy

Every now and then, someone will ask how long it takes me to write a book. It's one of the few questions I hate answering, ranking right up there with, "does this skirt make my butt look big?" and "did you drink all that wine?"

(For the record, I do not bristle at the question that annoys the crap out of most romance authors, which is, "how do you research your sex scenes?")

One reason I'm not a reason I'm not a fan of inquiries about the speed of my writing is that it can vary wildly. Once upon a time, I could write a full-length, 85,000-word novel in about three months with a couple extra weeks tacked on for critique partner feedback and revisions. That was before the pressure of promotional responsibilities, conflicting editorial demands, and life-changes like divorce and young kids in the house. Those things slowed my pace considerably, turning novel-writing into something chopped up into random spurts over a 12 or 16-month period. Sometimes longer.

I'd reached a point where I assumed that slower pace of fits and starts was the new normal for me, so when my agent landed me a new contract in March and asked how long I needed to write a shorter 55,000-word novel, I asked for roughly five months. I'd just gotten started when she came back and said, "could you do it in six weeks?"

Like an idiot, I replied, "Um, sure?"

This coincided with my longtime critique partner accepting a similarly insane deadline, so we agreed to help one another with moral support, speedy feedback, and the occasional encouraging butt-pat.

The biggest challenge was not that butt-patting is difficult when you live 2,638 miles apart. It's that it took me awhile to recall how differently we approach writing. She writes best in quick bursts of 1,000 words on her lunch hour or 2,500 words after her daughter has gone to bed, then sends me scenes to critique.

For the first week or so, I'd grimace when I saw a text message from her declaring she'd written another 1,300 words while waiting for a doctor's appointment. You suck, I'd tell myself. The only words you wrote were Facebook posts about about your boobs falling out of your dress and how much you admire your gentleman friend's butt.

For the record, he does have a great butt.

I'd head home from the day job pledging to write 2,000 words after dinner, only to find myself cleaning the keyboard with a Q-tip while my computer screen remained blank. Some author you are, I'd mutter to myself.

It took me a good week to pull my head out of my butt and remember how I write best. Long, productive stretches of 5,000 to 10,000 words in a day, followed by three or four days of doing nothing   drinking wine   groping my gentleman friend   serious contemplation regarding the direction of the story. That is a more natural pace for me, and it's served me well in the past.

As it turns out, it works fine for a crazy deadline, too. I'm on track to finish the whole book in roughly five weeks, thanks mostly to excellent wine   the ease of writing blowjob scenes  several good days of super-productive writing.

After one such day, I made the mistake of posting my daily word count on Facebook and Twitter. I was pleased with my spurt of 9,000 words in 8 hours, and felt like sharing.

I regretted it almost instantly when I saw other writers lamenting their own daily production. I couldn't do that many words in a week, someone shared. I only wrote 500 words today, someone tweeted with a frowny-face.

By sheer coincidence, a non-author friend posted the following quote in her Facebook feed that same day:

"Comparison is the thief of joy."

It's attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, and the instant I saw it, I wished Facebook had a stronger option than, "like" (which is not to be confused with my usual wish that Facebook offered a "lust" option. See aforementioned comment about my gentleman friend's butt).

It is a great reminder to all of us, whether you're a writer or a teacher or a firefighter or a nipple-clamp tester. Your skills, your talents, your accomplishments, are your own. Someone else's skills, talents, and accomplishments do not diminish or detract from yours. Keep your eyes on your own test paper and your head in your own game.

Is this something that comes naturally for you, or do you find yourself playing comparison roulette pretty regularly? How do you feel about that? Please share!

Oh, and to answer those earlier questions, of course not, yes, and very, very thoroughly. You're welcome.


Skye said...

I have a tendency to compare myself to others a lot of the time, due to insecurities and self-consciousness. Thus when I read about people publishing their first novel at age 19 or something I get into that "you suck" and "you'll never be a writer" head-space. Sigh.

So then I have to talk myself out of it and go on about how everyone is different, goes through different life experiences, choices, etc. Most of the time it works, because it's true.

And I don't even have a gentleman friend's butt to admire distracting me. :)

Angel Nicholas said...

Comparison doesn't kill me. Being my own worst enemy does. Staring at the screen blankly or receiving a tough critique will stall my progress far faster than reading that someone else wrote 9k words in a day. Even being unsure how a scene is supposed to progress will freeze every single synapses in my brain--despite knowing that once I start typing, it'll figure itself out. That's the magic of writing. For me, anyhow. Not that I'm writing. I'm reading blogs instead. Bad, bad, Angel.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I compare myself to other people all the time. I just finished reading Mindy Kaling's (from The Office and The Mindy Project) book, which I loved. But at the same time I couldn't help thinking, "She's only a couple years older than me and she's already accomplished so much as a writer, producer, and actor." I don't want to work in the entertainment industry, but her accomplishments made me feel like whatever I'd done in my twenties and thirties didn't come close to measuring up.
It also doesn't help when I read other articles about other young twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who've racked up an impressive list of accomplishments. I know I shouldn't compare myself to them, but I can't help it sometimes.

Hally Francis said...

Most of the time, I'm very good at not comparing myself to others, but when I do, it gets really bad, and I usually get stuck in that head space for a while, and sometimes have to do something drastic to pull myself out of it by reminding myself that I am my own person.

Aurelia Blue said...

It's funny, I just attended a Bible Study for Mom's with young and early elementary aged kids, a few weeks ago and the topic was also about the importance of not comparing yourself to others. This group is part of a very big non demoninational community church, and the attendees tend to come from many different backgrounds. A lot of us have other ventures happening while we raise kids. A good many of us have given birth at least once if not twice or thrice in the past four years, I've gone. It's so hard sometimes not to look at that gal next to you and see her breast feeding without flaw, as she takes notes on the lesson, and texts her boss at the same time. Not to mention her figure is excellent and she volunteers on every committee. I think it often comes down to the fact that we used to be able to do that too, or we always thought we'd be that good too, and we feel like we're letting ourselves down. And that really does rob us of our joy. It is sooo important to take time and enjoy everything we have in our lives and every season in our lives as much as we can. (love the winery tour plan tacked on to the conference going... perfect!)

Personally, I was thrilled you were posting your goal and how well you were meeting it. I've been on pins and needles for you since you announced this project. I used to be able to write really quick in short periods of time too. A novel in a three months? Gee, what will I do with the other month and a half? Then my little B3 came along and that was that! For like a year! He's absolute joy! But it totally derailed my "life after preschool and all the kids are gone all day" career plans. So I do know the challenges you face. I'm proud of how well you roll with it. And, yes, speaking of rolling, I'm glad you still find time to "research" and stay connected (OK, I didn't mean that one, literally, but it works ;) ) Keep it up, Tawna. And keep posting you are an inspiration to so many of us out here. <3

Maggie Jaimeson said...

Comparison IS the thief of joy if you always come out on the bottom. I learned long ago that I am a unique and special flower. :)

When I began writing, I hated that I wasn't an organized, multi-colored sticky note plotter. I tried to be but failed. I'm a pantser and I had to learn to embrace it.

I've been parts of many word goal groups: x words per hour, per day, per month. None of these work for me. I am competitive and this type of comparison drives me crazy on a weekly basis. So, this year I made a word count goal for all of 2013. Some days I do 10K. Others I do nothing. Some days the 5K I get out are the most difficult of all. I don't break it into equal parts either of x words per month. I know my process--slow in the beginning and fast at the end. Once I get past the half way point of the novel I finally have it all figured out and then I write the last 35-40K words in a week to get to the end.

As for butt distractions. Hmmm...the only one for me is my aching butt in the chair at the computer. I think I'll have to post some pics. Are you sharing?

Lauren Blakely said...

Thanks for the reminder that I need to go write a blow job scene!

Lara said...

It is hard not to compare myself to others, but I try to let it inspire me rather than get me down. Doesn't always work that way, but I *do* try.

RainQueen said...

Maybe comparing ourselves to others isn't so bad. It's pretty much unavoidable, so I guess it's all in the perspective. I only started writing a couple of years ago, mainly as an angst-vent, and bargain-basement psychotherapy. I used to write on a poetry site, and saw an awful lot of writers who hurt my brain. More power to em, but I just couldn't stomach it. There were a few, though, who took my breath away. I knew very well that I'd never ever come close to that level, but who cares? I got to read them, and learned that my medium (if any) might be something else. If I can accept that I'm not the best, I can enjoy my betters...That said, I still mutter hexes at the women I see wolfing down steak and pasta in their size-two skinny jeans...Baby steps...

CharmedLassie said...

I think comparison can work for some people to motivate them. It doesn't work for me unfortunately. I fall into the pit of despair and think I'm rubbish too!

However, I am one of those annoying people who posts regular word count updates on Twitter, more for my own satisfaction that anyone else's. It's a written reminder when I come back onto Twitter the next day that I actually achieved things the day before.