Get On With It

Deciding what you want to achieve as a writer is tricky but necessary.

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What’s the difference between pretending to be a writer and actually being a writer? It’s not a joke—I really want to know. What does success actually look like for us writery sorts? I want to be a successful writer, I say, often, or sob, when I’m at the maudlin stage of drunkenness: but what will success look like? Surely I should have figured that out by now? I wanted to be published: well, now I am, regularly, in literary journals I hugely admire, alongside those whose names I fear to whisper, so brimming are they with talent. I always thought I wanted a book with my name on, but the more I understand of that racket the more that feels like a swizz. Any idiot can pay to get published; any idiot can get a book deal, if they’re lucky or well-connected, and can more-or-less string a sentence together, and even that isn’t obligatory. I know now it’s no conclusive indicator of merit. Perhaps then I want to have my abilities respected by people whose opinions I value. That’s probably more like it, but increasingly, that’s happened. Do I want to make money from my writing? No. Happily that’s absolutely the last thing that interests me about the whole business. I feel weirdly opposed to the idea of accruing any financial benefit from my writing, as though the very notion besmirches the art. The rare occasions I earn anything by my pen I blow it on fripperies instantly, as though it might otherwise jinx my bank account. Have I done it then? Have I achieved my aims? Why do I feel I haven’t?

You need achievable, quantifiable aims, the management types say. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, spelling SMART, which is the kind of jolly nonsense that makes them unbearably frisky. I want to be well-regarded, but also famous enough that strangers hate me for reasons they barely understand. Quantify that.

Doubt paralyses, and I’m bored of it. Instead, I imagine myself ten years from here with everything I’ve ever wanted. Try it. It’s easier than writing, let’s face it. Step in to that person: see what they can see, the way you do when you’re creating a character for your fiction. You still are, but this character is the future you. Now think of five things you would feel and believe if you were that person, and absorb them into your present. Would you hesitate to enter that competition or approach that publisher? Of course not.

Then make a plan. Writing is hard. Alright, it’s not coal-mining, it’s unlikely to kill you, but it’s sure brimming with knocks to the old ego. So set yourself goals, and think about them as if they’ve already happened. If you want to meet a specific person who could help you, or be published by that journal, imagine you’ve already done it. Targets that are framed in the future create a mental gap for the brain; stating things in the present bridges that gap, letting you believe your goals are possible. Once you have your goals, break each one down into no more than five key steps for you to work through. If I want to be published by X, I must first examine their submission rules, see what they’ve published recently, discover their worst fears and where they live, write something you think might please them, format it appropriately, then press send.

We tend to focus and get stuck on the areas where we haven’t accomplished what we’d hoped to achieve, rather than the successes. But immersing yourself in negativity is no fun and inhibits productivity. Celebrate your victories, however small. Before you tackle your next project, think about what you’ve accomplished already. Rather than thinking, I need to do this, try thinking: I’m excited to do this, because it will take me closer to my goals.

Many writers are perfectionists, and it’s not a bad trait in us, except when it leads to paralysis. Procrastination can be a mask for self-doubt. Just write the damn thing. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Bash it out and see what it looks like. Probably it’ll be rubbish, by and large, but have a stab at making it less rubbish. Then send it to a friend whose opinion you trust. Then sleep on it. Imagine it’s been written by someone you barely know but vaguely dislike and your job is to edit it dispassionately. Tricky but useful. And mostly, just do it. Being able to take action without overthinking is the key to creating success. Don’t spend more than five seconds thinking about doing something. Count down if you have to. When you run at a goal, you gain momentum. Throw yourself at the task that makes you most uncomfortable. If you have several things to do, the one whose prospect makes you most miserable is probably the one where you need to focus. Do it, then reward yourself. What have you been putting off forever? Do it now. This will give you a huge advantage over many other writers, too often burdened with emotional instability and a tendency to procrastinate their talent into a black hole of doubt and despair. But not you, my friend. You get shit done.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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