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A novel experience: managing the pressures of productivity in a pandemic

Robert Frost said that writing in free verse, without poetic constraints, is like playing tennis with the net down. Constraints give shape to our thoughts – think of how many of us lost the rigidity of academic timetables during the pandemic, giving us all the time we wanted for our hobbies and barely any energy to use it. Writers like me understand this paralyzing freedom all too well. We’ve all stared at a blank page, struggling to translate the flash and color of our imagination into hard-edged black and white.

This isn’t some big story about productivity or creativity, or any achievement bigger than overcoming writer’s block. My pandemic summer was spent staring at a computer, but these were a startlingly productive and educational few months and, as with most exciting things in my unexciting life, it starts with a blank page.

I began 2020 with a plan for a novel which was going nowhere and, as I worked on it for months, I began to get bored. It got to the point where I returned to an idea for a story I’d abandoned some time ago, about the Godfather-esque rise of a magician in a school of sorcery. It was a weird, silly concept which stole liberally from other novels and films, especially other ‘magic school’ stories like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, but it was less tiring to work on than my main project and would be a fun diversion.

As I worked, I realized that the story’s unoriginality was an asset. By referring to other works of fiction, my story could critique and respond to the ideas they proposed. Given the growing controversy around J.K. Rowling, I homed in on aspects that’d always bothered me about her work—the elitist undertones of magical powers being inherited, or how the actions of characters like Malfoy or Snape were frequently excused, or questions about her portrayal of prejudice. Having refined the plot and themes, I gave this project a name: The Wayland Cycle. All that was left was to write it. And then the pandemic hit.

At home in Hong Kong, I had no choice but to stay indoors and get to writing. Over time I’ve learned to treat writing like work: clock in a given number of words daily (I tend to average 2500, give or take), then rest and take your mind off writing, then repeat as necessary.

At best this is tiring, at worst grueling, but the fact that I didn’t take the story seriously kept me sane. Instead of holding some exaggerated idea of the story’s brilliance, I could quote you every single way it was derivative and unoriginal, all of which meant that I wasn’t paralyzed by perfectionist indecision at every step. I even indulged in that vice of teenage writers, the self-insert character – like myself, the main character was a bisexual person of color, though unlike me he was witty and strong-willed and managed to get a boyfriend.

The fact that I was writing a story dealing with wealth inequality and racism during the George Floyd protests and debates over stimulus bills meant that I had to carefully consider how I dealt with those themes. And I’ll be honest – I didn’t always do well. Only some time after finishing it did I see that, despite my best efforts as a Chinese person writing a Black protagonist, my work wasn’t free of stereotypes, and that a section of slang-heavy dialogue at the story’s beginning was ridiculous to read, despite every attempt to edit and shorten it. Even with how self-aware I was about this story’s flaws, these issues only became really apparent in hindsight. I won’t bore you justifying how that happened; all I can say is that I’d gladly listen to any constructive criticism readers have.

But beyond staying updated on protests overseas, I was also acutely aware of how the pro-democracy movement in my home of Hong Kong was being slowly curbed. Over the summer I watched as the election was called off, newspaper owners were arrested, and a new law limited free speech in the name of national security. I call myself a supporter of the pro-democracy cause, but I’ve never taken part in protests or activism, and as I played around with fictional characters while people fought worldwide for causes I supported, I’d never felt more inadequate.

What I did, instead, was write.

I gave my protagonist the heroism I lacked. As the story progressed, I watched him change from being self-serving to fighting for his friends, who were also victims of inequality, of discrimination, of unjust systems. In the plans for the sequels to this story, a minor character grew in prominence – a cautious intellectual who looked on would-be revolutionaries as irresponsible fools, but who grew to appreciate their sincerity and the value of their methods.

Introverted as I am, as the summer drew on I became starved for human contact, and when I finished editing The Wayland Cycle I turned my attention to putting it online as a web novel. I’d never dealt much with social media, but I learned more quickly than I thought I would. I made a blog to upload the story chapter by chapter and began advertising it on Twitter and Reddit. I remember wandering around my flat in frustration when the first chapter of the story went online and no views came in and cheering when the blog got its first follower.

In that empty, quiet summer, I began to crave the structure provided by advertising my work – I learned that Mondays, when I uploaded new chapters, and Saturdays, where I would connect with writers on Twitter, brought in the most views. Tuesdays, for whatever reason, always had the fewest, and I spent the rest of the week looking for opportunities on sites like Reddit where I could advertise my blog or chat with other writers. I turned on the charm, built an online persona, refined a synopsis of my story and recited it ad nauseam: If you’re in the mood for an urban fantasy web novel which deconstructs the ‘magic school’ genre, check out The Wayland Cycle (http://waylandcycle.wordpress.com/). It’s about teenagers in a school for psychics which isn’t as benevolent as it seems, and the rebellion that they’re planning!

For a story which started as silly fun, it suddenly felt like work, and I had to force myself to take more breaks when I realized how stressed I was getting over its lack of readers. I still remember how, after a day of trying to get more views and getting only two, I went to bed feeling sick and furious and exhausted, and simply lay awake with the lights off, not thinking about anything for the first time in hours.

Pandemic productivity is such a strange idea. We cope by building routines, gathering a shell of hobbies and obligations, and on some level we might look down on people who don’t pick up knitting or bake sourdough or write a novel. These constraints, inherited from work or school life, let us cling on to normalcy, but sometimes we can forget that normalcy wasn’t that great to begin with. Sometimes, the best work is done when you don’t take it seriously. Sometimes, the best coping mechanism is to lie down and let your brain go quiet.

I still enjoy getting more views on my blog or some extra followers, but the knowledge of my story’s flaws, and the fact that I gain nothing concrete from this, not even ad revenue, keeps me balanced. I’d call this a happy ending, but I still have a sequel to The Wayland Cycle to write, which will be far more challenging than the first story ever was. I’ve never liked happy endings in my line of work, anyway.

Art by Emma Hewlett

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