Cheating on my book

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m the only one here, right?   I can feel it.   Every single other person in the Universe is on vacation.    Hah.   That means I can say anything I want.

I’m working this weekend, but it feels like vacation when there’s no one around to bug me.   I love that.   I get my work and play in at the same time.

Okay, so here’s the problem.    I seem to be writing three books at once.   How did that happen?

I’m supposed to know better than that, aren’t I?   Wouldn’t I scathe a student up one side and down the other for not focusing on one project until it was done?

Well, I’m not exactly a student, though – and as a screenwriter I juggled multiple scripts at various stages of development all the time,  I had to, it’s just the job.

But books are different.    They’re so much bigger.   Can you really compare the two?

I think I know how this happened, actually. 

First, I’m in transition.     The Universe in its wisdom has decided to revamp every single aspect of my life in a major, bone-shattering way, and it’s been – special.      So it’s not all that surprising that all that upheaval from all directions would start to reflect itself in my writing life.

Second, I just turned in two projects, one right after the other, my paranormal that comes out this fall and a book I wrote with three fabulous other female authors, four interconnected novellas that make up an – apocalyptic – story of its own.   

And everything always looks different, disorienting, when you are finished, truly finished, with the immense task that writing a book is.

So it’s not so very surprising that I’m not entirely sure which of the three projects I was toying with – before I had to power down and finish these last two – I want to go back to, now.    I don’t even know who I am, anymore – how the hell am I supposed to know what I want to write?

Now, some of this is just rhetorical.   I KNOW which book I have to finish first.   That would be the one that’s almost finished, duh.    It’s unfortunate that I had to leave off on that one at the very worst possible time to leave a book – 3/4s of the way through a first draft, that Slough of Despond where you realize that you never had the slightest bit of talent to begin with, that in fact elves wrote your last four books, along with everything else you’ve ever written, and you might as well go do that other thing that you can’t do because no writer is really equipped to work at anything else, but you better figure something out fast, because your writing career is officially over.

I’m sure none of you has the slightest idea what I’m talking about.  

But yes, that’s where I was, and that’s what I had to face when I picked that book up again.    Sheer, unadulterated panic ensues.  

Now, as I tell my students, as writers we have to push through that section, it is not optional, because it’s exactly the emotional and physical predicament that our CHARACTERS are experiencing at that point of the story… when there is no possible solution to anything in front of them, or us, and we have to have that experience together to get to the final battle.   The process is cleverly, sadistically designed that way as part of the magic of storytelling.

And the truth is, I have hit this wall in every single script I’ve ever written, and all six novels, now, and I have always, every single time, gotten through it.    That’s a pretty damn good track record.  

But it still feels like dying, every single time.

And there are particular elements about this particular book that are making me more nervous even than usual.   First, I’m adapting my own short story as a novel.   So the gremlins are whispering:   This is a short story.   What ever made you think it could be a full length novel?   You’re stuck because THERE IS NO MORE TO WRITE.   Fool.

Also, it’s my first YA.   And it’s way too dark to be a YA.   Oh, I know, everyone says there’s no such thing as too dark for a YA anymore, but trust me, there is a limit, and I am it.

So that’s Book One.   I had 170 pages when I stopped.   Clearly need to finish that one first, but – see above.

Book Two is a huge departure for me.   Agent loves story.    Brilliant group of author friends love story.  It’s something I’ve been thinking of for years but finally figured out how to actually do it.    Okay, it’s a bit of a departure, urban fantasy, I guess is what I have to call it, and suspenseful, but not so dark as usual, but I was wanting to write something not so dark.    Started it back before I had to finish the last two projects and got 85 pages pretty fast.    Went to NY for BEA and researched locations, fabulous trip,  lots of ideas, should be able to jump right in, no problem, right?

Except that this is the first thing ever that I’m writing in first person.   What in hell made me want to do that?   I don’t even READ first person.    Add to that, it keeps feeling like it should be first person present tense.   Aaaaah!!     I am completely paralyzed.    Go back and rewrite it in third?    Push forward but switch to third?    Push forward and try first person present tense?     I’m not paralyzed, I’m comatose.

So, enter Book Three.    Book Three was an idea I was toying with at the same time I was thinking about doing Book Two.    More along my usual – very adult, very dark, half crime thriller, half supernatural, or maybe the characters are just crazy…   there is an emotional core to it that intrigued me, characters that felt already real, but Book Two felt like a Bigger Idea.

Only once I came up for air from the two just-finished projects, I couldn’t get Book Three out of my head.

And you know how it is about that book you left behind, especially when you are struggling with your current project.     I KNOW you know.    A few weeks ago Dusty called it “the bright and shinys”, but let’s be blunt.   It’s the ultimate forbidden fruit.    You know you should be committed to your relationship, and you are, really you are… but….

So I was just toying with it, really, a little harmless brainstorming on the side, and suddenly, WHAM!!!  That whole book is in my head.   Can’t stop thinking about it.    And Book of Shadows has just come out and I’m getting the reviews and the letters and realizing – oh my God, I really am writing a very specific thing and these people who are reading it are expecting that very specific thing – why on earth, when I’m just starting to hit my stride with my particular brand, would I want to suddenly jump track?

My readers would LOVE Book Three, it has everything that they say they read me for.

And it’s in third person.    Unless I make it first person.    Which I might.

So that’s where I am.    Utter chaos.   Confusion.    When I know – I KNOW – that the only possible way to maintain a career as an author, or any kind of writer, is to FINISH WHAT YOU START.

Well, but this last week, the smoke is starting to clear.   I think.   I’m not out of the woods yet, but I have been writing five pages a day on Book One.    Mind you, the book went off on a tangent that when I reread it might belong to a different universe entirely, but it was so fascinating I just had to go with it.    And I was able to remember, barely remember, but remember, that THE FIRST DRAFT IS ALWAYS GOING TO SUCK. It doesn’t have to make any sense.   Whole sequences can be thrown out.   My only job at this point is to get to The End.     Once I reach that happy place known as the Second Draft, I know I can make it happen.   I always do.

And you know what?    I think I needed to have the release of that illicit brainstorming on Book Three to break through my paralysis on Book One.   The utter absurdity of juggling three books took the pressure off all of them.   Maybe even Book One got jealous and stopped playing so hard to get when it felt like it was losing my attention.     Yes, that sounds completely insane, but can YOU explain how writing works?   I thought not.

So now I think I have a plan.   Five pages a day on Book One until The End, no excuses, and after that’s done I can do whatever I want on either of the other two for the rest of the writing day.   I can live with that.

And the moral of the story?     Well, it just goes to prove my number one and only rule of writing.  


Really.   Whatever gets it written, is gold.

So here’s the question, if there’s anyone here.   Have you ever cheated on one of your books?   How’d that work for you?   Humiliating disaster, or creative breakthrough?   Can you have multiple projects going, or are you a True Blue?

Hope everyone’s having a great holiday.   I know I am.


PS:  If you’re looking for a little Independence Day spirit, and you haven’t seen it in a while, I just want to remind you of one of the best musical films ever made:  1776.    I think I might have to hunt that one down myself.

For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!

  Molasses To Rum To Slaves

46 thoughts on “Cheating on my book

  1. Cornelia Read

    "exactly the emotional and physical predicament that our CHARACTERS are experiencing at that point of the story… when there is no possible solution to anything in front of them, or us, and we have to have that experience together to get to the final battle. The process is cleverly, sadistically designed that way as part of the magic of storytelling."

    Okay, I am officially printing that out and Xeroxing it backwards and then stapling it to my forehead, so I have to reread it every time I look despairingly in the mirror.

    YOU ARE A GODDAMN GENIUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YEA ALEX!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. billie

    I’m on the last leg of digging out from a very similar scenario – left one book at that critical first draft stage, got two more going, then was completely overwhelmed with the three of them. From one day to the next, it felt like a different one of them was the one to finish first.

    Now I have the last of the three to finish, and about six more jostling in line inside my head. I allow myself to write down notes about the jostlers, but nothing more, because I really don’t want to EVER have this many things going at once again. It’s thrown me completely off my writing rhythm.

    The only positive thing I can say is that I have no pressure from deadlines or the expectations of a readership to consider – which is one of those things that of course would be a GOOD problem to have… 🙂

    On another, deeper level, I suspect I got myself into this multi-book mire because I needed to be here. I just don’t know why yet. In the long run, I do trust The Process!

    And have fun with first person present tense – I worked in that for awhile and loved it to the point that moving to close third person and past tense was like translating another language. Everything I wrote in third came to mind in first/present and then I had to literally convert it to third. Then I went kind of crazy and started converting everything (on the page, no longer inside my head) back and forth just to see what it was like in each person and tense. That was part of this multi-book mire – so now that I think about it maybe I just really needed to roll around in a bunch of different books, in a bunch of different persons and tenses, to learn all the pros and cons of each one.

    I will say when I finally finished one of the books I did it with a freedom of style that I haven’t had before.

    Hmmmm… you always get me thinking about things in a good way – thank you! And have a great weekend.

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    Alexandra, back away from the caffeine. 🙂
    Sounds like you are in the epicenter of an extremely high energy creative storm and all you can do is ride it out. You will look back on this time period with awe and pride.
    This weekend I’ll be working on my Premeditated newsletter. And enjoying a three-day weekend where nothing is otherwise planned. My favorite kind.
    Happy Fourth of July!

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    If it were anyone else but you, Billie, I’d say "What the HELL were you thinking?"

    Only… glass houses, stones, that kind of thing…

    And also, since it is you, I know you never lose sight of the process.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    PK, busted. Yes, caffeine has something to do with it.

    But more, the creative storm is right. I’ve been just so leveled by a lot of personal stuff that I’m finally waking up again, and creativity goes in such cycles, anyway.

    You need to tell us more about the Premeditated Newsletter.

  6. Gayle Carline

    Thank you thank you thank you! I’m about 20,000 words from finishing the latest project – unfortunately, no matter how much I write a day, I still seem to be 20,000 words from the end. I have a book of my newspaper columns that just needs a little tweaking (and a cover) and I could self-pub. I have a short story that I’ve got an idea about marketing and releasing, but it also needs a bit of tweaking. All of these birds in the bush, nothing in the hand, and my brain whirls from project to project, wondering if I should get the tweaklings out of the way first, or finish the novel to let it rest while I tweak. And real life thinks it should continue on as scheduled. Thank you for making me feel like I’m not crazy.

  7. kathy

    You’ll figure out what works for you I’m sure, but for me, the exciting ending to the last creative storm was a truly unexpected twist.
    The story that kept pulling at the back of my sweater was not a new book, but the final part of the first one!
    Turned out that book one was a three parter and I never saw it coming!

    good luck!

  8. Mari Freeman

    Thanks a lot, Alex!

    Ditto Cornelia. How obvious should that be ?

    Now, I have to return to THAT story. Like yours, it’s in first freaking person and the characters and the plot seem completely beyond repair. Must. Dive. Back. In.

    But first!

    Generally, I can’t do the multi-project thing. I have, and will again when the schedule demands it. I think that my mental well being would prefer it if I could be a one-book-woman as much as possible.

  9. PK the Bookeemonster

    Ok you asked. Premediated is a new mystery newsletter I’m starting as a "what would you really love to be doing" kind of thing. It will feature new release crime fiction with summary, excerpt, publication info, and backlist of author for each book released each month. When I’m looking for mysteries to read, I don’t really care about reviews because I don’t care what other people thought of it, I want to know if it’s going to appeal to me, hence the summary and excerpt. My slogo is "Crime fiction planned in advance". I will do a soft release for August for feedback purposes but October’s newsletter will be a freebie in the gift bags at Bouchercon. My only difficulty is finding some excepts from online sources and thus far emails to authors and calls to publicity depts of publishers are going unheeded. Eh, I’m new and unknown. I understand. 🙂 I’m doing this on a spare change budget and on a spare time schedule but it’s a labor of love and so far the Universe hasn’t thrown out any huge obstacles so I’m going for it.

  10. judy wirzberger

    To those of us who work and play over this magnificent holiday, tarry forth with our villians and heroines to some place known only in the less than fertile fields of our imaginations at times, seeds we scatter from our fingertips biblically rest on fallow ground while others roll to the lightless shade of a rock cast aside, others sprout, rise and then shrivel in malnourishment, but lo, a few kissed by sun, dampened by water bloom and grow perhaps only to wither on the vine while others are plucked at the apex of their glory to be consumed by appreciative eyes, heralded in print for their magnificence — guess you can tell i’m procratinating because I don’t have a clue what the next scene is I need to write, and though I’m not as wise as Alex, I can almost outprocrastinate Cornelia, though I wish I had the flirty fun of Louise, the ambition of PK — frig I’m procrastinating again — happy holiday

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – your post feels like it was written in thirty seconds after consuming sixteen cups of coffee…in a good way. A huge burst of energy, and I couldn’t stop reading it, fast, with excited terror.
    Man, I’m taking my books one at a time for now. I don’t really have a choice. I’m writing a Hayden short story right now, something to give away on Kindle to support the release of Beat, and it’s killing me. I just don’t want to write anything now. I want a breather. But forge ahead I must.
    Good luck on the ten books you’re writing. I like the idea of first person, present tense. I know, that’s the last thing you want to hear.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    SJS, the scary thing is – I wrote the post before coffee. Have you ever read Touched with Fire – the Kay Jamison book on writers and mania?

    Actually, everyone should.

    See why I have to dance?

  13. Eika

    A better question is, am I ever working on just one story?

    I find it helps that, when I’m stuck somewhere, I work on something else. If I’m not thinking about it, I make better breakthroughs. It sounds silly, but it works. Editing, on the other hand… can’t do anything else except wonder what was wrong with me for writing that crud.

    Oh. And you say your YA is too dark? I beg to differ. If you have spare reading time, try reading UNWIND by Neal Shusterman. I read it- partly at home, partly at school- and I locked myself in the bathroom for certain parts so I could have privacy while I shook. First thing I said, when I returned it to the school librarian, was, "I can’t believe no one’s banned this yet," and she made it the book of the month. And I was a high school SENIOR.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Elka, thanks, I just ordered it. Interesting premise. My experience is people will accept something darker if it’s outright fantasy or sci fi, but shy away more quickly from something that’s just too real. But I’ll check it out for sure. I really am going to need to have a list of books to say – "But look at _____!!!"

  15. KDJames / BCB

    Alex, you always make me feel so much better. Like it’s okay to be sitting here inside over a gorgeous holiday weekend trying to fix this hot mess of sucky no-talent writing and wondering what the hell was I thinking when I thought I could do this and knowing even if I wrestle it into shape no one else is going to want to read it because it SUCKS and why am I wasting all this time when everyone knows writers are the worst judge of their own writing (yeah, read that on the internet this week and felt SO much better. not) so even the parts I think are pretty good are probably unpublishable dreck that should be fed to a shredder and—

    Then I read this and think, okay, I’m not the only one. Just finish working through this second draft and thank god that Alex is even more screwed up than you are, working on THREE BOOKS AT ONCE! Geez, woman. Although, if anyone can pull that off, you can. Good luck. Thanks for always sharing the crazy.

    [Yeah, so this is my version of staying off the internet all weekend. Ooops. But I needed to read this today. Really.]

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Katherine, you can rest assured that I am even more screwed up than you are.

    On the other hand – we’re no different from any other writer, clearly, and there’s a comfort in that.

    A little Internet is fine. You can stop any time.

  17. Perry

    Absolutely. The only time I don’t cheat on my books is November when I participate in NaNoWriMo. It does take discipline because working on more than one book isn’t an excuse to abandon one when it gets hard.
    The key to making it work for me is to have each book in a different stage.
    Right now,
    1 – waiting for the final critique from my group and then will go into final polish before submitting
    2 – in the process of first revision, adding what’s missing, taking out what’s not useful to the story and tweaking the writing
    3 – on hold until #1 is complete then a complete review to make sure it’s YA focussed
    4 – plotting and planning for NaNo

    Also 4 different genre helps me – yes, I like variety – thriller, mystery, YASF, and urban fantasy.

    Oh, my I’m a book slut.

  18. Alafair Burke

    Stephen King says he cheats on his books, too, so I’d say you’re in pretty good company. Go!

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Sorry that first person is giving you such a hard time. I tried writing Charlie Fox in third person and she just wouldn’t play, but maybe I’ll write something else in third – if for no other reason than perhaps then you might read it ;-]

    I think you talked yourself around to the right answer – if it works, do it. As I discovered a long time ago, sleep is very overrated.

    No holiday weekend for me, but I’m having lurgy time off instead, having arrived home in a fairly tottering state from the US tour on Friday to find water GUSHING out of both doors of our garage.

    But that, as they say, is another story…

  20. PK the Bookeemonster

    I’m surprised, too, at the lack of excerpts online. I’ve checked author sites, publisher sites, googled them, and have come up with nada for about half the authors so far. I just don’t get it. Which, I guess, is why I’m putting this together. I want this kind of resource for myself and maybe others do too. I hadn’t realized there were so many crime fiction novels released each month: between 50 and 90. And the mags/review sites seem to only cover the same handful.
    I’m glad it’s a three-day weekend though and I think I need to find out about your caffeine source. 🙂 Today hasn’t been productive for me.

  21. KDJames / BCB

    Oh good grief — Alex I didn’t mean you’re more screwed up than I am (although I see now that’s exactly what I wrote) (and you’re not, my crazy just has better camouflage) just that it would be so much worse if I were trying to write three books at once. Talented as I am at expressing myself in writing [ahem], what meant to say was that when I’m feeling particularly crazy, I hear your voice telling me it’s okay, all just part of being a writer.

    Zoë! Glad you’re home safely and all that, but I think we need to hear this story.

    Off to look-up "lurgy."

  22. toni mcgee causey

    Yep, C is right — genius. I am stunned by how well you described what I’ve gone through lately. Eerie as hell.

    I cheated on my current WIP with something else, a much bigger/commercial YA idea which isn’t at all like anything I’ve ever written. I may go back to it later, but the current one stepped up (I think that jealous thing is REAL… seriously. Because it was playing hard to get and then when it realized I might just leave it, all of a sudden, bang, it started working.)

    And, the current one is extremely dark. And in first person.

    I sometimes think I’ve lost my mind.

    But, I also think it’s maybe the best thing I’ve ever written, [and the Universe snorted derisively] if I can pull it off, which, honestly, I’m not entirely sure I can, but I have to try, because it’s got me by the throat now. It’s breaking my heart, but I’ve got to write it.

    In about a two months, when I get to the finale, I expect to be a sobbing mess.

  23. JT Ellison

    You’ve nailed it – it’s that 3/4 spot that I always get stuck at too. And then I figure it out and write the remainder in a couple of weeks, with those awesome 5-7K days…You’re a genius, girl. Thanks for putting it all into words for us! And enjoy the creative largess…

  24. Jake Nantz

    Alex – blogged about something similar a while back. totally new direction, what-the-fuck-am-I-doing, and frankly I’m paralyzed in terror. Elvis wrote your books? Hey, I’m one of the very few people who’s read the only book I ever wrote, and I sure as hell hope I didn’t write it, because it’s garbage. And now I have part of a different book (same genre) sitting on my board…mind you it’s been there for 6 months. And I have the shiny new idea working it’s way through my head. Y’know what I’ve got that’s killing me though, don’t you?

    A Blank Page.

    So yeah, I feel your panic, and I am sending you best wishes and blessings to get through it, because I know that’s a safe one for me. I know you’ll get through it (thrice, even), because you’re a great writer. So hugs and good writing!!!

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hey PK

    I know what you mean about excerpts – I put opening chapters and later excerpts of all my books on my site, plus a taster of the short stories. After all, if you don’t know if you like the voice, why would you go any further?

    Oh, and KD – ‘lurgy’ is an unspecified disease. A word popularised on The Goon Show radio programme of the 1960s. I know some rubbish, don’t I?

  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Now, look, Katherine – Perry is even more screwed up than EITHER of us. 4 different genres, Perry? Eek.

    But you have the key, as far as I’m concerned. It’s having projects in different stages that makes multiple projects possible, and even easier.

  27. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Toni, thanks – it’s a relief but not a surprise that you’re going through the same thing. We started at the same time, I think we both have four books out now, and maybe this is just what happens about that time – we’ve hit a certain stride and instead of just riding it, we’re already looking to challenge ourselves.

    It might sound self-punishing on one level, but I think really it’s just natural growth. Good luck with yours, sounds fantastic!!!

  28. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, when I was a script reader I noticed that 3/4’s thing over and over and over again. A lot of people never really solve it – maybe those are the people who don’t agonize over the process as much as we do! 😉

  29. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Alafair, it always seemed to me that Stephen King had about five billion things he was writing at once, but most of them those brilliant short stories. I understand the appeal of shorts for cheating, but I am just not a short story writer. Hence the three full-lengths. Sigh.


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