Six months after turning to freelance writing full-time, I’ve learned some lessons. Mostly about what not to do. Here are ten Don’ts and one Do.
Don’t blog about writing (hem) when you should be writing. You’re not fooling anyone – you’re playing for time.
Don’t get two-thirds of the way through the first draft of your novel and then decide to restructure it by spending two months creating a detailed storyboard using balsa wood, different coloured pens, colourful sticky labels and map pins. You are now a storyboard manufacturer, not a writer.
Don’t re-cut your rejected short story into a radio play just by adding columns and colons. It’s the same story, you idiot.
Don’t self-promote your novel so much that people start to block you, delete you or apply for restraining orders. Begging random passers-by to read your book is usually counter-productive – and let’s face it, it’s demeaning.
Don’t kid yourself that an experimental story in which all the characters, irrespective of gender or species, have the same name will ever be read by anyone on this entire planet. It won’t. It will be garbage.
Don’t begin an editing course unless you want to temporarily inhibit any joy you ever had in writing creatively. You can be an editor and a writer but not both in the same moment. You will implode.
Don’t study your Amazon sales rankings and compare them to those of other writers you know. It hurts.
Don’t edit your 5000 word story so that you can enter it into a 500 word Flash Fiction competition. It just doesn’t work. Also, you have lost all your critical faculties and should take a holiday.
Don’t track your progress on a spreadsheet unless you want to spend all day tracking how far behind schedule you’ve fallen.
Don’t expect to earn any money at all. Keep telling yourself it’s all about the art.
Do just write. Every day. As many words as you can. Preferably in the correct order. Occasionally in pleasing combinations. That’s what writers should do. Mostly.
Yesterday I had to visit a solicitor’s office to have my identity validated. I’d failed a money laundering test because I have two addresses and it wasn’t clear to anybody, including me, in which one I lived. According to the test I was a paradox; an object that had failed to satisfy any condition.
Fortunately, these days, solicitors offer an existential service, and for £15 they confirmed that I am the person I’ve been claiming to be all these years. Me. And they stamped a letter to confirm it. But can I still launder money? I don’t know. I paid in cash.
As I walked home to one of my possible addresses I wondered what other philosophical uncertainties the solicitor could resolve and stamp.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Because there is. Bring in a photo ID and a recent utility bill. £15. Stamp.
Do we have free will? No. Bring in a current council tax bill and a current driver’s licence. £15. Stamp.
If I see blue, what colour do you see? Blue. Bring in a letter from your parent or guardian and proof of postage. £15. Stamp.
The possibilities seemed endless. After all, who can argue with a stamped, legal document? But when I walked into my house I was surprised to find myself already there. So I went back out to demand the return of my £15. They were closed.
I call it ‘rolling the pastry’. And it’s not a metaphor for something rude. So those of you that thought it was, read no further. You will be disappointed. It’s about writing – again.
I sit down, I start typing and when I look up a few hours later I’ve got about 1000 words sitting on the page. A good days work. Time for a break – walk the dog, strum the ukulele, trim the hedge (none of these are euphemisms either. What is wrong with you? Although in fairness, I haven’t got a dog).
Anyway, when I go back to my desk there it is: a big lump of text waiting for me. It’s time to roll the pastry. This is not editing, it’s simply smoothing out the scene. That initial freewheeling feeling of words just tumbling out can be saved for tomorrow; now I can be more thoughtful, more considered. And as I go through what I’ve written I add a bit here, change a bit there, explain, illustrate, write – and instead of 1000 words I end up with a nice even layer of 1500 words. I haven’t taken the story any further, I’ve just made the scene I’ve written more digestible. It is very satisfying.
Of course, this is before the editor’s knife cuts it away until there’s not enough left for a jam tart. But that’s work for another day.
I spoke at the fabulous Bath Writing Events (@WritingEvents) the other day. It was my first outing and I wanted to make a good impression. I made notes, rehearsed against timings, hoped I wouldn’t run out of things to say. And then the night before I spotted an unusually long hair growing out of my eyebrow and I thought using a beard-trimmer would be the best way to deal with it. I showed up at the event with half of my eyebrow missing. Fortunately my hosts were too polite to mention it. This morning I went for a walk and I fell over in the mud.
I mention these two events because they are examples of things just happening, and this brings me, indirectly, to my blockage: I couldn’t get started on Novel Two (catchy title?).
I know what it’s going to be about and I know (roughly) what’s going to happen, but I wanted a loose structure in which to to start writing it – some guiderails to keep me from wandering too far from the path but loose enough to let the story grow naturally; for events to just happen which had yet to be conceived; for the writing to have room to take over. Room for someone to fall over in the mud or shave off their eyebrow, for example.
But that word Structure. It kept getting in the way. Three act, five act, seven act; set-up, conflict, resolution, inciting incident, rising arc, plot points; Plot A, Plot B, midpoint, ascending action… aaarrrgh!! Stop, stop and stop. Please. Enough with the structure. I can’t write with those things staring at me. They take away all the fun. It’s just semantics, I know, but I wanted something… less formal.
So I went back to basics. Stories start and they finish. Was that enough? But ‘once upon a time they lived happily ever‘ isn’t a gripping narrative. So, okay, I supposed I could put in a middle bit too.
‘Once upon a time there was a person who lived somewhere and everything was really good or really bad, and so they decided to do something and everything got even worse or better, and then it all changed so they did something else and lived happily or miserably ever after. The End.‘
That would do. That was as much structure as I wanted. A reusable and very loose framework. I knew that within, there lurked all the context and character introductions and themes and catalysts and climaxes and so on, but those italicised lines were all I needed to get going.
Now I’m writing scene after scene and some go in the beginning bit, and some in the middle, and some at the end. And things are happening which I never expected. It’s working for me. I even have a rough idea where the beginning ends and the end begins. Although, I don’t mind if they don’t. I’m 20,000 words into the first draft and averaging about 1500 to 2000 words a day. I have a minimum goal of 5000 words a week and I’m on target to complete draft one by mid-June, if not earlier.
At least that’s the plan. Tomorrow, before I start writing, I intend to sharpen all my kitchen knives while sitting on a unicycle… What?
It’s Monday morning. The house is very quiet and I have completed every domestic chore I can think of – ironing, washing, cleaning, mopping the floor, walking the dog. I don’t even have a dog. Note to self: get a dog. Now, I’m ready to write. Novel Number Two. N#2. I’ve given myself three months to complete the first draft.
But now I’m writing this, and this isn’t the novel at all.
I have to get better at this discipline-thing. Last month I had a job and a regular income. Now I don’t. I know. I know. Let’s call it a social experiment; a period of no distractions. Write, write, write. The house is really tidy, by the way.
Discipline and routine, that’s what’s needed. A regular routine. A disciplined regular routine. Of Writing. A disciplined regular writing routine. A regime. A disciplined regular writing routine regime. Regimented. A disciplined regimented regular… did I mention that I’ve almost mastered The Bear Dance on the ukulele? I mean I can get through it. Sometimes. Slowly. If no-one’s listening.
Okay. Enough. Come on, James. Game On. If you’re going to be a professional, you’ve got to be professional. You can do this.