So, you always wanted to write a novel, and finally you have an idea that you just know will work. You have sketched a few notes out on paper and maybe brainstormed a few character traits (if you planned a lot). You are all set. So out comes the computer and as you type Chapter One you are so full of excitement and enthusiasm you can barely focus to write the first sentence. You watch the cursor flicking in and out of view each second. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Half an hour has passed and all you have written is the first sentence. Five times. Because you have also deleted it five times, and now you find yourself sat in front of a blank screen with those initial dreams and endless possibilities never seeming further away.
I heard it said once that everybody has a book in them. I don’t know who said it first, but I heard it from my friend when I first said I was going to write a novel. This was a wet New Years Eve in a cold pub garden in England. I felt very encouraged by her obvious enthusiasm. If everybody has a book in them, I must be able to write one. But why if it is that easy isn’t everybody doing it? Why doesn’t everybody leave work and hunch themselves over a computer at night at the expense of friends and a social life? Because when you sit down to do it, you soon realise that it’s harder in practice than it looks.
What seems like a great idea at the beginning can soon run into problems, especially if you haven’t planned well. I know this because about the only thing I manage to plan is sitting at the computer. I have managed to increase the attention to planning with each book I have written, but it remains anything but impressive, and the material is always subject to change. Getting from point A (A being the time when you say to your friend in a pub garden that you are going to write a novel) to point B (finished product) can take a long time. For my first book it took me about eight years.
I procrastinated for at least four years after that initial conversation, save the odd bit of note taking here and there. In all honesty, the initial idea had at best been lame. But what never left me was the desire to write. I always believed that I would do it, but was never really sure how.
So the big question for any of you out there who are thinking that this sounds a lot like you, is how do you actually get started? The difficult part is that there is no simple answer, although the realisation for me was indeed something simple. I realised that in order to be a writer, I had to make a very simple change in my life. I had to actually start writing something (other than ideas on post-it notes!) It sounds too easy, doesn’t it? Why hadn’t I realised this before?
Beginning a new writing project always requires a bit of a hurdle over the starting blocks. But what happens in time is that as a writer you develop your own methods of managing this leap. Staring at a blank word document with a total word count of two, knowing that you have to reach somewhere in the region of 80-90,000 for a full length novel and never having done it before is a big undertaking. Also, with the daily demands of work, children, partners, school fetes and PTA meetings, when exactly are you supposed to fit it all in? Days might go by and you don’t manage to write anything, and slowly the habit of not writing becomes exactly that. A habit.
So writing a book takes time and determination. Nothing you didn’t know there. What can you do to manage the doubts before you have even started? I’ll tell you what I did.
1. I stopped imagining the publishing contract.
It’s so tempting when you sit writing your first few sentences to daydream about what the future might bring and how you might be the next King, Banks, or Meyer. Focus on the now. What you are doing right now. Right now you are writing chapter one, so stop thinking about the celebratory cigars and brandy, at least until you have finished the first draft. Celebrate small success along the way, rather than waiting for the big one at the end.
2. I stopped analysing what I was writing.
First drafts are exactly that. They are not supposed to be the finished product, and neither should they be. My first drafts don’t even make sense in places. There are words missing, added, and mistyped. Write the first draft as quickly as you can, and as Stephen King would suggest, with the door closed. It’s your first draft, so keep it that way. Don’t let people influence you yet. Write what you think, not what your husband or your best friend thinks.
3. I made a schedule.
It’s great to write every day, and now I just about manage that. But at the beginning life was very different. Back then I worked about fifty hours a week, and quite a few extra hours on call too, running in and out of a hospital at all hours of the night. Writing every day back then was a hopeless dream. So instead, if I couldn’t write I dedicated a little bit of time each day to thinking about the book. I thought about the plot, where I was going with a particular character, or new ideas. Some of these ten minute chunks snatched at lunch or in the car were really helpful, and it kept my mind in touch with the book. When you do get half an hour to get down 500 words you will find that you feel fresh and in touch with the work, and don’t have to spend 10 minutes catching up.
4. I gave myself a pat on the back.
I remember feeling very nervous the first time I told anybody I was writing a book. By then I was probably two thirds of the way through the first draft and thinking that I might actually finish it. I knew the first draft was crummy and needed work, but I had still written over 50,000 words. It was a small celebration of what had been achieved so far. Plus, the response was great, and it was nice to celebrate with somebody and listen to their enthusiasm.
5. I sat on the first draft.
Once you finish, crack open the bubbly. It’s time to celebrate. You have written the skeleton draft of your book. Take a rest from it before going back and starting the edit.
The idea of writing a book has never been so attractive to the thousands of people out there who want to do it. Perhaps my friend was right, and that everybody does have a book in them. The difference between the doers and the non doers is nothing more exciting than dedication and commitment. Writing a book is hard, and there are times when you feel like you are churning out rubbish and want to give up. Something else I heard the other day is that a professional writer is simply an amateur who never gave up. It’s something to remind yourself of when the sight of a blank page seems like the biggest hurdle to overcome.