Hi pals. Yes, here I am, a whole year having not posted a single thing. But hey, at least I have another WHOLE NOVEL done and dusted! How did that happen?! No, seriously, how the hell did that happen. ANYWAY, now I'm in holiday mode, and wanted to offer you my top ten tips for getting that novel actually written. Are you avoiding the actual act of writing, because it’s easier to think about it than to do it, the perfect book remaining snugly in your head? Are you offering to make paper chains and the fifteenth glass of eggnog rather than wade through pits of boredom and despair? Congratulations, you’re a writer.
You may have a few days off work, so you may want to write - ha - I mean, who am I kidding, I'd rather be lying horizontal on the sofa with sea-salt caramel chocolates and It's A Wonderful Life. But you know, little puddings, it ain't gonna get written if you don't actually write it.
In my experience, inspiration only gets you so far; it’s TENACITY and a willingness to adapt that will get you farther. If you want to write for an audience (and I reckon 100% of the writers I’ve met do), the beautiful power of your imagination means nothing if you are not prepared to put in the hours to tease it out, word after word, until a paragraph becomes a chapter, then a book. A lot of the work that goes into a novel is a repetitious exercise in failure. Writing isn’t an escape, it’s turning up to face yourself. In the quest for personal perfection you will experience profound frustration, for what you see in your fantasy will resist translation to the page.
Right, that’s the tough talk over from your drill sergeant. As the incomparable Maya Angelou once put it, 'if you get, give. If you learn, teach.' Well: I've got, I've learned, and here you are.
Happy Christmas to you all, and thanks for being such a wonderful bunch.
1. There will always be someone better than you
I'm ok with this. I find it comforting. It’s liberating. You just keep doing what you’re doing, and let everybody else get on with their business. Because somewhere, someone is looking at you in awe.
2. Tell people you are writing a novel
Don't be too precious; you ain't writing One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although I accept announcing to your nearest and dearest about your plans can be a double-edged sword. As soon as I did this, all I got for the next three years was ‘how’s your novel going?’ Which, as irritating questions go, is up there with ‘so, when are you going to start trying for a baby?’ HOWEVER. If you announce to people that you’re writing, there comes a certain desire to prove to them that this is exactly what you’re bloody well going to do. It’s not a perfect strategy, but it helps create some skewed sense of accountability in what is actually a very hard slog. And tell only kind people, because they will encourage you.
3. Don’t fixate on ritual
There’s a romance about writing that just won’t go away. We have to drink fresh coffee in our turrets, we have to write at dusk to the sound of a trilling blackbird, we have to be wearing Aunt Maud’s silk kimono. We have to look like her, above - the one holding the quill FFS. It's all bullshit. I wrote The Miniaturist at any hour of the day, in offices, on the Tube, in theatre dressing rooms. I wrote The Muse looking like someone had just dragged me backwards through a bush, and I mainly ate mini cheddars. If you wait for a room of your own, you’re going to be waiting a long time. Some people need silence, some people need noise. I just needed the words on the page.
4. Write what you want
No one in publishing predicted that a book set in 17th century Amsterdam about a dollhouse was going to be a bestseller. Neither did I. But it’s what I wanted to write. DO NOT WRITE FOR THE MARKET and DON'T UNDERESTIMATE PERSONAL PASSION.
5. First draft blues
Here’s the paradox: you will not be able to truly write your book unless you have written your book. GET. IT. OUT. YOUR. HEAD. Everything will probably change later – that’s fine. At this stage, accept deep imperfection. If it’s a mess, so what? If the characters aren’t behaving themselves, big deal. If the layering and nuance isn’t there, why would it be? You’ve only written it once. You are only human, you simply cannot monitor your pace, your tone, your fifty-five characters, your imagery, your themes, your atmosphere in the first go. All this will come in subsequent drafts. So be kind to yourself in these early days. But don’t stop. Do not stop.
NO. DON'T STOP.
How do I not stop! I hear you cry. I know. It’s shit. God, I know. When things are excruciating in this stage (namely any day that ends in a ‘y’), I tend to use the program Write or Die to get some actual text on the page. And what often happens, is that in the act of writing, I work out what I want to write. My original idea might have fizzled, but if it’s 30 words or 3000, there will be something there that will take me on to the next scene. And yes, I may discard most of it later, but something might stick and that’s better than nothing.
So let’s say you have a whole draft. It’s genuinely a massive achievement, so pat yourself on the back. Now the real writing can begin.
6. Read it out loud
I did this five times through my drafting – exhausting, but so helpful. The brain, when you read silently, often corrects things for you. It's only when you hear the rhythm of your sentences aloud, does your choice of words fall, or clear the hurdle. Muddy images, unintentionally repetitious adjectives, things that just don't *land*...the list goes on. Just do it.
7. Accept when something isn’t working
There will be other solutions. If your car was stuck against a brick wall, would you keep revving it in the same direction? Nope.
8. You’re going to be rejected
Back up your passion with this acceptance: Not everyone is going to like it, some people are going to truly loathe it, and no one will care how hard you’ve worked.
But one day, someone will give you some help, or a chance. And you’ll be ready by then to take it.
9. Ask yourself, ‘why am I doing this?’
It’ll help keep you focused. For me, writing my first novel was an act of hope. Five years ago, at the age of 27, I wanted something in my life to change. I wanted to write, and I wanted to be published. I wanted to see if I could make it work. But now I know that it was the act of writing, not being published, that saved me.
10. And finally:
Writing is a leap of faith. But how wonderful that the person you’re putting faith in is yourself.