Thursday, February 8, 2018

Writers' Life: Six Things I Need to Tell You Today

A post I saw on a writers' group this week sparked off a bit of a fat Facebook rant yesterday. I may have upset some people. I'm not apologising either, because these things need to be said. There's a lot of pressure on writers to make a living these days, to work the algorithms with Amazon, Google, whatever. I lurk about a number of writers' groups online, and I hear wonderful stories about some authors who're absolutely creaming it self-publishing. Bully for them. By equal measure, I see many more authors (the vast majority, in fact) who simply cannot fathom why their books aren't moving. Many become heartsick about their careers. Some even give up.

I don't have a silver bullet for you, sorry. But after more than a decade in this business, I am going to offer you some advice that will give you a little perspective, and perhaps even a glimmer of hope.

Burnout is a thing
There is so much pressure to succeed, that I've seen people push themselves to the point where they have nervous breakdowns. Darlin', I was there. I ended up pushing myself to the point where I had a grand mal seizure. Scrambled brains FTW, along with a drinking problem. I ended up in hospital with liver failure due to an adverse reaction I had to anti-convulsants. I used to work a day job in newspaper publishing, then follow up at night as a freelance fiction editor while still trying to write a book a month. I nearly died. Like ferealzies. For many months after my recovery, I could barely write, and this is after I pushed myself to put out 100k words a month. It's not sustainable. You can damage yourself. You can rob yourself of the love of writing. Repeat after me: YOU ARE NOT A MACHINE.

This is not a horse race
So, you see Bob Penworthy gloating over the 7k words he writes every day. Wow. That means he can write a novel in two weeks. AMAZING. But. BUT. You are not Bob. You are not in a race to see who can poop out X amount of words that are somehow going to make you this absolutely brillo writer who's going to be the next Stephen King. Something I say often to writers: It's quality, not quantity. You are not trying to "beat" someone else's career. Let's be realistic here (and yes, I'm going to say something that's going to sound super depressing). Thousands of books are published DAILY. Yours is but a drop in the bucket. Also, with all the books that are remaining in circulation thanks to digital publishing and print-on-demand, titles are not going out of print. That means the bucket is getting bigger and bigger EVERY DAY. Chances of your discoverability grow slimmer EVERY DAY. You're only going to make yourself sick with despair trying to stay ahead of the tide. ENJOY THE PROCESS OF WRITING.

And repeat after me: THIS IS NOT A HORSE RACE.

Pace yourself with achievable goals
Staying along the lines of burnout, and the fact that this is not a race, find daily writing goals that are achievable. Stop worrying about Bob and his 7k words. What can you write that won't make you feel as if you don't have a life. Because, guess what, if you're like most of us who have primary careers that bring in the bread and butter, plus children and other responsibilities, you don't have a helluva lot of time for writing. So set yourself goals that you can keep up in the long term.

Yes, there will be times when you have a deadline – I recently had three months in which to outline, write and revise a 100k-word novel for an open-door submissions period. Guess what? I managed to do so without killing myself by *planning* ahead. I found a rhythm that worked for me, and I also had time to watch films, TV series, hang out with friends, walk the dogs. And do my day job.

Set yourself targets. For some, it may be writing three or four 15-minute writing sprints a day. You'd be amazed by how many words you can manage in 15 unbroken minutes where you're ignoring social media and other distractions. For others, it's that golden hour before work. Or a lunch hour. Or an hour after dinner. Something I found worked for me while I was writing my big novel last year was the Pomodoro Technique. But sometimes also just setting myself a target of writing three, 1k-word sprints throughout the day. But mix and match. Some days you might be absolutely exhausted. Then write a minimum of three pages. And go to fucking bed. Get some rest. This is not a horse race. You might find that you'll catch up the day after. Currently, if I'm up to it, I only write two pages a day. This is because I'm busy with the production of a novella that's releasing at the end of the month. I'm going easy on myself because I want to enjoy the process of writing.

Every writer is different
Stop paying attention to Bob Penworthy. Perhaps he's vomiting out fast-paced thrillers, and he's in his zone. And hells, it might even be working for him. But maybe you want to write a novel set during WWII, and you need time to research, take time to develop your characters and setting. Or you fancy you're the next GRRM. I don't know. Every writer is different. (I was going to say something about precious snowflakes but that term's been so tainted over the years that it doesn't even have the meaning I'd have intended for it.) Your career is YOURS. Your books are YOURS. Sure, so Betty Whiplash writes super BDSM erotica involving werespiders. Bully for her. She brings out a book every three months. But maybe she's got a husband who supports her, so she has time to do so. Or Joe Coffeepot is retired, and he's writing his military adventures. He has the resources to do so, so when he brings out his books, his entire situation has been different, and maybe he's had money to throw at an editor that you didn't have. Every book is different, will have a readership uniquely its own. Find your tribe. Build your own support network, and stop worrying about what Bob Penworthy is doing. It might work for him, but it might not necessarily be right for your career. This is not a zero sum game. Just because Bob's earning a triple-digit figure each month from Amazon doesn't mean he's robbing you. So be happy for him if his pooped-out novels are selling, but don't break your neck trying to emulate him if it's going to lead to you ending up in hospital.

Set aside dedicated time
Don't quit your day job just yet. And don't allow your writing to jeopardise your day job either. (Been there, done that, and had the disciplinary hearing to prove it.) I hear all sorts of stories about writers who take their writing to the office, and some even write those 7k words a day AT WORK. Sure, if you've got absolutely no other work, that's fine. But if you're finding creative ways to hide that Word or Scrivener files behind Excel spreadsheets every time your boss walks past, honey you have a problem. Ask yourself this: How focused are you on your actual writing if you're trying to divide your attention between working out a budget or doing a report ... and getting into a writing zone? This goes back to my earlier pointer of setting yourself achievable goals, and being focused on your writing. I can write fast, like the best of them. Hells, I can poop out 2k words in an hour if I'm in the zone. So if you're pooping out 7k words a day at the office, let's be realistic ... you're spending maybe half your work day on your own personal writing ... and either you're neglecting your day job or, even worse, you're being unfair to colleagues (and employers) who have to pick up your slack. Don't be a douchebag.

For sure, maybe write during lunch. Or if you *honestly* don't have other work. But don't put your ability to keep a roof over your head (and by default have a space for your writing) by taking the piss at the office.

Good books take time
This should be a no-brainer. Digital publishing has made it SUPER easy to put out books. Hells, it's ridiculously simple these days to publish a book. But ... NO book is ready to be published after you've typed 'the end' on the first draft. Allow your book to lie fallow for a while in your hard drive. Give it one or two editing passes BEFORE you send it on to your beta readers. Maybe even give it a three-month break before you start serious structural edits. If you can afford an editor, that's absolutely brilliant. Don't be afraid to take all the time you need to unpick the threads and revise. A savvy writer will have more than one manuscript at various stages of development, so that they perhaps have one first draft they're crafting, a book mellowing on a hard drive, a book with betas... a book they're outlining... One that's out on the query mill if you're busy looking for literary agents.  Some books take years before they're ready. It's easy to poop out a book, but to truly craft a story, where you've been able to take a step back to look at it with fresh eyes, to be unafraid to make necessary changes ... now that takes time. And sometimes time means all the difference between a hastily cobbled-together document riddled with sub-par syntax and typos, vs a polished masterwork you can be proud of for years to come.


  1. I'm happy for Bob and his 7K a day... but as you mentioned, we are all different.
    I ain't Bob, don't wanna be Bob, will never be Bob! LOL
    I'll stick to my 200 words a time.
    Great post!

  2. You're brilliant, senpai. I needed this today, so thank you.

  3. I want to high-five this post so hard...

    I especially like "You're only going to make yourself sick with despair trying to stay ahead of the tide" and other points you make about this not being a race with other writers (or really, our IDEA of what other writers are doing -- do we really grasp what Penworthy's, or Whiplash's, or Coffeepot's lives are like? Nope). Readers don't care what goes into the writing of a novel; they just want it to be GOOD. Sure, readers of a series may be impatient for the author to finish the next book, but those readers want it to be up to the standard, if not beyond, what that author has already set. Rushing oneself, overworking oneself, chasing arbitrary benchmarks -- that's not how we get there, to that level of quality writing.

  4. Ugh - I typed a long response and it disappeared on me, so now I'm trying again:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I really needed to hear it! This post isn't only for newbies - everyone should read it.

    I'm multi-published and I've also been on the 'write more, write faster, market more, sell more' treadmill lately, until I just want to cry because nothing I do seems to measure up to what others are achieving.

    I've written a 100k novel in 2 months (under contract,and on a tight deadline) but luckily I was retrenched last year so I have the luxury of writing full time at the moment. But it has almost killed me, because I've discovered I'm a sloooow writer. I also research a lot as I go. The most I can do is R3k in an 8-10hr writing day.

    I've been feeling so pressured to do more, and so inadequate for not achieving it. But after reading your post I now know I'm not alone and I'm not inadequate. THANK YOU!

    1. I hear you... and of late, when I see the pressure new authors put themselves under because this is how they believe they'll be earning those triple-digit figures every month, I want to weep. People who query me for editing, just as they finish the first draft ... telling me they want to publish the novel TWO WEEKS LATER.

      And on the other hand, where I handle book reviews, and so many of the novels suffer in terms of non-existent editing and poor development.