My boyfriend (the brilliant Malcolm Devlin*) describes my writing space as “paradise”—particularly when I kick him out of it in the morning so I can write. Which is to say, I write mostly in bed, mostly in pyjamas, surrounded by piles of book. Despite what he says, I suspect this practice is neither paradise for my book nor good for my soul but it seems to be working at the moment. Because I’ve moved around quite a bit over the last ten years, it’s been ages since I had something like a formal office. I do have one where I work at Anglia Ruskin University, but because I share it with two other colleagues, it’s more of a meeting place than a space for deep concentration. I’ve had to become quite good at adapting myself to wherever I am. I often try out different writing areas to help me break out of various ruts: editing at the kitchen table, rereading and redrafting from my couch, writing by hand in the back garden. But the bed seems to be my preferred place at the moment.
And if you’re feeling sympathetic to poor Malcolm, please note that I gave him the office for his design work. Also, those are his beautiful feet in the picture—his feet, my thumb. (This will be the title of the next short story I write.)
This is where I finished the editing of The Migration, my debut novel which has just launched from Titan in the UK. As my first full-length novel, it was an exercise in stamina that required repeated redrafting. Much of that I did in this bed, between the hours of four and eight in the morning before I went in to the university. I’m proudest of the process of writing The Migration in large part because it challenged me to keep going even when I had completely lost confidence in myself. Sometimes you feel proudest of the stories which come out easily but I find myself wanting to focus on the ones that take real effort.
I don’t have a set routine per se because my schedule changes so much. What I’ve found is that I write best first thing in the morning. So I try to schedule my day—where possible—to give myself a couple of free hours before I check my e-mail or my social media. Whatever I start doing while I’m drinking my coffee is what I’ll end up doing for the first half of the day. If I can make that writing then I’m a happy camper. When I actually sit down to write, I tend to start off by reading something written by someone else for the first twenty minutes, largely to quiet my brain and to begin to get into the rhythm of writing. Poetry works best for this, I find, because it is imagistic and the language is so condensed. Currently I’m reading Simon Perril’s lovely book Archilochus on the Moon which is both on-target enough for my current novel about travel to Mars, yet oblique enough that it doesn’t feel like research. Quite often I read until I find myself wanting to write something new of my own down. Other times, once I feel in the groove then I’ll go back and reread and lightly edit what I wrote in my last session. If I hit a wall, then I either go back to reading or I try to do something physical but not brain-intensive (like cleaning or going for a walk) so I can distract myself while my subconscious turns the problem over in search of a solution.
My biggest distraction from writing is the massive, ever-present to-do list in the back of my head. When I wake up my impulse is to sort through the small tasks that I find slightly scary—like e-mailing people—so that I don’t need to think about them anymore. But I’ve found this is a mistake because if I start by doing those tasks, then I seldom come back to writing later in the day. I’ve found the trick is to put my writing first and add anything worrying me to an on-going digital to-do list. That seems to give me permission to forget about it for a bit.
I find music with lyrics of any sort to be a massive distraction. I did write one short story while listening to the same song over and over and over again until the lyrics became so rote they seemed like white noise.
Sometimes writing just flows out of you and it feels effortless. When I’m in the “zone” I feel as if I’m entertaining myself, surprisingly myself, making myself laugh. A lot of writers talk about this feeling and it can be a rush. But there are other aspects of writing I enjoy as well including the careful editing that puts paragraphs in the right order and clarifies sentences. But the greatest part of writing, I’ve found, is the permission it gives me to be myself in the fullest way possible, to value the unique perspective I have on the world. When people tell me I’m a bit weird—which happens all the time—I don’t see it as a problem anymore. The weirdness is me. It’s what I’m here for.
The least enjoyable part of writing is not writing. I get antsy if I don’t manage to write for three days. I get antsy if I try to write and I don’t get anywhere. Mostly I find that the anxieties and experiences of writing that I see in my students are the same anxieties I still have whenever I’m trying to write. They think getting published will solve the problem for them. It doesn’t, not really. The only thing experience really teaches you is that there are good writing days and bad writing days. Bad writing days are part of the process. Don’t beat yourself up when they happen.
I’ve started work on another novel called The Floating City, which is something of a ghost story set on Mars about the processes of colonization and the unforeseen impact we can have on an environment. It’s an attempt at something closer to science fiction than I’ve really done before and so it’s been more research-intensive—or rather, research-intensive in a different way than my previous books. But it’s challenging me to learn new skills and that’s never a bad thing. If you happen to know anything about sentient sludge, please get in touch!
[*Malcolm Devlin is next week’s escapee.]
Helen Marshall is the World Fantasy Award winning author of two short story collections. Her writing has received critical acclaim far and wide, including from author Neil Gaiman. Helen’s excellent debut novel, The Migration, is available now. You can find out more about Helen here.