How To Live As A Part-Time Novelist
You may have wanted it since childhood. Or, it may be a dream recently acquired. However you came to decide that writing fiction is your life’s ambition, pursuing the goal commits you to a journey filled with difficulty and disappointment. The good news is that seeing your first novel published is worth all you will have to sacrifice and endure. It is essential nevertheless to take a hard and critical look at the latter—the specific conditions of living as a part-time novelist—so as to change your life in a way that will further your cause.
Unless you are financially independent or receive financial support, you will need to work at a job that brings in money. Time and language are the most precious resources a writer has. The former is fixed. You will therefore need to find ways to both meet your job commitments and write something new each day. Doing the latter is essential for intellectual discipline. It will also help you keep the logic and coherence of your story together.
If you are single and without little ones, then you are half-way towards making a routine as a part-time novelist work. A good-paying job that you enjoy and through which you receive benefits need not be sacrificed to the call of the quill. To both write and earn get into the habit of rising early. An hour a day in front of a computer screen or notebook is more than adequate. Indeed, many novelists find they are at their best in the morning. Toni Morrison began her days at five in the morning when she first started writing.
There are those, however, who can do nothing at that time of day. Christopher Hitchens, who was not a novelist but certainly one of the great literary geniuses of our time, did his best work at night and reserved his mornings for emails and other correspondence. Such a routine may be better suited to your temperament. If this is the case, you should write in the late evening—after you’ve had time to settle your mind and your nerves from the strain of the day’s work and the commute home.
No matter where you live, you will find creative writing courses on offer. Many consist of short workshops that beginning writers can attend in the evening; others require a more serious two or three year commitment. The kind of program you choose should depend on what you hope to get out of it.
There are many benefits to creative writing courses. The most important, perhaps, is that it allows you to put your work before a critical eye. This will help bring to your attention the flaws, confusions, and stylistic weaknesses in your work. Such a course will also compel you to experiment with different forms of fiction. Writing a poem, a short story, or a novella exercises the mental muscles, giving you the stamina you need to complete a much longer book. You will also be required to read leading authors: for in order to become a serious writer you must first become a serious reader.
The latter thesis is why some, including me, remain skeptical of the value of creative writing courses. The best literature now in existence was produced long before the advent of these courses. It seems odd that a modern novelist would need to take such a course to write something good. You should consider forgoing a creative writing course and spending the money instead on the classics of literature. You will learn more about diction and syntax, stylistic euphony and character development from Henry James and Jane Austen than from teachers and students whose reading and tastes may not be as extensive and exquisite as they would have you believe.
Conversation is also a great way to enrich your mind. You will undoubtedly find informal groups of writers who get together for readings and drinks. This is a good way to talk through some of your ideas and get the kinds of challenges that will help you improve them. It is important to take great care in choosing a writing group that’s right for you. Don’t waste your time by going to meetings that you get nothing from.
You should also make a point to hear what scholars have to say about subjects related to your story. The departments of most colleges and universities run centers that study specialized topics. They invite academics from around the country to deliver talks on campus that are open to the public. These are usually followed by drinks and dinner afterwards, during which time discussion and debate are continued.
Going to talks, getting involved in scholarly groups, and establishing relationships with academics is a great way of increasing your knowledge about subjects that interest you.
The best novels are those that are most believable. And to be believable as a story teller you will need to do some research and have some insight into the social, economic, and psychological conditions that shape the lives of your characters.
All this reading, writing, and talking when combined with the work you must do to pay the bills will leave time for little else. Before you know it, you may find that you have fallen into a kind of secular monasticism—cut off from the world of joy, laughter, and sensual delight. Avoid this trap by keeping up your friendships and your love life. Although it will be hard, you must try to get in as much play and adventure as you can. How can you make the feeling and emotion of your fictional characters intense if you do not push your own experiences to the edge?
Taking in the carnal pleasures—food, wine, and sex—will help you attain the more spiritual one of writing fiction. The mind cannot thrive in a body that remains unsatisfied; and if your body is untouched by what is most beautiful and libidinously gratifying about the world you will never be at your creative best.
Finally, you should get into the habit of walking regularly. It is the best exercise for a writer. Walking will put you in a mood to think, reflect, and imagine. It is just intense enough to help you counter the effects of the sedentary conditions of writing, but not so strenuous that you will be unable to formulate an idea. It is no wonder that the great French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau called his final work Reveries of a Solitary Walker. He developed his radical ideas during the long wandering treks he took through Europe in his youth; and he continued to view walking as a form of meditation and a vehicle for bringing his scattered thoughts together into one singular vision. Rousseau’s is an example worth following. Walking for an hour or even a half an hour a day will give you the salubrious feeling that comes as a result of physical exercise and a mind freed from the mundane and the trivial.
Living as a part-time novelist presents a range of significant challenges. But if your dream is to write a novel and get it published, it is well worth making the necessary personal and social adjustments to achieve it.
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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.