Nancy: Boom and Bust

Several weeks ago, I found myself in a familiar place. I was coming off a big day-job project, which had included long hours every day for the last couple of weeks to complete it. I hadn’t been able to touch my writing during that time and for weeks before that, because even when I wasn’t working quite as many hours, I was expending all my mental energy on that other job. But now that I and my team had completed that project and submitted it to the customer, I was able to reclaim my life, including my writing time. “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” right?

Um, no.

When last I’d communed with my writing, I’d been on a hot streak (despite that pesky novella that I’ve struggled to revise). I was writing for long hours and wracking up word counts, knowing all the while it couldn’t last. I’d signed a consulting contract. A company was going to write me a monthly check; it stood to reason at some point they’d want me to do something to earn that money. Then I got a call saying a project that was supposed to start in October was actually starting six weeks early. I went cold turkey on my writing. Turns out, by the time I finally got back to it, it had gone cold turkey on me. I had one novella and one full-length novel in need of revision, and the first act of a second full-length novel all set in the same story world. I also had the first half of my women’s fiction story waiting for completion. But when I sat down at the computer, I couldn’t get back into any of those story worlds. I’m not going to lie – some panic set in. After all, it’s only a matter of time before I get the next call about the next day-job project, and then I’ll have to go cold turkey on writing again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I had become, without even trying, a boom and bust writer. Boom and bust is an economic term that describes repeated cycles of economic expansion followed by economic contraction. In my writing life, it describes my repeated cycle of creative frenzy followed by a long dry spell. Does it work? Well it must, I thought, because I don’t really have a choice. The intensity and long hours of my day job mean that when I’m on a deadline, my writing is forced into hibernation, into a creative bust period. The hope is always that when the project ends and my writing can move to the forefront, I’ll make up for lost days and weeks and word counts.

But just as hope is not a method of birth control, it’s also not a great method for birthing a book. So when I finally had the opportunity for a creative boom but just couldn’t get back into my story or get words on the page, it seemed like a great time to review the evidence of the past few years and evaluate how well this approach had really worked.

It wasn’t pretty.

Over the 5 or 6 years since I moved into a high level in my non-writing profession and picked up my boom and bust writing habits, I managed to start several stories, finish some of those, and get all the way through the revision process on a precious few. But I’m not writing and finishing enough. I’m not working at a publishing-worthy pace, and like some of the other Ladies, I have plans for 2018 to be a publishing year. My writing shortfalls are not all the fault of those busy times when I’m pulled completely away from my stories. I lose days, weeks, sometimes even months readjusting to daily life and catching up on the other things in the world, all the while waiting for my brain to get back in sync with my stories. So while in theory boom and bust writing seems like a good way to meet my unique writing time needs, in reality it’s doing more harm to my process than good.

After a couple of weeks of being convinced I’d never write another word of fiction again, I got my mojo back, with a little help (which I’ll discuss in more detail over the next few weeks). Just as importantly, I’ve made some plans to avoid future boom and bust writing cycles. Right now, I’m pacing myself, sticking to a comfortable (or some days, slightly uncomfortable) canter that keeps my word count growing and my story moving without overwhelming me or burning me out. When that day job comes a-callin’ again, as it’s bound to do, I plan to carve out a few afternoon hours (my prime writing time) most days to keep up with my writing. And when the day-job project reaches that critical point where it requires my undivided attention, my goal is to find quick ways to revisit the story – re-read a few pages, brainstorm about an upcoming scene, research something easy to find – for a half hour or so as often as possible. To keep my writing on track, I need to avoid the burn-outs of booms and the momentum-killing of busts, and not spend more than a few days at a time away from my story world.

Are you a boom and bust writer? Are your writing habits working for you, and if not, when’s the last time you examined your process to see if there’s something your creative brain wants to do differently?


12 thoughts on “Nancy: Boom and Bust

  1. It is super hard to stay in a story world when 10 or 12 or 14 hours in a day are focused on a high-intensity job where you have to think all the time. By the time that’s over, who has enough bandwidth to do anything but take a hot bath and hope for a better tomorrow? You’re a super-organized and highly productive person, so if anyone can still spend a few minutes a day working on/looking at/thinking about fiction after a day like that, you can. I admire your energy! And good luck. I hope you find a rhythm in your boom-and-bust cycles that works for you.

  2. I don’t have quite the same cycle, since it was only about a year and a half ago that my life took a turn that brought me away from my writing. I mean, before that, I had cycles, but shorter cycles, and the reasons behind the “bust” periods weren’t nearly as good as the reason for my last year-and-a-half hiatus was.

    Anyway, now that I’m back to my writing, and I know there will be times in the future where my job will pick up in frenzy, I LOVE your idea about finding smaller, shorter ways to keep your head in the story world. I enjoy re-reading certain parts of my own work (yes, well, it’s my work…), so I think that will help.

    Thank you for sharing this plan. I admire your determination, and hope it goes well for you!

    • It’s tough to come back after a long break, Kristi, so don’t be hard on yourself if it takes some time. I had to completely step away from writing for about nine months once, and then came back and wrote utter crap for about nine more months. But eventually it came back together. Good luck with getting back in the game!

      • The first few weeks of me coming back to my writing mostly involved me reading almost everything I’ve written in the last 10 years. I can attest that just reading over your own material can keep your head in the right place (or bring it back to that place).Thanks for the encouragement!

  3. I’ve been boom or bust (mostly bust) recently. Being PTA president the last two years sapped the life out of me. Who knew it’d be a full-time job? I’ve been “retired” since June and I find myself trying to figure out how to get back into writing without getting sucked out again. I’m looking forward to hearing your strategies for getting into it.

    I think one of my problems has been me saying to myself, “I’ll write when I finish X” (whether X is laundry or bills or cleaning or running errands or that silly Pinocchio party for my 3rd grader’s class that I somehow got sucked into coordinating). I think I need to do it in reverse and say I’ll clean/pay bills/whatever AFTER I’ve put in a certain word count for the day.

    I also think I need to find little pockets of time, like you suggested, and do ANYTHING related to my story, whether it’s plot out the next chapter or research or even read what I’ve written (but not EDIT yet — see next paragraph).

    The third problem I think I have related to my progress (really, lack thereof) is spending time editing each chapter after I write it. Granted, I got into this habit with my critique partner — we’d exchange chapters after we’d written them, doing our Margie Lawson EDITs, and the pacing of doing that DID get me to a completed first draft. However, I don’t think that’s sustainable for me this time around. I need to get this first draft (of the same story I already wrote, but this time written from a different POV and with different things happening) done in its entirety, THEN go back and revise, trading revised chapters at a time with my CP.

    However you dice it, I feel your pain. Holidays, vacations, and days the kids aren’t in school present problems, too, as carving out writing on those days is hard, too, but I’ll have to figure out something. As I said, I’m looking forward to what you can teach us.

    • A lot of writers say that every book has its own process, and that might be what you’re finding with your WIP, Neen. Also, it seems the more seasoned writers become, the less they edit in first-draft phase, which is likely a confidence thing, but could also be a bit of a get-the-damn-book-done thing.

      Just to give a little preview of what I’ll be discussing in the next few weeks, I started using an approach or series of approaches (not sure what else to call it) taught by a lady named Jen Loudon. It includes lots of self-care and compassion to ‘get your scary shit done’, and also trains you to be observant and mindful about your own process, pitfalls, time sinks (sound familiar?), etc. One of the best things for me was identifying my best work pattern – when and how my brain focuses best on writing. Turns out, I’m primarily an afternoon writer, despite being a night owl writer and early morning writer in the past. And I cannot write in small chunks of time, which for me is anything less than a few uninterrupted hours. I really envy those people who can write for 15 minutes to a half-hour over lunch, but I’m never going to be one of those people. In small chunks of time I can re-read or brainstorm, but not get story words onto the page.

      So if there’s one thing I’d recommend you do this week, it’s identify what specifically you need to get writing done – time, place, space, etc. Look at past ‘successful’ sessions and productive periods of time, and be honest about what does and doesn’t work for you. It’s easier to start aiming for something if you’ve got a defined target.

      • I would seriously like to check out this approach by Jen Loudon, except it’s another thing to take me away from writing. Maybe after I finish this first draft…in the meantime, I’m going to experiment with writing at night to see if that’s doable. I think I’m like you, too, in that I want to write a complete scene…not just parts of it (15 mins here or there), which requires a few hours on my part. Once I get into it, I’m really into it, and I want to see it to fruition. I think that’s why I don’t bother to sit and write sometimes, because I know I only have an hour or two before I have to get the kids or go to an appointment, and I won’t be able to see the scene to completion.

        Or maybe it’s just excuses. 😉

  4. This is all very helpful. It’s been mostly a bust year for me, and not just in writing. Nothing has happened, really. I just spend a lot of time on the internet. Maybe I’m looking for the linchpin for my story (stories), and just not finding it. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.

    I tend to write best in a warm place with a desk. I like having a two and a half hour slot — some time to grab a drink, ease in, take a short break, then go back in for another 45 to 55 minute session. I love the feeling of parallel writing — meeting up with a fellow writer, and we both just sit together and write our separate stories. But my writing buddy is not up to writing this year. She’s got a lot of drama in her life right now, so when we meet up, we usually talk (not about the drama, per se, but other things).

    It seems to me that right now the only nearly three hour slots I have is in the evening — and after a day of work, I just want to veg out and watch YouTube with a cat or two on my lap. I wonder if there’s any way I can really make that quality time, and shorten it to one hour . . . then I’d have three hours to write, and an hour to wind down before bed.

    I have done it for NaNos. But I feel so bleh about doing it again this year. Hmmm. I wil have to think some more.

  5. Pingback: Daily Writing Check-in: October 21, 2017 | Keeping Procrastination at Bay

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