The Things that No-one Tells You About Being a Writer… And that I’ve Recently Found Out by Annabel Pitcher

Close your eyes. Go on. Do it.

Actually – keep one of them half-open so you can read this next bit. Right, now you’re sort of strangely squinting at the screen, I want to ask you to do something for me. Transfer all of your money into my bank acc… No. Hang on a minute. That’s a different blog. Instead, I’d like you to imagine a typical writer. Really think about it.

Got it?

Let me guess.

  • He’s alone in a study, writing.
  • Or perhaps she’s in a cafe, writing.
  • Or maybe he’s holed up in a garden shed like Roald Dahl, writing – easily and effortlessly.

This is how I imagined a writer, before I became one. On the eve of September 3rd 2010, climbing into bed and looking forward to my first full day of being an author rather than going back to work, I just knew that I’d wake up feeling more creative, more inspired, and more inclined to wrap myself in a pashmina and enthusiastically brandish a fountain pen than ever before, including the time I went to an Everything Is Pink Party dressed as Barbara Cartland.

Of course, I had absolutely no idea what lay ahead. I was utterly clueless. For years I’d dreamt of being a full-time author, without ever knowing what it entailed. The reality surprised me, in good and bad ways…

1) Writing becomes more difficult

Book one came easily. Really easily. I wrote the novel with a hope but no real expectation of getting it published, no deadline and no pressure on the final product. It was a free, joyful and utterly selfish process. I had no concept of a reader other than myself so I made bold decisions with ease: the jokes were ones that made me laugh; the sad bits struck a personal chord; and the characters were people I’d be interested to meet.

Writing book two was somewhat different. All of a sudden, it was my job. My employment. My future. It was how I was going to make my money and pay for my mortgage, and it was important, therefore, to be good at it. I’d put all my eggs in this one rather precarious basket, and I had to make it work. Plus – people had liked my first novel and there was now a standard to not just meet, but somehow surpass, like a pole-vaulter straining to clear new heights. Added to that was the pressure of a date in the calendar, ringed in red, when the book had to be delivered, whatever state it was in.

I discovered that writing as a hobby is very different to writing as a full-time job. I love what I do – I really do – but it isn’t the easy, effortless process I’d imagined, or experienced with Mantelpiece. It is far tougher to produce the goods to order than to have the luxury of limitless time as your imagination develops an idea at its own pace. And, as soon as you have an agent or an editor waiting to read your manuscript, you risk feeling self-conscious and over-scrutinising your work, the linguistic equivalent of dancing freely on your own versus an awkward performance in front of an audience.

So, writing as a profession turned out to be far more challenging than I could have expected when I woke up on September 4th over a year ago, full of optimism that I’d rattle off the first draft of Ketchup Clouds in ten weeks and finish the edit by Christmas. As I slumped over my laptop months later, tearing out my hair and surrounded by screwed-up bits of paper, I thought of my naive image of being an author, and I wanted to drown myself in the cold Nescafe at the bottom of my coffee cup.

2) The buzz gets better

I didn’t drown myself, of course. I got through it. And I am so proud of the result – prouder, actually, than I am of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, because Ketchup Clouds required so much more patience to finish. When I put the words ‘The End’ at the bottom of the manuscript and printed it off, feeling the impressive weight of all those pages bearing all those words that I’d agonised over for months, I felt veritably giddy. Finishing a second novel for a deadline as a professional writer, whatever the ups and downs, surpassed the somewhat naive experience of completing the first.

It only gets harder,’ another author told me. ‘The bar gets higher. The pressure grows. Every book is trickier to write than the last, but more satisfying to finish because of that very fact.’

3) A writer’s life is busy

A solitary existence – that was my image of a writer’s life when I embarked upon this career twelve months ago. I imagined days upon days of being in my study with no one but my characters for company. Thankfully, this isn’t true at all. Emails whizz into my Inbox at a ferocious rate. There are promotional requests from my publicist, queries from the marketing team, money stuff from my accountant, notes from my editors, requests from teachers for school visits and sometimes even a nice message from a reader to respond to. There are phone calls from my agent, invitations to libraries and festivals and bookshops, interviews with journalists and research to complete for the new novel. In fact, with all the other things that a full-time author has to juggle, it can sometimes be quite difficult to fit in any writing at all, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

4) It can be hard to work from home

Despite the interactive nature of being an author, I still find it hard to work from home, and I know many writers are the same. When everyone in the world is climbing into their cars and commuting to offices or schools or hospitals, yawning at the traffic lights, it can feel very strange to be hidden away in a study. Don’t get me wrong, I know that writing is a privilege, and of course there are many cosy mornings when I am delighted to be in my slippers at 8am rather than venturing out into the cold, but working from home is not without its challenges.

For one thing, the boundaries between work-life and home-life become blurred. When I’m writing I keep thinking about the ironing, and when I’m ironing I can’t help but wonder how chapter seven might end. Days lose their meaning, so I can feel like I should be working on a Sunday because my study is always in sight, my laptop within arms’ reach. That sense of a shaped week – of moaning about Monday but looking forward to Friday – is something that I miss, so much so that I have started a few part-time jobs to try and recreate it. I volunteer at an Oxfam bookshop and I also teach dance to children in primary schools. It adds a bit of a structure to my life and I find that I enjoy the time I’m working at home far more, and write far better, for having a more varied week.

5) Your books will be read

Okay, this might be rather obvious, but it still takes me by surprise that people read my stuff. Writing the first book was such a personal, private experience, it seems strange that the novel is out in the world, doing its own thing, finding its way into people’s bags and onto their bedside tables. The other day I got a tweet from someone in Mexico saying that they had discussed Mantelpiece at their book club, and it is truly remarkable to me that the words I wrote while travelling the world are now being read in countries I have never visited. What an amazing thing that is.

Last words

Now, when I close my eyes and picture a writer, I see someone juggling a busy timetable with an ever-growing To Do list, a person working hard at their laptop and struggling sometimes – but enjoying every real, challenging second of it. I feel lucky to have had an opportunity to find out the truth about being a full-time writer, and I’m looking forward to the surprises that 2012 has in store.

 You can find Annabel at her blog and on Twitter: @APitcherAuthor.

You can also follow the blog tour on Twitter with these hashtags:  #mantelpiecemusings or #mysister

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