Get that Cat off the Desk! Obstacles to Writing.

Since I started writing professionally, I’ve discovered a number of obstacles to the process. That doesn’t seem quite fair. All work has its obstacles of course – in fact, every aspect of life does. Do you have a household where it seems to take forever to get the kids out of bed, feed them breakfast, find school books, make lunches and get them out of the house on time? Think of all the obstacles that get in your way just doing that.

And when you get to work, there are obstacles all around. Fellow workers, the boss, deadlines, customers. I used to be a teacher, and I sometimes felt that students were a big obstacle to teaching. Some students, that is. Most are wonderful. But we always seem to remember the obstacles, not the easy things.

Writing is the same. There are numerous obstacles to the apparently simple task of taking 26 letters and a few punctuation marks and putting them down in an order that makes some kind of sense or beauty.

‘Hey, you’re a writer!’ people say. ‘That must be great! On your bum all day, nothing to worry about. Easy! I don’t have time for it, of course, too busy.’

Writing is great, of course. But if they only knew. I copped this when I was a teacher, too. ‘You’re a teacher? Wow, it must be great to knock off at three o’clock each day and have all those holidays.’ Sometimes, that comment is made jealously, sometimes with a hint of superiority. ‘Oh – you’re a teacher! Well, some of us have real jobs.’

I get that as a writer, too. ‘You’re a writer. I see. But what do you do for a living?’

Obstacles come in many forms. Think what you do for a job, and think what gets in your way.

Just to set the record straight, then, here are some things that are obstacles to being a writer. I’m not trying to say my job is harder than any other. I’m just saying.

(1) The Cat. The first obstacle, for me, is shown in the picture at the top of this post. His name is Humphrey. He’s a Rag Doll cat, and he likes to sit on my desk. Not just sit anywhere, mind you, but next to the fan on my laptop because it’s nice and warm there. He’s always done this, as you can see when I had another office.

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I don’t mind most of the time. Occasionally he lies his tail on the keyboard but is happy when I shift it off. It’s when he decides to move and steps on the keyboard that I get a bit miffed. After all, there I am writing something exciting (I mostly write science-fiction and horror, so there can be lots of exciting bits) and something like this will appear on the page:

“Three bullets hit the policeman. Agnes still had enough sense to ghfyfhtccccggggkgpqsn…”

Did you notice where the cat stepped on the keyboard? If you did, then my writing is better than I thought. Of course, Humphrey’s wandering across my workspace means I have to go and correct his attempt to contribute to the story.

(2) Other commitments are another obstacle. I’d love to spend all my day writing. I really would. But I need to eat. And have clothes on my back. And blog. And interact in meaningful ways with other humans. All those things matter. And that means I can’t write. So dealing with the rest of life effectively means finding the time to work and go shopping and all those other things.

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I usually write early in the mornings as that is when I am most alert and also when I have the time. I work in the afternoons and evenings. So putting in a few hours in the mornings just after breakfast is when I can get most done. Routine is vital when you’re a writer. But the world keeps butting in.

(3) Ideas.

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When I talk to other writers (or when I chat online with them, since most writers are busy writing and don’t have the time to actually step out into the sunlight) some of them are full of ideas. They have notebooks full of ideas. They have stories building up inside them waiting to get a chance to appear on paper.

I don’t.

I’m a man of few ideas. I kind of hope they are good ones, but they aren’t there jostling for space in my cranium. I usually get inspired with a story when I least expect it. It will then consume me until I do something about it. But it’s usually the only one there. I have a very small waiting room.

I wish I had more creative ideas. But I don’t. So sometimes there are days when I sit there wondering what I’m supposed to be typing, and nothing comes. Which leads me to:

(4) Blockage. There is a thing apparently called Writer’s Block. I’ve never had it. Not in the form that most writers mean, that is. Once I start typing, stuff usually flows more or less smoothly. I don’t do much planning. I’ll have a scene mapped out in broad terms in my head and then I’ll start writing and make it up as I go. That leads to the next scene. I used to be a professional actor, so I try to put myself in the part of the characters in the scene, and have a pretty good visual idea of it in my mind, like a film. I just write down what’s happening in the film.

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But sometimes, I get what I call blockage, and that’s when the scene doesn’t work. The characters aren’t co-operating. One of them doesn’t want to play, or the film is too boring. Then I sigh and have a cup of coffee and shoo Humphrey off the desk and go and edit another scene so as to make sure I’m doing something useful.

(5) So while we’re on the topic:  Editing. Of course, any writer worth their salt should have their book professionally edited. Not that professional editors are any better at it, but they are someone different. As a teacher, I would instruct students how to edit their work (or proof-read it, to use the pedagogical term) and one of the best ways to proof-read something is to have someone else do it.

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But what I’m talking about here is the editing after the first draft. It’s vital to have a first draft, to write anything at all in order to have words on paper or screen so they can be manipulated and coaxed into something resembling a readable document. But reading that first draft can be painful. I’ve read enough student essay first drafts to know what I’m talking about here.

Students aren’t into proof-reading or editing. I believe this is for either one of two reasons. One, they think their words are superb, their grammar flawless, their written expression worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, and nothing could possibly improve what is positively Shakespearian in emotional content and Hemingwayesque in pithiness and impact. Or two, they know it’s a pile of rubbish and are too ashamed to read their own work.

I fall into the second category. I hate reading my first drafts. They suck.

So, there are some of the obstacles to writing. Cats, other things to do, ideas, blockage and editing. Even editing this blog will be a chore for me.

We all have obstacles, as I said, making our lives either hard or, at the least, interesting. Some are challenges. Others are just annoying, or even prevent us from completing what we need to do.

Writing is a great job. I love it. Words are fun to play with. But we have to overcome those obstacles. That makes the challenge something special.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

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Jack the Ripper’s Sister was Inspiring

The moment has come. I am about to submit my new  novel, The Red King, to my publisher, Permuted Press. http://www.permutedpress.com.

Every writer faces this moment, when the new manuscript sails off. It’s a weird time. And really, I have Jack the Ripper’s sister to thank. Whoever she was. If he even had one. Because she helped create the book, in an indirect way.

In my diary is the date I started writing it. It was almost exactly a year ago. On the 17 April 2013 I started the first few paragraphs. Actually, back then it was a very different animal. Back then, it was going to be a novella. I pictured 35,000 to 40,000 words, tops. Now, a year later, and it’s the first book of a trilogy. Things happen like that. On 4 November 2014, I finished the first draft. Since then, I’ve been editing, and working on the second book, An Unkindness of Ravens.

The whole thing was originally inspired by a picture.

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This cracked me up. I don’t know who drew it, and I apologise for posting it here if they didn’t want it to be. But the picture arrived on my Facebook page at an appropriate time, and just seemed to strike a chord. What if Dorothy and Alice met and discussed their adventures? Where would that lead?

I’ve always loved the Alice in Wonderland books and the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. In 2010 I directed a school production of the William Brown/Charlie Smalls musical The Wiz.

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So I guess I sort of had the characters in my mind when I started on a novella about Jack the Ripper’s sister. I was doing research on the Ripper and when this cartoon arrived I thought, what if Alice and Dorothy went on the hunt for him. Jack the Ripper’s sister got nowhere, but it was the inspiration for what was to become The Red King.

Then, things got moving as I started to write. The Ripper became the Red King, a minor character from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. I devised an excuse for Alice and Dorothy to meet and started what I thought would be under 50,000 words. I threw in  the son of Inspector Lestrade from the Sherlock Holmes stories as another character as I needed a policeman, and I was sure Conan Doyle wouldn’t mind mixing it with Carroll and Baum. (The man did believe in fairies, after all.)

Well, 50,000 words later and I realised, since the story wasn’t finished, that I had a full-length novel on my hands. I started to write that with the idea of self-publishing it. Then I got wind that Permuted Press were on the hunt for new writers so I sent off a pitch to them and was offered a five-book contract, three of which are to be The Red King series.

So now I’m busier than ever thrashing out three books and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Only now, I’m finished the first one,  it’s a bit like being a parent. My child is leaving home. The first of three children in rapid succession. I’m proud, and a little nervous. I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, tried all I could. Will I think of something else to put n while writing the rest of the series and need to have included some foreshadowing in the first book? I don’t want to have some fantastic idea and find it’s too late to include it.

I only recently worked out how the story ends. That’s the thing with writing. You never know what’s going to happen, and half the fun is finding out as you go what happens to these characters you invented. I tutor English, and recently I was helping a year 8 girl write a story for homework. We came up with an idea and she put her character into terrible danger facing a wild, ravenous wolf. Her mother came in at one point and the girl was all caught up in composing the story and said excitedly, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next!” And it was all up to her as to what did happen! It was so cool to see her excitement, and share in it. She actually found what she thought would be a chore to be something thrilling.

That’s why being a writer is hard work, but ultimately so rewarding. Emotionally, you are there with the characters, you share their danger, you make it up as you go. Maybe you work from an outline, but the details fill themselves in as the writing takes place, and sometimes new paths appear, awaiting exploration.

So I’m about to hit the “Send” button and dispatch The Red King to its fate. Who knows how it will turn out? Two more books to go in the series, and only one of those is almost complete. The third, The Looking-Glass War, exists only as a few ideas and a fond hope at the moment.

I never did finish the story about Jack the Ripper’s sister. But she helped me find a new story, a bigger one. Maybe she will have her own story one day. I hope so, she sounds like quite a girl.

When I’ve finished this one, maybe I’ll sit down with her and hear what else she has to say.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com.

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Them’s Writing Words

I write in the mornings. I have to: I work in the afternoons and evenings. But I think I’d write in the mornings anyway, given that my mind is then fresh and I have some kind of enthusiasm going for me.

Now I have book contracts out there, I have deadlines. And meeting the deadline is what turns things into a need to churn out a certain number of words a day. I often hear other writers say how many words they do per day: 2,000, 3,000 – even one who boasted she’d done 22,000 in one weekend. Some do 20,000 words a week. Some can churn out a novel in six weeks.

I set myself at 1,000 words a day for five days a week. After 1,000 words my brain starts to scream at me to stop the pain, although the most I did once was 4,000 in one sitting. My first book, ‘Days of Iron’, too me ten years to write. It’s still due for another edit. It could be better.

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Nicholas Monsarrat, author of ‘The Tribe That Lost Its Head’ and ‘The Master Mariner’, wrote 600 words a day. He did this after consuming two beers for breakfast. R. F. Delderfield wrote 23 pages a day. Georges Simenon, 20 pages. Jack London, between 1,000 and 1500 per day; Stephen King, 2,000. It took J. R. R. Tolkein eleven years to write ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which is a hefty 670,000 words. That works out to 245 words a day.

Every writer has their goal of words per day. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter, as long as the thing gets done.

Apart from words per day, writers have their own schedules for drafting, research, editing. I tend to research as I go. My current series, ‘The Jabberwocky Book’, (https://www.facebook.com/writerproctor) needs a lot of research as it’s set in London in 1901. While I’ve been to London, I wasn’t there in 1901. A lot has changed. In the first novel of the series, ‘The Red King’, there is a scene set in a hansom cab – an action scene involving an escape from kidnappers. My heroine (Dorothy Gale from ‘The Wizard of Oz’) fights off an attacker while the cab barrels along the road late at night. Only thing was, some of the things she did to escape were not possible in a hansom cab. I had to research about the design of cabs in order to re-write the scene. The second book, ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’, is set in New York. I have to research carefully as to what buildings were in existence back then.

Research is vital. I read a book recently in which the hero reads ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce. Problem is, the book was set in the Nineteenth Century and ‘Ulysses’ was first published in 1922. Readers will pick up things like that. So, I research as I go. I’ll write something and then stop to do research when the story goes in a certain direction.

Editing is another thing writers have to plan for. I edit my books several times over, changing things a lot the first few times, not so much in the end. And I still find things I wish to change even after the book is out. Getting friends to read what you’ve written and giving advice is another essential thing, although sometimes they take too long.

So, writing is hard work, and the results are not guaranteed. But, of course, we continue to do it. Simply because we have to.

So I write in the mornings and work in the evenings. It’s a good life. I allow myself Sundays off, sometimes. Often I’m doing research or whatever, or trying out other ideas. Or writing a poem.

So, back to the grind. I haven’t done my 1,000 words yet. And I need to research a few things about cathedrals.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com