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Why disruption makes us more creative

panorama-2580527__340For twelve years I’ve been running an independent literary press. I love it. What began as a one-book project became a prize-winning indie with a great poetry and fiction list. After a funding crisis in 2012, well-wishers flocked to make sure we survived. Since then, the press has developed a list of 30 titles a year, a book club, competitions, residential writing courses and a mentoring scheme. In 2015, we packed our tenth anniversary with celebrations, looking forward to the next decade.

Success or burnout?

Yet two years later, we were feeling the strain. Why?

We have volunteer help from authors, including our wonderful office manager. We continued to love the books, the events, the places we visit for launches and the people we meet. But despite this, we were always running to stand still. Fatigue was beginning to set in and then …

The shock of changing gear

We got the opportunity to take time off. While founding and running Cinnamon Press, I’ve continued to write. But, although I’ve published novels and poetry collections, the writing was squeezed into the margins of a packed schedule. When I started work on a trilogy, I knew it would demand much deeper concentration and focus. I was fortunate to get an Arts Council grant to travel to Hungary to research and write. The time in Budapest was extraordinary. Draft after draft of the novel flowed and I learnt a huge amount from writing in the place where the novel is set. I was able to talk to authors, editors and museum curators , who kindly gave me their time. And the writing benefited from being able to walk the streets, taking in the place for an extended period.

Peak experiences change you

I came back changed. Peak experiences do this. Experiences that interrupt our well-worn cycles, that give us chance to wonder and thankful, result in shifts in how we see the world. It also made me question how I want to use my time. I came back knowing that I could no longer marginalise my own creativity and expect to be an enthusiastic editor and writing mentor. And I came back eager I to reclaim the vision of Cinnamon Press as innovative, outward-looking and independent. My ideal has always been to focus on excellent literature and I wanted to take stock of that.

In the first twelve years, two things had conspired to create an overwhelming ‘to do’ list. My determination to keep Cinnamon Press going in difficult times had led to taking on more and more work. And my tendency to find it difficult to say ‘no’ exacerbated this. I was spreading myself thinly while allowing expectations to escalate.

It was time to stand back and review. This process is ongoing — we began by looking at everything we do as a press as well as personal and use of time. It was clear from the outset that we needed to examine the publications list. When you say ‘yes’ too often, you end up taking on projects that don’t quite align with your original values. We’ve now put in a plan to lower the number of publications by 2020. A list of fifteen titles a year will still be a significant number for a two-person (plus volunteers) indie press, but it will be more sustainable. We’ll review it again once we’ve achieved this, especially in the light of our own writing goals.

Next we worked to create a series of resource sheets for authors. The aim was to produce clear guidelines, make the way we work more transparent, and to give authors tools to promote their work. It’s early days, but it’s a big step towards not having to reinvent the wheel to answer recurring questions.

The next step was to look at the balance of tasks. I made a list of every job imaginable, grouped them into sections and drew up a weekly cycle of time blocks. Relegating emails and reactive tasks to one period each weekday was liberating. an meant we could prioritise tasks like editing or mentoring. It was a shock to realise that I’d been spending over 40% of my time on reactive administrative tasks. The goal is to get this down to 10% of my time, releasing energy for creative work.

What I’m learning is that it’s possible to ask for help and that routine tasks don’t have to become distractions that expand into all available time.

Reconnecting with the vision

Making these changes has also meant taking time to re-visit the original vision and values for the Cinnamon Press. It’s important that the list focuses on diverse, distinctive voices and remains independent and outward looking. Above all, we want to present a different story, one that isn’t found in mainstream publishing. Reconnecting with this vision has given new vitality to my own writing: becoming a different story is at the heart of my creative process.

Taking a few weeks out this summer proved to be disruptive to my work and my priorities and that’s a great thing. Now I’m looking forward to more creative disruption.

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Draft after Draft after …

I’m endlessly fascinated by how various writing process can be between one writer and the next, but however idiosyncratic these processes might be there are certain stages that have to be negotiated. It has to begin with ideas. For me, these often come from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce – the link between walking and writing, the process of flaneurs like Baudelaire and Benjamin makes complete sense to me. These ideas begin to assume more and more shape – notes and jottings, bits of research, character sketches, hopes of something amazing and doubts that it is ever going to take shape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this stage, some of it starts to form. Maybe you write a timeline. Perhaps you write chapter summaries. You might be someone who writes detailed character sketches or even has a list of questions to ask each character. For me, it’s all about research at this stage. I look up the weather of the time and place I’m writing about. I research the politics, the social climate, the architecture of the streets, the landscape, the local food, historical characters who might turn up in the novel. Before beginning to write This is the End of the Story I read several academic tomes on Don Quixote and several novels that has a Quixotic structure. For the current novel, A Remedy for All Things, I read everything I can find about Attila and all of his poetry that’s in English translation. I also unearthed several interviews with Attila’s family members and with the sculptor who made the most famous statue of him. Then I read several books about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and as much as I could find about Budapest in the early 90s. From these copious notes some rough sketches of actual story began to be written and the opening, which had been in my head since the first dreams of my new protagonist, Selene.

From the mass of dreams, ideas, characters, places and research notes, something new has to emerge. Writing This is the End of the Story, I had several vivid incidents that needed to be written. I had them clearly in my head so I didn’t outline anything and I didn’t think about what order to write them in. Each piece emerged and only later did I order and re-order and then go over the whole to make sure the way they fitted together was consistent, even though the narrative was non-linear.

Writing A Remedy for All Things has been completely different. I’m juggling three characters each in different time periods – 1937, 1959 (with flash backs to 1952-9) and 1993. What unites them is that the two main characters, Catherine (Cassie from This is the End of the Story) and Selene are dreaming each other’s lives on successive days in November to early December, days that were the last 28 of Attila József’s life. So the dates impose an essential framework on what would otherwise be a chaotic narrative and each date has two short chapters – one in 1993, one in 1959. With this framework it seemed sensible to outline early so I wrote summaries of each chapter and this enabled me to wrangle a sprawling plot into something manageable and accessible. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all way to write a novel, but certain stories let us know what they need – form and content begin to match if we attend to the material we’re working with.

In this case, with an outline in place, I wrote a first full draft. It was full of typos and inconsistencies. It was too obviously researched at some points (it’s skeleton showing through its skin), but lacking in detail at others. The prose was clunky and some of the chapters were little more than bridging passages, but I had a whole novel. It was time to get a clearer vision of what I might be working towards and to do that demanded that I stop for a while.

With the constant programme editing, events to organise for Cinnamon Press and admin to keep the press running, taking time off from my own writing isn’t difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to write at all, which is why having writing blocks courtesy of the Arts Council, has been such a blessing with this novel. But whether we have scraps of time or luxurious amounts of it, there are interludes when we need to stop and stand back. Time to get some distance from the first intensely immersive process. Time to dream and wander again. For a week or a month or however long you need (but not so long that it becomes remote from you), let it rest. Don’t read it and don’t let anyone else read it. It’s too early in the process and too vulnerable to being derailed at this stage. (If you have a trusted reader or a mentor, bounce ideas off them, talk in broad terms, get ideas about overall process, get encouragement and support, but don’t second guess the fragile first draft just yet).

I did keep reading everything I could find about Budapest in the right periods while I was letting the first draft settle. And I also had fascinating conversations about the place and events, about Attila József’s poetry and about some of the bigger ideas I was exploring, but I didn’t open the files.

I started the second draft once I knew I was going to be able to visit Budapest to hone the research and really bring the book to life. My aim was to revise the narrative so that any thin passages were fleshed out, so that the research was carried by story, dialogue and character, rather than cluttering the surface. I wanted to improve the prose, kill any darlings, rid the story of inconsistencies, smooth the pacing and keep the conflicts tense. The second draft is a good point to address any structural issues, and for me a key issue was how to use particular objects that revealed connections not only in this novel, but also pointed back to the first novel and potentially forward to the next, For Hope is Always Born.

When I finished the second draft, not long after arriving in Budapest, I immediately went back to the beginning and started editing again. The third draft saw a mixture of changes. Having gone through the structural issues I could concentrate on finer details. But, being in the place where the novel is set and with access to generous people who’d lived through some of what I was writing about and knew Attila Joszef’s work so much more deeply in its original language, also meant I could revisit some of the key ideas. In the third draft I completely changed my mind about one of the most pivotal events of the book, thanks to a conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Publishers. And I was able to add details about József’s life and about the places that Selene would have known only because I was able to visit important museums and sites and talk to people.

The fourth draft was a thorough edit of all of this, again reading for consistency as well as for every stray comma, typo or missing word. Drafts two, three and four came hard on the heels of each other because I had an intense time set aside to work in Hungary, but there were breaks, even if just for a day, and lots of conversations, as well as long walks and plenty more dreams to fuel the process.

And then I came home, got back into work and didn’t look at the manuscript for several weeks. Another rest is no bad thing and having worked on redrafting, editing and editing again, it was useful to get some distance. The hardest work to see objectively is always our own. I can spot tics and flaws in other people’s writing that I’m oblivious to in my own. If you get to this stage and want another view on the whole thing now is a good time to hand over to a trusted reader or work with mentor.

After all of this, it’s time to hone. This is where I am now – going over every chapter very slowly, realising that even in a fifth draft, there are typos, missing punctuation, phrases that don’t quite work, some glaring bits of overwriting. I’m in the last stages of honing, maybe a week to go and then it can go off for a full overhaul by an objective and very trusted reader.

When it comes back from that, I’ll be onto the final draft (or drafts) and then it will begin the editing process ready for publication. And, of course, the last stages of writing are only the first stages of having a book that needs to make its way into the world … a whole other process.

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