Posts Tagged writing life
I recently asked an artist what his dream job would be. He then bounced the question back to me. ‘What would your dream be as a writer? What would you wish for? What would your dream writing job be?’
Let me think. Is Succession hiring?
Seriously, the writing I most want to do is my own books. I’m always fighting for the time to work on them, fitting them around other gigs and commissions. And, with the time they take, they certainly aren’t paid at professional rates, but the rewards of art are a complex thing. (You might like this post if you want to consider those questions further.)
What if my own books could be properly funded, instead of squeezed into gaps? If I could get an advance or a sponsor, perhaps through crowdfunding?
I don’t think that would be my dream. My books are unpredictable in timescale. Not the Nail Your Novels; I know what they need before I start, so can reasonably finish in a few months. Not Quite Lost, my travel memoir, was also swift. But Ever Rest was glacial; seven years, between other commissions. Lifeform Three took two years, and I don’t know how I managed that. My Memories of a Future Life took a lot of apprentice drafts several decades ago, which don’t count because I wouldn’t start in such a muddle today, then it spent several years in infuriating disorder, then came right in a four-month blitz.
What sponsor could tolerate such a haphazard production timescale? I wouldn’t ask them to.
If I knew people were waiting for delivery, would I feel obliged to finish faster and less thoroughly? I probably would. I hate to disappoint.
On the other hand, would these novels have been finished faster if I’d had an uninterrupted run?
Perhaps, but here’s another question. Did they need the other work I was doing in parallel? The book comes from the soil it was grown in, the weather around it. Different soil, different weather? Different book. And some books need time to muck about and grow up.
Although a patron would be an amazing stroke of luck (and if you want to be one, I’m all ears…), most of us get our books out anyway. We always have.
But while we write on a mysterious self-directed solitary mission, a book is not a solitary thing. All our perfectionist angst, our multiple edits, our discussions with beta readers, our careful reworking has one purpose – we are creating with the idea of the eventual reader, their journey and experience.
Writers are not monks in a contemplative order, separated from people and the world. We are reaching out. We are illusionists, assembling a longform work of magic. A novel – or a piece of poetry or creative non-fiction – is built to be performed. It is dead unless it comes alive in other minds.
To do all that work, and nobody reads it? That really makes writing a lonely business.
There’s my wish. That my books are read.
What would you wish for?
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
The resilient mindset, overcoming blocks and living every moment of the creative journey – interview at @insideyourhead0
Today I’m on a podcast that’s not my usual territory. Although I’m talking about writing and creativity, the podcast’s main focus is psychology, self-help, neuroscience and wellness.
Inside Your Head is hosted by my friend Henry Hyde, whose name you might recognise because we’ve podcasted together before. Henry’s a writer and designer, and has taken this new direction after a health issue. He wants to explore how we tick on many levels – from our physical health to other less quantifiable aspects of our lives that are central to our wellbeing.
And here’s where creativity and writing are relevant.
Resilience and self-belief are needed for the artistic life. You carve your own path. It’s a long game. You might make plans – and nothing will turn out as you thought it would. When I started writing seriously, I hoped I’d complete a book, and if it was good enough, it would be taken up by a publisher or a literary agent and I’d begin my author career. Certainly I’ve ended up as an author, with the kind of books I hoped I’d write (and readers who like them!), but absolutely nothing went as I imagined it would.
There’s also another kind of self-belief you need as a creative artist – to discover where you truly fit. You try lots of writing styles and genres that don’t suit you until you find the right ones. You wonder sometimes – actually, quite a lot – if that’s good enough. You’re teaching yourself an artform, and learning to express yourself, and learning who you are while you look for your own distinctive style. You’re often torn down or disappointed – but gradually these experiences teach you better who you are.
There’s loads more on the podcast. Henry knows that one of my day jobs is editing a medical magazine, so we talked about the problems facing doctors in the UK at the moment – which I see first hand, from their own pens. It certainly puts creative struggles into perspective when you talk to people who handle life and death. This led to a very interesting chat about emotionally demanding jobs, and the people who are suited to them and are also burned out by them – an issue I tackled in my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life.
So it’s a wide-ranging and often surprising conversation. Did you spot horses in the introduction Henry’s written? Indeed you did. Horses teach you a lot about your inner chatter, self-trust and self-compassion. Do come over.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Finished Nanowrimo? 5 ways to use the holidays to keep your new writing habits… without revising too early
You aced Nanowrimo.
You have a satisfying file of fifty-k words, itching for further attention.
Your creative mojo is in motion. You got a writing habit, and you’re loath to let it slide.
And holiday times are coming when you might find the odd hour to sneak off, keep your hand in.
It’s too soon to revise the manuscript. You don’t have enough critical distance. So keep it locked away and do these things instead.
1 Fill your research holes
As you wrote, you probably found gaps that needed more research.
Locations you need to flesh out with visuals, smells, sounds, practical details. Is that tourist attraction open in February? Did people in Georgian England clean their teeth? Also seek details beyond the literal – to resonate with your themes or the inner lives of your viewpoint characters.
First drafts are often rough about details of characters’ lives. You might add surprising richness if you look at their professions or think about their daily routines. (For professions, I heartily recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Occupation Thesaurus.)
2 MOT your title
Did you have a title? If you didn’t, start brainstorming. If you did have a title, is it still the best title?
3 Find comparison titles
At some point, you’ll need to identify which books are the closest to yours, which will be infinitely useful for introducing the book to the wide world. Literary agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, everyone needs to know what other books your book is like.
This is relatively easy if you’re writing in a genre or well defined tradition, but if you’re not, be tangential. Consider:
- human situations
- historical or geographical settings
- the nature of the story’s resolution
- the writing style
- the tone.
And … find unexpected comparisons
Just for kicks, take an aspect of your book and find a treatment of it that’s as different as possible from your own. Might it give you fresh and surprising ideas?
4 Write a summary from memory
This will do you good in many fab ways. You’ll need a summary when the book is eventually ready to meet the world. Writing this summary is a major undertaking (see here for how long it took me to write a summary of My Memories of a Future Life – the post is titled ‘I feared I’d never get the blurb finished in time for the launch’). Even if your revisions of the novel change a lot, it’s easier to update an existing summary than to write one from scratch under pressure. So start writing it early, when you have this downtime.
And do it from memory! Why? Two reasons – to stop you opening that text file and fiddling too soon. Also, the summary is in itself a reflective process of revision. When you tell the story to a new blank page, off the cuff, you’ll see anew how everything fits together. Or how it could with a tweak or several. You might see some completely new directions as well.
5 Or … divert your attention completely by starting another project!
But no peeking until January. Or even later.
Psst… My Nail Your Novel workbook has loads more activities for using this writing rest productively.
It’s been a long journey. Five years ago, I started my novel Ever Rest. Fifteen drafts, and I now have the manuscript in a state where it’s fit to show to another person.
For the first time ever.
A curious feeling.
Like unveiling a massive secret
I never talk much about a work in progress (I’ve got a post about that here). I have never workshopped this novel or discussed it with a critique group, though I did base it on a short story I workshopped many years ago.
When I began in 2014, I brainstormed the concept with Husband Dave, but the book is now as far from those original thoughts as a wineglass is from sand.
I have shared tiny morsels of the plot with experts for research. Thank you, pathologists, musicians, priests, media lawyers, artists, expeditioners and mountaineers who answered my questions.
But the whole thing, I have kept to myself, done entirely alone.
Words in, words out
To begin with, I worried it would never get big enough. I had to change from short-form to long-form thinking (here’s a post about that).
For a while, I was pleased any time the wordcount went up. In the late drafts, once I knew what it was, I was relieved to see it drop again.
Under a crazy spell
In these finishing months, I have been a diligent writer and a negligent author-publisher. I’ve kept up with news about ways to stay visible and leads to pursue. I’ve made to-do lists. And I have not done them. The book needed my undivided attention and I could not imagine doing that other stuff, or how I had ever done it before.
But now it’s like a craze is passing. A sense of other priorities is returning.
It’s been like beginner dating
In the beginning, I was eager for comparison titles. Who were the readers who might get it? I looked for comparisons, according to themes, locations, inciting incidents. They were most unsuitable. Very well, it would be a misfit, so I wrote in a state of defiance, like a bolshy teenager. Now it’s become a recognisable shape after all, different from my expectations. I know where it might find friends.
I can break my reading diet
A developing book is fly paper. Any idea, style, mood might stick to it, and particularly from other books. See here for my detailed post about what I read while I’m writing.
Now, I can choose books for pure interest.
More to come
It’s not finished. There will be much to refine. but compared with what I’ve already done, the remaining work will be small. Details will change. Technicalities, repetitions. unclarities. plot goofs, realities I need to make more real. Layers that need more sparkle – or less. emphases that need to be adjusted. But it is now what it is. All changes will help it do that better.
Making new humans
There are people who compare the writing of a book to motherhood. I’m not a mother so I won’t appropriate that comparison, but I find I relate to the singleminded purpose that develops through a pregnancy. In this way, making a novel seems like making a new human. except I have made at least seven with hearts to inhabit, and several more who will test them. No wonder it’s been intense.
I am missing those characters. They are not completely lost to me, of course. I may have to adjust them. Later, the production phases will require that I read and reread anyway. But I miss that I might have no more to discover about them, no more to give or take away from them, because that was one of the pleasures of knowing them. Perhaps it’s good that I am not a parent. (There’s more about how to parent your characters here.)
Heart in mouth
Now it’s ready to be tested. A tightrope moment. Best not to look down.
It’s not over yet.
But it feels like it is.
Thanks for the pic Gusaap on Pixabay
PS There’s loads about organising a rewrite (or several) in my workbook
PPS More on editing fast, editing slow… here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month
Questions…. they’re the reason a reader gets intrigued by a story. And, at the author’s end, the writing process is an entire cycle of questions, big and small, some arising out of other questions. Some of the process is figuring out the right answers. Some of it is figuring out what to ask in the first place.
If that sounds like a conundrum, some of the most important questions are conundrums in themselves. Confused?
PS If you’re curious about the latest doings of my own creative pen, here’s my latest newsletter
I am so chuffed to be on The Quivering Pen books blog, the online hideout of Iraq War novelist David Abrams. I’ve been following it for years. I have shamelessly headhunted many of its guests for The Undercover Soundtrack (and yes, you’ll see David’s Soundtrack here soon).
David has a series called My First Time, where authors confess a virgin experience of writing and publishing life. I’m there today talking about distraction projects – creative stuff you do when you really should be doing something else. You probably all know my travel diary is one of those, but I’ve actually been far more distractible than that. In my time I’ve made recipe books and a music soundtrack for a series of illustrated books. All of which taught me surprising things when I returned to my proper work.
Anyway, do pop over. Especially if you really should be doing something more important.
Didn’t I say in January that I had a book I would write quickly? A book based on my travel diaries. A book that should have required a quick spit and polish, then out of the nest it would go.
But no, the months have passed, and if you followed my newsletter you’ll have seen the progress through rough edits, reconcepting, purge of darlings, second purge of darlings, beta reader 1, beta reader 2, reader 3, reader 4, final polish, snapshots of typesetting on Facebook and final sigh of relief.
January to July: seven months to take a book from personal notes to publicly presentable. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be, but still quite fast by my usual standards.
I haven’t been doing it full time, of course. My usual freelance editing gigs have snowballed, and sometimes I’ve been fighting to protect a few hours for my book. Equally, it’s benefited from being consigned to the basement, cogitating. If I’d had an uninterrupted run, it wouldn’t be the book it is.
‘Finding a destination’ is generally the biggest challenge of the bookwriting process for me. It’s what takes literary writers so long (which I posted about here).
It also doesn’t seem confined to writing, by any means. I recently stumbled across these lines in an obituary published in The Economist of the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani:
By her own account, she was “slow” …. she teased out solutions by doodling for hours on vast sheets of paper … the point, she said, was not to write down all the details, but to stay connected to the problem. She likened mathematical enquiry to being lost in a forest, gathering knowledge, to come up with some new tricks, until you suddenly reach a hilltop and see everything clearly.’
I’m a card-carrying slowcoach, and I see this same struggle in the Facebook feeds of writer friends. It’s the hell of book writing, and also, eventually the heaven. You did it. You persevered, you made a substantial something out of fat nothing; just a notion that took your fancy or kept you fretting. The fact that it took so long is, in the end, part of the triumph. You persevered with a possibility that no one else saw, shaped it in a way that no one else would. Finally, a stranger can take your trip and say ‘I never went there before’.
So far, so personally rewarding. But we stumble over the finish line and into an immovable fact. This cherished, nurtured, shiny new book is a speck in a sea of plankton. There are not enough eyes to read all the books that are published. It’s the best of times to be a writer and the worst of times to try to make a living at it, or run a publishing company. The Guardian recently published this piece with a bleak view, which we can boil down to this: barring a miracle, hardly anybody will buy it.
So does the world need my new book?
We have so many already. Good books; great books. The human condition doesn’t change.
Certainly it doesn’t, and Chaucer still resonates now. I’ll read a book from the 1950s as readily as the 2000teens. Dave keeps urging me to read New Grub Street by George Gissing, which was published in 1891 and nails the creative industries exactly as they are today. But sometimes we want the company of contemporary minds. People might not change, but the world will always do things that are, for better or worse, unpresidented.
Even if your work is not tackling current issues, it still comes through contemporary sensibilities. Although authors primarily write for their own reasons – personal fulfilment, making a living – the world does still need them.
The duty we have now is to publish only what deserves to be. To use a reader’s time wisely and responsibly.
Still, why write?
But selling books can be so soul-shrivelling, particularly today. So why do we still write more? We do it because the long process of conversation with an idea, like Maryam the mathematician, is intrinsic to those who are creative. Even though it’s often agony to face a blank page. The writer in the Guardian goes back into her cycle, the way we all do – not knowing if she has the goods to do it again.
The selfish gene?
Is that primarily a selfish process? It must seem so. But at the least, it must make us wiser people. To understand our own themes forces us to see them from more sides than just our own. We might delve a long way in research to write a situation truthfully. To create a character who isn’t a stereotype, we might have to admire their flaws or be critical of their virtues. Our invented people teach us tolerance and generosity.
Even my travel tales – which were not invented – had to be revisited with a more critical eye.
And so, for better or for worse, I have a new book. Because that is what I do.
Not Quite Lost – Travels Without A Sense of Direction will be available on preorder soon -watch this space.
Still time to grab this bargain! You have until the end of July to grab a special offer on Nail Your Novel – Amazon have chosen it for a Book Of The Month deal, so the Kindle edition is just USD$1.99.
Bargain! again! – Last chance to read my novels FREE and choose from hundreds more titles on subscription service Bookmate – exclusive code at this link.