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What I've learned after writing thirteen novels OR How to not give up on your first draft

How to not give up? How not to give up? Does it matter if I split the infinitive? I should probably check a style manual. Or two. And while I'm up looking for the books, I may as well pop a wash on....

The queen of procrastination

I have the attention span of a very small child. I am easily distracted and I can while away hours faffing on social media, playing games and staring into space. I'm also a freelancer, chronic joiner-in with community projects and social butterfly. In short, my hours are FULL, although not always with productivity. Nevertheless, I have managed to write thirteen complete novels. I've also mentored (or jollied, cajoled or bullied) many other writers into doing the same thing. If I can do it, so can you.

The odds are not with us

There's a statistic bandied about on the Internet that 97% of people who set out to write a book will not finish it. So if 100 people type "Chapter One", only three of them will ever type "The End". How do you make sure you're one of the three?

A disclaimer: every writer works differently. People write sporadically, have differing commitments and different processes. You may read this advice and say it's not for you. All I can say is it's worked for me through countless challenges, and it's worked for others too.

A second disclaimer: if you think I am proposing these ideas from a position of privilege, know that I was working full-time when I wrote eleven of the thirteen novels. For the first two, I was also a single parent. I wrote one book (against an impossible deadline) almost entirely in my lunch-hour. I know it's hard. Believe me. I really, really know. So here are my five tips.

1. Write every day

I started doing this by accident with my first book. I knew nothing about writing, so on the first day I typed 1,200 words. I picked up a novel and counted the words on a page and the pages in the book and calculated it was 120,000 words long (I didn't know at that time that this was LONG!). I figured if I met that word count every day for 100 days, I'd have a first draft. And so I did it. I have used the same technique for every subsequent book. 1,200 words a day, seven days a week until the first draft is written.

This works well for a number of reasons:

  • If I am stuck, I HAVE to keep going. I have to write myself out of the doldrums or the plot hole. Inevitably, things resolve themselves

  • I can't succumb to The Fear. I'm too busy writing to panic about what I am doing

  • I'm holding the whole story in my head, living closely with my characters. I am ALWAYS in the book. I don't lose time and momentum coming back to it after days or weeks, trying to remember what I was trying to say

My 1,200 words may seem a lot (or a little) to you, depending on how fast you write or what your other commitments might be. I'd suggest you set your own word count and stick to it. 1,000 words, 500 words, 250 words a day... they will all add up.

250 words is less than a double-spaced page. Even so, if you start writing that much on 1 January and do it every day, you'll have an 80,000-word first draft by the 15 November next year.

2. Keep writing, stop editing

If I had a pound for every writer who told me that they can't move forward until this chapter/ paragraph/sentence word is perfect, I'd be a rich woman.

Newsflash: it's never going to be perfect. And even if it's close to perfect now, something might happen later in the book that means it has to change or be cut. You can't look at the whole picture until you've finished painting it, however roughly.

Skim-read the words you wrote yesterday. Fix glaring typos or errors, make a note of any bigger changes you foresee, then keep moving forward.

3. Sometimes you will hate your book

"This book is terrible."

"I can't write."

"Why would ANYBODY care about this story?"

You WILL have those days. Every writer does, whether it's their first or fiftieth book. Don't stop. Write through the doubt, the boredom and the fear. Know that your favourite writer felt like this about your very favourite book at points in the writing. It can't be what it's going to grow to be if you don't finish that first draft.

After lengthy and unscientific consultation with many writers over many glasses of wine, I can tell you the points where you will hate your book for sure:

  • 10,000 words. You've done the world-building and introduced your characters. Now something really, really has to HAPPEN

  • 40,000 words. You're halfway across the Atlantic in a small rowing boat. Your hands are blistered. The shore behind is long gone, only open ocean ahead. You feel sick. A seagull just crapped on your head. Why are you doing this?

  • Just before the end. Dear god, why won't these people all do what they're supposed to do? Why is this climax so difficult to write? And when do you take your hands off the keys and say this is finished (for now)?

4. Surely some of what you write will be rubbish?

Of course it will be. Huge swathes of it, probably. Lots of it will be what a lecturer on my MA was pleased to call "scaffolding", where you work out what's going on, learn about your characters or go down blind alleys. It may not all make the final draft, but you need to work through it.

The wonderful Rowan Coleman once commented on Twitter that sometimes, you won't truly know what your story is about until you reach the end. So you have to reach the end.

Once you have, you can go back and sift through what you've written to find the golden thread through your story.

5. Writing is work

A few months ago I was hammering away at a first draft, and my 14-year-old came to stand behind me.

"I always thought writing was some magical, mystical thing,'" he observed, 'But it's actually just you typing a lot of words."

He's right. It will take a long time to get those words down, Yes, you need to feed your creative spirit, you need to brainstorm and research, you need to fiddle with plot plans. But you also need to just write the damned words. Put your butt in the seat and get them written down.

A final note: back yourself

Back in 2020, I did a playwriting course with the brilliant John Donnelly. On a Zoom call at the end of the course, he said these two words:

"Back yourself."

I found myself weeping. It can be so hard to do. I remember writing my first book, sitting alone in my little flat, late at night after my son had gone to bed, exhausted and disheartened.

"Why am I doing this? Who cares about what I'm doing here?" I thought.

The answer came so loud and clear. "Me. I care. I am doing this because it is my life's dream."

Write for love. Later, I hope you will have to worry about agents and publishers, about what the market wants, about deadlines. But in the first draft, you should write because you want to, because the story is in there and must come out. Write for you. Back yourself.

Now open that file, put your hands to the keys, and begin.

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