Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Where Does the Time Go?

Welcome to a new year of "Do You Write Under Your Own Name?" I've not broken any new year resolutions yet, thanks to the cunning plan of not making any. But of course the start of a new year offers an opportunity to reflect, and to plan ahead. I'm already looking forward to the appearance of my next anthology, Blood on the Tracks, and next week I head off for New York, where I'll be giving the "distinguished speaker lecture" to the Baker Street Irregulars, Life is short, so the challenge is always: how to make the best of it? And so questions of time management start to rear their head...

Perhaps 25 years ago, the Law Society published some guidelines on time management for lawyers, and I was featured. My hazy recollection is that this came about because I was at the time a member of the Society's employment law committee, and its secretary gained the impression that if one combined writing novels with writing legal books and articles, and being a partner in a law firm, one must have some thoughts about effective time management. I'm still not sure that I can claim true expertise in this field, because I usually feel less efficient than I'd like to be. But lately a few people have asked me about my approach, most recently, on New Year's Day, fellow writer Noreen Wainwright.

So in response to Noreen's question in particular, here are a few thoughts about how I go about my writing life. Be warned, though. You may feel as disappointed as Dr Watson sometimes did, when Sherlock Holmes explained his deductions. There's no great magic in any of this.

It seems to me that effective time management requires a number of things that can't be guaranteed. Good health makes things so much easier (though I'm repeatedly impressed by the achievements of disabled people I know, I'm doubtful I could emulate them), and so does a supportive family. These are blessings not to be taken for granted.

But what can one do, personally, to try to achieve more in a limited amount of time? It's a question I'm pondering for myself right now, as I anticipate becoming involved with a major literary project later in the year that will be very time-consuming. More about this another day, but the point is that I'm acutely conscious that I'll have to juggle various literary commitments, as Chair of the CWA, President of the Detection Club, archivist of both, CWA anthologist, consultant to the British Library's Crime Classics, and so on.

In addition, at the moment I still work part-time as a solicitor (mainly from home, nowadays, thank goodness: the reduction in lost time commuting has been a real advantage), although that aspect of my life is drawing to a natural and contented conclusion. As well as the driving, one time-drain I don't miss is having to manage solicitors. Even when you have a great team, as I certainly did, it's very wearing, and eats into one's time at an alarming rate, if one spends plenty of time with everyone, making sure that all is well with them; and if one doesn't devote time to that, perhaps one shouldn't be a manager.

Anyway, as well as my various commitments, I also want to do plenty of writing, and also take part in festivals and other events. I write because it's what I've dreamed of doing since I was a small child, and although events do take up a lot of time, they are a good way of meeting readers and prospective readers, people who are almost invariably pleasant to chat with..But I'm also very firmly of the view that, so far as possible, one should minimise the time one spends doing unpleasant and thankless tasks, So if I disliked crime conventions, panels, and talks, I'd rarely bother with them. Because I enjoy them, and meeting fellow writers and readers, I don't find them hard work.

One challenge is to spread the load, so that one isn't constantly travelling. This is especially true in my case, as I find it hard to write when I'm travelling (and this is an area where I'd definitely like to improve). So I use travel time as a way of refreshing my ideas about possible stories - I mentioned last Saturday various ideas for short stories that came to me through travelling in 2017. Even so, I've had - reluctantly - to turn down quite a number of invitations in recent times.

The most striking and frustrating example came last autumn, when on one particular Saturday I was asked to attend three different festivals, in Lancaster, London, and Belfast respectively. In the end, I went to Lancaster, mainly because that invitation came first, but also because it was a less time-consuming trip. I was really sorry to miss the other two events, but the reality is that you can't do everything. As more opportunities have come my way, I've talked to more successful authors to pick up tips about how to choose what to do. The answer always comes down to having a clear sense of priorities. Prioritisation in life is crucial, it seems to me. It is a question of trying to figure out what matters most to you.

Keeping things simple also seems to me to be vital. Take this blog, for instance. I am keen to keep to my practice of publishing three blog posts a week, with a Forgotten Book on Friday, but I don't want to spend a huge chunk of time producing blog posts. So (as with this post, for instance) I aim for spontaneity - which is my excuse for the mistakes I make! I often think I should spend more time illustrating my blog posts, e.g. with film posters and book jackets. But again, the key is not to be over-elaborate. And it's desirable not to put oneself under too much pressure. So I always have a stock of blog posts that aren't time-sensitive available, in case I'm away on holiday or unwell. As with attending festivals, writing a blog should never feel like a chore. If one doesn't enjoy it, better not to do it. But my method has helped me to enjoy writing this blog for more than ten years, and I can honestly say that I enjoy it as much today as I have ever done. If that were to change, it would be time for a re-think, because I am sure it would become evident to you, my readers, and I don't want standards to slip.

Social media? Well, whether one is traditionally published or self-published, there's no denying that it's important to strive to promote one's own books. Relying on someone else to do it for won't get you very far unless you're a superstar. But that doesn't mean you have to spend endless time doing things on social media that you're uncomfortable with. I confess that I'm not very good at Twitter, partly because I fear that brevity can lead to saying something unkind or inappropriate quite unintentionally. We live in a world where it's all too easy to give offence without meaning to. So I prefer the broader canvas of a blog.

As for Facebook, I spend a bit of time on it, but not a huge amount. As I say, this blog post was sparked by a Facebook conversation, and some of these exchanges can be illuminating. Facebook is a wonderful way of making connections with people one seldom or never meets in person. But I'm slightly amazed at the way some very sensible people devote so much effort to sharing their latest rant on politics or whatever with people who then spend ages agreeing with them; the echo chamber aspect of social media is an oddity of our times. Other writers issue high calibre newsletters (and writing a regular newsletter is an idea I'm toying with myself - when I get that elusive moment!). It's again a question of figuring out what works for you, and prioritising that as best you can.

Another aspect of keeping thing simple concerns focusing on the task in hand .It is easy to become overwhelmed by the prospect of a series of demanding commitments, and I try to minimise that risk. To do this, one also has to be realistic about the commitments one takes on. Here's an example. Back in the 1990s, a kind editor offered me a two-book contract for more Harry Devlin novels. But I wanted to write a different and complex novel (which became Take My Breath Away) and I was working long hours in the office. I felt that to take on further deadlines would add to the stresses I was under. So reluctantly I turned the offer down. When I was ready to return to Harry Devlin, my editor had gone, and so had the contract offer. You could argue that I made a mistake, since Take My Breath Away was not, whatever its merits, a big seller. The Devlin books sold much better, and continue to do very well as ebooks. But if it was a mistake, then I haven't spent ages regretting it. We all make mistakes, and once we've apologised and learned from them, it's time to move on. Actually, I think the decision made sense. It also led me into writing the Lake District Mysteries, which have done even better than the Devlins.

A further way of avoiding wasting one's time is this. A sensible mindset, in my opinion, involves not worrying unduly about the possibility that others may not like what one writes. As I've said before, one can and should learn from constructive criticism, but there's no point in allowing oneself to be dragged down by negativity. You can't please all the people all the time, so you shouldn't fritter away your life trying to do so. All you can do is your level best, and if that's not good enough (for instance, if you write a book that nobody wants to publish) you just need to learn from the experience and do something else (actually, of course, you can self-publish easily nowadays if you wish, so there's no need to get too despondent anyway).

Again, it's a matter of priorities, and different people have different views. About three years ago I had a pleasant chat with an author who cheerfully rebuked me for producing half as many books as she had published in the same number of years. And she had a point. Most people regard me as prolific, but I started my first novel 30 years ago, and I've published 18 in all, which is less than many authors. When I mumbled a lame excuse about spending time on research and revision, she said brightly, "I never bother with those." As I say, it's a question of what you think really matters, and that has to involve a personal choice..

Writing is a tough game, and I would never pretend otherwise. It become impossibly difficult, I suspect, if you find that you don't really enjoy it most of the time, or if financial pressures become too great. One of the reasons I kept the day job going for all those years was that I didn't want money considerations to mess up my writing. Crime fiction is commercial, but within the limits of my talent, I've tried to write books I cared about, rather than to make money. It's just as well, perhaps. I'd have predicted that Dancing For the Hangman would have sold really well, and that The Golden Age of Murder wouldn't., but the reverse proved to be the case.

 Of course, I experience frustrations. All writers do, because what we write is never quite as good as we hoped it would be. One may be a perfectionist, and in some respects I am, but one simply has to accept that life isn't perfect, and neither is one's writing. So I revise endlessly, and listen with respect to suggestions from my agent, editors, and others, often taking their advice on board. But ultimately it's my novel, short story or non-fiction book, so the final responsibility rests with me. It's for me, the writer, to decide where to draw the line. Though I admit that I never stop wanting to change things - I was revising The Golden Age of Murder, for instance, until the day it went to press. And once I have drawn that line, I try to move on to the next project. Mind you, that didn't stop me making two further sets of revisions to The Golden Age of Murder when reprints came along! 

The business side of life can also prove time-consuming. In running the Detection Club, and the much larger and more complex CWA, I've adapted methods of management that I developed when running my own business (a big department in a law firm) and co-running another (sitting on the board of the firm as a whole, a much less pleasurable experience). The number one priority is to develop a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve and then to surround yourself with good people who genuinely want to help to achieve it,. Then, because they are good people, you should trust them to do what they are supposed to do, and not behave like a control freak. Because the simple truth is that there is a limit to what any one person can control, and there are times when one simply has to let go, because there is no sane alternative. The CWA is nothing like a law firm, but I think the broad principles of leadership don't change that much. The key is to apply them as sensibly as one can.

And before I stop pontificating (I bet Noreen's regretting she asked!), let me add one other observation about how not to spend one's time. Luck plays a big part in life, and in the writing life too. It's easy to feel that the Fates are lined up against you, and it's reasonable to devote a few nanoseconds to feeling sorry for yourself, but not much longer, otherwise it it will sour your outlook. Overall, I've been exceptionally lucky, but even so, time and again over the past twenty years, my work has been optioned or adapted for film, radio, or television, and nothing has ever come of it. Yet really, what sense is there in moaning about things one can't control? Countless others are either in the same boat, or much less fortunate..It's an equally pointless drain of energy to agonise over a mean-spirited review from someone with an axe to grind or whose opinion probably isn't worth much anyway.

Almost every author has a hard luck story to tell about their career, sometimes many such stories, but the successful ones, and I'm sure the happiest ones, are those who take the setbacks in their stride, and just get on with with the job. A platitude, maybe, but nonetheless true. Nobody begged us to write, we do it because we love it. And whilst money, success, awards and so on are absolutely terrific, and I'm partial to all of them, to quote a lyric (by a very fine lyricist whose genius was that he always kept things simple) it's that love that really counts.


Noreen said...

Thank you. Excellen. I'm taking away a few key points

J said...

Thanks for that, Martin: very interesting...

Monica said...

Many thanks for this post, Martin. I found myself nodding in agreement all the way through.

Congratulations on your achievements and all the best for a happy and productive 2018.

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