A writer’s life - or rather, life in general - can be unpredictable and chaotic. For example, as an expat, I never know which country I might live in next. As a writer, the murky middle chapters of a book is the point at which I’m often confused and want to quit.
And who could have predicted the pandemic?
As someone who lives and dies by routines and systems, what helps me is creating a structure or a plan and nothing makes me happier than a colour-coded spreadsheet. I started thinking about some of the unspoken rules I follow and discovered they apply both to my life and my writing.
Do I always stick to them? No, but during those times when I’m stuck or overwhelmed, I find them useful so I thought I would share them with you along with questions to help apply them to your own life, should you wish.
1. Quality over quantity.
Luxury pieces over fast fashion, 100% Egyptian cotton over cheap bedding, a home-cooked meal with fresh ingredients over processed food. The older I get, the more I appreciate the finer things in life and will often forgo cheaper items for their better-quality counterparts. Interestingly, the same concept also applies to writing; the length of time I spend at my desk doesn't always equal to quality output. As a result, I know after a few hours, I've hit the diminishing point of return. Could I continue? Yes, but it probably wouldn’t be very good and I’d either have to extensively edit those words or re-write it completely.
Question: How long do you spend writing before you start to tire?
2. Edit for clarity.
Speaking of editing, it’s always slightly galling to delete words from your manuscript but necessary to improve your work. I believe the same goes for life. In today’s world, we are often overwhelmed - our homes are bursting at the seams, FOMO has led to packed calendars, and our to-do lists are never-ending. When I feel like I'm spiralling, it usually means I need to take a step back and see what I can delete or delegate.
Question: What one thing could you remove that would make life easier?
3. One thing at a time.
With two young children, my life is a series of half-completed projects. It takes me so long to finish something because I’m usually multi-tasking or have little hands pulling at me for attention. While multitasking often comes with the territory as a working parent, I know that if I make a conscious effort to focus and finish one thing at a time, the day runs much more smoothly.
Luckily, I don’t have the same issue with writing, focusing on only one book at a time. I don’t have multiple half-finished manuscripts stuffed in drawers or in hidden in the depths of my laptop and I advise my writing students to adopt the same approach. Why? Because working on one manuscript at a time means you’re more likely to finish it.
Question: If you could only write and publish one book in your whole life, what would it be?
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4. Talk is cheap.
I grew up in an environment where hard work was valued and actions spoke louder than words. However, I could easily spend a week with other writers talking about books, all the while telling myself ‘it’s part of my job’. While connection with a community is important, the goal should always be on getting the words down on paper. The same applies to life; if you want to achieve something, people are only really interested once you have something to show for your efforts.
Question: What goal have you talked about or thought about but haven’t taken any action?
5. It’s not a failure if you’ve learnt something.
Like most things in life, failure is part of a writer’s journey. Rejections from agents, negative feedback from a beta-reader, plot lines that don’t work, books that don’t sell - the list goes on. One of my most memorable failures was in the form of feedback from a publisher who told me the second half of my book needed a complete rewrite. More recently, all my book ideas were rejected by my agent and I had to go back to the drawing board. There were many instances where it was easier to give up and the same can be said of any disappointment in life. The trick to success is to be able to pick yourself up and continue.
Question: What lesson did you learn from your last failure? How will it help you in the future?
6. Don’t spend too much time online.
There’s a reason many writers disconnect the internet when writing; it’s incredibly distracting and the biggest form of procrastination. While I’m pretty disciplined with my online usage during my writing sessions, the rest of the time, I spend way too much time online. Anyone else check their phone first thing in the morning? Reminder - too much time online kills creativity and connection.
Question: Is your time online affecting you negatively or positively?
7. Active rather than passive.
Using the active voice in your writing will make your work more dynamic and fast-moving. It also forces you to use less words, making it more concise. Too much use of the passive voice will create a distance between you and your reader. Similarly in life, I’ve always found pleasure in taking an active role in shaping my personal growth. While things don’t always work out as I intended, I believe taking action is the first step to a more satisfying way of living.
Question: What is one small action you could do today to achieve one of your goals?
8. Avoid too much small talk.
While small talk is a useful skill in some situations, it gets mundane pretty fast. As Elmore Leonard wrote in his 10 rules of writing for the New York Times, his first rule was never to start a book with the weather, commenting, “The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.” If you meet someone new, this is a prime opportunity for you to add to your toolbox as a writer. because people are an incredible source of inspiration. If you know you’re going to be in an environment where you don’t know many people, have a few interesting questions prepared in advance. There are dozens of ideas online. Because of my job, I tend to ask: Are you a reader? People are always happy to talk at length about their favourite book.
Question: What question would you ask a stranger?
9. Don’t be afraid to try something new.
I never thought I’d be the type of person to get stuck in my ways but age and the pandemic have made me less adaptable than I’d like. But, as the world opens up, I’m finding my adventurous spirit once again. New destinations, new restaurants, even a different way to work can all provide a fresh perspective on life - and on your manuscript. Creative writing is all about experimentation, so make it part of your writing journey. You just never know what you might discover.
Question: What is one new thing you would like to try this year?
10. Courtesy and kindness go a long way.
As my Grandma used to say: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. Whoever you’re dealing with, whether it’s your screaming toddler, a complete stranger, or a potential literary agent, good manners never hurt. This also applies to yourself; it’s so easy to tell ourselves our writing is rubbish or we’ll never be good enough. Replace these thoughts with encouragement and gratitude because after all, the world needs more writers and it takes courage to put your art out into the world
Question: What small act of kindness can you show yourself today?
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