writing

How to write a good action scene in a novel

Putting together a good action scene in a novel is hard. Some authors can do it exceptionally well: Willi Heinrich, Eric Nylund, James Webb, Väinö Linna, Joe Haldeman, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden. Others turn it into the literary equivalent of a machine gun mowing down wave after wave of faceless grunts. When my beta readers tore into By the Feet of Men so long ago, the main complaint they had was that the action scenes were difficult to follow. It wasn’t possible to tell who was doing what to whom, and any individual croutons of bravery, sacrifice or evil were muted by the homogeneous hack-and-slash soup in which they floated. It was kind of a bummer, but not unexpected – I’d taken a workmanlike approach to them from the start. For me, the action was there purely to service the plot, not to serve as a kick-ass set piece in its own right; there was no love involved. Maybe I was even slightly embarrassed at what I was writing, which is why I held back.

So I did what any writer does after receiving feedback from their beta readers: I drank some alcohol and told myself I was a hack over and over again. And after I’d done that I rewrote the scenes. And rewrote them again. And rewrote them three times more for good measure. By the end I had learned to appreciate the action scenes for what they were - a chance to let off steam, to develop the characters, to shake things up, and to enjoy myself with the text. And along the way I learned a few tricks about how to write an action scene in a novel.

1.    Make each combatant distinctive

Halfway up the hill, Brandt stood over a spider-like body crumpled on the ground, his pistol gripped in two hands as he pointed it at three strangers. They looked like what they were: ravenous animals hunting their prey, with faces hollow and bodies brittle from a lack of food. One, a tall, grey-haired man with a distended stomach, hefted a rusty pipe between thick hands. Another, a woman, wielded a pickaxe and hissed. The third, evidently the leader, was a younger man whose head was a mess of scars. A machete in his hand dripped with fresh blood.

Above is an excerpt from By the Feet of Men. I’ve tried to make sure that it contains no spoilers (other than the fact that now you know there’s a character called Brandt and at some point he has a bit of a fracas with some desperate dudes). This is the scene as it appears in the final novel. Reading it now, it might seem like a standard description, but it took me 6 drafts to get there. Here’s how it looked in the first draft (bearing in mind a first draft is simply there to get the story down, not to be a joyful reading experience):

Up the hill, a tree trunk’s length away, Brandt stood, pistol in hand, over a long-limbed body crumpled on the ground. Three strangers circled him. They were dressed in rags, bits of which sloughed off them like skin. Two were large men, though their faces were jagged with a lack of food and sleep. One threw a pickaxe from one hand to the other while the other carried a metal bat of some kind. The third, head a mess of tattoos and scars, wielded a machete with arms that showed signs of severe malnutrition. Ghazi could see they were desperate men. They had the eyes of a ravenous animal cornering its prey.

In a showdown, you want to be able to tell exactly who is locking horns with whom. It makes it much simpler for the reader to follow the action. In the first draft version, I didn’t give myself enough distinguishing features to work with. I painted myself into a corner by lumping two of the antagonists together as ‘two large men’, and put too much effort into describing the third character. The only way to tell between them would be to describe the weapons they are carrying. Notice, too, that the antagonists are all male, which makes it more difficult to describe them when you don’t know their names. It quickly becomes dull to keep reading ‘the man with the machete’ / ‘the man with the pickaxe’ and so on. That’s why in the final version, I have three distinct opponents: a tall, grey-haired man, a woman with a pickaxe and scarface. This gave me much more scope when referring to them, enabling me to describe them based on their relative age, their gender, their facial features or their weapons.

2.    Keep the action simple.

A few lines from Fields of Fire by James Webb:

Hodges peered into the village again. Two hootches burned. Figures scampered near the flames. Two more LAAWs boomed in the cemetery. His machine gun poured tracers into the village in a low, steadily sweeping line. Be cool, he told himself.

Each sentence in this passage is crisp and concise while setting the scene. The short sentences lend the scene a sense of immediacy, energy, mortal danger. We can see the village burning. We can hear the report of the machine gun and the explosions of the rocket launchers. We can smell the cordite and the smoke. At no point does Webb overwhelm the reader with long, purplish descriptions of the battle or throw in so many angles that it becomes impossible to tell where the action is unfolding. It’s tight, centred on what Hodges, the protagonist, can see from his vantage point. We don’t get any lengthy inner monologues about his perception of the battle, either. ‘Be cool’ tells us all we need to know – he’s scared but he’s still in control. It’s kind of Hemingwayesque, and it works perfectly.

3.    Respect violence; don’t fetishise it

This is a passage from Halo: The Flood by William C. Dietz.

The rocket was a hair high, hit Hurru in the head, and blew it off. Orange blood fountained straight up, splashed the alien metal around the Hunter and splattered his body as it collapsed. The Spartan paused, switched to his assault weapon, and waited for the feeling of satisfaction.

My housemate at university had a few Halo novels and I read them when I should have been studying German linguistics. I still remember Dietz’s book because of how poorly written it was. The novel is filled with passages like this, which seem to revel in how badass it is to mow down hordes of oncoming enemies and then watch them die in a way that makes the protagonist look as cool as Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish. The problem is that this reads as though it was written by a 15-year-old boy trying his hand at fan fiction (for the record, the Halo novels written by Eric Nylund are excellent).

Contrast the description above with this one by Joe Haldeman in The Forever War:

It was slaughter, even though our flank was outnumbered five to one. They kept coming without faltering, even when they had to climb over the drift of bodies and parts of bodies that piled up high, parallel to our flank. The ground between us was slick red with Tauron blood – all God’s children got hemoglobin – and like the teddy bears, their guts looked pretty much like guts to my untrained eye.

Unlike Dietz, Haldeman doesn’t treat violence as something to be celebrated. He doesn’t linger on images of heads popping off necks or blood gushing as a geyser; the situation is sickening, unwelcome, without merit. The protagonist is not celebrated for his ability to kill. He observes his actions for what they are (“it was slaughter”) and even manages to ruminate on what it means to end the life of a sentient being (the bleak “all God’s children got hemoglobin”). There is nothing here to suggest to the reader that the protagonist or Haldeman are getting a kick out of the action. Rather, it is a grim business, a necessary scene to facilitate the development of the characters taking part, to bind the reader to them through the horror of it all. And it’s one of the reasons why The Forever War is considered a masterwork of the sci-fi genre.

4.    Be sporadic, not wall to wall

By my count, By the Feet of Men has four proper action scenes (not counting the chapters where the Runners are battling nature). That’s not many for a novel which is 344 pages long and has been categorised under ‘Action and adventure’. What it means, though, is that each time hell does break loose, it is significant. The action has a weight to it that would be lacking were the characters found engaging in hand-to-hand combat and firing off ammunition from one page to the next. It’s the reason why the one-long-action-scene movie Free Fire doesn’t really work; duels and showdowns and all-out war have to be interspersed with quieter periods, opportunities to build up the tension and develop the characters. The aim is to craft a symphony, not to churn out a three-hour crescendo. All the latter does is desensitise your audience. Then, when an action scene rolls around that does come with high stakes attached, they’ll be too jaded to care or even notice. That’s why it is essential to give the action room to breathe, for the build-up to be long and filled with tension, and for the after-effects to be savoured well after the scene has concluded.

 

Finally, for the perfect action scene, take a look at how Hemingway describes El Sordo’s doomed attack on a hilltop in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The chapter could be lifted out of the novel wholesale and stand on its own as a short story. Hemingway manages to make the reader care about a group of fringe characters in a fight to the death that is never pretty or celebrated, but always moving.

this guy sharpening a knife against a whetstone is the closest thing I had to a photo of an action scene.

this guy sharpening a knife against a whetstone is the closest thing I had to a photo of an action scene.

Revising a Novel and Building your Zen Rock Garden

Like Jeremy Usborne’s soundtrack to a Honda advert, revising a novel fills me with a powerful sense of dread. Some writers edit as they go along, which I don’t understand at all. Editing while writing a new story slows the process down, stifles ideas that are screaming to be put down on the page, makes me forget what the point of writing is at all if I can’t even craft one goddamn paragraph properly without returning to it for the next three days in a row. Instead I do as many writers do and work on a draft-by-draft basis. Generally speaking, Draft One is the only time I’m having fun, because I’m free to do what I like. I can experiment, go off on tangents, crowbar in unsuitably outlandish vocabulary, introduce characters on a whim, dunk my brush into the pot and paint passages of purple prose, sprinkle in arcane references to history and literature and geography and music like they’re cardamom pods in a curry. Nobody cares what I’m doing. I’m not beholden to anyone. I have no reader in mind. It’s brilliant. When I’m done, I tuck the manuscript away in a subfolder and forget about it (and by ‘forget’ I mean go up to literally anyone and say, “yah, so, I’ve finished my novel, yah”).

The problem starts with Draft Two. As the date to commence editing approaches, I imagine the manuscript as a wasteland in a post-apocalyptic movie, all skeletal ideas, narrative threads that have frayed and broken, words that are twisted and ugly and need to be cremated before the stench becomes too much. And I can already see the outlines of Drafts Three, Four, Five and Six on the horizon, an army ready to chop through my defences, invade my plain of confidence, break me down and prevent me from ever creating anything worthwhile ever again. The psychological impact of the drafts overpowered me for my first novel, and that’s why it’s a miserable ugly duckling with more than a few typos still in there despite my having read it through 14 times. For By the Feet of Men, I knew I had to do something different if I was going to offset that powerful sense of dread. And that’s when I decided to visualise the draft process as a 15th century Japanese Zen rock garden.

Ryōan-ji is a Zen temple in Kyoto which is home to one of the best examples of a Japanese rock garden in the world. The garden is so celebrated that it has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s also the product of hundreds of hours of care and diligence. Each day, monks rake the white gravel to form ridges and valleys that surround the boulders sitting at intentionally asymmetrical angles to create something that is simple, refined and aesthetically breathtaking. Writing a novel isn’t so different: you put in the effort day after day, you grapple with the material you have, and you keep coming back until it’s as close to perfect as you can get it at that point in time. Like I said, though, it can become a slog. The constant tailoring can grind you down. It’s easy to forget how far you’ve come already and to cut corners or give up entirely. So here’s how to visualise your novel as a Japanese rock garden:

Draft 1 – Set out your rock formations

Fifteen boulders rise from the sea of white gravel at Ryōan-ji. They anchor the garden, make it unique, give the viewer something distinctive to contemplate while they’re observing its majesty from a bench. Your first job is to set out your own rock formations. In novel terms, these are your characters and major plot points. All you have to do is get the words down on the page. Give it a beginning, middle and end and early incarnations of the people and events that will anchor the story. Nothing else matters at this stage except for those big old rocks.

Draft 2 – Buy a ton of white gravel, shovel it onto the barren earth

This is where the heavy lifting starts. Where you break a sweat. Where you come away from your work with blisters on your hands and tears in your eyes because it hurts so much. The white gravel is structure. It is connection. It surrounds the boulders, clothes them, makes them look larger, grander, more imperious. You need that gravel. If you didn’t spend time shovelling it onto the barren earth, you’d just have a bunch of rocks. And nobody travels far and wide to see a bunch of indefensible rocks. This is the most difficult stage. It’s when you look around at the uneven gravel and wonder just what the hell it is you’re doing. Surely nobody can make something beautiful out of this? But keep slinging. Because the next stage is where things start to take shape.

Draft 3 – Rake the gravel into patterns

So here we are. You’ve got the rock formations (characters, major plot points) and the gravel (everything else). Now it’s time to make the transition from landscaper to monk, from the slog to the spiritual. You have to tease the gravel into patterns that are desirable to look at. Pick up your rake, hold it in both hands and drag those teeth across the ground, meticulous, slow, precise, until stiff white ridges appear. It’s not simple by any means; Zen masters spend countless hours raking the gravel until the lines are perfect. But it’s worth it. When you step back and wipe your brow, you’ll see the difference. It’s far from finished, but no longer is it just a pile of stones of various colours and sizes. Be a little proud. You’re halfway toward creating your own Zen rock garden.

Draft 4 – Vary the patterns

Those (almost) perfectly straight lines look great, don’t they? Rank after rank, file after file, an army fit to rival the Terracotta gang over in Xi’an. But wait. What if you take that trusty rake of yours and change a few of those straight lines into curved ones? Look at that: instant variation. How about doing the same thing around a couple of the boulders to help them stand out even more? You could even carve out a full circle. Literally revolutionary. You don’t want to go too far, of course. If the curves outweigh the straight lines, they lose their ability to attract attention and gimmickry reigns. So rake with care, but with confidence. This is your garden now. You control it (even if it still feels like you don’t). And when you’re done adding your flourishes, make sure to give yourself a chance to admire your handiwork. After all, if you’re not building your garden for yourself, who are you building it for?

Draft 5 – Pick out the errant stones

Ah, the nitty-gritty. Just look at that garden. Sweeping lines, majestic boulders, patterns that demand attention. You created that. Good job, you. Now that the overall picture is looking so promising, it’s relatively simple to pick out the bits that don’t belong. Pebbles that refuse to conform no matter how many times you rake them, for example. If you notice them, everybody else will too, so pick them out and pop them into your pocket. That swirling pattern over there: it seemed like a great idea last time around, but now you’re thinking it might be a touch too rakish. It’s drawing too much attention. No, you don’t want to go to the shed again for the rake, but it’ll be worth it. Tame that last bit of gravel.

Draft 6 – View your finished garden

Now, this isn’t a science. Not every novel is going to be finished with the sixth draft. Some may take fifty. Others may only take one. Everybody’s Zen garden is different. Those gravel lines can be tricky, and while they may seem wonderfully uniform one week, they might be chaos incarnate the next. Six drafts is just a rule of thumb. However many it takes, at the end you’ll have your garden. Pristine, ordered, essential. Now it’s time to take a seat on the stone bench and contemplate what you’ve created. Take it all in, macro and micro. The boulders, the gravel, the ridges, the patterns. Is everything working in perfect harmony and does it all belong? If the answer is yes: you’re done. At least, you’ve gone as far as you can go right now. In time, you’ll create other gardens and view gardens created by others, and when you return to this one the imperfections will jump out like a sign for a Vegas casino. But don’t think about that. And if the answer is no? Then keep tending to your garden. It’ll probably never be perfect. But just remember this: Ryōan-ji has been around for nearly 600 years and the monks still go out with their rakes every day. You don’t have to ask them if they think it’s worth it.

actually a Burmese monk, but I like the photo

actually a Burmese monk, but I like the photo

Writing fiction: crawl until your knees hurt

As a rule, humans are impatient. It’s in our nature. We don’t want things later on; we want them now. Like, right now. If we join a karate class, we want the sensei to stop the lesson halfway through, come over to us with their jaw sagging like a shopping bag, tell us they’ve never seen anything like it and bump us straight up to a brown belt. Of course, things like that rarely happen. A wunderkind is called a wunderkind because what they’re doing is nothing short of a miracle. The rest of us Beta-Minuses have to grind away at the things we want to become good at day after day, year after year, until eventually somebody does come up to us and tell us how good we are—and by that time we won’t even believe them, because now we’re deep, deep into it, and we’re aware there is so much we don’t (and will never) know.

 

If patience is a virtue, then writers are sinners. I didn’t have any patience when I started writing. I thought that by making the decision to write like a maniac each day, I’d be rewarded for my discipline within, say, six months at the maximum. Having a couple of short stories published in semi-professional journals was my goal, along with a semi-finished version of my first novel (a kind of Last Exit to Brooklyn palimpsest that makes every mistake and misstep imaginable). How impetuous that guy was. He jumped out of the blocks, arms swishing back and forth, legs pumping like mighty pistons, one eye on the finish line all the way over there in the distance, another on the crowd he was sure was in attendance just for him. And for a few sweet ignorant strides, everything was perfect. But before long he realised he was coming no closer to the finish line. He was, in effect, running on the spot. All that energy, all that sweat, all those winks to the crowd. For nothing. No publications. No interest. No glory.

 

So I stopped running and did what I should have done in the first place: I fell to my knees and started to crawl. I jettisoned all my preconceptions, stopped thinking recognition was owed to me, and turned my back on the concept of glory (a terrible reason to ever do anything anyway). I wrote for months and months and months, churning out terrible short stories and working on a second novel. The skin on my knees rubbed away and became bloody. Gravel became embedded in the palms of my hands. My back ached. I spent countless few evenings wondering whether it was worth it. And then, a year later, I had a piece accepted for publication. Five hundred words buried somewhere in an online-only zine. The most modest of modest triumphs. But it was enough. And as I continued crawling, I realised a few things: the skin on my knees had healed. My back didn’t hurt as much. My hands relished the gravel that bit deep into the meat below my thumbs. I kind of liked being down there on the floor.

 

Now, it’s not easy to remain on the ground. But there are three things you could do to make the experience less painful from the start:

 

1.    Don’t tell anyone you’re writing a novel.

I did the opposite of this. I told family, I told friends, I told anybody who would listen. They questioned me, shouted words of encouragement, laughed, told me they’d ‘definitely buy it’ once the novel came out (because all you have to do is write it, yeah?). Those family members and friends told other people—strangers at parties, in bars and at gatherings, usually when the conversation hit a lull—and there’d be more questions and encouragement and smirking. At some point I found myself thinking that if I failed to produce a freshly bound masterpiece with a foreword by Irvine Welsh and multiple glowing reviews soon, all those people would call me a fraud. Which is bullshit, obviously. The only person who cares what you’re doing is you (and to a lesser extent your partner if you have one, and that’s 80% out of a sense of duty). Your friends don’t care, your family doesn’t care, and the strangers definitely don’t care. They might clap you on the back and grin and cause you to bow your head and stare at the tabletop while the twin flames of pride and embarrassment singe your cheeks, but they’re not thinking of you while you’re battering the hell out of your keyboard or making a breakthrough with a character you’ve hated up to now or sitting in a bath of lukewarm water telling yourself over and over that you’re worthless. They have their own stuff going on. Your drama is a solo performance. Unless you’re George R.R. Martin (or Stephen King when he was writing The Dark Tower), nobody is desperately expecting anything from you. But if you don’t want to feel like they do, stop telling people you’re writing a novel.

 

2.    Give yourself time.

Yeah, it’d be nice to have the same luck as Brett Easton Ellis or Francois Sagan or S.E. Hinton and find an agent and a contract with a publishing house when you’re still in your teens. And it is luck, regardless of how good the writing is. Exactly the right person has to see your words on the page at exactly the right time in their life, in the lives of the prospective audience and in the life of the publishing house that agrees to take a chance on it. Those are some star-aligning odds. What most of us simply have to do is give ourselves time. Time to make every mistake, take dramatic U-turns, leave the manuscript to one side for months at a time, churn out short story after short story until you finally happen upon an idea that is not a dead loss, one that glows, one that—in time—you can tease and turn into a living, breathing piece of readable fiction. Also: Think twice before sending off your query letters to agents. Is it genuinely the right time to do it? Have you actually spent long enough on your art or are you inflating those seven months of graft into something greater? Have you cut any corners along the way? Did you rush that last draft a bit because you just wanted to get it finished? Is your belief in yourself justified or unrealistic? If any of the answers are negative, it would be wise to bury that manuscript for a few more weeks (before giving it another read-through), close that query template file and stop trawling the agencies and publishing houses. They’ll (probably) still be there when you’re actually ready.

 

3.    Don’t be so quick to throw it out there on Kindle.

There are thousands of articles on how the publishing industry has changed and how self-publishing is fashionable, wise and lucrative, all at once. That’s great if you’ve written 18 fantasy novels in the past two years or you’re good at tapping into the werewolf shifter erotica market. But I have the suspicion that self-publishing isn’t actually quite as attractive as people make it out to be. I have another suspicion that most writers would probably chop off a limb to get a traditional contract with a publishing house, but wouldn’t go so far as to cut their hair if self-publishing required it. I wrote an ugly little book with literary aspirations and when I wasn’t able to find an agent I slapped a cover together and put it on Amazon. That, in itself, felt like a failure. I then spent the next six months or so doing virtually nothing to promote it. What I did do every day was look at the book sales and watch how I sold fourteen copies, then five copies, then two copies...one copy...one more...flatline. A few encouraging reviews from friends, but little beyond that. And why should I have expected anything different? I didn’t spend long enough on it and it wasn’t good enough to attract attention, but I was deluded enough to think it would somehow find a cult audience in, I don’t know, Detroit or Calcutta or Tangier. All I managed to do was use up some goodwill among friends by pestering them to buy the book and waste the time of those agents who actually went so far as to read my query letters. Impatience controlled my actions entirely. Instead of crawling along, getting somewhere, I was out of breath miles from the finish line. And that neither feels nor looks good.

 

So those are the three rules I wish I’d known back at the start of all this. I’m now in my fourth year of being a ‘professional’, as Steven Pressfield refers to it, which is no time at all. And yet I’m writing a blog post about writing. The reason is because I know now that it’s okay to crawl and it’s where I belong, and that gives me the confidence to believe in what I’m writing. Above all, I’m no longer gripped by impatience. There’s no reward for finishing quickly. There are no short cuts. Writing takes as long as it takes, and that’s that.

SELF, SELF, SELF

midnight in a perfect world

midnight in a perfect world

Juggling a Job and Writing Fiction

When I quit my job as an in-house translator to write fiction full time, I went to my tax advisor and grandly announced to her that I was going to do the minimum amount of freelancing to get by and spend the rest of my days writing a novel. I didn’t care about making money anymore and I wouldn’t take any work that impacted on my writing schedule. After all, I’d found my true calling. The art was the only thing that mattered, just like Steven Pressfield spelled out in The War of Art. Eyes moist with triumph, I concluded my little speech by telling my tax advisor—a German with the pragmatic Weltanschauung of the Iron Frau—that she could expect a massive drop in my earnings over the next year. Her response was a Teutonic kick in the Weichteile: ‘We’ll see.’

Turns out she was right. Obviously. There was no massive drop in income. I didn’t turn down paying work because of my burning desire to create art. I still needed and cared about money. At first, it bothered me to realise I didn’t have the strength to turn my back on the established order, to cut the safety net emblazoned with a dollar sign. But the reality is this: the starving artist trope is a myth. Unless you’re Knut Hamsun or George Orwell and you’re able to weave a harrowing narrative out of a man’s quest to starve himself to death as an act of spite toward the world, nobody is impressed that you can’t afford to eat properly or that you’ve had to sell your Sonos speaker to a mate to buy cigarettes and red wine (props that you put on your desk for when a friend comes over and asks you how the writing is going. You don’t even answer the question; you simply nod at the desk and sigh). If you don’t have two coins to rub together, you can’t buy books or travel or sit in a bar with a friend and talk and observe – all experiences essential for enriching your writing.

And so, like the majority of fiction writers, I had to learn a new skill: how to juggle. That is, the ability to do a sufficient amount of work in a day to earn enough money to be privately sufficient while keeping the minimum number of hours free for writing. The problem was I couldn’t find many articles detailing the best way—or even how—to do it. There are plenty of guides for tyros on how many words to write in a session, when to edit, how often to write, and so on. And there are hundreds of interviews with established writers on how they structure their day (like Murakami the cyborg jazz hound who gets up at 4 am). But not so much on flinging balls in the air and trying to catch them again. So with that in mind, here are five things I’ve learned about juggling work and writing.

 Note: These tips do sort of fall apart entirely when children are added into the equation. Then again, people who manage to juggle a job and kids and writing are superhuman and they don’t need advice.

1.    Make the hours count.

As a day-jobber and a writer, every hour is like a Tetris piece falling too fast from the sky. It’s up to you to match what you’re doing with the hours that you’re given, even if you feel like you want to ignore what you’re supposed to be doing in favour of firing up the YouTube. If you lose even half an hour somewhere, you’ll have to make it up elsewhere – and that elsewhere is your writing time. The more you dick about at work and eat into your writing time, the worse you’ll feel when you arrive home at 7 or 8 pm and only manage to turn out 300 words before retreating to the sofa with a bowl of overcooked spaghetti and pesto and the nuclear glow of Netflix rouging your pasty skin. You want to feel like you’ve earned that terrible food and bad sitcom, don’t you? Make every hour count.

2.    Routine is king.

The best way to make the hours count is by establishing a routine. When you have a routine, you can save the energy otherwise expended on organising your day. Whether before work, after work or during your lunch break, find an unbroken time window whose glass is strong enough to withstand outside influences. For me, that means working from 8 am until 1 pm, doing sport/having lunch for an hour, working from 2 pm until 4 pm and then writing from 4 pm until 6 pm or 7 pm. Once you’re into your session, don’t break it for anything if possible. Not for more work, not for phone calls, not for emails. Keep your mind clear of vocational clutter and power through. It’s only a couple of hours, three at the most. Attack that page. You’ll feel great at the end of it. And the next day you’ll go into work and have something to share during your coffee break. “I wrote something last night,” you’ll say, the words half-directed at the floor out of a sense of false modesty. “Oh yeah?” says the only person in the office whose voice doesn’t have you reaching for the noise-cancelling headphones. “What’s it about?” And you’ll grin and say, “I can’t tell you because it’s not done yet. That’s a rule.” They’ll nod and walk away, and you’ll be left to think about what you’re going to write tonight.

3.    But you can break the routine if you need to.

“If you don’t write every day without fail, you’re not a real writer.” It turns out this isn’t true. Harper Lee wrote a grand total of one book (I’m not counting miserable first drafts not intended for publication). She was a writer and perhaps the best example of quality over quantity ever. Now, this isn’t to say that it’s fine to sit down and mash out 300 words once a week. As stated, it’s important to develop a routine and stick to it. It keeps the cogs greased, Pavlovs you into a creative mindset, stops the excuses from lining up like lemmings on the tip of your tongue. But if you miss a day or two because you took on too much work and you’re exhausted, there’s no need to flagellate yourself. All you’ve done is identify a boundary, and each time you overstep it, it’ll become a little more concrete in your mind until finally you know exactly how much work you can do before it impacts on your writing time. So in a way you have to break from your routine from time to time if you’re going to follow it on the whole. The same goes for if you have visitors or a friend is begging to spend time with you: if you’re going to commit to them, do it properly. Don’t have half a mind on writing while you’re with them. Take the break and enjoy it and return to the desk renewed (and maybe with some inspiration) the next day.

4.    If possible, freelance.

Do you care about your job as much as you care about writing? Would you miss the office environment? Do you have skills you can sell to people for money without having to turn up in the same place day after day? If so, become a freelancer. Freelancing is the future. Publications keep proclaiming it, so it must be true. Oh sure, it’s lonely, there’s a lack of financial security, you’ll definitely have to work weekends and you often feel like you’re thumping your forehead against the cold, hard bark of the forest of stupidity, but it has its perks, too. Being able to choose your own hours, for example (good for building your routine). Finding yourself with a whole sweet afternoon free, a mug of tea in your hand and a blank page before you. Or landing that one plum assignment worth enough so that you can take four days off at the end of the month and go out and gather new experiences.

5.    If work has put you in a bad mood, edit.

Here’s the scenario: you’ve spent most of the day working flat out on a project to meet a deadline, only for your boss or the customer to tell you your efforts weren’t necessary. The project has been postponed, perhaps. Or they’re going to go with a different version. Or the person who is supposed to sign off on it is on holiday. Whatever the case, you’re tired, jaded and in no mood to accept anybody’s bullshit—least of all your own. That’s why it’s the perfect time to read through a short story, a poem or a novel that you’ve been working on. You’ll immediately see the places where you’ve been too cute and where you’ve tried to cut corners. You’ll sneer at clunky dialogue, sigh at the winded pacing, shake your head at characters more uneven than the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. You might even hear a voice telling you that you’re worthless and shouldn’t be a writer. Don’t listen to them, though. They’re just tired and cranky, too. The focus is on using your irascibility to your benefit, not your detriment. So wield the scalpel. Cut and slash. Be as ruthless as you like. The next day, when you’re (hopefully) feeling better about yourself and the world again, you’ll come back to your text and gasp at the all-new beast before you: it’s so lean, so clean, so mean. Feel that new pep and vim in your blood as your fingers machine-gun the keyboard. And use it to create something amazing.

CAN THIS BE

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