Wednesday, 9 March 2016

My Trouble With Writing Multiple Stories At Once

How good are you at scheduling yourself? Pretty good? Very good? Excellent? Jedi Master? I like to think I’m somewhere between very good and excellent… but only on paper. I admit to being a bit nerdy when it comes to organisational skills and I enjoy making sure everything is in its right place, easily referenced and accessible. In one way or another scheduling has been very important in all of my jobs and since taking my interest in self publishing more seriously, just as important, if not more, for my writing and my company. But it can give you a false sense of reality. As we all know from our useless (and fiendishly complex) revision timetables we devised for our school exams, it’s not the perfect division of the week that’s the problem, it’s switching the mindset and concentration from subject to subject that is the issue.

Unless you have practical experience in the subjects you are scheduling yourself into or for, you may put yourself in hot water by taking on more than is feasible or setting too ambitious a target. What looks good on paper must be based on real life knowledge. This is all too obvious when it comes to a subject such as engineering for example, you can produce the most amazing looking design but in reality it may collapse like a tower of playing cards in a typhoon. You can’t be wishy-washy with your calculations, rushing them out in a hurry, and when it comes to writing (not the research involved, just the writing) it’s the same, if you don’t take your time and concentrate fully, you may spend your allocated time (One hour? Three hours? Five hours?) self-obligingly filling the pages with words but it’s just as loose and structurally unsound as that tower of playing cards.

This has been a recent learning experience for me. Up to now I have always focused on one story at a time. Although I always make notes and ideas for the future of course, as well as dealing with getting on with everyday life. I’m talking about actually writing with the aim of completing a short story. I haven’t attempted to complete two stories with an identical deadline.

Things have changed this year. It started off a few weeks back when I set about writing a few short stories (very short and flash fiction) for some competitions. As I blogged previously I decided that this year would be the year I forced myself to enter competitions regularly. I also still fully intend on writing my novel too. But that’s the whole point of being organised isn’t it? Assigning the right amount of time to each task and making sure that work is spread over the weeks and months ahead as if a formal project management task?

So I thought I’d ease my mind a little by spilling my brain onto the page for a bit and talking about the mindset required to jump from one story to another. Or rather, more specifically about the fact I can’t do it.

The reason I am bothering with competitions is that I have so many draft ideas of stories I wanted to use them up in order to both practise/improve my writing (please remember as I write that I am a novice), use them to increase my social media standing (by sharing, I hope to engage with new people) and read some interesting new work (the thought of actually winning any of them has not crossed my mind, I promise).

The problem for me is the amount of time I need to really engage with the characters I am writing about. This is more the case with regards my novel rather than the short stories. In the short stories (you may argue with this, although do remember I am talking about stories that are 1500 words or under for the most part, not the short stories of 10k or 15k+ that I self publish as ebooks) there is no room to explain back-stories and cover the characters in depth. I may know both of those things in my head but you don’t have the room to write about them. Also, with my short stories I am interested in making sure I cover a relevant topic or theme in a way that the story ‘works’ for the competition at hand. For those reasons, most of the hard work comes when thinking up the story in the first place, condensing it to a brief episode and trying to understand what it is I want to convey. The actual typing is relatively quick (and this is where the scheduling comes in). I am entering perhaps three or four competitions a month but I don’t want to spend too much time on them so I set myself strict deadlines. Yes, I feel they could be improved if I spend more time on them but I’ll sacrifice that in order to move on to other projects I am working on. If I spend more than a few hours drafting the story, and perhaps another couple of hours later re-reading and editing than that seriously impacts the time I should be spending on my novel. The key point here being, with the short stories, it is possible to sit down and jump straight into them. I don’t need a huge amount of preparation or thinking time.

The trouble comes when I am sitting down to work on my novel. I have done most of the planning, I know roughly who the main characters are and the overall plot and storyline, however, none of those are mapped out exactly and a lot of the work (fun?) comes from exploring as I write. The thing is, and this is my amateurishness I know, I can’t simply just sit down and write for an hour like I can with the short stories, or indeed any other writing, such as this blog. At this point I have written around 1000 words and it’s taken me twenty minutes or so from the second I opened my laptop. I’ll use this obvious example to make my point. I did not plan this blog, I knew it’s title and the rough content in my mind, but there will be no second, third or fourth draft. I will write it all out at once, work on something else for a bit, come back and re-read it, undertake a brief edit/re-write and then post it. This will take a couple of hours at most. I don’t need to cross reference anything I have already done. I don’t need to think about character reactions or knock on effects to plot. I don’t need to set the scene with any descriptive work, I don’t need to do anything other than splurge my thoughts out in a more or less stream of consciousness manner.

Now with the novel it is entirely different. I am finding more and more that in order just to write a single sentence I need to sit down and think about story and the characters for several minutes. I need to re-read the writing immediately before. It is not a quick process and the suggestion that I can just switch from task to task has turned out to be impossible. I even considered delaying working on my novel for six months so that I didn’t upset myself by constantly trying to move on from short story to short story and then getting stuck when it was time for the novel. It is like I need to enter the world I am creating and walk around in it for a while. I need to look about the location I am setting that particular scene in. I need to feel the temperature, the wind, the sun, listen to the voices and the so on. Sounds all airy-fairy stuff doesn’t it but it’s true. I am not saying I expected writing a novel to be easy, of course not, but I didn’t realise my decaying brain would find it harder and harder to switch between my different modes of writing.

Then again, I remember reading about several well-known established authors’ intentions to write three or four books simultaneously and how they all failed. If the greats’ can’t do it then why in hell do I think I’m capable? Part of it is the creative mind I guess, we like to be busy, even too busy, occupied with many tasks and not lose the thread on any of them in case they may turn out to be fantastic ideas. It’s the delivery I have problems with. Starting projects is easy. Finishing them is… not. We want to make sure we always have content to release but sometimes it just can’t be that way. As much as it is always impressive to hear about how an author wrote a book in a month, or two months, etc. I have to accept that I am not a fast writer and no matter how well I am organised and how far ahead I know my schedule, I shouldn’t put that pressure on myself. If it takes a year, then it takes a year. If I am working on short stories at the same time then maybe it will take two years. It’s not a case of sacrificing either, once you know you cannot give up one or the other, then you have to find a way of doing both and it is usually the case that it simply means allowing for more time.

I really want to write my novel and I am desperate to spend more time on it, but I am also exceptionally keen to write some short stories to enter competitions with at the same time. I think they are both worthwhile for different reasons. Separate to that, I also know I have to be active in growing my company and developing other projects. That is part of the fun of being a self publishing independent writer, you can lead your own life. Yes, you can lead it straight into a muddy ditch, but being positive, you can do everything you want to do. It may just take a while, that’s all. Those who only want to write and have found a way of holding back on everything else in life to solemnly type for eight hours a day on one work, fantastic, I think that’s amazing. Yet, if I have to be slower, but also work on other things at the same time because that’s what I think is important right now, then I have the power and the control to do so. I have no contractual agreement with anyone. I have no financial obligation to anyone. The only person I am ‘hurting’ if I take longer than planned to finish my novel, is me.

The other day was a great example. I worked on two or three different things before finishing a thousand word short story, re-reading and editing it. Then I had set time aside to spend two hours on the novel. That wasn’t enough time. For others it may have been. They may have been able to dive straight in and get cracking. I am no way experienced or skilled enough to be able to do that. It took me several minutes to get the other tasks out of my head, the short stories out of my head and all the issues that had come up in them (those characters were still swarming around my mind long after I was done with them). My head didn’t clear enough to start on the novel properly for at least twenty minutes. That time was wasted. Then it took me another half hour of contemplation before I settled into the world of my novel well enough for my writing to produce anything decent and meaningful. So personally, just making sure I have an hour here, or two hours there, is not good enough when it comes to writing my novel. My brain needs a decent warm up and cool down period!

For me, you cannot break the day up into too many tasks. In order to give myself a good enough ‘warm up’ I must ensure I have three or four totally free hours ahead of me when it comes to my novel. Yes, for other tasks such as the short stories, social media, emails, etc. switching around several times in the same morning, afternoon or evening isn’t a problem. But focusing on the novel must be the most significant (i.e only!) task within that set period. It sounds so incredibly obvious but it’s just one of those things I find hard to change about myself, the attempt, the compulsion even, to take on too many things at once.

I hope this all made sense, it feels better to get this off my chest and it’s also a way of telling myself to be stricter with my task allocation. I’ll never finish the bloody thing otherwise.

Cheers all,

R.G Rankine