“Working” in our apartment’s garden
It’s been about three weeks since we got back from New York and it already feels like I made the whole thing up. I didn’t though, I really did spend a whole month living in a flat in the East Village, where I did a minimal amount of work and a lot of walking around.
I don’t think of myself as the kind of person who gets to go and spend a month somewhere like that (we’re not exactly rolling in the dough) and there are so many spots that recall films and TV series that we watch on the sofa at home that the experience was rather dreamlike.
It all started with the madness of NYCC, where Fin and Sean launched Walk Don’t Run and I ran around trying not to buy too many cool things, and ended with a day lost at the Met then a desperate swapping of books and weighing of luggage as we tried to stay under our allowance. Beautiful.
I’d meant to get a lot of writing done while we were away. I always mean to get a lot of writing done. And I’m a little sad to report that I didn’t. I did have an amazing time though, and had the chance to not only see a lot of things I really wanted to, but also to spend some extra time reading which is always a treat in itself.
Also, the ABC: Why Children’s Books Matter exhibition at the NYPL happened to be on, meaning I unexpectedly found myself face to face with the original manuscript for The Secret Garden. This, somewhat unexpectedly, caused my to blubber like a fool. Maybe because I’d only just found my childhood copy a few days before we left. Maybe because it reminded me how fragile such things are. Maybe because it made me feel as though it doesn’t matter what we do with our words or with our days, as long as we try to fill them with an adventurous spirit.
The Secret Garden
Writing might not seem like the most forgiving of careers at first glance but the more I learn, but more fortunate I think we are to be enchanted by words and stories.
Of course, it won’t always feel that way. As with all other forms of art, those making it are typically also struggling to make a living and times are often tough. It’s easy to think we’ve got it hard.
A novel that is too similar to others on the list, one that deals with a topic now considered passé, one that’s a little too quiet in a summer of blockbusters – there’s often little in the way of forgiveness for these.
Weak stories are torn apart by reviewers and critics, or worse, ignored and a bad night at a spoken word mic can feel like it’s own special punishment. There’s no room for those searching for an easy ride and yet writers are especially lucky when it comes to trying to make a career because they have so many chances at making it big.
What if you wanted to be a footballer? A gymnast? What if you didn’t realise where your passions lay until it was already too late? There’s no such thing as too late for a writer. True, you may find there are more obstacles in your path as life goes on, but the words will always be there, waiting for you.
There’s room in a writing career for doubt. You’re allowed to stray from the point or have a crisis of faith. It might be difficult if you’re contracted for a second novel when the doubt hits or you might miss a particular market sweet spot, but guess what? Once you’ve regrouped, no one will be able to stop you from trying again.
Imagine being a ballet dancer and knowing that a two year hiatus could easily signal the end of your career. Two years is barely a blip on the screen for the seasoned writer. Take the lows, love the highs and remember you’re lucky to have found a passion that will let you try and try and try again until you get it right.
I wrote a wee blog for the lovely folk at the Scottish Book Trust about my (many) experiences applying for their New Writers Award. It took me four goes to strike it lucky and that’s why I wanted to write a blog about not taking no for an answer when it comes to writing. Read the blog.
Being a writer is, arguably, easy. Being a published writer who can gain a great deal of satisfaction and maybe some monetary return for their efforts is much, much harder. Yet, every year hundreds of thousands of hopefuls strike out and try to grab hold of their dreams. Aren’t we the silly ones?
My questions for you, fellow dreamers, concern how you’ve gone about this process.
Living the dream
a) Do you have a careful, moderate career plan? Have you built back up options? Formulated an escape plan that will keep you safe and sound should the castle in the sky crumble? Do you have one foot on the ground?
b) Or are you completely focused on the one goal? Convinced that you’ll only succeed if you know you have nothing to lose? Did you grab the bull by the horns knowing that there’s nothing to cushion your fall, should it come? Are you jumping in with both feet?
Option a), one foot firmly on the ground, has served me well over the years. It’s kept food on the table and coffee in my cup. I even like to think it’s not held me back. Not terribly, anyway. But that doesn’t stop me wishing I was an option b) kind of person. The one who will succeed or crash and burn gloriously in the attempt.
Is that you? Does fear keep you up at night? Is it worth it? Did you sell your house and auction off your granny to finance your first book? Scare me with your determination, please.
You people who always have three different book ideas on the go – the ones who have notebooks filled with plots that are straining at the leash and who never seem to be without something to work on – I envy you. I know you sometimes probably have more things to work on than you can cope with, but I bet you never have to suffer the between projects moment.
I mean, that moment when you realise the thing you’ve been working on for years is at a point where you’ve either finished it or you need to let it rest. The moment when you find yourself casting around for something to fill all the time you’ve been sinking into the same imaginary world for ages, when you look for the next big thing to keep yourself busy – and find there’s nothing there.
Not nothing. There are plenty of things there. It’s just you haven’t got a hold of any of them yet. You’re warily walking round the side of them, kicking the edges and wondering whether there’s enough in this idea to sustain you through a whole book. And it’s hard to know which one looks great on the outside but doesn’t have the guts you need or which crappy exterior is actually going to open up some amazing characters for you.
So you’re wandering around in a funk, trying to work out what you’re doing and remember who you were before you started the last big project. Reminding yourself that you felt pretty crappy then too, the last time this happened, and that somehow, you got over it then and you’ll definitely get over this between projects moment too.
We’re always hearing about the cardinal rules for writing, the ones that might just tip us into greatness, but hearing about them and following them are two very different things. I think I’ve broken every single writing rule I’ve ever tried to stick to.
But hey, rules are meant to be broken. Right? I hope so, because here’s my top 10 most frequently, guiltily overlooked writing rules.
1. Write in a linear fashion
2. Write at the same time every day
3. Always write a certain number of words per day
4. Actually write every single day
5. Spell correctly
6. Never switch POV mid paragraph
7. Write legibly so you can transcribe it later
8. Don’t copy the writers you love
9. Only have one writing project on the go at a time
10. Wait until something is finished before trying to submit it
Pfft. It’s a wonder I get anything done really. I honestly think that while setting yourself some targets or guidelines can be great, rules can be more demoralizing than anything else. Or am I just looking for excuses for my general laziness?
Ah, home working
Just over a year ago, I got over my fear of instability and insecurity enough to give up my full time job and embark on a career as a freelancer. For me, it’s definitely been the right choice, partly because it’s reinforced my determination to keep telling stories. It’s not easy to justify not writing when you’ve put a lot at stake to do it!
I’ve also been working very, very hard on not giving up when it comes to putting pen to paper. That’s not just in the last year, that one’s been taking a lot longer, but it’s finally been starting to pay off. I submitted no less than eight stories to the great Gutter, one after another, before I handed in one they liked enough to print this summer. Obviously, it would have felt good to have an immediate acceptance, but I think it was even better to have to try and try again. It certainly felt pretty sweet when I got the email.
The same feeling is hitting me this month, when I found out I’d been successful in securing a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust. This is not the first year I’ve applied, it’s not even the second, and yes, I was a little bit crushed every time I didn’t make it, but if I hadn’t been willing to keep trying, well, I wouldn’t have got it this year.
Perseverance definitely pays off, but I do also think you have to be gentle with yourself. This year, I’ve mainly been working on a novel and I decided that while I was, I’d cut back on the number of short story submissions I was sending out. Why? Because I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable flood of rejections while I was trying to work on something bigger. I was worried they’d make me lose faith when I needed to work in a bubble. It’s been good for me but it’s temporary. I always knew you had to keep slamming those keys no matter what, but now I’m completely convinced that if you keep trying hard enough, things will work out one way or another when it comes to words.
A long gone bookcase
How many times have you read a book and fallen head over heels about it, blabbed on at all your friends about what a life changing experience it is, given it a pride of place on your shelf, then gone back to it a year later to find that, actually, you’re not that in to it? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this, and I reckon it’s the ‘lust and love’ effect.
You know, when you’re in the mood and you want something a little special to happen, and you pick out a book that looks like just the kind of thing you’re after, and then you project all of your good feelings on to the book and turn it into something its not, just so you can have a little literary fling. And of course, lusty, hungry encounters like that, filled with your own expectations rather than the author’s, rarely last.
These books, the ones you inevitably feel disillusioned by, it’s often that there’s not anything wrong with them, you just turned them into something they’re not. Don’t disregard them, recognise that you needed what they had to give at the time, and relegate them to a special moment in your past.
You’ll probably find that they offered you a few wee lessons along the way, so that when you come to the books that fill you with a real, long lasting sense of satisfaction, you’re able to appreciate every sentence, luxuriate over all the right words. Because those ones might not always be the ones that look as attractive or sounds as exciting, but they might just be ones that you’ll come back to again and again and love forever.
Sometimes, when you’re a writer or employed in another similarly lonesome way, it’s quite hard to be in a room with other people. You get used to being on your own. You have to, because otherwise you go nuts and never get anything done. And being alone is generally great for your productivity (as long as you stop yourself from searching out fleeting connections online).
The thing is, humans are by nature incredibly social creatures and that means that if you want to hang on to as many of your marbles as you can, you’re best to make contact with the outside world occasionally. It’s been about eleven months since I gave up my day job to be a freelancing lounger and literary bounder. So far, it’s been ace and I’ve not really missed sharing office space one bit.
So far so good. Apart from the fact that last month I headed off to a fab Arvon course at Monaick Mhor and immediately was petrified by being in such a gorgeous and remote location with so many other people. Lucky for all on the Advanced Fiction Course, the group was completely nutter-free and we all got along peacefully and productively, but that didn’t stop me spending the first night wondering what the hell I was doing.
I was out of practice. I’d forgotten how to deal with people for more than the short amount of time you might spend chatting to them in a bar or over coffee and it made me feel horribly out of my depth.
Now I’ve been reminded that no matter how much of an anti social Grinch you can be in a working environment, it’s good for you to make the effort sometimes. Other people don’t normally bite, but you might if you spend too much time frothing rabidly and wrestling with words alone at your desk. Or is that just me?
The Edinburgh Book Festival is over. The tents have been packed away, the authors and booklovers have dispersed, the grass is starting its slow journey to recovery and all over town there are folks like me wishing we could do the whole thing again.
There’s nothing like being to pop along to Charlotte’s Square Gardens at all times of day and knowing you’ll be guaranteed to bump into someone who is as crazy about books as you are. The atmosphere is always amazing, the bookshop is a delight and chances to see some of the world’s biggest authors discuss their work are never sniffed at.
Me at Unbound. Pic by Chris Scott.
No wonder we tend to feel somewhat deflated when it’s done for another 12 months. This year, I was incredibly happy to see lots of my friends perform at Edinburgh City of Literature’s excellent Story Shop
programme and the popular Unbound nights at the book fest Spiegeltent. I even got the chance to read a story for Illicit Ink
’s Unbound event myself, which was a fab experience.
Plunged headfirst from the bookish wonder of the festival to the stacks of work abandoned at home, I realised this wasn’t the time to let enthusiasm dwindle, and decided to book a last minute place on an Arvon course at Monaick Mhor. I can’t wait to spend another week luxuriating among words.