The three-headed writer

We have often discussed the two modes that a writer needs to work in: the creative and the editorial. Everyone seems to agree that they require quite different capabilities and yet every writer needs to be adept at both.

If we leave out nebulous notions of “talent”, the creative mode depends mainly on the availability of: imagination, confidence and space.

In order to produce a body of raw creative material (the famous shitty first draft) we need to be in the right frame of mind to let our imaginations run wild and have the confidence to trust our unconscious to throw up fresh ideas for a story or a poem. For that to happen we must carve out enough space in our lives – find the time. This is the reason we neglect our husbands, wives and children. It also provides the (perfectly reasonable) excuse for why many people never get started at all and spend their whole lives with the belief that they have a book in them.

The editorial mode is fed by experience, detail and doggedness. Experience is the part where all that reading comes in. Our first exhortation to new writers is always to read. I believe it is our experience as a skilled reader of fine examples of the craft that gives us any chance to gain a critical perspective over our own work. Next we need a detailed eye to go over the work again and again and again and to spot what needs to change. And we won’t do that without the doggedness to keep going back to the work; the doggedness to accept nothing less than the best we can do. Hard work is perhaps the greatest requirement, but it is a mountain to keep on keeping on when your confidence is low. In the end you probably need some sort of affirmation that you are not wasting your time, and you don't get that without . . .

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the third mode: it is tempting to call this admin, but let’s call it presenting. All the gubbins that goes into getting your work to come out of someone else's printer for a change. Presenting your work to the world is not a skill you need in the first couple of years, but it then grows and grows, until it intrudes into the space required by the other modes. I’m thinking of: entering competitions, sending material to editors, writing synopses, writing biogs, writing covering letters, finding outlets for your work, licking stamps, sleeping next to the letter box. Writing this probably fits here too.

What are the skills for the presenting mode? Confidence, but a different sort. It’s not the confidence to write but the sort that propels you to mosey up to a publisher or agent at a party and introduce yourself. I had chances to do both of those recently, even encouraged by writer friends whose agent/publisher they were, but I slunk away to the pub. Let’s call that sort of confidence: brazenness. You also need all the exciting clerical skills for keeping spreadsheets of your submissions, etc (yawn). And you must have the famous resilience (probably the subject we have posted about most here) to keep sending the stuff out despite the bastard rejections and snail progress.

This is the part of writing that takes up so much of my thinking now. And it gets worse if you have a published book – there’s readings, signings, festivals, editorial meetings, not to mention trawling through copy edits, etc, etc. We just signed up for writing, for god’s sake.

Here’s the full list

Creative mode
Imagination, Confidence, Space

Editorial mode
Experience, Detail, Doggedness

Presenting mode
Brazenness, Clerical skill, Resilience

I’m sure you can add others, the list is endless; essentially you have to be a super-being.


JO said...

I wish you weren't so right. But you are - we always knew this would be hard work, but we need resources we hadn't quite bargained for when we began.

Fionnuala said...

What a great post - so succinctly put, as always, Rod. I have to confess, it's the third one I have a problem with. Case in point - am on the last chapter of the WIP - have edited the rest, but I'd rather sit and contemplate the universe, or Jeremy Kyle, or the pile of washing, than write that last chapter. Because when it's done, I have to find that third bit - and thinking of it I feel nauseous...

Kathleen Jones said...

Hits the spot completely. These days there's hardly any time for writing at all!

Debs Riccio said...

Makes you wonder if writing for the pure pleasure of it is squashed to death under all this stuff, doesn't it?

Susie Nott-Bower said...

What a brilliant post, Rod! Thank you. It definitely speaks to me, since I'm in third mode at the moment: compiling a vast list of ideas to market and publicise my book (I'm much better at the research/ideas bit than the actual standing-up-there-and-delivering bit).
I look at it as engaging the latent extravert. The introvert loves sitting alone with the computer, talking to herself. The extravert wants 'shine time' and Time Out There With My Book. Visibility. Just so long as I can don the cloak of invisibility when I need to...

Roderic Vincent said...

Hi there. Sorry not to reply to comments on Friday. We were up at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Thanks for the comments. Yes, it's amazing how, the more writing becomes a part of your life, the less time you have for writing. You could even end up resenting the very thing you craved for so long. But that way lies madness, so it's back to the subs for me.