The Secret Lives of Writers – Panos Dionysopoulos
Panos Dionysopoulos is an Adelaide author who lives with his wife Margie and Burmese cat Minkah. He has been trying to edit three novels at once as well as finding the time to write more in general, whilst attempting not to fall into poverty or get lost inside his head. You can find out more about Panos on his blog Kingdom of Pan and he’s on Twitter as @PanosD.
When I finished my first novel, I cried.
Technically, the tears didn’t flow until a half hour later when I got home from the friend’s house I was working at to make sure I finished and then watched the ‘congratulations’ video from the NaNoWriMo team. Yes, I count the November 50k word challenge as a ‘real’ novel. It had a story, it was structured and I was proud of it.
Once that month was over and I read back over my (admittedly messy) work, I realised that the satisfaction I felt writing that novel and the pure creative release it gave me far outweighed any creative endeavor I had pursued in the past. This was a big deal to me because I’d been in various bands attempting to be some sort of ‘rock god’ since I was sixteen years old worshipping the shrine of Kurt Cobain.
Since then I’ve volunteered at my local writers’ centre, attempted to ‘network’ with as many writers as possible and read about fifty books on the craft of storytelling, the writing and publication of novels, and the skill of editing. I’ve also attended around a hundred workshops due to being a ‘workshop assistant’. All of this study led me to the conclusion that I knew absolutely nothing about writing but I completely threw myself into it regardless.
All these jobs have given me a wide range of experiences to draw on for my fiction, though obviously I’ll need to tone down some of the stories as sometimes true life is just plain wacky, and readers won’t be able to suspend their disbelief.
It’s been almost a year now since I permanently blocked out two days a week from my work calendar specifically for writing. In that time I have come up with many ideas, worked through a major revision of that first novel I wrote years ago before giving up and starting it again, and realised that I should be incorporating more new works to keep myself motivated rather than focusing on improving the old.
I was very lucky when I first made this decision to be able to negotiate a workspace at the SA Writers’ Centre. There I had a big desk to spread out my revision materials and a window to look out over Rundle Mall and daydream. I got through a lot of revision and a fair amount of their Monte Carlo biscuits (I’m imagining Vanessa or Sarah at the centre leaping up at this point and yelling “A-HA!”). I also frequented a few cafes here and there and finally my wife talked me into setting up a proper little writing space in our place. She managed to find a little Queen Anne style writing desk for me to set up at and it’s been great having a regular place to write.
So what have I learned in this time? For one thing, I’ve learnt that no matter how advanced I feel in my writing, I’ll always encounter someone who is much better than me. In person, I mean, not just in the books I read. Many times they’ll be sitting right next to me in a workshop, telling me how they don’t have time to write because of other commitments.
This leads me to the single most important thing I’ve learned: to be a writer, you have to make time to write. I could genuinely say I don’t have time to write. I’m trying to pay bills, keep up with clients and respond to job call outs half an hour away. I sometimes work twelve-hour days and I come home exhausted barely able to co-ordinate guiding a fork of food to my mouth. There have been several times my wife has informed me the day after a long shift that I left my keys in the car, one of the doors open and the headlights on.
It’s because of things like this that I eventually decided to devote two days to my writing. Don’t get me wrong, I can only borderline afford to do this. I am no good at saving and I don’t have any sort of trust fund I’m falling back on. However, it came down to whether I wanted to take my goal of becoming a full-time writer seriously or not. If so, you can’t make excuses. You have to write. As the cliché goes, a writer writes. If you don’t, your skills dull and your work dwindles. The decision was made after already deciding to quit my other two part-time jobs so I could focus better.
I was working so many jobs as my wife and I had just gotten married and I needed to have a little money saved up for our honeymoon. We were lucky enough to be able to travel to both the US and Europe and I strongly recommend to all writers that you travel if and when you can. Anywhere that has a deep history and is as far away from here as possible. I returned to Australia a different person even after six weeks, and my writing changed along with how I thought about the outside world.
I’ve picked writing days within the usual ‘working week’. This is so that on the weekend my wife gets to actually spend some time with me while I’m not half-comatose. It’s important I don’t completely ignore her in my quest as she is my greatest support system. Without her I doubt I’d have the strength of will to make it at all. She’s also my greatest fan and it’s very important for me to have someone I can send a snippet of work to who will tell me, quite genuinely, that they love it and that I’m talented. It’s those boosts that allow me to finish, and then I can rip my work apart on the rewrite and hire a professional editor to do it after that.
Speaking of professionals, I also learned to always utilise one or two while polishing a piece of writing. For longer works, a structural editor can be invaluable. I had one, the lovely Glenda Downing, look over my first novel. After she recovered from the shock of how amateur it was, she sent me a detailed set of notes explaining the problems with the plot and how it could be improved in general. She also wrote a series of notes within the manuscript itself outlining problems and also telling me which bits she liked. In general it was an incredible learning experience, not to mention a lesson that objectivity is incredibly important when finishing a piece of writing.
The lesson didn’t completely sink in, however, as I still went ahead and self-published my second novel, “I Think You Ate My Sandwich” through CreateSpace after only a perfunctory spell-check and edit, with no outside help. Needless to say, the book went through several revisions as mistakes were pointed out to me before I finally pulled it from sale after seeing an unexpected sales spike in Germany, of all places. I become seriously worried that a native English speaker would point out all the problems to my new readership and I would be forever marked as a hasty and messy writer.
All things being cyclical, the first piece of genuinely helpful and sage-like professional writing advice I ever received, a good four years ago, was:
“Never, ever again, in your entire life, or the next one, send out anything to anyone if you think there is more work to be done on it. Never think that any editor is going to see the story shining through. Your job as a writer is to make the story and its structure faultless. It must gleam without anything standing in the way. This is golden rules number one, two and three.”
This was courtesy of the prolific and celebrated historical fiction author Colin Falconer. I chased him down after a workshop taught by him and he graciously allowed me to send him a few pages of my manuscript, most likely so he could escape. He certainly knew what he was talking about and it makes a twisted sort of sense that his would be the first piece of advice I would completely disregard for my first piece of published work.
My plans at the moment involve continuing to revise my first novel, working on a couple of short story ideas that have gotten me excited, and turning my novel I self-published into a series of podcasts in the style of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” radio series. I’ve gotten together a little cast of voice actors and have roped in a couple of musical friends to help me compose a theme and some bed music for the project. It helps that I already have a few microphones and other recording gear lying around from my previous life as an audio engineer. Having said that, I’ve also been a call-centre operator, a graphic designer, a data entry technician, an admin assistant at a hair loss centre, technical support at an ISP, a masseuse, an AV technician for a hotel and an IT contractor. All these jobs have given me a wide range of experiences to draw on for my fiction, though obviously I’ll need to tone down some of the stories as sometimes true life is just plain wacky, and readers won’t be able to suspend their disbelief.
I’m aiming to find an agent for my first novel, as I want it to find as wide an audience as possible and see it really flourish with the promotional push a traditional publisher can give it. It’s about my cat fighting evil with psychic light weapons so I feel I should give him a chance of becoming a celebrity. I’ve been flirting with the idea of self-publishing some of my other work but if I do, it will be with the support of a professional structural editor, line editor and book cover designer. I’ve found the important thing is for your book to be impossible to differentiate from traditionally published works.
All-in-all I still see my journey to being a full-time author as an adventure and I still get immense pleasure from finishing a piece of work and thinking, “I wrote this, and it’s great”. The praise from myself comes less and less as I get better at writing (usually it’s more like, “I wrote this, and I should quit immediately”) but just the act of finishing a piece of writing is like I’ve achieved a small but immeasurably important victory. At that point I can celebrate with an episode of current guilty pleasure, Gourmet Girl Graffiti (a Japanese anime about a girl who loves to cook. I swear it has excellent character development) and a round of whatever narrative-based video game I’m halfway through. After that, I can go to bed and try to avoid thinking about the revision I’ll have to start the next day. Which leads me to my final point and cliché: writing is rewriting. Now to fire up the Xbox and play some Tomb Raider. Terry Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, scripted it, so I’m taking it as a lesson in narrative.
And raiding tombs.
The Secret Live of Writers is a series of blog posts from writers (published or unpublished) who dish the dirt on how they juggle life and art. You can read bout the whys and wherefores here.
The Secret Lives of Writers is now available as an ebook
You can now read all 13 guests posts from Volume 1 in the one convenient ebook. It’s out now in the Amazon Kindle Store and in other stores (iBooks, Kobo, Nook etc.) too.
Full of writing inspiration and advice, if you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, and this book doesn’t get you putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), nothing will!
You can grab your copy from the Delicious Publishing Book Store.