I let my writing muscles atrophy.
It took me a while to realise and accept that this was what had happened. You see, for the last several years, pretty much since I signed on the line for the Creature Court trilogy, I have been leaping from deadline to deadline. There’s something sparkly and marvellous about a deadline imposed upon you from someone else – not only do they pay you, but there’s also a level of accountability in it that I find personally inspiring. I moved fairly seamlessly from being the queen of self-imposed deadlines to, well, being fairly competent at meeting other people’s deadlines. Having a baby in the middle of process meant that the deadlines grew harder and harder to reach, and I occasionally had to move one or two, but on the whole I think I did a pretty bloody good job of it, especially as the deadlines for different books started imposing on each other.
This year, the deadlines began to drift further and further apart, especially as the book slipped further back into the schedule than we had originally allowed for. I had time to write new things! This was especially important as one of those new things, a novel called Fury, had netted me two separate grants. Hooray, I had time to write it! Better yet, I could take the time I needed to make it rather good.
And that’s where the rot set in. I think ‘time to write’ must be one of the most misleading phrases in the English language. Because even though I now had two paid days of daycare a week, somehow I never quite found the time to write.
(“How do you do it all?” they ask. “You must be really disciplined,” they say. “I’d love to have time to write a book.”)
Oh, I wrote. I wrote myself in slow circles, trying to find the new book. I told myself it was hard because it was the first time I had started something new in five years (though “Siren Beat” was new, and that got itself written crazy fast, because I was so in love with the character voice… the same character voice I’m trying to find again, for Fury). I told myself that I had plenty of time.
‘Plenty of time’ is even worse than ‘time to write’.
When I wrote, I wrote fast, and I think well. I found my characters, and my story. I did all the things I wanted to do with the book. But… it wasn’t actually growing very fast. There was something wrong with the beginning, that had to be fixed. Then something wrong with chapter three. You can’t move ahead when chapter three isn’t perfect, right, right?
I used to be good at this. I used to be able to knock over 20K a month, easily. And somehow I had made it halfway through the year, and still couldn’t hit that first 20K mark, let alone a second, or a third. Somehow, I had bought into my own image of the kind of writer I was, and assumed somehow that That Person would get the book written. While I was getting the other stuff done.
When you only have two days of paid daycare a week, it’s horribly easily to over-estimate how much you can get done in those days. Like, your week’s worth of writing, AND catching up on the housework, AND taking your daughter to after school activities, AND picking up things from the post office, exercising, reading, sewing, planning dinner, shopping, etc.
Until you remember, hang on, it’s actually only five and a half hours, twice a week.
And… maybe you need to write more than that.
Maybe (this time in a very, very tiny voice), maybe you should be writing EVERY FREAKING DAY.
“Write every day” is one of the more controversial of Heinlein’s famous writing rules (the others being Finish Everything You Start and Submit Everything You Finish). Many pro writers are understandably scathing about the concept of writing every day because a) they are well practiced and disciplined enough not to need rules like that and b) they understand only too well that forcing yourself to write every freaking day is a good way to fill your novels up with timewasting crap, and a bunch of words that only existed because you guilted yourself into writing them.
On the other hand, ‘write every day’ is a terribly useful rule for people who have a tendency to faff about and get no writing done. Sometimes, imposing a rule on yourself like ‘write every day’ is the only way to get anything written at all. What I hadn’t realised was that, as soon as the external deadlines had dropped away, I relaxed far too much, and slid from being one of those professional ‘I can write regularly and produce the goods on time’ writers into one of those faffing about ‘oh I wish I had the time to write’ writers.
So I decided to get my act together. I had let my writing muscles atrophy, to the point where even getting 200 words on the page was painful, and boring, and made me want to do housework instead. I had forgotten how to be a writer.
Take heed, this could happen to you.
Obviously the way to get your writing muscles back, as with any skill, is to exercise them. To practice. To pretend to be a writer hard enough, that I make it happen, all over again. That’s why I signed up for the Clarion Write-a-Thon (external deadlines are my friend!). My aim is to write 5000 words a week, ideally by writing 1000 for five days in a row, then collapsing for two, then doing it again.
The first day was agony. Every 200 hundred words made my head spin. Seriously, how had my writing attention span got so low? It used to be I could easily get to 800 or even 1200 before I started double checking my word count and admiring the weather out the window.
My honey actually watched me on the second day, as he was home from work with a cold, and he was horrified. It was, admittedly, gruesome. 60 words in, I was whining for a cup of tea and coming up with excuses to, in fact, skip the day altogether. “What the hell happened to you?” he demanded.
Today, Day Three, was better. I went to Pilates in the morning and spent most of the hour (when not whining about how tired my inner thighs were, or squeaking with alarm at the new stretch I was being challenged with) dealing with the novel that had not only completely taken over my brain, was demanding I re-structure it from scratch.
I will, I told it, but only after I’ve written my 1000 words for the day. And, after Pilates, I came home and did exactly that.
The moral of the story is simpler than any rule Heinlein ever coined. It’s Move It, Or Lose It. If you don’t write regularly, it gets harder to write. Or, to be more specific, if *I* don’t write regularly, it gets harder to write. Right now, I can’t be trusted to do anything but follow a set of rules, as slavishly as possible, in the hopes that I get my skills back in record time, and remember how this book writing thing works.
One word in front of the other. Rinse, repeat, until done.
Then do it again.
If you would like to encourage me as I retrain myself as a writer, you can sponsor me at the Clarion Write-a-Thon. No amount too small, but do let me know if you are sponsoring me! I also accept encouraging comments, attagirls and anecdotes about your own times of writerfail.