Chapter Sixteen - Hard Work24 August 2010
This section should probably have come a bit earlier—but I didn’t want to scare you off!!! Writing is a tough business, and I think young writers sometimes need a bit of tough love in order to pin them down and make them focus on whether or not writing is REALLY for them. Becoming a writer isn’t that difficult—you just need to focus and work hard. But lots of would-be writers don’t want to do that—they look for shortcuts and secrets and ways to leapfrog others to the top. This section is designed to weed out the wannbes from the never-gonna-bes!! If you can’t stand the heat, don’t step into the kitchen!!!!! :-)
I’ve been getting quite a lot of emails recently from young writers wanting me to “show them the way”. They all reckon they’ve got what it takes to make it as a writer, and they want me to tell them how to make the leap forward, so that they can write GOOD stories. I virtually never reply to emails like these, even if they’re very politely and artfully written (and most, alas, are not), because ... well, it sounds quite blunt and rude when put this way, but it’s the only really truthful way to put it ... when it comes to wanting to be a writer, if you ask for advice, you don’t really deserve to get any.
Hmmmm ... that looks even crueller written down than it did when I was deciding how to phrase it!!! But the honest truth is that writing is HARD. If you want to get better, you have to spend a lot of time practising and experimenting. You have to write lots of bad stories to learn how to write a good one. You have to spend years perfecting your art, trying different things, working in solitude, living with the fear that you might never make it, that you might be wasting your time, that you don’t have the talent to succeed. You have to endure frustration and setbacks and rejection. It’s hard, lonely, thankless work, and there are times when you feel you might be better off just banging your head off a brick wall.
But. That’s. What. Makes. It. All. Worthwhile.
Because if you DO hang in there ... if you keep on writing ... if you refuse to accept your limitations, but constantly strive to better yourself ... if you acknowledge your faults and work hard on them ... if you learn to believe in yourself even when all others doubt ... if you can read your 50th rejection letter and still find the strength within yourself to send your work out for a 51st time ... then your success, when it comes (and it almost always comes to those who TRULY want it and work for it) will be MEANINGFUL. Very few things in life that are worthwhile ever come easy. True success isn’t about wealth or fame—it’s a feeling you get when you work hard and can enjoy the rewards of your hard work. That’s not a very attractive-sounding proposition, I know. We live in a time when the media are trying to make everyone believe that instant fame is the key to happiness—go on a TV reality show, get your name in the papers, make a million pounds, become a household name for a few months, and you’ll be HAPPY!!!!
Well, no, you probably won’t. Because that’s cheap, meaningless, transient success. Any fool can be a 5 minute TV star. If you’re prepared to humiliate yourself in public, Jerry Springer and his hordes of viewers will welcome you with open arms, treat you like a star for a short while, then dump you unceremoniously when they lose interest in you and move on to the next deluded sucker.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a successful writer. In fact, you SHOULD want to be a success, no matter what your interest is, whether you want to be a writer, signer, footballer, vet, doctor, accountant ... The world is full of possibilities and it’s natural to dream of being among the best in your field, of doing something nobody else can do, of being a STAR. Dreams are important and we should never lose sight of them. But we should also never lose sight of the fact that we have to WORK HARD to make those dreams come true. Good footballers put in hours of hard, boring practise every day of the week. Good doctors spend years learning the crafts of their trade. If you want to achieve anything in life, you have to be prepared to put in the work.
I don’t respond to most emails from would-be writers because there’s very little I can tell them ... except WORK HARD. I say it on my blog all the time. I try to give insights into what my daily routines are like when I’m writing and promoting books and touring. I advise wannabes to read The Writers And Artists Yearbook if they’re in the UK or Ireland, or Writer’s Market if they’re in the USA. I tell them not to lose hope, but to keep trying no matter what. And that’s really all I can say. Those who REALLY want to be writers read this blog, or look in the FACTS section on my web site, hear what I have to say, pay attention to it, and get their heads down and work hard—I don’t need to say anything more to those people, because they’ve already heard and absorded the most important advice I can offer, and most of those will succeed. Those who read my advice and write to me impatiently, wanting to know MORE, wanting me to personally advise them on how to improve and get their work published, wanting to know the REAL SECRETS behind my success ... well, they haven’t really heard anything that I’ve been saying (just as they won’t really absorb anything from this rather lengthy blog entry if they read it), and they probably won’t succeed because they aren’t prepared to put in the hard graft. There’s no point replying to people like that, because no matter how much you tell them about the realities of writing, they won’t believe you—shirkers never want to be told that they can only advance by working hard!!!!
Harsh words? Cruel? Off-putting? Perhaps. But it’s the truth, and I believe that the only people who can really help you in life are those who are honest with you. And the only people who are worth helping are those who are honest with themselves. If you want to be a writer, you don’t NEED to look for help from ANYONE. You have all that you need within yourself—you just have to be prepared to work hard to bring your talent out. Don’t waste time asking people for help—instead, use that time to help yourself.
As they sing so wisely in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “don’t dream it ... BE IT.”
I received a thoughtful email from Jenny, commenting on the above blog: I met you in Tempe a while back, and your advice to me was to find an agent, which I’m still trying to do (many don’t accept YA fiction), while finding a publisher. In the meantime, I’ve worked on other things, most of which haven’t sold, and still continue to work. I’ve also returned to school. I’ve also gone to workshops put on by the local SCBWI and joined a critique group. Most recently, I attended a revision workshop which made the figurative lightbulb over my head light up repeatedly. It’s been great. I’ve listened to writers—both midlisters and top 10—give real advice, some of which has been amazingly useful (e.g. engage the emotions, not just the intellect), and some of which has made me realize that what works for one person may not work for another. There’s just a point when “keep working” doesn’t do anything, because a person is going to keep working anyways and really wants to know how to transform the writing into something that’ll sell. There are resources other than WG, and I’ll compose a reply post. I’ve found that people who have had things published, but still struggle, give some of the best market advice because the experiences are still fresh. Someone established may give better advice about story structure, potential ways of note organization, etc…
I was probably a bit overly critical of those who ask for advice when I was writing my previous comment—I got somewhat carried away!!! Of course advice can be helpful, and should be sought, when you’re starting out as a writer. It’s always useful to hear from others who have been where you are, done what you’re doing, and lived to tell the tale. Even established writers have things to learn from listening to other authors.
But what I was trying to stress is that hard work is always at the core. I believe you learn far more by trying something and failing, and analysing that failure, than by having someone tell you “THIS is the way to do it.” Doing both—writing as much as you can, focusing on YOUR strengths and weaknesses, on telling YOUR stories the best way YOU can, while also gathering as much insider info as possible, whether it be from books about publishing, interviews with writers, going to author events or whatever—is, of course, giving yourself the best possible chance of succeeding. But only as long as you keep your eye on the fact that, no matter how much you hear and learn from others, writing is always a personal odyssey, and how far you progress will depend for the vast main part on how hard you’re prepared to work at it.
Jenny seems to be going about it the right way, working hard, but looking for words of wisdom from other authors at the same time. My “outburst” wasn’t aimed at her or would-be writers like her. It was instead aimed at those looking to bypass the hard work, those who don’t put in the long hours, who don’t push themselves, who aren’t willing to suffer frustration and rejection, but who want “answers” (meaning they want someone to show them an easy way to achieve success) anyway—and most of the people who write to me for advice fall into that second category.
Understanding the market and learning from the advice of other authors is crucial to getting your work published and making a living from your writing. But you have to do the writing first, like Jenny is. Many young wannabe authors look for advice before testing their own skills and writing their own stories, and that’s a trap you should all be wary of—and that’s what I was trying to get across yesterday. You should never be afraid to ask for help or advice—just don’t do it too soon. Give yourself a fair chance to develop on your own impetus first. If, after a time, you feel you’re not progressing as fast as you should be, then look for help wherever you may find it. (And those who read back through my old blog entries will find that I’ve littered this blog with helpful hints and records of my own experiences—it takes a bit of work and time to sift through the various entries to find them, but anything worth finding is worth labouring over!!!)
But, if I was to give only one other piece of advice apart from KEEP WRITING!!! it would be this ... BE PATIENT!!!!!! It takes a long time for most writers to get to the stage where their work is ready to be published. I was 26 when my first book saw print, and that was VERY young—I only made the breakthrough that quickly because I threw myself into my writing at a young age and focused on it manically (and, in retrospect, I have to say unhealthily—it’s good to have other interests in life too, even if they mean you don’t push forward quite as swiftly as you young if you focused exclusively on writing to the extent of any other personal life). Most writers don’t get published until their late 20s, early 30s, or even later. So don’t worry too much if you’re not progressing as rapidly as you might wish—all good things come to those who wait ...
I received an email from another reader called Rach about my “outburst” about young writers looking for premature help: I was going to moan to you yesterday about your negative blog,but assumed because you had encountered a bad week plus weeks of travel, sleep deprivation, and hyped up stress, etc that this caused you to write a bad blog! As I am a bit older than you I warranted telling you off about it, but decided to write a positive blog for my myspace friends instead. My newly aquired friends send me poetry, short stories, art and slide shows, music videos all created by them which I find thrilling, and this is just because i post my poems up for them to read. I think creativity breeds the like, and negativity is something we can do without. Grown ups like us are obliged to preach a positive message, even though we may think life sucks. :) I started writing and designing through postive comments that I recieved from my lit teacher and art teacher. My children are very bright, everyday I tell them how handsome and clever they are, I don’t want my children growing up with low self esteem and not mastering their full potential. Sure, life has many pitfalls, but positivity in the human spirit can acheive so much. I had the worst childhood, and 2 years ago I lost three girls that I sponsored, for schooling, in the Kashmir earthquake, i have photos of these girls who were aged 12 to 17, they were so beautiful and full of life. I really wanted to educate them from my funds so they could pass on this knowledge to their children. Unfortunately they died a horrible death under the rubble, but i got over it, and found other poor children to sponsor. It is our right as adults to be kind and encouraging to the young, god knows they need it in today’s putrid society. I assume I have nagged you more than your mother! Please forgive me.
All very good points, in my opinion. But, as I told Rach in a reply, I don’t think it WAS negative, although I did qualify it the next day, to make it clearer what type of person it was aimed at. I think I’m actually very positive on this blog. I always tell kids that they can do anything they want in life—but only if they work hard. That’s what I was stressing in the blog entry. A lot of people write to me for advice without actually doing any work on their writing in advance. i.e. they don’t want me to tell them how to improve, but rather how to produce a finished, brilliant book before lunch!!! Yes, we have to be positive when encouraging the young, but we need to do it in a realistic way. Good things in life DON’T come to those who just stand around idly, haughtily expecting them to happen. Good things come when we work to make them happen. I know a lot of children don’t want to hear that message - they prefer the Big Brother message, that you can have instant fame just by going on TV - but I think it’s a message they SHOULD hear, and a message that needs to be spread a lot more widely than it currently is. We live in a society which often encourages and even worships a lack of talent (step forward Jane Goody and co!!!!), which is fixated on speed and becoming famous INSTANTLY, in which fame is seen as the be all and end all, not a by-product of having a talent and working hard to develop that talent. Molly-coddling does children no good at all. I believe the young need to be encouraged to apply themselves, to chase their dreams, to think about what they really want in life and why they want it, to not just look for short-cuts and get-famous-quick schemes. Hence the occasional “outburst” or two. Not to chastise them—but to try and help them see that there’s more to life than just being known, and that you need to put in a lot of hard work yourself before you go looking for assistance from others.
I perhaps didn’t make that quite as clear as I should have, hence the misunderstanding of it being a negative post. Sometimes I can “go off on one” and speak a little more bluntly than I intended. But, again, I wasn’t discouraging anyone or telling kids they shouldn’t pursue their dreams. Rather, I was encouraging them to face the necessities of the real world, to accept that they need to apply themselves to achieve those dreams. I don’t think it’s important to work too hard when you’re a teenager—you need to enjoy life too!! But you should acknowledge that, if you’re to get what you want in the future, you will need to work hard for it at some stage. I think it’s fine to tell young children that the world will give them everything they desire, that a Prince Charming or Fairy Godmother will make all their dreams comes true—we shouldn’t stress the realities of the world to those who are too young. But most of the people reading this blog are teenagers, and I think at that stage of your life you need to be told a different message, to be given the tools and advice which will serve you well in later life, which will prepare you for the struggle ahead (and ALL lives are a struggle of one kind or another). Like I said above, I’m not saying teenagers should knuckle down and work hard ASAP—if anything, I think the current school system places far too much emphasis on hard work, and that more focus should be put on encouraging their creativity, on letting them have fun, of feeding their curiosity rather than stifling it and forcing them to do exams. But I do think teens should start thinking about the future, and that it’s our duty to let them know life won’t be easy as they grow up, but that they CAN do whatever they want to do, provided they’re prepared to put in the hard graft.
I started to re-edit City of the Snakes, the third book of my adult-orientated City Trilogy, to be released in the UK and Ireland under my D. B. Shan banner in March 2010. That might seem like a long way off, but time passes very quickly in this business and I always like to work on a book far ahead of its publication—that way I never have to rush it. City of the Snakes was never published. The first two books didn’t do very well when first released, and it became clear as I was working on the book that it wouldn’t see print. But I didn’t care. I had a story to tell, and I felt compelled to see it through to the finish. I only did a few drafts, not wanting to devote too much time to it until and unless it had a real chance of being published, but I never forgot it. For more than six years it hovered in my thoughts, awaiting my return. I saw it as unfinished business, a book I would definitely return to and publish, even if I had to self-publish it or release it as a web-only book.
In a way, I’ve been working on this story for about 20 years now. It has its origins in a book about a vigilante that I tried to write when I was 16, 17 or 18 (something like that). I didn’t get very far with it, but I cannibalised the story some years later and incorporated some of the ideas into a new book I was playing with, a book that would tie together the stories of Capac Raimi and Al Jeery (the lead characters of Procession of the Dead and Hell’s Horizon), and take them into new, uncharted territories. I remember thinking, at the time (this would have been back in the middle of 2000), that this was by far and away the best book for older readers that I’d ever written, a book that brought together the imaginative twists of Procession and the more solid structure and pace of HH, and married them both in a novel of fire and death and damnation and possible redemption. It was big, high-stakes stuff, an attempt to blend Stephen King with James Ellroy, to mix horror with a detective story, the supernatural with a shamus. (Unknown to me, John Connolly was doing something similar around the same time. One of the reasons I like his books so much is that I see shades of what I was trying in them.)
I was a bit nervous coming back to City yesterday. I couldn’t recall too much about the structure of the book, or what happened in it, but I had a very high impression of it. I was worried it might not stand up all these years later, that I’d over-judged it, that it would disappoint. But it didn’t. The story sucked me in almost immediately. Seven years were stripped away the second I started editing, and I find myself caught up in it as if I’d only set it aside yesterday. I’m always astonished by how easy I find it to pick up the reins of an old novel. While I might not remember much about my past work in the more immediate part of my brain, obviously I have all the stories mapped out on a deeper level, patiently waiting for me to return to them.
I often talk about the need for young authors to be patient. I think it’s the hardest part of being a writer—having to accept that it will take time, that a story you start today might not see print for two, five, ten, even twenty years. I didn’t WANT to still be working on this story when it first breathed life 20 or so years ago. I didn’t sit at my desk and think, “This is pretty good—I’ll kick it around for a couple of decades and see how it develops!” I wanted it to be great THEN, to write it perfectly THEN, to release it THEN. I think most young writers want to succeed immediately, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing to want—if you’re not hungry for success when you’re starting out, you never will be. But you need to accept that things might not happen as swiftly as you’d like. You need to accept that there’s a bigger picture, that some stories won’t work out (for whatever reason) the way you planned them, or even when you planned them. You need to have faith, and believe that everything feeds into everything else, that even your supposed failures are part of future successes, that one day you’ll reap the benefits of the hard work you’re putting it, the hard work that nobody sees or respects or has any interest in.
(When I say “benefits”, I’m talking about the benefits of writing a story you can be proud of—financial benefits should be neither here nor there when it comes to judging your own success. Others will judge you that way, but to a writer TRUE success should come with writing a damn fine story. If other people don’t realise its merits, and fame and fortune never comes—so be it. The prize should be the work itself, not what others pay you for it.)
Writing isn’t quick. It isn’t easy. It can be soul-destroying, not finding the words you’re searching for, not being able to take your stories out into the world, struggling on the path you’ve chosen, mocked by those who don’t understand the industry or what it involves. If you choose to be a writer, you set yourself up for failure and bitterness and hardship. Virtually every writer has experienced it. I bet J K Rowling has never forgotten what it was like to be rejected. Stephen King was turned down many times. J R R Tolkien tasted apathy too. It’s part and parcel of being a writer. But you can’t afford to let that depress you. You mustn’t let your head drop. You have to fix your eyes on the horizon of the future and imagine a day—maybe years, maybe decades ahead—when everything will click and advances will be made and dreams will be realised. It can be—and will be—difficult at times. But any dream worth having is a dream worth fighting for and struggling for and hurting for. By the time City of the Snakes sees print, I’ll have been working on it in one form or another for close to a quarter of a century. Will it be worth it? Can any book justify that amount of time and effort and patience?
You can bet your bloody life on it!!!! If you’re a writer—a REAL writer—taking your story all the way to publication is worth all that and more, much more. The setbacks, the pain, the mishaps ... you forget all of those. At the end of the day, seeing your work in print is the only thing that matters, the only prize you cherish, the only thing you’ll remember when you’re old and grey and your mind has started to wander. Twenty years sounds like a long time, but in the telling of a story it’s just the blink of an eye, the drawing of a breath ... the dreaming of a dream.
A fan called Ryan Ficken sent the following message to me: I myself am an aspiring author; screenwriter to be more specific, but I can write in novel form also. I’m sure you get this a lot, like all writers, but how do you overcome speed bumps like writer’s block and getting started. I’m sure there are times when you want to write it all so you can get to the climactic ending, so how do you write the middle? I have a 4-story series in mind, with all kinds of thrilling plot twists and action that would make a great movie, but the ideas flow in faster than words, and I find myself fascinated by the daydreaming of watching the nonexistent film, but when I attempt to write it, I’m at a loss of words. The reasons differ, but I always seem to find something wrong with the scene I’m writing—whether it’s not long enough, not descriptive enough, or it just doesn’t feel right. As cocky as it seems, I feel the idea is too grand for words, so how do I fit it into words? This is an ongoing dilemna, as well as deciding what I should do with a different story of mine, specifically how to start the next chapter. Thank you for reading this all; I hope to hear back.
I think most young writers struggle with this—I know I certainly did. What you have to realise is that vision comes before ability to realise that vision. I’ve had what I thought were great ideas for books pretty much all my life. Definitely when I was 13, 14, 15, 16, I could picture big scenes, dramatic moments, big fight scenes, death scenes, etc. Like Ryan, it was like I was watching clips from a movie, inside my head. But when I’d try to put a bigger story around those clips and develop them into a novel ... that was a different matter altogether!!!
As I’m constantly saying on this blog, writers need to WRITE. It’s not enough to have the vision, to be able to see scenes playing out inside your head. That’s a very important starting point, but I’m of the opinion that EVERYONE does that. I think all humans daydream and play out imaginary scenes inside their heads. It’s why I always think the question “Where do your ideas come from?” is a pointless question to ask a writer, because it needs to be asked of everyone—we ALL have ideas for books!!
To do justice to your vision, you have to work hard and write lots. The most sensible way is to focus on short stories, keep writing those for several years, develop your craft that way—it’s what most writers do. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not what I did. I decided from a very early age (16 or 17) that I preferred the longer format, so I started writing novels. I wasn’t equipped to write a good novel at that stage, but I went ahead and wrote book-length stories anyway, and that’s how I learned. Over time, and lots of mistakes, I gradually learnt and improved.
Procession of the Dead is a good book to point out. I had the idea for that when I was 21, and that’s when I wrote the first draft. It was a far lesser book than the one I’ve published now, at the age of 35. It was about half the length, not as pacy or twisting, nowhere near as polished. It was half-formed and half-baked. But at least I had SOMETHING. I’d produced a piece of work and, flawed as it was, that gave me something solid to work with, to go back and re-write, and edit, and play around with. You can never tell what a story will play out like until you write the whole thing down. Then, when it’s on paper, you can go back and study it, see what’s wrong, where it’s weak, where it needs fixing ... and you can set to work.
Dreaming won’t get a wannabe writer anywhere. Plotting things out in your head won’t get you anywhere. Having great ideas and being able to visualise amazing scenes inside your head won’t get you anywhere. You. Have. To. Write. Until you sit down and put yourself to the test, you’re only a dreamer. Once you actually start writing, you become a writer. Not a good writer or a published writer—that probably won’t come for many years—but you’ve set foot on the path and you’re working towards your dream. You mustn’t be afraid of words and of failing. ALL writers fail at the start. In fact I think writers NEED to fail—only by seeing what’s bad or undeveloped in yourself can you start to address your flaws and work towards your strengths.
In short—don’t sit there dreaming—get writing!! And if what you produce isn’t any good—write again. And again. And again. And again. And ...
That’s what I did and what every writer I’ve ever spoken to did. Good writing doesn’t come from having a neat vision—it comes from having the determination and guts to work hard to make that vision a reality. Ackoweldge your weaknesses. Work to overcome them. Keep faith in yourself. And you WILL get there. It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile in life SHOULD be easy. A hard-fought victory is always a lot sweeter than a first-round knockout!
I received the following email from a fan called Georgia: I’m currently writing a book right now and I’ve got it to just over 17,000 words only now I cant help but feel slightly bored of the book. How do you keep your writing entertaining to write? I realise if I’m finding it boring to write it’s going to be boring to read. I introduce new ideas to keep it exciting but then the plot seems to change and I have to re-think everything again. It’s like the books never going to end. Do you come across this problem or is it just me? And if it is just me do you have any idea what-so-ever of how to overcome it?
The bad news is—writing CAN be boring, especially when you’re first learning how to do it!!! As much as I love writing, to do it well, I have to treat it like a job, and all jobs have their downsides and stretches of dullness. There are times when I feel lethargic, when a story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, when I’m restless and bored and just want to do anything in the world except write!! When I was starting out in my teens, I used to find it even more boring—I’d often find excuses to drag myself away from my typewriter, just so that I wouldn’t have to draw more words out of myself. Writing’s difficult. It requires a lot of time and concentration. Unlike most office jobs, where you can cruise through a lot of the working day on auto-pilot, writing demands that you be “ON” for every minute that you sit there. There’s no hiding in this business—if you drift through an afternoon, looking like you’re working but not really doing anything, you won’t have any work to show for it, and the only person you’ll be fooling is yourself.
The problem is that a lot of would-be writers think it’s easy, that it’s something you should be able to spit out when the muse takes you, without having to work hard to make it happen. One of the things I’m constantly pointing out in this blog is how difficult it actually is to produce high-quality stories. Films and TV shows make it look simple—you’ll often see a scene where a writer is struck by inspiration and speeds through his novel or poem or play in record-breaking time, and every word’s perfect. Well, that’s bull!!! Good stories need to be dragged uo from deep inside you and beaten into shape. Some come easier than others, it’s true, but all require hard work and oodles of dedication. You need to think of writing in football terms—footballers have to spend a lot of boring time training and travelling around in order to play 90 minutes of top-flight footie. People accept that—every one of you KNOWS that you can’t just turn up and play for your favourite team on a whim, that professional footballers are highly trained athletes who have to dedicate themselves body and soul to their sport. Well, writers have to do the same. This is a vocation, not just a job—since you’re your own boss, you have to force yourself to do the work. If you put in the hours and weeks and months and years, you’ll reap the rewards. If you don’t, you’ll always be one of those people who “wants” to write, and thinks and believes they can write—but who never actually gets around to doing it.
I know some people frown when I talk about the realities of writing, because they think I’m trying to put young writers off. But I’m not. I just think you have to know what you’re letting yourself in for. This is a hard, ruthless business, and you need to go into it with your eyes open. You need to know that hard work is required, and if you’re a true writer, that will actually lift your spirits, not dampen them, because you’ll realise that YOU can do what writers you admire are doing. When I was starting out, I was frustrated that I couldn’t write to the level of Stephen King or Clive Barker or any of my idols. But when I realised that THEY couldn’t write to that standard either when they were beginning, that they’d had to work hard to get where they were, I was filled with hope—because if they could work hard and succeed, then so could I. The difference between an established writer and a beginner isn’t usually talent, but experience. We all start out full of potential—those of us who put the hard work in will realise that potential. Those who don’t, won’t.
But to finish on an upper, I will say that the more work you put into writing, the more you’ll get out of it, and the more you’ll start to enjoy it. I know it can be frutrating early on, because the ideas will be clear in your head, but you won’t be able to bring them to life they way you want. Over time (and it’s normally years as opposed to weeks or months, so be patient!!), if you work hard, you’ll find yourself able to do more, and the stories you create will be far beyond anything you thought you could do when you were 16, 17, 18. And at that stage you’ll probably enjoy the process a whole lot more—although, as with any job, there will of course be “bad hair days”!!!
One final point—just because you’re not having much excitement writing, it doesn’t mean what you’re writing is boring! It’s hard to be objective when you’re in the middle of a story. Some of my best scenes have been the hardest and dullest to write. Action scenes, for instance, are often incredibly tedious, because I have to describe so many details and angles and blows. They read fast and snappy, but they’re a pain in the ass to create!!! Don’t ever judge your story negatively just because you’re not having fun with it. Take it to the end. See the process out. Give yourself a break. Then have a look at it again. Chances are, you’ll find the story you hated so much bringing into the world will impress you much more now that you’ve brought it to life!
I wrote 12 pages of the new book today, on top of the 5 I wrote yesterday, so I was VERY pleased with myself when I wrapped up work for the day! Especially as I really didn’t want to do any writing today!!! I’ll be honest—I hadn’t been looking forward to starting work on the new book. It’s been about 8 months since I last wrote anything new (I’ve been busy editing since then), and when I’m away from the game that long, I always find it a bit of a pain to get back into the swing of things. Writing is a habit—the more you do, the easier it is. If you give yourself a lot of time off, you start worrying and thinking you’re not going to be able to do it. You get used to not having to produce new material, and start to loathe the thought of having to force yourself to sit down create fresh out of thin air every day. Well, I do anyway, and I think most other writers are probably the same. The worst thing you can do as a writer is stop writing. Even if you keep your hand in, e.g. editing like I’ve been for 8 months and writing a blog most days, it’s not the same thing. It’s a bit like if you’re on a bike, going up a steep hill, and you stop midway for a break—you’re going to find it very difficult to get going again and build up a head of steam.
I found myself procrastinating yesterday, surfing the web, doing bit and pieces of office work that could have easily waited. I spent the morning writing up plot notes for the book. After lunch I told myself that I was going to write up more notes, to clarify the plot for myself. Then, as I was getting ready to do that, I paused, assessed the situation objectively, realised I was just making excuses not to start, that I had more than enough notes to be getting on with—so I forced myself to sit down and dived right in.
This morning I was in a similar sluggish mood. I had a sore neck last night and didn’t sleep very well. I considered not doing much today, of using the excuse that I was tried and still suffering a bit with my neck. But then I switched into “boss mode”, waved aside my objections and concerns, and forced myself to sit down and start writing. And I found, once I got into it, that I was loving it, and the pages flew by in a blur, as they usually do once I get my finger out and immerse myself in the process.
Look—this is the best bit of advice I can ever give a young writer, so listen up!! When you write, you’re your own boss, and—pardon my French—you have to be a real son of a bitch to work for!!!!! You have to be hard on yourself. You can’t let yourself make excuses or duck out of the hard graft, because if you do, you won’t get any work done. It might seem schizophrenic, but that’s the way it is. There needs to be a division of labour. You have to divide yourself into a worker and a boss. And you have to be a MEAN boss, a GRUMPY boss, an ass-kicking boss!!!! That’s how the work gets done. I’ve been writing full-time for about 13 years now, and I’d been doing it fairly full-on for 6 or 7 years before that. Yet I still wake up most mornings not wanting to go to work, not wanting to sit down and write. It becomes a pleasure when I do it—truthfully, there’s nothing I like more than writing once I’m in the thick of it—but I have to MAKE myself do it.
I know I sometimes sound like I’m being harsh on young writers, or critical, by saying they can’t hide, there are no shortcuts, they have to get their heads down and do the hard work, no excuses tolerated. But that’s because that’s how I got to where I am. I’m harsh on others because I have to be harsh on myself—that’s the only way I can get things done. I’ve never found a magic charm for writing. I don’t get struck with inspiration by a muse and float away in a dream and churn out a book in a happy daze. None of that guff that you often see in films and TV shows!! I kick myself up the bum and force myself to write, and through the hard graft and determination, I improve and learn, and the stories trickle out. It’s the only way that works for me, and from what I know of other writers, it’s the only way that works for most everybody else too. Accept that. Knuckle down. Be hard on yourself. Make yourself write (as opposed to just plan or plot or think about a story). And you’ll become the best writer that you possibly can. If you take the easy, lazy, indifferent route (and I know how tempting that is—believe me, I know!!!), you’ll let yourself down and never realize your talent.
Daydreaming dilettante? Or self-motivated, hard-working, your-own-ass-kicking-boss of a writer? Your choice.
As regular readers will know only too well, I advocate a hard work ethic when I give advice to young writers. I’m a firm believer in pushing yourself hard, in not believing in writer’s block, in keeping your hand in, by writing regularly. What I possibly don’t sometimes stress enough when I’m doling out advice like that, is that that’s MY belief. It works for me, it makes sense to me, so when people ask me how I write so much, and to such a high standard, I tell them. But there’s no one single correct way to write. Every writer is different, and what works for one won’t work for another. One of my favourite authors is Jonathan Carroll, and his blog is the only blog I read on a daily basis. A couple of days ago he wrote about writer’s block, and said that whenever he felt unmotivated to write, he gave himself a break, maybe a few days, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months. It’s a very different approach than the one I take, and I would hesitate to recommend it to young writers, as I think it’s an approach that makes it easy for a lot of writers to make excuses—in the wrong hands, it could be lethal!!! but it works for Jonathan Carroll, so who’s to say it won’t work for others??? Writing is all about trying different things, until you find the way that feels right for YOU. Advice is all fine and dandy, but ultimately I can only tell you what works for ME, just as Jonathan Carroll can only tell you what works for HIM. If you want to join us in the big bad world of published books, you need to work on your craft and find they way that works best for YOU. Then you can be the one doling out the advice to others!
Edited another chunk of City of the Snakes today. One of my favourite scenes from the book was included in today’s section. The thing I love about this book is that there are all sorts of stories going on at the same time, not all of which seem to tie together at first—but they come together over the course of the novel, and in ways that readers won’t expect. One of the main plot threads of the book concerns a revenge quest, which seems in the first half to be the prime driving narrative force—the book will look like it’s headed for a big showdown at the very end, in which old scores are settled. A very familiar, pleasing plot device, which I’ve used myself many a time in the past, and probably will use again many a time in the future—but not this time!!! There’s a twist in this tale, and the revenge issue unexpectedly reaches its apex far sooner than expected, posing the question—where the hell will Shan tale the story from here?!? The answer? You’ll find out when you read the book!!!
Synchronicity being what it is, while I was feeling very pleased with myself for not going down the obvious route with this book, I happened to watch a fascinating documentary called Man On Wire, about a French tightrope walker who dreamt of walking between the Twin Towers (this was back in the early 1970s). Against all the odds, he managed to fulfil his crazy dream! It’s a film that is definitely worth watching, but what struck a special chord with me was a bit near the end, where he talked about having to face new challenges in life, of not taking the easy route all the time, of dreaming big and chasing your dreams—if everyone in the world did that, he said, we would all be walking a tightrope, metaphorically speaking.
I’ve been a bit ill at ease recently. The planned extension to my house is going to be a major upset, involving all sorts of complications, not least of which is having to pack up everything and put it in storage, and move out of our house for a year! I’m also putting some new statues into my garden over the coming months, which will require a lot of thought and tinkering with to position correctly. I’ve been feeling that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, that I’d be better off scrapping the extension and not buying the statues, and just carrying on as I have been for the last several years. And, yes, my life certainly would be less chaotic and more peaceful that way—but also a hell of a lot more boring!!! The house will hopefully be fabulous when the extension is finished. The statues will hopefully look amazing. But there’s no easy way to do all that—if I want to enjoy them, I’m going to have to make sacrifices and go out of my comfort zone to get them. After watching Man On Wire, it reminded me that life shouldn’t be about taking the easy options, that if we want to get the most out of it, we have to suffer a bit sometimes, and put ourselves in positions which aren’t familiar to us, and ask more of ourselves than we might like. Life shouldn’t be about safety all the time. We have to take risks, chase dreams, learn new skills, invite problems and hassle and dilemma into our everyday lives. Otherwise we just plod along and do nothing memorable. I’m not saying we should recklessly race across every tightrope we come to—but sometimes we need to go out there on a limb, or even deliberately look for a challenge every now and then.
I’ve always sought the best of myself with the work that I do. And I try to seek the best of myself in other ways too, though I’m not as adventurous in other ways as I am when writing. If you want to do something crazy and big and dramatic and remarkable with your life, you’ll need to challenge yourself too, and face days where you feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Don’t ever shy away from a challenge, not if the prize at the end is something you truly desire. Because at the end of the day, when you’re lying on your deathbed and looking back over your life, do you want to be thinking about the dull, grey, safe choices that you made—or do you want to recall the days when you went out on a rope, high above the ground, all by yourself, and dared the world to knock you off???