[Request] On Writing: The Long Haul

From Amy, a friend and fellow writer in Houston:

[Talk to me about] developing a writing practice that lets you complete a large work.

The short answers? Give up watching TV and hole yourself up at your writing nook for a few hours every night. Immerse yourself into the created world as often as you can–this includes thinking about it while you’re at work, and writing down notes on scraps of paper during down times. Stay up way too late on the weekends so you can write for hours at a time. And above all, write EVERY NIGHT for at least two hours. In other words, dedicate way too much of your time to it. It’ll drive you nuts, you’ll want to give up and erase the damn thing from your memory, but if you persevere, the payoff will trump all that. Oh–and don’t think too seriously about publication until it’s done and revised. [I made an error in that last part and sent it out well before it was ready a few times.]

But more seriously…

The Bridgetown Trilogy was started around 2000 or so, after a number of months trying to rewrite and revise its predecessor, The Phoenix Effect. That novel was to be the first in a trilogy as well, and about thirty or so pages were started on its sequel, before I realized I was going in the wrong direction and would need to seriously revise and rewrite the whole thing. There were just too many problems with it: too many holes in the plot, too many tropes that wouldn’t age well, and background that was shoehorned in where it didn’t belong. And worst of all, the prose was weak. Really weak. I’m talking barebones description, hokey dialogue, and subplots that led nowhere. Frustrated and annoyed but full of New Englander stubbornness, I chose to start from the beginning again. Yes–start the whole damn thing over from scratch.

I say this, because this is when I created the writing practice that I still employ today.

I was incredibly lucky in that I could create time for this…one of the most irritating parts of dedicating time for writing is finding that time, which can be incredibly tough when one is working eight hours a day, even more so when a commute is involved. I was lucky in that my warehouse job was purely physical with very little need for heavy duty problem solving, so I could actually think about my writing while I stacked boxes on pallets. I was also lucky in that I had super early hours, 6am to 2pm, which gave me the entire afternoon and evening to do what I wanted. Once I restarted the trilogy, I chose to set up a strict writing time of 7pm to 9pm every night, no exceptions (this included weekends as well) and would do nothing except working on the trilogy project. As my family had dinner around 5pm, more often than not I’d start at 6 instead, giving me a good three-hour block. [Okay, I would often spend twenty minutes at the start goofing off, deciding what music I’d listen to (often the new releases I’d bought that week), and playing a few rounds of FreeCell, but I’d get there soon enough.] Things have obviously changed since then, but I still try to utilize my time the best I can. I can’t stress enough how important it is to dedicate time solely to your writing projects.

The other goal I had was that I would write at least a thousand new words every night. Sometimes I did more, sometimes less, but that was the goal I aimed for. This did a few things for me…first, it forced me to be more detailed in my prose. My previous works tended to be rather thin, lacking in detail and oomph; this goal forced me to look at how I described things, and how to make the scene glow. Second, it forced me to be prepared–I started sketching out quick outlines and notes a few scenes and chapters ahead that would come to me while I was at work, which I would use later on as a guide. Third, the more I hit this goal, the easier it felt. It may not have been perfect prose, but it was good, beefy prose that I could work with and revise later on. By the third or fourth month, I was consistently going over the word count, hitting 1200 to 1500 a day. I still kept the goal at a thousand words, however–as long as I hit that thousand, everything else was gravy.

All this writing time was focused solely on the trilogy, and this is one of the most important parts of the process: I’d fully immersed myself into the world on purpose. I continually expanded the created world, studying the lives of the characters and their actions and thoughts, and putting a sharp focus on how each plot arc unfolded. I thought of events that might not show up in the finished product. I did short writing exercises of writing from a character’s POV so I could understand them better. I drew maps of Bridgetown and various neighborhoods, and made notes about the surrounding megacities, and even touched a little on future sociology. I created backgrounds for the characters that had little to do with the trilogy (though in a few cases, I used the information as off-the-cuff description just to give them more life). In short: this was going to be an epic story, so I’d better be a supernerd about its background so I wouldn’t leave anything out or go in the wrong direction!

I did this for four years straight, almost without fail. I did have the occasional sick day or prior plans, of course. I felt a brief pang of guilt when I missed a day, but it wasn’t the end of the world. My writing nook was down in my parents’ basement at the time, and sometimes I’d have to work upstairs instead when it was too cold downstairs in the winter (that didn’t always stop me, however). And there were some days when I just wanted to be lazy or needed to give my brain a rest. It was exhausting at times, but it was also a hell of a lot of fun, and it made me enjoy the writing craft all that much more. I stopped around 2004 for a few reasons, both personal and writing-related. I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say, it was a great run, and I wrote two and three-quarters novels–the first two in the trilogy, and most of the third–during that time.

*

So…that was my previous writing practice. How is it now?

After a few dry years, I finally returned to the nightly work, and I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s changed a bit, obviously: instead of writing new words, I’ve been focusing on the completion and revision of the trilogy. I’ve had some professional critiquing done on it, which has helped immensely. For now, I merely focus at least an hour or so in the evening to work on my projects, and if I can squeeze in extra work here and there during the day, I will of course do so. I’ve also expanded on my writing environs: I work in the back room of our apartment, but I also work on the laptop in the living room, and have been known to work on a tablet on vacation, especially when flying cross country. I’ve always been able to write anywhere, given time and space and minimal interruption, and it’s a good habit to get away from your home base now and again to get used to different environments. The focus here is not where you write, but that you write.

Am I ever going to go back to the previous schedule? I sure hope so…it was hard and exhausting work, but it was fun and fulfilling as well. Once I’m caught up with this revision, I hope to start on new projects again. It won’t be exactly the same, considering I have a different work schedule and other personal non-writing things going on, but I do plan on ramping up the volume this year once the major revision project is done. I find I work best and enjoy writing the most when I’m running at top speed, losing myself in the craft (so to speak), even if it’s only for a few hours a day. And if I can expand that even more in the future, maybe to the point of paying full-time writing, so much the better. That’s a far goal, though…but one I’d like to eventually reach.

*

All that said…in answer to your question? There’s no ultimate answer, but the above is what worked for me. Find out what systems and habits work best, and continually improve and upgrade them as necessary. If you’re working on a large work, be prepared to go the distance with it, because it’ll certainly show either way. Immerse yourself in the world as much as possible (but don’t get hopelessly lost in it!). Pay attention to your world’s restrictions, but figure out how to break them when you need to. And keep tabs on everything, even the small stuff, because it may come in handy later on. Be a compulsive note-taker.

Treat writing as a guilty pleasure, like you’re getting away with it. Have fun with it, because if it ceases being fun, it’ll show. And if it gets that far, it’s not the end of the world–take some time off, distance yourself from it (even if that means working on something completely unrelated), and come back to it when you’re good and ready. You will, of course, need to look at it professionally for revision and submission purposes, and it’s fine to think about that, but don’t let that get in the way of creating the story in the first place.

And repeat and adjust as necessary. 🙂

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