Friday, March 13

Facing Dark Times as a Writer

By Ilsa J. Bick, @ilsajbick

Part of the How They Do It Series

Writing can be a tough business, and most writers will go through bumpy patches at some point in their career (even the pros). On the bright side, it happens to all of us, so we can take comfort in knowing that dark times don't last and others know what we're going through. Ilsa J. Bick visits the lecture hall today to share her story, and offers a little insight into getting past the dark times.

Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, film scholar, surgeon wannabe, former Air Force major, and now an award-winning author of dozens of short stories and novels, including her critically acclaimed ASHES Trilogy, Draw the Dark, Drowning Instinct, and The Sin-Eater’s Confession. WHITE SPACE, the first volume of her Dark Passages horror/fantasy duology, is currently long-listed for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a YA Novel. The sequel, THE DICKENS MIRROR, will hit shelves on March 10, 2015.

Ilsa lives with her long-suffering husband and other furry creatures near a Hebrew cemetery in rural Wisconsin. One thing she loves about the neighbors: they’re very quiet and only come around for sugar once in a blue moon.

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Take it away Ilsa...

The thing about being a shrink is you spend a ton of time navel-gazing, mostly so you don’t mess up your patients. Even though I don’t practice anymore, I still try to understand what makes me tick and so I’ve been mulling over this very strange dark time in my writing life that began mid-last year.

Here’s what happened: after I finished THE DICKENS MIRROR, the sequel to WHITE SPACE, I couldn’t find another book in me to write.

No, I can hear you through the paper: I see you fine; and you’re wrong: it wasn’t writer’s block. I wrote; I wrote plenty. Pages and pages and pages.

My problem was that I couldn’t finish the books. Not a one. There was simply no end in sight for a single bloody novel.

That’s not to say that I didn’t try. When I began THE DICKENS MIRROR, I was about a third of the way through another book I thought I believed in. Before that, I’d actually abandoned yet another book to do WHITE SPACE. Yes, perhaps that’s strange—all this slotting of disparate books in between series—but I do this to give myself a break and get some distance. I know that other people write their series all at once, but not me. I think it’s because I worry that I’ll get stale. There’s only so much time you can spend with the same characters and not eventually think, Die already.

My experience also is that there’s something to be said for letting a book age and ripen and get a little stinky, like a runny limburger. Distance is good. For example, the Ilsa J. Bick who wrote THE SIN-EATER’S CONFESSION in 2010 is not the same Ilsa who came back to the novel for edits in mid-2013. I had learned an awful lot in the interim, and I actually tore that thing up and rewrote huge swathes, something my then-editor noticed (obviously) but never said word one about until just recently. But he could see how I’d matured as a writer, and he liked what he saw. My guess is he kept mum so as not to interfere with the process.

So, anyhoo . . . here I am, writing the first book in a new series, and then I break off to do WHITE SPACE. I write it; I turn it in. I figure, great, I’ll go back to my other book that I’d already outlined in very broad strokes for my editor. He was interested and I was excited to get back to work.

Except then . . . my editor comes back at me with the edits for WHITE SPACE in record time. We’re talking only a couple weeks. That was . . . unusual. I mean, really unusual. Normally, I could count on several months. Now I didn’t say anything to my editor about how unusual this was. I only noted it. Did my edits, turned the book around again, thought, Okay, now back to that other book.

Only then . . . I get this phone call.

In a recent post, I said that when your editor’s on caller ID, there are only a limited number of reasons why, especially if the edits are in, you’ve gotten the check, and you’re pretty sure you haven’t just hit The New York Times bestseller list. This kind of call is usually bad news: i.e., someone’s leaving. By then I’d had my share of bad news and good-byes, including the departure of my publisher, whom I not only adored but who, from the get-go, understood what that strange little book, WHITE SPACE, was all about.

What I wasn’t prepared for was my editor breaking the news that he was leaving.

To date, I have said that I was . . . upset. Well, that is a lie.

I was devastated.

If you have the good fortune to work with an editor who understands what you’re about; who champions your work; who is so open to quirky ideas and interesting marketing schemes (we’d actually discussed a really nifty web-based idea); who shows such care when he makes any critique and will go to bat for you if you make your case for why something has to be a certain way; who never once worried about length but encouraged you to always tell the story and let the rest sort itself out . . . if you have worked with and then lose someone like that, well, let me tell you: it’s pretty damned awful. Knowing he was there, waiting to get his hands on the next book, really helped get through some of the rougher patches with my other books.

Because I know this about myself: I work best to deadline. I love having someone checking his watch and tapping his foot and saying, Nu? When I’m under contract, I know when a book has to be in, and I deliver—and I almost always deliver early.

But now, all of a sudden . . . I had no editor. There was no one waiting for THE DICKENS MIRROR. Hell, there was no one waiting, period, because it took many months for the house to hire a new editor.

In the interim, I didn’t work on DICKENS. My heart wasn’t in it. Looking back, I was probably in mourning—and denial, too.

Instead, I tried to go back and work on other books . . . but they just wouldn’t gel. As I said, I could write; words came; I made my page limits. But nothing was holding together. I couldn’t get anything done. Even after a new editor came on the scene and I got DICKENS in by a new deadline . . . boy, there’s nothing like a drop-dead date to get my butt in gear . . . afterward, nothing new wanted to finish itself.

I first blamed it on the fact that DICKENS took a lot out of me. Seeing as how it was my first stab at historical fiction (blended with horror and fantasy), I fumbled a bit, figuring out how much research I really needed, how slavishly I had to hew to established fact, that kind of thing. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages; I made several false starts; there was more blood on the floor from all those dead words than you can imagine. In the end, I spent five months writing the book, which is an obscene amount of time for me.

So I was a bit worn out. But that doesn’t explain why new books wouldn’t come; why I couldn’t go back to what I’d begun and—nu—finish already.

In retrospect, I think I sensed that something much bigger and much worse was going down with my publishing house. I don’t know how I knew; don’t ask me particulars because I can’t tell you. But I was extremely uneasy. I tried to pretend that everything was fine, but I knew it wasn’t. My husband knew something was wrong with me. A good pro-writer friend of mine wondered what the hell was going on because I wasn’t having fun anymore. I was stressed; I bowed out of a writers’ workshop I know now that I should’ve gone to. (Thank God, the organizer is a friend who’s both known me a long time and not above putting his boot in my ass.) But I was just that stressed, and I didn’t want to have answer any questions about how things were going and what I was working on now. Most of the time, I was wrestling with dread because I had this sense that I was watching a slow-motion train wreck that was my publishing house.

I obviously picked up on something because then the house went up for sale, and I was . . . uh-oh. When I got the news that Egmont USA was closing for good, I will be honest: it was awful and yet I also felt a little the way I used to when responding to the seventh code of the same patient (something that really happened, btw): a sense of crap, could I have done anything more or better to save this poor man as well as . . . relief. Like, okay, I did the best I could—heck, with Egmont, I hadn’t done anything wrong; in fact, I had no control whatsoever over anything—but, at least, it’s really over.

In fairness, I don’t believe that only uncertainty kept me spinning my wheels, but it played a part. Once the announcement was made—once the patient was dead and a good friend gave me a swift kick—I got down to business. As it happened, I had budgeted time to do a short story I’d promised for an anthology. So I went at it with a will, determined to finish by the deadline I’d set.

I made it. This may seem trivial to you—I mean, heavens, we’re talking about a story—but I felt this a tremendous sense of accomplishment: Yes, I do know how to do this and do it well. It helped that the editor, another writer I greatly admire and respect, said the story kicked some serious butt.

Two days after turning that in, I went back to a book I’d half-finished, dusted it off, tore it up, re-outlined the sucker . . . and for the past month, that’s what I’ve been working on, and the story is coming. It has a shape; I know how it must end. I’m not aiming to write a blockbuster; I’m only about telling a good story at this point, and finishing. Moreover, I’m excited about this book; I want to see how it ends; every morning now, I wake up thinking about what scenes I’ll write today and adjustments I should make.

And I’ve set myself a deadline. That always worked for me before because—before I had an editor—there was, really, only me: my drive, my ambition, my story I must get out of my system before I go crazy.

I don’t think I’m completely clear of the dark times. I feel tenuous and a little shaky. But at the risk of sounding hackneyed, I honestly do see light at the end of that proverbial tunnel.

Now, to get there, to get there, to get there.

About The Dickens Mirror

Critically acclaimed author of The ASHES Trilogy, Ilsa J. Bick takes her new DARK PASSAGES series to an alternative Victorian London where Emma Lindsay continues to wade through blurred realities now that she has lost everything: her way, her reality, her friends. In this London, Emma will find alternative versions of her friends from the White Space—and even Arthur Conan Doyle.

Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead. Eric, the perfect boy she wrote into being, and his brother, Casey, are lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends—find Eric—again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up—or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad.

In this London, Tony and Rima are “rats,” teens who gather the dead to be used for fuel. Their friend, Bode, is an attendant at Bedlam, where Elizabeth has been committed after being rescued by Arthur Conan Doyle, a drug-addicted constable.

Tormented by the voices of all the many characters based on her, all Elizabeth wants is to get rid of the pieces under her skin once and for all. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma—who’s blinked to this London before—to emerge as the dominant personality…because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror.

But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can’t find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows—what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages—will die with her.

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