What Writers Want

On Tuesday, March 4th, I was asked to give a provocation at Writers’ Centre Norwich (monthly salon) re what writers want. I thought it might be of use to publish the points I made here. Please feel free to comment.

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Writers want to write (usually). However, writers may also want a holiday in the Maldives, a Thai massage, to lose weight, to meet George Clooney and to win the Lottery. So, for the purposes of this provocation, it is probably best to concentrate on what writers need. There are three needs to which all writers must attend: to find time, to obtain honest criticism and to cope with rejection.

Time:

Individual writing needs are subjective, obviously. Stephen King likes to write with a wall of heavy metal music blaring in the background. Zadie Smith opts for a silent, darkened room, while J.K. Rowling famously favours bustling cafes and the motion of trains. Nonetheless, one need all these writers have in common is that they all need time to write. Virginia Woolf once said that a great obstacle for writers (particularly female writers) is a pram in the hall. Children are doubtless demanding of the writer’s time. However, Virginia was a wealthy woman and perhaps unaware that in the hallway lurks another time-killer for writers, one which probably didn’t bother Virginia that much – bills on the doormat. Yes, the need to pay rent, bills, feed and clothe yourself means that unless independently wealthy or supported by a generous, affluent partner, most writers will have to work to survive. This will result in limited writing time. Therefore, one of the first matters to address when you begin your career as a writer is how you are going to find and fund time to write.

Get a day job seems the obvious answer. Some writers opt for a writing-related gig such as teaching creative writing or journalism. However, both are rather stressful jobs and you have to be careful that you leave time for your own writing. When I worked as a journalist, a keyboard was the last thing I wanted to see when I got home. Therefore, there is much to be said for working in a monotonous job that requires no writing and little mental effort (on a factory line, for example). And such a setting keeps you connected to the real world and can provide good material for our work. The writer Nell Dunn chose factory work for this reason and her experiences translated into her landmark 1960s T.V. series ‘Up the Junction’. That said, taking a factory line means the loss of social status, which can be an issue for some, especially if they have spent many years studying for an MA etc… Alternatively, yo ucna investigate obtaining funding from the Arts Council which allows writers to buy time. As a 2013 Escalatee, I received an Arts Council grant which gave me the freedom to go part-time at work for the greater part of a year – the fruit of which was a completed novel and screenplay. Be aware that the Writers’ Centre Norwich will read over your Arts Council application before you submit.

Criticism:

Writers need objective criticism and your mum usually doesn’t provide the same. Rather, you need honest feedback from fellow scribes. It is an idea to approach writers in your community whose work you admire and offer to swap work for feedback purposes. It is not easy to take criticism onboard but to improve, you must. It is fine to defend your work or disagree with comments made but remember your critics are giving a reader’s perspective and if they’re confused/unimpressed, it is likely your readers will be also and you will not be able to phone all your readers and defend your choices. Learn to listen and consider the criticism you receive. You can contact fellow writers via writers’ groups, writing classes and the Internet. Also, there are commercial manuscript-critiquing services. The Writers’ Centre Norwich has some recommendations in this regard. Moreover, rejected work is sometimes returned with helpful criticism. Read it, consider it, re-work your piece and send out a better version. Your writing skills will improve with each new draft of your work.

Rejection:

Learning to cope with rejection is one of the most difficult, yet most important of the writer’s needs. You are a writer and you will fail and your work will be rejected. And you will be rejected again, and again. Not only do you need to keep going, you need to learn how to deal with these constant dismissals of your work. Having a brass neck would help, however writers tend to be a sensitive bunch. I’ve seen a number of very talented writers give up because they couldn’t hack the (seemingly endless) rejection. Equally, I’ve seen lesser talents succeed because they mustered the strength to suck it up and keep going. Some use drink as a crutch (probably not to be encouraged, but it can be fun in the short term). My own coping method is to send out so many ships, be they short stories, screenplay pitches, radio dramas, funding applications, that if one ‘sinks’ I hardly  notice and simply concentrate on launching more. As someone said to me once, if you knock on a door three times you might not get a reply, if you knock on a door three-hundred times, someone will hear you.

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About suehealy

Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre and associate lecturer in playwriting at the universities of Lincoln and Portsmouth, Irish playwright Sue Healy’s Imaginationship premieres at the Finborough Theatre in January 2018. Cow (2017) showed at the Etcetera Theatre and Brazen (2016) ran at the King’s Head, funded by Arts Council England. Her work has been performed at the Criterion, Hackney Attic, Claremorris Festival (New Writing Award winner), Brighton Festival (the Sussex Playwrights’ Award Winner) and Sterts Theatre and has been developed by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Her nine radio-plays have broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. She has won prizes for her prose including the Molly Keane and HISSAC Awards and the Escalator Prize. A UEA Creative Writing MA alumna, Sue spent eleven years in Budapest editing Hungary A.M. She is completing a Ph.D. in Theatre history. Sue also tutors Creative Writing at CityLit. View all posts by suehealy

9 responses to “What Writers Want

  • t upchurch

    Good post, and lots of fair points (speaking as someone juggling kids and bills!).
    I want fresh air and good health, the writing will happen if my family is healthy, there are always a couple of minutes in the day.

  • Craig Pay

    I’m reading this on a rare day off from work where I get to do some writing. Normally it’s early mornings and late evenings for me. Great article. Kids do take up a lot of time (I have two) and so they should. Efficient time-management is required!

    Best line for me: “Learn to listen and consider the criticism you receive.” I love writing groups, I happen to run one in Manchester. I’d recommend any writer to do some Googling to find a local group. There are plenty around. Go along for a couple of meetings to see if the group is to your liking. If not, try another.

  • The Writing Waters Blog

    All very true and good advice. And though I know this, it doesn’t hurt to hear it again and realize we all experience it.

  • neweconomiccharter

    Very interesting, personal, and “grounding” post. Thanks. I personally take inspiration from Tolkien’s late-night writing, although (with a working wife + kids aged 11, 13, and 17) I cannot always muster the mental clarity at midnight… I do not derive any inspiration from Marx’s approach; although prolific, it was very high-maintenance for all involved.
    Ralph Meima
    Vermont, USA
    “Inter States” (http://interstates2040.wikispaces.com)

  • Peekiequeen

    Reblogged this on The Expressible Café and commented:
    A brilliant discourse on the Subject of Writers and three main ingredients we all need to consider. Much appreciated Ms. Healy.

  • Britt Skrabanek

    A monotonous day job unrelated to writing has totally worked for me over the past two years. Before that I did quite a bit of marketing writing as well as grants, and they took their toll on my creative time outside of work.

  • Maria Matthews

    A thought provoking read. The one piece of advice that struck a chord with me was – Read it, consider it, re-work your piece and send out a better version.
    I tried this and it worked – luckily because I was on the verge of quitting, when a short story was accepted for print. Thank you for visiting my blog.

  • darkjade68

    Just wanted to let you know about our Latest Writing Contest http://thedarkglobe.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/tell-us-your-elven-story-legendary-post-elven-story-writing-contest/

    Thanks Following us all this time

    DJ-

  • Kathy George

    Good, thought-provoking post. Another thing this writer wants is readers, fans! It’s such a buzz when someone says, What a lovely piece of writing.

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