We all know That Author – the one who appears to be tireless, who brags about hitting 3k to 5k (if not more) words a day on their manuscript. Who tells us that they’re releasing a novel a month. Who talks up how much money they’re making. For those of us who still have day jobs, we might see That Author living the kind of life we all dream of and aspire to – making a living with our writing.
And while there are authors who appear to be capable of sustaining this sort of work ethic, I’m going to come straight out and say that this is not for everyone, nor do you need to give in to the urge to conform to others’ efforts. For each author who claims these outrageously lurid word counts and rapid releases, I can guarantee that there are at the very least four or five others who have tried the same and failed. They burned out and have lost their enthusiasm for the art and craft of telling stories. Nor do these super authors often divulge how much money they spend on marketing and advertising to attain these insanely good sales figures.
Don’t get caught up in their hype.
Writing fiction in your chosen genre is not a cookie cutter process. Each of us who carves out a career in publishing their stories has their own path to follow. If you choose to model your career on another’s, chances are high that you are setting yourself up for disappointment and extreme discouragement. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. You need to figure out what you want, whether you want to aim at exclusively traditionally publishing your novels, go indie, or like many established authors, pursue a hybrid career where you have the best of both worlds.
There is absolutely no harm in observing what works for others, but do yourself a huge favour, and adapt their methods to suit your life in a way that is both sane and sustainable. Remember that you have a life and an identity beyond that of being a writer.
So many times I’ve seen authors talk about success. For some, it’s appending ‘best-seller’ to their names. For others, it’s winning awards. And yet for some it’s also purely the process of writing. I’m going to quote the philosopher Alan Watts here:
The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music also, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course. You do not play a sonata in order to reach the final chord, and if the meaning of things were simply in ends, composers would write nothing but finales.
This is my hot take. Being a successful author is about the process, and not merely the end of seeing a book toddle off into the woolly wilds, although undeniably there’s a quiet thrill when you do finally hold a tome in your hands after no doubt years of work. Success for me is the sitting down every day to lose myself in other worlds for fifteen minutes to half an hour at a time. It’s about getting feedback from my beta readers that generates a lively discussion. It’s about the wonder of finding new ideas and then executing them. Awards, triple-digit sales figures … all that stuff is cherry. The fact that I am not a best-selling author doesn’t take away from the fact that I am a successful author, because a) I’ve finished my books, b) I’ve published them, and c) I have readers (albeit only a few) who religiously purchase and read my books.
I’ve long ago defined my success in terms of the journey rather than the end, and it’s my belief that this is a healthy attitude towards writing. Remember that those true outstanding authors, the Stephen Kings, GRR Martins, and Robin Hobbs of genre fiction are the exceptions, and not the rule.
Part of not losing the plot, so to speak, stems from setting achievable goals. Think in terms of playing the long game. There is absolutely no need to rush a rapid-release schedule if it’s going to use up all your spoons. If you can only write for half an hour each day, that does not make you a terrible writer. But by that same measure, don’t force yourself to cough up X amount of words every day if it means that you’re going to start hating the process of writing. A friend of mine has a really great approach; she gives it the hashtag of #Gimme100 – and the aim is to write 100 words. However, if the sentence feels like it wants to go on, she lets the writing flow. So some days she gets only 100 words. Other days she forgets about the goal and surprises herself with 400 words, or even 600.
The media loves to make us believe that being a young, debut author on the younger side of 30 is where your career starts, however, I am always heartened by the fact that one of my favourite authors only saw her breakout novel published when she was 47, and she’d already had published quite a few novels under a different pen name. She played the long game, persevered, and in doing so, created a series of novels that have provided memorable characters and a storyline of such devastating beauty, that I will revisit it often over the years.
So, don’t kill yourself over a story that hasn’t sold or a novel that’s taking years to finish. You need your stamina. This is not a game that’s played overnight, and it helps also that you set yourself milestones. If you’ve figured out that you can comfortably write and revise a novel in six months, then be systematic about that goal. Figure out how much you need to write every day. Create goals for yourself but also don’t beat yourself up if you’ve had a day when you were ‘off’. You’re an artist, not a production line.
Yet, no matter how well you plan, pace yourself, and keep the wheels turning, there are times when that well of creativity simply runs dry. It could be that you simply no longer ‘feel’ a story or end up staring for minutes at a time at that cursor on your page. You might feel that every word is a supreme obstacle in your path, and that whatever you manage to squeeze out is dull, dry and derivative.
Now you can deal with this in two ways. You can push on through, which is something I’ve done and later been pleasantly surprised when I returned to the writing with fresh eyes to find that it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it was at the time. Or you could take a break. Stop writing. Step away from that manuscript. It’s absolutely fine to take a break. In fact, I’m strongly suggesting that you do.
When I was writing The Company of Birds, halfway through the developmental edits, I hit a brick wall. My editor had pulled me aside and whispered in my ear that the saggy middle needed work. Yet I had absolutely no idea how to fix it. Just that I needed to. So I went and worked on something else, and a few months later, the idea of how to fix that novel came to me while I was doing something completely unrelated to writing. The mind is a funny thing.
Repeat after me: It’s all right to take a break.
Sometimes, when that well of creativity runs dry, and we have nothing to draw up from the depths, how you fill your well is up to you. If you choose to step back from the writing process to focus on other activities, you could indulge in making art, watching films or series, or even taking up a new hobby that has nothing to do with story craft. My suggestion is to find something that inspires you, be it getting out into nature, visiting museums or art galleries, or even planning a holiday. You may not want to write, but consider reading books in an unrelated genre from what you’re used to. The idea is to take a break and to step outside of your comfort zone until those plot bunnies start to nibble again.
The most important part of refilling your well is to engage in activities that provide pleasure. So don’t feel guilty if your idea of refilling the well means putting in eighty hours of the next play-through of your favourite video game or perhaps picking up a musical instrument you haven’t played in years. The word we’re looking for is indulgence. And sometimes you need a solid dollop of the stuff as a treat. Of course, the trick is knowing when the indulgence is turning into an act of procrastination, but that is something that you must decide for yourself. You will know when you are ready to start writing again.
Your path is your own
I don’t think this gets said enough, and I’ve mentioned this at the start of this blog post. You need to figure out what it is that you want from your writing, and be prepared to put in the work as necessary. I long ago decided to treat writing as a calling rather than a career. It helps me weather the highs and lows, which with 2020 having been the year we’d all rather forget, has kept me on the path of creating stories purely for the sake of creating stories. I may have a small but rabid readership, but I appreciate the love of those few readers immensely. They’ve stuck with me through the years, and I hope to continue to write the kinds of stories that not only please me and spark joy in my heart, but do the same for my readers.
Often, I look into the dark mirror and ask myself, what is it that I really want? And that voice from deep within tells me: I want to write stories – the kinds of stories that I want to read. I need to write this on papyrus, frame it, and stick it above my desk as a daily reminder.
Even if at times it feels as if I’m screaming into the void, I realise that for me to stop telling those stories would be a worse fate. And that’s what keeps me going, though at times the well is dry or the waters receded so far I need to wait for the next rains to replenish. It helps to remind me of the stories that sustained me during my younger years, and that what I create may well be the embers to spark a fire in someone else down the road.
Storytelling is a subtle magic, and sometimes it’s a mere whisper, and at other times it’s a storm raging in the branches. Hold onto that magic. That is all.