Sometimes writers don’t write, and that’s fine

Trust me: I'm a card-carrying author

Trust me: I’m a card-carrying author

This week I was enraged, yet again, by a reappearance of the ‘writers write, and nothing stops them writing’ meme. I won’t link to the specific instance, because it was posted under lock, but here’s a (comparatively inoffensive) case of the genus in the wild. (It was the first one that came up on Google. I do not endorse the contents of the rest of the blog, either.)

Articles like this begin with ‘writers write’, which is true, if inane. I said myself, the other week, that the best way to get good at something is to do it and do it and keep doing it.

They then extrapolate.

Some of them add, implicitly or explicitly, ‘every day’. Some of them add, implicitly or explicitly, ‘and don’t make excuses’. Some of them end up implying that any week – any day – that you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.

Which is bullshit.

This is the longest thing I’ve written in days. I’ve written no fiction at all since last Wednesday, and I could quite see this state of affairs continuing all summer. Have I suddenly stopped being a writer? Of course not.

Here is a selection of reasons why I haven’t been writing:

  • I wanted to read Alistair MacLean instead.
  • I have had a lot going on in my day job.
  • I spent last Saturday at Norwich Pride.
  • I’d never seen Die Hard and we had to spend an evening remedying that state of affairs.
  • It was my birthday.
  • A fanfic I’ve been following was updated, so I read that instead.
  • I was off sick for two days and good for nothing other than sleeping and watching Star Trek.
  • I’m not a morning person.

I could point out the ways that all those things that don’t look like writing could contribute to making me a better writer. I could tell you that reading and watching other creators’ work gives me tools to use in my own. I could tell you that time in the ‘real world’ expands the material I have to write about. And that would all be true, but that’s not my point.

Because really, it all comes down to this:

I’ve been really tired and haven’t felt like writing.

That ‘excuse’, yes.

Here are some other reasons, which don’t apply to me, but which do apply to plenty of other writers who may not be in the physical act of writing at this moment:

  • childcare responsibilities;
  • other care responsibilities;
  • having to work two or more jobs to make ends meet;
  • chronic illness or disability;
  • wanting to enjoy that holiday of a lifetime and not spend it on things they ‘should’ be doing.

I’m sure there are many, many more. Feel free to mention them in comments.

These days it’s increasingly difficult to make a living by writing alone, and most of us therefore don’t have the luxury of time devoted to writing. We have to fit it in around the edges, and sometimes the edges themselves are filled up with things like other responsibilities, or sleep, or even fun.

Here’s the thing: I know, because I’ve been here before, and I’ve come through it and written again, that it’s not the end of me as a writer. I very much doubt that anyone would try to tell me that it was, now that I’ve finished and published a book and won an award with it.

I put the first word of Speak Its Name on the page in November 2007. I approved the finished work in January 2016. Did I write every day of those eight-and-a-bit years? Of course I didn’t. And it’s the better for it.

But I also know people who have been discouraged by this ludicrous gatekeeping, who have believed the pernicious myth that because they couldn’t or didn’t devote every spare minute to writing they weren’t ‘really’ a writer, and stopped altogether.

Bullshit, I say again. Stop telling people this. It’s untrue and it’s harmful. It’s not encouraging people to write; it’s doing the opposite.

You don’t get anywhere as a self-published author by caring what other people think about you, but it’s taken me a long time to get past caring what other people think about me. I didn’t tell very many people that I was writing, and it was largely due to the fear of coming up against this idea that I wasn’t.

I am not excusing – or asking you to put up with – the tedious people who bang on and on about how much they’d like to write, or expect you to listen to their detailed exposition of what they would write if only they had the time. You could consider sending them an invoice for your skills as a writing consultant. Certainly if one more person tells me that everyone has a novel in them, I shall find it difficult to restrain myself from attempting to extract theirs by violent means.

But you don’t get to tell people that they’re not a writer. I don’t, either. (That picture at the top of the page? Means basically nothing in terms of my right to assess other people’s writer status.) Nobody does.

The cheapest art

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I said in an interview with another author that the greatest lesson I’ve learned in life is that the best way to get better at something is to do it, and do it, and do it again, and keep doing it until you actually are better.

The problem – apart from the frustration of not being better yet – is that doing something over and over can get expensive. Lessons, kit, entrance fees, instruments. Most arts require equipment, tools, raw materials. Canvas, paints, fabric, metal, yarn, thread, chisels, saw blades, goodness knows what.

And if you’re doing something over and over again, you use up more and more of the raw materials, and the chances are you’ll ruin quite a bit of it.

Then – generally speaking – the better you get, the more sophisticated your tools need to be, and you start wanting to work with raw materials of higher quality. Of course, a skilled artist can make something wonderful out of indifferent ingredients, but they will make something better out of better ingredients.

I started out making jewellery with an ordinary sewing needle and some seed beads that had been reclaimed (I assume; I didn’t do the reclaiming) from some evening dress. Proper beading needles were a revelation: they would actually fit through the hole in the bead. The first specialist equipment I bought was a set of three pairs of miniature pliers, which probably cost about a fiver. They were all very well in 2009, but as I got better I started wanting to do more, and I needed more in order to do that. These days I have another, decently sized, set of pliers, and a jig. I use silver wire as well as silver-coloured, and I throw in lapis lazuli alongside blue glass. I’d like to have sheet silver and a pendant drill and a blowtorch or three, and mandrels and a supply of saw blades that will last out until I learn how not to snap them.

Getting good at things takes time. It is also very likely to take space, and money.

But that doesn’t have to happen with writing. Well, the ‘time’ part does, but not so much the ‘space’ or the ‘money’. I’m still ambitious and I still enjoy experimenting – but writing looks pretty much the same. When I was eleven I wrote in a spiral bound notebook with a fountain pen. I’m still using a spiral bound notebook and a fountain pen. These days I also use word processing software, I’ll admit, but it’s not what makes the difference between good writing and bad.

Because words are words. If I write, for example,

‘It’s weird, isn’t it?’ Lydia said. ‘Waiting. Waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy and justice to finish grinding so that we can get on with our lives.’

you can’t tell whether I wrote that on the back of an envelope or on an expensive Mac. And I can’t excuse bad writing by telling you that the kit I wrote it on cost a lot of money.

The wonderful thing is that words are free. I can throw them in willy-nilly and pull them out again without having to worry about waste. I can make a long string of adjectives and delete it without a second thought. I can pick words up in the street just because I like the sound of them, and use them over and over again. I don’t have to save them for a special piece, the way I would a particularly lovely piece of jasper.

Oh, there are things that have made it easier. An English Literature degree, for example, has really helped in understanding how to take texts apart, and, by extension, how to put my own ones together. A childhood in a house filled to the gunwales with books, swimming in words and meeting them as equals, claiming them as my inheritance. Friends who write and who talk about writing.

But there’s nothing particularly special about what I do. I put in the time, that’s all. I use the words that are hanging around, and I don’t worry about where the next ones are coming from. And I write and write and write until I get better.

The patchwork analogy

For some people, writing a novel is like knitting. You begin at the beginning, and you go on until you get to the end, and then you stop.

Personally, I’m very glad that I was born into the age of the word processor, because I absolutely cannot do that. Oh, I’ve tried. But if a scene, a moment, a phrase, from chapter thirty-two is dancing around in my head, then I can’t settle down to write chapter one.

For me, it’s more like patchwork. Or one particular project, anyway, which was more of a freehand effort than most of my quilts. Let me demonstrate:

You have a general idea of what you want to create, and you start with an idea that takes your fancy. In this case, it was the four seasons, and I thought I’d begin with a jolly yellow sun for summer.dscf9859

You might want to incorporate something that wouldn’t quite fit into a previous project. (I made more of those blue flowers than I needed. Never mind! The spares will do for spring!)

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(This is a bit meta. Any patches in here which are in English, as opposed to gobbledegook, are from the now-deleted first chapter of Speak Its Name.)

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You get all your ideas down and then move them around a bit, seeing how they fit best, what needs to come after what.

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As you go along joining things together, you see where things can be tightened up.

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You see where the gaps are, and you start filling them…

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… until you get something that’s more like the right shape.

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At that point, you can start tidying it up, taking out the things that were only there to hold it in shape during construction.

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Now comes the backing and the pinning and the quilting, the crawling around on the floor and swearing a lot. You feel like you’re nearly there, but there’s still a frustrating amount left to do. (This is where the analogy falls down a bit. This is, oh, I don’t know, the proofreading. And waiting for people to get back to you to tell you where you’ve got things wrong.)

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But once you’ve done that then there’s just the finishing off. And then you can feel rather pleased with yourself. Because the thing’s done, and while it doesn’t perhaps look exactly the way you once envisioned it, it’s not nearly as bad as you once thought it was going to be.

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The first year

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Thursday was Candlemas, which means several things:

  1. It’s spring! At least, it is according to the medieval calendar, which I’m choosing to follow. Having lost most of January to illness (two rounds of this flu-like virus that’s been afflicting people across the country, as I hear) and only got back to normal this past week, it feels like a good time for new beginnings.
  2. I’ve put the crib away at last.
  3. Speak Its Name has been out for a whole year.

I’m pleased with what it’s done during that year. It’s sold. It’s sold to people I don’t know. It’s had excellent reviews, from people I don’t know and from people whose judgement I trust.

I, meanwhile, have become much more confident. These days I admit to writing! These days I think nothing of contacting random bloggers and offering review copies or guest posts.

And I’ve got the first draft of the next book down. That’s not bad going for a year’s work.

In the interests of honesty I have to admit that I’m just coming out of a gigantic wibble about the next book.

It was a twofold wibble:

  1. Who am I going to upset with this? I remember worrying about upsetting people with Speak Its Name, and if I did upset them they never told me. I’m addressing the possibility by asking friends with relevant experience to read the thing.
  2. What if it’s not as good as Speak Its Name? This, of course, is the flip side of getting good reviews for Speak Its Name: I end up convinced that I’m never going to do anything so good ever again. Of course it stands to reason a first draft of one thing isn’t going to be as good as the final version of the previous thing, but you try telling that to my brain.

Maybe I’ll get over my gigantic wibbles with experience, or maybe the occasional gigantic wibble is just part and parcel of writing.

Or maybe it was just the end of the flu.

Delaying

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For me, the new year came in with a whimper, not with a bang. I was in bed long before the bangs started, knocked flat by this virus that everyone’s been getting. And it’s taken me a while to get up and running. There’s a lot to catch up with, or, at least, there could be, if I were thinking in terms of needing to catch up with things.

The crib should have gone away. It didn’t. It’s going to have to stay up until Candlemas now, and for once the Magi get to stay by the manger for more than a day. (The parrots were a present from a friend, who’d seen this crib and got ideas about how to improve mine.)

The printer is out of toner. Which means that I haven’t printed off the current draft of A Spoke in the Wheel. Which means that I haven’t read the current draft of A Spoke in the Wheel. And I’m aware that there’s more to it than the simple fact that the printer’s out of toner.

The snag is the usual one. I am scared of reading it because I am worried that I will come across a problem that is unfixable. Perhaps I have failed to do some essential bit of research and have made a mistake that’s going to kill the whole plot. Perhaps I have managed to be unintentionally yet monumentally offensive. It’s always a variation on one of those two. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

There are two potential ways to deal with this. The first is to wait it out. I’ve lived with myself long enough to know that I do get things finished, eventually, and that if the book and I want to spend two months hiding for each other then perhaps that’s just what we need to do, and we’ll find each other in good time. The second is to get somebody else to read it for me. Sooner or later I would anyway, but this is a much earlier stage in the process, and I find myself reluctant to pass it out before it’s as good as I can get it unaided.

At the moment, while I’m still getting over this illness and blessed with a contented lack of urgency, I’m going with the first option. I spent far too much of last year worrying that I hadn’t done enough, that I wasn’t writing fast enough, and, now that feeling’s a long way off, I’m going to enjoy its absence. The book can wait.

The colour of curtains

Here’s a meme that’s been annoying me:

The curtains

The curtains…

I have never written any blue curtains, so I can’t comment on those. In fact, I think I’ve only written two pairs of curtains, and specified the colour of one of those pairs. They were yellow.

This is what my English teacher told me:

Every word on that page is there because the author wanted it to be there.

The curtains are only in the book at all because the author wanted them to be there. If they described every item of furniture, every fixture and fitting, in a room, then the reader would die of boredom long before any action could begin. Instead, the author has to trust that the reader will fill in the background details subconsciously. This can cause problems for someone trying to convert a textual work into a visual one. In fact, it’s called the Jane Austen’s curtains problem.

Given that, why mention the curtains at all? Why make them blue, if not some other colour? There’s probably a reason, and it’s worth thinking about what it might be.

Colette’s room looked out over the back garden, down towards the railway and across the town. The terraces ran in neat russet lines down the hill; on the other side of the river, the beech trees in the park were vivid amber, and the yellow-grey stone of the old town glowed gold in the October light.

‘Wow,’ Lydia said, ‘you get a lovely view of the cathedral from here.’

‘I know; I’m very lucky. It’s my reward for having the smallest bedroom.’

The window was open, a cool breeze stirring the yellow curtains. Down in the garden they could hear Peter bellowing, ‘Fa-ac me-e te-e-cu-um plangere!’ as he put his laundry up on the clothesline.

When I gave Colette a pair of yellow curtains – and, almost more importantly, when I didn’t take them out again during editing – there were various things in my mind.

Real curtains

I don’t have a particularly visual imagination, and find that inventing objects doesn’t come naturally to me. Consequently, I do tend to appropriate real life objects. The horrible red leather sofa at Balton Street, for example, is real; it was an eyesore in a university friend’s flat. Colette’s curtains belonged to one of my own housemates. (No, that doesn’t mean that she’s the model for Colette. If it comes to that, the friend with the red leather sofa is nothing like anybody at Balton Street.)

Autumn

The yellow curtains call back to the first paragraph in that extract, where there’s already a lot of colour. Russet, amber, yellow-grey, gold: Stancester in autumn. Autumn is traditionally associated with decay, but this is the beginning of the academic year and the beginning of the story. I had to make it all glow very brightly. And yellow can be autumnal but it’s also strongly associated with spring: jasmine, daffodils, primroses, and so on. The beginning of the year. Things awakening.

Liturgy

In the Church (not Lydia’s church, but she doesn’t need to know this) yellow equals gold equals white: the colour of rejoicing, the colour for feasts, for Christmas and Easter, for weddings and baptisms. In most of the rest of the book the dominant colour is purple. Partly because I like purple, yes, but partly because it’s associated with waiting, penitence, mourning, fasting. Colette, the out bisexual character, could very well have purple curtains. But she doesn’t. She isn’t waiting or penitent or mourning or fasting at the moment, though she’ll do all of those things over the course of the book. She’s content in who and what she is in a way that Lydia can’t understand yet. And the curtains are yellow.

Did I do all that consciously, deliberately? I doubt it, at least in the first draft. As best I can remember, my thought process went something like:

looking out of the window – oh, better have some curtains, then – any particular curtains? – A’s curtains – yellow curtains

That’s not really the point. The point is that they remained yellow. This mention of yellow was a lot less deliberate than any mention of purple, but I kept it because it worked.

Later, when Lydia recalls the incident, the curtains are mentioned again, but their colour isn’t:

And the clear autumn breeze lifting the hem of the curtain, and Peter singing in the garden, and her soul standing on the threshold of its self-made prison, not yet ready to step out, but knowing for the first time that there was a world outside it.

Because their colour isn’t relevant here. The point now is that the window’s open.

It’s always worth thinking about the curtains.

And this approach goes for any detail. Why is Peter singing that particular line? Because it’s a lot of fun to sing, and I know that because I’ve sung tenor in the Dvorak Stabat Mater myself. Because it does sound a bit dirty if you don’t immediately realise that it’s not in English, and this scene needed to go a little way beyond Lydia’s comfort zone.

One could also say that the meaning of the Latin is relevant. Make me weep with you. The speaker is asking to enter more fully into the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, and there is certainly a sense in which the book is about expanding one’s spiritual experience.

But that’s a bit of a stretch. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t thinking of that when I put it in. So I don’t know, maybe the maker of that meme has a point after all.

Yes, the curtains were fucking yellow. But if there hadn’t been a reason for that then they wouldn’t have existed at all.