Dear Louise, I have a lot of material and would like to put it in book form. I have not written anything before. Have you any ideas on how I should start?
I’ve done countless Zoom sessions with students over the last 18 months and questions like this often arise. I’m always at pains to demystify writing — there is a lot of bullshit that surrounds art and I don’t think it’s helpful.
In fact, it can act as a barrier to entry. If you want to write, that desire is unlikely to ever leave you. It’s just about getting out of your own way and allowing the words to flow onto the page.
I will preface this column by saying that every author who gives advice on how to write a novel will tell you how they write their novels.
Everyone’s tool kit on how to do so will be different, so feel free to disregard anything here if it doesn’t resonate with you. The most important thing you can do is figure out what works best for you.
What time of day are you at your most creative? I like to get up early and sit at my desk before the outside world (and my phone notifications) can intrude on my thoughts but one of my closest friends, a highly- regarded children’s author, prefers to write at night, toiling at her laptop until three or four in the morning.
Are you someone who enjoys writing little and often, or do you like to write in long bursts at the weekend? Do you need to plot your storyline down to the tiniest detail or does your best writing seem to come when you fly by the seat of your pants?
No way is ‘better’ than the other — the only thing that matters is that the book gets written. All of that being said, here are some pointers I like to give aspiring authors. I hope you will find them helpful.
Before writing After the Silence, my editor asked me to submit a full outline as she was going on maternity leave. It was the first time I had ever done so, and subsequently that book was the quickest to write of all my work. An outline is basically a synopsis, as if you were telling your best friend what happens in the story. You don’t have to strictly adhere to it (I certainly made plenty of amendments in the process and I think it’s a good idea to allow room to change your mind) but it did make me feel more confident when I started. Confidence is crucial, especially with a debut author.
Before I start writing any book, I will do an extensive Q&A with the main characters. This can act as a useful reference point for physical characteristics such as hair and eye colour (you would be surprised at how easy it is to forget these) but it also makes the characters come alive. I ask questions like “what was their first memory?”, “what is the secret they’ve never told anyone?” and “what have they done in the past that they are most ashamed of?” The reader might never need to know the answers to these but it will give you an understanding of why the characters behave the way they do.
There are some days in which pushing yourself is futile, in which the work, if any, you produce will be useless. But on most occasions, I find setting an alarm for 30 minutes and leaving my phone in another room will always help me settle into the right frame of mind. You would be surprised at how eager you will be to write when you have no other distractions, if only out of boredom!
Set targets and deadlines for yourself. If you wrote 1,000 words twice a week, you would have a rough first draft within a year. It’s that simple.
With that in mind, prioritise your writing. There may be sacrifices that have to be made — maybe you can’t go out for drinks with your friend on a Friday night because you only have Saturday morning free to work on your novel — but it will be worth it, in the end. Respect your dreams enough to commit to them.
If you encounter writer’s block, write through it. Write a short story. Write a chapter that is out of sequence with everything you’ve written so far. Just exercise that muscle. Writer’s block can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; don’t allow it to take root. My first drafts are always at least 50,000 too long and I know those words were written on the days when I had no idea how the story would progress. I wrote through it anyway.
Start today. That’s the best piece of advice I could give you, both in writing and in life. If you wait until you feel ‘ready’, you’ll be waiting for a very long time. Procrastination is just fear in action.
Don’t expect perfection. In fact, give yourself permission to write a truly terrible first draft. Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, a brilliant writer and teacher of creative writing, always says you should have three initial drafts. The first one is to get the story down. The second draft is to get it right. And the third draft is to make it good. In the beginning, it’s quantity over quality. The true magic happens in the editing process but you can’t edit a blank page.
Lastly, I would tell you not to compare yourself to others. Your favourite writers are not special, they just work very hard. They also have a team of people, from an agent to an editor, a copy editor, and a proof-reader, to ensure their book is in the best shape it can possibly be when it lands on bookshelves. Don’t compare your first draft with their 12th. It’ll leave you feeling hopeless and if there’s anything a writer needs, it’s a little faith.
Start today: That’s the best advice I could give you, both in writing and in life. Procrastination is just fear in action.