The Best Thing About Writing Is The Not Writing Bit

When I decided I wanted to write a novel last summer I naively believed that it would be a reasonably straightforward affair. Get idea – Write Idea down – Send idea off to publishers – Get six figure advance and three book deal – The end. Oh what a silly boy I was. Ever since then I have been well and truly put in my place by just about everything I have read and heard about the first time in novelist.

You will never get an agent. If you get an agent you will never get a publisher. If you get a publisher nobody will buy it. And forget about the self publishing route because a) it’s too expensive b) you don’t have the time or experience to go down the road and c) did I mention that nobody will buy it because your idea is rubbish, your writing style is rubbish and er…..you’re just generally rubbish.

Well all of the above may be true but, if nothing else, this journey has taught me a lot about myself; what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at. It has also taught me a lot about other people. The good, the bad and the ever so slightly ugly. But most of all it’s taught me about how much of a writer’s life is spent not writing. Don’t believe me? Well here are a few examples for you to mull over.

There’s the thinking to start with. When I’m out running or commuting to and from work I’m thinking about characters, plot, structure, yadda, yadda, yadda. Fionnuala told me this morning that she would hate to spend one minute in my brain. Which I kind of took as a compliment. You need to think, rethink and then think some more before you even think about setting pen to paper or opening your laptop.

Next up is the reading. Why didn’t anyone tell me that writing a book would require so much reading. There’s the research for a start. The novel contains a number of scenes set in the early nineteenth century so I’ve had to research that period in order to add authenticity to those sections. I’ve also had to research modern day Belfast – the history of buildings I walk past every day; certain communities from within which one of my main characters comes from. The list is endless.

I’ve also sought to read as much of the genre that I’m writing about – urban fantasy. This has been daunting as every author I read seems infinitely more creative and eloquent than I am. Their stories flow effortlessly, their ideas spark off the page. It got to the point where I avoided such fiction as it was only depressing me. But I realised that in order to improve I need to learn from the best, no matter how painful and humbling an experience that is.

Then there’s the scene visits. Much of the novel is set in modern day Belfast. So I’ve found myself wandering round the city on my lunch breaks. Looking at buildings, really looking at them; buildings that I have walked past a thousand times before. Noticing details that I have never noticed before. Taking photographs and getting funny looks from passers by. It’s as if I’m seeing the city for the first time, or at least for the first time through the eyes of my characters.

I could write a dozen blogs on this subject but I’m going to stop for now. I’m nearing the summit every day and I’m hoping the view from the top will be spectacular when I get there. But that’s only half the story. Standing atop Everest is not what changes a person, it’s the journey to get there that does. I’m well on my way. There’s still some way to go. But I’m learning. Every step of the way.

How much of your writing process involves not writing?

Where are you on your creative journey?

Urban fantasy fiction in modern day Belfast with a twist of historical flashback? Yay or nay?

71 thoughts on “The Best Thing About Writing Is The Not Writing Bit

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  1. a lot of people like I are mostly naive about writing. i understand the struggle esp the researching and reading and learning from the best part. i had that experience where i’d rather not read authors who clearly got everything figured but damn you are right – it is needed. There was someone who told me to start with short stories first before attempting to write a novel just so i’ll have an idea of what writing really is. maybe, one day i’d find courage to finally write the stories inside my head. for now, i’d stick with my poetry. tjanks for sharing btw. it was nice to know im not alone with the struggle.

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    1. I write short stories out of preference. It wasn’t until NaNoWriMo 2016 that I finished the first draft of a novel for the very first time in my life. Let me tell you, it’s a different beast all together different. At least when it comes to revisions. I don’t know if I will ever feel that novel will be done, but that’s the learning process.

      My advice is to pick the format you are interested in writing and work with it. Don’t make the mistake I did and assume it’s all the same. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. And each will has a tendency to speak to a writer a certain way.

      If you’re already saying, “I’ll stick with my poetry,” then it means you’ve found your element as a writer. There’s nothing wrong with branching out and developing other forms of writing. If anything, you might find it will make your poetry stronger in the process.

      By completing that first draft of my novel, it made me realize that there was more I could do with story arcs in my short stories. So I pay closer attention to that now. Does this make me a better writer? Well, only the reader really knows.

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        1. I’m still learning over here as well! I’m not sure anyone ever feels like they’ve become a master in their craft no matter how good they might have gotten. Look at the greats throughout history. They were always striving to improve. I suspect this is what made them great.

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        1. I seldom write poetry. Usually when I do, it’s to express difficult emotions. I find that the strict, formal formats of poetry for some reason helps me with that. Only other time is in fiction for songs or spells. 😉

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  2. Very true. I started writing a novel with a half assed idea and thought i would figure it out as i go along. I got so lost in getting the time lines and plot lines together that i just abandoned the project.

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  3. I have considered writing a book so many times, and for me the answer to the question of ‘if you had all the money in the world, what would you do?’ has always been ‘Move to the hills or beach and write a novel!!’. However your post truthfully explores and lays bare the reality behind that dream. Writing novels and plays as a child seemed easy to me, they amused my readers (My teachers, my mum and my grandparents), and I have to say, had quite advanced structure and character depth for a child of 8! But I’m certain now from reading your post that the same could not be said for writing as an adult or for an adult audience. I won’t give up on the dream, but I may take a more realist approach. I applaud your honesty, and thank you for sharing!

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      1. Asking a reader to list her favorite authors or books is to ask an impossible task. But JRR Tolkien is my most favorite favorite, of course. He set the standard for adult fantasy. Juliet Marillier is another favorite, especially her Seven Waters series which has a Celtic setting. She is an absolutely amazing story teller. I love Katherine Kurtz, whose books combine a historical feel with a magical twist. And I love Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders books which sort of combine fantasy with a science fiction element. I adore Zenna Henderson’s People stories. Mercedes Lackey is fun for a lighter fantasy. I’ll stop there. 🙂

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  4. Well I’m not much of a writer, I just write when ever I’m feeling strong about a certain topic or situation. I write for my girlfriend and just about anything. Sometimes, actually most times, I even write poems. I never thought about how much work goes into writing before you even put pen to paper, but it makes sense. You have to think about what you’re going to write or else you will just be rambling 😂😂. Right now I think I’m in the beginning stages of my writing journey.
    I’ll be following you on your way up to Mount Everest! Maybe I’ll meet you there 😉

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  5. I do it in different places but I think the largest chunk of my working out what happens in my writings (such as my Sky-Pirates story) is done in bed after I’ve woken up. As I’m waking up I’m thinking about what needs to be done next.

    As regards to urban fantasy it’s actually a genre I’m quite fond of so keep at it. Charles de Lint writes quite good work in this genre. My half-written vampire novel has elements of urban fantasy to it. Once I’ve finished my Sky-Pirates story I’m thinking about returning to it, but that may be some time in the future as the story I’m currently working on looks like it’s going to go novel length as well.

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  6. Some days the creative process grabs me by the throat and demands I write NOW. Others, it’s off doing who knows what. Those are the days I research, explore, and try to pave the way for a new idea.

    I can’t wait to read your tale, flashbacks and all!

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  7. It’s so true! So much of writing is filled with not writing for all the reasons that you said. One of the best things that I’ve done is intentionally taken a break from writing/editing/rewriting my novel for the sake of my sanity. I’ve taken a few month-long breaks where I didn’t think about or touch the manuscript. That way, when I was ready to get back at it again, I could look at it through fresh(er) eyes. It’s amazing how much clarity can come when we step back for a moment and let our minds wander elsewhere.

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  8. I too, was going to write a book to be published. However, I wanted to make my book about grief, but from a personal perspective, not as much clinical. I am still going to get started, but you are right about agents and publishing houses seeming like daunting tasks in the process. Don’t give up! Self-publishing might not be as bad as you think. I believe your own editing skills are likely good enough. Your blog has minimal (or none) errors. I believe in your dream!

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  9. You can self publish through create space and amazon for free and you set price of book therefore determining your profit. When you get to that point and if that’s the route you want to take let me know. I can put you in touch with my mom. She’s done three that way in the last year or so.

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  10. Over the past five years coming up with the series, I totally agree with this. Writing is almost like editing in the sense of it is fully one of the final “touches” to this seedling of an idea. We have to grow ideas, nurture that soil, and much of that time is spent outside of writing. Agreed!

    I hope people also understand, by you sharing this, you’re not saying writing does not take as much effort, it’s just writing is the blossoming flower of a growing and expanding idea. Writing (everything connecting to it) is hard.

    The odds are against novelists in publishing their first work, definitely. I know what I’ve read has been discouraging a lot. But I agree, this whole experience teaches so much.

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  11. I agreed about the writing process u described 🙂 but I don’t spend so much time with research actually or thinking. But…it’s all depends on the genre, style, places & characters in the books. Sometimes it’s necessary- to think more..
    About “yay” or “nay” – depends on language & plot 🙂

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  12. When I write, each experience is very different. Candidly I have often found that my most meticulously researched and achingly plotted pieces end up in the rubbish category and it’s only when I take inspiration for a joy-ride that I find the story takes off. That said, my version reading comes through the myriad of edits and rewrites to hone my drivel into a coherent, passingly intelligent narrative, and the painstaking research to make sure my assertions pass historical muster.

    I have circled back to the foundation of my creative journey, rebuilding my voice rather than focusing on a story. Too much world and not enough creativity right now. So I am rebuilding the house one cinderblock at a time. Then I will get back to my stories.

    As far as whether the urban Belfast story has my approval, I say write from your areas of inspiration and let the story take hold. Don’t force location, or be constrained by the physical world – but ground your inspiration in your life and experiences and the voice of the story will reward you.

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  13. So far I have not ventured beyond the confines of blog and sermon writing. I am deeply in awe of those of you who have taken the novel plunge. The part of my writing I like best is the way it forces me to stop and notice the world around me. I know in an abstract way that “meaning and beauty lurks around every corner,” but unless I am watching the world with a writer’s eye, my tendency is to coast through the world in something of a stupor.

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  14. My feeling about writing is: it doesn’t matter if anyone else reads my stories, as long as they have value to me. And yes, I spend much more time not-writing than writing! 🙂

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      1. I understand – I felt heartbroken too (a few friends tried to read the book I self-published back in 2014, but none of them made it past the first few chapters). However, the pain faded over time and I feel okay now. I’m still writing.

        I really hope this doesn’t come across as depressing – that’s the opposite of what I intended! You’ve got a really popular blog, and urban fantasy is a popular genre, so I’m sure your book will do well.

        While I’ve realised that being a professional author is not something I want myself (I don’t want all the stress, angst and hard-work that goes with it!) I admire the people who take the effort not only to write books, but to get them published and to let the world know about them. I wish you the best of luck!

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  15. I agree with you on the fact that a writer thinks more than he or she actually writes. But what I have learned throughout the years that I have written is that my spontaneous writing has more depth and feel to it than the edited ones. Even I get scared with the prospect of not being able to publish my work but then I have also realized that writing is the only thing that comes to me. I hope your work gets publisjed and I would love to read your novel!

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  16. I understand completely . . . having been there myself. Right now, I’ve written 3 e-books (but not really sold anything). It’s a definite juggling act. Write? Or read/research? Or promote/market? The latter takes a lot of time (!) and it’s not something I have right now. So, one day, hopefully sooner than later, I will be able to focus on “selling” myself. It’s all good. It’s all about learning/growing. You’ll do fine. You have an amazing voice, a definite flair for writing. It will come . . . it WILL come.

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  17. What I learned from first time writing: nobody else but you is going to write this book. So the only person who needs to believe in you, is you! And I’m about to go to print on my first, self published book. 🙂

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  18. Thanks for giving us an insight to what the process is like. It sounds a lot harder than what I would have imagined. Hang on to the sight of the summit and as you said, enjoy/learn from the process as much as you can. I think you’ll make it there gloriously and I know I am not the only one here. 🙂 Cheers to all the hours you live in your second world.

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  19. For urban fantasy, I highly recommend Nicole Peeler’s work, not only is she brilliant technically, but her stories are immersive. Keep writing, but also know when to let it soar. Don’t over-edit and drown your voice. It’s a common problem. Think of it like a pianist, if you play the same composition day after day, it never stretches or improves your skills. Expand the repertoire and practice the craft a lot, but be willing to let them go into the world (whether you publish or keep it for your family and friends to say, “I wrote this book!”) so you can grow. Marketing and writing are two separate beasts, don’t overwhelm yourself. Juggle the writing first. Practice. Practice. Practice. 😊 Good luck! Happy writing!

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  20. I have been wanting to write a novel for years. But the fear of rejection and failure has held me back. I am good at writing and have been told so from a young age. But actually putting my work out there, spending all that time, only to be rejected is daunting. I wish you luck Steven! I know it will be spectacular because your writing on here is spectacular. Don’t doubt yourself! Your blog has inspired me to maybe start anew!

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