Diet hard

litmap

I want to write well. I want to write a book that people will enjoy for the story but also admire (or at least not notice) for the writing. I’d rather not do a Dan Brown or an EL James and produce something wildly popular but critically reviled. The problem is that no-one can agree on what good writing actually looks like. It’s a problem that what constitutes good writing has changed over the decades.

Virginia Woolf would not be published today. Neither would Tolkien, nor Asimov, and certainly not Philip K Dick. Angela Carter would find it a struggle. Dickens would be told to put his writing on a diet. And yet we’ve had a rash of humongous coffee-table-breaking Booker winners; literary fiction at least seems to have an attitude of more-is-more.

Where does this leave us mere mortals? A (literary) member of my writing group is always trying to make me add in more description, more feeling, more atmosphere. Another tells me I slow the pace too much with unnecessary wordage. Where do I go? Lean and slick or full and florid? Will Dan Brown still be mocked in a generation? Will he be forgotten, or will he be held up as a paragon in university literature courses?

At the moment I have Oneiromancer in Fat Camp. I’m doing my best to slim it down, carving around 5k from my latest draft. It still tips the scale at over 130,000 words. Do I carve yet further, really take the axe to it in an attempt to leave it at the 115k I originally envisaged? There must come a point where I lose important detail. Characters need time to stew, to percolate and simmer. It’d take some severe telling-not-showing to condense all that I want to convey into a pocket-book sized paperback. There are limits to what can be cut.

I have a feeling I’ve said all this before, and probably more than once. This is because, though I can say I’ve improved as a writer – both in terms of the words I use and my knowledge of structure and the shaping of stories – over the years, the doubt never really goes away. I still worry.

I’m approaching forty and I’m in a dead-end job. I’ve prioritised writing over financial security. I have a family I can’t support. I’ve been told I’m wasting my life (although not by my wife, who not only encourages me but has a vocation that pays). I’ve given a lot to a dream I know might never come true.

My aim is to make a living from writing fiction. To do this I need to have a novel published. That needs to sell well enough to support a second book. Only then can I begin to think I have a career. And only then can I look to ‘success’ – in my terms, a basic living and respect from my peers.

My brain knows that I’m going the right way about it. I’m producing material. I’m reading, both for pleasure and to learn the dark arts of structure, plotting, character and the like. I’m editing other people’s work. All good things.

But the future is still a long way away. My heart frets. I’m getting old; I have some of those stupid grown-up responsibilities to stress over. Time is the real enemy. How long do we have to struggle before we get where we want to be?

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Adult hard

overworked-woman

I have a normal life. By this I mean that, just like you, I try balance the many different calls upon my time without fear or favour; that I try to be productive and creative and all-round fabulous whilst getting the jobs done, keeping the house in a reasonable state and food on the metaphorical table. This isn’t always easy.

Things came to a head last week when I was forced to spend two whole mornings away from my manuscript. It’s quite amazing how this affected me; I was depressed and anxious, feeling like I was betraying myself and my dreams. Of course there were good reasons for my slackery – there always are – but it’s clear that writing is a dangerous, powerful habit.

At the moment I spend an hour a day in front of my computer or in the Editorium before the evil that is Paid Employment comes to take me away. This really isn’t enough. It’s far, far less than enough when this hour is split between writing and doing Jobs: sending emails, learning to drive (legally) – even writing-related things like sending out submissions are a distraction, a drain, and a stress.

I’m trying to Adult: trying to establish a platform from which to leap forwards into a bold new sunset filled with joy and sunsets and puppies. But it’s also getting me down, making me ratty and weepy; life is a fight sometimes (with due respect to people who don’t have the many wonderful privileges I enjoy, such as a wife who pays the rent, a home that’s brick, not canvas and, indeed, that morning hour) and just now it’s a struggle.

Something’s got to change.

So I’m intending to take a second hour in the evening. As soon as I get through the working day, when the bus has dropped me and I’ve returned to that empty house, I must sit straight back down and do the Business of Life. Emails – detestable things – must be written and responded to. Lists must be made and acted upon. The house will be vacuumed, the spare room cleared.

It’s the only way I can see to grow, to get this Adulting business out of the way. Because my hour in the morning is sacrosanct. I am a writer. I can’t sacrifice this precious time because it’s the only opportunity I have, at the moment, to live a life where I can (theoretically) achieve something I consider worthwhile.

It may seem like this is a downgrading, a sacrifice to commerce, a gradual withdrawal into wage-slavery. But I’m not looking at it like that. Hopefully taking a second hour for work will free up my writing-brain. The guilt will be vanquished. I can get on with what I want to do without that nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me of all the jobs I’m failing on, all the holes in my Bucket of Happiness that need patching. For Reasons this is the busiest I’ve ever been in my life. Something’s got to give. This isn’t going to be writing.

But I also have to make sure I have time to refresh my well of inspiration. The odd pub-visit, or holiday, or hour in front of the television, is not only useful but vital. No-one can write in the midst of nervous exhaustion. You can’t see the page through a mask of tears.

Adulting isn’t just about getting jobs done, nor about money or status. It’s about maintaining yourself, about being a happy, healthy human being. Making Business Time will save not only my writing but my wellbeing. Because things can’t go on as they are right now.