Sunday, October 21, 2018

Teresa Stenson : My Small Press Writing Day

The day begins between 7and 8am, with a hot drink, usually tea, and it’s hard to have tea first thing without toast. So it’s tea and toast, and a check of social media, and a bit of morning TV. I like to be ‘at work’ sometime between 9 and 10am, and, because I only need my MacBook Air to work from, my workplace shifts throughout the day. More on that in a moment.

There are two sides to my writing life and so two sides to my writing day: the stuff I do for love and the stuff I do for money. It’s actually not that crude; I’m incredibly lucky in that I enjoy the writing that pays the bills, too. I’m a ghostwriter, so I write books for people who have something to say but aren’t writers themselves – or haven’t got the time to be writers themselves.

For a long while (about ten years) I supported my writing with non-writing jobs: I worked in a cinema, behind a bar, as an academic note-taker, and as a mentor for university students. I often take a minute to appreciate that I now get paid to work with words, and that my job allows me a great amount of freedom to spend time on my own writing, too.

Though the main focus of the working day is to move forward with my clients’ projects, I can pretty much always carve out time to spend on something of my own in and amongst the work. Sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes an afternoon – it all depends on how busy I am.

At the moment I’m in the midst of ghosting two non-fiction books, so I’m in a Monday to Friday, nine to five kind of routine. The morning is spent with one project, the afternoon is spent with the other.

Book 1 is fairly short and will come in at about 20,000 words, taking two months to write (it’s almost there). Book 2 will be longer, more complex, and I have until early 2019 to complete it. This will be the third book I’ve written for this particular person, who lives on a different continent and with whom I’ve never actually spoken! That’s the weird and wonderful nature of ghostwriting. I pretend to be him almost every day and I will likely never meet him. He’s incredibly busy; I’m sent audio and videos of him speaking and that’s my main source material as I write the chapters of his books. Somehow it works, the books do well and sell well, and I enjoy writing in his voice and with his style. And no, it doesn’t bother me that my name isn’t on the cover of the books I write – I’m practical about this, most ghosts are, we’re paid to do what we do and it’s the nature of the job.  

So about that shifting workplace. I frequent three main writing locations, usually in this order: I start on the sofa first thing, move to a local café mid-morning, and spend afternoons on my small writing desk in the bedroom. Occasionally I use the dining table for a change of scene, or I’ll get cosy on the bed – but that only really works if I’m in the research phase of a book, or making notes by hand. I don’t have a room of my own – yet. 

The work itself is varied, and what I do day-to-day depends on what stage of a project I’m at. At the beginning of a book I do a lot of reading, listening and watching all that source material mentioned earlier, making notes and working out how best to order the book, and how to take the reader on the most logical and interesting journey. Once the initial outline is approved, I dive in – usually at Chapter 1, but for me, writing a non-fiction book is like doing a jigsaw so I’ll hop between chapters if I need to.

Once I start the writing I might need to change the initial outline, or overhaul it completely. Just last week I did that for Book 2: I’d written the first chapter but my enthusiasm to get beyond that totally waned. I went back to the beginning, absorbed myself in the source material again, and realised there was a much better way to organise the book. Once I’d worked that out, the project got the injection of energy it needed.  

As far as writing ‘as me’ goes, I mostly write short stories, and have been published steadily in lit mags and writing prize anthologies for the past ten years or so (I currently have a collection under consideration with a publisher in the UK). My attention has recently shifted towards working on something longer, and I’m having fun writing fragments and scenes of something which may well be novel-length, if not novel-shaped.  

Because most of my writing time is spent pretending to be someone else, my appreciation for the time when I’m writing as me has deepened. That’s not to say I’m immune to all the usual distractions that face writers – or anyone who works on a computer connected to the internet. To do my job well, focus is important, and extended periods of ‘being in the book’ are required. The pomodoro technique (writing in short bursts) helps on days when inertia kicks in, and the software that shuts the internet off is a life and career saver.

I never write beyond 6pm unless I have a deadline, and that’s a rare thing. Specialising in books means deadlines are far-away goals that I move towards at a comfortable pace. I never work weekends, and if I need a break, whatever time of day it is, I take one – recharging is important. I’ll have a walk, or cook, or read, or watch TV, or chat to my other half, or go see a film. Again, I’m grateful for the freedom I have to do this. 

I end the working day with a note to myself about what to do tomorrow, just in case future me is blurry and needs a pointer. These notes always begin “Teresa” followed by a colon. It’s like I’m saying, “Teresa: you have to pay attention to Teresa.”  I realise now that I might have created my own co-worker.

Teresa Stenson has ghostwritten over a dozen books, mostly in the arena of autobiography and self-development. She lives in York, England, with her partner and the absence of a cat. Her short stories have been published by The Bridport Prize, The Guardian, Fairlight Books, Jellyfish Review, Litro, Popshot Magazine, Matchbook, and there's a piece forthcoming at Pidgeonholes. Teresa is working on a collection of linked stories and can be found on twitter @TeresaStenson.

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