Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Lynne Barrett-Lee On Writing

‘Yes,’ or so the narrative goes. ‘Yes, yes, oh, yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES, YESSSSSSS!’

I'm not the first, obviously, to quote the actress Meg Ryan, and I’ve a hunch that neither will I be the last.  And it may well be that, in doing so, I'm sliding slightly towards cliché, but I'm prepared to risk it, as I can think of no better way to put what I'm trying to say, which is ‘just say yes’.

Ah. Perhaps those three words would do just as well. After all, as writers, the big thing that’s always drummed into us is to avoid using lots of words when fewer will do.

And here’s more; ‘it’s a long game’, a ‘precarious business’, and that old chestnut – that ‘2% of writers, in total, earn more than the other 98% combined’.

I made those figures up, actually, but they are certainly in the ballpark. Writing is an incredibly tricky way for a person to make a living because for every J K Rowling or Terry Pratchett or Dan Brown there are thousands – tens of thousands, perhaps – scratching one, because there just aren’t that many livings to be made.

Which begs the question – why does anyone make it a career choice? With odds like that, you’d have to be some kind of lunatic, wouldn’t you? Well, yes. That’s exactly what you are.

What we all are. As I always point out whenever I find myself  in a room of budding novelists (hungry for instruction, words of wisdom and hopefully the names of a couple of agents) writers write because they are afflicted by what many liken to a disease. The majority of us write because we can’t NOT write. Which is what makes it so astounding, when you stop and really think about it, that, on any given day, there are writers - writers desperate to make writing their day job - spending hours and hours failing to do just that.

Sound familiar? I imagine it might do because one of the chief gripes I deal with when teaching my novel writing classes is the writerly affliction that dare not speak its name, but which attracts acres and acres of analysis and discussion,  and generally goes something like this…                                     

Nasty. Nothing more dispiriting than an empty page, is there? Damn that  wicked muse and it’s capriciousness. But let’s give the resultant lack of progress an acronym instead, shall we?  Let’s simply refer to it as WB, and having done that, let’s afford it the respect it deserves i.e. none whatsoever. Nada.

Because the truth is that, in most instances (a few diehards will disagree with me, and that’s their right) WB is a luxury you really can’t afford if you are serious about trying to write for a living.

Those italics are key. If you don’t aspire to becoming a career writer, then it’s fine. You can stare into the middle distance, gently bleating, all you like. Your output or lack of is entirely your affair. But if you want to earn proper folding money (or its post-modern digital equivalent) you need to get publishable words down on paper, and get them published - and do it day in and day out.

It’s a bit like the relationship that exists between calories and weight, which is a simple one. You take them in, you use them up, you do the maths and, hey presto, that relationship is proven, time and again. But that doesn’t stop the juggernaut that is new-diet-craze, does it? There must be some other way, people think, scouring the media. Some easier way. Some better way, some nicer way than that.

It’s the same with writing. There is no route out of being unpublished than the (some might say) boring one (I don’t, for sure) of sitting down and writing. And writing some more.

But I can’t! I hear you cry. Some days, it’s just not happening! I’ve been afflicted by a virulent case of WB!  And I feel your pain, I do, because that happens to me too. But that’s where the ‘yes’ bit comes in.

It might sound trite, but the reason I earn a fine living writing is that  when I’ve been short on inspiration, I have written other things. I’ve never turned down a writing gig, ever.

I started small. Yes, I had a lofty plan to Be A Published Novelist. That’s a given. But since I had no more idea about how to write a novel than I did about, say, spacecraft ergonomics, I thought I would chance my arm writing short stories while I practiced. I wrote several, I got a few published, I amassed wealth (where wealth is defined as a lot of free copies of the small press magazines I had subscribed to in the first place in order to see what sort of short stories I might sell.) Then I focused. I did sums. I realized (somewhat fretfully) that in order to survive, I needed more in the way of food than sustainably sourced paper, however culturally enriching the words printed on it might be.

I diversified. I wrote a piece about being a student teacher for the TES. I wrote an article about pregnancy hormones for You and Your Baby. I wrote a readers letter and sold it to BEST magazine (for a whopping £50) about getting confused in a toilet in Debenhams. I embraced the WOMAG  market (that’s the woman’s magazine market for the uninitiated), realizing that if I researched well, studied the craft (and, boy, is there a lot of craft to it) I could write fiction ‘in the style of’, varying to suit each magazine, and, if I toiled, could get published in all of them.

And so it continued, and still goes on a whole two decades later, with perhaps the biggest leap of faith (having by now nailed that ‘novel writing’ thing) was to say yes, when approached by a stranger and asked if I’d help them write their life story, while my agent yelled ‘noooo!’.

In fact, thinking about it, saying yes has been key to every positive development in my writing career. Yes to those writing gigs (you never know where they might lead), to those invitations to speak in backofbeyondsville (you never know who you might meet) to those to teach (you never know what might come of it  - in my case, a book) to the idea that, actually, it’s a myth, the whole ‘career’ thing. For almost everyone, being a writer isn’t a career. Not in the sense that it’s something plannable or controllable. You are flotsam and jetson, willo-the-wisp, at the mercy of the breeze, a slave to fortune. Almost everything that happens to you, outside of the actual writing, is down to destiny and circumstance – and those pesky right-time-right-place dynamics. Understand that, embrace it, be joyful, and be industrious.

You are already special. Course you are - you’re a writer. So just say yes, and give fate a helping hand.

facebook page   Lynne Barrett-Lee Author and Ghostwriter
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NOVEL; Plan it. Write it. Sell it. By Lynne Barrett-Lee:

Published by: Thistle Publishing
Price: £3.99
Date: Out now

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