I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) at the beginning of November, a commitment to write 50,000 words in a month. It’s fewer than 2000 words a day, so it should be—if not easy—not all that difficult. I’ve done it before – about four times since my first go at it in 2008. This year I managed about 260 words on the first day and then nothing.
Why couldn’t I sit for a couple of hours each day and simply put words down on the screen? I have an ongoing novel project that’s just crying out for fifty thousand words of first draft. I know how the story starts; I’ve written the first 17,500 words. I know how it ends (though I’m not giving that away here) but I need to work on the middle bit, the development of plot and character. I need to map out a few twists and reversals, and engineer a gradual coming together of story and motivation to bring my characters to a place where the ending can happen naturally, rather than because I (as author) insist that it will. All that is covered in my vague back-of-the-envelope plan by the phrase: Stuff Happens.
So why did all my good intention flush down the pan of life? I think I have the answer.
Creativity is not something you can pull out of a box and shove back in when you’re done with it. It’s something that should be ongoing, a process of you like.
And I have a day job.
There are not many published writers who don’t have a day job of some kind. Sure, a few full time writers are either fantastically successful beyond their wildest dreams, like J. K. Rowling, or their career runs alongside their day job for several books until they’ve built up enough back catalogue to have a steady income from royalties, and possibly a firm book deal from their publisher that gives them a guaranteed income for the next so-many years. Most writers are not that lucky. Getting the average publishing deal is nice, but it doesn’t allow you to immediately chuck in the day job. If you manage your career well, I understand that it takes a back catalogue of around twenty steadily selling novels to maintain a decent income from royalties.
I have six novels out there at the moment (so please go and buy one or more of them), so my income from royalties might take me to the supermarket for groceries once or twice a year, and my advances are modest.
So yes, I have a day job.
I’m very lucky because I’m self-employed. I work from home as a music booking agent, and I also process Certificates of Sponsorship – work permit applications for musicians coming to the UK from outside the EU. I have a dedicated (messy) office, and love a job I can do in my pyjamas. I hit the office every morning before I even get into the kitchen to put on the coffee. I don’t have an endless commute, or regular nine-to-five hours.
The phone can ring at any hour of the night or day. Someone has left it until the last minute and needs eleven Certificates of Sponsorship processing for a band from the USA who are already inbound to the UK on the New York to Heathrow flight, and the British tour manager has only just discovered they didn’t deal with immigration paperwork before they left. Or I get a call on a Sunday evening, at 7.00, from someone who asks if I process CoS for Mexicans. “Yes,” I say. “How long does it take?” he asks. “Well, I ask that you allow four weeks. How soon do you need them?” It turns out that he needs them within an hour because he has four Mexican musicians in a holding room at Heathrow airport because they tried to come into the UK totally unaware that they needed permission to work. If they don’t get their CoS within an hour they’re on the next plane back to Mexico. (Luckily Heathrow gave me a bit more time once they learned the application was in hand.)
So, ‘stuff happens’ is not just the outline of the middle section of my new book, it’s the laugh-track of my life.
Now, I don’t mind dealing with occasional emergencies, even if it means staying up until midnight or beyond, to make sure some poor souls don’t get deported instead of coming in to play a few gigs for their British promoter who has already sunk money into venue hire and promotion, but it does cut into my time.
And that brings me back to creativity.
To be creative you don’t only need time to create, you need time to think about creating. Ninety percent of writing creativity happens in your brain, not when your fingers hit the keyboard. You have to make space for thinking, for daydreaming, for lollygagging in a comfy chair with a notebook which you might never open. The ideas are floating out there on the ether, you just need to open up your mind to let them in.
And I didn’t do enough of that before NaNoWriMo, which is why, when it came to the crunch, I wasn’t ready to write 50,000 new words in a month.
I need brain-space. I’ve had some of my best writing ideas while lying in bed trying to get to sleep, which is why I keep a notebook and pen on my bedside table.
Once I’ve opened up my mind to ideas, the words flow, and when the words start flowing other words rush in to join them and… well… when I’m on a roll I’ve been known to write 10,000 words in a day. No, that kind of word-count doesn’t happen often, and I can’t keep up that pace for more than a day or three, but when it does happen it’s glorious. I generally consider 4,000 to 5,000 words a day excellent going, and that’s much more sustainable.
I’ve been on a couple of Milford writing retreats and I’m going again in June 2020. To be able to spend a full week without day-job interruptions or family obligations, or breaking off from what I’m doing to take my elderly mum to the supermarket, or put a meal on the table, is a wonderful experience. Of course a week isn’t long enough to write a book (though Catie Murphy wrote 33,000 words at the last Milford writing retreat) but it does get you off to a fine start, or a good middle, or a satisfying ending. (Note: there are still spaces on the Milford writing retreat 2020 at the time of writing this blog post.)
In addition I’ve decided to take the whole month of January off from the day job. Yes, there might still be the occasional emergency, the odd bunch of Mexicans stuck at Heathrow, but if I make it clear to my regulars that I’m not available in January, and if I can bear let the phone go to the answering machine, then I stand a good chance of getting some creative time. And I’m never open for day-job work between Christmas and New Year, usually because the house is full of family. This year, for various reasons, our kids can’t be with us at Christmas, so between the mulled wine and mince pies, and the Christmas Day Skype session, I can sit and daydream.
And that’s what I’m going to do.