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?
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?