Pace yourself

Not long before we started the Bags of Action podcast I compiled a list of action films I’d missed seeing at the cinema. I then expanded the list into films in general I would really like to see, at least once, but not necessarily own. In about ten minutes I had a list of over 40 films. It really wasn’t that difficult because I don’t have as much free time as I used to. Making a trip to the cinema can no longer be a spur of the moment thing. I’ve said for years that at some point I will join a film club and just start renting movies every week, so that’s what I’ve finally done.

I’m now striking a healthier balance between time spent working and relaxing. And by working I mean writing. Now that I’m not podcasting as much I have a bit more spare time, but rather than immediately fill that time up with other responsibilities (and I’ve turned down a couple, such as book reviews or a column for SFF websites) or more time at the keyboard, I’m using it to relax. That means time spent reading one of the many books on my to read pile, catching up on the slightly smaller stack of comics and watching films.

I’m not writing to a publisher’s deadline so the only pressure is the self-imposed one. Also I think this is slightly healthier than smacking my head on a keyboard night after night after night when the words are not coming. When the words are flowing and I’m in the zone then I will sit down and just write until it’s all there on the page, but it’s not always like that. There may come a point when I am writing to deadline, and from speaking to published authors I know they sometimes have to do it, grind the story out, one word at a time. But I’m not there yet. Now I’m also finding that when I sit down to write, maybe five nights out of seven, I’m enjoying it more. Also, ideas have started to bubble up from other places for other stories and I’m also tying things together better in my head for the current novel. Even in my down time when I’m relaxing, something is working in the background like a screensaver or a virus scan, joining the dots or weaving a huge web that I’m not consciously aware of, well not immediately. It’s a cliché but I’m now able to see the wood for the trees.

It’s easy to fall into a routine and have it actually turn out to be an unhealthy rut without realising. I know what the little voice at the back of my head is saying. Oh, you’re obviously not dedicated. You obviously don’t want this as badly as some who do sit there seven nights a week. Well, if you can work five (or more) days a week in a busy job, for eight to ten hours a day, and then come home and produce something that is excellent, then good for you. I have a lot of other things crowding in my head these days, duties, responsibilities and concerns, and while previously it was easier for me to write every night, I can’t anymore.

The irony is that I’m also hungrier than I’ve ever been, but I’m also a lot more aware that when I do send something to an agent it can’t just be good, it has to be amazing. In fact it has to be excellent. Someone else has to read it and immediately want to pick up the phone, email someone or tell a friend about it. Something in the story has to pop and it has to inspire them, because the right agent will be your champion. I’m also very aware that writing the story is only part of a writer’s job nowadays and there are many related tasks, but your agent has to inspire an editor at a publisher to give you a chance. They then have to be able to convince a number of other people in various departments that it is worth taking a risk on you. All of that begins with you words. I understand the concept of never being 100% happy with something, but when you are ready to let it out into the world it should have been polished (by many hands and seen by many eyes) to within an inch of its life.

I’m also going to stop imposing deadlines for myself because I think they can be unhelpful. Deadlines such as I’m going to get this edited by the end of this month and then send it off the month after. Well, what if you’re not happy with it by the end of the first month? What if deep down you know it’s just not yet ready? Deadlines can be useful and if the novel is published then that will change too, because they become fixed and rigid things that cannot move. The book must be done by this date, so it can be edited by this date, printed by this date and so on, but right now it’s extra pressure I don’t need that I’m heaping on myself.

I’ll never claim to be an artist, and if you ever hear me say that in public you have my permission to slap me across the face, but I do think that writing needs time to breathe. If you write something then put it in a drawer and then don’t look at it for three months, when you next read it the story will feel slightly alien and you may even have forgotten certain parts. This has happened to me and I’ve been both pleasantly surprised and horrified by some old material. Also the book should have been read by several people who have given you their honest opinions. The book starts with you but by the end of it, even though your name is the only one on the cover, dozens of other people are responsible for its success.

So, what does all of this mean? Well, for me, it means I’m in a better place in my head. It means when I sit down to write it is no longer a chore. It’s still a job to me, not a hobby, and I feel that time away from the keyboard is actually helping me write better. The other key factor, of course, is sleep. I’m not short changing myself anymore and writing until I fall asleep at the keyboard. I’m sleeping a bit more for many for the same reasons mentioned above. When I’m asleep my brain is sorting the pieces of the jigsaw, finding the edges and starting to see patterns. I’m less tired for my day job and therefore less tired when I do sit down to write. It means less time at the keyboard some nights, but if all I produce in four hours is 300 words and 200 of those are crap, what was the point? I’d rather have two productive hours and produce something that I don’t have to throw away and start afresh.

A healthy balance is definitely the way forward for me.

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