Monday, 9 December 2013

The Long Haul by Dan Holloway

At school, I was in the last year to take O-levels. Had I been born a year later, or rather had I not been to a primary school where anyone with an aptitude for maths was for some random reason bumped up a year, I would have been in the first year to sit GCSEs. And that would have meant course work as a means of assessment alongside exams. Whenever I think of it I almost feel the physical whistle of a dodged bullet flying past my ear.

As a writer, though, I often feel that same bullet, doubled back, relodged in the barrel of a gun and staring me down from within my computer screen as I type.

If I say that the problem is maintaining interest, that makes me sound like a flake. I don’t think I’m a flake. I’ve put in the hours to get to national standard or higher at various things in my life, from playing bridge to taking IQ tests to powerlifting and indoor rowing. If I say the problem is maintaining concentration, that makes it sound like I find it impossible to achieve “flow” at something. And that’s certainly not true. If I say the problem is maintaining motivation, that makes me sound weak-willed. And that’s certainly not true.

And yet there *is* a problem.

I don’t want to talk about the problem we all face with our books of reaching that “it’s no longer new and exciting and besides I’ve got to the middle which can only ever best be described as the gelatinous part of the book because I plan either side of it but reduce it to a post it note saying ‘and then’” stage of a novel. There are already plenty of advice columns and books full of useful titbits about how to plough on through the stodgy middle stages of a book. First amongst which would be “how about planning it out in more detail than a single post it and a bit of magical thinking that ‘it’ll just happen’.”

The main piece of advice I’d actually give on that particular issue is to do some work on your Myers Briggs type. Specifically, find out where you stand on the judging (J)/perceiving (P) spectrum. This has to do with how we are most comfortable approaching projects. J types will be most comfortable spreading their energy evenly over the period during which the project needs to be completed. P types experience an initial burst, followed by a tailing off, and then a flourish as the deadline approaches. Understanding which you are (using any number of online diagnostic tools) will be the first step to helping you prepare for, and thus deal with, your mind’s natural energy cycle during the book writing process.

I want to look at the even longer haul. Because that’s something we rarely think about when we’re starting out but we really should. All too often we only feel that jaded malaise several years into our writing lives as we look back over our pile of, let’s face it, not hugely impressive manuscripts; as we look sideways at those who started with us who now have contracts or syndicated columns in glossy magazines or a steadily increasing series that sits solidly on the bestsellers lists; as we look forward and see our writing lives, like the middles of our manuscripts, flobbling around gelatinously.

This problem becomes compounded by a generic haze of well-meaningness that attends our attempts to articulate it. So many times I’ve seen writer friends post on social media that they are going through this kind of authorial identity crisis only to be flooded with cries of “don’t give up” or “you can’t, your writing’s wonderful” or “keep going, you’ll get there in the end.” Now, yes, I know that a goodly proportion of such instances come under the technical category of the “Facebook-LOVE-ME-flounce” and are ameliorated simply by such responses. But that only further complicates things for the significant minority who really are feeling a genuine sense of ruttedness.

The problem with “don’t give up” is that sometimes the best thing to do with something in our lives is draw a line under it and move on to something else that makes us happier and “your writing’s wonderful” doesn’t change the fact that it might actually be best for you to give up. I’m not saying that stagnation means we should give up – but it would be a joyless dead horse flogging world if we didn’t use these moments to pause for genuine reflection, and that’s harder when well-meaning people give you the answer they think you want to hear. And a major problem with “you’ll get there in the end” is that, well, most of us won’t. But the real problem is that most of us don’t know what “there” is.

And that’s the real point here.

There are two main reasons why we can end up disenchanted with writing, and I want to look briefly at both. The first is that when we start, we often jump in head first in a flurry of excitement without actually stopping and asking ourselves what we want to get out of it. In other words, we will never know if we’ve got there or not, because we have no idea where there is. Yes, we may have dreams of an agent, and a publishing deal, or of emulating the self-publishing successes we read about in the papers, but these are rarely fleshed out fully. We’re too busy being excited with the actual writing for that. Which is all well and good, but it’s very easy for us never to redress this rather fundamental point, and so it’s no wonder that, several years down the line, we feel somewhat rudderless.

Of course, it would be best to sit down before we set a finger to keyboard and ask ourselves exactly what we want from our writing (in fact, I have a book coming out this month, Self-publish With Integrity, which advises just that). But realistically that’s not always going to happen. And it’s never too late.

What I would suggest is trying to define exactly what it is you want from your writing in a single sentence. Consider it the elevator pitch for your writing life. It’s one of those things that sounds much easier than it actually is. “I want to delight readers” some people say. Um, fine, but *which* readers? “I have to tell stories” others say but, again *which* stories? “The stories in my head.” Nope, that still won’t cut it because one day you’ll get block and you’ll still be just as much a writer but there won’t be any stories in your head. What you need is to be specific. Really specific. It may sound as though I’m being a killjoy. You may even say I’m betraying my roots as a teacher. But the simple fact is that most people end up feeling rudderless because they were never clear about where they wanted to be going, and the clearer you are about that – not just with this book, or this series of books – the sooner you will get yourself back on track and the easier it will be for you to keep from falling into that flobbling floundering state again. Once you have that single sentence, print it out, laminate it, and pin it to your wall – and while you’re at it go and make a skin for your tablet or laptop with it emblazoned on.

I discovered the second reason for these existential sagginesses when I came across a truly wonderful article on the interwebs. Too Many Aptitudes by Hank Pfeffer http://megasociety.org/noesis/138/aptitude.html outlines the reason why many people tend to be flitters. Do go and read the article – I know so many people who’ve read it and then bounced up and down shouting “yes, that’s me!” In short, his point is that when people have a wide range of aptitudes, there is a fairly wide choice of things they “could” do well if they put the time in. They tend not to get put off things that “just aren’t for them.” The result is that whenever they start something new, they really get into it, and get a huge buzz. When that initial buzz starts to wear off, as it always does, many people will retain the maximum potential reward: activity ratio by buckling down and ploughing on through.

But those with a wide set of aptitudes will find it relatively easy to get a full-on kick again simply by trying their hand at something else. So they develop a natural strategy for coping with flobbliness of moving on to something else.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a whole life of flitting. It can be extremely rewarding. But it can also be at odds with our long-term goals. What if we have “too many aptitudes” but want to achieve something with our writing that will take a long time? How then do we cope with sagginess? For me, the answer has been to do very different things within my writing life – but to try to keep them all aimed at the same overall target. I write novels in different genres, I perform poetry, I give presentations, and I write articles. Yes, I would almost certainly be a lot further along in what people may see as a conventional writing career if I had stuck with just one of those things. Only, no I wouldn’t. Because I’d have stopped writing. Doing so many things keeps everything I do fresh.

Whatever the reason for your sag, the chances are that the best thing to do is to stop and spend some time really getting to know yourself. And with that knowledge you can move on better armed to fight the flobble.
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Dan Holloway’s book Self-publish With Integrity: Define Success In Your Own Terms And Then Achieve It will be published on December 16th.


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