Out of time

There is a major life event approaching, and I’m not just talking about the climax to Breathing Fire. I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but I was desperately hoping to be able to get the novel done before the onset of Doom. Or at least in the post-Doom aftermath. Seems like that’s not going to happen now.

Another paying job has arrived, which is great because a) money, b) I generally enjoy my editorial work, and c) it’s always nice to be wanted. Never take me seriously when I grumble about having too much on my plate. I do enjoy it, and I’m proud of having built up a little sideline, even to the point of being a go-to guy for a major(ish) publishing company, that keeps my head about financial waters and keeps me out of mischief.

But I am sick of not having finished my novel yet. I started it in April 2021 (if not before; this blog is woefully short on actual facts), and that was based on a dream I had in the summer of 2020 (I think). This has been the longest I’ve ever spent on a draft and that’s mostly because I’ve had to spend so much time on Other Things. Some of these are worthwhile (publishing New Gods, for example). Others… well, others have been necessary.

I am frustrated. Especially since this latest interruption comes as I feel like I was just – finally! – getting to grips with what I was attempting to do. I am climaxing, and enjoying the blocking out of action, the collapsing of phase space, and the culmination of what I’ve spent the last year building up to.

There was even a moment of fire-breathing in a novel called Breathing Fire. Only took 60k words to get there.

But there’s no point in complaining. Ain’t nobody going to care. Ain’t nobody going come take my burdens off me. I could have turned down the work; really it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

So all I can do is get on with the work. And, in the back of my mind, I’ve always got the fact that I have a trilogy (almost) written but nothing to do with it. No publisher, no agent, no way of getting it out to the great and the good. Ambition aplenty; at present no hope.

So I guess it really doesn’t matter whether I complete Breathing Fire tomorrow or a decade hence. ‘S gonna be done because I have a story to tell. How to get it to you? That’s another problem entirely.

En avant!

Deadlines and assorted complications

Deadlines. Gotta love ‘em.

I myself am not so good at them. Not that I miss the buggers – rather the opposite, in fact. I’m no good at pacing myself sensibly. Whenever a job comes through I throw myself at it, body and soul, and work all hours until it’s done, even if I the timeframe is generous and the target wide. I am simply too afraid of failure, of letting people down. As character flaws go, it’s not the very worst, but it is annoying.

At the moment I have a great six-week chunk of work on my desk. I should be able to meet it fairly comfortably. So do I throw myself at it and let it absorb me in its cocoon? Or do I try and pace myself and mix in other jobs – and maybe a little actual writing – in with the Big Task?

I’m trying the latter, which means that I’ll be able to progress with Breathing Fire – albeit at a slower pace (if possible) than before. This is good because it means – at least theoretically – that I’ll be able to keep up some momentum and won’t entirely forget where I’ve got to, what I’m trying to mull. And I have, indeed, made a little progress. The big break-in and the subsequent climax rapidly approach, bringing with it the need for thought and intelligence which is, of course, where I fall down. It also may mean that I have things to write about in this blog, though I promise nothing interesting.

The downside of this multi-strand approach is, of course, anxiety. I’ll always be worrying that I’m not leaving enough time for Task A, that I’m wasting time when I should be focussing, laser-like, on my target.

It also relies on me having time – actual available time in which to do more than one task. I have a part-time day-job – I am lucky – and a small (though heavy) child to wrangle. So there’s only maybe two days a week when I can look at more than one job.

Did I mention I also have a beta-reading to undertake? That’s on a six-ish week deadline too.

But the main mission comes first. It may be that I have to abandon side-quests and this many-headed attempt will fall apart within a week. Or it may be that the main job is remarkably straightforward and I have time to broaden out my focus. At the moment I can’t really say.

As a non-professional author, life is going to throw times like this your way. You’re going to have to find some way to cope, whether it’s going hell-for-leather to clear the non-creative jobs aside, or multi-tasking, or even taking a whole chunk of time away from real-life in order to focus solely on what really matters. I am, as I said, very lucky in that I can afford to work two part-time irregular jobs – library assistant by day, editor by later-in-the-day – rather than having to scrape time around full employment.

But editing time is also writing time. And life is shortly going to become very much more complicated.

So it’s on me to make the most of what time I have. And, for now, that means forging ahead with both editing and creative work. Because anxiety is just another name for love.

Two guvnors

I have done but a single line of creative writing this side of Christmas. This is clearly sub-optimal. I’m not blocked, though, or taking ill-deserved time off; I am, in fact, as busy as I’ve ever been – just not with the things that matter to me.

Partly the problem is that I am very lucky. I have a day-job at which I spend twenty hours a week, plus a little time commuting and preparing. I then fill up the rest of the working week with writing or editing.

Thing is that my commercial editing arm has got really long recently. I am in demand, with all of two jobs awaiting my attention. This obviously isn’t many, not really, but it’s rare for me to have work stacked up; usually I work from one to the next, never quite knowing when my next job will come through.

It’s been like this since August. I’ve been so busy working on other people’s writing that it’s taken all the time I used to use for myself. And I’m not (honestly) complaining about that – it’s great. Good, interesting work that keeps me entertained and off the streets, or at least saves me from being too dependent on my wife.

It’s just that, what with spending some crumbs of time with my family and the odd moment for myself, my genuine, original writing has taken a back seat. This is beginning to eat at me; I have a half-finished novel just waiting for an ending (though I fear the amount of mental effort I’ll have to pour into it; editing is, for me at least, much the easier task) and I have my own books to problem-solve, thank you very much.

I am not good at turning down work. I am too afraid of being blackballed, or being seen as unreliable, or some red flag being appended to my name, to refuse paying tasks. As I said earlier, I’m used to working as the tasks come in and don’t have a great timetable of works ahead as the true professionals do. Thus I take what I’m given, and I work hard, and I get the job done, he says with a certain amount of pride.

But I want to write. I want to create. And I haven’t truly got the work-life balance right. In this day and age, how do we tell them apart anyway?

I have some great stories to tell. I need to carve out time to tell them.

Back to the real world

It’s a source of great frustration – and yet it is but life – that almost as soon as I get into a project I have to down tools and return to the real world.

I have knocked out some 15,000 words of a new novel, balancing that with reworking Our Kind of Bastard, but now I am sidetracked – or maybe main-lined – by two things. One is an urgent proofreading job: hopefully this will not delay me too long. The other is a return to what we laughingly call normality.

Since Christmas I have been off work – or, rather, I’ve been working from home – due to the general state of the world and my particular vulnerability to it. I had a routine: Monday, Tuesday and Friday, when the Smolrus is at nursery, I would spend all day working, both day-job and writing/editing stuff intertwined, whilst carving maybe a little time on other days as circumstances allowed.

Now my confinement is over and I am returning to front-line regular-houred employment. This is how it goes: there is nothing special about my situation. And yet I am going to have to begin again; I must relearn how to squeeze in regular writing time.

I am a very lucky person in so many ways. I have all boons in life and have always found time to write. The fact that I am tremulous about returning to outside-work is nothing compared to the trials that many go through to get time for themselves.

And it’s not like I’ve not had big changes to undergo before. I started writing this blog nearly eight years ago (tempus fugit and all that) and in that time I’ve had five jobs, all with different working hours, and three houses in different parts of the country. Oh, and one child. One could almost say that change is normal, were that not an insult to the people who’ve had real changes in their life.

But personally I am about to go through a big shift that I can only see as negatively affecting my writing. And I am afeared, because writing is important to me, as is my second job as an editor, and I still have parenting to do, and quality time to spend with my partner, and time to kick back and chill, and I must balance these things.

You know. Like we all have to do every day.

Because what is life but a series of temporary measures?

Onwards!

I have taken action. I have left the malfunctioning writing group and have both reconnected with friends at my previous assembly and contacted a new potential group.

It’s for the most horrible of reasons, but it’s incredibly liberating to find that, suddenly, distance doesn’t matter. I’m joining with people I could never hope to reach without the wonders of Zoom, or Skype, or Roll20 come to that (yes, more old friends left long distances away that I’ve reconnected with for the purposes of rolling dice and pretending to be other beings).

As for the writing groups, I now have a choice. I’ve got one novel with the Publishers of my Dreams. Its sequel I’m reserving for my manuscript exchange collective. So what do I present to the new group?

I worry about this sort of thing. What can I bring them? Some self-imposed criteria:

  • It must be new (ish)
  • It must be of a decent standard, but yet…
  • …It must not be perfect (not that I’m capable) as there’s no point bringing something to be polished that’s already road-legal
  • It must be representative of me as a writer
  • It must not be hideously embarrassing

And I find I really don’t have that much to choose from. My novels are out (though if I get rejected by the Publisher of my Dreams I might reopen that previously-sealed container), and though I am fully intending to crank out some more stuff at some point, I’m currently still mulling ideas.

And that leaves my short stories. And those contain problems of their own.

  1. I’m not a short-story writer, not really, thus meaning that it falls foul of the ‘must be representative’ criterium above
  2. I have only two short stories ‘active’ (I have a few discarded ones in the bank, still). One of those is an mm romance and thus entirely unrepresentative (and possibly embarrassing); the other I’ve lost faith in and don’t know if it’ll be a waste of everyone’s time, including my own

I worry too much. It really doesn’t matter. And I have time – I have to attend the new group as a non-reading guest for a week or three anyway, so I can get the measure of the group first.

It is a dilemma. Fortunately it’s a wonderful dilemma to have as it means that I’m getting on with things, that I’m getting feedback on my writing, and generally moving forwards with my writing life.

Huzzah! And a big huzzah for this world of modern wonders!

Slings and arrows

It’s not quite imposter syndrome but it is close. I’m having a crisis of confidence because I fear that I’m the worst writer in my writing group (five people) and I don’t like it. Not one bit.

It doesn’t reflect well on me. I should be grateful for being shown how much I have to improve. I should be proud to have room to grow – and I am, I promise. And that’s good, and humbling, for I am not without ego and it does me no harm to be shown the emptiness of my rhetoric.

But I’m the published author. I should be better than I am; I shouldn’t be an over-writer. I shouldn’t be struggling with quiet scenes. I should be better than what I’m showing.

I should also be better at giving criticism. Lord knows I’ve had enough practice at that, what with being an editor to boot.

It doesn’t help that I’m finding it hard to mesh on a personal level with the other members of the group. Not that there’s any animosity or unpleasantness, but remote meetings make it harder to express empathy or to communicate in any ways other than through direct speech. In such a small group these things seem magnified.

So what do I do? I don’t want to leave because these people are, as I said, damn good writers and I should be learning from them. I’m determined to be as good as I can possibly be.

I guess I just suck it up, grit my teeth and take the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.

Time makes fools

‘Time makes fools of us all…’; photograph by Thordi

Time makes fools of us all. And time is very much on my mind at the moment, as mine has suddenly become a premium commodity.

Yes, I have just started a new phase in my life of paid employment. Or, to put it another way, I’ve got a new job. This is for reasons which are sound and very much justified and, indeed, employment will hopefully be pleasurable. I’ll be working with books and with readers, and that can never be a bad combination.

But it means I’ll have less time for writing, for editing, and for managing life beyond the paying of the bills. This causes me a certain amount of anxiety. I have commitments, the ones to myself not the least amongst them. I want to write and to edit and spend time on Twitter; I want to communicate, in one medium or another and my new life status threatens that.

So what will I do? Well, I’ll take around a fortnight to stress and then I’ll settle and work out new working arrangements. Because that’s what we do when life changes; for a while the shift seems all-consuming and we don’t quite know where the time is going. Then we settle down and what’s important to us will reassert itself.

So at the moment I am all of a quiver: I have a new editorial job upcoming and I fear for when it’ll get done. I have a short story to tinker with and a whole damn novel to edit. When will I find the time for these things?

The answer will come. Things will settle and new working patterns will develop – hell, with a different type of stimulation I’ll almost certainly write better for it. I will work out all the answers because I have to.

But for now I am all of an anxiety; and it’s not just the new job fears.

The empty well

The Empty Well, Joel Kass

I fear what comes next. I’ve been so far in an editing morass that I’ve not had much chance to work on anything new for a little while, and whilst it’s true that I have a few works in the bank – in various degrees of draftage, three stories are ready to be polished/rewritten – I don’t know where I’m going from here.

At some point I’m going to have to write something original and, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m drawing from an empty well. I see other writers, some close to me, some a little further away, churning out novel after novel, and I look in the mirror and see only emptiness there.

I am a writer. But I can’t see what I’m going to write next. Worse than that, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do it at all; all the disciple I built up, all the muscles I developed, they seem to have atrophied.

That’s the fear. That I’ve nothing left in me. That I’m a fraud, I guess, in calling myself something I no longer feel myself to be.

This is, I know, mostly bollocks. So I’m feeling a bit fallow – show me an author that doesn’t have the occasional period where the words don’t quite flow. It’s barely been two months since I finished my last first draft – that’s no time at all. Just because I don’t immediately have something to go on to doesn’t invalidate my whole existence.

Still, this is the way I feel right now. Like there is nothing left in me. It’s not a nice place to be.

There is hope. I had a dream the other day that I thought (within the dream, which is a trick) would make a good novel with a little tinkering. And I managed to write a dream synopsis before I forgot it all. Even if this is just a false blind it shows that my subconscious is still churning over the goods.

It’s a stupid thing, to put faith in dreams. This idea may well come to nothing. The positive I’m taking is that it shows there is still creativity in me somewhere.

But in the immediate future it is editing that is occupying my time. I’ve an Old Testament intergenerational epic to renovate. So if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to the Bronze Age with me.

*             *             *

A quick reminder that, for the next few days only, Night Shift can be yours for only 99p/99c. Head over to Amazon (I believe it’s an Amazon-only offer – sorry, folks) and grab your e-copy now! It’s, like, good. At least 99p good. The offer ends on Sunday (2nd August), so hurry hurry hurry!

Insufficiently Woke

It’s not easy to be blindsided. That is, of course, a lie: it’s the easiest thing in the world. Dealing with it is another matter.

I took a piece of writing to my writing group on Sunday. I hadn’t really thought anything of it; it was simply the next chapter of the novel I’ve been gradually unrolling. And (I thought) I didn’t really care what people said – this work is getting beta-ed as we speak and I only really took it as I had short notice and wanted to read something.

I’d have been quite happy for a nice simple ‘Yeah, it’s great, no problems here.’

The piece I took was a hot section describing a slum clearance. Lots of nice descriptive language, a few deaths and a bit of emotional trauma. It’s been workshopped before, this piece, and, as I said, I wasn’t expecting much except for a little sharpening here and there.

I got taken to task.

The piece was described as a Westernised, colonialist’s view of the world; it was too nice, too polite; it was an insult to anyone who’s experienced a real, genuine slum clearance, where they run the bulldozers through people’s houses at night and deaths are uncounted, uncared for.

The passion, the anger in my interlocutor’s face was shocking. I was completely taken aback. I still don’t quite know what to feel. I was upset, to put it mildly; thinking back now I still feel the tremors and the anxiety.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about cultural appropriation. I believe in being sensitive to experiences beyond my ken. I’ve watched Twitter arguments play out about unconscious ‘white’ writing and perspectives that erase the experiences of the ‘native’. To be accused of doing the same thing myself? Painful.

So what do I do? I don’t think I can make the scene any nastier, crueller, as it would be out of place in this novel and would probably turn the scene into melodrama. To paraphrase another member of the group, doing ‘better’ would make the novel worse.

And do I believe this person is right anyway? No-one else (and the novel has been read by around a dozen people, though the vast majority are white-British) has commented or complained. Can I make big changes on the back of one person’s objections?

I don’t know that I can. I might add a sentence or two to ask if this slum clearance is typical, if it’s overly mannered, or if it could represent the tip of the iceberg. I will look at doing that. I will also make sure to ask my beta-readers what they think of the scene in question. I will ask them to check me, as I am checking myself.

In the meantime I am trying to get over the shock, and I am looking at myself in a different light, and I am worrying about what this episode says about me as a person. I am deeply flawed, insufficiently Woke; that is not news, but never has it been brought to my attention so baldly.

I suppose I should look upon this as an opportunity to grow.

Shutting down

closed

This is my second attempt at writing this post.

The first one… well, I fear it came off as whingy, or misplaced, or over-wrought – just generally tonally askew. So I’m having another go.

Thing is, I need to talk about the pandemic and explain a little about how it’s affecting me – because this blog is, at its heart, about me and my writing.

But it’s very difficult to moan about my small difficulties when people are dying. When there’s genuine suffering in the world, my small problems don’t amount to a hill of beans. But I’m immunocompromised so I’m at extreme risk of contracting the virus. I’m therefore in isolation for all of twelve weeks, dependent on my wife for all shopping and necessities – and also for all of my social contact.

That doesn’t matter half as much as the fact that my daughter is home from nursery all the time.

A few weeks ago I set out my typical writing week, which basically comes down to this: I write when the little one’s in the care of others. Now all that is worth so much hot air. She’s always here. And though I’m timesharing with my wife, she’s supposed to be working full time so I’ve lost my breathing space.

That’s before we get to the fact that I’m a really bad dad and don’t know how to properly stimulate or educate my child. That’s another issue entirely.

See? Whingy and over-wrought. This is a tough piece to write.

What it comes down to is this: writing has suddenly sunk down my list of priorities. This feels like a bunker situation; we just have to hunker down and get through. Previously I managed to balance paying editing work with my own creative writing. Now I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to write at all.

in the bunker

For the next few months my WIP is on hold. This blog may be on hold as I don’t know if I’ll have anything to write about. All that was solid has melted into air.

I am absolutely certain that I’m not alone in this. I don’t doubt that there are hundreds of artists who are suddenly having to down tools and focus on the immediacies of life.

Hopefully in a week or two I’ll have found a new routine but for now it feels like shutting down. I’m sure I will adjust but there must be many more out there who can’t. To all you creatives out there who are struggling let me just say that I see you, that you’re not alone.

Shakespeare may have written King Lear whilst he was in quarantine but he had servants, financial security and no children to look after. It ain’t the same for us, folks.

But we will get through this. There will be another side. Them pesky kids will go back to school at some point.

Until then we just get through as best we can. Anything we manage to get done is a bonus.