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OCD in a Writer




I started writing as more than just a way of blogging or the occasional short story in October of 2008. My brother said, “I bet you could write a whole novel.” I took that as a challenge. Within around two weeks, I’d written a whole novel. I took “write what you know” to heart and wrote a romance/mystery about a main character with OCD. I pulled other aspects of it from my life. It wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t hard. When we moved up here to the Puget Sound area from Utah, I had this feeling of “coming home” and of belonging. Sitting in front of a computer and writing was the same way. It was coming home.

All these years of watching people and trying to decipher what their strengths and weaknesses are, picking apart their motives, figuring out their plausibility of being a danger to me or to others–was finally paying off. A lifetime of telling myself stories at night to deal with the insomnia was going to bleed onto the computer and make it onto pages. My dreams were going to be tangible. Plus, I genuinely liked the process of editing and editing again…and editing again.

What could go wrong?

*laughs hysterically*

There’s an aspect of obsessive-compulsive disorder’s behavior that might be more subtle…the obsessive-compulsive part. Obsession as in finding something you can latch onto…and never let go. Compulsion–well, that would involve being driven to complete something. Hang on, I’ve got some counting to do. Be right back.

*time passes*

Okay, I’ve currently written 34 novel-length manuscripts (though I’ll add 2 more by the end of 2015), 25 novellas, and I’m not going to add up the number of short stories though I know it’s over 50. I have so many short stories that I made some available on here (see tab up above.) Most of these novels will never see the light of day–other than some beta readers who like to read whatever I’ve written. In fact, the first novels I wrote are a series of ten books and I call them practice novels–that’s where I learned to write. Even revised, I don’t know that I need to see them published–it was enough to know that I used them to grow.

Malcolm Gladwell describes in one of his books, Outliers, the process of becoming a master in a field. You need to log in 10,000 hours. Those who are good at what they do, have logged in 10,000 hours of blood, sweat, and tears, baby. 10,000 hours of practice.

Okay, I’ve got to do more math. Here, I’ll show my work.

34 x 85,000 (average words in my novel-length manuscripts) = 2,890,000 words (it’s probably more) ÷ 1000 words (the amount of words I can write in an hour on average) = 2, 890 hours of writing novels approximately

34 x 30 hours (estimated amount of research time I do on each novel-length manuscript) = 1020 hours of research

25 x 20,000 (average words in my novellas) = 500,000 words ÷ 1000 words = 500 hours of writing novellas

25 x 8 hours (estimated amount of research time I do on each novella-length manuscript) = 200 hours of research

34 x 5 (average number of revisions I do on novels on my own–I think this is a very conservative estimate for most of them because some of my novels have ten or more doc files) = 170 revisions x 40 hours (the estimated average length of time each revision takes) = 6,800 hours of revision on my novel-length manuscripts (This is actually weirdly accurate. I can write a novel in 10-14 days, but then I spend twice that amount of time, at least, to revise it.)

25 x 3 (average number of revisions I do on my novellas on my own) = 75 revisions x 12 hours (the estimated average length of time each revision takes) = 900 hours

(But, wait, there’s a small little phrase you might have missed in the revision section. “On my own.” I’m an agented and published author. My agent has asked me to do revisions. My editors have had me do revisions–which were sometimes small and, sometimes, not so small. I can’t begin to do the math on that…and that is where the real blood, sweat, and tears are involved. Oh, dudes, leave me naked covered in honey in a field of ants over opening up the dreaded revision “letter.” Those things you thought you did right are not so right…in fact, they don’t make sense. They’re wrong. So wrong. All wrong. Your characters are flat. Your story is words strung together out of order. Up is down. Left is right. Cut this scene. Add this scene. *cries* But, we’ll discount that time because I’m repressing it. Trust me, that tacks on hours.)

So, I’m at 12,310 hours dedicated to practicing my craft. Without including any of the short stories I’ve written. Without including professional revisions. (Each of the Taming the Pack series went through 3 passes  of serious revision, not including copy-editing and galley passes.) (So much blood, sweat, and tears.)

The reality is that I suspect I passed 10,000 about five years into this endeavor. In Outliers, I seem to remember that 10 years was the magic number for many people. In someone with OCD, the process of trying to master an obsession is accelerated because you feel compelled. When I’m writing, I actually can’t stop. If I try to break for sleep, I can’t sleep. I lie awake thinking, “I should really have her do this, say this. If I don’t write this down, I’ll forget it. No, I won’t. But I might. And the wording is just right.” Hours and hours of trying to sleep while planning and plotting scenes and dialogue. I can write an 85,000 word manuscript in two weeks because I just can’t stop writing. It’s a fever in my blood. I write and I write and I write.

I’ve competed in National Novel Writing Month (known affectionately as NaNoWriMo) every November since 2010. During the month, you’re supposed to write 50,000 words. I once finished my 50,000 words in six days, if I remember right. With life intruding, some Novembers, it’s taken me much longer. Sometimes, I haven’t even started until late November. But I’ve “won” every year. In 2012, I was in my own personal hell and escaped into writing. I wrote two novels that month–the first two novels in Taming the Pack.

Being a writer with OCD means, for me, that I’m obsessive at every level of the development of a manuscript. I have to write–I can’t stop. I have to research–it can’t be wrong–I can’t be wrong. I have to revise it–no one can see it before it’s perfect. I go on media black-outs where I can’t watch anything or read anything until I finish a project so that it doesn’t ruin the voice of the narrative and set me back. I’m working on a revision of a series set in the south right now. I’m in it so deep that I have a southern accent at times. (It’s adorable. *headslap*) I haven’t seen the last two Doctor Who episodes because it threw off my accent for twenty-four hours each time I watched an episode. I’ve been on a relaxed media black-out for three weeks now. (I watch some things with no accents and no paranormal elements.) (No fiction reading–at all.)

I’m not including the read-throughs I do periodically on my Kindle, searching for typos and inconsistencies. I have a series of books called the Honor series. In the last three months, as I’m preparing to write the eighth book for NaNoWriMo, I’ve read each of the books in the series through three times–highlighting corrections needed every time. I might read them a fourth time before I tackle NaNoWriMo so I can get the voice right as it’s in first person. This is almost a dirty, little secret level of obsessiveness because this isn’t unusual for me. I read through at least half of my novels and novellas every year–sometimes several times a year. They have to be right. Do you know how much they have to be right?

And all of this doesn’t include what happens outside of the time I spend hunched over my laptop or a Kindle working on my own manuscripts. There’s marketing. There’s blogging. There’s social media–which is NOT about pushing an agenda but takes up time and can relate to being a writer. There’s all the querying and submitting. There’s emailing. There’s blog tours for releases. This. That. The other.

And all these hours upon hours and do you know what? If someone said that I’ve put in my 10,000 hours and I’m now a master of writing, I’d laugh at them. I’m better than I was, sure. I cringe sometimes when I read my old stuff. I’ve had more practice than other writers, but I still wouldn’t presume to say I’m better–other than possibly at a technical level and only compared to some authors. Some people like what I write, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s “good.” And it will never be good enough. My writing will always need improvement. I’ll never feel qualified to give advice to other writers–so I’ll always do it semi-apologetically with the caveat “this is what I’ve learned.” I still think of myself as a writer not an author. There’s a difference there–that I can’t bridge. I’m still just a storyteller, spinning a story, late at night–for myself. Now, I’m also writing it down and sometimes it’s being published.

In 2008, when I opened that doc file to begin a novel titled, far too appropriately, A Little Crazy Talk, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. When I agreed with people who read it that maybe I ought to try to get my work published, I had no concept of what being on display–with sharing me–would do to my psyche. I pour myself into these characters. The final book in the Taming the Pack series–where the heroine has PTSD–I feel like my heart is on my sleeve and I’m saying “am I okay? Is this okay?”

I feel like I’ve put something of myself into every character just before I shove them out into the world and ask them to justify my place in society. Even the villains–they’re me–they’re some deeply buried part of me. I get them. I can get inside their heads–they must be me, right? There’s a level of exposure that I never anticipated. During my more lucid and rational moments, I can see how none of them are me–that’s there’s a detachment and a separate personality, but it doesn’t help my feeling of exposure. My secrets are on display now. Twenty-four hours a day. Heck, you can pay for them. (Actually, seriously, go pay for them.)

This is my level of absorption. I get so immersed in the worlds that when I finish writing or a revision, I go through a bizarre form of a culture shock as I try to get back into the real world. I’ve quoted my characters in conversations because I forget that they’re not real people. I’ve referred to characters as “someone I know” and then I’ll realize they did something or said something because I created it.

Like many things associated with a mental health disorder, writing takes on an unhealthy hue. I write because I can’t stop. I revise because it has to be right. I keep going because I don’t have a choice. When someone says to me that they wish they had time to write like I do…I don’t. I carve the time out of my life. When someone says that they wish they could finish novels as fast as I do…they don’t. They probably enjoy sleeping…sometimes. Being a writer is like drowning…and, yet, I love it. And actual writing makes me happier. My husband is always glad to see me buried in writing because I’m in a place where I love to be.

This is what writing is like with OCD. Writing is like going home and staying there and never wanting to leave. And, maybe, most writers are a little crazy.

**If you or someone you love has obsessive-compulsive disorder, a medical professional would be able to give you more specific help and guidance. Nothing I’ve said can replace seeking help or should be construed as advice. Wait, wait, wait…I take that back. If your life calling isn’t to be a writer, don’t be a writer. There are better ways to destroy your psyche and sift away your soul. Go be like a super villain. I think they get paid more. Okay, I’m kidding. But, seriously, be safe and be well and seek help if you need it. (Prior to becoming a writer if possible.) This post is based on my own experiences and my interaction with others diagnosed with OCD.**

4 Responses so far.

  1. If I’m obsessive about anything in my world, it would be how “Perfect” my writing needs to me. And it’s not. Every submission that requires multiple edits reinforces that truth for me.

    I don’t know if I have my 10,000 hours in yet (even after two years of full-time writing) and I only call myself an author because my cousin will scowl and make me feel guilty if I don’t. Writing is my passion. Writing is my obsession. It is never done. Every read-through reveals new errors. Which is why I don’t re-read my stories after I send them out.

    Thanks for this illuminating series on OCD. I have worked with many students who had OCD in some form or another. I wish I had read all this before I dealt with them. And I saw a little of myself in these posts. But the difference – I can stop. If I can make myself want to.

    Thanks for your transparency. And for pouring your heart onto every page of every story you write. And yet, you see how you still have a big heart? With some much left to give?

    • You’re welcome and thank you for commenting. I think you’re probably closer to your 10,000 hours than you think, but that you’ll never feel like you’ve arrived…sort of like me. That’s the problem when you’re searching for the elusive “perfect writing.” I don’t re-read my published works. I couldn’t handle it if I found something in them. If I have to reread a manuscript for series continuity, I read the galley print and convince myself that any typos I found were ones I corrected. It’s sad, but I still have to sleep at night.

  2. Rosie says:

    It is amazing how you got into this, and kudos to your brother for suggesting it to you! So far, I haven’t enjoyed my experiences with writing that much, as far as any creative writing classes I’ve had, and I would dread those revision letters, too. When I was younger, I was into art for many years, and would have that ‘get totally lost’ in it experience. I would think your writing would be great for magazine articles, too.

    • I think writing isn’t for everyone. Just like rock-climbing isn’t for everyone. What brings us joy is so individualized. And reading can be as much an escape for me as writing so there’s value in both ways of enjoying the written word. And getting “lost” in anything is a beautiful thing. It transcends the human experience.

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