Writing fiction is not a pursuit which gives immediate rewards. Novel-writing is probably the worst. Even short stories, though, require a hell of a wait before they show results: results which may well be negative. There’s the initial rush of waiting for your beta reader to comment (and many thanks, here, to my beta readers: you are wonderful and I really should buy you presents some time soon), but after that there’s the wasteland. The three months, minimum, that it takes for publishers to respond. The even longer period you may need to wait for the competition longlist. If you’re writing and submitting consistently, then the wait only exists for the first six to eight months, after which there will be a steady flow of feedback. But when you stop and start again, you’re back to the beginning.
I stopped and started again when I had my daughter, now one year old. I started writing again in May, and I will not see any results until October. That’s kind of OK: after all, life’s busy enough with a toddler in the house. You look away for a second, and when you look back it’s July. But it leaves me with nothing to say to people who ask me, ‘How’s the writing going?’ If the person asking is not a writer, the only possible answer to this is:’OK. I wrote some stuff.’ Or, if things are going really badly: ‘I haven’t done anything in ages. No time.’ There is no day-to-day progress. No ready reckoner. No translatable marker for success. Other jobs offer this, even if longer-term goals remain elusive: ‘I went to Edinburgh for a conference.’ ‘We got the accounts finished.’ ‘I’ve prepared my teaching for the next term.’ ‘We’ve got the roof on.’ This is what people want when they ask you how it’s going: a titbit, a soundbite that will give a quick idea of what’s going on. Even ‘I got a rejection letter’ is better than ‘OK. I wrote some stuff.’
It’s a long, dry wait for those answers. Often writers suffer from imposter syndrome anyway, and having nothing to report feeds into that. What you do is intangible, solitary and hard to quantify. You find yourself fantasising about the moment when someone will say: ‘How’s the writing going?’ and you’ll be able to answer ‘I WON A PRIZE.’ Or ‘MY STORY’S BEEN ACCEPTED.’ Or, unlikeliest yet, ‘I’M GETTING PAID.’ An answer that reassures people that your pursuit is not a potential embarrassment to be wary of. An answer, basically, that justifies your lack of a proper job.
One of the best ways to survive the drought is the company of other writers. This is when I wish I lived somewhere else. London would be great, Brighton even better. I need a peer group. I need writer’s retreats. I need open mic poetry nights, and constructive criticism, and people to rave and bitch and laugh with. Twitter is a good proxy, but it’s no substitute. So next week I’ll be heading off to a writer’s retreat run by the wonderful Writers’ HQ (tagline: ‘For badass writers with no time or money’). Not only should I meet people who know exactly what I’m talking about, but I know I’ll come away with fresh ideas and a shitload of stuff to work on. It’s on Sunday, so given that I’ll need to take a Southern train back, I should be back by Tuesday. Wish me luck.