Sunday, May 18, 2008

good writing days and bad

From: Robin

My assumption is that all writers have good days and bad days (writing). Would you be willing to describe what one of each of those days would look like for you? BTW glad to hear your current meds are helping!

This might get complicated. Sometimes it's hard to differentiate a reasonably good writing day from a fairly bad one. However, a brilliant writing day and a terrible writing day are easy to tell apart, so I'll start with those.

A brilliant day begins early, and with energy. I bound out of bed, eat breakfast with Kelley; we laugh at the funnies, sketch out a rough plan for the day (will we both be in for lunch? who is making dinner and what will it be? do we have any appointments--dentist, vet--that day and is it a one- or two-person thing? what decisions will we be making--we usually make decisions during lunch, but it's good to at least look at the shape of things to decide in advance so our hindbrains can be doing the heavy lifting), and then I go exercise. On a really good day I whip through my stretching because I'm eager to get to my desk; pictures, snatches of phrases are falling into my head; I know what music I'll want to listen to, because I understand the emotional arc of the scenes I'm about to write. I get to my desk, open my Hild file, turn on the music--loud, oh very loud; lately I start with a 3-repeat of 'Faster Kill Pussycat' which always gets me pumped--and start reading. Before I know it, I'm correcting the last few lines of yesterday's work, and then, as the rest of my playlist kicks in (current favourite, one I call 'noise', full of Led Zeppelin, Curve, Hednoiz, Pigeonhed, Deep Purple--oh, god, their stuff needs fixing; I'd love to hear a Paul Oakenfold remix of 'Smoke on the Water', the opening riff is so good and then it all goes to hell--Pink Floyd, Evanescence, and of course Brittany Murphy/Paul Oakenfold), zsst, I slide in, I'm there, living the 7th century, seeing it, feeling it, transcribing its rhythms.

At this stage though, I can't afford to completely give it up to Hild. So a little before noon I ease away and do email things--reply to lots of messages on my Yahoo group, deal with business stuff, maybe rough out a future blog post, like this--then I have lunch. After lunch on a brilliant day I take my cup of tea to my office and plunge back in. And now I really do get lost. My playlist is on repeat, I have a huge glass of water to hand, and I just go. On a truly great day I'll write two or three thousand words, and those words will be pivotal to the novel. On those days, I can do no wordly wrong, the sentences purl out, and they're tight and clean and make me just burst with joy when I contemplate them later.

Then I save everything (I save to disk automatically every few seconds--go Alt S--while I'm working, but at the end of the day I order Carbonite to save nownownow, I save to my flashdrive, and--if it's been a particularly productive and brilliant day--upload the file to a private area of my website, too. (This, though, is really rare, usually something I do when I have a whole chunk of a novel done.) Then around six o'clock I roust Kelley from her office and we drink beer and unwind while we prep our dinner. Then we eat. Then we watch TV or read or whatever, at which point I notice how fucking tired I am.

If I'm lucky, after a brilliant day I have a deep and dreamless sleep and wake all sharp and fresh and ready to go again. Sometimes, though, the writing brain is so engaged it won't turn off, and then I just skim sleep while dodging snatches of dialogue and images of What Happens Next.

On a terrible day I feel as though I never quite wake up. I get up and move slowly. I don't want to make decisions, I find the funnies unfunny, I don't give a shit what we're going to have for dinner. I drag myself off to exercise and spend most of the time just lying there, zoning, instead of stretching. No ideas fall into my head. Music is irritating. I open my Hild file and think, Well, what a load of crap. And my mind remains blank. So then I do my email--actually, I read my email but can't be bothered to respond to any of it--and read blogs. Then have lunch. And after lunch I take my tea to the living room and read with the cat on my lap for an hour. Then I haul myself back to my desk, read Hild, and think, Tuh, and wonder what I'd been smoking the day before. And I have no idea how to write what comes next. But I bash my head against it, anyway, for a couple of hours and maybe squeeze out 200 words, which I know I'll end up deleting. Then I give up. I creep into the living room and brood. Then when it's beer time and K says brightly, so how did your work go? I say, I don't want to talk about it! Then we're silent for a moment, then I talk about it.

The good and the so-so and the medium-to-nothing days are more difficult to tell apart. A whole laundry list of factors contribute to making writing easy or hard. Sometimes, writing is hard because I'm tired or emotionally overwhelmed. Sometimes this is connected to the work, sometimes, not. For example, three or four days ago, I was having the hardest time coming to grips with the next section of my novel; I felt a vast reluctance to go there. Partly this was because I was fretting about other things (the cat, actually; he's old and has been unwell) and partly because, unbeknownst to me, the section I was about to embark on was resonating with my grief for my mother and sisters. Once I'd figured that out, though, bam!, I dove back in, and what I've been writing is informed by an extra-rich layer of loss and its possibilities. Sometimes I have a hard time writing because I'm physically uncomfortable, e.g. I've pulled a huge muscle in my back and sitting at a keyboard hurts. Sometimes it's hard because the last thing I wrote was the wrong thing: heading down a bad path, plot- or character-wise.

Sometimes I can have a good writing day yet not write much. This is happening more than usual at the moment, and it's related to writing historical fiction. Writing mainstream fiction is easy--everyone knows what a bed is like, what people eat and wear, how things work. For the seventh century--unlike, say, Regency England (the rake, the dandy, the ball, dance cards), or WWII (the Blitz, rationing, grey skies filled with barrage balloons, weak tea)--there are no handy plug-ins. I have to invent everything, every single thing, from scratch. If Hild walks into the dairy, what does it look like? (Would there be a dairy? Cows were most likely milked in the field, sheep in a pen.) How do you make cheese when there is no stainless steel? What do you store the milk in with no glass, no refrigeration? (You don't; you turn it into cheese and butter and whey.) How many women/girls does it take to milk how many cows and sheep? What are the buckets made of? (Sycamore, because it doesn't leave a nasty aftertaste in the milk.) And that's just process and artefacts. Social relationships were different, too. I've never written anything full of slavery before, never dealt with a heroic society without literacy. (That changes later, of course.) So a good writing day can be a good inventing/visualising day but a not-many-words-on-the-page day.

Writing this novel reminds me of writing Ammonite. There's so much world-building that in order to really visualise it, I need, on some level to spend my days there. This means I can't work for two hours then do something else, like go out for lunch and see a movie. This kind of imaginitive work requires immersion. I can't make phone calls, do interviews, do a reading & signing, go to the neurologist and discuss my treatment at length, because that pops me out of the world, and it takes a while to get back. More and more I wish I could divide my life into chunks: two months on an island without a phone and no ferry, two weeks downtown going to all the fab new restaurants, seeing the films; two months on the island. I hestitate to tell people this, mostly, because it sounds so...self-indulgent and artsy. But it really is becoming more and more necessary for me to become a complete hermit for days at a time.

Where was I? Ah. What seems like a good writing day--a thousand solid words with some nifty metaphors, a plot twist, and a poignant moment--can turn out to be a dead end, and everything created that day, the mental scenes and relationships as well as the words, gets deleted. Or, rarely, it can turn into a good writing day on an entirely different project: a whole scene of dialogue for my sword-swangin' fantasy novel (or, as I'm starting to think of it, my alternate history fantasy), or feverish notes for a new essay.

So, from day to day, it's hard to tell. But, hey, yesterday--I'm pretty sure--was a pretty damn good day. And things are looking promising for today. Two hours from now, with luck, I'll be utterly lost.

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7 comments:

  1. Thank you. This was enlightening.

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  2. Yes, thanks for sharing that. I'd kind of imagined you immersing yourself like that. Thinking that sometimes it must be tough to pull yourself out of that other world.

    Seems funny/odd/incongruous (but not so odd considering it's you) that you listen to that kind of music while dropping into the 7th century. I don't think I'd be able to focus with your "noise" on.

    What a terrific adventure you're on.

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  3. @ Pierce: I thought it would be a short answer, but, well, it just grew

    @ jenniferd: I use the 'noise' list to power my way into a new section, once I'm firmly there, I switch. Today, for example, it's Hedningarna. Just the thing.

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  4. I've come late to the Griffith prose feast, but overindulged, nonetheless. I completed the series and I'm resisting the strong temptation to return to it immediately. As a "writer in training" I am intrigued by the process of every writer I run across. Your description of good and bad days helps, more than you know. You are generous with your insights and your time. Thank You, jeanne

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  5. jeanne, you are welcome. It's my pleasure to share. Good luck with your learning--and feel free to ask questions if you think I can help.

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  6. What a wonderful entry, I've been fighting my bad days this past week. I'd just finished a novella and dived right in to writing a short story that takes place in the same world.

    I thought it would go a lot faster, but world building is really demanding. So much mroe goes into it than what is initially expected due to all the unforseen small details. It's driving me crazy because the story is getting 200 words or (significantly) less a day because I keep having to invent stuff or figure out the mechanics of the world.

    It's like trying to tell someone exactly what time it is while your still building clock gears.

    People ask me why I have a hard time writing and I try to explain how much various interuptions through out the day really throw me off my game. I need that isolation, that time when I can be immersed in the world I'm creating so it can be written in such a way that readers can go there to.

    My friends and family who don't write seem to think writing is similar to building something out of legos. It's just a matter of putting it all together. They don't understand that it's more like creating the plastic to make the legos and then figuring out where it's all supposed to go.

    So thanks for writing this. I think I'll save it so that on my bad days, I can remind myself that it's not just me.

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