’Tis easy to write epigrams nicely, but to write a book is hard – Marcus Valerius Martial
If you aspire to write a novel, this is the best advice you will ever get. Try to forget, for a moment, the Atlantic of ink spilled upon the subject of ‘creative writing’ and bear with me. The truth is not always hidden at the bottom of the ocean. Whatever you are writing – especially if it’s a book-length project, whether fiction or non-fiction – I cannot overstate the importance of working on it every day. Not planning, plotting, editing, researching, or tweeting about it, but contributing new words to the page. This may sound trite, but it’s a rule to live by if you’re serious about writing anything, however busy you are with work and family. To be honest, I wish I’d figured this out sooner myself.
The whole creative writing industry was in its infancy when I started out. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that the only university course in the subject anywhere in the country was at my old alma mater, the University of East Anglia, run at that point by Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury. Aside from Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (written in 1934), and the observations of Dr. Johnson, there wasn’t anything much around in print to act as a guide, and there was nothing on the internet except second hand books, novelty screensavers and pornography. I knew Malcolm Bradbury well (lord, that man could smoke), but although he offered me a place on his legendary MA, I couldn’t afford to fund it, being a working class student. I’m not so sure how it is now, but funding for practical and creative postgraduate courses was not available back then, while creative writing did not qualify for a ‘career development’ loan. On the other hand, the British Academy has just awarded me seven-and-a-half grand to study narratology, so I took the MA in Modern Lit (‘Studies in Fiction’) at UEA instead, and ended up writing a thesis on Kipling and ‘Imperial Gothic.’ But I digress. My point really is that what I’ve learned about writing comes as much from hard-won experience (and a lot of dumbass mistakes) as it does formal tuition and research, but if you cross-reference my stuff with the best of the creative writing guides – for example the wonderful How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark Howard and Sandra Newman – you’ll see that I’m not too far off the academic, practical, and industry orthodoxies. (There are only so many ways to explain the same thing, after all.)
I started writing seriously (so getting articles and short fiction published) 25 years ago, although I didn’t get a book out until 2002 (the biography of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth). I did write a novel in the mid-90s, but it was never published and didn’t deserve to be either. I had another go at a novel a couple of years later, and although it was an improvement on the first, I let it slide to finish my doctorate and never went back to it. In fact, I remember going through a period of writing quite promising first acts, usually too elaborate and open-ended to be easily recycled as short stories, and then not actually writing the book. Some of them even made it into print in indy magazines and anthologies, so couldn’t have been too bad, but I was still not motivated or focused enough to complete the novels. Short stories, academic articles, lecture series, and the odd bit of journalism presented no problem, but aside from the Ainsworth book (which grew out of my Ph.D), I couldn’t finish a big project. And, as my friend and colleague Ashley Stokes once told me, ‘Not finishing projects is habit-forming.’
(Does any of this sound familiar yet?)
Compositionally, I was always something of a sprinter. I was mistakenly under the impression that creativity had something to do with inspiration, and, god help me, some sort of muse. In this regard I was certainly my father’s son. My dad was a bricklayer by trade, but he spent most of his free time painting. He was a strict adherent to the central tenets of Impressionism, and would bang off an entire landscape in oils before he lost the light in a single sitting. As a craftsman he was meticulous, but as an artist, I have come to realise, he was often impatient and slapdash, and when he did produce something beautiful (which he sometimes did) it was more by luck than judgement. Looking back, I used to write stories in exactly the same way. In a short piece you can get away with this approach (I used to draft and then polish an article or a short story in about a week), but you’ll get nowhere fast if you apply the same technique to a novel. Novels are marathons, and if you cut loose too soon you’ll just burn out miles before the finish line, lapped by the silly buggers in furry suits. I wrote the Ainsworth book that way, and the process nearly killed me.
I think I always knew the big secret, at least unconsciously. It had been right in front of me all along, even way back in the early-80s during a youth mis-spent hanging around with musicians. (No, I wasn’t a drummer.) But for whatever reason, I couldn’t seem to apply myself to my art in the way my mate Niall from Violet Voodoo did to his. Whatever he was doing, or whoever he was with, he would disappear for a minimum of two hours a day to simply practice, with absolutely no exceptions to this rule. What can I say? As Bruce Lee so perfectly put it, ‘I keep pointing, you keep staring at my finger.’
Years later, I was none the wiser. In consequence, when I had a good idea for a novel in the wake of the Ainsworth book, I once again failed to launch and never managed to finish the thing. I researched thoroughly, mind, obsessively in fact, and wrote up the inevitable first act, twice (totally different approaches of about a hundred pages a pop); I even got an agent interested and published a chapter in an anthology. But after two years of flailing about, stopping and starting, getting easily distracted, and continuing to plan and research while never actually writing anything new, I finally gave up the ghost and went back to academic writing and short fiction.
That was ten years ago.
Quite a lot changed for me in the intervening decade: I moved countries (Japan back to the UK – long story), got made redundant, twice, survived a very nasty illness, met the love of my life, married, and had a kid. In the autumn of 2012, after about two years of continuous academic publishing contracts, inspiration once more struck like a virus and I decided to have another run at the novel. In that first flight of puppy-like enthusiasm, I completed the opening chapter in one day and subsequently managed to slog through about half of Chapter Two the following weekend. Then we took a holiday up north to visit my wife’s family, then it was Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie in Manchester (‘Twins of Evil’ tour, awesome), our son was learning to walk, I had a shed-load of university marking to do, and then it was Christmas… Anyway, I never quite seemed to have to time to finish up that second chapter.
Finally, in the early-spring of 2013, my dear wife read the riot act. The essence of this free and frank exchange of views was that I should either stop moaning about the bloody book or go and write the damn thing. And that was the threshold moment, my breakthrough, my road to Damascus, my epiphany. I decided to get my arse in gear.
Count Words like Calories
Don’t get it right, just get it written – James Thurber
I re-started my novel on March 1 last year, having nothing other than about 8000 words written and a relatively vague plot plan. I was on one of those ‘lifestyle’ diets at the time, and the most motivational part of the process for me was always the weekly weigh-in, when I’d see how much I’d lost by actually counting and cutting the calories. (This was my wife’s doing, by the way, I suck at meal planning.) I had packed in smoking with a similar resolve a few years before, enumerating every day I was free of the fags. I simply applied the same stubborn methodology to my born again writing routine.
Whatever else was going on around me, I would work on the first draft every day, without exception. This was initially done while my son took his afternoon nap, but the night has always suited me better, and as our boy is a very good sleeper, I soon started to shut myself away every evening after he went down. I would write for between two and three hours, no matter how exhausted I was or however inviting the telly. I tried for 500 new words per session, but preferably 1000, allowing myself shorter sessions on Friday and Saturday evenings, just to chill with my wife (who would otherwise also be working – she’s a graphic designer). If I shouldn’t have been working at all, for example on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, family visits, and medical emergencies, then I would find ten minutes either very early or very late and write a couple of symbolic new sentences so as not to break the chain. Every Sunday I would count up the words written in the previous week and log the result, taking great pleasure in watching the text grow before my eyes. I never missed a day.
At the end of the first month, I’d gone from 8,716 words to 28,794.
By following the above rule, I finished the first draft in mid-January of this year, averaging 650 words a day/4,450 per week, so that’s about 200,000 raw words in well under a year (by mainstream publishing standards the equivalent of two average novels). After that, I just needed to re-work the piece until I felt that I had got the words right. The revision is a lot easier than the original construction, rather like cutting and polishing a rough diamond. I thus took my original manuscript through about thirty major and minor edits and redrafts, and completed it (as far as I’m concerned) in July – that’s under eighteen months from start to finish. Now I have to sell it, which is of course much harder than the actual writing. But whether or not it pleases anyone else, I have written the book I wanted to write, and have wanted to write for the last decade. Now I’m writing another one. Groovy.
So if you’ve ever looked longingly at the back catalogue of an author you admire and wondered how on earth he or she managed to write all that, then this is the answer. You write every day until you finish a project, then you start the next one. You don’t stop, and there is no such thing as ‘writer’s block.’ As J.G. Ballard said, ‘You’ve got to discipline yourself if you’re professional. There’s no other way.’ This is much more important than ‘inspiration’ or ‘genius.’ It’s a job of work, plain and simple. There is no secret or quick fix, and despite the bold claims of the ‘Write a Novel in 30 Days’ school of courses and guides (naming no names, but there are always lots of exclamation marks in the titles and adverts), writing a novel takes hard graft and key-bending commitment. William Faulkner put it beautifully (well, he would, wouldn’t he?): ‘I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.’
I don’t mean to be a cheese screamer – although I am an academic so that’s just how it comes out – I’m just saying what works for me, but you are going to have to find something similar that suits you if you are serious about writing. It’s hard, it takes a lot of solitary time, and it’s very easy to talk about it but not do it. No one is going to force you to write every day, but trust me on this, the system works. Be flexible by all means, but also be ruthless when you have to; don’t allow family, friends, work or telly to distract you too much. (If the people around you understand and respect your purpose then they will give you the space you need.) If you cannot find this discipline, then you won’t finish your project, and remember, not finishing projects is habit-forming. In order to fulfil what I’m assuming is the common goal of producing and publishing original fiction (you wouldn’t still be reading otherwise, right?), writing daily has to become as natural to your normal routine as walking the dog, taking the kids to school, going to work, preparing a meal, bathing, sleeping and breathing. If you do this, I guarantee you that by the end of each week you will be amazed at how much you have produced, and how much the process of that production has taught you about literary composition. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000-Hour Rule’ as well – writing is a craft that can be an art, so, as it is with any other skill, practice will make perfect in the end. In six months I promise you’ll be well on your way to a full first draft of a halfway decent novel. There ain’t nuthin’ to it but to do it.
Dear old Dorothea Brande was very clear on this. If you can’t stick to the routine and actually write, she wrote, then: ‘Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy.’ The formidable Mrs. Brande did not mince her words in Becoming a Writer. ‘Succeed,’ said she, ‘or stop writing!’