Small ‘walls’

It’s (reasonably) well-established in running marathons that there’s a period when you psychologically don’t think you can run anymore; I think it happens around the eighteen to twenty-mile mark. You’re exhausted, you’ve come a long way and you’ve still got a fair way to go – it’s understandable.

I’m not sure if the metaphor really holds, but I find myself hitting very small, similar walls when I write. I’ll get a few hundred words done and then want a break. I’ll feel reluctant to carry on, wanting to do something else – and that’s ridiculous and impractical; it’d take forever to write a book doing just a few hundred words at a time.

And often I can overcome this by just persisting, but I do find myself wondering about the cause. Have I frazzled my brain so much with social media and switching between tasks so much that I can’t focus on doing something for a long time? Maybe … although I’m certainly happy to read for a long period of time at once. But then a part of me thinks that my attention span is shorter than it used to be; in the first few days of the Christmas holidays, I really had to fight to watch an entire film at once (a crazy time-luxury) rather than watching some and then pausing.

It’s not a great state for an author to occupy, and I’m certainly going to think about cutting back on non-essential attention-switching tasks and how I structure my life at work. Unfortunately, my job does require me to hop from project to project within each day (and each hour) but I’d like to avoid any further deterioration if I can…

I’m curious as to whether other authors or readers have experienced something similar, or whether it strikes you at certain times or places? It’s odd that I can read for a long period at a time, but when something actually needs proper concentration, it can be more difficult, but without being a cognitive psychologist, it’s hard to dissect. 

Why do I write?

I’d like to be a full-time author, but that’s not really why I write.

I’ve been working full-time for a long time now, and I’m pretty aware than ‘JK Rowling sydrome’ can be a dangerous thing. Thankfully, there are a lot of authors out there who are pretty up-front about how writing as a career can often … well, it sucks financially.

I remember reading a news article from the incredible Steph Swainston, essentially admitting that she was going back to be a chemistry teacher because writing was too stressful and insufficiently rewarding, financially. And I remember thinking: if this insanely electric writer can’t make it, then what hope does anyone have?

But I’m still writing. And it’s a little like that scene in the first alien movie: something needs to get out. I have an Evernote folder full of inspiration snippets, but there are some that revolve around in my head, joining other ideas, and then essentially demand to be planned and written.

There’s also the element of world creation; I was quite a big fan of the Myst series (although spoilers: I’m quite bad at puzzles) and love the idea of Atrus just sitting there, writing away and literally making worlds for people. I love that so much.

I suppose it’s an intensely personal reason as to why anyone writes, but I think those are my big two. Now I’ve reminded myself of how much I adore Steph Swainston’s work and I’m off to buy the novella of hers that I’ve been putting off for a while…

Which authors do people best?

I wanted to spend more time on authors, because something struck me the other day and I wanted to explore it a little. There are clearly some writers that I love, others that create immersive worlds. But one thing that strikes me is that a lot of us create idealistic worlds, with flawed villains and great (often flawed) heroes … but some writers are especially gifted at creating very realistic people and I wanted to call out a few specifically.

  1. Arthur C Clarke: I’m always struck by how well Clarke gets people – or more importantly, societies, even in fantastical settings. I remember reading the Rama series for the first time and being downcast by how everything goes to hell and back again, the importance of understanding and compassion. Somehow, despite the fact that it’s set on a giant space station with crazy aliens, Clarke manages to portray an amazingly human science fiction story.
  2. Julian May: May has huge skill in constructing an array of very human characters. Statesmen, gutsy students, precocious geniuses – no-one is flat or two dimensional in May’s world. It obviously helps that she has a lot of time and many, many words to do it in (Intervention is huge) but I absolutely love the depth of her people.
  3. Becky Chambers: I’m not quite sure that Chambers exactly fits the bill here, but Chambers certainly has the view of humanity that I want to exist. Her characters are always kind, do the right thing and I’ve been left with a big warm and fuzzy feeling after reading her first two books.
  4. Adrian Tchaikovsky: I’ve ‘only’ read the Shadows of the Apt series, but I was blown away by how Tchaikovsky constructs very nuanced, very human characters. They do have a lot of time to develop – which makes it more impressive that he manages it so effectively – and they don’t always develop in positive ways, but over the course of the series, you slowly realise that there’s a master at work.

Where do I write?

I love to write in cosy places. There’s a part of me that feels like writing is absolutely baring your soul, and if you’re going to be doing that, then you need a safe place.

Of course, there’s a part of me that things this is rubbish, that I’ve always been self-conscious and that I just like being in cosy places per se, but who knows?

I’ve written quite a lot in hotels and on trains. I grew up travelling on trains quite a lot, and there’s something about being able to watch the world go by, without necessarily being involved in it, that really resonates with me. This extends to hotels as well; I love a hotel with a good view and was lucky enough to recently spend a weekend in the Rotunda in Birmingham, looking out over Grand Central (and beyond) from the 17th floor. Birmingham also has a killer library with multiple roof gardens, so it’s a bit of a writer’s haven for me.

Oddly, I’ve never really been attracted to the seaside to write; I know a lot of people who love to write looking over the water, but I’m much more of an earth / cityscape person.

And I write quite a lot at home in London; I used to write in coffee shops, but I’ve started to struggle to shut out noise as easily as when I was younger, which has made things tougher, but a good pair of headphones is a decent solution for that!