I have written very little of substance, especially when it comes to fiction. Yet, since the age of whenever-I-first-realised-people-wrote-books-and-they-weren’t-just-magic-objects-from-heaven I have been obsessed with the idea of being an author. I used to tell kids at my primary school which characters in my novel would be based on them and why. But I’ve written very little in almost 30 years of living. Certainly no novels. In the last five years, I’ve been getting into the swing of things a bit more. I’m technically a professional writer – copywriter for a content agency – and I have two novels on the boil, short stories that I’m actually finishing at a reasonable rate, and a somewhat respectable portfolio of past work for magazines and websites. So why was my writing output so lacklustre most of my life, and why is that starting to change?
First of All I’m Not Just Lazy, I Swear
I can be a very lazy guy. Profoundly lazy. ‘Going hungry because I don’t want to turn off the xbox and make a sandwich’ lazy.
But not always, and my work ethic is actually bloody formidable when I’m on form. But not with writing. I used to blame it on my fear of failure and bouts of leaden depression. But those things never stopped me playing music and writing songs – I even managed to successfully run a (failing) business while in a particularly dark place mentally. No, it wasn’t
just laziness, the problem was I thought I was good.
You Aren’t a Good Writer If You Don’t Write
I used to spend a lot of time veering between self-aggrandising fantasies about my supposed prose prowess and crippling self-doubt. Usually that self-doubt came when I sat down to actually write and realised how much work was involved. That’s a powerful negative feedback loop. The fantasies gave me nice warm feelings while the actual process of writing left me feeling like a miserable failure. This is a pretty predictable result of focusing on whether you’re a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writer, rather than on your work.
It’s is an obvious point, but it took me years to understand that how we rate our own writing is an irrelevant question. The only question we should care about is whether our work connects with a reader, and we only find that out if there is something for them to read. So do the work!
Talent Is Bullshit
I sometimes believed I was a literary genius. I pretended to read Joyce. I brooded in dark corners at parties. Just waiting in the wings to release my inevitable masterpiece and accept my Nobel prize. Really, I fantasised about this shit. Oh god, that’s embarrassing. Can you forget you read that? You can’t? Okay, that’s fair. Anyway, that kind of delusional thinking destroys motivation. If you’re ‘talented’ why should you have to work hard at anything?
Sweat and labour would be a kind of failure, a betrayal of your talented nature. But talent is overrated bullshit – a mediocre gymnast who trains intensively will easily defeat a naturally talented opponent who doesn’t. So just do the work!
Inspiration is Bullshit
That hollow feeling sitting in front of my laptop at 3am trying to write should have given me the answer (it’s #dothework btw), but it didn’t. Instead I made an all-too common mistake – I blamed a lack of inspiration. The problem wasn’t that my work ratio was 99:1 in favour of daydreaming over actual writing, it was that the muse was not hovering gently by mine ear! Inspiration is even more bullshit than talent, seriously. If we only work when in some special state deemed ‘inspired’ we are failures in advance.
Writing a novel, or even a short story, takes time – and inspiration is fleeting. Besides, it’s just not enough anyway. What’s more, the ideas that come in a heightened, inspired state are vague. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s through the process of turning them into plot, characters, and structure that we find out their true worth. Also, the more actual work done on a story, the more inspiration appears. Spend time in the world you’re creating and it will reveal itself to you.
Tips and Tricks
So, those are the big ones. Fuck talent, fuck inspiration, fuck ego: J U S T D O T H E W O R K !
But what about the nuts and bolts of being a writer. Well, I’m still working that out, but some helpful pointers I’ve found are:
1. Embrace Feedback
Actively seek feedback on your work in its draft stages. Cultivate who you get feedback from. Your mum is a bad choice. Unless she happens to be a literature professor who spurts red ink from her fingertips. Choose people who are writers or readers of the kind of work you are doing, who will be honest with you, and who could be bothered. Always be wary of positive feedback of the ‘this is great!’ variety – it is easy to give, pleasant to receive, and mostly useless except as an emotional aid. Also be wary of negative feedback that is lazy. If someone has the energy to tell you something is shit, but not to elaborate on the reasons, they’re kinda shit.
2. Take the Work Seriously
Don’t take yourself seriously, but do take the work seriously. People will think you’re an idiot for trying to be a writer. Ignore them and treat it like a god damned sacred calling.
3. Don’t Work From Home
Maybe some people can work from home, but I haven’t met them. I used to think I could, but that’s because working from home had addled my brain and made me an idiot. The best spaces are ones with people around – there is a lot to be said for social pressure – and a bit of ambient noise. I like pubs with alcohol in them.
4. Avoid Easy Wins
Don’t go showing your work to people every time you finish a chapter or a paragraph you’re really happy with. Set a goal you need to achieve before you’re allowed to get any kind of feedback. For a short story, a good first draft makes sense. For a novel, maybe the first five chapters. Whatever it is, denying yourself the chance to share your work will keep you motivated to reach that goal.
5. Revise. A Lot. Brutally.
6. Think About Your Inevitable Death
Ponder it, meditate on it, cuddle it: cuddle your inevitable death. It’s not that far away, and it’s the only certainty you have.