Whenever I’m asked what I do, my first instinct is to say: writer.
That’s how I think of myself. I see myself in pen and paper, stacks of books, boxes full of half-formed ideas and dream diaries tucked into a nook at the foot of my bed. I find myself between letters on a page, in the gaps between words. I define myself by the flow of sentences, the weft and wave of a voice coaxed out onto a page.
But before I can say ‘writer’, I stop.
I remain an unpublished scribbler. Yet every waking minute of every day, it’s there in my head. I want to finish the beast (my novel). I’m going to be a professional writer.
Here’s the thing: starving artists are so 20th century.
Like every other ink-slave, I make time to work around my other work: the real life day job thingymabob.
If you’re like me then you need this job. Our jobs are key to keeping us in houses. In fact, we will most likely need this job long after we publish. The creative arts aren’t exactly known for being lucrative.
Is there anything worse than having to leave our latest chapter at home to toil away the daylight hours under brassy office lights, earning all in the name of moola?
I’m not sure. However, there are pros and cons to our situation and as a would-be-professional I choose to believe we can make the most of it (or must make the most of it) if we actually want to succeed.
But don’t just take it from an unpublished word slinger. I’ve been chatting to two of my favourite ladies about their own journeys: Fran Dorricott, who has just submitted her first novel (a crime thriller) to a prospective agent, and Virginia MacGregor, whose two novels What Milo Saw and The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells you absolutely must read.
They have very different stories.
Virginia was my teacher once-upon-a-time and in order to really focus on finishing her first novel (or the first that was published) she took an unpaid sabbatical year. This gave her a clear span of time to kick start her writing though she says this doesn’t mean quitting your job is the best or only way to do it.
Whilst the initial year off work helped, when asked how she now balances writing and teaching, she says, “I just write whenever I’m not teaching or looking after my little girl. I’m really strict with myself about not procrastinating and just getting on with it. I also time myself when I write and make a note of how many minutes or hours I’ve spent writing each day. I add up my hours every month and year and that really inspires me to make sure that I write as much as I can every day. I’m working towards those 10,000 hours!”
On the other hand, Fran describes her ‘first book’ as ‘a long time in the making’.
She says, “Over the years I’ve had a few jobs. Mostly I’ve tried to choose retail jobs because not only are they plentiful (in theory) they also tend to have the sort of schedule that can work really well for me. Usually part-time, the jobs tend to afford a varied schedule meaning I meet as many strange and wonderful people as possible, and I don’t get bored. I worked in a clothing store, an office, and most recently I’m working as a bookseller.”
However, like Virginia, Fran has a very simple approach that gives her time to get her writer on.
She makes time.
On days off from work, she ‘treats writing like a full time job’. On weekdays where writing time was missed, she made up for it on weekend.
“I’d set goals, and that would generally help to motivate me. A certain amount of words in a month, or a deadline for a whole finished project,” Fran tells me. “I figure you can easily find the time if you’re dedicated enough: before work, on lunch breaks, staying up later or getting up earlier. Stay in and write on weekends instead of going shopping, or dictate on your phone while you’re walking your dog(s)… It’s all about priorities!”
Setting goals is central to accomplishing anything where time is a significant pressure.
Deciding on those goals can be simple – Virginia mentions the idea of setting a target of just five minutes a day to write, “By the time you’ve sat down and got started, you’ll always write more than five minutes but the thought, initially, doesn’t feel too daunting so you’re more likely to do it.”
Of course, there are hurdles and challenges – exhaustion being one of the main ones. Being on her feet all day in retail jobs is something Fran found physically draining. Likewise, being in front of a screen all day just to come home and sit in front of the laptop presents its own challenges. As a teacher, Virginia would struggle to find those long stretches of time necessary to going deeper into a story. And I know from my own experience that starting to write at 8pm on a Wednesday rarely leads to the most productive work.
Fact is, wearing two hats (or more) requires diligence. Requires you become diligent.
If you won’t make the time, if you won’t nail your sexy scribbler butt down and bash those keys until your fingers bleed, if you won’t hunker down and spend your time writing you will never be a writer.
“The most important thing is this: Don’t be afraid to put your writing first,” explains Fran when I asked if she had a secret to making time. “Yes your friends might be irritated that you’re bailing on them for the third time this month, but if they’re good friends then they’ll understand; obviously your job comes high up on the list of priorities (sadly, we do all need to eat), but there’s a lot of time outside of that job that you can utilise if you want to.”
I think this is something we can all understand as writers. We do have to be selfish sometimes.
Time is our most precious commodity. You can’t reclaim lost hours. You can’t take back days wasted on something or someone who didn’t deserve it. You can’t find time lying around like spare change in a coat pocket (and let’s be honest if you found extra time, you’d probably just do the same thing with it as an extra twenty: waste the hell out of it).
Because if we don’t make time, what happens? The words aren’t written, the pages aren’t filled, the chapters aren’t finished and the book goes on being an interesting but intangible quirk to occasionally bring up over too many bottles of swill. And if you are a writer, this is an intolerable thought.
So, dear scribblers, look over your options:
Consider how important the ‘writers dream’ really is to you.
Set goals to help you accomplish what you want.
Use the fact that we now live in a digital-first society to your best advantage.
Flexible, freelance, full of different skills and projects – with the internet, we have freedom to create a schedule that works for us – whether that’s an office or otherwise.
The writers that succeed are the writers that write. The ones trying to be better writers, who have a plan, who aspire to be more than the writer they were yesterday. They have the same tenacity as successful start up founders – they know there’s a high risk of failure and say, “sod it, I’m doing it anyway.”
Or as Virginia said, if you want to fulfil your writers dream then, “No excuses. No exceptions. Don’t let a single day go by without writing something. Lock yourself in the bathroom and write on the loo if you need to – just write, no matter what.”
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT VIRGINIA MACGREGOR & FRAN DORRICOT
Check out Virginia MacGregor’s website (and twitter:@) for insights into her own writing, interviews with other writers, some great little articles and many more fantastic motivational and recommended writerly things.
You can also find her debut novel, What Milo Saw, and her second novel, The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, on Wordery.
If you don’t already know Fran Dorricott’s brilliant crime fiction blog, then you should check it out. It’s currently on hiatus but the content that’s there is brilliant to read and I’ve been told it might be making a comeback soon.
You can also find her on twitter: @franwritesstuff