Madeleine Robins April 29th, 2008
I have an erratic career path.
My first four books were written between 1976 and 1981; book number five took another two years to write (I went to the Clarion SF Writing Workshop; I moved from Boston to New York; I worked part time and then full time, I fell in love, I fell out of love. Life, right?). I also started writing SF and fantasy short stories. When I turned in my last romance (in 1984) I kept writing short stories and started noodling around with a story which grew into a book. It took me more than ten years to finish that book (worked freelance, picked up my acting career again, fell in love, got married, started working at Tor Books, had a baby, went back to work again, left Tor, left the job after that, edited comics for three years, had another baby). I sold the book on a partial manuscript while I was still working at Tor, and was more than half-way through it–but it still took what seemed like forever to finish. After I turned in The Stone War I got a chance to do a work-for-hire novel based on a Marvel Comics superhero–Daredevil. I wrote that book in about six weeks, from a fiendishly tight outline (remind me sometime and I’ll tell you the hoops you jump through to write tie-in novels) and it was fun. Then I wrote Point of Honour, and almost immediately afterward, Petty Treason.
Then, two weeks after I turned Petty Treason in in 2002, we moved to California. My writing path since then has been, um, erratic. And with the benefit of hindsight and a several-decades-long career, I now realize that my writing history is punctuated by gaps. Some of them very significant gaps. I am not, nor do I ever expect to be, one of those 2000-words-a-day-year-in-and-year-out, writers. But there have been times when I wrote consistently, turning out a book a year or so. And times when I didn’t, when I felt guilty because I wasn’t writing, or because I wasn’t finishing a book. Guilt, needless to say, butters no parsnips and is the enemy of the creative process.
But a time has come, at the end of each of these hiatuses, to jumpstart my process and get back to work. What to do?
Here, in no specific order, are some of the tricks that have worked for me:
- Retyping the stalled manuscript. Yes, even at book length. Maybe especially at book length. Retyping immerses me in the book in a way that merely re-reading and line-editing doesn’t. I often find myself adding, branching out, finding the places where I went astray, cutting out wholesale chunks.
- Writing “cover copy” for the story. Nothing focuses what you believe are the salient points of a story like trying to convey it in a punchy, convincing two paragraphs.
- Following The Artist’s Way or some similar program. The Artist’s Way requires, among other things, that you write three pages, longhand, every morning before you do anything else. When I was stalled on The Stone War this was one of the things that helped get me moving again. And you don’t have to follow all the rules the Way suggests: Julia Cameron isn’t going to show up at your house at 6am to make sure that you’re writing before you feed the kids, or that you’re making all your “artist dates.” The right way to do this is the way that helps you.
- Participating in a writers’ workshop–one where I have to show up in person (nothing against online crit groups; I just found that having to show up was useful to me) and one in which I focus as much on the critiques I’m giving other people as I do on their critiques of my work.
- Reading stuff that makes me want to write. What is that going to be? Sometimes it’s fiction that, in some way, approaches what I’m trying to do. When I was working on Point of Honour I was reading The Maltese Falcon, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and The Name of the Rose. If another writer has pulled off a particular technical trick, I may want to read that work for awe and inspiration.
I am reasonably certain that, however long my writing career continues (until they prise my laptop from my fingers, no doubt) there will be lulls in my creative process. That means I’m always looking for new ways to jumpstart that process. Got any you want to share?