Wondering when you’ll reap the fame and fortune that come with your dream of being a writer? Well, probably never. If you’re making any of these six classic mistakes…
Wondering when you’ll reap the fame and fortune that come with your dream of being a writer? Well, probably never. If:
1. You don’t read
At least, not the right things. You read all the books on writing and polishing and publishing, and all the books that literary critics are praising, but nothing of any real value. You don’t read books that light a fire under you, you don’t read in your genre, you don’t read non-fiction for fun and inspiration. You don’t have an Audible membership or a library card and you couldn’t name a book that has meant anything to you since you turned 20.
If you were learning to be an accountant you’d study accounting law. If you were studying to be a doctor you would read medical books. Stephen King, in On Writing calls it the Great Commandment: Reada lot, write a lot.
“Read, read, read, Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.”
2. You’re too busy to write
You’re not independently wealthy: you’ve got a job, a family, commitments, a social life, a pressing engagement with the cast of Glee! You can’t possibly squeeze any time out of your day to write.
So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.
You can make time to write, but something else is probably going to have to give. It might be sleep, it might be ‘watching Ellen in the afternoon’, it might be having lunch with the same people every day in the dreary work cafeteria. It might be ‘feeling bad about yourself because you’re not getting any writing done and eating ice cream instead’.
Every time you sit down to write you are paralyzed by the overwhelming feeling that everything has been said before. Well, you know what? You’re right. But it hasn’t been said by you, in this time and place, at your age, and in your circumstances. Agent Donald Maas talks a lot in The Breakout Novelist about the difference between ‘original’ and ‘unique’. You don’t have to be original, but you do have to be ‘unique’.
I once interviewed Daniel Pinkwater and he said the same thing: only you can speak in your voice, and if you write for a while you’ll discover what that voice is.
I love that what my readers need, they can only get from me. It’s riskier, but much more ego-gratifying
-Daniel Pinkwater, 2003 interview
He also said,
Ideas are everywhere. I have 60 ideas a day. So do you. So does everybody.
-Daniel Pinkwater, 2003 interview
The trick is paying attention, taking those ideas and developing them into the story only you can tell.
4. You have no qualifications for this. You don’t know what you’re doing
No writer does. Every artist is engaged in creating something unique and new. Experienced writers say this all the time: I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve done it. Here’s a little evidence:
You can’t completely understand what good writers do until you try it yourself…Write from the very beginning, then, and keep on writing…The next story will be better, and the next one after that still better, and eventually—
-Isaac Asimov, Gold
5. Your Writing Sucks
When you do make the time to write, it’s hard. The words do not come dripping off your pen easily; all the elements in your story don’t come out in the right order; your characters are flat and uninteresting and they speak in cliches; you want to give up.
And that is what Anne Lammot calls your ‘shitty first draft’. It has to be got through in order to get to the second draft, the third, and the polished end result. If you are too scared to suck, too scared to fail then you will never be a writer, because all writing involves putting some truly terrible prose on the page — and excising it later or, like William Faulkner, throw it out entirely and start again,
Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
Sure, it’s scary but even the great and prolific Isaac Asimov says, of the writer’s daily task:
We sit there alone, pounding out words, with out hearts pounding in time. Each sentence brings with it the sickening sensation of not being right.
-Isaac Asimov, Gold
Can you allow your first drafts to be less than perfect?
6. You’re Too Nice
In real life it’s nice to be nice: people like you, you offend nobody and your mother is proud of you.
In literature, being nice doesn’t pay. It’s boring if nothing happens, if no-one gets upset, if no-one is threatened, insulted, shamed, murdered, even. Your writing can be your playground. Be nice in real life if you must but, in your writing,
When my children were tiny I didn’t do a lot of writing. But there would come a day when I simply HAD to write. With a toddler in two, however, it became almost impossible to get through a full sentence without hearing that darling little voice yap,
“Mama? Mama! MAMA!!!”
I got to the stage where it was quite a relief when my boy unexpectedly ditched “Mum” and started calling me by my given name. At least it took a while for that to start to grate on my nerves!
The Delegation Revalation
One fateful afternoon, when my son — previously happily playing with toy cars at my feet — suddenly popped up and asked for a drink. For the third time that hour. I groaned and tore myself away from my half-finished sentence to fetch him a drink.
Then it hit me. My job as a parent was not to raise him to be helpless. My job as a parent was to teach him self-sufficiency. So what if he was only 3?
I started delegating.
That day I moved some plastic tumblers onto a low shelf in an under-the-counter cabinet and made a big deal of at last unlocking the water dispenser on the fridge. Sure, I had to clean up a few spills, but it was a price I was willing to pay to get a few uninterrupted minutes.
We quickly moved on to solo hand-washing, using a stool to get the toothbrush and toothpaste (creating a few precious extra minutes before bedtime). Then I packed away any trousers that didn’t have an elasticated waist and presto! I was freed from having to accompany him to the bathroom!
How Much Can You Give Away?
As the kids have grown, so has my hunger for writing time.
I now delegate all kinds of things.
Where I used to be in charge of bath-time and bedtime, my husband and I now share bedtime duty.
When I was deep in the crunch of StoryADay last May my seven year old, a-hem, learned how to make peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.
While I toiled on my novel last November, my husband taught the boys how to fold their school clothes and put them away neatly.
I could feel guilty about deserting my family when I feel the need to write. Or I can celebrate my awesomeness as a mother who cares enough about them to teach them the life skills they will need when I eventually kick them out of my house. (Ten more years, Eldest. I’m counting.)
Delegation can be fun!
It’s not always, easy of course. Things go wrong. There is often a learning curve for the people you’re delegating tasks to. There might be occasional tears.
But stick with it. You CAN find ways to nudge the people around you become more independent, while also clawing back some of your precious writing time.
What about you? What one task will you try to offload this week? What poor helpless soul will you set on the road to independence?
This tweet and the article it links to got me all riled up on Sunday[1. With all due respect to Colleen Lindsay who is an extremely generous tweeter and knowledgeable publishing person who you should totally be following.And I do sympathise with her points, from her perspective.]
Now the thread goes on to make some valid points, from the point of view of a publishing insider. The article she links to however, gets my hackles right up and I call for a rallying cry of:
“Yah boo sucks to you! I’ll write any damned thing I want”
And so should you!
The Problem With New York[2. Not the whole city, obviously. Just the centralized publishing industry part of it]
The publishing machine exists for a reason (to help authors distribute their work to the masses). For some authors that still works just fine.
For the vast majority of writers, however, the publishing machine is broken. They don’t have a big audience, so they don’t fit the economic model.
The problem comes when publishing insiders forget that the limitations of their system are exactly that: economic.
If something is deemed ‘unpublishable’ it does not mean that,
That people aren’t interested in it,
That it’s bad,
That you shouldn’t write it
It might mean that,
Not enough people are interested in it to justify a huge print run, distribution deals and a massive marketing campaign.
You won’t sell very many copies. (Although you may. You never know.)
It will be intensely interesting to a tiny number of people, who are easily identifiable because they a, live in the place you’re writing about or b, join associations of other-people-who-do-similar-pastimes, etc.
My problem with “Oo, the peons shouldn’t write their stories” articles [3. Apart from the short-sightedness, a lack of awareness of subaltern studies school of historical research and the insufferably smug arrogance, obviously] is that they are destructive to the very soul of humanity.
I’m not exaggerating here.
We are a story-telling people. It’s how we make sense of our lives and our world. It’s what separates us from the brute beasts. It is an essential part of our nature.
Think about the friend who makes you laugh the most. What is she doing? Telling stories — stories with pacing and suspense and great twists.
Think about the most boring person you know. What does she do? Tell stories — terrible, unending, pointless, rambling stories.
Sometimes we make up stories about our origins and pass them on to our progeny. Sometimes we write beautiful epics that explain the human condition. Sometimes we unwittingly preserve a way of life that is destined to die out and be forgotten, except for our stories about it.
What does it do when some arbitrary gatekeeper says, “No, the story of your life growing up in Hicksville with a quirky family isn’t important enough to be published. Don’t even waste your time writing it down.”?
What arrogance! What utter idiocy!
Take Back Your Stories
We’ve been trained by a couple of generations of TV, music labels, and yes, publishers, to believe that we little people aren’t qualified to tell stories, make music or entertain our friends.
Homer [4. or the composite historical phenomenon that has come to us in the stories handed down] kept people spell-bound around the fire with tales of Ulysses and his epic journey.
Jane Austen catalogued a lifestyle long since extinct but nonetheless fascinating to us all these years later.
My grandparents hosted get-togethers where my grandmother played the piano for sing-a-longs, my grandfather told uproarious lies and everyone had a great time.
What do we do? We watch pre-packaged, fake ‘reality’; we listen only to homogenous music on stations that only play one style of music, and we read only the stories that an intellectual elite has chosen for the universality of their appeal.
There’s Room For Everyone At The Digital Inn
There is nothing wrong with best-sellers, nothing at all. I love me some pulpy paperback mystery and sci-fi, and I read the big ‘literary’ hits whenever I can stomach them.
The problem I have with the top-down model of publishing (whether books or music or art) is that it stifles the creative lives of ordinary, gloriously creative people. Because that’s what we are, us humans. Endlessly creative and passionate and social animals.
Luckily, we live in a great age for do-it-yourself distribution of creative products, whether stories, music or video.
No, not everything that people put out into the world is my cup of tea.
Yes, there is a lot more dross to sort through these days.
But it’s also a lot more likely than ever before that I’m going to find something fascinating to read, on a topic of my choosing, by asking around online and getting recommendations from people with similar tastes.
And One Final, Not-Insignificant Point
This flowering of creativity and distribution is going to be an absolute gold mine for anthropologists in the future.
As someone with an MA in History, I am incredibly excited about the breadth of primary sources we are leaving to future historians[5. Part of my Masters’ research was on the travel journals of explorers to the New World in the 1500s. Some of my other research invoved the shopping lists of Ventian guilds and what they could tell us about what was going on in the city and the world at the time. I’m betting the people who wrote those documents never imagined they’d be considered important by scholars 400 years into the future] Imagine if everyone in the Bronze Age had had a handy, dry cave wall where they could have documented their daily deeds. How much more would we know about our ancestors than we do now from a few scratchings in Lascaux and the occasional stomach-pumping of a frozen ice-mummy?
So go. Write your memoirs. Make them as detailed as you like. Make them as vivid as you can. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s all been said before. Because it hasn’t.
What IS the difference between you and a published author?
In one sense, linear time: they were discovered before you were. Bad luck for you, good luck for them.
But in another, more useful sense: they made time to write. Have you?
Who Do You Think Does Stephen King’s Laundry?
Well OK, maybe HE can afford a housekeeper. But it’s just as likely that he still has to schlep down to the basement himself with a load of unmentionables whenever he runs short.
And you can bet your boots that your favourite midlist author doesn’t have a housekeeper. Or a nanny. But they still keep churning out the books year after year.
Things only get worse for your favorite author if they happen to be writing Literary Fiction. They are almost guaranteed to be a commercial failure and have to subsidize their income teaching rich kids at private universities to appreciate the rebellious soul of art. If they’re lucky they might negotiate a semester’s sabbatical in which to write their next book, but only if they agree to eat nothing but oatmeal, turn off the heating and bust out the fingerless gloves.
And even if your favorite commercially-successful author can afford an assistant to make sure the cat gets fed, they can’t pay her to write the book, do the revisions, talk to the agents and editors, catch the planes and go on the book tour for them.
When Do Authors Find Time To Write?
Just like us: in the gaps between Real Life’s obligations.
If you’re commercially successful one day (or have no life) you might be able to wedge those gaps open a little wider.
But life is happening to everyone. And somehow, thousands of people finish books every year.
Acres of Internet space have already been devoted to this topic, because it’s a tough one. There are as many solutions as there are people who want to write, so there is always room for one more blog post on the topic.
In this 3-post series, I’m going to give you some thoughts, some links and some tools, to help inspire you to find time for your writing.
TIME FOUND UNDER SOFA CUSHIONS!
There is a reason you never see that headline. Time is never found. Time is made, cadged, scrimped, stolen, begged, borrowed, spent.
There is always something else you could be doing. Always. The trick is, finding ways to make time for the things that really matter to you.
Make Tough Sacrifices
I’m saying this first, to get it over with because it sounds awful, but you will have to make sacrifices if you want to make writing a priority. Some of these sacrifices will be hard.
Today I turned down a walk with a friend, which I know would have been lovely. Sometimes a walk with a friend is the perfect thing to boost your creativity. But for me, this week, it would eat into the only clear time I have to Get Stuff Done. Some of that stuff is mundane, household stuff, but part of that Stuff is Writing & Writing Prep.
No matter how nice that walk would have been, I had to say ‘no’. Next week, I’ll budget my time differently to make sure I can say ‘yes’.
Make Easy Sacrifices
Some things will be easy to give up, or at least good for you.
Me? I overeat. When I’m stressed or bored I head for the pantry and strap on the nosebag. It uses up time and leaves me comfortably numb. But if I’m serious about my writing, I resist the nosebag, make light, healthy meals and get back to my notebook. Good for productivity and good for my heart.
An ‘hour long’ TV show is actually 42 minutes of content. The rest is commercials. Why not record your favourite shows or download them from iTunes? Even if you still watch two shows in an evening, you could carve out 36 minutes for writing just by watching it commercial-free and still get to bed at the same time.
What changes could you make, even if occasionally, to create more time for the thing you really love to do?
Accept That You Can Write In Bursts
You don’t need long swathes of time in which to write. In fact, that can be bad for productivity. As someone who has suffered prolonged bouts of enforced inactivity (lack of a work visa, looking after small children) I can tell you that more free time does not make writing easier. You just get more creative with your excuses.
Jamming in 250 words here and there on your commute — a 1000 if you’re lucky on a lunch break — keeps your writing feeling like a treat, not a chore.
Plus, it’s how most full-time writers started. Stephen King wrote after shifts at the laundromat. Scott Turow wrote bits and pieces while working as for the US Attorney’s office. Most ‘literary fiction’ writers have quite demanding schedules teaching at colleges and conferences. Even if they do get to take a semester off to finish a novel, they can hardly wait for inspiration to strike during that one precious semester.
Accept That You Can Write In Big Long Jags
If you do get the chance to write in a big binge on the weekends, go for it. Don’t feel guilty. Some people spend hours watching sports every Sunday. Do what you enjoy; what makes you a better person. Negotiate with family/friends for writing time if you have to, and write as fast as you can for as long as you can, whenever you get the chance.
Separate Your Thinking Time and Your Writing Time
On that note, don’t put off thinking about your story even if you don’t have time to sit down and write. When do get some writing time, you want the ideas to be flowing. You can think about the next plot development while you are doing any menial task (of which we all have plenty).
But do try to focus. It’s hard to stop your mind wandering off to the sequel or what you’ll do with your wealth when people are using your name where they used to use Stephen King’s. Rein it in. Focus on the next scene, the next bit of dialogue, the next plot twist. Make notes if you have to. Better yet, commit the ideas to memory, then you’ll be turning them over and over until it’s time to write.
Then, when you do carve your 36 minutes out of the evening’s schedule, your fingers will be twitching. You’ll be ready to jump right in.
Scare Yourself Straight
If you find yourself frittering your time away on Facebook or Twitter or in front of the TV when you know you could be writing, take an excellent piece of advice from Jon Scalzi:
“Think of yourself on your deathbed saying, “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.”
Take a moment now. Picture it. Use that fertile imagination of yours.
If you aren’t already sweating, then maybe there is a whole other reason why you can’t and won’t find time to write.
And that’s OK, too. Maybe you’re really a reader, a critic, an enthusiastic conneseur of the narrative form. Join a book group or a film society and have fun with your life. Just stop beating yourself up about not finding time to write.
But if you’re a writer, make time. You’ll never “Find” It.
Am I being glib? Smug? Wrong? Have you found things that work for you? Tell me in the comments.
I’m not sure yet (because I haven’t done it), but I think it’s going to be possible to write a story a day.
Here are some of the ways I’m planning to make time every day to tell stories:
Tell Stories To My Children
One of the main reasons I have little time to write is that I have children. It’s tough to sit down and writing a story when someone is likely to burst in and tell you that they *neeeeed* something right now, and another one trails behind him saying that he *neeeeeds* the same thing, or more likely something completely different.
But I have found that one of the best ways to ‘write’ stories is to tell them to my children. Whether at bedtime or during potty-training, or in the car, there’s nothing quite like having a live audience for keeping you going. If their attention starts to wander, you know you have to step up the action. If you pause for a moment, they demand to know what happened next.
Maybe if I can carry my phone around with me and record the stories I tell to the kids, that’ll help me out a few times.
In The Car
Again with the motherhood thing, I spend quite a lot of time driving around. Sometimes I’m alone, and sometimes they’re wa-ay in the back playing with toys. Again, with my trusty phone nearby, I can tell at least part of a story on every journey. I think recording stories is going to be really helpful, even though I love to write (with a fountain pen and everything).
Word Count Challenges
I like limitations. I like to know I only have 1000 or 200 or 55 words into which I have to shoehorn a story. Some days I’m planning to set myself a short word count limit and trying to craft a short story within it.
I always found that seat-of-the-pants writing during exams worked really well for me. With a time limit, I can’t afford to listen to the inner critic. So some days will be Time Limit days. Write a story within an hour, half an hour, by 3pm, whatever seems to work that day.
Genres & Styles
Some days I’ll assign myself a genre to work in. Write a film noir story, write in the style of Virginia Woolfe, write a monologue, write in the third person.
Like the genre/styles assignments I’m planning to write the same story several different ways. I”ve got another blog post coming with more details about that)