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My novel is half-empty…

Or at least that’s how it nearly always feels when I reach the halfway stage.

One of the reasons for this is that I tend to use word-count landmarks as a psychological trick to keep me positive. Usually, by the time I’m ready to start a novel’s first draft I have a pretty good idea how long the draft is likely to be: in my mind there are clear differences between an idea that’s going to be an 80,000 word novel and one that will need 120,000.

So, with a 100,000 word novel, at the end of day one I’d usually be a fiftieth of the way in; then a twenty-fifth; and it won’t be long before I’m a tenth of the way in and suddenly it feels like I’m making real progress. The fact that I still have 90,000 words to go doesn’t seem so daunting when I tell myself I’ve written a whole tenth of it already.

It’s great to have written a quarter of a novel, a third. And at the halfway point you know that from here on in you’re always going to be closer to the end than the start.

But then the landmarks fizzle out.

Being 55% of the way into a novel just doesn’t seem noteworthy. So suddenly I’ve gone from ticking off the landmarks to having nothing on the horizon apart from the long slog home.

The other side of this is that it is a slog. As I’ve already written here, writing a novel when you have a demanding day job and lots of other commitments is hard work. In the early stages you have the adrenalin-rush, but by the time you reach halfway you just have to keep going, chipping away at it, finding ways to keep yourself feeling positive.

For me, passing halfway is the toughest part of a novel first draft. I’m exhausted, I’ve been intensely immersed in this thing for months, I’m getting impatient to just have the whole thing down in print (or at least in an electronic file).

alt.human by Keith Brooke (Solaris, 2012)I passed the halfway stage of my current novel, alt.human, two or three weeks ago and still had the momentum, but then I hit that novel-half-empty point last week. I’d had a good three-day writing burst, but then went away to a conference for a week, where I had almost no opportunity to work on the novel, other than a 500-word burst on the first day. The following weekend was tough: dragging out barely more than a couple of thousand words in all. It didn’t help that the gap coincided with a natural break point in the novel, which made it harder to pick up again.

I still had something like 30,000 words to go and I was floundering. The stress in the day job was piling on. My health was suffering. I seriously thought I might have to put the whole thing aside and come back to it in a month or two, regardless of deadlines.

And then I got tough with myself. Yesterday was my first real chance of a writing day in a couple of weeks. I woke with a migraine, not a good start. I took painkillers, waited for it to ease, and then just sat down to write. Slowly – so slowly! – I picked up the pace, got past that natural break point and into the next section. I hit a couple of thousand words, which was pretty damned good considering the amount of reading and editing I’d had to do in order to get going.

That was enough for the day, so I stopped.

And then I did that writer’s trick of starting a new session after a bit of a break. Anything I wrote in that session would be a bonus, and I was delighted to hit 3000 words for the day. (See? I still use landmarks to gee myself along. It works for me. It works for lots of writers: a way of convincing us that we’re making progress in something that edges along in relatively tiny increments.)

Suddenly I find myself within about 20-25,000 words of the end and my novel’s no longer half-empty. It’s pretty damned full and suddenly I believe again that I’m going to get this draft finished quite soon.

Most authors would argue that a writer’s life is a pretty good one: we make up stuff and write it down. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s pretty tough too: if it’s not difficult, we’re not doing it right.

I do love it when the writing comes easy, but I appreciate it when it’s tough, too.

And I’m so glad that I’m safely past the half-empty stage!

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]

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