When I started writing novels in my mid-forties, I began the journey with several clear understandings about how I work. As an executive, my efficiency had depended upon particular features of my temperament I assumed were enduring. As a writer, I tried to apply those same aspects to my new career.
- I don’t like to multi-task. I hyper-focus on things and grind it out until it’s done. No breaks, no stops, no rest for the weary.
- I get more accomplished by hyper-focus thing then I would taking breaks or jumping from task to task. Nose to the grindstone, that’s me.
- I like deep focusing on one thing. Write one series at a time, live in it, know it backward and forward. No distractions.
- I write better at night.
- I crave deadlines.
Understanding that this was who I was, and this is how I worked for years, this is how I started my writing career.
I picked one genre, one series world, one character. I created spreadsheets and word calculators and targets and deadlines. If I didn’t feel like writing, it didn’t matter—I wrote. If I woke up and wasn’t feeling inspired, it didn’t matter. I had a deadline. If I was getting so bored with the characters and story I was writing that my instinct was to wipe them all out with one strategically placed meteor? It didn’t matter.
I had a job.
I operated that way for two years. It’s a job, I told myself. It doesn’t matter that it’s creative or romantic. At the end of the day, it’s just a job.
When your narrative changes
In 2018, something forced me to reevaluate these things about me—because none of them were working. The removal of my thyroid in November changed so many things about me it shocked me no one warned me it could happen.
In October 2018, I was a night owl. I could work myself into exhaustion for hours and hours at a time. Breaks just annoyed me. I wouldn’t get hungry throughout the day, living on the stereotypical writer’s diet of coffee. I could stay up till four a.m. writing only to wake up at ten a.m. the next day and do it all over again. I had a wellspring of energy. Well, intellectual energy. They didn’t yank the entire thyroid out for no reason. I could work for ten hours a day and never break a sweat.
December 2018? Well, that was a whole different story.
I could no longer work for hours without a break as my brain would gradually get coated in a fog of confusion. Where I had been a “panster”, able to hold entire worlds and stories and plot lines in my head and keep them straight, I now found if I didn’t write things down I might forget them. If I forgot them, I could spin the story off in a direction that didn’t dovetail with the beginning.
I needed breaks. I couldn’t stay awake past eleven p.m. at night, collapsing with exhaustion and weariness I didn’t even know human beings could suffer. Even when I tried, I couldn’t push myself to sleep past seven a.m.—that may have been the toughest blow. I had wrapped my identity up in my night owl nature. Who the hell was this morning person?
And yet a morning person I was, granted about four hours of clear thinking from the drugs that had replaced my thyroid. By lunch every day, I began a slow and steady struggle toward avoiding a collapse.
The Hero’s Journey
And yet, I learned about writing as an artist.
I released what I understood about myself, the pragmatic and robotic worker that chipped away at a task until I did it. I had to dig deep, to reevaluate myself in the new situation I was in. I had to understand I was different, what I could do was different, and I wasn’t who I had been for all those years.
It wasn’t fun. Letting go of what you know about yourself, having an outside force change who you are? It’s never fun. I hadn’t expected the changes, and so they took me by surprise. I fought against them for longer than I should have.
But I also discovered something.
Inspiration, intuition, and desire could be fuel, and they worked better than panic at missing deadlines. I could use it to keep the fog at bay, to keep the plot lines from twisting. If I was excited and inspired by the story, I could focus longer and write more.
I wrote more when I switched from series to series or world to world because I didn’t burn out or want to kill everybody with the meteor. I took breaks. I wrote first thing in the morning, giving the stories the four prime hours they seem to be granted each day. If I wasn’t inspired, I did something else and didn’t sweat the lack of progress—as long as I wrote something that day in some WIP, that was what was important. Screw deadlines. Who needs ’em? I wrote better, faster, and more fueled by inspiration as opposed to fear of failure.
All of these things I was sure were not me became me—because I let go of how it used to be and got to know who I was now.
Am I slower now? Absolutely. I had planned to get 6 to 8 books out in 2019, and I now believe I’ll only get four. I apologize to my readers for that, but I also have to take a much more zen attitude to it all. That’s what morning people do, right?
Hey, I’m still quicker than George RR Martin.
(P.S. Much of these epiphanies were inspired by Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme. If you’re a writer and you’re trying to twist yourself into a pretzel doing what’s “expected”, pick this up. It came into my awareness at almost the exact right time for me.)