Writing Tips 3 (Your Slow Writer)

The end is here: my not-so-pro tips of how to write well for 2015. Part 1 discusses my thoughts as a reader while part 2 is a contemplation about how language study and writing practice overlap.

Fear not, in this final (and world-rocking) post, I’m going to espouse on what I discovered with my writer hat on this year.

Part 3: The Writer.

Plan your project based on your life as it is. 

In the arts (and sometimes teaching), everyone is an expert. Even your uncle, aunt and rarely seen Facebook friend from high school has an opinion about what makes a great author. They’ve all got ideas about how much you should write, how much you should read, what ‘evidence-based’ activities you should undertake to spur on your creativity.

Plus, there are professional writers’ opinions. People who have ‘made’ it and sit at home while spraying fountains of words on their adoring fans. They’ve all got their TIME-TESTEDtm advice. Write 2,000 words a day. 3,000. Don’t call yourself a true author until you’re doing  60 crunches while spitting hot prose to a stenographer. “Don’t even compare yourself to me,” a stray-author might say. “Or pat yourself on the back until you’re churning out 67 books a year.”

Let me brag a little too: I’ve produced 8 books (50,000 – 100,000 words each) and 3 novellas (20,000 – 40,000 words a piece) plus too many short stories to remember. I have two out in the public sphere. This discrepancy between published and unpublished is probably not good for my career. Hell, some of those have even been re-written from scratch. For example, one of my novels was so bad that I wrote it again (another 80,000 words), but only count it as one in my quota.

So I don’t know everything the cosmos has to say about production and work ethic, but sometimes I can make it happen. Thank you very much straw-person author. And what I believe is that there’s so much pressure on aspiring writers to meet some subjective standard of production.

2,500 words a day is a fine goal, if you’re a full-time author. (Although, even they often struggle with it.) Or if you’re single and are taking it easy on a redundancy payout. Or if you’re not studying a foreign language. Or if you’re not moving to another country, starting another job, or working extra (unpaid) hours for your ‘vocation’.

Some person out there, in the void, might argue I’m rationalising why I don’t have time to write. Or why I haven’t written that much this year. That’s fine, I am lazy. I struggle with motivation to do more than one serious thing in my free time. I either study or I write. Right now I’m studying Japanese, and working, and married.

Yet, I still sometimes encounter wagging fingers about how if I want to be a ‘serious’ author then I need to produce more. Usually by those who don’t have a job (nor understand that work doesn’t end at 5 for most teachers), and are not in a relationship. They raise their fist to the heavens and give you pat speeches about how you have to tick all the appropriate boxes to consider yourself a certain kind of author.

Maybe you’ve ran into that person on your writing journey? I don’t know. I hope you never do, but just in case, here’s the thing: I like being married. It’s more important to me than a chance at success in the future.

I like my job. It’s not the greatest workplace in the world, it doesn’t pay oodles of cash, but it’s not terrible. I keeps me from living on the street because I don’t come from an upper-middle class family where they’ll subsidise my life so I can ‘become who was born to be’. Also, I want to look after my wife. (Who doesn’t?) That means a job, it means money, it means paying bills and smiling at difficult customers.

So these are things that are real, and they take time. Whoever you are, your life is also full of choices. Full of decisions. You can be an asshole to your loved ones and focus only on your career. (Some published writers are.) You can put yourself first and skimp on your responsibilities at your job. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and everyone will understand; they’ll put up with your shit until you become enough of a success to quit. Maybe even your first book will be a hit and the strain you put on everyone else won’t be that much, who knows? Life is random.

For the rest of us though, we make small and difficult day-to-day choices. We want to be a full-time author but there are so many other things which we need to balance. So many other tasks that need to be completed if we hope to keep our life in harmony.

So, here’s a not-so-pro tip from someone with 8 books hanging from his belt: choose a project that fits your time schedule. Think about how much time you actually have to write. Can you produce one story a month? A novella a year? Three books in three months?

People want consistent output. Something that’s regular and expected. Think about what you can deliver consistently to your audience and then design a writing project around that. You don’t have to write novels. Or novellas. Or short stories. You just have to produce consistently to an expected schedule. No matter how slow or fast you are, consistency is what wins fans and readers over. It even soothes debt collectors.

If you do that, and are a professional, you’re an author. A serious one. It doesn’t matter what any other jackass on the internet says (including this one).

Be a professional

Hey, customers are hard work. Remember when you were a kid and disliked school? Or your job? And how you wanted to join the circus, become a famous TV personality, or start your own Norwegian jazz and salsa band?

Remember how close you came?

Being an author can be a little like that. The author lifestyle can be the rockstar dream for those comfortable in a shirt and jeans. Think about it. Thousands of people praising your novel and telling you how special you are. Filled up panels where you’re asked penetrating questions and hold forth on complicated topics. Where people listen in rapt attention as you speak out your wisdom to the ages. A place where you are respected, not for your looks or slow smile, but your innate personality and knowledge.

Just me thinking that?

In this bubble you are free to be that special, amazing, and wonderful person you could be if all those other people weren’t keeping you down. Weren’t negging you out. If you didn’t have to bend backwards to meet stupid demands / needs / ideas of your boss / senior staff/ customers.

FREEDOM!

Bullshit.

Writing is no different than any other professional endeavour. Everyone has an opinion about your skill set. Whether or not they publish it online (so you can see it), or talk about it with their friends around a coffee table, they have an opinion. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes they tell it to you, and sometimes they are writing for their friends / readers and you just happen to stumble onto it when you’re slightly tipsy at 4:00am in the morning.

Whether you like it or not, you’re a professional. People are willing to pay you money for your skills. You need to treat them with respect (even if they don’t deserve it). It doesn’t mean you have to change for them. It doesn’t mean you have to write for them. What it does mean is that you need to handle them in a way that shows you understand what they’re saying and are (kind of) grateful for their input.

And like most professionals, you’ll have to tell a few lies to make your customers happy. Say that you did love their comment about your missing comma on page 9. Or how you are appreciative for them publishing a snarky article comparing your book to a Hitler / Justin Bieber mashup. It’s okay though, lies are our business. After all, that’s what storytelling is, isn’t it?

Everything is practice

Sometimes when I commune with the universe on top of a mountain while stroking a goat’s beard, I think about boxes. What is the purpose of the metaphysical genre box we built between fiction and non-fiction writing? Or between essays and short stories?

Are we not attempting the same thing? To communicate an idea in a palatable way to the audience? To find a way to sneak past their defences and lodge our own flag in their brain space? Isn’t that our job? To be the greatest advertiser ever known to humankind?

Probably.

Think of a book review and a book blurb. What’s the diference? Both are trying to effectively communicate to the reader what they will discover inside of a novel. A 5-star review should be (almost) the same as its blurb. If someone reads your reviews of another’s novels, they should come away with several things:

  1. What the book’s about.
  2. Does it achieve its goal of entertaining the reader?
  3. What the reader (you) thought of the work.

That’s it. Point 1 is exactly the same as a blurb (kind of, without the marketing gimmicks). So each time you write a review, you are practicing for your own blurbs.

Essays are the same. They expressions of your ideas put into words. They increase your vocabulary, give you a chance to find out how to engage readers and practice editing skills.

Everything you write is practice. Every interaction online with a friend. Every blog post about your day, every email to a friend is a chance to hone your writing skills. Think about how you can say something differently, think about how you can switch up your styles so your friend isn’t just honour bound to read the email but loves getting them.

Don’t waste these opportunities because there are so many. They’ll help you hone your style, develop the rhythm of your prose and expand your toolbox to contain a variety of screw and driver sizes.

Then, finally, when you come to your novel — you won’t have to start from scratch. You won’t have to reteach yourself things you’ve let go rusty over the years. They’ll be honed and the words will pour out onto the page in a torrent.

Maybe. Or perhaps you’ll hide under the covers like I do and play The Witcher 3 in the dark. Both are okay options because it’s your life. Live it. 😉

Picture:

Young girl sitting on a bench writing in her diary (C) andreaxt. Used under standard license from Dollar Photo Club. 

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