Tag Archives: writing professionally

Early Days

Yesterday’s experiment worked rather well, thank you very much. In fact, it worked rather well in spite of myself, for even as I sat down to write knowing that I had a ‘limit’, and that I wasn’t going to allow myself to keep going until my eyes were falling out of their sockets with exhaustion, I didn’t really believe I’d do it. I didn’t really believe I could start writing and then stop, like that, and for it to have been my decision. Normally I go until I can’t any more, which – in all honesty – isn’t really a good policy. Not all the time, at least.

It tends to turn you into this:

Photo Credit: Jason A. Samfield via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jason A. Samfield via Compfight cc

The onset of December has already had a disastrous effect on my energy levels and general wellbeing-ness, so I’m glad to know that I am capable of immersing myself in writing without allowing it to get on top of me. I’ve done that before. Not good, for me or the writing.

I was speaking to a friend at the weekend about creative careers, and the danger faced by anyone who likes to create and who wants to do it for a living. My friend has her own business (she’s fantastically accomplished) but also enjoys baking, and is very good at it. Several people have encouraged her to take up cake-making on a semi-professional basis, as her work is easily as good as, if not better than, some of the cakes you see for sale in shops. (I can also testify to the absolute deliciousness of her work. Someone’s got to look after quality control, after all). However, my friend made the very good point that she loves baking because it’s not her job. She fears that if she began to sell her baked goods, it would take the joy out of it. This, I’ll admit, is something that worries me, too.

At school I was good at art. I loved to draw, and still do (though I don’t get time to draw much anymore), and I liked pushing myself to learn about different techniques and tools. In my final year at school I was halfway through creating a portfolio to apply to art college when I realised: I don’t want to work at something which I’d rather have as a hobby. I wanted to keep art as something I did without feeling pressured or stressed, and as well as that I knew I didn’t have much of an eye for design – I was a draughtsperson, good with line and shade, but not so good with composition. I knew my limits, and I didn’t want to waste my career wishing I could be a better, or different, artist than I was, straining for abilities I didn’t have.

I have limits with my writing, too. There are things which simply don’t interest me, and there are things I know I’ll never be able to attempt because I don’t have the skills – horror, for instance, or crime writing, or women’s fiction. But where art was definitely a hobby, and not something which took over my every waking moment, I feel differently about writing. I woke the other night at four a.m. thinking about the project I began yesterday. I’m constantly thinking about writing, and characters, and stories, and even though I know some of the ideas I have aren’t workable, or big enough, or original enough, to ever leave the confines of my skull, I have no control over the fact that I’m always thinking about writing and ways to improve my writing. I don’t have all the skills and abilities I need to write yet, either – but I want to develop them.

I want to write professionally, and to the absolute best of my ability, in the hope that it is of a high enough standard to be acceptable, but I also want to be able to take a hobbyist mental approach to it. I want to be able to think that the work I’m doing doesn’t have to be perfect first time around, or it doesn’t have to be the best story ever written (even if, in reality, it does!) I want to be able to start and stop as I please, write 1500 words and then leave it at that, or work for three hours and then stop, not because I have to but because it’s the best thing for me. I want writing to be my job, but I understand that working at it in the same way I’m used to working (eight hours straight, short breaks, unrelenting focus, goal-oriented, self-motivated) can sometimes lead to poor ‘product’. Of course, wanting all this doesn’t mean I’ll get it, but I think this is the constant balancing act of people who work creatively – trying to ensure you’re working as well as you can while maintaining your health (mental and physical) and the quality of the work you’re producing. It’s not easy. Everyone writes differently, and what works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another, but I think – though I’m still experimenting – that I’ll try working in short focused bursts for a while, and see if it makes a difference, both to my work and to my mind.

I have completed one book, of which I am proud. I have several ideas for future books, which I want to write to the same standard. I want to write for the rest of my life, and so that means I need to develop a technique which allows me to be prolific and also produce work of a high standard – the best of the ‘professional’ and ‘hobbyist’ worlds, one might say – as well as equipping me to prepare for a long-term career.

It’s early days, but I hope I’m finding my feet.

The Art, and the Craft

It’s no secret that writing is hard. It’s lonely, it’s isolating, it’s like trying to swim at night in unfamiliar waters, it’s tough to get a handle on, and there’s no ‘rule book.’ If you want to do it, you’ve just got to go for it and trust that you’ll get to where you’re aiming for, eventually. You’ve got to be able to keep yourself going, and you’ve got to be able to put aside a lot in favour of writing. It takes sacrifice. It takes work. More than anything, it takes practice.

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Sometimes it amazes me that the idea of writing as a ‘perfect’ career, or as being somehow ‘easy’, still persists. Perhaps because people are used to reading books which are polished, perfect, and seemingly effortless, they begin to think that the words formed on the page that way without authorial or editorial intervention. They have no idea of the anguish, the endless drafts, the pained emails to editors at all hours of the morning, and the self-doubt which all had to be dealt with, worked through and overcome to make it look the way they expect. None of that effort is in evidence once a book is done and ready, and that’s exactly as it should be.

I dream of writing. I have always dreamed of it. It’s what I want to do with my life, and nothing else I’ve ever done has given me half as much enjoyment. (Nothing else has been even a fraction as challenging, either, but that’s to be expected!) Many hundreds of thousands of others are just the same, and that’s a brilliant thing. I would never discourage anyone from wanting to write, but I would also be the first to say this: it’s not a cop-out, or an easy option. It’s a profession, the same as any other, and it deserves the same passion, commitment, investment and respect. If you want to write for more than the simple pleasure it brings, then pursue that goal by all means, but be prepared to work hard, often for a very long time, and often for little or no feedback or reward. This is the reality.

Recently, in discussion with someone who knows more about books and publishing than I ever will, I learned how so many people are working against themselves from day one by not approaching their writing career the same way they’d approach their non-writing career. They make slapdash, half-thought-out approaches to editors, publishers and agents; they do not work and slave and sweat over their writing until it is the absolute best they can produce; they persist in querying industry professionals with half-finished or incomplete submissions; they consider their first drafts good enough to represent them.

These mistakes are all catastrophic. They are also all completely avoidable.

What makes me sad is this: if a person really, truly wants to write, and it burns within them, and they try to take their first steps into the industry in a misguided way, they will (in all probability) receive a rejection. Perhaps more than one. This may lead the person – who may have a true talent burning within them, a pure passion, an important story – to give up, and that would be a tragedy. It takes a strong person to continue if all you’re receiving is knockback after knockback. I know. But to succeed as a writer you not only need your talent, and your interest, and your passion, and your desire to improve, and your love for words, but you also need a sensible head on your shoulders and a professional approach to life. You need to be respectful of the time, effort and expertise of agents, publishers, editors, and every other publishing industry professional you meet. You need, in short, to be able to listen to good advice when you get it, and to incorporate it into your efforts to find a home for your writing.

During this same discussion, I also learned that the publishing professional in question considers my blog to be a good source of advice and information, and they have recommended that other people read some of my articles if they are looking for help, which was a hugely encouraging and flattering thing to hear. This post in particular might be helpful if you’re new-ish around here, and are on the lookout for writerly advice, but if I could sum up what I have learned about writing over the past two years, it would be this:

TAKE YOUR TIME.

Take the time you need to write your book. Put it aside. Take the time you need to re-read it, and edit it, and perhaps have someone else look over it, and then leave it aside again. Leave it there. No! I said, leave it there. Forget it even exists. Then, pick it up again, and repeat the process. Do this as often as you can bear, but at least three times, before you even consider sending it anywhere or submitting it to anyone. Do your research into agents, publishers and editors. Check that they accept the sort of work you’re writing. When you do approach them, do it respectfully and professionally. Follow their guidelines. Do not be arrogant. Do not assume that you know better than they do. Then, be patient as you wait for their reply.

If you’re self-publishing, a lot of the same rules apply. Take your time over your work, primarily. Write the best book you can, and then do a lot of research into the best platform, the best formatting style, the best pricing structure, the best editorial and design work, before you put your writing anywhere near the eyes of other people. If not, barring a miracle, you’ll wish you had when you see your sales figures.

There is no rush. Writers are not in a race with one another. You owe it to yourself to put your best work forward, and let it speak for you. The craft of writing is one thing – the ability to make sentences which sing, and images which linger in the mind, and characters who leap off the page – and it’s an important first step. But the art of being a writer – including but not limited to the ability to be professional, patient, organised, respectful, willing to learn and utterly committed to producing the best work you’re capable of – is just as important. People tend to forget that, and expect their talent to carry them through. For some lucky individuals, perhaps this works. For the rest of us? My advice is: learn how to work as a writer the same way you’d work at anything else, and you’ll be on the right track.