Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A balanced writing diet

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Later this week, if all goes well, I’ll finish the rough draft of my third novel. The last two books in this series have been written under a fair amount of time pressure, with nine to ten months devoted in each case to assembling a big, complex story that ideally would take a couple of years or more. All the same, I’m very happy with how City of Exiles turned out, and I’m hopeful that the same will be true of the novel I’m writing now, even if the current draft looks more like a loose, baggy monster. Still, at my lowest moments, there are times when I consider the work I’ve done this year and the work that is still to come and think that I never want to write another novel again. It’s an exhausting process, extended over the course of many months with no end in sight, and I sometimes feel like I’ve been writing this novel forever—which may be one reason why I’ve just changed its title from The Scythian to Eternal Empire.

Once I finish this draft, my plan is to spend another week polishing it, as well as fixing its many internal consistencies, and then send it to my agent and a few other readers for their thoughts. After that, I’ll take a short break. In an ideal world, I’d put the novel in a drawer for a month or more—Stephen King recommends staying away from it for at least six weeks—but my compressed schedule means that this will have to be a rather short vacation of two weeks or so. In theory, I could spend that time doing anything I want, and part of me would be happy to curl up in the corner with a big pile of John D. MacDonald novels. But what I’m probably going to do is write a short story, hopefully a novelette, for submission to Analog or elsewhere. It may seem strange to take a break from an intense, time-sensitive writing project with more of the same, but I’m really looking forward to it. Among other things, I’ve found that the only way to return to a writing project with fresh eyes is to write something else in the meantime.

Perhaps more importantly, a short writing project provides, in miniature form, many of the pleasures I’ve missed as a novelist over the last couple of years. The most exciting time in any writer’s life is the very beginning of a project, when you’ve hit on a good idea that could go in any number of directions. You know there’s a story here, but you’re not quite sure what it is, and you can still look forward to the absorbing work of creating characters, doing background research, and sketching out the bones of a plot. It’s the greatest game in the world, and the reason I became a writer in the first place. With a novel, however, that part of the process tends to occupy only a fraction of the actual time spent writing, with most of your working hours devoted to the often tedious task of realizing an inspiration from months or years before. That’s especially true of series fiction, with the constraints it imposes of characters and tone, and although it can be rewarding in other ways, that initial sense of discovery is harder to maintain.

That’s why I’m convinced it’s so important for a writer to maintain a balanced diet of writing projects: novels, short fiction, maybe even essays or poetry. Each form provides challenges and pleasures of its own, and focusing on one to the exclusion of others neglects important parts of one’s writing mind. If I did nothing but write novels, I’d spend years between those moments of fundamental inspiration that make the rest of the process worthwhile; but if I did nothing but write short stories, I’d find my imagination sparked by something new on a regular basis, but miss out on the satisfaction of working through all of a story’s implications. The only solution is to make time for stories along the entire spectrum of length and complexity. As I’ve noted before, the financial return on writing short fiction is as close to zero as it can possibly be without actually becoming negative, but its spiritual rewards are far greater. Without this kind of balanced diet, I couldn’t stay healthy as a writer. And I’m looking forward to the next course.

(Note: Over the next few days, I’ll be discussing the origins and development of my novelette “The Voices,” which appeared in the September 2012 issue of Analog. If you’re interested in following along, you can buy and read the issue online.)

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2012 at 9:52 am

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