Risking burnout and writerly fetishes.
So. As those of you who follow me on twitter/generally stalk me are likely aware, I am currently working flat out on getting the first draft for Dog Country done. This has resulted in some thoughts, which I will get to in a moment.
First up, things are getting finalized very rapidly on Orbital Decay, which I talked about in December, and I will have all manner of salesy propaganda, store links, and whatnot for you very, very soon now. In short, though, it’s a piece of licensed fiction I was hired to write for Abaddon Books, part of their ‘Afterblight Chronicles’ setting, and probably one of the current high points of my professional/mainstream SF career to date.
Signing a contract… it changes things. But, again, more on that in a moment.
Secondly, that short story I mentioned, Pavlov’s House? Fingers crossed I will have some good news about that within the next month or so. Hopeful things are happening that I don’t want to talk about (because it’s one of those things one tries not to talk about until things are certain, one way or another,) but what I can say is the things happening with it have — regardless of any future results — been a massive boon to my confidence, particularly when it comes to writing about the Estians — the mass produced clone army of gengineered dogs.
But all this confidence, all the things signing a contract and getting paid and seeing your work out there, all this writerly high life stuff… Well, it’s led me to a strange place where things smell of smoke.
For about the past five years in specific I’ve been struggling with productivity levels, experimenting, trying out various bits of cliché advice, the works, all in hunting down that elusive animal: increased wordcount. Yes, yes, I tried and foundered when it came to NaNoWriMo, I did the daily wordcount goals thing, I even made three serious stabs at starting a novel, and produced a smattering of short stories, too. But nothing really clicked. My yearly output bounced from around 160 000 words, up to 200 000, and back down, until last year — which was difficult for a number of reasons — I wound up with a grand total of 130 013 words, my lowest yet since I started carefully tallying my wordcounts.
Last year I made a couple of discoveries — both linked to working on Orbital Decay. Firstly, sometimes outlines make my life a lot easier. Not always, but sometimes — and I’m not sure why, and I’m sure there’s a lot I can learn about outlining itself. Secondly, setting a daily wordcount goal — as many people claim is the way to go — is patently useless for me. The way I work best, or at least the best way I’ve tried so far, is by setting a schedule and aiming at writing for a specific stretch of time every weekday. (For the record, I find two two-hour blocks to be best for me.)
I also found that my confidence in my own writing took a major boost as a result, even if I was struggling for a lot of 2013, since when you have kind editors saying supportive things, it really makes the dark midnight concerns about whether or not you’re good enough seem silly. Plus, there was the contract — my paranoia about whether or not I’m any good at writing is patently absurd when I’m capable of fulfilling contractual obligations.
So, you know, I’ve been working on writing since I was still stuck in puberty, and I figured out recently that I’ve probably written a total of around eight hundred and twenty thousand words since I got serious about tracking that, in 2009. It makes sense that at some point something is going to click eventually, doesn’t it?
Over January I managed to write seventy-three thousand words. In the past week, alone, I wrote just under twenty-seven thousand. Something has changed for me. Something extreme.
Part of it is that I’m finally working on Dog Country — a novel I’ve had concepts for all the way back to my first efforts in the furry fandom, back in 2005 or so. I outlined the hell out of it over the span of six weeks leading into the holidays last year, too — and a heavily granular outline, with more detail than is probably sensible, seems to let me work like crazy.
Thankfully (… well, actually not, but still,) I’m chronically unemployed, which does rather leave a lot of time for getting organized with writing. Which is part of why over the last three weeks my life has devolved into a single-minded quest to keep my four hours of writing pristine and undisturbed.
I say devolved — I mean it. This is a lifestyle I think there’s a lot of mythology around, when it comes to writers. We have the plotters and the pantsers, sure, but we also have these mysterious prolific beasts wandering the landscape we do not understand. The creatures who look at the thousand six hundred and something words a day required by NaNoWriMo — known to bludgeon down thousands every year — and laugh like it’s barely even worth consideration.
Over the last week I wrote more than five thousand words a day, on average — seven thousand, seven hundred at my peak on Tuesday.
Great! Malcolm, foozzzball, writerly rat person — where’s the payoff? Where’s the mysterious advice that will allow all of us to follow in your footsteps and be the writer of our dreams!?
Well, here’s the thing. After three weeks, I do have enough of my manuscript’s first draft together it’s not impossible I’m going to finish it off by the end of February. (Novel first draft in two months? Yes please!) But I have also chronically been losing sleep, forgetting what day of the week it is repeatedly even though as part of my labour-tracking efforts I have several calendars I look at multiple times a day, and being unable to determine whether something recent happened yesterday, or three weeks ago.
Now, I’m loopy at the best of times, but when I am almost literally forced into taking an afternoon off because I can no longer remain awake at midday, despite having carefully plunked myself in bed for nine hours every night and having slept most of that, there’s something wrong. I am not known for a healthy work/play balance, but that these four hours a day of intensive work are starting to gradually pick at my foundations is something I find incredibly scary.
As writers we’re led to fetishize some very odd behaviours — drinking culture is one of the big ones, although I’m teetotal, but writing like automatons/abandoning the world around you is a strong contender. So is obsessing over your work to the detriment of your health and mental wellbeing. So is believing that artistic integrity is the one true path, or that one method rules over all others. Fact of the matter is, most of this stuff is self destructive at worst, and unhelpful at best. (We’re supposed to be depressive alcoholics with a tendency for suicide and broken families? No thank you!)
I’m writing a lot right now. A whole heck of a lot. But I can see I’m not going to be able to keep it up forever, and I’m sacrificing more of my life than I thought I’d need to in going after this burst of productivity. I am finding it taxing.
Am I going to keep it up? Probably — I really want to finish this draft of Dog Country. It’s already my longest single work, and I need that first novel to be finished some time, even if this is probably going to wind up being long enough I’m either going to have to clip something out or hope to find a way I can publish it in two volumes. But a lot of the habits I’ve developed in order to get this work done just plain suck. I need to take more care of myself, or I’m going to wind up burned out.
So, y’know. Friendly PSA/public statement so I can feel pressured to follow my own advice: Be careful not to let your writing take a higher priority than you get. Be mindful that a lot of our popular-culture ideas about writers either hide problematic side effects, or are in and of themselves self destructive. Take a break and rest when you need to. And, for those of you who need a little hope after that, don’t forget. If I can find my groove (even if I need to take care of myself) after spending the better part of a decade on searching for it, it’s not impossible you can’t, too — just try something new every week until you find a method that fits.