Tuesday, 6 March 2012

All the things that aren't writing

Inspiration (William-Adolphe Bouguereau)
There used to be a popular feature in one of the Sunday glossies called A Day in the Life, or something like that. Whenever it was a writer, it went something like this:

5am Get up and write for two hours
7am Walk the dog
8am Breakfast with wife [big clue there]
9am -1pm Write
1pm Lunch with wife [ditto]
2-6pm Write
6pm Gin and Tonic
7pm Dinner with wife [get the picture?]
8-10pm Listen to opera

Sadly, this is the image that many non-writers have of those who do what I do. Quite apart from the fact that I never get up at 5am and have no dog or wife, I do wonder when these 10-hour-a-day novelists (usually novelists) ever did all the other things that aren't writing. Let me list some of them, in the rough chronological order of the life of a book - all except the actual writing:

Quiet thinking time
Researching (expands to fill available time)
Writing proposals or synopses and sample chapters
Re-writing and self-editing until the book or sample is fit to send
Dealing with publisher's edits [these may go back and forth]
Dealing with copy-edits [ditto]
Looking at and commenting on illustration roughs [only applies to children's writers]
        "      "    "           "            "  layouts (ditto)
Looking at book jacket visuals
Writing or editing/approving cover copy
Reading and checking proofs [often more than one round]
(Suggesting scenario for book trailer - optional)
Taking part in a Blog Tour [anything from one or two pieces written up to a month's worth] - increasingly not optional
Promoting book by book-signing tour, Festivals, Press interviews, school visits [children's writers]
Social networking on Facebook, Twitter etc.
(Reading reviews - optional)
Answering readers' letters and emails.

All that is for one book and if you write several a year, this work on them will  overlap.

Then in general if you are writer with an interest in the industry, there will be these things, many of which are optional:

Attending Festivals as part of audience
Book Fairs (London, Frankfurt, Bologna)
Reviewing other writers' books
Sitting on book prize committees
Maintaining your own blog (at least once a week) - increasingly expected by publishers
Guesting on other people's blogs
(Being part of a joint blog - optional)
Keeping your website updated 
(Making up-to-date PowerPoints for presentations)
e-mailing agent, editor, PR person and dealing with their queries
Reading other books in your field to keep up
Putting in expenses claims
(Teaching creative writing courses/acting as RLF Fellow etc)

And the things that everyone does, especially freelances who work for themselves:

Keeping accounts up to date
Issuing invoices to Festivals, newspapers, (schools) etc.
(VAT quarterly if registered)
Tax returns
Tax payments twice yearly

Of course if you are wealthy or have a wealthy partner, you won't need to do all those things and there will also be some you can delegate to others, whom you pay to do them. But a day that is a mosaic or patchwork of several of the above is much more common than the 10 hours a day exclusively devoted to the actual business of writing, especially if you are a woman.


The lovely painting above shows a woman waiting for inspiration. The most common question questions asked of writers are "Where do you get your ideas from?" or "What inspired you to ...?" It has always baffled me. Why would you take on such an arduous, precarious and ill-paid career as writing if you were not simply teeming with an inexhaustible swarm of ideas begging to be turned into books?

The majority of my friends are published writers, people who make a living from writing books and though I have heard them talk about many aspects of their lives from money to research, agents to RSI, I have never once heard one of them use the word "inspiration."

What we all want more of is time, time to concentrate on "just writing" and that's why writers' retreats are so popular. You go somewhere remote and rural, without a phone signal, and divest yourself of all the things that aren't writing. You even have surrogate wives to cook for you. But it costs; it's a rare treat.


This is a Twitter hashtag developed by highly-motivated American writer Johanna Harness (@johannaharness). She has made a website for it too Every day on Twitter Johanna asks, "Are you writing?" or "What are you writing?" and using that hashtag, writers reply. So often I have to modify it to #amediting or #amrewriting or #amthinkingaboutmybook. Johanna kindly says it all counts and it does.

But it doesn't look always look like writing.


Stroppy Author said...

You missed out 'chatting to other writers on Skype' - which has replaced the Coleridgian long letters to discuss points of style and composition. Maybe 90% gossip, but 10% stroke of genius.

A great list, Maven. So true - no wonder some books go so slowly.
Right - I'm off to a meeting with an editor in London; that's 3 hrs travelling, 45 mins talking...

Savita Kalhan said...

Great list! It's amazing that we attempt all those things on there, have a life, and, somehow, actually get books written...

Gill James said...

A very accurate picture indeed. I'd also add that always some of my so-called holiday is like a writer's retreat - I tend to find a few hours when I can really concentrate and those bubbling ideas dominate - a bit like when it was just a hobby. On these days - and at the weekend - the G & T does materialise, however.

H.M. Castor said...

I love this post - and it's quite something to see all those jobs listed in black and white! It certainly helps to combat that feeling that I 'ought' to be able to finish books more quickly... And I need to add to the list: looking after 2 small children. That's the killer one, time-wise, for me!

Kit Berry said...

All so true - and there's the other downside which I guess affects anyone working from home: domestic stuff. Cat needs taking to vet, arborist (NB Stroppy Author) calling to give quote, husband's suit to dry cleaners, cheques to take to bank, etc etc. Just because you're at home (and ostensibly looking as if you're doing nothing if you're in the dreaming part of writing) it's assumed by everyone that you're available for the million things that need doing. "Oh, you'll be in won't you, if we arrange for the gas engineer to come on that day?" etc. If I was more famous or rich I could behave like a prima donna about it - but as it is, I have to accept that the downside of not having to commute at the crack of dawn to a dreary workplace means - being available for boring domestic things too!

Kevin said...

Outstanding and quite interesting sharing. The way you have described life of a writer is really boring but if one follow these suggestions I hope life will be enjoyable with job. Thanks a lot for sharing.

Mary Hoffman said...

I had the plumber here this morning, for I think, the eighth time on this particular boiler problem.

Thanks, Kevin. (I think!)

adele said...

Agree with everything except that I should put in a small caveat. I have never in my life had an inexhaustible supply of ideas! But otherwise, accurate and Kit Berry adds all the domestic stuff. I would add. WATCH TV and movies which I do a lot. I reckon if I write PROPERLY and uninterrupted for about 2 or 3 hours a day, that's good going.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Great post Mary and so true and even though I am someone who does have lots of ideas, there is only so much you can get round to working on. Hey hey, c'est la vie!!


Absolutely loved this!

JH said...

I wonder, if I lived in that ideal world, would I still feel this need to get words on the page?

My mind works on the rough edges of life like a river works against stone. If all the stones were smooth already, I might just float along without a care.

That doesn't sound so bad, but I don't think it's the life of a writer.

Thanks for the mention of #amwriting, Mary. Can't wait to hear more about your new idea. :)

Celia Rees said...

And writing blogs for other people? Oh, on the list already. Thanks, Mary. You have made me feel so much better about not actually writing, i.e. not 'book writing' - it is all writing of one kind or another, or writing related & thanks for the amwriting tip on Twitter. Think I'll sign up!

Penny Dolan said...

Well listed, Mary. No wonder there seesm to be so little time to concentrate on the writing itself.
Thanks for the hashtag to. Another item to add to the daily Things To Do?

Richard J said...

Impressive! I like the article. Thanks for sharing