My latest project is a book written in lockdown about writing books in lockdown, written specifically to help anyone deciding – or trying to pluck up the courage – to take the plunge and start their own.
We all have our lockdown routines, the bits that are functional and the bits that are dysfunctional. A key part of mine – and I’m not sure which category this falls into – is to get my doomscrolling done early. As soon as I wake up, I scan the headlines first, then check in on Twitter and Facebook, and read until the despair hits some kind of internal alarm that kicks me out. Then, I get on with my day.
While I was doing this on Monday this week, a tweet on my timeline caught my eye. It said something along the lines of “Yay. The start of another week of my life on hold.”
This made me incredibly sad on behalf of the person who had written it. Of course I get it: the sacrifices we are having to make are not easy for any of us. But I found the idea of not being able to go anywhere, not to see people and hug them, not to go to the pub or a party or go browsing in shops, adding up to not having any life at all, to be unbearably sad.
If you’re lucky, lockdown offers opportunities as well as limitations. I can’t speak for key workers who still have to risk everything by going to work, or parents who are now having to home-school their kids for at least five hours a day while trying to hold down jobs and run a household. They all have my sympathy and admiration. But what they are experiencing is anything but life on hold. If you’re not in these groups, or even if you are and you’ve managed to work out a system that gives you free time, then there can be more to lockdown than working your way through box sets.
Maybe it’s time to start writing that book that you keep thinking about.
During the first lockdown, there was plenty of middle-class frottage about how to use this time to learn a language, start your sourdough culture, read Ulysses, or make an Airfix diorama of the D-Day landings (OK, that last one may have come from a drunken Zoom call rather than the pages of the Guardian.)
I’m not talking about these things, these “self-improvement” initiatives that you feel like you should do. Back when I was in therapy, Andy banned me from using the word “should”. To paraphrase Yoda (which Andy didn’t – he was a serious therapist) “Want to. Or want not to. There is no should.”
I think there are probably very few people who feel they “should” write a book, in the way we might feel like we should get healthier, or we should declutter the wardrobes or the book shelves, or we should learn to speak better Spanish before we go on holiday again. But I meet (or at least used to meet) a lot of people who want to to write a book. I used to get asked how to do it at every live event I ever did. Even people who haven’t got to the stage of wanting to write a book will often tell me they could write a book, that they have an idea for one kicking around in their heads and demanding their attention.
I made the transition from wanting to write a book to having written a book by taking annual leave from work and, instead of going on holiday, locking myself away somewhere quiet with no distractions and staring my desire to write in the face. Now, we’re all in a similar situation. If you really do want to write a book, there have never been better circumstances to start – and hopefully, all other things considered, there never will be again.
There are many excuses for not writing the book you want to write. Not having the time is one of them. You can always make time if you’re serious about doing it, and now, time is one thing many of us have in greater abundance than we have had for a very long time.
Another cloud of excuses surround the idea of not knowing how to do it – how to start out or plan it or see it through. Will it be good enough? Does it make sense?
The flippant answer to these questions and fears is simple: just sit down and write. Any problems with a piece of writing can be sorted once it’s down on the page far more effectively than they can while it’s still in your head. The act of writing clears up a lot of them in the process, as well as giving you the confidence to challenge those that remain.
I’ve provided a somewhat longer, more detailed answer to all these questions and more in my latest lockdown project. When I wrote Craft: An Argument last year, I did a series of blog posts about the process and the experience of writing a book in lockdown in 13 weeks. I decided to gather these blog posts together, tidy them up a bit, and turn them into a little book. The collected blog posts came to about 11,000 words. The “little book” is now 43,000 words. I’m nearing completion of the second draft, which will probably top at at 45,000.
This in itself is an illustration of the point the book is making – that writing can be a joy, a distraction, a catharsis. Everything I’ve learned from writing eleven books and having them published, plus all the other attempts at books that never did get published, poured out of me and found its way into this manuscript. Back in late November, when I started it once Beer by Design had been published, I couldn’t stop the words coming out of me.
I’m mostly resisting the temptation to read and incorporate other people’s advice on the subject, to make it as comprehensive a guide to writing non-fiction as I possibly can. It’s based entirely on my personal experience, with a little help from one or two writers much more famous than me. But as I’ve had books published by big publishers, smaller publishers, crowdfunded publishers and self-publishing, with an agent and without, successes and failures, I figured I could cover the subject pretty comprehensively.
We’ll be self-publishing this through our own Storm Lantern imprint in early February, and it should be up for pre-order by the middle of next week. Towards the end of February I’ll be running a training course for members of the British Guild of Beer Writers based on the first half of the book, which covers developing ideas and voice, getting into a routine, and not giving up. This too will be officially announced towards the end of next week. I’m planning further online courses which I’ll be running independently – more details to follow.
You can of course write your book without any more help from me or anyone else. And even if you are thinking of buying my book and/or attending a course, you’ll get a lot more out of it if you already have an idea of what you want to write, and you’ve spent a bit of time developing that idea.
So I urge you – for your own sake and no one else’s – if you kinda want to write but have been putting it off, start today. I promise you, as I finish my third book since March last year, that losing yourself in writing is about as good a way of surviving lockdown as you’ll find.
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