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Fiction-maker survival in the post-fact world: Part 2

Part 1 includes What The Hell Is This? and is here.

I’ve grouped several questions together because the answers – as in, my answers – are broadly the same. Several questions I’ve received are also variants on the ones I did in P1, so not going back to those – will be discussing things that we haven’t covered yet in this series. Some of you have also sent multiple questions, so you might see them coming up across groups. Okay.

 

 Q11: I have been trying to write for years but have had to abandon many a novel. Now I have a story but am stuck in the first chapter. Do help. I am also holding a job

Anon.

Do you think it’s possible for someone to create something of any substance while engaged in a full-time job? Also, how do you stay the course? One of my biggest problems is writer’s block either with starting a project or with sticking with one past about 2,000 words or so.

Rohan George

Plenty of people finish novels while holding full-time jobs. In fact, very few people nowadays can afford to write for a living. Most people have at least a part time job, and most writers I know spend more work time doing other jobs than writing books.

Some people take sabbaticals and do their books because they can’t multitask. Some people earn enough to retire early and then write. Others figure out ways to multitask and write books while holding down very demanding full-time jobs. Time management, efficiency, and a huge heap of wanting to do it. Mostly they set aside a few hours every day and work really hard at it. Staying the course is difficult but not impossible at all. It’s very tough. But it can be done if you want to do it badly enough for long enough.

I lived off my fiction for around ten years, but my financial needs in my mid-30s are very different from those in my mid-20s and the relentless pressure to chain fiction projects is pointless and takes away from the quality of the work. So I do a range of other things to make sure that my writing time isn’t spent worrying about money. This involves a great deal of multitasking and much less writing time than I want, but when I get to do the writing I want to do it’s infinitely better than any other kind of work.

 Re the 2000-word barrier, I can tell you how it works for me. There’s a point of time in any story where it falls into place and the characters become people, after which the book kind of writes itself with you hovering around to pick it up when it falls on its face because it’s a toddler. The struggle is not to write until you’ve written 70,000 words or whatever your final wordcount is – the struggle is to write until you reach the point where the book starts walking on its own. After that it’s just going to be more and more fun to get back into. The more experience you have and the better you get at it, the earlier you can hit that mark. So it’s not always going to be difficult, just for the first 12-15000 words or so.

 

Q12: I’ve been planning to write a longer piece of work (preferably, a novel or a novella). I already have a couple of ideas and had already begun writing the first chapter, but have yet to finish it… How can I get myself to finish this novel in two months?

Anupam Sarkar fb

 

Deadlines are good.  Some people get scared of deadlines but others find them motivating and work harder to meet them. If you’re in the former category please forget your deadline because why be scared. If not, and deadlines actually motivate you, set yourself whatever deadline you like, and try your utmost to finish by then. While doing so, deliberately forget the following:

1. You have set yourself this deadline, so no one will hit you or fire you if you don’t meet it.

2. What matters is not when you finish but what you write.

3. If it is your first novel then you have no idea how long it is going to take you to finish it. I think you can only set yourself realistic deadlines after three, when you have a rough idea of how much time it takes you to get from starting to final (pre-editor) draft. But even then it depends on the scale and size and nature of your story so it is not always possible to know exactly how long you’ll take – but your ability to guess gets better.

4. If someone else has given you this deadline and you meet it it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to meet theirs for whatever their part is in this process.

Stop deliberately forgetting these things after your deadline passes. Remember them all at once and adjust accordingly. Set yourself a new deadline and get back into it.

 

Also do remember:

1. Starting books is great. Going some way into them and then deciding not to finish them is great. But finishing books is infinitely better than either of these things

2. You only get to write your first book once and it defines at least two years of your writing career. So do the best you can, and it’s not the end of the world if you don’t immediately win a lottery and a Nobel after writing The End. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. If it happens give me money.

 

3. If you meet your deadlines no one will give you a prize but they will remember you are a professional person who meets deadlines which is better than the other type, I think.

4. Whether you finish your book before your internal deadline or not, please reread it after getting some distance from it and please keep editing or rewriting it until you’re sure it’s good. Just because other people publish bad books doesn’t mean you have to.

 

Q13: I have always found it hard to approach good, reputed publishers. It seems to me that only someone who is well connected can do it. So what is the process? How does one approach publishers?

Rimjhim Roy

 How does one find the right person to pitch an idea or send a sample to at a a publishing house?

Abbas Momin

 

In developed publishing markets, you need an agent. In developing ones, you need to figure out who the right editors to pitch are through web searches, book communities, book events and book acknowledgements. All of these except the last one are unreliable. In India I would have advised you to pitch directly a few years ago but now there is a massive glut of submissions compared to the massive glut of submissions in the Old Days so get an agent.

Getting an agent is nowhere near the end of your problems though. There’s plenty of material on the net about the challenges you’ll face, which are the same whether your publishing ecosystem is developed or not, with the additional threat of scamsters for developing markets. Read up.

 

Q14: How do you get into the headspace of picking up where you ended your writing the previous night?

 And also how do when and where to stop writing for the day?

Anupam Sarkar fb

Second part first, I stop when I’m tired or sleepy or losing focus – unless I’m enjoying myself so much I don’t care about these things. Stop whenever you feel like stopping.

‘Getting into the headspace’ is also known as starting. Starting is tougher than stopping. Starting is the toughest part of writing because it’s the exact point when the perfect book in your head becomes garbage on your screen.

How you do it depends on what kind of writer you are, which is something you’ll find out only after a period of time, and something that might change every few years as you age, so you’ll have to keep track. Oversimplifying, truly disciplined writers tend to make themselves write something every day, and then spend a lot of time editing. Less disciplined writers tend to binge and fast. It sort of depends on the intensity the work needs. One of my children’s books I was able to sit and hit wordcounts every day until it was done. Most of my novels involved binge-writing for one or two days and not writing at all for two or three days while I thought about the next chapter. Thinking about the next chapter means Facebook usually. Or spending days reading articles about how not to waste time.

 

Q15: I run 10 information blogs, target is 3 blogposts a day, barely manage one per day! – Q – how do I write faster ?

Manoj Nayak

 

Your speed will improve as you spend more time focussing on speed and efficiency. Also. Look, I don’t want to be that great-uncle, but do try and maximise quality over speed because in a few years a lot of information blogs will be automated. People I know are writing software to do this. If this is something you want to do for a significant period of time you’ll have to become an opinion leader or whatever the right term is if you want to survive.

Also if you are managing one a day instead of three because you are making sure it’s a damn good one then you’re doing the best possible thing you could do so keep doing that.

 

 

Q16: 

Do you find it easier or harder to write “new” things as you go along? Do you feel more pressured about comparisons with your past work, or do you feel more relaxed and assured as you write more? Do you see yourself in a particular tradition of writing, or do you like to think of yourself as distinct from other literary movements?

  -Siddhesh Gooptu FB

 

Apologies for terrible vagueness but that is what you are going to get for most of this answer. First of all this is different for every writer. Some aspects get easier, some get harder. Also this increased sense of ease/difficulty depends on your perception of your ability in each aspect of your craft, not necessarily in your actual ability – though hopefully your ability to judge your own work increases with time, because if it doesn’t your work is definitely not getting better. Absolutely the same response when it comes to feeling more or less assured as you write more, it’s both, because the nature of your worries change, and it’s difficult to measure or compare worries at different stages of your life because they are composed of different elements in different proportions.

I see myself in a tradition of writers who are happy to write ignoring current definitions of race/region-based categories and genres and media because their work isn’t necessarily wholly defined by any of those. Is that a tradition or a relatively new thing? I’m sure there are many writers like that. I like my People Also Googled list, if that’s of any help.

 

Q17: What if I want to write as a side hustle. I don’t know what will come out when I start writing, but I do know the questions I want to raise/attempt to answer – does it work to be writing only for 1-2 hrs a day at best and working or whatever the rest of the time ?

Pooja Sardana, FB

If one were to pursue worrying while holding on to a corporate job for survival, how many hours a day do you think should be kept aside? (reading is just as important as writing, so a cumulative number of hours, if you don’t mind)

@NutAshes, Twitter

 

I like ‘side hustle’. It implies multiple/parallel/composite hustling and that is my life goal. Pooja, it sounds like you’re writing as much as you can find time for and enjoying what you write and that absolutely works. More than works, it’s really the best anyone can hope for. If you’re writing for 1-2 hours a day regularly but doing it well and enjoying the process you’re spending a lot more time writing than many full-time writers who are increasingly finding that their main hustle has become meetings and networking and pushing themselves on the net and not actually writing. And much more importantly, if you’re enjoying writing you will produce the best work you can produce. I’d hold on to this.

Natasha, no correct answer to this. Read and write as much as you feel like. Do it guilt-free. Have fun doing it. If you’re reading and writing while holding on to a corporate job you are well ahead of the game and there are no established parameters to tell you what percentage success you’re achieving, which is a good thing. We measure ourselves obsessively way too much all the time. Or at least I do. Or at least I used to.

 

Q18: How does one get people to pay writers fairly?

– Meenakshi @reddymadhavan

Meenakshi is one of my oldest friends in the Indian writing world. We met when we were both in our early 20s and she was angry because I had published a book a little before she had. Today she is one of India’s top authors, bloggers, TEDers, articulate celebrity types, cat-jugglers and other such cool Twitter bio type things. Go read her here.

Meenakshi has bestseller-listed many times (possibly many no.1s? probably. I should keep track of such things) and has received high advances and Upper Berth payments for stuff. So if she is asking how one gets people to pay writers fairly, it is possible the End Times are upon us.

(The End Times are upon us)

The short answer is one does not.

People will not pay writers fairly in our lifetimes unless massive genetic modifications and new tech make human lifespans much longer AND this technology gets mass-produced and cheap enough for all of us to afford while surviving on writer incomes AND society fundamentally changes.

You never know.

But there are different degrees of unfair. And in developing publishing systems we have widespread problems that developed publishing systems don’t – as in, problems that developed publishing systems have at least started addressing while we have not. The two key ones that we can actually go about solving are

1. Information. Without correct and up-to-date and publicly available market information – however basic – there is no transparency, no access. Until this is resolved, cliques and inner circles will persist, both old and new elite will create walls around themselves and only more inequality will result. This will always be the case, and I see nothing wrong with rewarding people for their hustle and their post-writing skills and whatever else but I’m not talking about perfect-information scenarios but about basic beginner FAQs. The degree of opacity and who-you-know-ness across creative fields in India is ridiculous. People have been writing in saying they’ve just learned their basics from my last hastily-constructed blogpost. That’s crazy. 

2. Community-building. The crabs-in-a-bucket syndrome affects every creative field in India. This is not because of racial or regional characteristics: it is because resources are scarce – money, information, access  – and systems are feudal. Creatives across fields need better contracts, better terms, people to help them ward off exploitation, places they can find out they’re being exploited. We can learn a lot by reading things on the internet about how things are supposed to work in developed publishing systems – that’s how I learned whatever I know – but local conditions here are very different, and creative advice, like humour, doesn’t always translate. What I envy most about the writers I know in the US and the UK, the ones I meet on the net or was lucky enough to meet when I was published in these countries, is their sense of community. There’s a sense of the playing field being big enough for everyone. People are generous with time, information, advice. This is because there’s a certain confidence that some sort of system exists, and you don’t have to go Mad Max with your creative survival techniques. You’re not working in a vacuum. Of course their systems have huge problems and inequalities and entry barriers and discrimination and skulduggery too, but they’ve started addressing them a lot more effectively than we have. You have to replace the tradition of get-exploited-until-you-can-exploit to help-because-someone-helped-you. Until this happens, things only get worse. And by things I mean terms under which creatives work, payments, and access to improved conditions.

Communities, not cliques. But we are a long way away from that.

Sorry, I don’t know how to get people to pay writers fairly, and I’ve ranted enough about this I think. 

 

 

Q19: I’ve always thought I’d like to start a small publishing house that supports experimental work — is that insane? If not quite insane, how do I go about it? Shubhodeep Pal

It’s not insane, and it’s sorely needed. Go for it!

Ask people who run small publishing houses that support experimental work how to go about it. Work in such places? I don’t know how much money and access and experience you bring to the table, sorry. Are you secretly a super-networked billionaire arts patron? We should meet. 

Q20: How complete should the draft of the first novel be before you approach publishing houses?

@anymysha

 Finish it. That part is fun. Approaching publishing houses and figuring out that whole part of your life is not fun, and takes time and focus and patience. If it’s your first novel, it will also need all your concentration, and you should be the only person setting timelines on its completion. Everything moves slowly in publishing and the amount of time you will save multitasking between these two different aspects of your work is really not worth it for your first novel.

Finish it.

Ok, that’s this set. More later.

Edit: Part 3 is here.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

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