Writing for fun or profit

I’ve been struggling lately, not just with moving to a different country and looking for a job, but also with what to write. My main problem, I think, is that because I don’t have a job, I’m feeling undue pressure to write something that sells. And this never works, if any of the published authors I follow on Twitter and any of the writing books I’ve read are anything to go by. And yet, paradoxically, continuing to write and edit a story that is never going to sell is also something even published authors still have to worry about. Every writer has an unfinished manuscript in a (digital) drawer somewhere, even the very best. So how do you* distinguish between a story that you’re writing for fun AND profit, and one that you’re writing for just one of the two?

You’d think it would be easy to determine when you’re not having fun writing something. If you hate working on it, if you have to drag yourself to the keyboard, then obviously you’re not having fun. And yet… Writing isn’t going to always be fun. At least if your goal is to be published, it can’t be just fun and games. You have to write on the days when you don’t want to. You have to keep going. It’s the only way to improve, to get through the 1000 hours of apprenticeship, the 100,000 words before you’re competent. And then there’s all the editing and polishing… Need I say more?

On the side of profit, there are even fewer guarantees. Whatever is trendy at the moment, is not going to be trendy anymore by the time you might be ready to query your manuscript. Never write for the market, because it changes too fast. The only way you can even slightly predict some sort of profit is by writing the best story that you possibly can, and submitting it to the right people, the ones who love stories like yours. It’s by no means an exact science, and probably defies any statistics, as, again, any published author would tell you.

So I’m basically screwed, right? There’s no way of knowing? Not necessarily! You’ll be happy to know this post isn’t all doom and gloom. Most writing advice states that if you believe in a story, with all your heart and imagination and everything else, then that’s the story to tell for fun AND the most likely to get published. It’s the story you will most likely want to keep writing even after bad writing days, or weeks. It’s the story that refuses to leave you alone. If you’re not sure how much you believe in your story, there’s always beta-readers to ask, as long as you ask some unbiased ones (i.e. don’t ask random friends if you should keep working on your stuff, if it’s good enough, because they will almost always lie to protect your feelings). And if someone tells you the story sucks, and you vehemently disagree, then get a second opinion because you’re obviously either still very passionate about it, or blinded by ego.

Now, having puzzled all of this out, my next steps should be simple, right? All I have to do is figure out which one of my writing projects I am most passionate about, and forget about everything else. If only it were that simple…

Is anyone else struggling with picking what story to invest in? Or just struggling in general? I’d love to hear some other perspectives!


*And by you I of course mean I…


The driving forces of creativity

A lot has been said about creativity, and even more because of creativity. Some writers seem to churn out a book a week, like they’re on some sort of creative-IV-drip. Others take a long time, and a lot of breaks, to turn their creative sparks into stories into publications. This leads to the question, are the first kind of people more creative than the second? Is creativity a limited resource for all but the best of us?

In a previous blog post I have discussed inspiration and how you can’t wait for creativity to find you; you have to go after it with a club. But there is a lot more to creativity than just being inspired. Many psychologists have studied creativity, over many centuries, and yet it still remains elusive. If the fictional people in the previous paragraph are any indication, there is certainly an element of personality to how creatively inclined a person is. While psychologists disagree on whether creativity is linked to intelligence, there does seem to be a clear link to mental illness, due to a certain personality type that is attracted to creative pursuits. That does not mean that people more prone to mental illness are more successful with their creative output. There are many different factors involved, as with everything else in life.

Aside from personality, which we can’t do much about, another important aspect of creativity is knowledge and skill. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction essay collection, A Slip of the Keyboard, at the moment, and in it he describes the importance of reading a wide variety of things. Not just fiction books, but history, technical stuff, basically anything you can get your hands on. And once this information is in your head, you can find it spilling out of you, transformed into a story that might look completely different from what the information started out as. The same goes for skill. Creativity is best built upon a foundation of skill, so that when it strikes you’re ready for it. There are all things that you can practice, ways in which everyone can be creative.

The most important aspect of creativity, in my opinion, is probably intrinsic motivation. The main reason some writers are more productive than others is because they manage to ignore everything else and focus on just writing as much as they possibly can. If you write so much, every day, you are bound to get better at it. It also means that you are right there, at your desk, ready to write down any inspiring thoughts that strike you, and keep producing work even when those thoughts don’t come. Many writers have said that they can’t tell the difference between the words they write when they are inspired versus when they are not.

Motivation is also the most important because it is the hardest to achieve. You can have the right personality, read up on all the things, and practice, but without proper motivation, it is hard to keep churning out stuff. It is certainly the aspect of creativity that I struggle with the most, as I often get demotivated by the thought that my work is not good enough. It’s also why things such as NaNoWriMo are so important, because they offer some nice external motivation to make up for any lack of intrinsic motivation to ‘suck’. Unfortunately, external motivation doesn’t last nearly as long as intrinsic does. If I ever find out how to keep my motivation-switch permanently on, I will be happy to share it, but I suspect it is a different kind of switch for everyone. Please do share how you manage to stay motivated in the comments though, maybe we can figure out the secret together.

If only I had a hook with some chocolate dangling next to my laptop.

Often discounted in discussions of creativity is the environment you are in. This includes the environment you grow up in. If your childhood has you surrounded by books and people writing, you are more prone to read widely, thus developing knowledge, and try some writing yourself, thus developing skill and the idea that it’s not that hard, which feeds back into your motivation. Even if you didn’t have this nurturing environment as a child, there are still things you can do with your workspace as an adult to help you be creative. Sometimes it helps to sit in a cafe, observing people, gaining knowledge in that way. This is again something that differs for everyone; some people need to turn off their internet, some people thrive having twitter side-by-side with what they’re writing. You do you, as the hip kids say (do they still say that? I feel old now).

While I have focused here on an artist’s creativity, and of course writing, there are many different types of work that require creativity. Science is built upon creative endeavours, new ways of looking at old problems. While a scientist requires a different personality type and knowledge background from a fiction writer, they both thrive when they are being creative. Scientists just use creativity in a more restrained, functional manner, which links back to differences in personality types and might very well be why there isn’t a link between science-style out-of-the-box thinking and mental illness.

There is however an interesting link between science and fiction writing, with a lot of scientists who try their hand at writing fiction churning out great books. This probably goes back in part to Sir Pratchett’s motto of accumulating interesting facts. Whatever it may be, I hope I will someday be one of those scientists who becomes a successful writer.

When Inspiration Strikes

The other day I was lying in bed, about to fall asleep, when the perfect start to my novel just popped into my head. Now it has taken me ages to come up with something, so of course I got up and wrote it down, destroying any chances of a good night’s sleep in the process. But that’s a story for another blog.

In this post, I want to talk about these moments, in bed or in the shower or out on a walk (and always away from writing equipment), when things just pop into your head. Some call it a strike of inspiration, or their muse communicating with them, but really it is your brain working efficiently.

Eureka! Not just something to shout when an idea hits you out of nowhere, but also an amazing TV show.

Since we can’t capture inspiration in a controlled experimental environment, there are a lot of things we still don’t know about what happens in the brain when we get inspired. So if anybody tells you they can ‘switch on’ creativity through brain stimulation, they’re trying to sell you something. What we do know through simplified experiments is that a lot of different brain areas need to be synced-up for inspiration to be able to strike. And I’m not talking about just the right hemisphere either, which is a common myth, I’m talking about areas all over the brain.

Scientists have hypothesised that the reason moments of inspiration occur when you’re away from your computer is due to the Default Mode Network. This network of brain areas becomes active while we’re at rest, so specifically while we’re not thinking about anything in particular. Like when we’re about to fall asleep. And since the network extends all over the brain, it is ideally suited for combining different types of processes and creating new connections. The result; inspiration instead of rest.

The most important thing to note is that inspiration does not occur in a vacuum. Inspiration relies on a lot of experience, expertise and active unconscious/semi-conscious processing. While the idea of a muse is appealing and can be helpful for visualisation, in reality inspiration is not the result of genius or divine intervention, but instead heavily dependent upon our own abilities. So the next time you’re wishing for inspiration to strike, just remember that inspiration (and your brain) needs something to work with, so keep working, thinking about writing (or whatever else you may want to do), practicing, and just going about your daily activities, because it’s the only way you might be able to open yourself up to ‘spontaneous’ inspiration.

Jack London said it best: “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”

NB: These views and thoughts are my own, creativity is not my particular area of expertise, so feel free to take everything with a pinch of salt.