“Would you like to be paid to write Historical Adventure set in the Wars of the Roses?”
“Well I really wanted to write a literary novel set in the Wiemar Republic about Great War veterans coming to terms with their fractured lives, but: Yes.”
That’s roughly the Skype conversation I had a year ago, except I just made up the bit about the literary novel.
I’m supposed to say something like: This ushered in a crazy year etc etc.
It wasn’t like that.
You just can’t write fiction day in day out if your life is Hollywood-crazy, perhaps with a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl jogging your arm. Almost all the professional writers I know have tranquil home lives and sane routines balancing work and social life.
Nor can you actually have much output if you lead a cinematic creative life, staggering to your keyboard after a booze-fueled night of carousing, then spending long hours angsting about your imagery.
No. Writers write and that is neither cinematic nor dramatic (though I did break my keyboard (and kudos to Microsoft for rapid replacement).
Mixing writing with what people used to call house-husbanding could however be quite surreal….
Me (typing): Tap tap tap blood sprayed bone cracked tap tap tap screamed and clutched his innards tap tap–
(Two pink little girls appear in my sword-lined study.)
Morgenstern (aged 5): Daddy, can you print us My Little Pony colouring in sheets?
Me (dad voice): Of course… now here’s the site… you want Twilight Sparkle? And you want Princess Celestia… there here they are. Do you need any more pink milk? OK then. Just call if you need another snack.
Girls: Come on… after this I want to play with Hello Kitty…
(Exit little girls)
Me (typing): Tap tap slipped in gore tap tap skull split tap tap whimpered…
What was a little crazy was the Pulp-Era style rapid turnaround. I signed in January and my first novel, The Sword is Mightier, appeared in something like July. That’s not how modern publishing works.
Before anybody asks, there was no sense of “hack work” or “selling out creatively.”
First, my previous profession was technical author. No, really, it’s not creative. It’s one of those jobs that looks like the thing you like doing, uses some of its skills, but really isn’t. A bit like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, I will write ‘most any kind of fiction if you pay me to and whatever it is will still be more interesting than technical documentation. (Granted, I used to get some cool clients. For example, did you know there’s software for designing your own model railway layout?)
Second, both franchises gave me heaps of creative freedom. Foreworld had its Name-of-the-Rose style conspiracies and both franchises expected historical accuracy, and that was that. Essentially, people paid me money to wallow in my favourite eras and write adventure stories in the tradition of my favourite writers. Better yet, for Foreworld I bagged my hero William the Marshal and the War of the Roses books let me paint German Longsword as the ultimate martial art.
Reader, the angst was unbearable! Unbearable!
What was almost unbearable was the catalogue of things that got between me and my work.
I couldn’t type fast enough, so I learned to touch type (a program on the BBC Children’s website uses talking hippos to irritate you into typing properly). Touch typing put a strain on my bad ergonomics and I got RSI. Meanwhile, my fading middle-aged eyesight collapsed under the strain. It took two weeks to get my first pair of glasses, which quickly became scratched and unusable. More recently, my new ergonomic keyboard broke.
If you’re freelancing, you can’t call in sick, can’t coast through the day. Worse, if your profession is one you are desperate to stay in, then–having pottered through most of your working life only slightly engaged with your job–you get introduced to new feelings of panic and insecurity.
Several things kept me sane. Hearth and home, of course. Fencing with longswords — any physical activity is good for a deskjockey, getting bashed around by younger people is a great reality check, and companionable geekery in the pub afterwards is just what the doctor ordered (after I finished hitting him with a sword (Hi Mike)).
Then there’s my circle of creative friends. Edinburgh is crammed with professional writers and animators, so no surprise that I have colleagues to drink coffee with. Sometimes we have the kind of chat you hear at convention panels: designing new worlds, tinkering with alternate histories, or what’s happening in publishing. Mostly though, it’s the usual geekery. What matters is that we can talk about our lives without risking sounding like attention seekers. “Stuck on my opening chapter” sounds pretentious in almost any other company, but around our table is as mundane and unremarkable as “had problems with our fridge.” Plus we let each other rant… Writer lives may not be crazy, but writing revs up the crazy flywheel in the head.
So here I am, a year later. Older, more broken, but still writing professionally.
And I dodged the heck out of my midlife crisis.
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) is a Scottish-based writer and swordsman. His novels are all on Amazon.