Assuming, like 99% of us, writing doesn’t pay your bills.
Maybe you do write for money – as a content or copy writer, maybe as a journalist, but is writing your passion AND your job?
Nope. Mine neither.
We’re in good company, many top writers managed to craft exquisite tomes whilst earning their rent elsewhere.
William Faulkner worked as a postmaster at a university in New York. Wallace Stephens worked as an insurance lawyer, notoriously using his employer’s time to write poems. TS Elliot meanwhile worked at a bank.
As a schoolteacher with a small child, I started off with nowhere to write. A patch of floor in the living-room, my laptop on my knee, or on the table before breakfast, were the closest things I ever had to a room of my own.
Douglas Stuart, winner of the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain, wrote the novel over several years whilst working long hours in his role as a fashion designer.
Well, I drive a van for Sainsburys. Yup, if you live in the South Devon area, you might just find me appearing on your doorstep one day delivering your milk! Oh, and we look after our latest grandchild three days a week. Erm, oh yes, I also do all the house maintenance, walk the dog, cook dinner etc etc etc. Not unlike pretty much every single author that has ever written a book.
So this week I have taken the leap and taken myself off social media for the time being. As I said a couple of weeks ago (read that here), it’s a flippin’ addiction and the only way to break it is to go cold turkey. This is day three and it feels bloody great.
Last week’s writing was pretty much non existent and this week isn’t much better, I’m sat here on Wednesday evening and other than the few hundred words of this blog post I’ve written feck all!
For those just arriving on the shores of the island of creativity I’m calling “my writing“, welcome.
Yes, welcome. Pull up a tree trunk, park yourself and listen in.
My novel – working title, Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners (DTDLLTO) – it is already a few years in the making. If thinking about my characters was an Olympic sport, you’d be hanging a medal around my neck. Whereas, if actually writing the thing was a race, I’d be picking up the cones and turning off the lights.
When I read that back, it seems like I’m down on myself about DTDLLTO. I assure you I’m not. The thinking is important, essential in fact. I may have barely opened Scrivener this last week, but I’ve put some hours in to the narrative and characters.
Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard
I’ve created a new game. A writing game. I’m calling the game “make that paragraph less shit“. There’s only me playing so I’m guaranteed a victory. C’mon, let me show you into my mind as it tackles some DTDLLTO quandaries:
If you’re going to write a good book, you have to make mistakes and you have to not be so cautious all the time.
There’s a point in my story where one of my two protagonists, let’s call her Rosa (because that is her actual name), decides that she can’t move on with the new things in her life unless she unloads her past onto my other protagonist, let’s call him Alec (which is still a working name, he may end up being Barry, or Aubrey or Victor). Not only that, she has been keeping a massive secret from him too.
The paragraph which shows Rosa reaching this decision is going to be a pretty major pivot for the reader and I want it to be seamless. Seamless but not gentle. The words need to have the reader gulping nervously but still be eager to read on.
So I wrote the paragraph as fast and as crudely as I could while I was in between deliveries at work. Then, in my next 10 minute window I rewrote it. In my official break, I rewrote it twice more. Now I’ve left it to stew in my journal. I’ll return to the paragraph next week and rewrite all over again.
It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.
I know I’ve declared NO EDITING until the end of this first rough draft, but I wanted to challenge myself to refine those moments which are going to shake the story up. The process of rewriting this one paragraph has meant some focussed reflection time about where DTDLLTO goes next. It’s not just about that one paragraph, it is also about setting me up to attack the next phase of the book with fresh ideas and a willing mind.
Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.
Larry L King
So no, I’m not at all disappointed with progress (although I’ll always beat myself for not doing more!)
I bloody love my journal.
And I’m using it more and more.
My note taking has become prolific, even if I do say so myself. Looking back through the journal finding prompts for this blog, I see I’ve been paying attention to everything I’ve listened to this week:
James O’Brien interviewing Omid Djalili and Tom Walker (he of Jonathon Pie fame) for example, both of which had been scribbling about privilege and stereotypes. So much great listening in the van this week – yet another delightful episode of Other PPL podcast, with Brad Listi interviewing Kathryn Miles, award winning journalist and author.
I’ve also listened to Zadie Smith’s hefty essay collection, Feel Free.
The most notes I’ve taken though, are from the book I’m reading, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. Wow, so much power, wisdom and strength in the writing. A truly humbling memoir. In the face of a brutality we thankfully could never imagine, he didn’t give up on himself.
We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last – The power to refuse our consent.
Primo Levi, If This Is A Man
So. With Primo Levi as our inspiration, onwards we go my friends, onwards……
The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life
Why am I writing THIS novel? Why am I writing it NOW?
We need to get to the root of my story…..
Is this story actually my truth?
Does it successfully and eloquently articulate the struggles,? The questions? The confusions of life? Does it ask and try to answer the BIG quandries?
Life eh – There’s no weekly email newsletter we can subscribe to which might act as a handbook – no roadmap to steer us from young to old.
We have to work this shit out ourselves.
If we’re lucky enough to meet someone who gives us the courage to tackle the questions, then that makes for a golden life.
It took me 47 years. And 8 years later it is still getting more golden by the day.
We’ve been married for 7 of those years – I have whatever is the opposite of a 7 year itch.
7 Years today, if you’re reading this, er, TODAY! (May 16th)
Yes, we’re celebrating the best 7 years of my life. Nicky truly has asked me over and over, “why shouldn’t people like ‘us’ chase our dreams?”
And so I write.
I’m getting much better at writing a shit sentence. I am allowing myself simply get the thoughts out of my head. Releasing them it into the physical world makes them real. My story needs to be a presence – a sentence may be shit, and I might cringe as I write it, but once typed, it is there ready to be edited.
You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.
So, my book.
What book? The one I affectionately nick name DTDLLTO (working title Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners). My first book, my first novel, my first attempt to tell the truth and have the conviction to carry it through.
I was stuttering with it, but this year, particularly with my new gung ho draft zero approach, it has started to flow from me.
I needed the freedom, the freedom to choose to look inside myself, to find the truths of who I am.
I give myself permission to write it.
What are my truths? What are my stories? Who should be telling my truths and who has the authority to narrate my stories? Well, I’m finding out…..
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
Traps I’m trying to avoid – creating a character in the shadow of me. I started taking all of the parts of my life where I believe I am morally right and getting my character to ‘virtue signal’ through their behaviour.
As Brad Listi says, the reader will spot the puppet strings pretty quickly. It’s bullshit anyway, nobody is that morally pure!
Who am I writing the book for?
Does it even need readers? Am I the author and the reader? Are you the reader? One tip I’ve heard is to imagine how different the story would be if it was read allowed to my mum, or my boss, or my best friend, or YOU! It’s a great exercise in finding the right voice.
In the first draft, everything seems to be all too obvious. It is in no way elegant. Yet. Hopefully this draft will contain the truth though and I can add my wished for subtlety in future drafts. I don’t want to dictate to the reader, whoever that might be.
There weren’t many words last week, about a 1000. What I have achieved is the feeling of why I’m writing this story and I’ve given myself the go ahead to crack on.
Life is confusing. Our emotions are confusing. Our opinions can feel confusing. The challenge for me is to harness all that confusion and let my two main characters in DTDLLTO navigate the swirling waters of truth.
You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.
F Scott Fitzgerald
Social media has us by the balls!
I’m still a Twitter addict and as with every other addiction that I’m recovering from, moderation seems to be an impossible option. I need to find a solution though because I like Twitter for the communities I’m lucky enough to be part of. I’m not great at ‘real life’ socialising, and the running, writing and Coventry City supporting friends I’ve made on Twitter have become important to me.
I’ve installed an app to monitor my internet use and have set limits for the sites I use – It’s working so far I’m pleased to say. Let’s see if more efficient Twitter time translates into more productive writing time!
Come on, let’s hurl ourselves into the next creative week.
The previous week’s update highlighted a patchy performance but I’d still managed a few words – find out more here.
So, how has week 5 gone of my writing comeback?
I guess for anybody except a full time writer, scribbling opportunities will be ‘patchy’ to say the least. Full time writers, I would imagine, have just the same interruptions and distractions as the rest of us, not least from themselves – we can all procrastinate the time away….
I’m an expert of procrastination – Rob Deering on the excellent Running Commentary Podcast joked about writers taking to Twitter and using the hashtag #AMWRITING as opposed to, you know, actually writing! I can be guilty of this, although I do tend to wait for those times when I’m chuffed with myself for the progress I’ve made.
Writing doesn’t need to be complicated, in fact, it being something I do with my precious leisure time, it really should be a joy. And 90% of that time it is.
In the other 10% of the time, I try and remind myself how Margaret Attword tries to make the process of writing a little simpler:
A word after a word after a word is power.
I’m still not running (I know, I’m feeling a little bit sorry for myself!) due to this annoying foot injury, but I did have a run at DTDLLTO (Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners – the working title of my first novel) last week. I found a state of flow several times in the short windows of opportunity I’ve had available, and have written about 2000 words. My first draft, or draft zero, or whatever you want to call it is now sitting at about 11,000 words.
I’m drafting away on my opening scenes, working across the first three chapters. I’m really happy with my two main characters, the setting and what we see them getting up to. When I come back, in however many months time, I’ll be looking to find a less clunky way for them to move to the next phase of the book, the meat of it. My story has quite a powerful and ever present back story which steers and, quite deliberately, hangs a shadow over the present day. I’ll be checking myself that I’m not shoe horning that back story into the narrative, rather letting the reader gradually piece it together for themselves.
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
W. Somerset Maugham
It really is sinking in now, the message that I’ve just got to get the story out of my head and on to paper – creating this draft zero – and then I can zone in and edit it in to shape. So many writers echo the sentiment: “You can’t edit a blank page.”
I’m also getting better at realising that it’s about the story, the thing that is in my head. As writer Steve Almond said recently on The Other PPL Podcast, the point is to create a body of work which reveals the truths behind my writing, not to try and impress with the size of my vocabulary!
AND – I’ve read some cracking flash fiction this week, not least in The Smokelong Quarterly Journal. They also often interview authors about how the pieces came about. I particulalry enjoyed the piece from Corey Farrenkopf recently and the follow up interview. Check it out, if that’s your thing.
So another week goes by.
It’s good, my journal has had plenty of use this week, I’ve listened to and read plenty of writing craft advice, I’m still reading the beautifully written To Paradise and whenever I get the chance, doing the one thing which will keep my projects moving forward, I’m turning up!
Following on from a very productive week of being Mr WriterMcWriteyFace, where the words flowed like a burst water main (don’t believe me eh? Have a peek HERE), last week was more of a dripping tap in comparison.
But there have been words. Some of them thrown together to make sentences. Some of which make sense. Others will be edited over and over until they no longer exist, then rewritten before starting the process all over again. It’s all writing though, it all counts.
Seriously though, after getting so much momentum the previous week, this has been a case of ‘After The Lord Mayors Show‘.
A bit like with my fitness goals, it is at these times when I need to pull up my mojo socks and focus. Just keep turning up Kevin, keep on turning up.
James Baldwin knew.
There isn’t a ‘cheat’.
Talent is insignificant.I know a lot of talented ruins.Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.
There’s no Monday to Sunday updates this week – just a list of positives:
I wrote about 1000 words of DTDLLTO, my novel in draft.
There’s a blog post coming, my reminder to myself to be positive.
My journal has been very busy – ideas, poem drafts, diary entries.
I’ve listened to some brilliant writerly podcasts and other audio.
Dreams and half awake thoughts have been committed to paper for inspiration.
Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.
The host of my favourite writerly podcast, OtherPPL, has a book coming out. On the pod this week was a free sample of the audio book, read by the author himself, Brad Listi. Check it out HERE. I do harp on about OtherPPL, but that is because it really is a fine creation. Brad’s podcasts never fail to stoke my creative fires and I reckon his book will be a writerly tonic too.
Also in my ears this week has been Nikesh Shukla’s new writing craft offering, Your Story Matters, which has a fresh and pacy feel to it. Another book which is narrated by the author himself, it is a thoroughly engaging listen.
Shukla reminds us that the word count is only one measure of writing success:
Some days you get those words down quickly, other days you pad it out cos you’re tired or stressed or uninspired or it’s a hard sequence. Don’t write 1000 bad words down just to hit a word count. Think about it in terms of time rather than word count.
I’m also reminding myself that it isn’t just writing that counts as writing: thinking counts as writing, walking and imagining my characters in different surrounding counts as writing. Journaling counts as writing, listening to audiobooks counts as writing. Reading of course, without reading there would be no writing. Reading definitely counts as writing. Browsing, or better still, engaging with Writers HQ, yup that counts as writing. Blogging, diarising, taking about my writing, even tweeting my writerly chums, it all counts as writing. There’s even a tongue in cheek Counts As Writing Twitter account.
So I’m not beating myself over last week’s wordcount, in fact the process of tapping these few words has reinvigorated my get-up-and-sit-down-and-fucking-write-y-ness.
Here goes – week three of my writing comeback. Not everything can be measured in numbers.
Not for me anyway. Pleasure should not be quantified, happiness isn’t counted. Not in our house.
There’s a great interview with Zac Smith on this week’s Other PPL Podcast where Zac and host Brad Listi talk about how the pleasure of writing comes in the writing! It sounds obvious but, again forgive my analogy, it is just like running – one step at a time, one word at a time – it clears my mind.
What about progress? Surely I’ve always measured my running – longest distances, fastest times, PBs – and I’m guilty as charges I’m afraid. But it is till mainly about the feeling.
This reboot of mine (read this if you fancy) is all about BEING a writer and just as soon as my foot is healed, it will be about BEING a runner too
Of course I’ll be using numbers to measure my progress! Hopefully writing my estimated 90,000 words of the first draft of the novel, tentatively titled Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners (DTDLLTO) by the end of the year. But a good stint of writing will still be successful, if it FEELS successful, regardless of how many words I get down on the page.
SO, for your (and my) pleasure, here’s week three’s progress (and yes there are some numbers!)
Monday: I finalised and posted two, count ’em, TWO blog posts – Click here to read all about the two months since Nicky and myself became vegans or here to catch up with last week’s writing update.
“Making people on paper, much like making them in your uterus, takes a long time, is physically and mentally exhausting, and makes you wee a lot. So brace yourself, we’re going in.“
Writers HQ offering a reality check for the writer!
Tuesday: Busy McBusyface didn’t get chance to add words today.
Wednesday: On the timer, I managed 1100 words of the first draft of DTDLLTO. I also pre-ordered David Keenan’s latest offering today. It is a prequel to the extraordinary This Is Memorial Device (which I reviewed here).
Thursday: Busy trying to keep fit and then grandadding, so little time for words. The wonderful non-fiction journal, Hinterland dropped through the letter box today – I managed to read some of the excellent articles in there while little Charlie (the grandson, not the dog – I know it does make for some confusion having a pet and a 10 month old sharing a name) had a sleep.
Friday: Not feeling great. Ran out of time. Bit of noodling with Writers HQ working out how to join the virtual writers’ retreat.
Saturday: We had a bloomin lovely day out I’ll have you know. You can read about it just as soon as I’ve written the next blog post!
Sunday: Writers HQ Online Retreat. If you’re fancying doing a bit of writing and find yourself struggling for time (& money) have a rummage around their website. This was the first time I’ve done one of their writing retreats – which became online when that there pandemic arrived – and what a marvellous success it has been.
It just shows that prioritising writing, sitting at a desk which faces the wall, rather than having the laptop on my actual lap and sitting downstairs by a window, works a treat. For me, writing in chunks of time works so well. I did 5 sets of 30 mins of my novel today and wrote 2990 words of this first drafting. I’m just getting the story out and trying not to edit as I go!
A big chunk of wordsmithery time today paid dividends in more ways the number of words. I also started to get a richer understanding of the relationship between my two main characters, I found I could tap into a wider range of emotions, hopefully gradually changing between scenes. When I write in very small time windows, I find I force a feeling into a scene without the context of the scenes either side of it.
As the wonderful AL Kennedy says, once characters start developing through the act writing their lives, they will start to live in the writer’s head more. Thus revealing themselves in greater detail. I’m just letting these two show themselves to me as I go. They haven’t been created from nothing, in many ways they’ve been created from everything. And what a privilege it is to be their narrator.
A Certain Thought To Finish
Now here’s thing. A proper thing.
There’s a certain something about a certain writer. Or a certain podcaster. A certain friend, a certain relative or even a certain random character on Twitter. There is a certain something about these certain people which instantly inspires me to write. There certainly is.
Monday: I published last weeks writing update. I also got stuck into my Writers HQ First Draft course and wrote around 500 words of what I think will be the 2nd chapter, although it may yet become the first. These first two settings are several years apart and one could be a reflection of the other.
Tuesday: I plucked up the courage to ask for help from a couple of people who had volunteered through Twitter to be 1st readers. And having publicly thanked them, I got a veritable barrage of Running Commentary listeners offering to have a read of my piece. *gulp*. I struggle to see myself as a ‘proper’ writer and this felt like a huge step for me.
Tuesday also saw me add 400+ words to DTDLLTO (my first novel, working title Dogs That Don’t Look Like Their Owners, hence DTDLLTO) which is a great start. I’m ‘writing with the door closed’ as per Stephen King’s advice in the brilliant On Writing – he says this first attempt is meant to be rubbish! So, I am writing the first draft for me, getting the story and the characters out of my head and onto paper. I’m trying really hard not to edit as I go, the point is to let it just blurt out. The refining comes later. This is the first time I’ve gathered so much momentum with the book and I intend to embrace it.
AND I started work on a new blog post about becoming a vegan. Considering we were on grandparenting duty, that’s a pretty productive day.
Wednesday: Time limited, I managed 150 odd words on what is currently chapter 2 of DTDLLTO whilst looking after our youngest grandson, Charlie of course.
Thurs/Fri: I’ve started having replies from the 5 people who are first reading the draft of that short story. It is interesting to see how people react to something I’ve written. Let me tell you it is a leap of faith to get other people involved, but one I know will only improve my writing. I shall leave the story festering in a drawer for a week before starting any edits. One possibility is that it is actually part of a much grander piece, and not a short story at all. I’m hoping that once I start editing, the story will reveal itself to me further.
Also on Friday, I started scribbling some notes for a piece I plan to contribute to The Creative Nonfiction Podcast. It is a quirky podcast, the host, Brendan O’Meara talks in riffs, with nods to his favourite metal bands. I was soon on his wavelength though and this has become one of my go-to pods. He interviews authors, journalists and feature writers about the art of creating non-fiction which has the same kerb appeal as fiction. I enjoy writing nonfiction, particularly these blog posts and often think I should spend a bit more time developing the themes. Brendan has a twice yearly audio magazine alongside the podcast and picks the content from listeners’ submissions. For anybody fancying a go, the deadline is 31st October, the theme is ‘codes’ and it needs to be 2000 words (about a 15 minute listen when spoken out loud).
Saturday: I’m now pushing towards 1000 words of chapter two, and another 500ish of what I think will be the first chapter. Got into a bit of a groove this evening, it sometimes feels a bit like running does, when it’s good it is very very good. There’s a rhythm and flow where time just slides by unnoticed. Saturday’s writing felt just like that.
Sunday: Today was about finishing my blog post about becoming a vegan (which I’m very proud of – both the blog and the fact of it!) and putting that aside for one final edit. We all lead busy lives, and unless we happen to be one of the few who are talented enough (and fortunate enough) to be paid to write, we fit it around everything else in our lives.