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Writing Wednesday: Fits and Starts

The other day, I received an email asking for advice on how to deal with a fragmented schedule that necessitated constantly putting down and then picking up again that work in progress.

I’d say that’s a real concern for all of us who write around other things, whether it’s family, work, school, or, in my case these days, other books. It’s hard to find uninterrupted chunks of time, and certainly not an uninterrupted chunk of time in which one can write that whole book, from start to finish.

Maybe it’s just making a virtue out of necessity, but I think there are positive aspects to fits and starts writing:

1. It weeds out the weak stories.

I don’t know about you, but if I put something down and it has completely lost my attention by the time I get back to it a month or two later, that’s generally a good sign that it wasn’t a book with staying power. The ideas that stick are the ones that haunt me through the months in which I can’t pursue them because I’m working on other things. Pink Carnation certainly wasn’t the first novel I’d ever started, but it was the one that survived being put down for an entire nine months while I was teaching undergrads the rudiments of Western Civilization (Ancient Greece to 1650).

There’s one big caveat to this. No matter how fabulous the book is, you will hit a point, generally somewhere in the middle, where you can’t stand the sight of it. That’s when you have to ignore the above and power through. I deal with this by something I call my “tipping point”. If I have less than a hundred double spaced pages written and it’s not going anywhere, I’m free to ditch it and start over. If I have that hundred double spaced pages (or thereabouts), I have to keep going. If the story brought me that far, it’s a story worth pursuing. Usually, if it’s an idea that’s not going to pan out, I bottom out at under fifty pages. I’m guessing that you probably have your own tipping point.

2. Gaps between writing time give your subconscious the chance to gnaw away at plot problems.

Most of my early books were written around school obligations which required my abandoning the manuscripts for weeks at a time, or, later, on weekend time salvaged from my law firm job, which turned Monday through Friday into a writing dead zone for me. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having those gaps gave me time for the story to develop in my head, for my subconscious to work through problems and plot points that I might otherwise have forced into the wrong direction if I had been writing straight through. My original outline for Pink I bears very little resemblance to the finished book, which had those nine months I mentioned above in which to percolate. Now, as I write full time, I sometimes have to take enforced breaks so that the story will have time to coalesce properly.

Just because I work this way doesn’t mean everyone does or should, but if you are in a situation that necessitates long breaks between sessions at the computer, take heart! It’s not all bad.

Even when you don’t have time to actively write, the transition is easier if you’ve kept the story in your head in between. I find that scribbling notes long hand while I’m traveling or otherwise unable to carve out a decent chunk of writing time does a lot to help me keep the story fresh in my head, even if I never look at those notes again. Likewise, using walking or driving time to think through plot points, even if it’s another few weeks before you’ll have time to pick up the manuscript again, does a lot to keep the plot percolating and makes it easier to pick the pages up again when you do have the chance.

Often, I find this happens naturally– when I give myself license to take some time off from the book and not think about it is always when I have my best ideas.

So those are my two cents on managing fits and starts writing. What are your strategies for coping with those gaps between writing time?

7 Comments

  1. Jane B on September 5, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for the encouraging words, and thanks for encouraging me to post this bit from my email to you:

    We’ve been having severe drought here in Colorado, so I think of the thinking and scribbling random bits as the writing equivalent of the minimum amount of water that will keep a plant alive, if not exactly thriving. If the plant survives, it does tend to be deeply rooted.

  2. Jane B on September 5, 2012 at 11:51 am

    It’s also great to have a published writer agree that yes, sometimes there are chunks of time when you truly can’t write. Too many times, we hear a Respected Authority intone the advice that you must write every day, even your birthday (Hey, I can do that-it’s other people’s birthdays that are sometimes a problem) or you’re just not serious.

  3. Jessica S. on September 5, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    I, too, am glad to hear you say it. My writing is academic writing and must be scheduled around teaching, service, email responses to students, meetings, etc., etc., plus that little thing we call life. Yet my future in my job (aka tenure) rests on it. I’ve had to take the summer away from editing papers and as I come back to them, and planning other projects, I do feel refreshed and I am looking at them with new eyes.

    And I maintain that sometimes you just need 15 minutes of The Big Bang Theory YouTube videos to get your thoughts sorted…It’s not a walk through Central Park, but it’ll do 🙂

  4. CĂ©line on September 5, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    I can only write in small chunks of time (not enought time for more writing) and I always have the feeling that it’s not enough, that I’ll never get to the end of my story… But I think that’s the way I seem to be functionning. As soon as I start writing, I come across a problem or a transition that I don’t know how to handle and I need to stop writing and think about it. I had a nice and full outline, that revealed itself very bad when I actually tried to write it so I need to unfold my story as I write it. I guess in the end, I’m not that good a plotter… so it is kind of a good thing that I don’t have that much time to write!

  5. Shannon M. Howell on September 5, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Gaps can be useful. If it weren’t for gaps I wouldn’t have realized I made the major error of forgetting a character was supposed to be (very) pregnant. Oops!

  6. Kiley on September 7, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I’m not doing much better than you are when it comes to reading contemporary literature. Jane Austen (all of the Juvenilia and Northanger Abbey) and Restoration Comedy (at the moment The Country Wife) own my life at the moment. It could be worse, but I hope to have a chance to sneak in some Joanne Fluke and Dianne Mott Davidson in this weekend.

  7. Kiley on September 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

    that was supposed to go under weekly reading round up. idk why it got sent here.

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