Slow. When my daytime job becomes intense, writing steps back. Jaysin’s Song has only grown by 5,000 words in a fortnight, and only by pinch-hitting paragraphs at a time.
I’ve been asked over the years how I manage to sustain writing against the background of everything else, especially in the early 2000s when I was teaching and working part-time for the IBO, undertaking a PhD, coaching and playing volleyball and completing projects for HarperCollins. Long nights, very little sleep, and not many of the simple pleasures people do to fill their leisure time. It was ultimately unsustainable. I dropped the PhD when HarperCollins offered the Amber Legacy contract, and eventually dropped the IBO work. Nevertheless, anyone who has worked in education knows education roles in themselves, done well, are 60+ hours a week employment commitment and mentally exhausting, so sustaining writing in that environment is challenging enough. How do I manage it?
First, I do plan a novel’s structure and story arc. In the early years, learning the craft, I would meticulously plan the sequence of chapters from start to finish so that I had a journey map to follow. This meant that whenever other matters intruded or required more time, I could step out of writing and step back in knowing where I was at in a project. In recent times, I map with less detail, but I do retain an overview of key moments to make the story work – a rough plot guide basically. For example, in the current project, although I haven’t reached these points yet, I know Jaysin does have to be challenged in prison, he does have to reach the Empress, he does have to establish his own identity, he does have to make a choice between family or the Empire and power etc etc (without giving away too much here). I also know, as written in previous blogs, that I have to manage this within thirty chapters or around 100,000 words.
Second, if I am writing and I need to break for sleep, work, functions and events, travel, visitors and so on, I stop the writing either at the start, or in the middle, of a significant story event. This might be a confrontation, a fight or battle (action of any kind), a conversation, and sometimes a chapter opening. The reasoning is simple. For me, it’s much easier to slip back into the mood and intent of a piece if it has an established dynamic. There is also less for me to re-read to re-ignite the writing moment. Instead of trawling back through perhaps an entire chapter to remember what I was doing, or wading through notes, I can get straight into writing and the bonus is the interrupted scene is completed and I get some immediate personal satisfaction.
Third, reflection. Just as many people have worries and concerns and hopes and challenges swirling in their heads during every day – as I do – I also have writing doing the same in my head. It’s like having a music track playing in the background as you do something else. My music background is writing. It churns away, formulating, considering possibilities, even as I go about daily work and other activities. The only time it intrudes without invitation is if I walk into a bookshop. Then it explodes and all I want to do is get home and get on with my projects. Basically, I rarely stop thinking about the project I’m working on.
Fourth – and the hardest – is being ruthless with everyone else about writing moments. For example, as I’m writing this blog, my partner, her mum and a neighbour are sitting in the garden, in the sun, drinking coffee, eating cake, laughing and enjoying the moment. And I’m here, writing. I have to discipline myself to be at the keyboard, and – as weird or wrong as it might sound – I have to discipline those around me to let me do this. Writing does mean choosing when to write and when to play, because it is much easier to have the coffee, read the book, watch the tv show, go for a drive and so on. Weekends, I demand an equivalent of a day to write. If we socialise throughout Saturday, then Sunday for me is for writing. If we split socialisation across both days, then the morning of one and maybe the afternoon of the other is for writing. During the week, the evenings are divided accordingly. Life is full of changes and inconstancies, and so I can’t have inflexible writing times (as much as I would like to), but I do have to be demanding about having writing time some time in the week.
Way back in 1993, I took three months off work and wrote The Last Wizard. The same length sequel last year in Chasse’s Song took most of seven months to complete the first draft. This year, Jaysin’s Song, has taken three months to reach a third of its planned length, so the process has slowed significantly because of interrupted time. Hopefully, the strategies I’ve employed over the years will enable me to have this draft done by October in readiness to begin the fourth book.
Blog done. I have writing to do!
Make a saving throw...
Sometimes tech just doesn’t play nice – or more accurately, I wasn’t vigilant. Part of the last two weeks has been devoted to expanding the Kermakkian culture that Jaysin is entering on his quest to find his brother Chasse. This involves:
The above takes time and recording, which is where last week’s disaster comes in. The document I developed didn’t save, did it? Correction – I didn’t save the document. Rookie error. I get to start some of that work again. At least I can now improve on the original concepts.
I’ve been asked what I do to keep work safe during the writing process, especially as I create novels entirely on a digital device (ever since 1989!!). So, I write on a document stored on a cloud service that is saving constantly (except last week’s effort where I worked locally – doh!) At the close of every writing session, I also save the work to three backup hard drives – one on my device, one that acts as a time machine automatic backup and one on a separate hard drive. Basically, I need four sources to fail to lose work. I take one hard drive with me when I leave the house, in case the computer is ever stolen. And last week was proof that if you ever get distracted or don’t concentrate you can still lose work.
The current draft has moved close to 35,000 words. Jaysin’s character is being challenged by different events, currently leading to his entrapment and sale into slavery. This week’s aim is to help him escape his predicament. Again, I have several options:
Dilemmas and choices...
The central character in the current project, Jaysin, exhausted in his search for his brother, camps in the early pre-dawn hours in a small glade. Certain events and circumstances surround his situation. He found an abandoned wolf pup and is attempting to care for it. Kermakkian soldiers – the enemy – were seen on the road. Because the soldiers are on the move, there is a chance his brother, Chasse, is in serious trouble. Unable to stay awake, Jaysin falls asleep. When he wakes, he sees a figure moving through the trees, and then another, and realises he is surrounded by soldiers. The wolf pup, frightened by the humans, creeps toward Jaysin. A Kermakkian soldier takes crossbow aim on the pup.
So, here’s the dilemma – for the writer. How will Jaysin react? What will be the consequences of his reaction? He has arcane ability, but he’s no warrior. What will be the best choice for moving the story forward?
Plot-wise, ultimately, I must have Jaysin reach the capital city. Although this incident in the story is long before the endpoint, Jaysin’s identity and reputation among the Kermakkians might be influenced by what happens.
I see these options laid out in the situation:
The writing process is a constant interplay of possibilities and myriad outcomes from every moment and action and interaction that is created. I need Jaysin to be ‘true to character’ in the situation above and yet it also presents a moment for character growth – an opportunity for the character self-realisation – and an event where the reader might see something in the character they had not previously been privy to.
This week was a slow writing week, the draft only gaining an additional 3,000 words as it moved into the eighth chapter. As always, finding time to write was a challenge, but the bigger challenge this week was deciding character fate. So many possibilities – so many outcomes…
Writing is my passion. Ideas, opinions, beliefs, experiences expressed through language - through words and images - pervade and create my life. Writing is my voice, my soul, my self. My dream is one day writing will sustain my life...