Guest Post | Elspeth Cooper Tries to Write One Book at a Time (and fails)

Unlike the others books in this event, Songs of the Earth was released months earlier in the UK than it was here in the States. It made me a little grumpy. I don’t like to wait. I resisted the urge to pester my favorite UK publicist, Jon Weir, and waited until it came to Tor in early 2012. When I finally cracked the novel I was quickly transported to a world steeped in superstitious tradition, unwilling to recognize the unraveling of reality around it. Cooper’s plot follows a coming-of-age format, but interweaves others’ stories to create a lush narrative.

One of those stories is Aysha, the shapeshifting university professor and love interest for Cooper’s protagonist. She’s also one of the best portrayals of disability I’ve ever read in genre and I’d recommend the book just for her scenes even if the rest was no good. Thankfully, the rest is good too.  Songs is a wonderful first novel that demonstrates Cooper’s talent and promises a long writing career.

Let’s welcome Elspeth Cooper…

***
I discovered something about myself recently: I have a distressing tendency to try to write two books at once. Some writers can do this, switching effortlessly between different projects and somehow keeping both of them on the straight and narrow. Such writers have my undying admiration, but such writers are not me.

You see, I’m what they call a pantser. I don’t write chapter plans, or paper the wall above my desk with character summaries on 3×5 index cards. I have a beginning, a few high points to hit along the way, and fly by the seat of my pants for the rest. It’s exciting; I love being led onwards by my characters, but sometimes they get impatient, the scamps, and I end up writing bits that belong in the box marked “Not yet, dammit!” – only I don’t always realise it straight away.

It happened when I wrote Book 1, Songs of the Earth. I had a character arc that I couldn’t integrate with the rest of the narrative because although the timelines overlapped, they were offset by several months. In a moment of clarity, I realised this arc really belonged in the next book, and cut it out. Songs was immediately in better shape, and I had a head start on Book 2, so by the time I got a publishing contract I was already about 68,000 words into the next volume. Cue champagne, streamers and miscellaneous rejoicing.

Of course, the first thing I discovered about writing Book 2 was that you have to do it whilst simultaneously revising, checking the copy-edits and briefing the cover for Book 1. I also had to adjust to being a full-time writer, after my multiple sclerosis made it impossible to sustain a 9-to-5 job.

You would think that having all day to write would make Book 2 a breeze, but time management was a struggle at first. When I was writing in snatched chunks of an hour or two around a full-time job, I could be insanely productive. When I had all day, sometimes it took all day to achieve the same amount. I had to invent new routines for myself, balance the competing demands of blogging, email, marketing/social media and find out the best way for me to work.

After a few months of trial and error I had a structure for my day, and Book 2 was rattling along. Characters had grown, changed by their experiences in the first instalment, and had new perils to face. Some who’d had only minor parts in Songs got larger roles as the scope of the conflict opened up, and new characters walked on set, put their feet up on the table and demanded to be included (Tierce, I’m looking at you here). I was having so much fun it should have been illegal in twelve states.

Then it got hard. Progress faltered and I got increasingly stressed out. I couldn’t focus, and though I wanted to write and needed to write, I felt like I was stuck in first gear, and ended up staring at the page until I cried, unable to find any words.

For someone who’s used to just turning on the tap and having the words spill out, this was beyond frustrating. I don’t think I was burned out, and it wasn’t writer’s block (like the monster under the bed, it only exists if I believe in it) so I’m pointing the finger at my MS and the cognitive problems it often brings. I also had gallstones – I shall spare you all the gory details of the wedding anniversary spent throwing up in the emergency room, the admissions to hospital with acute pancreatitis, the morphine drips. Shudder.

I soldiered on, but my output had slowed dramatically. Writing felt like wading through treacle. Finally I had my gallbladder removed, and rediscovered what it was like to feel well again. Book 2, though, was unfinished and overdue. Characters were scattered mid-adventure and the ending was only half-written. I wrote hard and managed to turn in a script just two months late that was complete in terms of hitting the major story beats, but was nowhere near finished to my satisfaction.

There was also something indefinably “off” about it. I revised and rewrote whilst waiting for my editor’s feedback, but still couldn’t shake that vague disquiet. When I received my editor’s notes and began working through them, the disquiet intensified. There was a segment of the script that I couldn’t seem to make click with the rest, but I couldn’t see why, and the stress mounted again.

Eventually I worked myself into such a tizzy I had to call my agent and unburden myself. Talking it through with him brought me another of those moments of clarity: that segment of script that didn’t seem to fit belonged in Book 3.

Yeah, you’d think after Book 1 I would have seen this coming, wouldn’t you?

So I cut. I rearranged and rewrote some scenes to bring the major arcs to a conclusion and proved to myself that when the chips are down, I can still write to order. Time constraints being what they were, that conclusion turned out a little more cliffhangery than I would have liked, but nonetheless satisfying.

The result is Trinity Rising. It’s been a hard road for various reasons, but it’s deeper and darker than Songs, and the characters have evolved as my writing has improved. Given the breadth of the narrative I’ve had to pull back the focus on some of them in order to home in on others, which has required some discipline on my part because I want to tell everyone’s stories and share my enthusiasm for this world, but you can have too much of a good thing!

I’m well into Book 3 now, and looking out for early signs of Book 4, The Dragon House, getting ahead of itself and trying to muscle in. I don’t want to have to go through that again – I’m really not sure my blood pressure could take it.

***

You can find Elspeth Cooper on her website and Twitter. Be sure to visit the former to learn more about the The Wild Hunt series. She goes by Ellie, a fact that demonstrates the kind of hard hitting journalism employed on this blog.

Come back later today for an excerpt from Trinity Rising!

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer's Book Review. When he's not writing things of dubious value to the world, he's at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.

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Comments
  • Paul Weimer July 18, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Thanks, Elspeth.

    I find the technique and progress of writers interesting, and yours is, um, unusual. (But, then the progress of a certain heavyweight in the field means that there is no one true way anyway)

    • Elspeth Cooper July 18, 2012 at 9:32 am

      There is a one true way; the bit no-one tells you is that it's different for each writer, for each project. Songs of the Earth evolved over something like 13 years, so all the groundwork for what comes after was laid out long ago. It feels like I'm just colouring in an outline my subconscious has already inked.

  • Courtney Schafer July 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Hi Elspeth! Just had to say that like Justin mentioned in his intro, I adored Aysha as a character (though I also liked the many other representations of disability in the story, from one character's diabetes to another's hearing impairment).

    I'm curious – once you got your routines down for writing full-time, did you find your progress did grow to significantly outstrip what you'd managed in your full-time-job days?

    • Elspeth Cooper July 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      I don't think it has, except in short bursts. Most of the heavy writing was done before I got my diagnosis; these days I have to manage my energy very carefully, and I can't burn the candle at both ends any more . Ah, the days when I thought nothing of a 12hr day followed by another 5hrs writing…

      Plus, I've never been the kind of writer who bothers about word counts per day or per week – I've tried it and it doesn't suit me. My style is very organic so I measure my progress in terms of achievements: items crossed off my to-do list, rather than writing 1,200 words just to hit some arbitrary target and then junking 1,100 of them because they weren't the right ones.

  • Brad Beaulieu July 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Great post, Elspeth. Thanks for sharing this. I'm also curious about the progress once you got into a groove. I hope to shift to full time writing at some point, but I already worry that time management will be a problem. Any tips appreciated!

    • Elspeth Cooper July 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm

      I was pretty ill when I gave up the day job, and had no idea how to cope. Suddenly chores like doing the laundry seemed to take twice as long, and by the time I'd had a shower, breakfast, done the dishes and dealt with the mail it was lunchtime and OMG where's the day gone?

      You'll miss the impetus of only having snatched blocks of time to write. It drives you to make every second count, and when you don't have that any more it's very easy to take your foot off the gas.

      I think it's important to establish a new routine quickly and stick to it. Keep office hours, if that works for you, but try not to get swallowed up in it. Make sure your schedule includes some decompression time to walk the dog, take the kids swimming, read. You'd be amazed how much getting out of the bubble and interacting with the world recharges your creative batteries.

  • Teresa July 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    I love reading about your writing style being more organic than structured. The interaction between your characters feels very spontaneous (although I'm sure you spent a great deal of time knuckling down on just the right wording). I can't wait to see Trinity.

  • Elspeth Cooper July 18, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks, Teresa! You're right, at the edit stage I do spend a lot of time tuning the “feel” and the cadence to achieve the desired effect. I read stuff out loud to make sure it flows, especially dialogue. Nothing worse than giving characters lines that real people couldn't or wouldn't say.

  • Philip Tucker July 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for writing this beautifully honest post, Elspeth. I wonder–while you were going through your trials, did writing ever become a burden? Or was it always a welcome cove in which to shelter, if but momentarily, from the difficulties you were facing?

  • Elspeth Cooper July 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Yes, it did become a burden sometimes. I felt the weight of it round my neck, but at the same time I was compelled to tell the story for the story's sake. Not being able to get the words out in order to do so was not pleasant.

    When things worked (and they did, occasionally; not all days were unremittingly shitty) it was glorious, and reminded me why I do this crazy job, but the dark bits got very dark.

  • BigZ7337 August 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    This was a really interesting article, thanks for writing it. :)

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