How DOES Anything Ever Get Written?

The post I was planning to write in the next day or so was the usual ‘What I Read in the Previous Month’ one (and there’s some interesting stuff in there, I can tell you), but something else important struck me and I thought it might be a good time to share it with you. And seeing as it’s intended to provoke a response or two – and hence might possibly generate a bit of traffic – I thought there was no harm in putting up the cover of my forthcoming book once again – especially since it’s just gone live on NetGalley,

This post was triggered by a couple of things that happened recently. First of all, there was a change in my schedule. Book Four in the Mathematical Mystery series, Bad Day in Minsk, had been tentatively lined up for publication in September of this year. I’d readily agreed to this, but by the time the end of February was looming, there was somewhat less of it written than I’d anticipated. So I was more than a little relieved when publication was put back to 2021, enabling me to finesse my lack of progress and agree that yes, this was obviously disappointing, but I could probably cope with a later deadline.

Of course what happened next was that my mind set to work wondering what I could do with all the extra time I now had – ignoring the obvious one, which was ‘Get on and write Bad Day in Minsk at a sensible leisurely pace, you idiot, rather than ending up frantically scribbling away like some NaNoWriMo entrant who’d forgotten to get going until the third week.’

Which brings me on to the second thing that happened recently. I had an idea. An idea for a conventional high-concept thriller. The sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in the WH Smiths at Heathrow. Not only that, but I’d actually spent most of February working it out in my head to the point where I actually had pretty much the whole plot laid out. This is not my usual style at all, so it was obviously SIGNIFICANT. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to abandon the Mathematical Mysteries. I’ve grown to love those characters and the situations they find themselves in (well, someone has to) and there’s so much more I want to do with them. But I do also fancy stretching out a bit, just to see if I can.

So the obvious thing to do was take advantage of my new found extra time and spend maybe a month of it starting work on Project X, just to see if it really has legs. Seems fair, right?


Here’s the thing. Even after having had half a dozen full-length books published and one more commissioned, I find it impossible to write something without some kind of external influence bearing down on me. Is it just me, or does the whole idea of spending time working on some unasked-for project seem so massively self-indulgent and embarrassing that I’ll do almost anything to avoid it? So, yes, I am currently doing anything to avoid writing a single word on Project X. And as my month on that is scheduled to run before I really get stuck into Bad Day in Minsk, that means I’m not doing a lot on that one either.

So how DOES anything ever get written?

Well, I can tell you how all my other full-length books got written. Here goes…

Professional DCOM Application Development (yep, let’s start at the very beginning) – I pitched an idea to a publisher and got contracted to write it. Incidentally, I still got paid more for that than anything else I’ve written, although it was a LOT less fun.

Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens – Well, I staggered to around 10K words thanks to the goodwill of the Verulam Writers’ Circle, the writing group I was in at the time, but the only way I actually finished it was to start serialising it online. By the time I ran out of that initial 10K words, I’d gathered sufficient of a following that I was obliged to continue. Also, I was enjoying the reactions I was getting.

Take It Cool – Once again, the initial impetus was my writing group, and with their encouragement, I got to a point where I could try pitching it to agents and publishers, given that I’d heard that non-fiction books didn’t need to be complete to get commissioned. This turned out to be completely wrong, as no-one would take it on without knowing whether or not I’d actually tracked Dennis Pinnock down, and at the time I had no idea if I would. I did, however, get a commitment from one publisher that they’d give it a serious look when I’d finished it, and on that basis I went ahead and finished the damn thing. In the end, they couldn’t see a way to market it, so I ended up taking it elsewhere. But they did at least force me to finish it.

The Truth About Archie and Pye – OK, this is where things started to get desperate. The reason I wrote it is that I’d paid a large amount of money to do the Creative Writing Masters at Bath Spa and I needed a project. So I basically wrote it to avoid wasting all that cash.

A Question of Trust – I wrote this because I had a contractual commitment to write the second book that Farrago had commissioned when they bought The Truth About Archie and Pye.

The Riddle of the Fractal Monks – I wrote this because I had a contractual commitment to write two more books in the Mathematical Mystery series.

Bad Day in Minsk – I will write this for exactly the same reason.

See the common theme? In all of these cases, I have needed an external agency to give me a reason – an excuse, even – to spend time writing a book. Clearly, ‘I am writing this book because I have a hunch people will want to read it’ is not sufficient. It has to be ‘I am writing this book because someone more important than me has commissioned it and therefore I have a contractual commitment to keep.’

Now I think I know the reason for this. It’s because first drafts are universally terrible, and the only way to counter the feeling that ‘this thing is a crock of shit and, verily, great and marvellous is the smell thereof’ is to add ‘but the Lord hath commanded that somehow this crock of shit must nevertheless be transformed into the most precious of stones.’ Which is great if there happens to be a (non gender specific) Lord around to do the commanding. But what if there isn’t?

Is it just me?

So what am I going to do about Project X? Will it go the same way as all the other Projects X‘s that have fallen by the wayside over the years? What do other people do?

3 thoughts on “How DOES Anything Ever Get Written?

  1. Sharon Birch says:

    HI Jon! Thank you so much for this. Just this. It is exactly how I feel. My first book was a contractual obligation and I had a deadline. Good. The novel I’m forever writing? No deadline, words swinging in the ether, the feeling that it should be consigned to the bin, the worst thing ever written, self indulgent and nobody asked for it, nor will anyone ever read it, feeling. Then I went to Crime and Publishment weekend. I have interest from a publisher but it needs to be written. It’s a start. I’ve provided myself with a deadline and booked a retreat for the end of April, when I hope to be editing it. It’s the best I can do at the moment. Your post sits right along with how I feel about my writing motivation.
    Oh, and I didn’t know you’d published your third mathematical series! Can’t believe I’ve missed it – how can I purchase a signed copy for Mr B? It’s his birthday in a couple of weeks …

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for that, Sharon and good luck with the forever novel 🙂 Deadlines are wonderful things, aren’t they? And you haven’t missed Book Three – it’s only out on NetGalley at the moment and it isn’t officially published until April 16th, which may be a little late for Mr B’s birthday. But I’ll probably be putting it up on my shop early in April for pre-orders.

  3. alisonwells says:

    Hello Jonathan. I really enjoyed this post, particularly as I’m still trying to get traditionally published (I have three novels complete without a home and self-published another way back in 2012). In recent times I was lucky to be shortlisted down to 12 Irish writers who were chosen to attend The Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair – a kind of speed dating with 16 UK and Irish publishers and agents so there are several irons in the fire there still (ie Not everyone has answered). The post really hit a nerve as I have several ideas that I could work on but without an agent’s input or an already popular book or a publishing deal I don’t know which one might be one to spend my precious time (alongside kids and a full time jobs) on. Like the previous commentator i still don’t know if my novels are self-indulgent rubbish (though there has been some nice feedback and shortlists for competitions) or what will have a little bit more of the right stuff to push me over the edge into publication. You hear ‘follow your heart’, ‘write what you love not for the market’ etc but the years of nearly getting there make me want to do something a little bit savvy as well as not selling out my ‘artistic vision’ (barf) (if I have one) blah blah blah. I was really interested in your main point as to how you get yourself to physically finish books. Some of the psychological element I’ve been speaking of is key. For me there is also the bum on seat and finding the time and stop being constantly distracted side. The ways I’ve fooled myself into writing in the absence of external deadlines is yes – that old favourite NaNoWriMo (though I ended up with a big pile of compost that I had to spend a year making into logical sense and a first draft), writing short flashes for peer review on twitter’s #FridayFlash (not done this for a while) and being locked away on a couple of writing retreats a few years ago. So I need to be locked up and pinned down before I write which sound a bit dodgy all round! I still need more ways to fool myself into writing so thanks for sharing your experience.

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