A Writer’s Life: The Unmentioned Side Effects

Reading & Writing


There are a million books that will tell you how to write a novel (95% of them useless) but very few authors talk about the side effects of choosing such a career. The following ramble comes as I get ready to start the outline for a new thriller but end up watching the rain fall.

You will be alone. Note I say ‘alone’ and not ‘lonely’. You need to be able to enjoy your own company. As a child I had a few friends but my abiding memory is traipsing to and from libraries by myself. This is partly because of the pre-social network period in  which I grew up, and the fact that it was in England. It also explains why I spend part of my year in Spain, The Spanish like to live on top of each other, fuss over other people’s children and interfere in each others’ lives.

In ‘The Ghosts of Spain’ (a book every Europhile should read), Giles Tremlett describes a poor old Spanish man who moved to England, ruffled a child’s hair and ended up at the police station for it. The English are hysterically obsessed with privacy. The real-life cases I describe at the start of each chapter in ‘Psychoville’ all hinge on matters of invaded privacy.

Paradoxically, this makes the writer’s life harder, not easier.

Encouraged to be separate, we close ourselves off completely and stop writing about real life. To reverse this harm I get to Spain and top up with noisy street-life-crazy reality. There was a period when Stephen King virtually isolated himself from the world and only wrote about his milieu. It’s not a good thing for someone hoping for a long career. Happily, he came out of it and I think his books improved.

There’s a joke with a kernel of truth in it; When I was a child we were so poor that we could never go out, because we couldn’t afford clothes. My mother saved up for a hat so I could look out of the window. If you find yourself stuck and your work suffering, change your environment, just for a weekend.

Sorry, had to break off for a second there. Just got a text from an American friend; I just finished Spanky. You are one twisted puppy. Yay, feedback! Which brings me to the next point – you’ll no longer have any structure in your working life so you’ll need to create some. Weekends – what are they? Clockwatching – what’s that? You may not carry your characters around in your head all the time but you’ll start considering every second spent with a beloved dying relative to be one where you could have been writing.

You can solve this by fixing yourself a very strict schedule, and breaking it with meals, books, box sets, research, drinks, friends. While you’re writing, make the time count. It’s your home-run business — so no distractions, no interweb noodling or phonecalls. People will think that because you’re home you’re interruptible – put them straight on that one. Got it? Good. Now you only have to concern yourself with the easy part; the book.

6 comments on “A Writer’s Life: The Unmentioned Side Effects”

  1. brooke says:

    A creative life and entrepreneurship…you do take the tough road.

    Saw your tweet on Crossrail project and read the NYT article; was just reading FT article on migration out of London as housing prices rise and gentrification continues in older sections. Comments to NYT article were interesting because to the emotion.

  2. Wayne Mook says:

    So do you have a special place to write like Roald Dahl’s shed or Ian Fleming’s retreat Goldeneye ?

    Is there a set ritual or certain things you need to write?

    I guess the thought is if you want to be a success you must treat writing like a job not a hoby.


  3. Bill says:

    Have a look see at this:

    “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work”, compiled by Mason Currey, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2013. It references Twyla Tharp’s 2003 “The Creative Habit”.

    It’s interesting to know how others do it. Makes me feel not too bad to spend so much time “watching the rain fall.”

  4. Helen Martin says:

    There is a book that’s been around for a while called “The Artist’s Way” which I think is intended to train your mind into a regular work habit. I’m not sure how much it would help a writer but probably a lot more than John Buchan’s put down of mystery writers by saying that it looks complex but the writer just has to take three (say) totally disconnected items, weave them together and there you are. The writer is working inductively but the reader has to work deductively to work it all out. And he wrote that in the third of his Hannay novels. The first two he wrote during the First War and the story follows the action during the war. I don’t know how he fitted it all in.
    I’m reading the Four Hannay stories (39 Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, the Three Hostages) and have his autobiography to hand as well. Every once in a while an author or a book attracts and won’t quit until you’ve gone through the whole thing.(work, life, philosophy. whatever)

  5. Steveb says:

    Didnt Victor Hugo stand naked in the basement every day until he had finished a chapter of Les Mis? (Allegedly that’s why there are chapters consisting solely of newpaper headlines and suchlike)

  6. Helen Martin says:

    If Hugo had a caller would he meet them in his naked state? Talk about incentive.

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