I’m always uncomfortable writing about writing: when it comes to history I can say, “This is material that I researched, you could possibly have researched it too, but you didn’t, so here it is…”
When I’m writing about writing, I’m acutely aware of the fact that while I’ve got books out I’m not that much of a big deal. I’ve got a lot more coming out later this year, and I think I’ve got “game”, as we middle aged historians call it, but I’m not a hugely successful writer.
Still, there’s one thing I have that other people can be objectively proved not to have: output.
It may be shite, but at least I wrote it. In 2017, despite one of the worst depressive slumps of my life, I managed an output of ~220k words. I once wrote a 100,000 word novel in a week. There are people who have produced more, but I’m also aware that there are a number of people who produced less, and have expressed interest in knowing how I did it.
I’ll also be entirely honest that I’m a bit harsh in places here, but excuses are something that annoys me, particularly since I was once quite good at making them myself.
So, here it is…
First, Do you really want to do this?
It sounds negative, but one of the biggest things I always want to ask people is whether they really, truly, prioritise writing.
Here’s the thing: there almost certainly is enough time in your life to write. I can hear the protests even as I type this, but for the vast majority of you, the time does exist. Trust me. We’ll discuss how you find it further down the post.
For those of you who really, honestly can’t find the time – we’ll talk about that next.
Anyone who wants a decent level of output needs to change their priorities. Their Maslovian pyramid needs to change from the traditional, to something that looks a bit more like this:
- Putting a roof over your head
- Doing right by the people who rely on you
At most, putting a roof over your head and writing can occupy joint first. If you hear yourself making excuses, that’s your answer: writing isn’t your priority.
That’s alright. There are lots of people in the world who only write for a hobby. Some of them get novels published, others find themselves in a different place later, and then take up a more professional practise.
Now, however, you simply aren’t in the place to increase your output.
Does your life realistically allow you to do this?
Obviously, there are people who aren’t making excuses when they say their hierarchy can’t be the same as the one above: parents, carers, peoplewith job responsibilities they can’t step away from.
Again, it has to be said: you may not be in the place right now to have the output you want. No matter how much you want to increase your output and get that story/novel/series finished, at this moment, it may not be possible.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have any output at all. We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity: in the same way that writers like Stephen King urged us to mobilise our downtime for reading (queues, trains, going to the loo) we can now mobilise it for writing. If you have a smartphone, even a relatively old knackered one, you can get a notebook/word processor app and keep writing. I’m not saying it’ll be as easy as a keyboard, but Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote a whole book with just his left eyelid. You can do this.
That isn’t the only answer. Even if you can only get 300 words written once a week, eventually that’ll add up to a completed novel. For an average length work of commercial fiction, it’s about five years, but do you know who doesn’t produce a novel every five years? Most people.
If you continued at that rate of output for ten years you’d have written two novels, at which point you’re equal to Harper Lee. Alternatively, if you stuck to short fiction, you’d have a complete 2,000 word short story every seven weeks (which is six or so complete short stories a year, all of which are the right length to be snapped up by the current market).
And I can tell you – six short stories a year is a damn good output for a writer.
Protect your writing time – even from yourself
This isn’t the bit where I advocate all the infantilizing rubbish that I see being all the rage for writers just now. No, you don’t need a special app that forces you to write at gunpoint and then deletes your work if you don’t. You don’t need to be in a lead bunker that locks out your access to the internet. You don’t need to pay the price of a Macbook for a cute little Wordprocessor that looks like a typewriter.
I’m writing this with a window open that has both Facebook and Twitter on. I’ve checked them both a few times while I’ve been writing this. The point is that every time, I return to the writing.
That’s the only secret: most of the time, be writing. Go out less (it’s cheaper, you can spend more money on books), play computer games less (I love them, but I play about 10 hours a month, at most), watch TV less (or, as I sometimes do, watch TV while writing – although, it’s something I can only do when working on non-fiction).
Write when ill. Write when tired. Tell people (with varying degrees of politeness) to go away if they make demands of you while writing. Tell them in advance that it’ll be happening. Stick to it.
If you must have romance in your life, let it be with another crazy workaholic. I did. It’s brilliant.
There will obviously be times when life gets in the way. Nobody expects you to coldly finish your chapter if Grandma has had a fall, or if your children are making cocktails from Ribena and Toilet Duck, but 90% of the time, be writing.
Do the hard things in advance
There is a huge debate in writing about whether you should set your plots out in advance, or whether you should just splurge everything out and then correct structural issues in later drafts. There are some very famous non-planners out there (I refuse to use the cutesey names ‘Pantser’ and ‘Plotter’, we’re adults for God’s sake) but there were also people who just walk up and win Olympic Gold. Neither you nor I are likely to be in that category.
To put it another way, which is easier: writing a scene while planning it, working out where it advances the main plot, managing its impact on character arcs, keeping track of the sub plots AND mentally working through the scene after it… or having all that already done and just writing the scene?
The other strength of planning, personally, is twofold: when the whole thing is laid out in front of you, you detect patterns and bad ideas™ much more easily. Secondly, it allows you to do your research in advance, which avoids the situation of having a whole evening’s writing derailed by suddenly realising that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
I should also say here that I speak as one of the converted. I once held vehemently that planning would instantly kill my artistic soul. Then I read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and planned my next book.
The difference: with technique one, I’d written and abandoned countless books, including one that subsequently took fourteen years and nine re-writes to get published; a still unpublished 170,000 word behemoth with no ending in sight, and a YA book that took three agonising years of rewrites.
The book I planned was released with a small trad publisher within a year and had only three small paragraph rewrites. I’ve also had a 100% increase in beta readers actually finishing my stuff and giving feedback, rather than nodding enthusiastically and subsequently avoiding me.
Writing with the hardest mental work done is incredibly freeing, and it’s just as creative: whether you did the creative work now or six weeks ago, it was still you creating something. The difference is you can now write even if you’ve had a hard day because you know where the scene starts, where it’s going, what the characters want, and where it fits. At that point, sitting in front of the keyboard and bashing out your [insert word goal here] becomes a lot easier.
Jump the hurdles by doing some things later
When I started the series I’ve just finished, I decided to leverage my historical knowledge by having all the magic in the series being entirely accurate to European ritual magic, and to have as much as possible come from actual Early Modern manuscripts.
This was laborious and turned out not be very exciting for the reader.
When I realised that I was going to have to scrap that idea if I wanted to produce something people would actually read, I also realised I was going to have to write a whole lot of magical rituals.
I DID NOT WRITE THESE AT THE TIME I WROTE THE REST OF THE NOVELLAS. Instead, I just broke up the scene into steps and beats that felt right for the pacing, and made a note to myself that I needed to go back and put the rituals in. It meant that my manuscript looked like this:
“” said Sid. “”
In the end, my magical rituals ended up being 80s songs translated into Latin. This was immense fun (for me, I suspect nobody else will notice) and didn’t derail my writing process. One of my favourite examples of this is from the superb writer Aliette de Bodard, who wrote in one manuscript: “Beautiful but flawed poetry goes here.”
Set realistic goals
Personally, I do just 1,000. I also only write five days a week. This may sound like I’m going back on the ‘go hard or go home’ mentality I’ve been espousing until now, but it’s actually the only way I’ve been able to keep it up.
Five days a week allows life to get in the way, and you can still preserve your writing routine. It’s also the average number of days that you’d work in a full time job.
If you do this on all 52 weeks in a year, that actually gives you 260 days to write (and also, from my output of 2017, it also lets you see that I gave myself a fairly generous 40 days writing holidays, which is another reason I managed it without going barking mad.)
It’s alright if writing doesn’t always feel good
This is one that, as the Australians would say, boils my piss. You see this a lot in online writing groups: someone comes on saying that they’re finding writing hard and they’ve lost faith in their work in progress.
Then the bliss-ninnies come on, sprinkling self-satisfied fairy dust on everything and telling the poor sod that THEY find writing to a constant, minute-to-minute joy of quasi-orgasmic creative wonderfulness.
I don’t presume to tell you that these people are lying (although I do think they’re lying) but I will say that it’s completely fine for you to fall out of love with your manuscript during the process. The secret is that that doesn’t matter. Russel T Davies, writer and producer of the new Doctor Who franchise, who wrote up to half of every season he produced, once said, “I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy having written.”
Stephen King said that it was important to keep writing, even when all it feels like you’re doing is “shovelling shit in the sitting position.”
There are plenty of others. Kingsley Amis once said, “Writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of a chair.”
The biggest advice I can give (from people with huge careers, not just from myself) is to keep writing through the hate. King, whose work you may or may not like, but whose career will doubtless have a lasting impact on the 20th and 21st century, holds that the difference between your best day and your worst is largely psychological.
So keep at it.
Change your understanding of what a draft is
One of the most paralysing things for me was the mindtrap of getting a first draft out. Even now, I find editing more pleasurable than writing a book in the first place.
A part of the problem is that every first draft is terrible. Not irredeemable (for reference, have a look at one of the many articles about insane things that appeared in early drafts of famous books), but not great either. Especially after one of the hard days (last year I had a day with 13 hours set aside to write and barely managed my 1000 word minimum in the whole period).
This put me in a two-way mind trap:
If it’s going to be terrible, why not spend more time over it and get it ‘right’?
If it’s going to be terrible… why bother?
Many people reading this have undoubtedly come to the same conclusion that I eventually did: the best thing is to stop thinking of a first draft as anything resembling a completed novel. Don’t even call it ‘First Draft’, call it ‘Draft Zero’.
The truth of the matter is that a first draft is to a finished book what flour is to a loaf of bread: essential, but not actually something you can make sandwiches out of.
Get it down. Get it finished. Seal it into a drawer for a minimum of six weeks. Otherwise, you’ll still be too close to it.
Then read it again. Judge it but love it. Go through and change everything that your gut tells you to. Be prepared to make huge structural changes, merge characters and get rid of bits that are individually brilliant, but don’t really serve the plot.
Do that later. At the time, just get it down whether you love it or not.
Donations Keep This Blog Running
The contents of this blog are entirely free and always will be. I have a couple of books out, but the vast majority of the work I do, especially my historical work, is a labour of love. With that said, creating this content costs me money: I pay for access to academic journals, to a professional quality research library, for trips to specialised collections and archives, and for courses in Latin, Archive Skills and Paleography.
If you’ve read this material and found it useful, please consider donating a small amount of money towards my work. If one in a hundred of the people who see my blog this week bought me a coffee via Ko-fi, it would make a huge difference to my ability to deliver. If one in fifty did, I’d be able to significantly increase my output.