Sunday, 21 October 2012

When to stop writing

To most confirmed writers, the short answer is never, but there are times to press the pause button. Here are a few of mine:

  • At the end of the first draft of a novel
  • When your writing starts to suck
  • When life events demand your full attention
  • When you have writer’s block
And here re two that shouldn't affect your passion for writing:
  • Because you think you’re no good at it
  • Harsh criticism
At the end of the first draft of a novel
I’ve just finished the first full draft of my third novel (Eden’s Revenge), and I need a break. Not just on account of a drain of creative and emotional energy that got poured into it during the last few frenzied weeks of writing and editing, but because I need some distance between the writing and my editorial mind, so I can step back and see it as a reader might. I’m taking four weeks off it, then I’ll blitz it again during a week and do a editorial makeover job before sending it off for a professional review and suggested changes. By the way, as published writers know, the  only time you truly stop editing and tinkering with a novel is when it comes out in print (doesn’t work for ebooks, as the temptation is always there to upload a revised digital version).

When your writing starts to suck
I have times when I start writing stuff I don’t believe in or simply don’t like when I read it the next day, and figure I’m wasting my time. I’d rather not make bad writing a habit, so I stop. This usually only lasts a few days to a week, and I will try and write something different – a short story or a blog – to get the juices flowing again. Sooner or later (so far) it kicks in pretty again. This happened this week, but after five ‘dry’ days, one evening a short story about a Physics Nobel Laureate who commits murder just popped into my head, and at 6am the next morning I bashed out the first half of the story non-stop (will get it published before Xmas – it’s called 'Temporal Surgery’).

When life events demand your full attention
Even if we don’t have other ‘day jobs’ (most writers do), life events and situations can take over, whether happy ones like weddings, or sadder events, or pure and simple problem events at work or with one’s kids at school, or a damned neighbour… If it’s an anger event, this can be channelled into writing – a writer friend of mine takes characters pissing her off in real life and embeds them in her stories, killing them off in a variety of ways. But if it’s sad events or just demanding ones, life comes first. This is where my chronic insomnia helps me, as I can deal with such things and then escape back to my writing while most of the rest of the world around me is sleeping.

When you have ‘writer’s block’
There was a time when I got ‘blocked’ over Eden’s Revenge, because I suddenly couldn’t see how to get from where I was to the end (I already worked out the end). This was the longest period of writer’s block I’ve had, and was fuelled by certain ‘life events’ as well, but it was disconcerting, and I actually considered that I might have to give it up as a project. It helped that it was book three in the series, and that readers kept asking me where the hell it was. I started reading more, and not just sci-fi, and while reading the excellent Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which finished on a cliff-hanger, I suddenly saw the way forward. I was also re-watching Babylon 5 and a few other SF series/films, looking for inspiration, and I think it helped. I had started writing another novel, but once I was ‘unblocked’ I threw myself back into Eden’s Revenge and finished it in three months. So if you're blocked, don't force it, do something else for a while, and trust in the right side of your brain, it usually knows what it's doing even if it can't tell you why.

Because you think you’re not good at it
In our writers group we occasionally get some people joining for a short while to see what it’s like, and they submit stuff which we critique. Our group is quite brutal with feedback, because there is no point telling newbie writers their stuff is great when it isn’t, or they simply haven't got the essentials of the craft ‘under their belt’ yet. There are writers groups where everyone tries to be nice and be positive, softening blows, etc. Does it help? I don’t think so. In fact I think it does the reverse. Such people come to believe they have written a good novel and start sending it off to professional agents and they get a rude awakening, and probably give up. But maybe they shouldn’t. Usually if they can hone their craft a bit longer, their writing improves and reaches a level of competence that is good enough to see into print. Whether anyone wants to publish it is another matter. Perseverance is therefore a good thing, but blind perseverance without some guidance can lead to frustration. I wouldn’t give up my writing group even if my books suddenly ‘took off’ and sold a million. The writing skill is like a blade: you have to sharpen it till it can cut cleanly, and then you have to keep it sharpened, or else it will become dull. So, it’s less about ‘because you’re no good at it’, and more about ‘how much do you really want to get published?’

Harsh criticism
Here I’m talking more about criticism from people you don’t know personally, or whom you only know professionally: e.g. writing professionals (agents, professional readers, editors and book doctors) and Amazon reviews. If the professionals tell you your writing sucks without telling you how to improve it, demand your money back (this doesn't apply to agents, who get so many unsolicited submissions a day they simply don't have the time). I had very tough critiques from professional readers (via literary consultancies)  when I first started, but they pointed me in the right directions, and I took their advice, even when I didn’t necessarily believe it would help. Then I found that my writing group thought my writing was getting better, so I stopped being arrogant and accepted the obvious – that professionals usually know what they’re doing (I say ‘usually’ because writing is so subjective, so make sure a professional reader or editor or another writer is in your ‘genre’ or writes work you like to read). If you get advice, and you’ve paid for it, you might as well try it, right? Amazon reviews should always be taken with a pinch of salt. But do yourself a favour – get a few people you know who have liked the book and ask them to do a review (please don’t write your own; I know many writers do) to give you a cushion against inevitable poor reviews (there are ‘trolls’ out there). Also take a look at books you thought were brilliant, and I guarantee you’ll find one or two duff reviews on Amazon in amongst the rest. Do yourself a bigger favour and go through a cycle of professional readings (i.e. where you pay a literary consultancy to evaluate your work) until they say it is good enough to be published. If you have confirmation of your writing ability, you’ll weather the bad reviews and appreciate the good ones.

When not to stop writing
For some writers writing is an addiction (see my short story, Writerholics Anonymous). I don’t need an excuse to write, I love to write. But there is a deadly and seductive enemy to all writers. Can you guess what it is? Sure you can. It’s the internet. The internet is a thief of time if ever there was one. You want to do research, so you Google, then find yourself on Wikipedia, then half an hour later you’re on a YouTube page that has no relation to what you originally went to look for. Or else you think you need to do loads of marketing and blogging and tweeting and Facebooking and GoodReading and everything else-ing, and after a couple of hours you’re exhausted, you’ve burned up all your creative energy. So, what to do? It’s easy. When you sit down to write, and feel the creativity buzzing in your fingertips, DON’T SWITCH ON THE INTERNET. For me this is easy. I have two computers at home, one of which (the one I’m typing on now) doesn’t connect to the internet. If I want to check emails etc. I use the other computer. I’ll maybe write for a couple of hours and THEN check emails and all that other stuff. It’s not going anywhere, but my creativity will dissipate if I don’t catch it while it’s there.   

So, writers, keep on writing. As Terry Pratchett said, its the best fun you can have on your own.

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