Combining Novel Writing With A Day Job, by Alison Booth
How do you combine writing with your day job? Do you find it’s fun living in parallel worlds – the fictional world that you inhabit at night and at weekends, and the real world of work? Or do you long to give up this split lifestyle and spend all your days writing and your evenings relaxing?
Anyone who’s reading this post will know that creating a fictional world is hard. Very hard. What’s more, it requires the exercise of logic as well as inspiration. Creating your fictional world might allow the imagination free reign, but it does need to have a structure to it, just as your day job does.
What techniques can help in getting organised? Before I began writing my first novel, Stillwater Creek, I spent a lot of time working out its shape. The book is written from the viewpoint of six characters, each with their own story. It would have been very easy to lose track of each of their narratives without some sort of a road map. In the end, after much angst, I decided that the only way through the morass was to construct a kind of table, or scene log, with a column for each character and a row for each scene. This fitted neatly on one page – written in a font so small that I had to invest in a pair of magnifying glasses to read the printout – and made it easy to keep track of the many different scenes. (When doing this, I liked to think of Google Earth – you go whizzing up into space far away from where you are, and then you see your town or city or state or country in perspective. Then you come zipping down to a close-up view and start to work your way through.)
While my scene-log framework might seem constraining, it does allow me to see where I am. Once I get into one of these scenes – or cells within the matrix – I can then forget all about the framework and just write spontaneously within that cell. (Not literally – I have a separate file for the road-map.) I frequently revise the scene-log as new material emerges while I’m writing.
Do you follow a similar approach? Or do you use cards on which you’ve summarised each scene? Maybe when you’ve plotted out your book you then shuffle the cards around to make the book’s structure more interesting and the timeline more varied? (There’s a fiction-writing software package called Scrivener that will allow you to this.) Or do you just start at the beginning and let your subconscious take you where it will?
In spite of my structured approach, when I began thinking of Stillwater Creek, the first scene that presented itself was the ending. The action takes place on Jingera Beach at the end of a long hot summer. It was based on a story a friend had told me about being evacuated onto the beach some years before. It was also based on my memories of a bushfire witnessed as a very small child, when we were driving from Melbourne to Sydney. Before starting to write the novel, I’d had that last set of scenes on my mind for ages. It took half a decade for me to write the book and see it published, though I’d carried the ending of Stillwater Creek in my head for far longer than this. Similarly with the sequel, The Indigo Sky, I drafted the last set of scenes of that novel before writing the beginning.
Combining writing with my day job is possible only because I compartmentalise my life in a way that I couldn’t do when my children were very young. Doing the two activities is not only a labour of love but also a form of insurance; with the book industry the way it is, it’s risky to concentrate on only one activity.
After nine of years of writing novels and many more of being an academic, I’m still happy being able to step in and out of each world. A split personality, you might think? Maybe. But for me it’s a way of keeping sane. Those frustrations at work? Once I’m home I can leap into another place. The novel draft going badly? Hey, tomorrow I’m seeing real human beings and I can forget all about the characters in my draft who are playing up. When I return to them, who knows, they might have worked out their own way forward.
Alison Booth’s author website: www.alisonbooth.net
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