Friday 10 May 2013

Striking a Balance between Writing and Being A Writer

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan /

A writer writes, right? Well, yes, of course. In an ideal world, that's how it would work. Writers would be left alone to do their thing and publishers would make their words into wonderful books and everyone would buy them and fat royalty cheques would arrive and everybody would have a lovely time. I doubt it's ever really worked like that, though. And it's certainly not the way things are these days.

I've been thinking about how I spend my time recently. After a couple of months with no real routine, the freelance day-job has settled (temporarily, at least) on a more regular arrangement, and it's made my writing time feel a lot more precious and finite. It's been a bit of a wake-up call, to be honest. I've found it difficult to work on my novel at the same time as producing new short stories for competitions. On top of that, I've been thinking of new ways to promote Somewhere to Start From, as well as trying to ensure that my output on this blog, Twitter, and Facebook are actually of interest to other writers and, ideally, readers.

It would be easy to look at all that and say, It's too much, something has to give. But saying it's the easy part. It's not just a question of priorities; I can't say I'll work on my novel at the expense of everything else, because I know I don't have the stamina or dedication to devote all my time to just one idea. My mind wanders, seeks out new challenges, and in the end I get so disillusioned with it I have to shut it away - I know this because it's happened already. I had to put it aside for well over a year before I could even think of working on the damn thing.

I don't want to give up on the short stories, either, because I enjoy writing them, and because I know that using short fiction to test out new ideas and play about with styles has made me a better writer. I'd also like to enter the Scott Prize this year, as I didn't have enough material of sufficient quality to submit a collection last year. That means I have to keep producing and submitting the short fiction: trying, failing, learning, and - I hope - improving as I go.

So, if I can't cut back on the writing, how about the Being A Writer stuff? Is the self-promotion justified? Is a "platform" genuinely important for a writer without even a completed manuscript to his name? The truth is, I don't know. What I do know is that this blog is a good 'signpost' to have for people looking to find out more about my writing, that Twitter has introduced me to a huge community of writers and that many of them have been terrifically supportive and helpful, as well as making me feel like I have something to offer, too, and that promoting the anthology has resulted in sales to people who I've never met, which is ace. Facebook, I'm not so sure about. In fairness I don't use my author page that much and I'm still trying to work out exactly what it can do that other places can't. I'd love to know about any author pages that work really well.

The question of whether a platform is necessary is impossible to answer. Whenever I read an article or interview with a newly published author, there's always some mention of how much promotion writers have to do for themselves, even when they're backed by a big publishing house. I doubt an agent or publisher would ever decide whether or not to take on an author based on how many Twitter followers they have. But, all else being equal, I can imagine an author with a great book and a legion of engaged, supportive fans will stand a better chance of getting a contract than somebody who would have to start from scratch. I've never heard anybody say the publishing industry is actively looking for complete unknowns.

So, as somebody writing with the aim of being published, what's the answer? I'm going to try being more disciplined, to keep doing all the stuff I do but to keep better track of time and try to ensure Writing always comes before Being a Writer.

What's your approach? How do you prioritise your time? I'd love to hear any tactics you have for making sure you're always working on the thing that matters most. It can be done, I'm sure!


Chloe said...

I won't presume to give you advice as I'm in the privileged position of having plenty of writing time (which doesn't of course mean I use it all wisely!).

I think it's great you know yourself so well though. I used to always focus on one thing, and I'm trying the "novel at the same time as short story editing and flash fiction writing" approach at the moment. Not sure if it's me or not yet! I'm missing short story writing, but can't seem to get a plot down while my novel is filling my head. Such is the writer's dilemma!

Dan Purdue said...

I suppose that is something I've deliberately cut down on - I haven't done much flash fiction this year. I wrote a bit recently as part of a writing exercise, but generally I've not tried to write anything super-short for quite some time.

It's important to make sure you're not overloaded, I think. It sounds like you're doing the right thing for you by steering clear of short stories while you're working on the novel. Good luck with it all!

Karen Jones said...

I'm amazed at how well some authors handle the whole social media thing. Matt Haig is a prime example for me. I had never heard of him or read any of his books until I got a friend request on FB. I accepted. I got to like the stuff he posted and the person he seemed to be, so bought one of his books and enjoyed it. Then I got really caught up in his latest book launch - even joined about fifty other FB and Twitter friends in helping make a video trailer for the book - went to his book event in Glasgow and bought his latest book. Had I not 'known him' through FB, I don't know if I'd ever have read his work.

If you can do it well, it certainly seems to work.

Dan Purdue said...

This was something I was going to put in the blog post, but I didn't want to make it too long. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a couple of events that were part of the Stratford Literary Festival. One of these was a pub quiz organised by Mark Billingham and John Connolly. I'm a fan of Mark's books but had never heard of John.

The event wasn't intended to sell any books, but it was great fun - mainly due to the two hosts - and I'm definitely going to check out John's work now. I guess that's the key to all this promotional stuff - in some ways it turns out to be more about personality than anything else, which might not be ideal, but in a world where there are so many good writers, where's the harm in favouring those you think are actually decent people?

logicus.tracticus said...

achieving the "novel at the same time as short story editing and flash fiction writing", plus you might consider a "autobiography" at the same time , save time, and effort remembering when you've made it..

Not written anything for a couple of years now but then again it only was a hobby, did toy with the idea then to use speech to text, faster than one finger typing, lot of these programs have come a long way since then, plus now you have apps on phones that can save to the cloud ect, so you can work almost any time any place.

dan powell said...

Hi Dan. Working part-time and with three kids to look after, managing my writing time is vital. Most of my writing time comes from when my youngest is in nursery. Between 9am and 12 every weekday morning that I am not called into work I am at my keyboard writing. I find I work best in the morning now after 5 years of 'training.'

My editing I do in the evenings, or, if I can grab ten minutes in the day I do a small chunk then. I find that grabbing little slots of time to edit a paragraph her and a line there useful as it means you close focus on a section and don't work for long enough for your attention to drift and skip mistakes.

And I would agree that cloud based apps are pretty awesome for writing. I use pages across my Macbook, iPad and iPod and a PDF editor that connects to my dropbox which means I always have access to whatever I am working on, wherever I am.

As for the social media stuff. I tend to squeeze that in five minutes here and there while doing other things. Buffer is a cool service too, you can load stuff up to filter onto your twitter et al for those days when you are too busy. I think a platform is important whatever stage you are at as it helps to find your feet with it before your feed goes wider with the publication of stories and books. My early post, while still online, are best where they are, at the back of my archive, alone and unloved.

But the main thing is, for those three hours of writing time in the mornings, I slap on Freedom and get to work.

Dan Purdue said...

It makes sense that the less time you have available, the more focussed you are. For about six months, several years ago now, I used to get up at 5:30am on weekdays to write for an hour before heading off to work. It was the most productive I've ever been, but it wasn't easy and it definitely wouldn't have been something I could do if I wasn't living on my own at the time.

Knowing that was my allocated writing time, and having gone to the effort of getting up that early, I never wasted a minute (I quickly discovered there's not much going on on social media at that time of day).

I've wondered about Freedom, but I think it might be easier to switch off my wi-fi router, otherwise my mobile phone is too much of a distraction.

Unknown said...

I have learned the past year that only strict time management works for me. That and getting out of the house to write. At home there are too many distractions. Kid, dog, housework, internet, telephone. If I am at home I allow myself to be swept along with it all.

So I go to the local library for 3-4 hours 10-2 the three days a week I am free to do so.

Having such limited writing time does focus your attention.

I finished the first draft of a novel a year ago - then became blocked at how to edit it and the changes that were needed.

For a few months I literally wrote nothing. Not a single word.

I had to start writing short stories (and a piece of drama) to release whatever it was that was blocking me (self criticism and self-doubt definitely contributed).

For me. Twitter has been an eye opener since I joined in February 2013. It introduced me to a community I did not know existed and to competitions I did not know took place.

I don't have a FB account, as you say I can't see the purpose it serves.

I agree that writers such as Matt Haig seem to have perfect pitch when it comes to social media.

Just be yourself and have fun seems to be the best way to "promote" your stuff.

Anyone pushing self promotion and posting links to their work constantly gets un-followed by me.

Like you say, if you think someone is a nice kind of person, your more inclined to stick with them and seek out their work anyway, so there's no need for them to do any "in your face" hard selling.

Anyway, today is one of my library days as it happens, so I have to get going now - the last bits of editing are progressing and I may actually make my "finish it before the school summer holidays" deadline! Hurrah!

Dan Purdue said...

Hi Jen, welcome to the blog.

I like the idea of working in a library. I've only done it a couple of times, but I find it easier to concentrate when there are people around but it's not noisy. I'm not one of those writers that seeks out the bustle of a coffee shop.

Last weekend I visited the library of the town I'm hoping to move to. It's fantastic - really modern, light and airy, and popular. I might work at least one 'library day' into my schedule once I've relocated.

I agree that the hard-sellers on Twitter get dull very quickly, and I try to avoid them. Everybody knows authors have to sell books, those of us trudging along the path to authorhood want exposure, but anybody who doesn't have anything else to offer is going to put me off whatever it is they're flogging pretty quickly.

Good luck with your project!

Amanda Saint said...

Hi Dan, I've recently started writing more shorts as I'm in the final editing stage of my novel and have been working on it for 2.5 years. I just needed to be writing something new and also finishing something! But I can't work on both on the same day so I have allocated days for novel editing and short story writing.

I'm lucky enough to work at home as a freelance writer so get lots of time to write my fiction. That said I often spend quite a lot of it on social media - but I see that as integral to keeping sane in my solitary working life! I also go to residential retreats whenever I can and have even started my own so that they become part of how I earn a living, as well as a chance to go more often.

Dan Purdue said...

Hi Amanda,

I can completely relate to the need to finish something after working on a novel for so long. The only problem is that spending time writing short stories does make it harder to go back to a longer project, or at least that's what I find.

It sounds like you've got a pretty good balance in terms of how you divide up your time. I hope your residential retreats are a big success for you (whether attending them or running your own)!