Friday 15 June 2012

Keeping It Up

The ‘it’ of the title is, of course, your enthusiasm for writing. If you’re a professional writer, I guess there’s not a lot of choice – you either keep your output up or find another way to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. For those of us fitting writing in around a “proper” job, family commitments, going to sleep occasionally, and all the other aspects of life that suck up your time, it can be more of a challenge convincing yourself it’s worth making the sacrifices required to give you that hour-or-two at the keyboard every so often.

I’m lucky in a way, in that there aren’t too many drains on my time. I’m self-employed, although for more than a year now I’ve been working full time at two different offices, which means I spend a lot more time than I’d like on the M1. There’s also all the tedious admin that comes with being your own accountant. With that and a few other things going on in the background I’ve certainly struggled to produce many new stories, and just about everything I’ve managed to send out into the world has come limping home again, unloved and dejected. It’s a worrying thought that we’re nearly halfway through the year and I have only just had my second publication (although that’s in the rather awesome 100 RPM). The only other success was back in January.

It’s hard to stay focused when getting time with the pen and paper or laptop is always at the expense of something more urgent. It’s hard to keep your confidence up when the successes seem so thinly spread. Recently I’ve strayed dangerously close to that mental minefield of looking at what I’m writing and thinking, “What’s the point?”

I’ve come out the other side of that, more or less. I’ve sent off a couple of submissions this week and have another couple lined up. I still need to bite the bullet and start writing something entirely new, but I’m looking at that blank page with a lot less trepidation. I thought I’d share a few of the things that have helped me dispel the gloom, in case anybody in a similar situation needs a bit of a lift.

Widen Your Focus

I’ve been looking through my archives, looking for quick-fixes that will help boost my ‘live’ submissions. It feels like a cheat, but I’ve found that abandoned stories can be transformed with a dispassionate swipe or two of the red editing pen. They’re still not stunning works of literature, but they’re better than they were. I feel good about that.

Don’t just judge success on getting a story published. If you get a new draft finished, or hit your weekly word count target, or fix a scene that’s just not been working, or even just find the perfect verb to describe the way your protagonist opens a bag of crisps, chalk that up as a victory. Enjoy the slow, frustrating, and wonderful process of becoming a better writer.

Try Something Different

First I made a new graphical version of an old microstory to put on my Facebook author’s page. Then I had a go at writing a short travel article for the Telegraph’s “Just Back” feature. It doesn’t look as though I’ve been selected for publication, but it was interesting working out how to structure a non-fiction piece, and good practice editing my way down to the restrictive word count. I was pleased with the result, and it’s something I might have another go at before too long.

Force yourself to take on something you normally wouldn’t. If you always write short stories, try penning a factual article, a poem, a short script. Rewrite the best scene from one of your short stories as flash fiction. Take a leap into an unfamiliar genre. If it works, great. If you spend the whole time wishing you were doing what you always do, then that’s great too: you’ve just reaffirmed your enthusiasm for it – so use it!

Don’t Overlook Small Victories

When compiling my list of publications, I forgot about the Mark Billingham book I won. I’m taking it with me on holiday next week, and I’m looking forward to reading it so much I’d forgotten I’d won it by writing a tiny crime story on Twitter. Not many words, true, but I had to think up an idea, work out how much of it would fit into 140 characters, work my way through several drafts. So that counts as a writing success, right? Cool – that’s a 50% increase in my tally for the year to date, right there.

It’s easy to get obsessed on one particular aspect of writing that you miss worthwhile achievements. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a shortlisting for a competition is a failure, or that getting a rejection note from an editor saying, “I loved it, but it doesn’t fit the magazine,” means they secretly hated it. Any feedback is valuable, any recognition is encouragement. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder to see it.

Revisit Former Glories

While I was looking for stories to send to places, I did something I haven’t done in a long time – I set the filter on my tracking spread sheet to show only published stories. I colour-code the records according to status, so I was rewarded with a screen of green. Okay, my laptop hasn’t got the largest screen, but it was reassuring to know that, little by little, I’m getting closer to that point where I can start my bio off with “Dan Purdue has had over XX stories published…” without XX making it sound like I just start doing this last week.

One to use with caution, this. You don’t want to rest on your laurels, or overdo the wallowing in nostalgia to the point where you convince yourself that you’ve lost your writing mojo and that all your best stories are behind you. But it can be worth reminding yourself that you have achieved good results, and it can help smooth the dents out of your confidence to revisit the times you got it right. You did it before; you can do it again.

Keep Something In Reserve

When I won my prize at Chapter One, one of the (few) benefits of the way the money came through in dribs and drabs was that I had a long cooling off period. I couldn’t rush out any buy anything crazy, and the protracted payment schedule gave me a lot of time to think about what to do with it. Although I liked the idea of just buying one big extravagance, I decided to be more sensible and break it up. One chunk went off to pay a little of the mortgage off, another went into a long-term savings account. Another is earmarked for a new chair to write in. And one was always destined to be spent on something special to hang on the wall of my (still hypothetical, sadly) writing room. And, last week, I found what that something is going to be. I haven’t actually got it yet because it’s in an exhibition at a little gallery near where I used to live, so you’ll have to make do with a picture of it:

If you’re lucky enough to win a prize, hang on to at least some of it, if at all possible. The euphoria of winning will fade disappointingly quickly, and while blowing your winner’s cheque on a slap-up meal or your own bodyweight in booze can make good memories, it really is worth having something tangible you can pick up or look at and think, “Yeah. I wrote that into my life.”

Anyway, enough about me. How do you keep up your enthusiasm for writing?


Chloe said...

Sounds like we're in a similar place. I've spent the first 5 months of the year working on drafts of a novel, which doesn't even get you any rejections. It's felt like quite a plod. But I too, have been "cheating" by looking at old work and editing, rather than writing from scratch. So hopefully...

Still finding it hard to get the courage to start something completely new though.

I'm sure plenty of things will be rolling your way soon. I was thinking of you only yesterday as I re-read 'One Street Corner Too Soon', to help me get into the feel for a second-person story I'm editing :)

Teresa Stenson said...

I get tipsy and write breath-taking prose. The alcohol broadens my mind so magnificently that the sober eye just can't handle it the next day, just can't recognise the brilliance of it.

Dan Purdue said...

Plodding and booze. Yep, I can definitely relate to those options. I'd love to get stuck into a novel, Chloe, but I can imagine it does feel like you're just blabbering away to yourself half the time. Plod on, my friends, we'll get there in the end.

Rachel Fenton said...

Loved this post and Teresa's comment gave me a little belly wobbler of a laugh.

I have a list of my publications on my blog to look at as I completely forget what I've done otherwise and it's too easy for me to wallow in underachievement without it - though I'm still not at the stage where I can say I've had "xx publications" (that also made me laugh)!