16 February 2012

Why great writing takes great sacrifice

I believe that at some point, if you’re to write that great novel or complete your half-finished manuscript, you will have to make some sort of significant sacrifice. You will have to make writing your number one priority.

And that’s not easy to do. Life is a funny old thing. It presents all manner of opportunities, but the more you get, the less able you are to make the most of them. If you take on too much, no single thing will get your full attention, which means that you will either never a) do yourself justice, or b) complete anything.

Start saying no

The solution is sacrifice. You have to start saying no to things that you really might not want to say no to, and sometimes that means making difficult decisions. Before I give you some examples from my own writing experience, I should try and explain what I mean by sacrifice.

It is simply, in this context, a period of time where you put elements of your personal and creative life to one side so that you can work intensively on one project. Your primary project. The project that really matters.

To return to my first sentence, I think this is how great work is generally done. Rarely does eternal multitasking lead to a writer’s best material.

I’ve always had various projects on the go, but whenever it’s come to the crunch, I’ve put everything to one side and focused on the one thing that means by far the most to me: my novel. It is, so far, my life’s work. I’ve never thought about it like that until writing that sentence. But it’s true.

‘Just a simple word’

A is for Angelica took me several years to write and no small amount of sacrifice. Since starting work on it with the simple line, ‘Benny paints pictures with his eyes closed,’ I have, in no particular order:

  • fallen in love
  • moved house five times
  • become an uncle (twice)
  • started Write for Your Life
  • attended at least 10 weddings
  • hosted a successful spoken word night
  • lost my auntie and two grandparents
  • got married
  • gained a Masters (for Angelica)
  • got an agent (also for Angelica)
  • owned a cat (was owned by)
  • started a podcast
  • had two jobs
  • lots of other things too.

You’ll notice that some of those are project-related and some are personal. That’s because, at various points over the years, I’ve sacrificed both for the sake of my novel. Sometimes I’ve had to hit a deadline. Sometimes I’ve simply decided that enough is enough. I’ve needed to focus. Something has had to give.

Some examples

  • My Masters cost a fortune. While friends got jobs or, considerably better, travelled the world, I worked in a bar and learned everything I could about being a writer and what that means.

  • Despite not being able to at all afford it, I took two months off work (unpaid) to try and get from 10,000 to 50,000 words. I barely reached half of that. A cruel, early lesson.

  • I stopped doing something that I loved, Words Aloud, the spoken word night. We’re doing a one-off special this year and I miss it terribly. But it had to go.

  • For weeks on end and on numerous occasions, I worked during the day at my job and then wrote at night until the early hours. I had an understanding girlfriend. She is now my wife.

  • I stopped posting to Write for Your Life for a few months. Not that big a deal, I guess, but it was when the site was starting to take off. I knew it was taking up too much of my time and energy. I do things differently now.

  • In a total panic about a deadline, I didn’t go to my best friend’s 30th birthday party. I regret it deeply, even though it didn’t affect our relationship. It was the wrong decision, but it was still a sacrifice. I hit my deadline.

  • When my dear auntie was dying from a brain tumour, I somehow found a way to get my manuscript edited and returned to my agent (who couldn’t have been more understanding). It didn’t feel like a sacrifice. It was probably cathartic.

If you’re going to do it, do it properly

The point is this.

In every case listed, I made the sacrifice because somewhere deep in my heart, I’ve always wanted to write a novel and get it published.

I’ve always weighed up the options and come to the conclusion that, at that particular moment, if I was to go on and write the best novel I could possibly write – If I was to give myself a fighting chance in an increasingly difficult industry – I had to do it properly.

It had to be my everything. My one and only.

Sacrifice seems like such an awful word for me to use when talking about writing. But it doesn’t have to be. If you have the support of friends and family, they will give you the space and understanding you need. And as for other projects, well, they are other projects. Almost anything can wait.

Because in the words of Patrick Rhone, an internet friend of mine, saying no to one thing is saying yes to something else. All I ask is that you think about your writing and how much it means to you.

Then give it everything you’ve got. Be prepared to sacrifice.

6 Comments

  1. Sandra Younger

    I relate! Now in the final rewrite of my manuscript after eight plus years. Thanks for this reminder of what I need to do to finally be “done, done.”

  2. Cam

    I have just been profoundly moved. I am not a writer of any sorts but applying this to my own life really tells me what I need to do! Thanks Dude!

    ~Supercgeek

  3. It is true, great writing does require sacrifice. Most of us, however, don’t list them out!

    Here are a few others from my own list:

    - Spend hundreds of hours alone, in front of a computer or blank page. It’s harder the most people imagine.

    - Go over and over the same thing time after time. Make small changes, and sometimes, chuck it all out and start over.

    - Face the pitying looks of others when they ask you what you’re doing, what your up to. “Writing a book, are you?” Then try and make sense when they ask you what it’s about. “Well, it’s not necessarily about anything . . .”

    Not to mention your back (from sitting when you should be moving), your joints from repetitive stress, your eyes, and probably your liver.

    In my blacker moods when someone tells me they want to write but can’t find the time I tell them, “Don’t sweat it. If you can’t find the time you’re not a writer.”

    Frankly, it’s true. Writers write.

  4. Charles Luke

    thnx. sir. truly profound

  5. Sam Collett

    You are so right. I get why you don’t want to use the word ‘sacrifice’ because it feels like somehow it demeans the objective you are trying to achieve – which is a positive thing.

    For me to have been able to write my first two books I had to lock myself away and be “in a bubble”. So absorbed in writing, there were times when I wondered if I had actually been asleep! I think it’s most likely known as being in the ‘flow’.

    And that is a magical place.

    Multi-tasking is a writers worst demon. I have a third book idea which I have been trying to put together for the past seven months. I am in the most fortunate place where I have an awesome agent, and I already have a big name publisher interested.

    Have I written it?

    Have I hell!

    So whirled up the multi-tasking which is my life, I haven’t prioritised it. I keep saying ‘yes’ – and somehow I think this other book will magically ‘happen’.

    But, it hasn’t.

    The cruel truth is that I have done this to myself. I haven’t made the sacrifices necessary – or rather prioritised it as I should have – to get it out the door.

    I have procrastinated by getting involved and being ‘busy’ with other stuff. Productive stuff – but ‘stuff’ all the same.

    I applaud you for recognising your novel is your life’s work and understanding the significance and meaning of that to your life.

    And I agree. Now, even if I don’t make a penny out of my books, they are and will remain my proudest achievements in my life.

    That’s when you know the sacrifice was all worth it.

    You made the right priorities.

    You did what mattered most.

    Thank you for your post and for reminding me of this. I am now off to cocoon myself away and will write my book!

    • Iain Broome (Author)

      Hi Sam

      Yes, when you’re in the flow it really is a nice feeling and, I suspect, why most of do it. Fantastic that your agent is supportive. Mine is too and it’s very important!

      Iain

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