by Olivia Knight
‘Are you listening?’
‘Yes,’ said Tiffany.
‘Good. Now… if you trust in yourself…’
‘…and believe in your dreams…’
‘…and follow your star…’ Miss Tick went on.
‘… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye.’
– The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett
Straight off: hold the tissues. I sodding love my life. This is not a sob story about how writing full-time is actually hard, painful, agonising, difficult, and full of unseen obstacles. Some evenings, curled on the sofa, I suddenly stare at the walls struck with realisation: tomorrow I’m going to make things up all day, and this is my job, this is my life, and it rocks. Anyone who describes writing as torture should take up temping. What would you rather – create worlds or be shown how to operate a kettle safely? That said, I’m about to not-write for six weeks and a deep sense of relief fills me at the thought. (Partly because I won’t, in fact, be temping.) This isn’t What I Wish I’d Known Before I Started, it’s Handy Things To Know. And all the advice beneath boils down to two things: money = time = writing, and be schizophrenic.
Money = time = writing
If you want to live your artistic dream, you can’t be artistically dreamy about money – but keep the equation in the right order.
Getting there: making a butterfly net
This isn’t about how to reach the point of writing full-time, it’s about being there, but here’s one useful tip… What does it cost you to stay alive, each month? Open Excel, work it out: the non-negotiable expenses (rent/mortage, bills, etc), the variables (food, wine, clothes, toiletries), the optionals (entertainment, holidays). How much money do you need to feel secure quitting the day job – three months’? Six months’? More? If you had a windfall of £5000 tomorrow, would that be enough? Believing in your dreams doesn’t make them happen; being able to recognise them as they flit past does. Keep that figure; refine it. When you’re writing full-time, you’ll need it, full-time.
Regrettably, I don’t lie in bed until eleven playing with myself then swan around in pretty negligées, dashing off immaculate sentences as they occur. Perhaps I should. I worked out early on I can do four to five hours’ writing a day maximum, and it’s the same quality whether I space it out between nine o’clock and five o’clock or sleep in until one then write solidly from two till six, except for feeling like a Bad Person. My Protestant upbringing has much to answer for; enjoying a good spank is the tip of the ice-berg. I have, Martin Luther aside, accepted I can’t write before 10:30, even if I get up at 6 a.m. and swim the freezing Isis. So learn how much you can write a day and find the hours that work for you. Evenings are actually my best time and I’m indifferent to the existence of Saturdays and Sundays… but I’m also damn fond of people and that’s when they want to play, so I’ve accepted working weekdays.
Protect your time. For everyone else, “at home” means “free time” and now you’re at home all the time! They’ll tap on your windows, ask you to babysit, arrange tea dates, have flying weektime visits to your city, until you tell them not to. I don’t consider writing “work”, but for the sake of others I’ve learned to call it “working”. Sample exchange:
“Olivia, what are you doing on Thursday afternoon?”
Blink in surprise. “Working.”
Easy to say, until it’s you saying it to a close friend.
Protect your rest. You throw yourself into your work, get lost in it, get absorbed in it, write up a storm, all good; you secretly know you damn well need to finish this to get your next payment, not so good; you reckon you’re saving time by writing twice your usual amount a day – maybe not. Overstrain yourself and you take the saved time and half as much again in exhaustion. This is full-time: you need to be able to do it again tomorrow, next week, next month. Your energy levels are a debit card with an extortionate rate of interest; be wary of overspending them. Instead, stop while you know what happens next – dash off a few notes about the rest of the scene and go do the washing up. I use the Radio 4 comedy at 6:30 as a final cut-off time, to force myself to stop.
How do you know if you’re doing enough? Two ways: you know what you need to earn; you know how much you can write a day. But a novel’s a great big shapeless thing to jump into, so with one hand you’re frantically flagellating yourself about laziness while the other waves despairingly at your inability to take the time you need to create, like a saddened fairy godmother. Break it into bits. The ultimate goal of completing a novel sustains you for – ooh, two or three chapters, then your inner toddler stamps its feet and demands sweeties now! You need interim goals: that chapter, this part, by such-and-such a time, which means about there this week… And you know you can write 2000 words a day, so in four weeks you’ll have written 4 x 5 x 2000 words, right? Uh-uh. You need planning time, some days are rubbish, sometimes you write wonderful stuff which has, unfortunately, stepped into the wrong novel. Set realistic goals with generous margins.
Keeping track of my progress, by week and by month, and the sheer love of writing, is enough discipline for me… with a few extra sweeties. Champagne for finishing a novella. Red champagne and a week off for finishing a novel. All planning-time in coffee shops, because it’s pissing down with rain and you’re not in an office, you’re having that croissant and cappucino you always used to yearn for as you trudged to work. Felt-tips and gold gel pens. Stars. Give yourself carrots.
Recognise the non-working work time and protect that too. Does your mind teem with ideas in the shower, out walking, chopping vegetables for a two-hour stew, watching the tiles steam as you marinade in the bath, stamping your feet and spinning in a night club? Will you still allow the time for those long walks and leisurely baths, those nights out? Discipline your discipline: it doesn’t have to look like work to be valuable.
A week off for finishing a novel? And that’s generous. Before you think about writing full-time – it’s a fine thing to make your living writing, but what if you have to write, to pay your bills? The novel’s crumbling in your hands, sagging everywhere, you need to spend a week pulling it apart, a week thinking, and another three weeks recreating it, and if you don’t finish it in the next two weeks you can’t pay next month’s rent. Still sure? What’s more important – the writing or being an official writer? Write full-time if you have to. Both Janine Ashbless and I tend to throw ourselves out top-floor windows if you put us in offices; we have no choice. Some don’t; some do. But think carefully before you make your dragon a beast of burden.
As Adam Nevill said in his interview, “there are just so many opportunities for female authors right now in erotica and romance, which has led to a decrease in the quality of submissions from new authors – too many are writing too much.” He’s right – and the better you get, the longer you take. Not only does good writing take time; you need creative rest. You can’t finish one novel on Friday and start the next on Monday; you can’t even do that with a novella. And it’s unlikely, as a new writer, that you can afford a fortnight’s holiday between every story. So don’t be afraid to do other work. “Being a writer” is bullshit; the writing’s the thing. I swore, a year ago, I would never again churn out wordcount because I needed the next payment; now I don’t. Maybe your staying-alive cost can be met working part-time. Look at your other skills. Find something you can do in your “down time” between books that’ll pay and give you a creative break. Some people can write a novel a month; I don’t want to be them.
You’ve finished your novel, it’s accepted – show me the money! Seven paragraphs as a full-time writer and you’re already as mercenary as me. You get half your advance when the contract’s signed and the other half when the novel’s published – about a year later. Even magazines will often pay six months after accepting a piece. Yay! Acceptance slip! You’ll be in print! In 2012!... Oh. It always takes longer than you think.
Never mind, c’est la vie. You’ve been accepted, that’s the main thing, so crack the champagne anyway. The ball’s rolling, time does pass, you don’t cease to exist – or write – in the meantime. Like juggling, keep throwing more balls into the air until you have a flow.
Writing full-time, you’re self-employed. You have to be business-like. But God help you if your writing turns business-like. Harness schizophrenia, instead.
Creating a story and assuming people want to read what you write is mad, arrogant, wilful optimism. If a writer receives a rejection, she will weep; its words cut into the very ability to write. Try starting a sentence when someone’s said your last three hundred were crap. Don’t let the writer see that! Besides, writers have minds on higher things than posting letters (or writing them), reading checklists, managing deadines… and so they bloody well should. Create The Administrator. When a story is finished, the writer dusts her hands and drinks champagne (yes, it’s a theme); The Administrator takes over. And here’s what she does…
• “Ready – Aim – Fire!” Not “Fire! … spend years wondering why it didn’t work” or “Ready… still ready… still ready…” or “Ready – Fire – Aim!”, which I tried too.
• “Ready” means you’re happy for the story to go to print as is. Not sure? Edit every story on paper. Still not sure? So send it. Don’t sit on ten years’ worth of writing. If you want it discovered, don’t let it be from under your corpse.
• “Aim” means find out who you’re sending to. You’ll get enough rejection slips as it is; don’t add to the pile by submitting apples to a pear shop, however green and wonky they are. (Don’t pile rejection slips at all. Set fire to rejection slips.) All magazines say to read them first – so you don’t, because there are twenty magazines at £3.70 each and you can’t be bothered, and then they say no and you’re devastated, and then you find the magazine and realise why, or they say yes and you buy a copy and hope no-one ever finds out you’re printed in it.
The Writers and Artists Yearbook and The Writer’s Handbook list UK and US publishers, agents, and magazines: buy it; use it. Read the guidelines: trawl through websites, read examples, work through their checklists. Check exactly what they want and precisely how they want it submitted. It takes hours. Aim carefully if you want to hit your target.
• “Fire!” Putting stuff in envelopes isn’t hard. Placing your dreams in the hands of strangers who might trample them is appalling, so don’t. Just put stuff in envelopes. Give yourself a goal of submissions: 3 a month, 4 a month…
You’re self-employed and you’re working with businesses: you have to behave accordingly. For your publisher – submit well before deadlines when they still have energy to read, meet proofing deadlines, and send short emails. If they need 10 000 words taken out, fine. (Actually, if you work carefully at it, the novel will be better for it.) Writers may be wild, wanton, erratic, tortured souls – but this is The Adminstrator’s domain. They’ll judge your writing by your writing, so you’re free to be as professional as you like. Put The Managing Director in charge of finance. Find out the self-employment things and do them: file expenses, record earnings, set aside your tax, save yourself money by paying it promptly. As soon as you're published, even in a magazine, register with the Author Licencing and Copyright Society or your country's equivalent - they collect money from copyright licences and may have some with your name on it.
The other writing
Create The Editor. Around your beautiful perfect novel is a package of other writing, equally demanding.
• A blurb for the back cover: 100-200 words.
• A nutshell for cover letters: 1 sentence, usually in this formula: “Title is a [word count] [genre] novel set in [time and place] about [character] who…” For example, “The Ten Visions is an 80 000 word erotic novel set in contemporary Oxford about a postgraduate student who discovers her occult powers.”
• A synopsis: 1-2 pages (the publisher will specify an exact length – trim down to that) saying exactly what happens, in present tense, all the way to end. (Yeah, giving away the ending sucks piles.) Write it with articulate precision, but not poetry.
• A one paragraph summary for cover letters: halfway between the blurb and the cover letter, it’s more enticing, but unafraid to give away secrets.
• Cover letters: as business-like and briefly as possible, give your nutshell, your one-paragraph summary, a brief bio if they ask, and what you’re enclosing.
While you’re writing, all these are so enviably clear in your head… so make some notes. Afterwards, collapsed on the shores of post-novel exhaustion, you’ll want them. And then, best of all, you get to choose pull-quotes for the back cover and strap-lines, because you’re into marketing-land…
A new character in your internal cast: The Marketer. Have fun; step outside yourself; project the dream. Few writers get the all-singing all-dancing publicity routine and of those who do, it doesn’t necessarily earn out – better by far is word-of-mouth, which this century is dream-easy. Build a website, consider a blog. Walk into every bookstore and front-out your book (place it cover out, with a few behind it), and tell your friends to do that too. Arrange readings with local bookshops and festivals, if you can bear the spotlight – if you bask in it, like me, so much the better! You probably don’t need business cards… so what? They’re free! Major bonus: The Adminstrator gets a tick and the writer wiggles with glee.
Forget the money
Now you have a whole cast of multiple personality disorder: The Administrator, The Managing Director, The Editor, The Marketer. They all exist as lackeys to one person and to protect one person: The Writer. If the writer’s working to finance them, something’s rotten in the state of Denmark. They will administrate, manage, edit, and market the writing; but – and this is a personal belief – make sure you always have at least one project that is nothing about money at all, to hold onto your soul, so you have a yardstick against which to measure the soulfulness of all your writing.
Here endeth the lesson.