One thing I’ve found since admitting to people that I have this dumb dream is that so many of you do too. It’s a cliché to say everybody has a novel in them but… well, heck, I think everyone might just have a novel in them.
The problem is that so few of us, if any, are natural finishers, and writing your novel is a massive, time-consuming undertaking that, more often than not, no-one is on you to complete. Mark my words, your original burst of creativity and excitement over that shiny new thing of yours will not carry you through the hard work. And when it wears off, you have to decide how badly the world needs your magnum opus.
If you decide that the answer is really badly, then I’ve compiled some tips for you. They’re the things I’ve learned elsewhere that have proven to be most true and most helpful. You’re welcome.
Disclaimer: I am super proud that I wrote a novel, and I am not above bragging about that sometimes. But the thing I’m proud of isn’t that I’m super talented and special (because quick reminder nobody wanted to read it lol), it’s that I worked hard. I can’t tell you that your first stab will be a masterpiece, but if you don’t even write the thing, it definitely won’t be. So, the big take away here is that if you really want to do it, you can. I’m going to shortcut this pep talk and just link straight to Shia LaBeouf.
Oh my god, read. This is not optional. I would go as far as to say it’s a large chunk of the task. Because there is a big difference between being able to string a sentence together and telling a story, and no writing class in the world can teach you the latter without a few examples. And by a few, I mean as many as you can jam in. You don’t need to read critically; you don’t need to seek out the most venerated examples of literary fiction; and you don’t need to slog through what you don’t enjoy. Just know that you’re sucking that stuff up like osmosis. You’re learning how to be a better writer with every character you feel come to life, every line of dialogue that rings true, and every turn of phrase you need to read more than once because it’s just so damn neat. Read. Take in all that literary goodness and make of it something new.
And if you don’t like to read, you have some rethinking to do.
#2 Just write
Bear with me, because once you’ve established with #1 that this is actually a field you have an interest in, then this is my best and most important piece of advice.
Abandon your pride, stop trying to craft perfect prose as you go and just get words on the page. Write in bullet points. Write the scenes you feel like writing instead of the one that comes next. Write just the dialogue. Use the wrong there/they’re/their. Substitute that exquisite description for the word ‘nice’. You can deal with this all in your second draft.
This approach accomplishes so many things. It will stop you berating yourself for being bad, and we all know it’s hard to do anything when you’re convincing yourself you suck at it. It will also help you work hard, and enjoy that work. Productivity breeds productivity, and feeling good because you hammered out 1,000 words in a morning might just be the key to another 1,000 in the afternoon. And it will keep you limber. You will be able to get your write on so much easier if it hasn’t been two weeks since you last curated the perfect 150 words.
You may think you’re not capable of working this way, as I did for more than enough years. I can’t describe to you exactly how to unlock this easiness with words, but trust me, with the right frame of mind, you can. Because the best and most important thing about this JUST WRITE tip? The product will probably be a lot better than you think.
#3 Work in small stints
I tend to do this when I’m trying to kick-start my brain and the words just aren’t coming. I set a timer for just ten or twenty minutes, and write. Because everything that seems difficult or unappealing is easier and more palatable if you know it will soon be over. By the time those few minutes are up, I’m usually on a roll. And if I’m not, I make a cup of tea, stretch, and do it again.
#4.1 Change your mind
Having a plan is important. You can’t JUST WRITE if you don’t know what the scene’s about. But if your story and your characters start taking on a life of their own, don’t panic. I think this is probably a good sign. Go with it. Riling against what feels natural or inevitable for your plot or your protagonist will lead to something that reads as unrealistic and inauthentic. A couple of months ago, I started writing a novel about a portal to another world under Westminster Abbey, and now it’s a detective story. Why? Because it had to be.
#4.2 Start with character
I’m getting deeper into tips about quality than I was planning to go with this one, but it’s an important addition to #4.1 (please bear in mind that I have stolen these tips from people more qualified than me; I don’t expect you to trust in my non-existent credentials).
If you don’t know where your story needs to go, start with character. The biggest mistake you can make is to have Kevin propose to his girlfriend at the top of the Eiffel Tower if he’s scared of heights. Or have him pour his heart out to someone if he has been guarded and uncommunicative for 80 pages (without showing us that he’s changed/this person is special/Kevin is drunk). If you’re writing multi-dimensional, believable characters, you will no doubt find that they take on unexpected and unintentional qualities. If these qualities are a problem, go back and find where you introduced them (was it a line of dialogue? Something in a snippet of their backstory?) and change them. Don’t just ignore them.
#5 Don’t show it to anyone too soon
Feedback is important, and learning to fully hear, accept and process constructive criticism is a tool you can’t do without. But, LATER.
Believe me, I know how badly you want your loved one to approve of your work, or just be let in on something so important to you. But your brainchild is young and fragile and needs your protection. You don’t need the type of interference that comes with half a dozen other opinions on where Kevin should propose. Besides, however proud you are of your fantastic idea, nobody is going to share in that enthusiasm when you present them a chapter that’s still half in bullet-point form, and that will hurt your feelings. As a rule of thumb, get your novel – and your mentality – to a stage when the thought of having a stranger with no vested interest in your pride or your feelings read it doesn’t make you sweat so hard you might just evaporate.
Here’s a quote I love from E.L. Doctorow. No reason.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Thirteen minutes ago, I got the news that somebody had looked at my hard-won, beloved brainchild and said no. Again.
I’m talking about my first novel, completed seventeen months ago after five near-impossible years, and then reluctantly self-published as an ebook this year to predictably poor success. Last month, I decided in a last-ditch effort to not let it die that I would enter it for an award for unpublished/self-published children’s novels. An extremely competitive award; one I barely stood a chance of winning. I knew this. I knew it the way I know the chances that Liam Hemsworth will knock on my front door today and tell me fate brought him here.
And I just found out I didn’t make the longlist, which is something I thought I was prepared for. Oh, how silly of me. If you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket and then mentally spent all of your winnings before finding out that you have inevitably been suckered, then you’ll know how this type of thing happens. Only – replace ‘buying a lottery ticket’ with pouring your heart and soul into something, and baring everything you have for it to potentially be tossed aside with the consideration of all but a moment; even to be loathed, pitied, ridiculed by people who know better than you. And replace ‘mentally spending your winnings’ with grappling to hold down your crippled, floundering self-belief. Because, when you stop lying to yourself, you know that you don’t buy the ticket unless a small part of you thinks you might win.
It’s so, so painful. It feels like the kind of humiliation you think only happens in a bad dream, when you get to school and discover you’re naked. It feels like being six inches tall. Because it’s not just one rejection, it’s the most recent of dozens, and each one represents a plethora of compelling reasons why I should just give up, and a set of questions I’m screaming in my head: At what point does perseverance become wishful thinking? At what point does an effort to be resilient make you blind? Am I, maybe, just plain not good enough?
And the most difficult to get my head around: if someone told me, categorically and without a shred of doubt, convinced me that my work was bad, would I even feel any differently about it? The slow decay of my hopes for my first novel has been like a drawn-out breakup, or even a kind of mourning. I know I need to let it go and move on, and to degrees I have. But my pride in that novel doesn’t come from knowing it’s good, it comes only from knowing that I wrote the absolute best story that I could at the time. Watching it die is a real heartbreak, but one I’ll recover from eventually. But days like today make me question how much more I can take. What will happen if my next novel suffers the same fate? How much worse will the blows be in ten years? Twenty years? When do I quit?
Under the swelling and bruises is this odd little masochist of a woman. She’s stubborn. She’s grown a thick skin because she knew what she was getting herself into and she is, in fact, oddly joyful. This is the stuff success is made of, after all. Every time it gets harder, I get to prove to myself that I’m up to the challenge – and even if I spend the rest of my life getting knocked back like this, knowing I’m that kind of person is truly success enough. Today I realised that self-belief isn’t effected by rejection, it’s effected by what you do next, and mine’s been battered by thirteen minutes (turned two hours) of wallowing, which is quite enough. Now to nurse it back to health.
The protagonist and narrator of the novel I’m writing suffers from depression. It’s about the only thing I have in common with her, and yet somehow one of the hardest parts to write. And I don’t mean emotionally. There may be some scenes to come that hit close to home or leave me feeling a little exposed, but this would almost be a blessing given the situation I’m currently in, which is this: I don’t know how to write her as recognisably depressed without her depression becoming a parody.
Because whatever I intend her to be, meaning happens at the reader’s end and not mine. Most of the time we’re told that we can’t know what another person is or isn’t going through, and never to make assumptions just because a person’s behaviour doesn’t read in your mind as depressed. But I can’t ask my reader to suspend any scepticism and just try to understand; it’s my job to make them. I’m inviting people into her mind, all of it, and if they don’t believe in her depression, I’ve failed.
I have several options here. I could semi-autobiography this thing and write all the quirks of her mental health like it’s my own, but this isn’t as easy or convenient as it sounds. As I said, we have nothing else in common. Her depression doesn’t come from the same place as mine. The things that test her limits aren’t the ones that test mine. It would take a serious and undesirable rewrite to make this work.
Or, I could ham it up with a lot of in depth description of her state of mind. This doesn’t appeal either, as this is how I risk her sounding like a stereotype – or even a caricature – of a depressed person (not to mention the fact that this isn’t what the novel’s about; my character’s mental illness is a fact of her life, not the driving force of her story). But writing someone else’s mental illness kind of feels like just that.
I’d like to think I’ve written some suitably rounded and believable characters in the past, but there’s so much more responsibility this time. Depression is so misunderstood by so many people, and it’s not like I’m trying to write a manual for your insensitive second cousin, but his understanding of this one person and her singular struggle is kind of essential. But when I can’t even understand someone else’s mental illness when it reads on the bottle as the same as mine, how is he supposed to?
Because, in reality, depression is just a messy and bizarre smorgasbord of unknowns. Boxing it up neatly with a diagnosis lets us assign treatment based on a set of visible and measurable symptoms. It’s not just helpful to call something depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, it’s necessary if those suffering with mental illness are to have any sort of outside intervention. But the fact is, we can never really know what goes on inside another person’s mind. How do you compare one person’s depression to another?
My mum says this thing about autism: that if you know one person with autism, you know just one person with autism, and it’s the same deal with depression. The diagnosis doesn’t account for everything else the individual’s mind is made of; like the things that comfort and antagonise them; the memories and habits informing how they experience the now; and the connections and assumptions they don’t even realise they’re making. Depression or no depression, we all have these things in common, and at the same time, all we really have in common is that each of us has a completely unique and personal perspective.
This is what makes creating characters so fun, but they all have to come from something inside the writer, so my challenge is to write her in a way that’s respectful of the fact depression is all kinds of things, and most of them I can’t even imagine.
I guess I won’t know if I’ve succeeded until somebody reads it. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it ain’t gonna be cooked any time soon if all I do is whine about it, so BYE x