Why great writing takes great sacrifice

I believe that at some point, if you’re to write that great novel or complete your half-finished manuscript, you will have to make some sort of significant sacrifice. You will have to make writing your number one priority.

And that’s not easy to do. Life is a funny old thing. It presents all manner of opportunities, but the more you get, the less able you are to make the most of them. If you take on too much, no single thing will get your full attention, which means that you will either never a) do yourself justice, or b) complete anything.

Start saying no

The solution is sacrifice. You have to start saying no to things that you really might not want to say no to, and sometimes that means making difficult decisions. Before I give you some examples from my own writing experience, I should try and explain what I mean by sacrifice.

It is simply, in this context, a period of time where you put elements of your personal and creative life to one side so that you can work intensively on one project. Your primary project. The project that really matters.

To return to my first sentence, I think this is how great work is generally done. Rarely does eternal multitasking lead to a writer’s best material.

I’ve always had various projects on the go, but whenever it’s come to the crunch, I’ve put everything to one side and focused on the one thing that means by far the most to me: my novel. It is, so far, my life’s work. I’ve never thought about it like that until writing that sentence. But it’s true.

'Just a simple word'

A is for Angelica took me several years to write and no small amount of sacrifice. Since starting work on it with the simple line, ‘Benny paints pictures with his eyes closed,’ I have, in no particular order:

  • fallen in love
  • moved house five times
  • become an uncle (twice)
  • started Write for Your Life
  • attended at least 10 weddings
  • hosted a successful spoken word night
  • lost my auntie and two grandparents
  • got married
  • gained a Masters (for Angelica)
  • got an agent (also for Angelica)
  • owned a cat (was owned by)
  • started a podcast
  • had two jobs
  • lots of other things too.

You’ll notice that some of those are project-related and some are personal. That’s because, at various points over the years, I’ve sacrificed both for the sake of my novel. Sometimes I’ve had to hit a deadline. Sometimes I’ve simply decided that enough is enough. I’ve needed to focus. Something has had to give.

Some examples

  • My Masters cost a fortune. While friends got jobs or, considerably better, travelled the world, I worked in a bar and learned everything I could about being a writer and what that means.

  • Despite not being able to at all afford it, I took two months off work (unpaid) to try and get from 10,000 to 50,000 words. I barely reached half of that. A cruel, early lesson.

  • I stopped doing something that I loved, Words Aloud, the spoken word night. We’re doing a one-off special this year and I miss it terribly. But it had to go.

  • For weeks on end and on numerous occasions, I worked during the day at my job and then wrote at night until the early hours. I had an understanding girlfriend. She is now my wife.

  • I stopped posting to Write for Your Life for a few months. Not that big a deal, I guess, but it was when the site was starting to take off. I knew it was taking up too much of my time and energy. I do things differently now.

  • In a total panic about a deadline, I didn’t go to my best friend’s 30th birthday party. I regret it deeply, even though it didn’t affect our relationship. It was the wrong decision, but it was still a sacrifice. I hit my deadline.

  • When my dear auntie was dying from a brain tumour, I somehow found a way to get my manuscript edited and returned to my agent (who couldn’t have been more understanding). It didn’t feel like a sacrifice. It was probably cathartic.

If you're going to do it, do it properly

The point is this.

In every case listed, I made the sacrifice because somewhere deep in my heart, I’ve always wanted to write a novel and get it published.

I’ve always weighed up the options and come to the conclusion that, at that particular moment, if I was to go on and write the best novel I could possibly write - If I was to give myself a fighting chance in an increasingly difficult industry - I had to do it properly.

It had to be my everything. My one and only.

Sacrifice seems like such an awful word for me to use when talking about writing. But it doesn’t have to be. If you have the support of friends and family, they will give you the space and understanding you need. And as for other projects, well, they are other projects. Almost anything can wait.

Because in the words of Patrick Rhone, an internet friend of mine, saying no to one thing is saying yes to something else. All I ask is that you think about your writing and how much it means to you.

Then give it everything you’ve got. Be prepared to sacrifice.