It’s sometimes a struggle to convince some writers of the realities of the industry in which they are working.
The common belief amongst some is that all they have to do is complete a novel or a collection of short stories, offer it around to publishers or publish it themselves, and then the rest will somehow take care of itself: the reading world, unknowingly craving their work, will detect and pursue it upon its appearance, volume sales will follow, and the writer can then retire or prepare another best-seller for the demanding masses.
Even many writers who are more realistic about all this seem convinced that, though there may be a few difficulties on the way, commercial success should occur almost immediately upon the successful publication of a piece of their work.
I think these false expectations owe much to the kind of society into which we have all been born, the consumerist culture which suggests that desires can be fulfilled very rapidly if not immediately - and even more pertinently, that it is right to have such desires and right to expect them to be fulfilled swiftly. We have all been inculcated with these notions, probably from birth. I noticed in my infant daughter, for example, that any concept of time or of having to wait for anything was incomprehensible to her - any need that she had had to be met at once, or else. Any delays in providing for her would be met with voluminous protest.
This attitude - the protesting of unfulfilled needs, based on the expectation of instant gratification - changes little for some people as they grow older. The growth of supermarkets providing out-of-season foods, available easily, along with the electronic culture of push-button satisfaction, has resulted in a consumerist mind-set which means that the idea that anything takes time, or that some things require persistent effort, and that things develop along seasonal patterns, becomes quite foreign.
Hence this analogy between the world of the writer and the world of the farmer.
‘Harvest’ for the farmer and the writer amounts to much the same thing in the end: the culmination of a large amount of work, converted into cash and satisfaction in the farmer’s case and cash and recognition in the writer’s. But before either can contemplate the harvest, that large amount of work has to actually take place. And certain hard facts need to be confronted by the writer as they are by the farmer.
1. Farming and writing are hard work.
Farming is full of some very monotonous activities which absolutely need to be done regardless of how boring they might be, and in spite of the weather, illness, or any other excuse we who work on a computer for a living can think of to avoid work. There is no getting around this: the hours simply have to be put in, and ‘waiting for the right mood’ or that mystical thing writers call ‘inspiration’ is not going to cut it. Writers, like farmers, need to get up early and work to set schedules regardless of anything else that is happening, externally in their lives or internally in their heads.
An average fiction book is 80,000 words long. Words occasionally materialise like magic in writers’ minds, but more often than not they have to be dug up, spadeful by spadeful, by sitting down at a desk and commencing to write.
Yes, there will be brighter spells when the words flow and all seems well; but there will also frequently come those rainy periods, when all seems dank and dreary. The work has to be done anyway.
2. Farmers and writers both need deep and adequate sleep.
It’s a stereotype for writers to be up in the wee hours, living on caffeine, with hang-dog expressions and a conversational level approaching delirium. Farmers aren’t that stupid and realise the value of a good night’s sleep. They tend to get to bed early, even as the sun goes down, and to get up early, as it rises.
There’s much to be said for this. I have said elsewhere that I once wrote a 300,000 word fantasy epic over about three months by working mainly between the hours of 2:00 am and 7:00 am. The big advantage to this period is that by far the majority of people are asleep during that time, which reduces the likelihood of interruptions and distractions immensely. The quietness of this time in the morning enables and encourages the semi-trance state which fiction writing seems to require.
You don’t have to be quite so extreme, but getting up as early as 5:00 am is recommended. A decent slice of writing can be done before the family stirs, and your morale will rise knowing that you have accomplished something before the rest of the world even became aware of the new day.
Apart from that, being well-rested and having a good sleep routine leads to having the energy to complete things the next day. Farmers work hard all day so they usually have no problems getting to sleep at night. Writers can aim to do the same.
Good sleep has another benefit for writers: dreams. The mysterious forces of the imagination thrive when well-rested - giving them enough time to process whatever it is that they process means that the new day usually yields more vibrant material.
3. Farmers and writers benefit from routines.
Routines are extremely important to a farmer. Chores like feeding, watering and milking animals, cleaning up barns, tending to the fields and crops, and so forth usually need to be completed every day, sometimes twice or three times a day.
As a writer, you need to attend to emails, perhaps make calls, write blog posts, send out newsletters, collaborate with colleagues and clients, read and comment on other people’s sites - quite apart from actually writing. Plan your day accordingly.
My own habit is to get the more routine and non-thinking activities out of the way as early as possible, giving myself time to wake up and think more clearly. Or you can do it the other way round and jot down creative thoughts and ideas while the misty veil of sleep is still withdrawing, in the hope that subconscious creativity will work its magic.
Another successful action of mine is to work flat out on writing for short bursts of up to an hour, before withdrawing to address social media, emails and the like. Then I plunge into writing again. It works: I have written close to three million words over the last three years in one form or another.
I also roughly allocate days to different tasks, like a farmer might. On Mondays, for example, I try to focus on blog articles, keeping in mind that the discipline of keeping a daily blog produces a constant outpouring of material which can then be collated and revised into future books. I also try to vary my day, working on one set of projects in the mornings and another in the afternoons. In that way, a number of projects edge forward toward completion on a daily and weekly basis. This works because my attention does not get bogged or stuck on any one project but has an opportunity to ‘play’ on aspects of the whole Big Picture.
Farmers have to have routines which cater for a number of elements of the farm that they are running because of the nature of a farm; writers have a choice, which means that many do not take advantage of the possibilities but end up sinking into one thing at a time and not getting the variety which keeps the mind alert and alive.
4. Farmers and writers both have deadlines.
In a farmer’s case, the deadlines are constrained by nature and the seasons: certain things simply have to happen by certain times or they just won’t work. Cows have to be milked and brought inside for the winter or they will become ill and/or perish. Writers have that deadly choice again: they can prevaricate and procrastinate until the cows come home.
On a farm, someone needs to get the fields planted by a certain time based on seasonal weather patterns. Farmers need to harvest the crops within a certain amount of time or they will spoil in the fields, and so on. Nature stands over the farmer, breathing down his or her neck with each passing hour and day. The writer normally has no such task master.
It can help a writer to break down projects into smaller micro-goals. The whole task, say, of writing a grand novel can become less overwhelming; achieving each micro-goal will keep the thing moving ahead.
And there are more common aspects here between writing and farming, as you will see tomorrow.