Hyper-Critical Situation # 1
There is a hyper-critical situation which comes before all others for writers, and that is that, though you desperately want to be a writer, you’re simply not writing.
Here are some hard truths - and some remedies.
1. You don’t value it highly enough.
‘What?!?’ you protest. ‘How can you say that?? Being a writer means everything to me!’
I know I tread on hallowed ground by questioning this central premise - but does it really?
At the end of the day, the central reason why you’re not being a writer right now is that you don’t place enough importance on it. Yes, it’s true, don’t scream at me: the fact is that, though your soul burns to write, though you would give up your day job in a nano-second to write, though you feel that ‘writer’ is inscribed in chromosomes upon your every cell, the reason that you’re reading this sentence is that you haven’t yet placed enough importance upon being a writer to actually do something about it.
You need to do something impossible right now. Rank the following things in order of importance in your life:
Your job (or source or income)
Your romantic relationship(s)
Your family (including your parents)
Your current lifestyle (sleeping patterns, basic routines, hobbies, how you spend leisure time and so forth)
Your other commitments (religious, educational, sporting etc)
Any other demand on your life and time
There may be other things too, not covered by this list.
You’ll see by your own ranking that other things are taking precedence over your writing life. That’s understandable and ‘normal’, but unless something changes, you simply won’t get any writing done.
Here’s the thing: an average novel contains about 80,000 words. (A fantasy or science fiction epic is usually much larger.) Even typing at 1,000 words per hour, which is reasonably quick, it will take you 80 hours to type a first draft with no editing or revision along the way. If you can eke out ten hours a week, that’s 8 weeks, which might not seem like very long.
a) can you really get ten hours a week devoted purely to typing out a manuscript? That is excluding any ‘pre-production’ planning or outlining.
b) that’s just your first draft.
Let’s say you spend 80 hours miraculously typing your first draft to completion. (There are some tips about how to do that, by the way, in the course How to Write Stories That Work -and Get Them Published.) Then you need to edit it. Writing a first draft is like going shopping to the supermarket and buying the week’s groceries. You come home with bags of stuff. Now you have to turn it into meals. Editing is where you turn your first draft into something readable. That can take longer than initially writing it, but if you know what you’re doing (and you’ll have a much better idea of that by the time you complete this course) then it can take less time.
Let’s say another 80 hours for a second draft, though, to be on the safe side.
Then the best idea is to leave it for a while before writing a third draft, refining the work still further. Let’s allow 40 hours for that.
Preparing a manuscript for publication, as an independent writer, can be a tiresome and frustrating task, but this course will help smooth that out. Allow 10 hours for it, though.
The publication process itself is relatively simple, following the step-by-step guide that comes later in the course. You can usually get to the stage of ordering your first proof copy in under an hour.
Once your proof copy arrives, the course shows you what to look for and the process of correcting your work can take as little as 3 hours. Then your next copy will be the one you will try to sell, the final version.
That’s 224 hours in total.
With life and all the things listed above out of the way, that adds up to approximately four months at about ten hours a week, if things go very smoothly. Of course, Life won’t leave you alone during this time and its very difficult to stay undistracted long enough to get each step done without any problems.
So to get anywhere at all, you need to value your writing more highly than you do now. There are some exercises to help you with this later in this module.
Valuing your own writing more highly means that you will shift things around and make things happen. Not giving your work the importance that it needs means that it will in all likelihood stay trapped in your head.
But let’s assume that you have managed to carve out a higher place on your list of priorities for working on your fiction. What else needs to happen?
2. You need to timetable yourself into the writing chair.
This sounds obvious, but almost all the wannabe writers I’ve ever spoken to have the same problem: they are expecting Life to somehow open up a window of a few weeks so that they can ‘write the book they want to write’. Life doesn’t usually respond on its own. And so the wannabes get trampled into apathy by the demands of the world around them, their families, their jobs, their lives, as above.
Here’s a series of steps to activate this advice:
i) Take a look at your weekly schedule; examine your commitments; work out at least 3 hours a week, preferably contiguous but not vitally so, and block that out for writing. Nothing else - just writing your fiction. Don’t include ‘checking emails’ or ‘answering letters’ or even ‘making notes’. Just the actual task of writing.
ii) Get everyone’s agreement. Easier said than done, but unless you do, your little timetable won’t be worth the screen it’s probably written on.
iii) Ideally, pick times that are interruption-free, or at least when you are less likely to be in demand. It’s possible to construct a schedule so that you are writing in the early hours of the morning - or even through the night, as long as you get sleep some other time- and to get a 300,000 word epic fantasy written in three months. I did it once, locking myself in an office and working between 2:00 am and 7:00 am and going home as the sun rose. But that’s an extreme. One long evening each week, or a weekend afternoon, or something like that, and, if you stick to it, you’ll find that in a few weeks you have made significant progress - provided you also apply the rest of the advice in this section and don’t keep interrupting yourself. Which leads to the next tip.
3. Stop interrupting yourself.
The primary enemy of a writer is interruptions. So devise a schedule that keeps these to a minimum, and stop interrupting yourself. (We’ll assume that you dealt with interruptions from others by getting their agreement above.)
Self-interruptions range from ‘I’ll just check my email’ to ‘I’ll get a coffee’ to ‘There’s no way I can write this scene that takes place in front of a fireplace until I’ve read this three-volume History of Fireplaces in the Seventeenth Century so that I can be convincingly authentic’.
Put distractions aside and get to the keyboard, or desk, or whatever you use.
4. Get an iPhone or other gadget that you carry around with you.
I mention iPhones because that’s what I use, but any such gadget will do. You need something that you will actually carry around with you, though. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to have the capacity for keeping notes. There are plenty of free apps for this. You don’t need anything super-duper or complex: you just need something that you can write into and save. Apple’s ‘Notes’ app is fine - you can write up to any length and then email it to yourself.
Better to have it on your phone, because you will tend to carry your phone around with you at all times, whereas you might forget to bring a device dedicated to writing with you, and that’s half the problem. The iPhone 6 has the added advantage of extra battery power so you won’t burn up your phone energy.
5. Use said device.
Every time you find yourself at a loose end, start writing. Waiting for a bus? Write. Sat on a train? Write. In between meetings? Write. Write notes, write ideas, write chapter headings, write insights. Write whole chapters if you get a chance. It’s possible to write the basis for entire novels in this way, chapter by chapter, in the time that you didn’t even realise was ‘spare’. Try it. You’ll be amazed. And your writing morale will start to go up and up. You won’t forget those flashes of genius you had on the way home before you get to your laptop; you won’t forget that you even had a flash of genius. It will all be there in some form on your device. Apart from recording stuff, the notes on your gadget will begin to give you confidence that you can actually write. You’ll get practice, in small doses. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something? Well then, over the last eight years or so you’ve probably let 10,000 hours slip through your fingers literally by not having something to hand upon which to record your thoughts and ideas in these ‘invisible gaps’ in your life.
If you’re trapped by some kind of inertia from rising from your chair, wherever you are, then write right there, wherever you are stuck. But watch out for the interruptions, subtle or not-so-subtle, and just get on with it.
6. Write until you drop - don’t stop, don’t auto-correct.
Now all of this advice is important and every point here is worth it’s weight in cyber-gold, but this is one suggestion which can make or break you as a writer.
On those occasions when you and a laptop share enough time for you to get somewhere, don’t waste time by ‘going over’ what you wrote last time, picking out spelling errors, grammar problems, things you’d like to ‘tweak a little’. Just hit the keyboard and write. Don’t stop until your head hits the space bar with exhaustion. Set yourself high word targets per hour if that works for you. Whatever you do, don’t stop - don’t even pause - for any editing or ‘re-drafting’ or even basic corrections until you reach 200 pages of writing.
For several reasons:
i) firstly, and probably most importantly, getting 200 pages written is a tremendous morale-booster. You know that it’s far from perfect, you know it will take major editing work, but there it is: 200 pages of your very own writing. That’s a decent-sized book, right there. Think of the shopping analogy above: writing your first draft is the first step in making a cake - you’ve been to the shops and bought the ingredients. There they are in the pages in front of you. The second step, re-writing, is making the cake. But until you have the ingredients, making the cake is just a fantasy.
ii) writing flat-out like this will teach you a few things about yourself as a writer. When you read it over, you’ll see patterns, strengths and weaknesses, places where you falter and places where you demonstrate real skill. It’s a training programme for writers, getting your writing muscles fitter for the real thing: the next draft.
iii) you avoid the counter-productive ‘pottering around’ that happens if you do it any other way: write a page, stop and think, change some things, correct spelling, maybe alter the while way the page works, wonder if you could have done better, and so forth. This tortuous pattern has produced one or two successful works, but at the cost of so many more that could have been written in the same time with less bother.
Apply all of the above and before long, you’ll be a writer.
Then you’ll have to tackle Hyper-Critical Situation # 2: Your Writing Isn’t Good Enough.
Maybe you have already done all of the above and commenced writing, perhaps you have even finished a first draft - but it’s no good. You know it’s not working. When you read it back to yourself - or, heaven forbid! to another - it sounds
• full of clichés
It lacks drama; it doesn’t end properly. Characters don’t leap into life; the dialogue seems dull or unreal. In short, though you are proud of yourself for actually producing something, you know that it is a failure as a work of art.
Welcome to the world of about 80% of those wannabe writers who even make it as far as writing something.
But this situation merits a much closer look. Why do some authors succeed and others fail? Why do some succeed spectacularly? What is it that master authors do which gives their work long life and attracts readers generation after generation?
Some people will conclude that great works of fiction and literature succeed simply because they get published. ‘If my work could only get enough attention,’ some will say, ‘I too could become a great author!’
‘If only I could get published, all would be well,’ some will say. ‘Life is so unfair.’
The myth is that there is a conspiracy against publishing some works, that success is a random lottery based on who gets lucky enough to have a book chosen for publication.
The first (startling) truth about this is that successful authors use a range of methods, techniques and ‘tricks’ which are able to be codified. The second (even more startling) truth is that these things have already been codified in the course How to Write Stories That Work -and Get Them Published and its related materials, for your use.