So, you want to write a book. You’ve wanted to write a book for a while now, and this is the year you’re going to do it. While others have sworn off the drink, the cigs, and the chocolate, your New Year’s resolution is to write.
Go you. You can do this. I have to write one myself this year (and I’ve already spent the advance), so we’re in this together. While we’re at it, I’m going to try to get this blog back to source and share a few tips about writing and publishing fiction and nonfiction. This is what I do for a living nowadays – it ain’t that glamorous, trust me – but I stared out just like you.
Anyway, having made that writing resolution, and told all your mates to make it a matter of honour that you actually do it, what next?
I’m glad you asked…
‘Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.’ – James Baldwin
You need two things to write a novel: an idea and the commitment to keep writing, wherever that idea may take you. When standing at the foot of the mountain, however, contemplating a novel is daunting, if not completely overwhelming. You have to conceive an original story, then write it up in, say, 80,000 to 100,000 words, carrying, developing and plotting that story in your head all the time, and trying to tell it stylishly and dramatically. Writing a short story is a sprint, but a novel is a marathon. It could well take six to twelve months to write, if not longer. And if you get that far, you still only have a first draft, which you will then have to edit and revise, re-drafting several times, and finally copy-editing and proofreading. Then you have to find a literary agent, which is next to impossible, and if you manage that then they have to find a publisher, who will probably request further revisions, and, after all that, the book still has to sell in a very crowded marketplace. You look at the output of prolific and bestselling novelists in wonder and despair. And just to shove any aspiring novelist further into the downward spiral, there is also a deep rooted cultural belief that writing has something to do with muses and a natural talent that you’ve either got or you don’t, as if the ability to write well is a gift from God.
‘I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately, I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning’ – William Faulkner
The above arguments are quite common barriers to success, and in addressing them I can hopefully help get you started:
- Keep writing. Write every day; well, nearly every day… several times a week, as often as you can. (We’re all different.) All novels, whether great, good, or garden variety were created in exactly the same way: word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, and chapter by chapter. If you write something new on a regular basis, even if it’s only a couple of hundred words for a start, then your novel will grow.
- Write for pleasure. Don’t worry about agents and publishers while you’re writing your novel. (Forget about fame and fortune, too. It’s mostly luck, anyway.) Write because you love to write and remember that there’s still a digital publishing revolution going on so it’s easier to get your work out there than it has ever been before.
- Practice makes perfect. Although writing can be an art, it begins as a craft that can be learned and improved by study and practice, just like any other skill.
Point Number One is vital to the achievement of all the goals connected with the novel currently residing as unrealised potential in your head. Right now, the most important thing is to establish your writing routine, and then stick to it, whether the going is rough or easy, and whatever else is happening in your life. If there is a secret to writing a novel, then this is it. No amount of reading, teaching, or discussion on the subject of ‘creative writing’ will help if you are not also writing regularly, learning by doing and continually advancing your full first draft.
‘Write as often as possible, not with the idea at once of getting into print, but as if you were learning an instrument.’ – J.B. Priestley
And don’t just aim to keep writing – want to keep writing. If you consider the skills you’ve learned and the goals you’ve achieved over the years, chances are that you actually enjoyed the process of studying and practicing. It’s the same with writing. You have to love it, even if it doesn’t always love you back. If you put off this task, in the same way that many of us never quite get around to working out, or learning a second language. Or if it’s a chore you have to force yourself to do, like practicing for childhood music lessons, then it is unlikely that you will ever finish a novel. You must be self-motivated, with a strict work ethic, even though you are highly unlikely to benefit financially from your novel, unless you are very lucky. No-one is forcing you to do this. This is your dream. Make it happen.
Experiment with parcels of time around the rest of your life until you find the writing routine that works for you.
‘Don’t get it right, just get it written’ – James Thurber
Don’t worry about quality control at this stage. Just get the story down, however roughly – you’ll be re-drafting later. A good motivational trick is to keep a running tally of the number of words you write each week.
In order to facilitate this routine, try to find a private space in your home to write. Ideally, you need a door between your creative space and the rest of the world, and don’t work with a phone in the room either if you can avoid it. Make family and friends understand – you can work around them, but they have to work around you, too. If, on the other hand, you work on and off on a project around other things, all that stopping and starting will make it impossible to hold the story and its characters in your head, the style will keep changing, and you’ll probably never finish it. And not finishing projects is habit-forming.
‘You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.’ – Neil Gaiman
And turn off all social media when you’re writing. Otherwise, it’s like trying to write in an Irish pub on a Saturday night. There’s too much talk. You need peace to do this thing.
Writing has to become as natural to your normal routine as any other professional or domestic task you get on with without really questioning. You just have to do it. And if you do do it, 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.
Now go and start your damn book! I’ll keep dropping advice when I can.
Happy New Year