So you’re underway. Your prose has broken into a brisk trot and everything you expected to be in place by now is pretty much as you hoped, maybe even a tiny bit better than that – a sign your preparation was effective. You’re engaging with the long-term exercise of the writer’s craft – maybe a novel, perhaps a short story collection. You may simply wake every morning, bathed in relief, hit the typing chair without an additional care and get going, but chances are that day after day of artistic endeavour will produce challenges you haven’t anticipated. I’ll focus on the novel here, but most of what I’m saying will also apply to any long project.
A novel takes time to write – usually at least a year. During that year, if you’re fully committed – attending to every rhythm and melody, characters, atmosphere, plot, palettes of imagery and all the rest – then you’re going to get tired. Very. There is no other situation in which you will have written at this pitch: not in journalism, academia, business, nowhere. I’ve been writing prose for more than three decades and, in my experience, it doesn’t get easier. The more techniques and talents you develop, the more they’ll encourage you to scale whole new literary assault courses. And if we learn nothing else from ‘The Shining’ it’s that all work and no play makes writers come apart like a chocolate teapot in a tumble dryer full of rocks. So self-maintain.
Being stuck is scary and exhausting – don’t try to stare down the blank page. Go for a walk, go to a movie, do that nice thing you enjoy, whatever gets a spring back in your step. While you’re relaxed, your solution will arrive and you’ll gain stamina.
Being inspired can feel glorious – as if you’re strapped to a friendly express train, landscapes unfurling. But you still need to eat, take fluids, get other exercise away from an activity that can ruin your spine, wrists and fingers. The ideas will still be there tomorrow I promise. And nourish yourself with regular exposure to good art, beautiful places. Your individual joys will put joy in your work and that passes the joy on to your readers.
And if you have people in your life, you can’t simply ignore them in favour of your own imaginary folk. Your friends and family won’t understand if you always prioritise work over playing, or being with them. They also won’t necessarily appreciate being stolen wholesale for material. If you learn how to build your own characters, you won’t need to rob them. And rather than insist that non-fictional humans sacrifice themselves to your new, weird preoccupations, realise they can help. They introduce richness, random experiences and elements to your life – that’s why you like them. They’re not interrupting, they’re adding. And explaining what you’re doing to them can help refine it. Yes, they sometimes do need to respect your space, but – remembering ‘The Shining’ again – when your project is finished you’ll still want your life to be a life. You won’t enjoy being left alone in a frozen maze, clutching an axe and glowering.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2018/19 by A. L. Kennedy.
A. L. Kennedy was born in Dundee in 1965. She is the author of 17 books: 6 literary novels, 1 science fiction novel, 7 short story collections and 3 works of non-fiction. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was twice included in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list.
Her prose is published in a number of languages. She has won awards including the 2007 Costa Book Award and the Austrian State Prize for International Literature. She is also a dramatist for the stage, radio, TV and film. She is an essayist and regularly reads her work on BBC radio. She occasionally writes and performs one-person shows. She writes for a number of UK and overseas publications and for The Guardian Online.