Hello and welcome to Day 9 of the 100 Day Writing Challenge. Seems like a dreadfully long way to go, all of a sudden, doesn’t it?
And this vertiginous cognisance of scale, of distance is something that I think most authors who’ve attempted a novel experience sooner or later. You come up with an idea – wow! Ooh gosh I must write it down. And then the honeymoon can of course turn into a tyre fire at any point but the real wake up call, the real three kids and a mortgage moment comes when you’ve put in a considerable amount of work, ten thousand words, fifteen thousand, and suddenly you look up and realise: ‘oh my stars, I’ve barely even started. The final thing’s going to be like ten times as long as this. And this is only the first draft.’
That is quite the reality check. When you stagger to the top of the ziggurat and see the hundreds of miles of jungle stretching out in all directions. And you’re like what am I doing. I’m exhausted already and this is the freshest, most enthusiastic most motivated I’m going to be.
There it is. Your mind snaps into defensive, error-spotting, future anticipating, mistake-avoiding mode. This does not seem worth it, you think. I should save myself inevitable suffering by stopping now. Treat what I’ve done as a sunk cost and quit.
And that is – and I think we really need to acknowledge this if we’re going to get anywhere – that’s sound logic. Grounded in self-compassion. You don’t want yourself to suffer. And as far as you can see this thing you’re embarking on is sheer folly that will eat up a lot of your energy and inevitably end in suffering with no great benefit to counterbalance it. Why wouldn’t you stop?
I struggle with this nonsense so much. I often find writing painful, I feel vulnerable and dumb and stupid when I write. And look. Honestly, the upsides as we conventionally conceive of them: sales, recognition, the satisfaction of seeing my books on a shelf, those things on their own have not, I don’t think, been sufficient compensation for the effort I’ve put into my craft.
When people ask me how long my last novel was and I say 130,000 words they’re like ‘wow, that must have taken a long time’ and I’m like no shit, it took me millions of words just to get to the blank page and the idea.
Viewing writing as teleological – something that moves from an origin towards a destination and the destination is the point – makes it miserable. It means the vast majority of it will be, for you, a slog. And the moment you reach that target that goal that finished book that printed and bound bestseller or whatever it turns out to be, the second you’re done? It just spits you out onto the starting line of the next race. Where’s your next book? Your next idea?
This is why so many authors I’ve chatted to on the podcast have a monumentally shitty second novel experience. Cos you work so hard on that first one telling yourself I’ve just got to get to the end I’ve just got to roll this over the line, come on, my reward is waiting, and when you do, almost instantly you’re back where you started, working on a new one. And you go: ‘oh. This shit never ends.’ And that is brutal.
It’s like any job you’ve had where your only goal, the only thing that brought you pleasure, was eating up the hours and creeping closer to your lunchbreak, and then clocking off at the end of the day. I’ve done jobs like that. They made me miserable. And unwittingly, people turn writing into that. The pursuit of extrinsic goals. Writing to please others. For acceptance. For safety.
I wrote because I thought it would help me escape being a grown-up. I thought it would make me a worthwhile person. I thought it would help me like myself and give my life meaning and I thought it might make other people like me too.
And in some ways, writing did give me little crumbs of all of those things. But that’s a hugely precarious, stressful existence.
What I’m getting at here, in today’s little sermon, up here in the pulpit, the ‘coward’s castle’ as some anti-ecclesiastical wags are wont to call it, is if you are to write, and make it worth it, to make, in fact, writing worthy of you – now there’s a concept, not are you good enough to be a writer, but is writing good enough to deserve your time and love – if you’re going to write, you’d better make damn sure it’s for reasons that nourish and invigorate you.
So often we come to writing like it’s this angry volcano god we need to appease. Or some golden guru we’re scarcely worthy of. I’m not saying it’s never appropriate to treat art and the creation of art with reverence, but at some point you’ve got to ask, not if you’re worthy of being a writer, but is writing worthy of you? What’s it offering as its part of the bargain? Not five years down the line. Now.
Here’s a dirty little secret. You’re allowed to demand something of writing. You’re allowed to exploit it to your own ends.
If you’re suffering, then you can give that suffering back to the writing and explore it. If your heart is broken, you can break the hearts of your characters and walk them through years, decades of mourning for the thing or the one that was lost. If you’re angry, you can sow that anger and watch it grow into blazing wheat fields. If you’re bored you can write about a whale who can morph into a battle robot and has a series of torrid sexual encounters with other mammal-machine combos. You can honour your feelings.
That’s not to say that fiction doesn’t need craft or effort or a certain methodical plodding determination. I’m keenly aware that a lot of what passes for writing advice these days is just a farrago of clubby, boosterish smarm. You don’t need someone wafting incense about telling you how special writers are. You need practical tools and immediately applicable advice. So my advice is: however professional and disciplined you want to be, don’t forget to come to writing asking something in return. What is your writing going to teach you today? What comfort or wisdom is it going to offer? How is it going to change you?
One thing I’ve talked about on the podcast that informs your exercise today is this idea of inspiration. In-spiration – the taking in of spirit, breathing in. We talk about getting inspired which implies it’s something that happens to us, but actually I feel like we can make ourselves active participants in the inhalation process. We can choose to start hoovering up spirits like Luigi in the frankly second-tier Luigi’s Mansion series.
So what I’d like you to do today is to, yes, produce a list. But this list is going to be of reading material. Stuff that you need to read. Because I know you get lectured all the time, read, read, read. Writers need to read. I don’t think that approach ever makes reading feel terribly attractive. When it’s framed as an obligation. But nonetheless, it’s dead useful. It will level you up as an author.
So it’s really helpful to have a bit of a game plan. You might note down specific novels or authors you really want to get round to reading. But it’s also worth asking yourself more generally. What sort of stuff do you want to write? What genres would it be handy for you to do more reading in?
And what about non-fiction topics? Research is so damn important. It really is the secret sauce of good writing. I’d go so far to say it’s impossible to write well without doing research unless what you’re writing is so autobiographical or so intimately connected to your life experience – maybe you write a thriller set on an oil rig and you worked on the rigs for ten years – that you know all the important bits anyway. So you could include in your list areas that you’d really like to know more about.
If you write Fantasy, could you research a history of magic, or different weapons, or the basics of farming? If you want to write historical fiction what stuff do you need to know from the era you’re interested in? If you’re interested in a particular profession, what do you need to know about that?
Write these things down, these areas you need to know more on, these lacunae in your knowledge. Be as exhaustive as you can.
So, does that make sense. A list of stuff you need to read, or could read, or research, to help you in the writing you’d like to do. If you’ve not got some big novel planned, that’s fine. Just imagine the kind of areas you think might be interesting. And remember, you can note down specific titles of books, or just areas to find books on later, like ‘submarines’ or ‘life in 3rd century China’.
Make sense? Good. You’ve got ten minutes. Try to come out with as many options as possible. Ready? Go.
And that’s your lot. I hope that was useful. I realise it wasn’t as intrinsically creative as previous days but I do think it’s damn important to get thinking about this, and realising you’re allowed to upgrade your knowledge, your learning, to project status. As a writer, it’s your business to go poking your nose into different areas and find stuff out.
Now this list, in the weeks that follow, can – if you wish – form the basis for the books you choose to read, the articles you browse online. And the fiction can become part of your reading for pleasure. Which, if you’re not doing already, no shame in that, but, try it out. You might enjoy it!
You might also reflect on whether there are some actual human beings you could grill on this stuff. In my experience, people are surprisingly ok with your just emailing them saying ‘oh hello, I notice you’re a marine biologist. I’m writing a story and I was wondering if I could ask you a question about pufferfish.’ So maybe try that.
Right. We’re done here, and tomorrow is our final day of lists. I hope you’ll join me for that, and although there really isn’t and never will be homework, I would ask that you have your list of locations and fictional places to hand for tomorrow’s exercise, if that’s ok. I mean, even if it’s not. Please have it. Do have a lovely rest in the meantime.