I’m a great believer in the importance of measuring what you achieve. Maybe you’ll count how many words you’ve written, how many stories you’ve sold, how many hours you’ve put in. However you do it, it stops you dodging the awkward question of “am I actually writing”.
But how you use this to stay motivated is very personal and it can change over time. You shouldn’t get trapped in using somebody else’s approach, even when that somebody else is you in the past.
For the past year, I’ve been measuring my achievements but not setting firm goals. I had so much else going on in life, setting targets became too daunting. The thought of failure put me off achieving them. They were counter-productive.
I still measured what I achieved, and celebrated it with fellow writers. I kept track of story sales and freelance earnings. But there were no targets.
Five weeks ago, that changed.
Worries about income were making me tear my hair out (not that I have much hair to tear – number one cut all over means never getting hat hair). I needed to be sure that the money was flowing. So I set myself a target. I would aim to do freelance work worth a certain amount each week. And to do this, I’d work out beforehand what that work consisted of.
This time, the targets have proved motivating. I discovered that I could easily earn more than I was doing just by getting focused. Even in weeks disrupted by my house move, I’ve either hit those targets or caught up the next week. It’s relieved the pressure in my brain, letting me relax. Once I’ve finished settling in at the new house, I’ll have time to properly get back to my own stories.
Maybe in six months or a year I’ll need new targets. Maybe they’ll be different figures, or monthly instead of weekly. Maybe I’ll go back to measures. The important thing is that I use what gets me motivated, instead of getting stuck in a rut.
Do the same thing. Work out what gets you motivated and use it. Learn from others but don’t blindly follow them. Even when those others were once you.
It’s been a while since I’ve written an update on where I am writing-wise. So, for those who are interested, and to keep myself honest, here it is.
As I mentioned around the start of the year, life descended into chaos in the last few months of 2015, and I fell way behind where I wanted to be. Now that I’m back on top of life, I’m trying to crack on with self-publishing again.
I hope to put out a new e-book of some sort roughly every two months. A Mosaic of Stars was meant to be the February release, but ended up being a few days late. I’m aiming to put out a short story set in medieval England as a free e-book in April – all that’s needed at this point is the edits. Meanwhile, I’ll get back to writing the long-delayed parts four and five of the Epiphany Club steampunk series, the next two releases. I have plans beyond that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Meanwhile, I’ve started submitting short stories to websites and magazines again. I’ve had one accepted for an anthology from the publishers of Avast! Ye Airships. Hopefully more will follow – watch this space.
I have enough work to live off for the next few months, and it’s all interesting. Some ghost written fiction, some writing about writing, and a load of military history. Writing things I enjoy is very motivating.
Clients have started approaching me rather than me always chasing them. So far that’s mostly been with work I don’t want, but hey, it’s a step forward. The more experience and reputation I build up, the more work I get offered, and the better it is. Now I’m hitting my deadlines again, I can start to build up a financial buffer to take time off for my own writing.
I’m currently writing each week’s set of blog posts eight days before the first one will go out. That relieves the pressure I felt when I was writing each one the day it went out, or even writing a weekly batch just before the first one appeared. It makes the content a little less timely, but provides me with prepared posts in case something gets in the way of writing. And I can always juggle the schedule if something comes up I want to respond to quickly.
So again, things are going pretty well.
My able assistant Elmo the kitten is now six months old, and I’m not sure I can call him a kitten any more. Certainly not to his face. He still keeps trying to play with the keyboard, but doesn’t persist for long because he knows I’ll stop him. He’s a mad little beast, but is at least learning not to bring his claws out when we play.
That’s about it – the start of play for Andrew Knighton, writer, as of mid March 2016. Here’s hoping things keep on improving.
Ghost-writing is a weird business. The boundaries of individual authorship and intellectual ownership aren’t in their usual places. The rules of the game can vary from one project to the next. The writers themselves often remain unknown, however famous their works.
Take the case of Rose Wilder Lane.
Little House in the Bookstore
Rose Wilder Lane is primarily remembered as the daughter of the more famous Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. The novels were based on Laura’s experiences of growing up in a pioneer family as the United States of America expanded to fill its continent.
What’s less well known, though no secret, is that Rose played an uncredited role in writing the books. The extent of her involvement is debated, and she seems to have played a less significant role over time. Unlike her mother, Rose was an experienced professional writer, and her part may have gone as far as massively re-writing the early books. Certainly, her mother’s literary success came in large part from Rose’s contribution.
Standing on the Shoulder of Relatives
Rose was a successful writer in her own right, as a journalist, travel writer and biographer. During the 1920s, she was one of the highest-paid female writers in America. She had collaborated with others as well as writing on her own and was a political thinker as well as a creative.
Yet the collaboration with Laura was beneficial to Rose as well as her mother. Her experience with the Little House novels led to some of her most successful writing in her own name. These later novels were commercially and critically successful. With the proceeds she paid off her debts and bought a house.
The Difficulty of Collaboration
My friend Joanna, who pointed Rose out to me, mentioned the extra feelings of obligation that must have weighed on Rose in collaborating with her mother. It’s a really interesting point.
Family relationships are always tangled. So many years of interaction pile up good and bad feelings, old memories and patterns. Artistic collaborations are usually tricky relationships as well. Something as apparently simple as editing a book can be a minefield of recrimination and bitterness, as the editor tries to take the rough edges off something the original author is extremely attached to. I know I’ve been in at least one editorial relationship that went sour.
Add to that the fact that Rose was not credited as co-author oofbooks she is alleged to have largely written, and you have a relationship that must have become fractious at times. Did Rose collaborate out of love or obligation? In truth, the two are not always separate, and we can’t know how much the project was a source of shared joy or of resentment.
And the Joys
On the other hand, Rose and Laura got to share a great deal through working together. The fun of creation and the sharing of family memories may have added to their closeness. I certainly hope so. I know that when I’ve collaborated on books with people I get on with we’ve had a great time and it’s made the work more enjoyable. It’s one of the things you gain from working in a creative business, even one where you aren’t credited.
Writing always emerges from relationships with others, all the more so when working for hire. Thinking about Rose is a good way of remembering that those relationships aren’t just functional but have an emotional place in writers’ lives.And it’s
And it’s good to see that, just occasionally, a ghost-writer can get the credit in the end. Good on you, Rose Wilder Lane.
My fascination with military history is a little contradictory, given that I’m a pacifist. But story is about conflict, and conflict doesn’t get much more direct and dramatic than war. The courage, the chaos, the carnage – there’s a reason it features so prominently in fiction.
This week I wrote a murder mystery game – the third time I’ve been commissioned to do this professionally – and it was a reminder of the importance of writing for your audience.
The first time I wrote one of these games it was for a small group of cosmopolitan twenty- and thirty-somethings. This time it was for a church youth group running the game for fifty teens. The mechanics are completely different, but so is the tone. In come non-player suspects to be questioned. Out go the sex and drugs.
The biggest lesson for me was in how much assumptions colour what I right. I put in infidelity as a motive because I’m so used to that being a feature of murder mysteries – even Miss Marple is constantly running into respectable English people who can’t keep it in their pants. But that was the one thing I was asked to change, because while infidelity might be an acceptable feature of murder mysteries, it definitely isn’t an acceptable feature of church camping weeks.
Sure, as writers we work in a creative field. You could even call what we do art. But art is never pure, it’s always affected by who you’re writing for. So the dead hotel manager has put his wandering willy away, and by the time he winds up dead he’ll be in a whole other sort of trouble. He clearly hasn’t learned his lesson, but I have.
We cherish freedom yet we thrive in restrictions. It’s the sort of horrible irony of human nature that I’d expect Loki to comment on in a Marvel film. It’s why I’m so glad to be getting back into routines after the house move.
Don’t get me wrong, I still relish freedom from the more restrictive routines of my old office job. I mean seriously, who needs to dress up smart to sit behind the scenes at a computer all day? But the past few weeks, with their packing and unpacking, along with a lack of home internet access, have completely screwed with my ability to get stuff done. I’m back to working decent hours now, but something as simple as not being able to deal with my emails before breakfast mucks up my ability to smoothly progress through the heaps of work.
Sure, routines limit us. But they also save us the brain power involved in endless decisions about what to do next, when, for how long, and so on. Mess with a small child’s schedule and this becomes really obvious, but I’m sure we adults are just as susceptible, even if we wear our moods less prominently on our sleeves.
Now the boxes are unpacked and the internet is coming. Time to get myself settled into the rails of a regular routine once more.
Working as a ghostwriter leads to some odd situations. One that struck me recently is that I could commit an act of plagiarism just by using my own words.
Not Owning My Work
As a ghostwriter, I don’t own the copyright on what I produce. There are hundreds of thousands of words out there that I crafted but that have someone else’s name on them, whether it’s the name of a real person or a made up name. Not only am I not associated with those words – I have no legal claim on them.
Legally speaking, I’m effectively not the author of those words. Someone else owns them.
Riding the Roundabouts
Recently, I’ve started to return to territory I’ve covered in previous works. For example, I’ve been writing about the Tudors. So when I did that, I opened up previous writing assignments I’d done on them. If nothing else, it would save me from replicating my research – why reinvent the intellectual wheel? I’ll even copy and paste something I’ve written before into the working document, so I can keep track of what elements I still want to include. But I have to be really careful that those same phrases and patterns of words don’t appear again. Because if they do, I’ll be plagiarising work that belongs to my client, which would be illegal and bad for my career.
It’s weird not to be able to copy myself. Weirder still to think that, sooner or later, I’ll probably do it by accident. If I come up with a phrase I really like and use it a ghostwriting project, what are the odds that it won’t occur to me again later? And if I forget that I used it before, then a tiny bit of repetition slips into the mix, and I can come close once again to plagiarising myself.
None of this is meant as a complaint. I have a great job, and when I ghostwrite I accept the consequences of that – I get my money, I lose my words. But it’s very strange to think that, however unlikely it is, I really could break the law just by writing in my own voice over and over again.
I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.
Poor Bloody Mary
Lets start with a history lesson.
Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.
There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.
As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.
Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.
There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.
Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.
And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.
Dealing With the Pain
There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.
And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’
These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?
More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.
I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.
OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.
And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.
One of the frustrations of freelance writing is that I often can’t point toward the things I’ve written and say ‘I did that’. Sometimes even when I can I don’t want to – no-one wants to read three hundred words designed to sell toothpaste. But right now I have a gig that not only has my name attached, it’s about something readers of this blog might be interested in – board games.
I’m currently writing blog posts for a price comparison sight called Board Game Prices. These aren’t in depth, critical analyses – it’s a site selling board games, so I’m focusing on the positives, the things that make me enthusiastic. Fortunately I have a lot of honest enthusiasm for board games.
Not all the blog posts there are by me, but if you want to read the first couple you can see my top tie-in games or read me enthusing about Doomtown Reloaded (again – I think I may love that game a little too much). I’ll have articles going up there fairly regularly, and they’re tagged with my name, so if you’re interested in board games then please go check it out.