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:
- They’re vastly competitive industries.
- 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.’