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Stephen Palmer - My year of almost total relaxation

When Stephen Palmer announced he was taking a year off writing, it intrigued me. As someone who finds it hard to switch off, I wondered if it had helped his creative process and, if so, how. Since he has his rather gorgeous (check out that cover!) Factory Girl trilogy coming out, it would seem it certainly did no harm. 


 In January 2016 I vowed not to write anything for a year. And I nearly managed it. Jo recently asked me to elaborate on why and how, so…

Why did I do it? Well, between September 2013 and January 2016 I had one main creative project on my mind: the Factory Girl trilogy (The Girl With Two Souls / The Girl With One Friend / The Girl With No Soul) and its accompanying novel The Conscientious Objector. Although I had written a large scale work before – Urbis Morpheos and Astra Gaia together were a couple of hundred thousand words at least – and Memory Seed / Glass / Flowercrash were (if nothing more) a thematic trilogy, the four new books together totalled almost half a million words; by far the largest work I’d attempted.

Although I’d dimly grasped in 2013 that the milieu I was putting together had a bit of an epic quality to it, what I wasn’t expecting was the effect on me, physically and mentally, of keeping that entire scenario in all its complexity and detail in my head for three years. The experience of writing the first volume was fantastic – I was excited, and keen to get going, so when I began on the first Saturday of my winter holiday (my day job is in education and I work term time only) the novel poured out of me as if already written in my mind, as it poured out every day that followed. Easter 2014 was a bit more of an effort as I fought tiredness and headaches/migraines, but then the final volume during winter 2014-15 was another great experience. A year later I wrote The Conscientious Objector.

I think the problem was not so much the physical demands – when I’m on a roll I can do a 5,000 word chapter every day – as those mental demands brought by keeping such a complex, wide-ranging and emotionally varied work in my head for so long. Feats of concentration make you tired, and it’s difficult for some authors to vacate the emotional landscape of their novels while they’re being written – that’s the case for me. There’s also the attention to detail that is required in the kind of novels I write – well, that kind of attention can be exhausting.

The other thing I hadn’t appreciated was that, since the three books were going to be published either together or closely following one another, there was three times the amount of editing and honing; then three times the words for my editor to read; then three times the amount of corrections and further checks. That’s been tiring too.

So, what did my year off give me? In a nutshell, it allowed me to relax following a huge authorial effort. I needed to relax, but it’s not something I find easy to do. A good friend told me a while back that I was “the most driven person” she had ever met. I thought about that description for quite a while – I have to admit, the comment came as a bit of a surprise – and later we had a discussion about it. I tried to explain that my creativity wasn’t like the drive some people have from a lack in their childhood (the way some men stereotypically have great inner drive in order to make their remote fathers love them), it was more akin to a massive pressure inside exploding like a volcano. The Factory Girl trilogy was without doubt a work forming inside my head long before I became aware of it in autumn 2013.

And did I do any writing? Yes I did. I was asked to contribute to an anthology set up by a keen fan of my work, Nathan Hystad, and I certainly didn’t want to disappoint him. So I wrote a short story. It wasn’t a great first draft so I wrote it again: much improved. But apart from doing a full edit on The Conscientious Objector over the long summer holiday, I’ve written nothing this year apart from the short story. I’ve lounged around at home and visited a lot of my friends in various parts of the country, especially Devon, where I used to live. And it was great!

The future? Well, I may write a trilogy again (I’ve been planning something in the ultra far future – the Green Trilogy – for a while) but I don’t think it will be soon. The effort required is huge, given the intensive way I write these days; and I’d need to be sure it was something truly worth writing. Perhaps I’d better wait until I’ve retired from the day job.