It took me about two and a half years to write my first novel, Captive. I wrote it while working full-time as a children’s books editor, which meant lots of getting up early, staying up late and lots of extra work on the weekends. Here are a few things I learned along the way…
1. Write every day
‘Writing is total grunt work. A lot of people think it is all about sitting and waiting for the muse. I don’t buy that. It’s a job. There are days when I really want to write, days when I don’t. Every day I sit down and write.’ – Jodi Picoult
Set yourself a manageable word or time limit and then stick to it rigidly every day, no matter what. Writing is like anything; it gets better with practice, and that means being disciplined.
I try to write 300 words a day. This might not sound a lot, but it is 2,100 words a week, around 10,000 a month. And if the average novel is 70,000 words, that means I can have a first draft done in about 7 months. But also 300 words sounds like a nice number to me. It doesn’t seem too daunting – even on the really bad days, when I have to drag myself to my desk, I can usually write 300 words within an hour. And then I am free to do something else. On the good days, I may write 1,000 words or more in one sitting.
2. Try to finish what you start
‘There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit at the typewriter and bleed.’ – Ernest Hemmingway
Writing the beginning of a novel is always exciting – that is when the idea is fresh and the muse is with you. By the time you get to the middle, you can be tired and have lost confidence. Don’t give up too easily. Middle sections are hard for all writers. It doesn’t mean your initial idea wasn’t good, and it definitely doesn’t mean that this won’t happen with the next idea and the next. Sometimes you need to write through the pain so you can gain the confidence by having finished something.
Note of caution here, though: sometimes great ideas up just don’t work out. It can take time to establish that out, but even then, nothing is wasted. That half-finished project might be what kickstarts another book or story that you do finish.
3. Turn off your internal editor during first draft
‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.’ – Stephen King
Resist the temptation to keep rewriting the beginning of your novel until you feel that it is perfect. How can you know the perfect beginning until you’ve got the ending? My advice is to keep going (see tip 2!). Make a note of what has changed or what needs fixing but plough on until you have a complete(ish) first draft.
4. First drafts are meant to be terrible!
‘Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.’ – William Faulkner
We can all look at a finished book and assume that it arrived fully formed with very little revision. That is not true (well, it certainly wasn’t for me!). In my experience, both as an editor and an author, the majority of a writer’s time is spent rewriting. Relax and enjoy your first draft. Tell yourself that it doesn’t matter – no one ever has to see it and you can fix everything later. Let the creative part of your brain run free and tell your internal critic to take a break in the South of France for a while.
5. Edit edit edit
‘I can’t write five words but that I change seven.’ – Dorothy Parker
When you have finished the first draft, put the script in a drawer, under some piles of paper, towels, last year’s unwanted Christmas presents etc. and forget about it for at least a month. Then when you come back to it, read it through with an open mind and make a honest and concise account of everything that is wrong with it. Be honest with yourself and be ruthless. If a character isn’t working, find out why. Is a chapter too long, too boring? Chop it!
Another note of caution: don’t permanently delete anything. Keep a folder of ‘out-takes’. You never know when you might suddenly want to use that scene or sentence.
6. Keep a notebook
‘The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’ – Dr Seuss
Carry a notebook with you everywhere. It will save you rummaging around in your pocket/bag for a receipt or stealing napkins, because you never know when inspiration will strike. And keep your notebooks. Get little sticky tabs, so you can label them and not lose those great ideas.
7. Get help from other writers
‘I didn’t know how to write a book, so I just started looking through a lot of books that I liked. I’d study them to see how different writers wrote, how they made transitions and all that.’ – Joy Nicholson
Read as much and as widely as you can, and look at how other authors do things. What words do they use that make you really feel something? How could you learn from their style and so improve your own? What do you not like about a book? Why?
A love of books and reading and a fascination with how stories are constructed is essential. Questioning other people’s technique will help to make you a better writer. You can get help with structure from your favourite movies too.
8. Have fun!
‘Creativity takes courage.’ – Henri Matisse
With the average writer earning less than £17,000 a year, don’t expect to be moving to the Bahamas any time soon, or even to be able to give up the day job. Big-name authors do earn a lot, but these are the lucky few. With this in mind, you are hopefully writing because you love it and because even though it is hard and frustrating at times, you always find yourself back at your computer because an idea won’t let you go. If this is the case, then you will find yourself spending lots of hours alone with the characters in your head rather than with friends and family. As such, it can be nice to make writing a social thing sometimes. I meet a group of friends for breakfast on Thursday mornings and we write (or just chat about writing) for an hour. Writing can be a solitary pursuit, so it is lovely to find other similarly minded people with whom you can talk through ideas.