TIP: When You Finish A Book, Don’t Have A Blank Page Waiting For You

 

If I could give one piece of advice to writers hoping to gain some momentum with their work, then it’s this:

When you finish a book, don’t have a blank page waiting for you. (Yep if you haven’t finished a book yet this probably isn’t the blog for you – you should be writing!)  In my opinion, you should already have started the next book.  It doesn’t matter how much you’ve done – maybe that means you’ve got an outline or you have some rough chapters already sketched out (as rough as you like, it’s better than a blank page!)

But avoid that blank page at all costs.

Writing a book is exhausting.  It really is.  I couldn’t imagine finishing a book, going through the publishing process, doing the promotion and then when you realise it’s time to keep writing – returning to the desk, turning on the laptop and staring at a blank page.

Starting from scratch?  Nope.  No thanks.

How many books will you release in an average year?  There is no ‘correct’ answer to this of course.  From what I can tell, the number varies greatly between authors.

I released four books in 2016 and that’s the target for 2017.

For some that’s a crazy number while for others it might even be lazy (yes these people exist).  If you think it’s crazy then you’re probably one of those authors who take at least a year to write a book.  Fair enough.  If you think it’s lazy, you’re probably one of those berserker authors who put out a novel a month.  What are you people on?

Fair play. Each to their own.  Who am I to judge?

I don’t think I write that fast.  I also write novels that are on the slim side, averaging between 45,000 to 65,000 words.  I don’t think I’d be able to stick to the release schedule that I’m on if I was doing 80,000 plus words.  That’s just not me.

But whether you think I’m crazy or lazy, I can only keep this output up by avoiding the blank page when I move onto the next book.  I do this religiously.  And how do I do that?

I use something that I call the A/B Project system.

(As with the vast majority of writing advice, feel free to disregard it if it doesn’t work for you.  This is just something I thought I’d share.)

 

A/B PROJECTS 

 

I’m always working on two projects – the A Project and the B Project.  The A Project is the main focus.  This is the one that takes up about ninety percent of my creative time.  This is the actual writing and rewriting and all the really tough stuff that makes your head rock and roll.  This is the grind.  This is the one you loved when it was a B Project but now that it’s the A Project and things are getting hard, you hate it.

And you can’t wait for it to end.

The B Project on the other hand is light and easy/bright and breezy.  There’s very little going on here in terms of pressure or hard graft.  In fact, you’re hardly doing any writing at all – you’re thinking for the most part and making notes at best.  BUT – when the A Project is in between edits or if you’ve sent it away to a professional editor, that’s when you need to step things up with the B Project.  Just a little.  Otherwise when the A Project is published, you’ll be coming back to that dreaded blank page.

Noooooooooo!!

But I always try to avoid making the B Project feel like hard work.  So if the A Project is ninety percent of the heavy lifting, the B Project is the other ten.  You’re working on it, but you’re not sweating bricks.

When the A Project is temporarily on the sidelines, have some fun with the B project.  Relax your mind after the gruelling slog of working on the A Project.  Loosen up and let your creative muscles fly.  Write your ideas down, start working on the outline, picturing scenes in your head.  Jot them down but don’t work too hard.

Remember A Project = Torture.  B Project = Fun.

Save your energy, infinite patience and loathing for the A-Project.  Enjoy the B Project now ‘cos soon the B-Project will be the A project and you’ll hate it.

That’s how I keep my momentum going.  That’s how I hit the target last year and that’s (hopefully) how I’ll do it again this year.

Two projects, one heavy, one light.  That’s all there is to it.

I’m super-duper glad when I see those rough chapters waiting for me (when the B Project turns into the A Project).  Sitting down to a blank page would break me.  Dramatic, but true.  No need for anyone to break however – I have an outline/story map and I might even have some rough chapters – my minus first drafts as I call them – already on the page.  It’s encouraging.  I can work from there.  And when I start from there, it doesn’t feel THAT long until I’ll have a first draft on the go.

Avoid the blank page.  Did I mention that already?

 

 

 

Icarus Played a Fender Stratocaster

 

Icarus Played a Fender Stratocaster

 

I walked into my uncle’s room.  This was two years before he died of a heroin overdose.

Usually his door was locked but that day it had been left ajar.

Inside, he was lying face up on the bed.  The curtains were drawn but there was some half-light seeping through the cracks and it meant that I could have a good look and see what was left of him.

There wasn’t much left of him.

His skin, once a deep hue of golden brown, had by that point faded to a sickly and brittle yellow.  His cheekbones, as sharp as razors, were on the brink of stabbing their way out of his ever-shrinking flesh in a morbid bid for freedom.

He was only twenty-five, and yet to look at him.  Jesus.  It was like looking upon the face of an Egyptian mummy. Fresh out of the sarcophagus after three thousand years, unwrapped for all to see.

And the smell.  Rotting flesh and rotten food, intermingled to become one terrible super-scent.

I was ten years old.

His lunch tray sat on the floor beside the bed, cold and untouched.  Chilli Con Carne with extra beans and for dessert, a small mountain of pancakes topped with peanut butter and syrup.  Commander-in-chief downstairs – aka my grandmother, his mother – was busy at work in the kitchen, supplying protein bombs and carb rockets three times a day.  Her mission?  To reclaim the spirit of her youngest son.  It was Apocalypse Now, junkie style, and Granny was Captain Willard sailing downriver to terminate (with extreme prejudice) the Colonel Kurtz living in her son’s head.

I said hello.  My uncle said nothing.  I said hello again.

Like something out of a horror movie, his eyes rolled back in his head and all of a sudden he was looking at me.  For a split second, his eyes lit up as if he recognised me.  But it was no more than a moment’s glance, an involuntary reaction perhaps, muscle memory, and then it was gone and I was a stranger again.

He tried to talk, but the words got stuck in his throat and he sounded like a lizard-man gargling violently with mouthwash.  He kept trying to say something, to force it out, but it only led to another one of those violent coughing fits.  Dear God.  Ever since my uncle had taken refuge in Granny’s house, those spontaneous coughing fits had become the stuff of legend.

Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. Well I say that every time a junkie coughs, a demonic motherfucker gets its wings.

Can someone die from coughing?  ‘Cos that’s what it looked like was about to happen.  His face blew up and turned purple.  I was scared.  So scared that I turned around and ran out of the room and just left him there, all alone.

Even now, I can’t handle the sound of coughing.

He’s not a bad man, is he?  I said this to my dad that night.  No son, Dad said.  He’s your uncle, and he’s just sick is all.

icarus2

His was a beautiful funeral.

It took place in an old church surrounded by acres of green pastures and rolling hills.  That morning, our car pulled up outside the church gate and as it did so, I peered through the window at the tall grass of the churchyard, swaying in the breeze to the piper’s lament.

We – the family – stepped out of the stretch limo.  There were crowds lining up everywhere on all sides of the little road that ran alongside the church grounds.  My uncle’s most devoted fans had come from all corners of the earth to say goodbye.  There were thousands of them.  It was like watching an alien invasion on a bright summer’s morning.  Aliens dressed in black, with long hair and tattoos with uncle’s lyrics inscribed upon their skin, the message passed on with the intent to forever.

Dad told me to wave back to the fans to show our appreciation.  And when we waved, the crowds burst into a spontaneous round of applause, holding their banners aloft, banners that that read ‘The King is Dead’, ‘The Day The Music Died’, and many others like that.

And they were singing his songs too.  Always, there was the singing.

The fans kept a respectful distance throughout, unlike the majority of press photographers who on several occasions had to be dragged back from the church door by security.

We – the family – were hurriedly escorted from the car into the church, with the television and press cameras bearing down on us.  Man, it was surreal but for a few seconds there I had a glimpse of how my uncle had lived the last ten years of his life.  And it was exhausting, I can tell you.  Just ten seconds of it was enough for me.

The eulogies were fitting.  He was a great singer, musician, and songwriter.  He was the spokesman of a generation.  The next Jimi Hendrix, they’d called him as a teenager, said dad with a heartbroken smile.

Dying at twenty-seven, he got that bit right.   Now he’d joined a club that not only included Hendrix, but also Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse.

That’s how it was.  Friends and colleagues took to the pulpit and told happy stories about my junkie uncle. Bullshit, every last word of it.  But that’s how we do it.  We’d rather build a mythology over a rotten corpse than tell the truth.  So instead, they talked about the musical legacy and the multiple Grammy wins.  They called him Icarus and said that in life, he’d flown on melting wings.

Nobody spoke about heroin or the fact that we were celebrating a wasted life.

None of those people had smelled the air after one of his coughing fits.

But I had.