Becoming Rimmer

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The signature is of CristoF, but who they are defeats my Google skills

Things to say to a freelancer: “Here’s some more work! We’ll pay you…”

Things not to say to a freelancer: “…but the deadline’s shorter than the other piece you’re working on.”

Fresh after last week’s blog-post about the importance of keeping balance in work, all my plans are now somewhat askew. I’m not after your pity; it’s a great thing, to have work lined up for the rest of the month and possibly beyond. And I get to copy-edit the sequel to a book I read (and paid for) a few months ago, so woo!

But I am at a point where I must, must, must keep on with my own work whilst I’m trying to earn money. It would be too easy to push the creative work to one side: “oh, it can wait another month.” Of course it can. But, come February, what’s to stop the same thing from happening again?

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stolen from xkcd

No, for the first time in my life ever (save maybe in essay-writing season at university, though I seem to remember I was rubbish at it then), I feel I have to sit down with a calendar and devise a proper work schedule. And this sucks. It’s always seemed to me like the old Arnold Rimmer problem of spending all the time on the plan and not the work.

But I must protect my writing. And family time. And give myself sanity-breaks.

Otherwise I’m not a writer at all. I’m this guy:

rimmer

 

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The dread beast nanowrimo

 

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By the time this reaches you NaNoWriMo will be underway. Some of you will be taking part and to you I wish all the goodwill; may the wind forever be in your sales, may your word processor be reliable, may your pen always be full of the most exquisite ink.

For those of you who don’t know (and why should you?) NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a project by which you aim to have written a complete novel – defined arbitrarily as 50,000 words – in thirty days. Although it’s mainly a solo effort there is a website upon which you can sign up and groups around the world (it should really be called InNoWriMo) to meet and write (and console and drink) with.

I’ve never done it myself. I only found out about it after I was already in a regular writing routine and I felt that was a better way to produce the things I wanted to produce. I still do, and that leads me neatly on to this: another caveat scriptor.

I have concerns about NaNoWriMo. I have concerns about anything that puts pressure on you to produce. 1,667 words a day doesn’t sound like much but trust me, it’s a lot. And for what? For the warm glow of having produced something not very good?

I’m not here to bash NaNoWriMo or its participants. Sometimes targets are useful; sometimes we need a push to get going and this can certainly help spur you into action; if you’ve been spending the last five years wishing you had the time to get those burning ideas down on paper then NaNoWriMo might just be for you.

Just be aware. Writing five (typed) pages a day every day for thirty days is a lot to ask of yourself. So, before you start, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you do it? Is this target even theoretically possible?
  • How stressed are you likely to make yourself? How will you respond to the stress? Maybe you’re someone who thrives under pressure: great, I envy you. Go to it. But, if not, maybe this isn’t for you
  • How will you feel if you fail?
  • Are you prepared to get to the end, look at what you’ve done, and realise that the work has only just begun? First because 50,000 words isn’t really a novel, and you’re like as not going to have to keep working to get the novel to its real conclusion; and second because there’s no time for editing on a project like this. Forwards forwards forwards, that’s the NaNoWriMo way. Never look back, never crop out the missteps or the waffle where you weren’t quite sure where you were going.

Are you prepared for this to be a beginning?

If you’re not used to writing you will struggle with NaNoWriMo. I spent months building up the mental muscles to write regularly. I still struggle to string one word after another; I have good days, I have bad days, and to expect to sling nearly 2,000 words down on a page from a standing start is, I fear, a doomed venture.

Ask yourself this: would you be better served in putting yourself under such pressure or would you do better to try and build those writing muscles? By all means use NaNoWriMo as motivation but, instead of aiming for arbitrary targets, why not work on giving yourself a regular writing hour (or whatever) and building it into your life? Instead of leaping into a raging torrent, dip into the shallows and practice so that, when it’s time to throw those water-wings away, you can ride the wild rapids with confidence.

I put How will I feel if I fail in bold because that’s what’d kill me. Mental health is a noisome beast. Make sure it’s one you can handle.

I’m not here to bury NaNoWriMo: I’m more nanambivalent than nanonegative. Let me rebalance the argument by giving some of the positive aspects of the project:

  • A goal is a real motivation
  • You’ll be part of a community; you’ll get help and advice and sympathy if you want it
  • If you’re wanting to really leap into the writing world, doing NaNoWriMo can give you the confidence to say ‘Yes, I am a writer.’
  • You can do a lot of the NaNoPrep before the start on November; indeed, you’re encouraged to start planning months earlier so that, by the start of NaNoWriMo proper, most of the heavy mental lifting has been done
  • It’s easier to edit a bad book than to start one from scratch
  • It gives you an excuse, a reason, to seize precious writing time from friends and (especially) family. You’re doing this specific thing so you need this specific time: this is your hour, and it will remain so henceforth
  • It is, at the end of the day, one hell of an achievement if you can finish…
  • …and even if you don’t get to 50,000 words by the end of the month you’ll have made a great start

So to all you who are embarking on this project, I wish you fair weather and smooth seas. May your characters be verbose and your plots tangle-free. I salute your endeavour.

Remember this, though: no-one will think any less of you if you decide the journey’s not for you. We want you to succeed, and sometimes success takes longer than a month.

The Greatest

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Art by Leonid Afremov

I would have been the world’s greatest at whatever I did. If I were a garbage man, I’d be the world’s greatest garbage man! I’d pick up more garbage and faster than anyone has ever seen. To tell you the truth, I would have been the greatest at whatever I’d done!

I have something in me that demands I be the best at whatever I do. It’s not enough for me to struggle then ultimately fall short. It’s not even enough for me to scrape home. I must be good. I must be the best version of me I possibly can be. I feel Ali’s quote deeply.

I’ve done a lot of low-paid jobs; I’ve worked in warehouses and in the dirt. I’m the ground-floor employee. And in every role I want to be best, even if I know it really doesn’t matter what I do and that my job will be replaced by robots as soon as they can find machines prepared to perform such menial tasks.

This is not a healthy place to be. It’s beyond human to be good at everything – indeed, it’s why I’ve given up on numerous things I enjoy. It’s why I’m not playing chess anymore. It’s not a fear of losing. It’s a fear of not being as good as I think I can be.

I want to be good. I have to drive on the ragged edge because I can’t bear inefficiency: I have to be perfect, the optimum speed, the smoothest gear-change, the swiftest transition. The problem with the ragged edge is that you don’t know you’ve hit it until you’ve crossed to the far side at least once.

It’s why I crashed my car.

It’s why I put my daughter in hospital.

It’s a fine line: the desire to be best is a great motivator. It drives many top athletes. You need targets and drive and dedication; an arrogance that doesn’t allow losing as an option.

But it’s not healthy. It’s certainly not healthy in the arts, where subjectivity is everything. Criticism is hard to bear at the best of times. When you’re dumb and driven, like me, a harsh word is a piledriver.

I don’t think I’m the world’s best writer. I’m always striving to be better, and that desire is a positive thing. I want to make people happy. I want editors, reviewers and readers to enjoy what I do. If they don’t I feel like a failure.

For me it’s always about the destination, not the journey. It shouldn’t be this way.

It’s enough to enjoy what you do. You’re not in competition with anyone else. Life isn’t a zero-sum game.

It is a balancing act. You need that drive to improve; you have to be willing to work, you have to have pride in your achievements. But you have to enjoy that work. You need to be able to step back from it. You need to have some sort of off-switch; sometimes you need to remind yourself that taking the longer path is just as rewarding.

Or maybe I’m just in a funny mood and none of this really matters.

Forthcoming events

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Blimey, the world moves fast. A week ago I had nothing to say and no plans. Today I have three events lined up. Any more and I’ll have to set up a special Events page.

First things first, though: if you missed the news on Twitter or Facebook, publication of Night Shift has been delayed by nine days due to problems with the printer. By which I mean a company that does printing, not my dodgy old inkjet – although, given how much I swear at that, I suppose complications on a far more extensive job are only to be expected.

But every cloud has a silver lining. A delay just means more opportunity for getting the prosecco nice and chilled. And for me to invite you to…

Sledge-Lit, Derby: 24th November

This is only my event in the sense that my attending any sort of literary gathering is an event. Seriously, this’ll be the first genre convention I’ll have ever been to; I’m not so much out of the loop as out of the galaxy.

But here I shall be and I’ve not given up hope on Flame Tree Press having some sort of presence I can gatecrash. If you’re in the vicinity, please come and talk to me. I’ll be pathetically grateful for the company.

Besides, if you’ve not heard of Sledge-Lit, it looks great. Some top speakers lined up, a goodie-bag for all attendees from Fox Spirit books, and hopefully a wonderful crowd. I’m hoping it’ll be a great way to lose my convention-virginity.

A talk and reading at Mostly Books, Abingdon: 26th November 19:00

And hot on Sledge-Lit’s heels I’ll be giving a brief talk and reading at my once-local bookshop. I shall be buoyed by wine and terror. I have newspapers (well, at least one) ready to interview me. I’m currently drawing up a list of invitees.

I know no-one! No-one will come!

Ahem. This is an invite-only event – but you’re welcome! I hereby invite you. Just drop me an email at rjtriggs@yahoo.co.uk and I’ll add you to the list. See before RE: pathetic gratitude.

Wine and informality: 30th November (TBC), Between the Lines, Gt Bardfield, Essex 19:00

I’ll be giving a brief talk and reading in this bijou-bookshop, hopefully in the presence of local media. Come get your photo in the Dunmow Broadcast* with me.

Also, if you’re a prosecco fan, this is the event for you.

*Dunmow Broadcast not confirmed.

Night-Shift-ISBN-9781787580374.0And that’s it. More may happen, though I’m not aware of anything in the offing. The good thing about a book, though, is that you can keep pushing it until everyone’s sick to the back teeth of the damn thing.

Rest assured, though, you will be kept informed. In the meantime, keep on being wonderful and magnificent and, if you’re at all in the mood, ask your local library if they’re stocking Night Shift. Your support makes all the difference.

Hope to see you in the very near future.

On writing copy

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If you do a search of writing jobs you’ll pretty soon come up with that of copywriter. Sometimes it’ll be called ‘content creator’ or something like that, but it’s all pretty much the same. You’ll be given a topic, maybe some keywords, and told to produce a certain word-count.

It’s quite tempting, really. You’re a writer; you know how words work; you’ve seen a lot of bad writing on the net (where a lot of this copy will end up) and you know you can do better.

Let’s leave aside some seriously dodgy practices that companies use to avoid paying their writers (who are, of course, freelance so they have limited employment rights); let me just come to the point.

Writing copy is incredibly difficult.

This blog is full of copy (and, to be clear, Google tells me copy is ‘text written for the purposes of advertising or marketing’). In this case I’m essentially marketing myself. I’m attempting to ‘build brand awareness’ by creating little essays on the craft and difficulties I’ve found in writing fiction. I’m hoping to build trust in my readership as to my competence and interestingness.

I therefore feel justified in saying in job applications that I’m used to producing copy.
This week I had to write an article for my (former) local newspaper. It’s a little quid-pro-quo: I give them a little piece to fill their pages and in return I get a namecheck. I get the cover of my book in a thumbnail and hopefully (although I’m a little sceptical) a few extra sales.

500 words. That’s all it was. But it was perhaps the most difficult 500 words I’ve ever written.

The is in part because the brief (which unfortunately I don’t think I can share) was dictated to me and contained a few assumptions which weren’t justified and was also quite vague. It was partly that the word count was too big to just toss away but too short to really go into any depth.

I worked damn hard at it. I had two full drafts rejected more or less out of hand by my wife, who acts as emergency consultant on such things. It took me working right up until the eleventh hour on deadline night to get something I was happy(ish) with.

Now I know that this piece of writing doesn’t matter. The paper’s editors don’t care too much about quality – it’ll reflect on me more than it will them. To them it’s a useful little space-filler and, if it really doesn’t work for them, they’re under no obligation to print it.

No, the only person who cares is me.

I should use this as a warning; I should say that you must be wary of accepting commissions that take a disproportionate amount of time or energy or drain your happiness. But let me just say this: no writing is wasted. The article I wrote may be mined for future use. It’s likely that I’ll be asked questions about the article’s subject in the weeks ahead: If nothing else I’ve just had an annoying amount of practice in answering them.

It’s also a good writing exercise. Copywriting is a skill, and, like all skills, it can be learnt and developed. What took me days of struggle this week might be tossed off in a few hours in a year’s time.

Although, given that I still struggle weekly to produce this blog, maybe I’m not the best person to be giving this advice.

The final countdown

Today’s blog is brought to you in association with a vague sense of panic.

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It is a month until the Great Day of Publishing. I have so much to do. And I have nothing at all to do.

On my mental list:

  • Write an article for a local magazine
  • Answer questions for another magazine
  • Write many blog posts
  • Be interesting and insightful
  • Arrange bookshop events

Like many people I can make myself work hard and be personable. I can cold-call companies, and bookshops, and ask favours and make demands on strangers’ time. But it’s hard work. I’ve just got off the phone to a bookshop: it took me a whole weekend to work up the courage; I had to rehearse what I wanted to say; I had to be the very best ‘me’ I could possibly be.

It takes time and energy and, until the last decision is made and the final arrangement tidied, there’s always a sense of incompleteness.

Of course, nothing is ever truly finished. Arranged an event with a bookshop? How am I going to get there? Do I need to book accommodation? What do I need to take? Oh God I’m probably going to have to do a reading!

What if no-one turns up?

On my to-not-do list:

  • Harass the publisher
  • Over-commit my time and energies
  • Piss anyone off

I want to tick off the tasks. I want arrangements to be signed, sealed and delivered. But I’ve never done this before – do I do it myself or do my people (ha!) have people to do this sort of thing? I don’t want to duplicate work. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. How many enquiries (per hour) can I send out before my emails get switched straight into the ‘annoying author’ siding?

What I should be doing:

  • Writing something new
  • Editing old works

If all else fails go write. It’s a healthy mantra.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to focus on the things that matter when there’s so much still unresolved.

Still, best be grateful; I can only imagine how the publisher’s feeling right now.

Apart from anything else they’ve got all my emails to read.

Je regrette

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One of my biggest regrets as a writer is that I didn’t trust my own ambition.

I had an idea for a story. I knew what I wanted to happen; what I was struggling with was a mechanism for it to happen. I tried a few things on for size but nothing seemed to be quite a la mode.

What, after all, is a story? Is it setting? Or plot? Or is it the high concept behind it all? I had the latter but not the former. I needed to anchor my idea and shape the reality that held everything together.

My initial idea, the one that I turned many ways and almost put together, was to set the idea in space, on an isolated end-of-the-road station, where bionics played a crucial role.

The idea worked, or could have been made to work. But I retreated. I didn’t trust myself to write that story. I pulled back, pulled back, instead relied on simpler causes.

I did this because I was afraid. Because it took less mental effort to keep closer to the ‘real world’. And this I regret. This choice forced me to make ever more convoluted (and less plausible) explanations to keep some semblance of the original concept. I feel like I’ve wasted that idea.

That’s not to say I haven’t done good things with it; what I eventually produced is coherent and, I think, well written. But it’s not what I set out to do.

That’s not to say that you should never back away from an idea.

Starting a project that would take years to bring to life – even as just a first draft – might not be what’s best for you right now. Certainly, when learning your craft (as I was then), the creation of a whole new world – whether that world is a fantastic planet or an extra-solar empire or a mafia family – might be enough to stall your writing altogether.

Creation requires effort. A space station, isolated though it may be, requires a polity to create it. It requires scientific knowledge (which might be made up, but still). It requires structure, a place, a transit system which might take years to reach it. Communication lag needs researching. Oxygen must be generated.

So I don’t blame myself for not wanting to send months researching, reading and creating. I was impatient to get to the story. And to do that I scaled back my ambition.

What I regret is losing the chance to exploit the potential of an idea that’s fascinated me for years.

Fortunately the world is full of ideas. And they’re all out there just waiting until you’re ready.