Taking time off from writing

I’m going on holiday. I’ll be away and then I’ll return, probably tired, but hopefully sun-kissed and relaxed. I can’t quite decide whether to pack one pair of flip flops or two. If we were going to Tennessee again, I’d definitely pack two. But we’re going to Winchester. Maybe one pair’s enough.

I’ve learned, the hard way, that a holiday is a holiday and not a time for hard work or achievement. The principles of  relaxation and attention on your loved ones and personal achievement clash spectacularly if you try to combine them. Each to their own, they are laudable and create happiness. Together, they are a guilt and stress cocktail that ensure that you come home frazzled and dissatisfied with yourself, your work, and the people you wanted to spend time with.

I say I’ve learned.

I’m writing this to the irritating sound of my printer printing the last two thirds of the first-ish draft of my novel. I am really, really close to finishing the thing but I need another read-through. Not of the whole novel, this time, just the bits less polished or missing.

Yes. I’m taking my manuscript on holiday. And I intend to read it. But it’s OK:  there are no goals associated with the print-out, no expectations.

I just packed sticky index notes (in fluorescent colours). Still. No expectation. I know better.

This is a holiday.

Writing is a lonely business: writing friends help

You write on your own. There are writers who collaborate, but most of us sit on our own at our desks, doing what we do. We write, of course, a lot, but we also think a lot and do a good amount of research. These are not social activities. Hamish, a writer friend of mine, maintains that writing is a selfish activity and that you have to be single-mindedly selfish to find the time to write when you’ve got a full-time job, family and friends. I think he’s right. Writing’s an obsessive occupation and obsessions are all about the self.

Personally, I don’t think I could take myself seriously if it was just me, all alone in a creative sea, swimming in whichever direction I fancy that moment. I need feedback and support, some kind of direction.

Enter writing buddies.

The Importance of Being Edited

Editing is the part of writing that takes your flabby text and trims it into something that works. If the original idea is good enough, editing makes it shine.

Some people, like my friend Hamish and writer Gail Carriger, enjoy editing. Drafting is a rough activity, like cutting a form from a block of marble. Editing lets you file off the rough edges, polish surfaces and make your prose shine. Unfortunately, I don’t like editing much. It’s slow. It reminds me of planning dinner parties: I want to come up with the menu, do the shopping or cook the food – not all three. It’s like having the meal three times over. I lose interest. (In the food, not the dinner party itself.)

Editing is inevitable, however. At first, when I realised that I spend two or three hours editing for every hour I spend writing, I thought there’s be a way of cutting down on editing. If my first drafts were better, editing would be faster. If my ideas were more thoroughly thought out, my first draft would be better. The conclusion to my thought experiment was that to edit less, I needed to write less. On the one hand, that is true: less text, fewer changes. But on the other hand, writing less means producing fewer stories and not learning the lessons that each teaches me. My aim is to write more, not less.

Fiction writing is very different from the technical writing I’ve been doing for years. There, the structure is everything. You work out the structure, do the research and fill in the words. It’s easy. To me, writing fiction is still difficult. There are so many possible structures, voices and approaches, so many different words to choose between. Editing helps me pick the right ones.

I might not much like the process of editing, but  I do like the effect it has on my text.

Finishing: therein lies stories.

I read something the other day – a snippet of freely given internet advice – which said something like “don’t start anything until you’ve finished what you’re working on now”.

Good advice.

But a lot more difficult to follow than you might think.

The way I work, I have several projects on at the same time. Some are very short, some are longer and some are novel lenght. (I boast. This year is the first time I’ve got one of those on the go. I have yet to finish one outside of NaNoWriMo.) I have an idea, I take some notes, let it steep and ferment and then I write a draft. Then I leave it for a while – sometimes a very long while – before reading it and performing surgery. Once it’s in some kind of shape, it goes to my first reader for feedback. A brief hiatus follows.

After first reader, I make changes to the piece before sending it to a writers group or friendly editor (second review).  Then it sits. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for months. When I finally pick it up again, it is to do a final edit. The final edit isn’t as final as it sounds. It can take several rounds to get to the  final-final version. And even that isn’t really final.

I send the story out and depending on what comes back, I might make further changes before sending the story out a second time. And so it goes.

What was the advice again?

Don’t start anything before you’ve finished what you’re working on.

When you get going, coming up with ideas is a lot easier than finishing stories. Ideas take seconds; finishing a story takes hours, days and weeks.

For this year, I set myself the task of completing one story a month. I’m two months behind and I have eight stories on the go. One is on the concept stage, meaning, I’ve got notes and ideas but I haven’t written words yet. Three have some words, but not their full complement. One has been read by my first reader and the remaining three have been reviewed by my writers groups. If I sat down and finished editing those three I would catch up on my goal. Easy peasy. There are a host of reasons for why I don’t, not one of them particularly good.

It’s not always possible to work on only one thing at a time. Take my word for it: I freelance. External deadlines are useful to force you to finish things. Unfortunately, some of my works in progress don’t have markets, never mind deadlines. So I make excuses, allow myself to lose insterest and move off to other projects. To some extent, I think that’s OK. Not everything I write is worth finishing. Some of it wasn’t worth starting in the first place. That’s part of what this year is about: learning where to put my efforts. Still, the things that are sitting there, twice reviewed, I clearly like well enough to finish.

So I should finish them. Because drafts can’t be published.

Sharing what you write: terror and joy

When I started writing I told myself, and everyone around me, that it was for my own enjoyment. I lied. I write because I think it is fun, yes, but I edit because I want to be read. If I just wrote for me, I wouldn’t edit. I’d approach my writing as    as a teenager: churn out a story, feel pleased, put it in a folder and move on. But I don’t. I get an idea, plan it, write it, read it, edit it, read it again, ask for feedback and edit some more. The stories that I complete are good enough that I dare send them to publishers for their consideration.

Sending out, sharing my writing, is scary. Clicking the Send button on a submission still gives me a nervous butterflies-in-tummy feeling.

For the last 15 years I’ve worked as a technical writer and copywriter. I’ve received a lot of criticism, ranging from constructive to counterproductive. Dealing with feedback from a wide range of people, from managers and clients, people who can write and people who can’t, has taught me to deal with the fact that not everyone is going to like what I write or how I write it. Of course, when you write instructions, personal taste isn’t that much of an issue but when you write fiction, personal taste is everything. Once the grammar, spelling and punctuation is correct (or at least consistent) and the story follows it’s own internal logic, nothing stands between the reader and the story. They can engage with your characters, environments and plots, unless there’s something in your writing that turns them off.

It is OK if not all readers like my stories. They aren’t aimed at all readers. But I want some readers to like my stories and it’s the fear that they won’t that makes me nervous when I send something out. I’m learning to invest myself in my stories differently. Previously, my writing was me until the moment I handed it over to someone else to read. Then the writing was rubbish. Now, a story is something I wrote and if someone doesn’t like it, I can live with that. If they tell me why they didn’t like it, I’ll even be grateful. It’s taken time, but I now only get nervous when I submit to publishers. Sending things to friends, family or writing groups for fun or feedback no longer makes me want to hide behind the sofa.

It turns out that sharing my writing is a little bit like writing itself: it gets easier with practice.

Finding a balance: work, life and writing

Writing is time consuming. Thinking, planning, writing, reading and editing: it all takes time. Editing is what takes up most of my time.

The first draft of a story doesn’t usually take me long but kicking the budding story into shape does. I spend considerably longer editing than I do writing the first draft. (Yes, I am thinking about changing how I write, to see if I can get more of it right the first time, but I’ll always have to spend time editing. No matter how long I mull it over, the first idea is badly formed compared to the final one. Writing helps me develop the idea.)

I’m trying to clear my various desks for November so that I can focus on NaNoWriMo. I have two stories to finalise and submit to writers’ groups and magazines. Time is short and I’m not sure how to squeeze everything in.

Isn’t it unfortunate that I need to pay the bills? If I didn’t, and if I didn’t have a food habit, I could spend more time doing the things that I enjoy and the things that make me a better writer. Like so many writers, I have to work on my craft while also working 40 hours a week, maintaining a social life, eating, sleeping and trying to remember to exercise. We’re really busy people, what with the networking, submission preparation, reviewing stories, preparing for spoken word evenings, reading for research and for fun.

It’s not inspiration that makes a good writer, it’s hard work. I find that encouraging.