Panic Attack: Understanding Your Work Cycles

Sometime in the past month or so I must admit that I had a kind of panic attack, one that had me stressed and depressed at first—especially in the context of so many writers producing a novel a year. Although I’ve never thought this was necessarily a good idea for me, except career-wise, it still exerts a kind of pressure if you start thinking about it too much.

My panic attack occurred while I was looking through a copy of my last novel, Finch, which came out in 2009 in the US and 2010 in the UK. I suddenly realized that I was still months away from completing my next novel. How could I have let that happen? What in the heck had I been doing the last few years?

The answer was that I’d done a lot of anthologies, like The Weird, which is after all like producing about seven anthos in terms of word length. Not to mention the nonfiction book The Steampunk Bible. Between The Weird, The Steampunk Bible, and our Lambshead Cabinet anthology, I along with Ann (and on the Bible, SJ Chambers) had dealt with over 800 creators, which is in itself a kind of crazy time-suck. Getting our ebook imprint Cheeky Frawg off the ground had taken more time, as had creating Weirdfictionreview.com and doing a lot of work for the Shared Worlds teen writing camp (a recurring, annual time commitment).

So, I told myself, with some sense of relief if not a bit of sadness at perhaps losing sight of my priorities, I had a great excuse. All of these other projects had taken up my time. That was the simplest explanation. It’s not healthy to beat yourself up for not being able to do everything simultaneously.

But then I took stock again after looking at what I did have in the works fiction-wise—and a different picture started to emerge. There had been a lot of time spent on a long film treatment entitled Jonathan Lambshead and the Golden Sphere that had taken a whole summer (and may still bear fruit). More time had been spent on conceptualizing a space opera trilogy, another project for the future. More importantly, I realized I had written about two-thirds of a novel entitled Borne, about three-fourths of a novel entitled The Journals of Doctor Mormeck (serialized on this blog), and another twenty-thousand words of another novel which we’ll just call Mainstream Novel #1 for now.

Seeing the amount of fiction I’d actually produced, even if most of it wasn’t finished, made me look back at the previous “cycle” of novels: Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and Finch. I realized that there had been significant overlap between those books, in terms of partial rough drafts. Veniss had lain dormant with about half of it done while I worked on much of City of Saints and Madmen (the first of my Ambergris novels), then come to life again. Shriek had been conceived of while writing the last parts of City of Saints—I had a 12-page summary of sorts—and a very early section of what became Finch was sparked by the original illuminated manuscript cover of City of Saints. I had about seven thousand words of proto-Finch well before finishing the extended City of Saints. While working on Shriek, additional ideas for Finch accrued over a period of years. Shriek itself took several years of work, although no one noticed the gap because Veniss was published after City of Saints.

Even though Veniss stands alone, it partakes of the same aesthetic as the beginning of the Ambergris Cycle. The two books speak to one another in some ways, and then Shriek and Finch, although written in different styles, are pursuing and following up on themes and issues first brought up in City of Saints. Thus, coming to the end of Finch was like coming to the end of the first part of my career.

People think I’m prolific, but part of that is simply that I initially had so much trouble finding publishers for my work and thus I had a back-log. So I think I’m only just beginning to see the complete outline of my long-term work cycle, obscured in part by the pattern of publication, not creation, of my prior novels. It may seem odd to not have recognized this, considering I’m 43 and been writing for three decades, but sometimes you need to take a step back to really see everything clearly.

Now I feel that I’m at the beginning of another cycle, one that’s more various despite certain connections between Borne and The Journals of Doctor Mormeck. And to some extent the process is similar: stops and starts on the novels prior to publication, overlap in writing parts of each of them, and a slow inching toward completion. At this point, I’m not entirely sure which novel will be finished first, because I’m equally passionate about each of them. What I do know is that they will be finished, especially because in each case I have a good idea of the overall structure and an image in my mind that corresponds to a rough understanding of the ending of each novel.

I’ve come to recognize that it’s important for me to realize that after living in Ambergris for so long it was natural that there be a break before the next book—and to give myself a break about that. It’s even more important to realize I’ve actually made significant process over the past couple of years—enough so that if I had just been working on one novel, it would have been completed and turned in. Understanding that this is part of my process, remembering that I’ve worked on multiple books in the past, is now helping me relax into this next phase of finishing the novels. I just have to be patient and ignore the idea of turning in a novel a year. Right now, apparently, I’m working simultaneously on the novels that I’ll have published over the next few years.

Still, I have to say that the part of me that requires instant gratification is thankful for finally returning to short fiction. It was a weird feeling to realize that a story I finished last month, “No Breather in the World But Thee,” was only the third story of any kind I had finished since Finch, the others being “The Quickening” in my collection The Third Bear and a story for a Vance tribute antho. (Not including, of course, meta-fiction for Steampunk Reloaded and the Lambshead Cabinet and something set in the Halo universe).

Now I’m working on another story entitled “The Last Redoubt” and a long novella entitled “Annihilation” and I’m excited about completing both. But I’m no longer stressed about the situation with the novels. I know I’ll finish them eventually and I’m confident that my organic approach to them is the right one. The fact is, your career has to follow and fit your fiction and the rhythms and cycles of that fiction—the needs of a career can’t dictate those things. Not if you want to remain sane and retain whatever makes you unique as a writer.

Comments

  1. says

    Jeff,

    This post and your post on “Staying In Touch With Your Writing” hit some nice resonant spots in me. I was reading in Umberto Eco’s “Confessions of A Young Novelist” that he didn’t really like this idea either of writing one novel a year. Of course he writes a lot of non-fiction, and has university work, which could be compared to your own anthology work and teaching. It may be several years between new books by Umberto Eco but I’m glad he took his time and lived with the characters and settings.

    I’m still learning what my own cycle is, but I know there is one. I know, to borrow from Claire Massey, it includes gathering scraps. Then they are assembled & polished. The order is not always linear, but in the process I’ve come to realize my subconscious is smarter than I am when it comes to stories. I guess that’s why I’m a “discovery” writer as well.

    Thanks for these posts.

    Justin

  2. says

    I can’t properly articulate how assuring this post is, Jeff, in a brief comment. As a sufferer of neuromuscular syndromes, anxiety over my literary output causes physiological feedback. I have managed to deadline-stress myself into bed on multiple occasions. I can’t fathom chipping away that much at that many original compositions and helping put together the fine anthologies you’ve mentioned at the same time. Your words of encouragement and self-reflection are very wise. Thanks a lot.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Jeff VanderMeer has a great post on work cycles and why writing a novel a year may not work for ever…. I have a lot of sympathy for this post, because I also tend to work on several works at the same time. And even though I have been called prolific just today, my current one e-book a month schedule is only possible because I have a lot of backlist, both out of print and unpublished. […]