Writing strategies in difficult times

I’m loving working on my current novel, alt.human. It’s what I’m thinking of as extreme trad SF, a gritty story crammed full of aliens and big ideas, and quite unlike anything I’ve written before.

But it ain’t exactly coming easily…

In real life, my day job consists of five days’ worth of hours crammed into four long days. The job is demanding at the best of times, but right now we’ve been put under ridiculous pressure and the cracks are starting to show. It’s incredibly hard to step away from it and switch off: I’m stressed and angry, I’m not sleeping, and instead I lie there with my head full of day-job crap. When I manage to get a writing day, it’s hard to immerse myself in the novel and forget about all the other stuff. The novel itself isn’t helping: by its nature it’s full of ideas and multiple strands and characters and species that I need to hold in my head. It’s possibly the hardest novel I’ve ever tried to write.

And this isn’t unusual: most writers have other jobs too. Most of them have lives. I’m not pleading a special case: “Look at how hard it is for me to be creative, dahling!”

So how do we do it? What’s the secret of juggling it all?

The answer, of course, is that there is no secret. It’s more a case of having a toolkit, a portfolio of strategies and tricks that can help you get on and write, even under the most trying of circumstances. Other writers have it much harder than I do.

I had it easy when I started out. I went straight from university to writing full-time. I had the luxury that I could shut myself away in complete peace and quiet, for hours on end, and just write. I acquired such bad habits from that! If I didn’t have at least two or three hours free for it I didn’t feel I could write. If I couldn’t find absolute peace and quiet, I couldn’t write. I didn’t quite reach the stage of being unable to perform unless I had a bowl of orange M&Ms, but it wasn’t far off.

I had to learn it all over again when circumstances forced me to find a day job.

I had to learn that even if my head was full of crap, when I sat down at my computer I could force myself to lose myself in the world of my story, and everything else would recede. I had to learn that two or more hours free was a luxury, not a necessity: you can do a lot in half an hour; if I’m in full flow, I can sit down for half an hour and produce 500 words; if I’m not in full flow I can do some editing, make some notes, anything to help lodge the story in my head again.

If I have ten minutes while I’m waiting for other people to turn up for a meeting, I can get my phone out and start making notes on my work in progress. If I don’t have anything to make notes about? I ask myself questions. How well do I know my protagonist? That scene I’ve just written: how can I go back into it and twist the perspective, make it sharper, make it different and deeper?

On lunchbreaks, with the wonders of high-speed internet and cloud computing I can open up my work in progress and write a couple of hundred more words. Or fifty more words. Sometimes just re-reading and adding a sentence or two can make all the difference in keeping the story in my head for when I can come back for a longer writing session.

Right now I’m at the halfway point in alt.human and I’m stepping back from it. Because of the bitty nature of my writing sessions over the past few months I know there are lots of loose threads, lots of sparks of ideas that I’ve made a note to go back and further develop. So before my ragged band of protagonists set off into part two I’m going right back to the start to work on all the bits that would benefit from enriching, pushing harder, digging deeper. And as I go, I’m making notes for part two.

I’m a word counter. On a full writing day I’m disappointed if I don’t get well past 2000 words of new material. So spending writing time on this revisiting – fixing and researching my own material – seems incredibly unproductive. At the end of the day my word count might be minus 200, or zero, or six. It doesn’t exactly feel like progress.

But it is: the story’s in my head again. All the little details in part one that might flourish into sub-plots in part two; all the deepening of what’s gone before, making what’s to come all the more vivid even before I’ve written it.

Apart from anything else: it’s one hell of a confidence boost. Writing in difficult times, when life’s knocking the stuffing out of you, isn’t easy; it makes it hard to believe in what you’re doing. There’s one scene I’ve just edited that has done me a world of good: a kaleidoscope of the alien, a bombardment of images and impressions. When I reached that scene I started to believe in the world of my story again.

There are lots of ways to keep momentum going in a long piece of work, but sometimes stepping back from it is more effective than plunging ever onwards.

I’ve now posted a follow-up to this: How to fit writing into a busy life (writing strategies, part two) [Added, 6 July]


About Keith Brooke and infinity plus

Keith Brooke is a writer of science fiction, fantasy and other strange stuff, and editor and reviewer of same. He is also the publisher at infinity plus, an independent imprint publishing books by leading genre fiction authors. View all posts by Keith Brooke and infinity plus

9 responses to “Writing strategies in difficult times

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