Writing a book, as the old adage goes, isn’t the hard part. I mean, yeah, it’s hard. It’s a butt-ton of work. For me, writing books isn’t the hard part. It’s something I do, more or less, whether or not I want to. But while the writing part isn’t exactly a mystery to me, there have been some real challenges over the past few years that have challenged everything I thought about writing.
First thing? In 2008/2009, I was learning to write novels. Like, write them and finish them. I wrote a lot between 08-10, until my hands gave out. Yup, literally my hands stopped allowing me to write, and RSI just about destroyed me. Sure, I learned how to do it, but the cost was stupidly high. At the time, I was working from home part-time and raising my son. While I wouldn’t say that writing was easy, I did have moments where I could dedicate hours if necessary to the process. Plus, creating fantastical worlds was just a great way to cope with the stress.
When my husband lost his job in 2010, I went back to work full time. My RSI was gone, but suddenly I had a very different existence. I spent most of the day in front of the computer, and the last thing I wanted to do was get home and write more. Those two years were the least productive.
Then, pregnancy. I’ve written about this before but, when blessed with the (kind of freaky) miracle of gestating human life, my creative brain just shuts off. While I incubated my daughter, I played a hell of a lot of Bejeweled, crocheted, and watched far more of The Vampire Diaries than was good for me. My husband got laid off from his job, but we continued.
But! After the pregnancy, my brain woke back up, and the husband got a new job. And Rock Revival came to be. In four months.
The elation wasn’t to last, because soon after I went back to work. Then my husband was laid off. Again. I started Watcher of the Skies, the followup to Pilgrim of the Sky and… well, it took a long time. The story was there, and in fits and starts I would get parts done, but overall the stress of life and a full time job (which I love) negated that part of me. And that’s not something I take lightly. I was really, really angry with myself. And kind of depressed.
Reading these last few paragraphs, you probably see something here. Ups and downs. Peaks and valleys. The only relative constant was writing. And I started to get really frustrated with my output. I couldn’t stay in the brain of the book for very long. The pressure of being the breadwinner, the challenges of raising a son with autism, the death of a close friend to the family–so much seemed to stop me from slipping into Second World and Joss’s story, even though I wanted to tell it with every bone in my body.
Then entered Pinterest. I had started a board for Watcher of the Skies some months back, but I hadn’t really done much with it. Just an atoll or two. But I saw new inspiration all over, especially in Arts and History sections. Those images, over six hundred of them, started to build, to percolate. On days that I was too tired, I wasn’t entirely leaving Joss’s world. Sure, writing didn’t happen directly (and even when it did, it was still slow due to research)–but, I wasn’t feeling disconnected from the book. When I was depressed or angry about my lack of connection, I’d just open up the app on my iPad and start pinning. The word therapeutic comes to mind, but in a very literal sense. Treating my brain like a muscle that had forgotten how to latch on to my imagination, I lumbered along.
And it worked.
All those images, all those alleyways of unexpected research? It literally saved the novel. I make no bones about being a shiny-grabby raven. And having that visual connection to my novel, even when the words weren’t flowing, meant that I had a kind of latent gain regardless of the situation. And I finished the book!
But that’s not all.
After I finished Watcher, I took some time off to think about my next project. Ideas are never really my problem. And in talking to my most awesome friend Jonathan Wood, who writes completely differently than I do, it occurred to me that while my life had changed significantly over the last five years, my writing process hadn’t. I’ve been a pretty ardent pantser. And in the context of my first few books, that approach totally made sense. But now, it doesn’t.
Jonathan, aside from just being a spectacular writer and friend, is also a top notch blogger. And his bit here on writing process really served as an ah-ha moment for me. While it’d doubtful that I’ll ever be quite as methodic as him, having a little more structure in my process will, no doubt, go a long way. No, you don’t have to adhere 100% to an outline. But doing work ahead of time, especially when you know your life is hectic and unpredictable, means that you spend less time in the Zone of Meh. Y’know, where nothing happens.
While Jonathan uses Tumblr, I prefer Pinterest. But other than that, in starting work on Bone Dust (Men In Black meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the Old West) I’ve decided to lean more on process. At the moment, I’m fleshing out characters, and making little profiles for them. It’s a bit like assembling the party in D&D, and so long as I don’t get too formulaic with it, it’s no big deal.
Even cooler? I used to pooh-pooh process folks because there was no chance to be surprised. But that’s not how it works. In fact, I was just as shocked and surprised while fleshing out Jennie Cain’s rough profile, below, as if she had burst into a scene unannounced. A chimera? What?
Mrs. Cain — Jennie Cain says she’s a former madam, but she isn’t. She just tells people that because it’s easier than the truth. The truth is that she’s a mixed blood African/Navajo and is her own twin. She’s a chimera. That means she shares her body and soul with someone else, whom she refers to as “the Mister”—and she is “the Missus”. Jennie is whip smart and clever, with a killer aim, and Araby depends on her implicitly when they get into trouble. She’s also a horse speaker, so when it comes to transport there’s never an issue if she’s around. The Mister appears in the evening, when Jennie sleeps, and regales the group with songs in Navajo, and has been known to guide them on a spirit journey when the need called for it. The Mister is also the conduit through which Nascha Chee communicates with her team.
Visual: Medium height, dresses in men’s clothing. Round face, black eyes, black and silver hair. Darker skin. Long braids, and some Navajo insignia.
So yeah. If you want a career as a writer, it’s not just about figuring it out. It’s about figuring it out all over again. And leaning on your friends. And using the right tools.