Archive for January, 2016

Idle Hands


Clearly, not enough...

Clearly, not enough…

I have come to one inevitable conclusion: I would be a useless baker.

All that kneading and proving and shaping and re-proving and waiting, and waiting, and waaaaaaaaaiiiiiting.

Were I, in some parallel universe, to end up on the Great British Bake-Off, I’d be pacing, and crouching, and pacing, and drumming my fingers on countertops, and hitting things with wooden spoons (probably including fellow competitors), and kicking the proving drawer, and reading three books and pondering the nature of spatulas and whistling tunelessly and driving everybody else as far up the wall as I was.

I know this to be true, because, for the first time in recent history, I am being made to wait.

Yes. I know. I’ve got one book out with one agent. I should be you, with your multiple books, multiple agents, Venn diagrams of rejection, lists of people against whom bloody revenge will be enacted when you’re rich and bestseller famous, short stories by the sackful with magazines around the globe, yadda yadda yadda. I’m also aware of the advice I recently gave a ghostwriting client, that if he was going to demand the universe bend to his timescales, he fundamentally wasn’t cut out for the traditional publishing route. I know. I know. I know!

But still, the evil little thought-worms burrow through your brain, don’t they?
Wonder if he’s read it it yet.

Haven’t heard a peep – and he asked for it. Surely it was at least peepworthy?

Maybe he’s just not that into me…

Read me, damn you! I worked hard on this thing. Validate me!


At which point, all the rational, logical people (which is to say non-writers), give you good, honest, utterly unhelpful advice.

He’s got a life, you know?

How would you feel if someone was pressurising you to validate them?

Have you any idea how much he has to read?

You remember at the conference, agents said they only read new writers in their own time, right? Between breakfast and the office, between the office and dinner. Give the man a break.

Sure, right...Write the next one...

Sure, right…Write the next one…

Write the next one while you’re waiting.

All of which, as I say, is perfectly reasonable, logical advice, and all of which makes you want to scream “But I’m DIFFERENT!” The illusion of one’s own difference, of one’s own secret, hidden away literary genius burns, however much you try to tell the world and yourself that it doesn’t, deep down inside you. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have put up with all the nonsense that writing a book entails. You’d have had…well, a life of your own! Your family would remember what you looked like, and wouldn’t have that slightly glazed look on their faces when you emerge periodically from your self-induced isolation to grab a coffee or some toast. Personally speaking, I’d have hair. A working liver. Probably wouldn’t have had to switch to the pointlessness of decaff as the ideas and characters prodded me with sticks to write all through the night. Goddammit, man, validate my existence and answer me!

There comes a point when even a “This is nonsense, go away and live under a stone” answer feels like it would be better that the nothing. The hopeful, hopeful nothing.

That’s the point when you can collapse the waveform of this particular hope and move on to the next one on the list, opening yourself up to the next set of critical boots. But that’s just the masochism of the writer talking. My wife calls it my “Fifty Shades of Writing” instinct.

So what the hell should we do, while the dough of our hope rises, or doesn’t, in someone else’s hands?

  1. Probably, this. Probably getting it out once in a while among a community that doesn’t think we’re stark raving bonkers is the healthy thing to do. It’s probably the thing that saves us going up somewhere high with an automatic weapon.
  2. Write. Any damn thing you can. I know from personal experience that there’s a sense of living in the shadow of one book until you know what, if anything, is happening to it, so I understand it can be hard to “Start the next one” while your mind is still entangled with your current progeny. But don’t let yourself get rusty, or you’ll have a longer journey back to the kind of form of which you’re capable when you do start. Articles, short stories, blog entries, diaries, write any damn thing you can, but write it as if it’s for public consumption, even if it isn’t. Polish it if you can. You never know, it might turn out to have a market down the line.
  3. Resist. Oh my WritingBrothers and ScribeSisters, resist at all costs the urge to tinker. The minute you tinker in a feedback-vacuum, the version that gets accepted or rejected is not the ‘right’ version in your head. When the answer comes, one way or another, tinker your ever-loving hearts out if you need to, if the answer to why a scene never quite worked has come to you. But resist the urge to change what’s on your machine without the feedback of the people you’ve sent it to. That way lie multiple literary dimensions, and it’s the easiest way to get lost in Version-Hell. What’s perhaps more, it’s the easiest way to dodge the pain of rejection, falling back on ‘Ah, but they haven’t seen the tweaked version.’ Take your licks when they come, for everything they’re actually worth.
  4. Plan. You can be a pantser all you like, and absolutely, sometimes, the best, funniest, most dramatic or emotionally intense scenes comes from a blank screen or a blank sheet of paper and absolutely no fixed idea of what the next scene should be. But your next book will be about something. Answer the question of what. Answer the question of why. Let the characters wander into your mind, look at your answers and kick them around a bit, and see what they look like then. Once you’ve answered the what and why questions, let the spiderwebs begin to form, the connections between one thing and another. Let the world begin to build itself inside your head – ultimately, the only thing that’ll stop you obsessing over your current book is the dynamic force of the next one needing to be written.
  5. Read. Read and read and read. Listen, the world’s a big place, and it’s been around a while. You’re not going to live long enough even to read everything you want to read, but chain-reading’s the only way to get even close. Read widely within your genre, so you know its heartbeat, its must-haves, its already-dones. Read widely outside your genre to bring your difference. Read sideways, read random, read books you’re not even sure you want to read. You never know what might end up feeding in to your worlds, your books in the future. I got what turned out to be a major underpinning factor of my current book from a marked-down, torn-cover book of quantum biology I bought in a post-Christmas sale the year before last. Always allow yourself to be surprised by things you read – after all, it’s not like you’ve got anything else to do while the inbox stays silent and the phone doesn’t ring.
  6. Live. You know you’re probably going to turn into a grumpy, fizzing but strangely uncommunicative hermit once you start your next book. So take time out to reconnect with the people who still love you. Take time out to catch up with people who probably used to love you before you locked yourself away and started shouting at the walls.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me – there’s a woman sitting across from me, raising one eyebrow. I’m fairly sure at some point I was married to her. I should probably try speaking to her in the ‘out-loud’ world.

And then I’m going to check my email.

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