The Truth About Writing Popular Fiction

I have a friend – a much published, very experienced writer of popular fiction – who is worried about finishing her latest novel. She’s almost 50,000 words in and she knows she has at least another 40 to 50k more to write. Her pre-Christmas deadline is looming and she’s freaking out a little. She has no idea how she’s going to finish it in time as she says it’s like pulling teeth. Plus she’s not enjoying the writing anymore. In the same week, another writer – again, popular fiction - posted her worries about finishing a book in time on Facebook. Both have young children to mind, husbands to listen to, bills to pay, other writing jobs on the side. This is the writing for a living story that often goes untold.

Publishers are under more pressure than ever to produce novels that sell widely. With ebooks starting to make inroads into the market, things are very uncertain at the moment. Writers are under extra pressure to write faster, deliver earlier. Popular fiction writers are expected to produce a book a year without fail. Recently I’ve heard several top authors say they are now being asked to write a book every nine months, or to consider adding a book of short stories to their yearly output.

I believe that putting writers under this sort of pressure is counter productive. I’m lucky - I’m a fairly fast, consistent writer. I write 2,000 words a day, four days a week (five if I have a deadline). I write full time. I can sit down at my desk at 10am and stay there until 2pm which is a great luxury. Some weeks – during the Children’s Book Festival and around book publication time - I have other things on like school visits, shop visits, interviews, and I have to take time off from writing. But generally I’m at my desk. Even so, I still find it stressful sometimes.

Stress is the enemy of the writer. It can physically stop you writing as my friend has found. It can block ideas, it can stifle your flow; it can start making you think ‘I can’t do this/I’m rubbish/I’m not a writer/This is all a joke’. And once you start thinking that you can’t write, then you can’t physically write.

The year before last – 2010 – I had a bit of a writing meltdown. I was working flat out on 2 Amy Green novels and an adult novel (and an early reader in fact) and I just couldn’t keep up the pace. Towards the end of the year, I was trying to finish my adult novel but it just wasn’t happening. I didn’t like the story all that much, the characters weren’t working and I just wanted to crawl into bed and forget about writing ever again. So I called a halt. I told my agent and my publishers that I couldn’t deliver my manuscript, that I needed a lot more time. They weren’t exactly thrilled but they were very understanding and they gave me the time I needed to find my way out of the slump.

I took some time off. I read good fiction. I stopped beating myself up about not being Wonderwoman Writer. And gradually when I got some energy back, I started picking apart the book I had been working on and I pretty much started again. I decided I needed to put everything I had into the book, and everything I’d learned over the years about writing popular fiction – big characters, high stakes, drama, emotion, dealing with subjects that matter both to me and to readers. And the book (The Shoestring Club – out in early 2012) is a far better book because of it. In fact, although it has flaws, I think it’s the best adult novel I’ve written so far. And the next one (the one I’m working on at the moment) is even better. Because I’m enjoying the writing process, I WANT to write and, most importantly, I’m minding my writing energy. If I need a day off writing, I take a day off writing. I’m not agreeing to any deadlines I can’t meet and I’m not saying yes to any projects that take me away from the desk unless they are very special.

Writing is a tough business. I’ve been writing full time for nine years now and it’s not getting any easier. But I still love it. And that’s the truth. It’s still my dream job. So I’ll cling to it tooth and nail. But my life is also important, my kids, my partner, my family, my friends, my health. We all need to mind ourselves as writers AND mind ourselves as mothers, partners, girlfriends, aunties, sisters too.

Will writing popular fiction always be so pressurised? I’m not sure. I’m hoping the market will settle down soon for all our sakes. 

But at the moment if you want to write popular fiction, you need to keep strong, keep mentally and physically fit, and keep writing about things you truly care about.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX