A reprint from a blog I did for Emerald Musings back in February 2017 – with updates.
Douglas Adams famously said: ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ That may have worked for Mr. Adams and for those writers who have reached that elusive peak in their career where their publishers are grateful for their output, even if it arrives late, but for most of us deadlines are something that we should stick to.
At the risk of pointing out a tiny fact that we all know: writing is hard. We do it in a vacuum. There’s no instant feedback for a writer. Nothing that gives us a pat on the back for producing excellent prose, or a tight-knit plot, or solving a particular character problem with a brilliant stroke of imagination. We get exactly the same feedback for three lines of hackneyed prose dragged out of our brain letter by painful letter as we do for five thousand words of sheer genius produced in one wild outpouring of fevered creativity. That is to say: none—at least not at the time.
We stare at a screen and type. The screen stares back. It’s not even grateful for our attention.
So why do we do it? Why do I do it?
To be honest, half the time I don’t know. But the other half of the time I know that it’s the best thing I could possibly do. I write because I have to. I write because I simply can’t NOT write. Sure, I can take a few days off from writing every now and then, but leave it too long and I start to get twitchy. I’m sure a lot of other writers go through the same thing.
Once you get to the stage where someone is paying you to write, however, you encounter deadlines. I love writing. I don’t necessarily love writing fast. I often have other demands on my time: a day job, family commitments, cooking dinner, entertaining guests, taking my mum to the supermarket, walking the dog. Somehow all those things try to take priority over writing because the words can wait. They’ll always be there when I need them. I can take the time to stack the dishwasher and then start to write… can’t I?
The answer is yes… and then, possibly, no. No one is forcing me to pay attention to my writing. The computer screen isn’t screaming at me. The notebook isn’t jumping up and down demanding to go for a walk around the block, however… At the back of my mind, there’s that itchy-scratchy feeling that tells me my characters are at the starting gate and ready for off—anxiously waiting for whatever I’ve decided to put them through today. I need to listen to those voices.
I need the ability to say: sure the dishwasher needs stacking, but no one is going to die because the pots sit around in the sink for a couple of hours. On the other hand, last night I left my characters in a burning building and who is going to get them out if I don’t?
Writing is what I do. It’s a part of me and I need to give it space to breathe. (Listen to John Cleese speaking about creativity and getting into the right headspace to allow it to happen: https://youtu.be/5xPvvPTQaMI) Making time for writing is harder before you’ve achieved publication, of course, because sometimes families/partners/spouses don’t get it. My family didn’t always get it, but they indulged me. Or perhaps thought I was indulging myself, but they went along with it anyway, for which I am eternally grateful.
Like most published writers I spent many years as an unpublished one. I learned that if you don’t finish a piece/story/book and send it out, it will never be published. So if you’re serious about publication you need to apply the seat of your pants to the office chair, and your fingers to the keyboard, and write. You must not only write, but you must finish what you write, revise it, edit it, polish it, and send it out. If it comes whistling back with a rejection, send it out again. And again.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the more stories you send out the more you sell. (Yeah, who’d have thought it?) At the beginning of 2015, I had a spurt of submitting hitherto unsold stories to magazines and anthologies, and also some previously sold stories to reprint and foreign language markets. (I’ve been translated into Estonian, Polish and Galician. How cool is that?) Altogether I sold about seventeen or eighteen short stories in that three-month burst of activity, but after that, I got really busy with the novels and stopped sending out story subs. Surprise, surprise, my short story sales tailed off dramatically.
Nimbus, my fifth novel (the final novel in the Psi-Tech trilogy) is out on 3rd October 2017. It’s the fifth novel I’ve sold for publication. If you count the ones I wrote before I got my publishing deals it’s my tenth. Plus around fifty short stories—more than thirty of which have been published. That’s a lot of words. At a rough estimate 1,500,000 words, and those are just the ones that made it to the final edit.
People ask what motivates me. I can only say that it’s a mixture of enjoying what I do and knowing that I have signed a contract to deliver the next book and that I’ve agreed a timescale. If I didn’t enjoy doing what I do, I could never have committed to doing the work. It is work. Enjoyable work. Work I love to do, but it’s work. I have to respect it as such.
I did NaNoWriMo 2016, that’s National Novel Writing Month. (I first did it in 2008, and I’m doing it again in 2017.) During the month of November, you sign up to the NaNoWriMo website and commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. If that sounds a lot when you break it down to a daily rate that’s 1,666 words per day. That sounds much more manageable, doesn’t it? It’s just a tiny bit longer than this blog piece. Of course, it doesn’t always work out at a steady 1,666 words per day, but I finished my 50,000 words on 29th November 2016. NaNoWriMo was originally for inexperienced writers, however, I know a lot of published writers who now pace themselves alongside NaNo, entering daily word counts into the meter on the web, racing their NaNo friends and other writer colleagues. You only count the words you write in November, of course, but since I started out with 19,900 words on 31st October, by the time I got to 30th November I had 70,000 words of my upcoming novel in the bag. I had a few slow days, but there were also days in the high two thousands, one day at just over four thousand, and one day at just over ten thousand. What I’m saying is that I’m not a word machine. I have poor days and brilliant days, but I keep my eye on the target and get there in the end.
And that’s what I have to do when I have a book to write and a deadline looming. These days it’s the fashion for science fiction and fantasy books to be long. DAW, my publisher, tends towards long books. My historical fantasies, Winterwood and Silverwolf, are 133,000 and 134,000 words respectively. My science fiction (space operas) are around and 170,000 words, and I’m just beginning work on Rowankind, the third in the Rowankind fantasy trilogy. I’m aiming for 130,000 words, but I’ll be happy to finish the first draft on 100,000 – 110,000 words, at which point I’ll look and see where the gaps are and add in extra on the first revision pass. I used to write long and cut, but now I tend to write short and add.
Revision is all about getting the book’s structure and plot right, making sure the characters are well fleshed out and there are no great, gaping logic holes. I’m one of those writers who enjoys working on revisions and edits, adding in, moving round, taking out, smoothing off. Writing would be a difficult job, indeed, if you only liked one aspect of it.
Advice? Well, the one thing I would say is to stick with it. Being a writer is not an easy option, but if it’s for you, then you already have the drive to write. Listen to your inner writer and get those words down. The one thing you should know is that all writers have slow days and fast days. We are not machines, so don’t expect miracles of yourself, but do expect that if you keep going you will get there in the end. Good luck.