Mugs, maps and socks – a writer’s life

The idea was floated this morning after breakfast that I might go into to my local town and buy some new trainers. I have the time to spare – I’m “between books” as we authors say. I’ve sent off The Loki Sword – Fire Born 3 to my publisher, and I haven’t yet started my new project – and I sorely need new gym shoes. Then my wife pointed out that my feet were bare. “Oh, so, I’d have to go all the way upstairs and put on some socks on then,” I said. “Too much hassle. I’ll buy trainers another day.” “What dreadful hardships you writers have to bear,” she muttered, as she bent and began to pull heavy wet washing out of the machine…

So here I am, sockless, in my writing den on the far side of the garden. And I realised that another appalling catastrophe has blighted my life. I’ve just made a pot of fresh coffee in the machine and I’ve realised I have no mugs in the office – none at all! Briefly, I consider phoning my wife and asking her to bring me one. Then I spot her hanging out the washing on the line, and I sigh, and huff, and get up grumbling to go thirty yards across the garden to fetch my own damn mug from the kitchen. “Why do bad things always happen to good people?” I mutter as I plod over the soft lawn in my bare feet.

When I tell people I write books for a living, almost all of them say: You must be very disciplined to do that! And I never quite know how to answer them. Yes, I sit down at nine-ish every weekday morning and turn on my computer, and yes, I have a pretty good work rate of putting out about two books a year. But disciplined? I don’t think so. Getting up at dawn and putting on smart clothes – and socks – and getting a train into London to work a full day before commuting home – that takes discipline. I used to do it. But I don’t think I could any more. Hell, fifteen years ago, I used to get up at 4am and work on my novel till 7, and then get the train into London to do a full day at The Times. I was pretty disciplined then. Not now.

So what does a writer’s day look like? Since I’ve got nothing better to do today, I thought I would tell you.

A day in the life of a historical fiction author

9am to 10am: After bumbling around the house while the kids get ready for school, drinking tea and getting in the way (or after staying in bed lazily reading the newspaper on my phone till everyone has gone), I shower and dress and wander out to my garden office. Make coffee, look at my emails and reply to them – if I haven’t already done so in bed. See my “boffice” blog. Then I open up my Work in Progress – and try to go straight to the bit I was working on the night before. This is important. If you look at the beginning of the doc – the beginning of the novel – you start reading, and start making little changes, and trust me, a whole morning will be wasted putting in commas (pace Oscar Wilde) and then taking them out. I try to go straight to the bit I’ve just been writing or the start of that chapter and forge ahead.

10am to 1pm: I do actually work quite hard during this period. I try not to get distracted by emails – actually, unless I am expecting an important communication, I turn emails off – otherwise you find yourself breaking concentration to look at some bit of spam about pretty Asian girls implausibly looking for love with middle-aged white guys. Since my recent books have all taken place in countries I have never visited – Covid stopped me travelling for research, as well as the high cost and hideous experience of flying – I find that I spend a lot of time on the internet looking at maps. I love maps, to be honest. And Google has meant that I can zero in on small areas of land through which my heroes might be travelling.

1pm to 5pm: OK, this is the part of the day when I relax. I have lunch, sometimes with a drink, watch a bit of TV – I’m a big fan of US sitcoms – and usually have a nap. Or read “work stuff” lying on my bed – then fall asleep for an hour or two. I do sometimes go to the gym or play golf. If it’s a gym day, I quit writing at 12.30 and drive the the gym and work out, have a swim and a steam in the spa. Then back home at about 2.30 for a late lunch. If I’m golfing, I try to have a big, late eggy breakfast and push on till supper at 7pm.

5pm to 7pm: I do a couple of hours work in the evening before supper. Sometimes looking over what I’ve written that morning. Sometimes pushing ahead with the novel. On a good day (and towards the end of the book, when the writing is easier) I can write 3,000 words. My personal best if 5,000 in one day. On a slow day (at the beginning of a novel, when I have no idea what is going to happen to my characters) I might only get 1,000 words in the bag. The average, I suppose, is 2,000 words a day, which means that I can – in theory – write 10,000 words a week, which means that a 100,000-word novel takes ten weeks. In theory. I usually think I can write a book from first chapter to last in twelve weeks – three months – but in fact it almost always takes about four months. But that’s OK. It means, with editing, that I can do two books a year, if I push quite hard. The editing back-and-forth with my publisher always take longer that I imagine, too. Cover discussion. Writing the blurb on the back of the book, and so on, it all takes time.

This perfect life

I have it pretty good, I do know that. I get to do a job I love, working from a home I enjoy spending time in. I will see lots of my kids as they grow up, and I don’t have a boss – unless you call my publisher my boss. But, basically, I can get up in the morning and do whatever the hell I like all day. I can bunk off and go shopping for trainers (providing I can be bothered to put on socks); I can go and play golf. I could stay in bed all day reading trashy novels. That makes me extremely lucky, I guess. But there is a downside. The average professional, full-time writer, I read recently, makes £11,000 a year. I make a bit more than that – but I’m very far from rolling in it. And I know that I will never be able to retire and do nothing. I’ll just have to keep on writing novels til I drop. On and on. I’ve made that Faustian pact – a nice, easy, stress-free life doing what I love, in exchange for a life of relative poverty. And you know what? – I’m pretty OK with that.

If you want to help me keep the lights on at Casa Donald, you might like to check out or even buy one of my recently published Viking adventure novels: The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) and The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2). If you like them, don’t forget that The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) will be out in August 2022.

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