When the holiday jollies are long gone and the weather is ceasing to be an excuse for binge-watching Buffy, thoughts turn to finally making good on those New Year resolutions. Perhaps this is the year you promised yourself you would write that fantasy novel that’s been simmering away in the dark corners of your brain, or dust off the old sci fi you started in college.
And then reality sets in and you hit the mother of all snags. Just when are you supposed to write this shiny beautiful thing of words and ink? You have a full time job; the kids are small and need constant attention; the chronic migraines are making your life a hell on earth; you’ve taken on way too many commitments to fit in writing time; the demands are incessant and never, ever seem to stop. The shiny beautiful thing starts to fade into the distance and lose its sparkle. “Someday”, you tell yourself. “Some other time.”
But there is no perfect golden time to write that novel. Very few authors have the luxury of endless free hours in which to write. But they carve out their moments. They find a way. I’ve invited two fantastic authors to tell us a little about juggling time and making it all fit in, somewhere, somehow.
Anne Lyle is the author of the Night’s Masque trilogy (Angry Robot), the story of swordsman-turned-spy Mal Catlyn. The Alchemist of Souls, The Merchant of Dreams, and The Prince of Lies lead us in and out of the intrigues of 16th century politics and the international affairs involving the mysterious skraylings from the New World. Anne’s exciting prose is a lot of sword-swishing fun, and paints a great picture of life during the Elizabethan period.
Epic fantasy fans will find Elspeth Cooper’s The Wild Hunt quartet (Gollancz/Tor) an absolute treat. The first three novels, Songs of the Earth, Trinity Rising, and The Raven’s Shadow, tell a tale of magic woven deep into the world around us, and those caught in its song: Gair, an orphan brought up by the Church to be a Knight, and Teia, a clanswoman fighting against both her own fate and that of the entire land.
Juliana: Welcome Anne and Elspeth. Now, a lot of people never even begin writing in the first place because they think they can’t find time. Could you start by telling us about when you first began writing? What made you decide it was a good moment for it?
Elspeth: I’ve always maintained that if you really want to write, you will find the time, because you can’t not write. But that’s just the way it happened for me; others’ mileage will vary, of course.
I was still at school when I started writing stories. It began as the kind of ‘What I Did on My Holidays’ homework that ends up five or six times longer than that of the rest of the class, and is still not finished come Monday morning. By 14, I was tackling novel-length fiction, and the die was well and truly cast. Epic fantasy, here I come!
But I have to say, there was no conscious decision to start writing. As a teenager, I wasn’t anything like self-aware enough to know what I was doing. It was more a case of stories leaking out of me, and having to put them somewhere.
Anne: I started writing back in my teens, but like many people I didn’t take it all that seriously – I just had a vague dream of being published one day – and then of course career and family got in the way. In 2002 a major milestone birthday was looming and I realised I was still no further forward with my dream than I had been as a kid, and I knew I would still be in the same position a decade later if I didn’t do something about it. Right there and then I vowed I would get a novel written and published before the ten years was up. Technically I missed that deadline by two weeks, but I did have the review copies a couple of months before that, so I’m counting it as a win.
Juliana: What are currently the biggest hurdles you face in order to write?
Elspeth: There isn’t one big one, so much as a collection of little inconveniences that mount up and eat away at the days. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, but it took another five years before I could give up the day job. So I should have all day to write, right? Uh, not really. A big part of this disease is fatigue, which can manifest itself as muscle weakness, cognitive issues/brain fog, and problems with balance and stamina. It’s also a fluctuating condition, so some days I can get a full five or six hours at the keyboard, and on others I’m lucky to be able to make myself a cup of tea without hurting myself. It’s frustrating!
Anne: For me, it’s my day-job. I’m a web developer on a bioinformatics resource used by scientists around the world, and whilst that’s very rewarding it also demands a lot of mental energy and concentration. It’s far too tempting to spend my spare time doing something less demanding than wrangling a 150,000-word manuscript!
Juliana: What’s an average week like for you, as a writer?
Anne: My week varies hugely depending on where I am in a project – I’m somewhat of a binge writer, so I’m generally more productive if I power through a draft and then take a break for a week or two to recharge my batteries. That said, mornings and weekends are my usual time for writing; I’m lucky enough to have a study of my own where I can shut myself away, and no small children demanding attention. The cats, however, are a different matter…
Elspeth: As you can probably guess from the last answer, it tends to vary. I’m usually up at about 8am, ease myself into the day with a bit of social media, then work until my husband comes home. We have dinner and a bit of family time, then I put in another couple of hours before clocking off. If things are going really well, I might get another hour or so on the laptop in bed, whilst hubby gets his beauty sleep.
Some days can be really productive; others feel more like digging coal with a teaspoon. With MS, there’s no such thing as “working faster” or “trying harder” because it’s not laziness or distractions that I have to overcome. I simply cannot do it. Consequently, I don’t work to word-count or page-count targets, because it’s too stressful when I don’t hit them. I’ve learned to be happy with just feeling I’ve achieved something, whether that’s 50 words or five pages of editing.
Juliana: Could you share some tips with those who are struggling to fit writing time into their lives?
Anne: Basically you just have to suck it up and do it. Chuck Palahniuk famously wrote “Fight Club” in 15-minute stints during his breaks at work. If you can’t find a few minutes here and there during the day, you need to either get up earlier or go to bed later (depending on whether you’re a lark or an owl). If you want it badly enough, you _will_ find time.
Also, don’t wait for the muse to strike. Get out your notebook or laptop or phone or whatever, and focus on getting something – anything – on the page, no matter how clunky or dull it reads; you can always polish it later, once you have the whole story worked out. The more you write, the easier it becomes to slip into the zone, and the better your writing will be.
Elspeth: The best thing I’ve found is to carry around a notebook and pen, or even just a note-taking app on your phone, and use it to record your ideas. On the bus, in the bath, in your lunch-break at work. It mounts up. I wrote a good chunk of my first book on a Psion Series 3a organizer on the train to work (that’ll tell you how old I am!).
Another good tip is to carve out a block of time for yourself and make it absolutely sacrosanct: this is your writing time, and nothing short of the end of the world as we know it should interrupt it. Every day is best, once a week if you have to, but try to make it a routine. You will quickly find yourself looking forward to it.
And don’t forget thinking time! I find showering, washing the dishes or weeding the garden can be particularly productive. My story-brain is always processing, especially whilst my hands are busy with something boring or repetitive.
Juliana: What’s the strangest place or oddest snatched moment you’ve used for writing?
Elspeth: The strangest was in the ladies’ loo at my old job. No lie – that scribbled idea led to a pivotal scene in my first book!
Anne: I’m not sure I think of anywhere as a strange place to write – I’ve become so used to always having a notebook or my phone with me, so I can jot down ideas as and when they come to me. For example I wrote the entire first draft of my first published short story on the way to work one day, using my iPhone. It was only 400-odd words, so I had to flesh it out later, but that’s usually the way I work anyway.
Juliana: With all your dedication to carving out writing time, are there any upcoming projects you can share with us?
Elspeth: I am hip-deep in finishing my four-book Wild Hunt series at the moment, so my future projects are no more than a twinkle in my eye. However, I have plans for a standalone novel in the Wild Hunt universe that features a down-on-his-luck gentleman assassin and a mark who’s not quite what she seems, and another, slightly more literary thing that I’m calling a ‘historical fantasy road movie’.
Anne: I’m still working on the first book of a new fantasy series, this time set in a wholly invented world, though it borrows from our history. I guess you’d call it clockpunk, since the setting is pre-industrial and somewhat 17th-18th century in flavour. It’s a bit different from my previous series in that there’s not much romance and swordplay, but there’s plenty of action and intrigue and some really cool stuff that draws on my science background but with a fantasy twist.
It takes me a long time to get into a new series, since I don’t know the characters’ motivations and personalities, so I have no clue when it will be finished (or published). Before another decade has passed, though – I think I can promise that much!
Juliana: Besides all those stolen moments for writing, writers also need to find time to read! What’s on your current to-read pile?
Anne: I’ve just finished “Of Noble Family” by Mary Robinette Kowal, which is an excellent conclusion to her Regency fantasy series – so gripping, in fact, I read the whole thing in a couple of days. Next up is either “Labyrinth of Flame” by Courtney Schafer or “Shards of Time” by Lynn Flewelling, depending on whether I fancy ereader or dead trees. The latter is also an end-of-series novel, and the former is the third in what I think is a trilogy, so a lot of fictional goodbyes coming up! I also need to buy a copy of “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen” by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is the latest (and possibly last) in her Vorkosigan series.
Elspeth: I have a dreadful habit of buying books faster than I can read them, and then I can’t decide what to read next because there’s always something new. That said, I’m eagerly awaiting THE SILVER TIDE, the conclusion to Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy, so that’s probably first up. After that, I think I’m going to dive into Courtney Schafer’s THE WHITEFIRE CROSSING, which has been waiting far too long.
Juliana: A big thank you to Elspeth and Anne for sharing a little of what it takes to get those words down. So there you go, folks: always carry a notebook with you…and maybe leave one in the bathroom just in case!
Find book information, interviews, and blog posts at Elspeth Cooper’s website, www.elspethcooper.com. Elspeth tweets as @ElspethCooper and she has an author page on Facebook.
Check out Anne Lyle’s website – www.annelyle.com – for further information on her work, as well as blog posts on writing and technology. You can also find Anne on Twitter @AnneLyle.
Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out January’s Spotlight on SFF Gatherings with Alex Davis, Joanne Hall, and Steven Poore. Next up in March: Spotlight on Writing Horror.