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……
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.