So You’re Going To Write A Book…

Reading & Writing

Dinner talk

No wonder they describe plays as having ‘a run’; actors often compare performing eight shows a week to training for a marathon; they exercise, diet, stop socialising and commit themselves to continual practice.

Writers do it as well. A book you care about writing consumes you. It’s the job you bring home from work and can’t stay away from after midnight. It occupies at least half your brain all the time, from when it’s started to when it’s finished.

Compartmentalising helps. You need to be able to function like a normal human being through the process, so there are sections in your brain for doctors’ appointments, shopping and family problems, but behind them all, like those bulkheads that failed the Titanic, is your writing.

This is true whether you’re being paid well or badly, whether you’re writing the big novel of your life or a whodunnit, because the only way to make it great is to care passionately about it. It’s a demanding child that must be fed night and day.

Those self-help books that tell you about the easy way to write a novel are lying. There is no easy way. You do the research, you do the work, and then – you do the work again and again. You can be taught to write to a market, though. ‘Girl on a Train’ is an excellent example of a book tailored to the 35+ female market, and has made its author Paula Hawkins rich. As a piece of fiction it’s unremarkable, but as a commodity it’s unassailable.

Not everyone feels that writing must eat your life. I know at least three fiction writers who survive solely on networking. They’re not good writers. Writer A is very famous and very competitive, and concentrates on glad-handing the ‘right’ people at festivals and awards ceremonies. Writer B networks to cover up her weak talent, which she deludes herself about. Writer C does it because he knows he’s not a great writer and it will be the only way to get work. They’re nice people; they’ve just evolved other ways to get there. And you can move forward via networking, if you work hard at it hard instead of applying the same effort to your books.

I don’t network at all. I talk to the people I like and trust as a friend, and that’s it. As a book judge I’ve been offered bribes to promote authors; you just ignore it and it goes away, as the briber moves on to try someone else.

I’ve often not picked up awards because at festivals because my main concern is to meet readers at the public events, not sit at congratulatory publishing dinners. My pals Barry and Lydia very kindly step in for me.

You’re told to write for publishers, not the public, because publishers are the deciders. They will promote you and that’s all that counts. You should write for readers. You try to write to a deadline – but no writer wants a tombstone that reads; ‘I wrote fast’ instead of ‘I wrote beautifully’.

Lately I’ve been rewriting a thriller which isn’t working, eight times so far. In and out have gone characters, sub-plots, hundreds of pages that will never be seen. I’ve set it aside for a while because I no longer know what I’m looking at. It ate my life in a bad way.

However, the fantasy novel I’m writing has stolen my days and weekends and evenings because it’s a joy to write. It won’t need much rewriting because it’s there as a whole being, a ‘monster in a box’ as Spalding Gray memorably called it. It still needs work but the main thing is it’s exactly what I want it to be, without compromise.

And that, whether it becomes popular or is barely read, is all that matters.

6 comments on “So You’re Going To Write A Book…”

  1. Steve says:

    Thanks for this.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    So if the Dagger goes to someone else we’ll know it’s because you haven’t chatted up the judges? I know it’s not what you meant, but that hole is gaping in front of you, Admin. I have sometimes felt that that author shaking hands with the public and chatting away to fans should be at home writing.
    There are a number of callings that will eat you from the inside. Would you believe teaching? My husband would laugh when he saw me chatting up a demonstrator at a fair or the clerk at an historic site because he knew I was fitting their info or souvenir booklet into a lesson on river flow or 18th century warfare. The back half of the mind is always on the alert for examples, demos, material for whatever ages one teaches – or might teach. Even now, ten years on, it comes back with “hey, wouldn’t that be great with the grade fours?” I’ve even planned lessons I’ll never teach because it would be so much fun. I’ll bet there are other jobs that do the same.

  3. Brooke says:

    Profound. It calls to mind Rilke and bits of wisdom from other writers.
    There is a distinction between writing (with the hope that you can reach readers) and wanting to be published, between the art and commercialism. I hope digital media fulfills its promise and allows artists to profitably get work out to the audience without the intermediaries .

  4. Vivienne says:

    They.say everyone wants to write a book, but it’s daunting . If I’d finally finished a manuscript after months of writing, I’m not sure I could contemplate a second or third draft. And how can it be easier writing for a publisher than just a reader? I suppose advice comes sometimes as well as rejections. We all know a lot of now famous authors were rejected initially, so how many others never were oubllished, but were great or profound. How does a publisher deal with people like Kafka or Proust nowadays? People seem to like categories, but some people are not going to fit.

  5. John Griffin says:

    In company with Helen Martin, I once planned a lesson based on a ‘treasure hunt’ around the centre of Nottingham looking for carved monkeys, Masonic inscriptions and the like. I did get to pilot a bit of it, but never actually taught the whole sequence.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Ooh, John Griffin, a man after me own heart! Wonder if it could be offered as a tourist activity – I’d go for one.

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