36,408

When I work on a book, I’ll also work on something else simultaneously.

It won’t be another new book – it’s hard enough keeping track of all the characters, threads, and ideas for one prospective novel, let alone two. I’m always surprised when people say they’re working on two (or more) novels simultaneously. (I don’t count swapping back and forth between projects but never finishing anything.)

The closest I’ll get to working on more than one novel is if I also revise another, but only as long as it’s more so a copyedit revision, rather than a structural edit revision that might require some rewriting. As far as the copyedit goes, I might read a chapter or two (depending on their length) as warm-up for my brain. Then I feel I can flow into my work-in-progress.

Or I could revise a short story, or even write a new short story – the only qualifier here is that I have to be able to finish a draft (either writing something new, or revising an existing draft) in a single sitting, so it’s doesn’t become too much of a distraction. I want to be able to get in, get out, with it having no ongoing impact on my work-in-progress.

Poetry is something else that’s a good sideline – although, sometimes, my ruminations take me deep into the night, because I struggle to find the exact way I want to depict what I’m feeling. But it’s always cathartic, and I’ve written enough poetry now that I’m thinking of either subbing around a collection, or self-publishing it.

Lately, I’ve also been working on screenplays. I wrote screenplays prolifically through the early 2000s and had a couple optioned. I thought they were great. I had this infallible self-belief. Of course, I was an idiot. (There’s a good chance I still am.) Neither option went anywhere. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t.

When I look back at all those old screenplays, they’re grossly overwritten, and the narrative in a few of them is (to put it kindly) contrived. However, some are structurally sound – at least as far as the framework goes. I’ve picked the best of them out and tried to revise. At times this has meant almost rewriting from scratch, and/or fleshing out the story.

Over the last year, I’ve also written a handful of new screenplays. Compared to the 2000s vintage, they work better on every level – the way they’re written, the causality of the narrative, and the solidity of the suspension of disbelief. I’ve discovered I have more confidence writing a screenplay than I do any form of prose.

Screenwriting also provides an interesting contrast to prose. With prose, you get inside a character’s head. You relate what you see and how they feel. You can have an internal monologue driving the narrative. Screenwriting is different. An internal monologue is not going to work – you can translate it as voiceover, but you’re always having to think about what the audience is seeing. It has to be engaging. A character sitting on a couch coming to some slow realisation is not engaging. That has to be represented other ways that is going to hook the audience.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve refocused some of my energy on screenplays and subbed to a variety of international comps (because there’s so many of them), and met with some minor success in placing in a few of them. Some of those places have only been getting through to the next round, where perhaps another two hundred other writers have also gotten through. But I look at that in the context that possibly six or seven hundred people have been culled, so just to survive that is gratifying. As a writer, you hang onto little victories.

One screenplay, a 30-minute satire/pilot entitled ‘Producers’ – about a former shady tax lawyer, now heading a four-person production team trying to raise money for a feature – was a semi-finalist in the Showtime’s Tony Cox Episodic Screenplay (30 Min) Competition, which was flattering. ‘Producers’ was written originally over ten years ago, but has undergone repeated heavy revision and restructuring. To get any recognition is encouragement that I might be doing something – no matter how small – right. Or maybe I’m doing something right in a small way.

It’s been a lot of writing of various forms to juggle throughout the last year, while also working on a new book. Just when I get one of those peripheral commitments out of the way, something else pops up – another competition I want to enter, or a short story submission opportunity where I want to revise. My mind feels spread in different directions, which is not my preferred way of operating – but, at the moment, it feels like I can stay on top of it because at least when I am working on a couple of things, they’re different forms.

Well, that’s what I keep telling myself.

And this is what you do as a writer.

You write.

Submit.

And do it over and over.

 
Last Week’s Lie: My editor, Lucy Bell, and I did not go on a tyre-mauling rampage.

1972

Fantasy – namely The Lord of the Rings – inspired my love of storytelling. I read LotR over one Christmas break, way back in about 1982. Then I devoured other fantasy novels. Swords, magic, heroic quests – everything that would appeal to an imaginative kid.

In 1985, I wrote my first book – part one of an intended five-book fantasy epic – when I was 15, hand-writing it in two A5 exercise books over the space of eighteen months. I gave no thought to planning it. I just wrote, my mythology changing as I went. Often, I would sit up late at night (and sometimes through until morning) working on it, surviving on a diet of tea and cigarettes, or I’d swill seven or eight Red Bulls. When I was 17, I rewrote the book on a typewriter. From 18-19, I retyped it on a PC – this is just when PCs began to appear as home computers, although they were luxury items at this point. (Incidentally, I still have that draft of that novel on this computer; I just checked, and it’s 137,000 words.)

If I ever stopped to think about what I was doing, I might never have written the book in any form. But I learned early that whatever methodology a writer brings to their craft, the one thing we all share in common – without exception – is that, ultimately, we have to sit down and write.

I never did anything with that novel, because I didn’t understand the publishing landscape and had no idea how it worked. So I wrote another standalone fantasy epic (I just checked that one, too: it’s 260,000 words – that’s no typo) and the same thing happened. What next? I wrote short stories over this period. I veered into screenwriting and wrote screenplays. I’m pretty sure (99.999%) I was plagiarised on one occasion (and the result went on to some success). Through it all I just kept writing.

While the capacity to sit down and write became intrinsic, what gradually drained away was the fanaticism to succeed at all costs because I learned two things about the arts:

    1. They’re vastly competitive industries.
    2. They’re subjective industries.

And, to top it off, it’s all about timing – something over which you have no control.

You can have a brilliant novel, and it might just come out at the wrong time. Or it might hit the wrong reader at the publisher where you’re submitting – if only your novel was picked up on a Wednesday when Erica was working, instead of a Tuesday when Fred was working. The arts can be so capricious that if you stop to think about it, to ponder how you are at the whim of forces entirely beyond your control, it’s terrifying.

That’s when you need perspective.

The dreams of becoming a bestselling author or lauded screenwriter have faded. That’s not to say that there isn’t that recess of my mind that doesn’t still desire those things or, given the opportunity, I still wouldn’t do everything I need to do to make them a reality. But it’s no longer a singular focus.

And yet I still write obsessively. Typically, I’ll work on a new book as I’m revising an older one – as far as the latter goes, I might just read one chapter twice daily. I find this is a good warm-up before I begin writing. Then I continue working on my new book. If I see submission opportunities – be they for short stories or screenplays – I might earmark a weekend-morning to give a suitable piece a read. If it needs a lot of work, I might dedicate several weekend-mornings to it.

When plans come up – dinner with friends, seeing a movie, going to the football, etc. – I will find somewhere in that day the time to sit down and dedicate to my priority: the work-in-progress. I’ll do this even if it means waking up earlier, staying up later, or just finding some time to squeeze in before my plans begin. If I’m really struggling for time, I’ll either postpone the plans, or (in the case of fixed events) decline attending them.

So ensues this bizarre contrary existence about not being hinged on the result, but still writing as hard I can.

 
Last Week’s Lie: Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 does not begin, ‘It was a pleasure to burn marshmallows over the bonfires’, but, ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’