Guest Post: A Series of Potentially Dangerous Experiments by Amy Paulussen
The television season finales were a month ago, and for a month now nothing new has aired. We have two (or three) more months until new content is added. What will I do with myself? I recently moved to the Northern Hemisphere, where this tragedy occurs at the beginning of summer, not winter. Instead of bracing myself for months of cold winter evenings with only re-runs and board games for entertainment, I have summer to look forward to – barbecues, summer reads and leisurely walks in the long fragrant dusk.
And a novel to finish.
Well, sure, that’d be just as likely to happen if I were pulling up my woollen socks and watching the leaves fall back home.
Regardless of the climate, or the continent, lousy television does have its perks: we all have the wonderful opportunity to find out what else life has to offer. And those of us with novels to finish have no more excuses. Excellent.
I picture myself out on the porch, laptop on my knees, fingers flying over the keys as I transcribe the fluid conversation my characters are basically writing for me. They’re so real, so developed, that they do this; they come up with their own lines. I pause, sip my coffee (it’s still warm despite the fact I’ve been sitting here writing for half an hour or more – ah, sweet fantasy). A light breeze cools me and keeps the bugs away. The sun is at that miraculous angle where I can see the computer screen. I don’t get sore shoulders from working with terrible posture. Sweet, sweet fantasy.
I’ve had these fantasies my whole life – of doing something useful with all that extra time over the summer. I was a teacher until I had a baby, so I always had a summer break… and now I don’t get a break for twenty years. What’s interesting is that I’ve never been more productive on the writing front. Holidays, weeks of no structure, no pressure, rendered me a useless, sun-baked blob. Parenthood, and the few short hours of nap-time I have alone each day, have turned me into little miss write-and-ignore-the-dishes.
In fact, baby number two is due in just a few weeks. I’m less than half way through the first draft of a new novel and I’m a bit worried that this one might become one of the great unfinished hoard. Previously, I have finished novels during November and the motivational rush that is Nanowrimo. This time, I’m trying to write in normal, everyday life, at a more maintainable pace, and for longer than one month – it’s an experiment. Can I do it? Apparently, so far, yes. Add a newborn baby and serious sleep deprivation to the mix and we’ll see…
I’ll soon begin a new round of dangerous experiments in an attempt to discover how my writing can continue, without killing us all, in the coming reign of chaos, laundry and breastfeeding.
My previous experiments have been successful, in the sense that novels are finished, edited, and bits of them have been read by a bunch of agents, editors and whatnot.
Experiment number 1: planner vs. pantser
When I first started writing I would plan out the plot, profile the characters, draw the settings and then start writing. And then I’d get stuck after a few thousand words and start planning a new, ‘better’ story. At university I met another writer who preferred the fly-by-pant-seat method: driven by not knowing the ending, she’d stay motivated and finish stories. I tried this and, eventually, finished one novel, though it was hellish to edit. Another writer friend thought this method was completely crazy and, after listening to her wise words on audience and market, and reading a book she loaned me, I decided to plan novel number two… It was like coming home. I am definitely a planner. It’s not for everyone and there are loads of different ways of doing it, formulas to follow, even software packages that will prompt you to just fill in the blanks (though be wary of anything that promises to make writing easy. It’s not.)
I did the experiment, I tried a different way of doing things, I even stuck it out for a whole novel. And now I know how I work best: with a giant folder of semi-organised notes and outlines near at hand.
Experiment number 2: sprinter vs. marathon-runner
Writing outside of the 30-day frenzy of nanowrimo is another experiment. I never managed to finish a novel until I committed to taking part in this international writing challenge. I was teaching full time and had a class full to teenagers trying to write novels as well. I had motivation in spades that year, and it worked. I got that first draft out, on paper. What a milestone! A first novel. Well, not a novel, a draft. But it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needed a lot of work and maybe, even in its painstakingly crafted and edited current state, it will only ever be read by my nearest and dearest. Regardless of what happens to that manuscript, it gave me one major advantage: I knew I could finish a novel.
Number two was a breeze! I was planning again, and the story just wanted to be told. Whole chapters wrote themselves. I finished nanowrimo days early. I edited it right away, bubbling over with energy and motivation. And then, when I’d stopped buzzing, I edited it again.
Novel number three is a bit more challenging. I started planning about a year ago, before writing number two in fact, and then put aside this one for that one. This one is a bit less genre, a bit longer and more challenging; it will demand more of me as a writer and I want to give it more than thirty days of crazy. I want to give it thought and time and a bit more of myself, my heart and soul. I started writing it off the back of number two’s buzz. And then we moved to France.
A few weeks later I started writing again. There was no buzz or bounce. I was plodding on. But this, I think, is how real writers do it most of the time: They write, every day. A little or a lot. Bum in seat, fingers to keys, stop looking at Pinterest and work. Hard. I’m lucky enough to have a toddler with a regular napping routine. I take advantage. Some days I just have to nap while he does (I am eight months pregnant after all) but there’s always television – he can watch it and I can write. Fortunately the television is in French, of which I understand very little, so it doesn’t distract me, even though I’m in the same room.
Experiment number three: routine-slave vs opportunist
I find it helpful if I leave the document, my novel-in-progress, open on the computer. This way, every time I sit down to check Facebook or see who’s on Skype, there it is, reminding me that I could write instead. Having a set routine, a certain number on the clock that equals The Write Time, worked for me in the past, but not currently. I am in flux, in a new environment, with a growing toddler who doesn’t know how to read a clock. I used to find scheduling a necessity – a liberating, motivating and empowering tool that kept me working, and resting, in a maintainable and healthy rhythm. Maybe one day life will return to such peace and predictability. Maybe not. I choose to write regardless.
Some experiments don’t need to be done.
I must take responsibility for my choices. I choose not to live in a pristinely clean house. I choose to buy dinner from a traiteur once or twice a week. I choose not to take the washing off the line as soon as it’s dry. I choose to leave tidying the messy bookshelf to another day/week/month… I choose to play with my rambunctious toddler, to take him to the park and to playgroup and read him all the books in the house in one sitting. I choose to write. Every day. Because I know that if I don’t I will have to read over the stuff I wrote a week or a month ago. And then I’ll start editing. And then I’ll get stuck.
I also choose to start watching a new television series. Oops.
One of the most frustrating and apt pieces of writing advice I ever received has stuck with me for over ten years:
If you want to be a writer, write.
It doesn’t sound very helpful, but there it is: the great big secret to progress and productivity. And you’re more likely to actually get words down on a regular basis if, taking into account your personality and situation, you can figure out how it is that you work best.
As to quality and success, well, that takes time and patience and timing and market forces and all sorts of other things that are written about in all sorts of other places.
Tania Roxborogh, the author of the Banquo’s Son trilogy, writes,
What I have found necessary, apart from talent, is the need to persevere with the actual task of writing as well as the beauty of what is being created. Just like pregnancy, a story or poem is conceived but needs time to incubate in the womb (your mind) and then grow and develop (birth and the rest). Don’t be in too much of a hurry. The best works come when time is given for them to live, breathe, be.”