Understanding Your Destination with Personal Writing Commandments

I have always been a strategic thinker. Every project I embark on, I need to know the end-game upfront. If my project was a ship, I need to see the dock, so I know where to steer. My writing is no different. I am part way through drafting (on the third act) a middle-grade novel, called Diary of a Martian. I will need a home for the novel at some point. It could be my desk drawer, it might be an agent/publisher, or I might release it myself. There are many options, but to understand where to end up, you need guide-rails to help get you there. It’s the same in corporate strategy. You need to see a bigger picture so you can steer that enormous ship, a company, in the right direction.

Steering a ship to your ultimate destination
Your writing destination is a lot like steering a ship to a port.

With all this in mind, I set about defining what my personal commandments are for my writing. Writing a series of commandments helps to solidify, for me, why I am doing this in the first place—other than just for fun. These commandments will be important later when I have finished writing my novel, as I will have to decide what to do with it: publish through a traditional publisher (well, try anyway), or independent publication. 

Just like biblical commandments, I will refer to these further down the line if I reach an impasse with my work, or feel as though I am veering in the wrong direction. The moment I get a feeling that I am taking a wrong turn, I will refer to these commandments. Commandments shouldn’t be mistaken for goals. Goals have a determined outcome. You can tick off when they are complete. These commandments aren’t like that. It’s more like trying to steer that vast ship; by following them, the ship should head in the right direction.

Though shalt create a lasting legacy

When I hit my mid-forties, I looked back over my career and didn’t like the idea that most of the projects and products I have worked on over the years no longer exist. Software systems get superseded; companies bought out; technology and teams replaced. With my writing, I want the end result to last long into the future, and live after I am eventually gone. This feeling is probably a symptom of a mid-life crisis. I never used to worry about such things, but now I do. I want a lasting legacy, something I am proud of, that doesn’t go out of date or expire. 

Though shalt create something I can pass on

Following on from the previous commandment, by creating a lasting legacy I am proud of, I can pass my work down to my children and grandchildren. If my books ever become a success, then this can help my children in the future. Even if the books are not a financial success, long after I have shuffled off this mortal coil, I will have a body of work that my children and grandchildren can remember me by. 

The legacy of my other work in creating online corporate training just wouldn’t have the same sentimental impact on my family, even if I think that work is pretty good. But, a series of stories that can live on beyond my own life that my children can enjoy and remember me by, is something that is really important to me.

Though shalt not put financial gain as the priority

This is quite an important commandment. Creative writing can either be a passion where monetary gain isn’t the major success factor, or I can treat it like a business. I put a lot of thought into this, probably too much considering I haven’t actually finished writing the novel, but I am an over-thinker. 

I have been very fortunate. For many years I have worked for myself, doing work that I find interesting. There comes a time, though, that when you do something that is fun and also your job, the shine can wear off as financial stress sets in. For my “day job”, that is a given. It’s how I earn my living and help to provide for my family. So, the question is, do I want creative writing to be a job? 

On one hand, the thought of sitting here writing novels every day sounds fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But I know that if I have other people and companies depending on the words that I write, would that fun diminish for me? I already know the answer; it’s yes. Having commitments and dependencies can and will lead to stress. Is that what I want with creative writing? I don’t think it is. I want it to remain enjoyable, on my terms.

Though shalt produce my best work

Most of your time writing a novel has you, the author, on your own crafting the story. To produce your best work, you need the help of others, such as editors, beta-readers, proof-readers etc. Book covers need to be created by professionals to make them fit in, and the typesetting has to look professional. 

If I publish my book independently, then I will hire all these people to help me make the best book I can. I will go through the same steps that a traditional published book would go through, and with the same level of editorial critique. I don’t intend to take any shortcuts. I will have to pay for these services, and they can be quite expensive, but people spend money on their hobbies and interests all the time; this is no different.

Though shalt seek to satisfy my vision above anyone else

In traditional publishing, there’s a lot of talk about writing to fit market trends. A good example is when the Hunger Games novels came out. These books created a big resurgence in dystopian young adult books. Because of the success of the Hunger Games, a lot of publishers were suddenly looking for young adult dystopian stories and the market became flooded. If you queried for an agent and publishing deal at the right time with a book that fit the mould, you could get a deal. Over time, young adult dystopian books fell out of favour. It’s not that they are bad, on the contrary, but the market cooled to them and other genres became the in-thing.

If your timing was bad, you might have written an amazing dystopian young adult book, but if that’s not what the publishers are looking for, then you face a barrage of rejections. On one hand, I get it, the publishers are businesses with enormous overheads; they have to publish what’s on trend to make money. It doesn’t feel fair to the creative who has spent months, if not years, slaving over their book.

Diary of a Martian (my novel) is a science fiction and fantasy story. I am writing the book because I think it’s a fun story and I really like the characters. In terms of market fit, I am not sure how well it would fair with a traditional publisher. Fantasy books for a middle-grade audience at the time of writing seem to do well, but with a science fiction theme, I am not so sure. 

If I was trying to think with a commercial mindset, I might be tempted to abandon the book and work on something else that I think has commercial appeal; perhaps another Harry Potter clone. If I did that, it might take me a year to eighteen months to write that book, at which point the market will have moved on to something else and all that effort becomes wasted.

If I ignore the commercial and market focused aspect, then I could just write the book I want to write; because I want to write it. That may not be the best “Business” approach, but I have already decided that this is a creative exploit primarily, and financial gain isn’t my chief priority. If it sells a lot of copies, then fantastic. I will certainly try to do that, but I am not treating it as a get rich scheme to replace my primary income.

Though shalt not sacrifice my rights on the altar of success

I am fortunate in that a traditional publisher has published me—for non-fiction books, so I know what it’s like in that environment. I am also friends with people that have traditionally published fiction. While signing that publishing contract can be exciting, and if that is what you want, then you should go for it, but there is a side to it I don’t like. 

When you sign that publishing contract, you are signing away the rights to your story. You still own the copyright, but you are giving away the rights to publication. If your book sells, and you go through multiple reprints, then you are in a great position. The harsh truth, though, most books do not earn enough money to earn out their advances and make any additional money for the author. If you get an advance, it is just that, an advance on future earnings. The publisher wants that back before you see any royalties, and most royalty rates for traditionally published books are very low—between ten and fifteen percent.

If your first print run takes a long time to sell, the publisher may decide that your book is not commercially viable enough to pay for another print run, and the book goes out of print. If that happens, and it happens, there is nothing you can do about it. You don’t own the publishing rights anymore, the publisher does, so you are at their mercy. Your contract may have a clause that states if sales dip below a certain threshold then you can have a discussion about getting your rights back. Sounds good, but there is a catch. 

The publisher will still sell copies of your ebook. I have spoken to authors who wanted to get their rights back based on sales volume, but the publisher will set the ebook temporarily to 99p (or 99c in the US) and run a promotion for a month. You sell a lot of copies at this price, then the book returns to its normal price. The publisher has hit the sales threshold to keep the rights; yes, this happens.

A lot of writers are happy to go into this situation as they are desperate to be published via a traditional publisher, but for me, I think the sacrifice is too great. I really don’t like the idea of giving away the publication rights to something that I came up with and spent a long time writing. This is a long way of saying that I am not prepared to give away rights to my work. I would rather sell fewer copies but own all my rights than make a gamble that a publisher will sell a lot of copies. 

The publishing industry differs from what it was ten years ago. As an author, you are on your own to promote your book when it comes out. If your book gets some traction and sells a lot of copies, then the publisher will start actively advertising and promoting your work. Until then, they expect you to promote your own book, all for a small royalty percentage. I would much rather spend that advertising money, knowing the vast majority of the royalties come back to me.

It took a while to come up with these commandments. Each one required thought to decide what’s important to me. Your publication journey can be long and difficult, but I think it is important to understand what you want up front, even before you have a finished writing the book. That’s strategic thinking. Making your ship sail in the right direction, course correcting along the way.

Writer’s Block is Just an Excuse

Writer’s block is just an excuse to not write. It doesn’t really exist. After reading that you will either be nodding your head in agreement, or about to rage quit this blog; but give me a chance to share my thoughts first, as it’s just an opinion. Writers get stuck with what they are writing. It happens to me all the time, but I don’t consider it writer’s block. My muse hasn’t flown out the window. I am just stuck. 

A man struggling with writers block while huddled over a typewriter.
Portrait of frustrated man struggling with writers block over typewriter.

A few weeks ago, I was working on my debut middle-grade novel, Diary of a Martian. The story is about two-thirds done. I reached one section of the story where I knew where the characters had to end up, but I was struggling with a convincing way of getting them to that point. I wrestled with the problem for about an hour. Still no joy. I walked to see if the answer would come to me. It didn’t. I was stuck. Hmm, what to do? I could have pleaded that I had writers’ block, shut my laptop and do something else entirely, but that’s silly and not professional. 

I am a professional writer. I write for a living. Fiction may be new to me, but I have written a lot of non-fiction material. Instead I switched to something else; another writing project. I have another non-fiction book in the early stages that I am working on, so I carried on with that book. I had already outlined the next few chapters, so I knew what I needed to write. I carried on working on that non-fiction book for another four days solid. 

When doing the school run, and picking my son up, I left a little earlier and did a longer walk that ended up at the school; it was a sunny day. I loaded up a TV show score on my phone (the score for Picard series 1; the music is better than the show) and off I trot. Just over halfway through the walk, I had an epiphany. I figured out how to solve my plot problem. Was it the music that helped, or the walk? Don’t know. Why didn’t I think of this idea initially? Well, I was stuck, but now I had the answer. I pulled out my phone, loaded up the voice recorder and made a few audio notes. Satisfied, and with a big smile on my face, I finished the walk and picked up my son from school. 

That evening, I loaded up my novel in Scrivener, and finished writing the first draft for the section that was causing me issues. I wasn’t blocked. My muse may have been confused, but he chose to work on something else instead.

But Stephen, what if you had also become stuck with the non-fiction book at the same time? Then what would you do? Well, I have this blog, and a list of posts I want to write. I would work on one of those. It’s still writing. I have a collection of short stories that I have been working on. I could continue with one of those. I have quite a few other children’s novel ideas rattling around in my brain. I could make notes on those ideas; start their beat sheets, write profiles for the characters. I produce online training courses as part of my business. They are all scripted. I can carry on with the current course I am writing. There is always something to be getting on with.

There is a good way to summarise this:

Professional writers don’t get blocked. They get stuck, and then do something else temporarily.

Amateurs or hobby writers get stuck, think they are blocked, and then procrastinate.

I say choose the professional mindset. Just work on something else until you become unstuck. You don’t have a car mechanic claim to be blocked when fixing a car and then give up. They get help, or fix another car. Plumbers don’t get plumbers block. Professionals don’t claim <name of profession> block, they get stuck, try to fix the issue, or carry on with something else that needs doing for their profession, and come back to the problem later.

As with anything, this is just my opinion. You may agree, or you may disagree. That’s fine. Either way, leave a comment and let me know your take on writer’s block.

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