Writing Week 3: The Discipline Of Writing
Most writers can’t work consistently enough to fulfil a publisher’s needs.
If you’ve ever wondered why some writers can’t get published and others can’t work fast enough, read on.
Readers often tell writers how lucky they are, as if they accidentally become JK Rowling one day. There’s a generally circulated idea that writers waft about as lonely outsiders observing life from the other side of a glass until being plucked up for success. It’s fairer to say that the craft of planing words to fit smoothly into sentences requires a formidable amount of discipline and most writers find they can’t work consistently enough to fulfil the publisher’s needs.
The opposite image of the meticulous craftsperson is of a hard-drinking, hard-smoking lounge lizard casually chucking words into a bucket at two in the morning (Beryl Bainbridge, say). If they have a success, they frustrate their publishers with their random output.
Whenever I employed a writer in my company (which was a frequent occurrence because many didn’t last long) I usually ended up with two broad types; Try-Hards and Lazy Sods. The Try-Hards would stay late in the studio trying to make words fit, honing and rearranging and often reading ‘How To’ books. They were determined to write well and always fell short because their prose felt exhausting and over-worked.
I’m writing this at five in the morning and I know that somewhere out there is a Try-Hard desperately working on her/his novel. I’m writing because I can’t sleep. I have a modicum of originality and a fair supply of consistency, which is enough to keep my sales from entirely disappearing.
The Lazy Sods know they can articulate elegantly without even trying – to them it’s like breathing – so they don’t try. They take the easy option every time, turn in something clever and just adequate, then go for a drink. Auberon Waugh wrote a book called ‘Will This Do?’, which sums it up nicely.
Which type did I employ? The latter, always. I knew I would be able to bring the Lazy Sods up to scratch but there was nothing I could do with the well-meaning, anxious Try Hards. They gave 100% and promised to try even harder. The others gave 60% so there was room for me to make them better.
The discipline of writing is something you choose for yourself. I had a day job for over 30 years and had to prioritise it because writing did not pay enough for me to live on. My first novel ‘Roofworld’ was expected to be a success but bombed, largely due to factors beyond my control. Disheartened, I turned back to my job and although I still wrote every night after work, demoted my so-called writing career to second place for the next 15 years or so.
I wasn’t being a Lazy Sod – I wrote every day. But without an idea of what I should be doing, I got lost. I wasted years writing film scripts no-one even looked at and pitching TV shows at a time when TV was in the doldrums. I have never taken any kind of writing course. I just carried on.
Recently a good friend who is a great writer decided to give up. His new book had been rejected and he needed to regain his self-esteem and earn some money, so he went back to a regular job and has abandoned his dream. I hope this is only a temporary decision for him.
My great friend Polly Hope wrote a fourth novel before she died, about Byron’s doctor. She planned it as part of a trilogy, but it stood alone. It was an incredibly good read. Her publisher was not interested. Historical fiction, he felt, was not hot right now.
The path is littered with abruptly ended careers. The few that get through do so because the publisher has seen somewhere to fit them, or there is a bandwagon rolling past upon which they can be heaped. Right now for example, ‘Empowered female replaces traditional male in familiar story’ is hot. I’ve come across it three times this week and it’s only Wednesday.
The problem with this is that you become known for your first work, and when a second book deviates and doesn’t sell, your career simply stops. The days of editors and agents supporting the writers in which they have faith are gone forever.