Writing a novel – what I’ve learnt so far

Apart from the obvious, which is….it’s really bloody hard. Read on if you want warts and all. Stop now if you prefer to live in fantasy land.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been working on a full-length fiction piece since August 2018. If anyone had told me in August 2018 that I’d still be writing the bloody thing almost two years later I would have given them a disarming smile, accompanied by a tinkly laugh and said, “Pah! I don’t think so. I mean – how hard can it be?” Let’s all give that past version of myself a really….slow….clap.

I can now categorically state that writing this novel has been one of the hardest things my brain has ever tried to accomplish. Non-fiction is my comfort zone. I like to deal in facts. But there is an itch inside me to write fiction that periodically needs to be scratched. I love reading fiction, so I stupidly convinced myself that I too could imagine a whole other world, and beautifully and triumphantly present it on the page to great acclaim. Like I said before...really, how hard can it be? (I see you smirking over there)

So, here’s the crux of it. The novel I am writing - I simultaneously love it and hate it. It’s like being in a relationship with a massive attention seeking narcissist. When I’m not with it, I’m thinking about it. It lures me to sit down at my computer with its promises of amazing prose, that will literally pour out of my head and onto the page like word-vomit. It tantalises me with little nuggets of enlightened thinking and what could be achieved, if only I put my mind to it. It whispers to me of success – awards, accolades, reaching the top of the bestseller lists. It tells me all the things I want to hear, except the most important thing – which is what to write, and how to write it without sounding like a total amateur.

For the record, I’m still waiting for the amazing prose (and all the other things).

But…for all the heartache, it also takes me to a near aortic-bursting place of pleasure. When I do manage to bash out a few hundred half-decent words and manage to read it back to myself without wanting to cry and/or gouge my eyes out with a spoon, it’s a feeling like no other. The little wins along the way have helped immensely – being long-listed in the 2018 Exeter Novel Prize and short-listed in the 2019 Cinnamon Pencil Competition were the highs that have seen me through some lows. And I’ve been low….so low that I’m on the floor, begging for it to be over…

I’ll talk about the actual book and my inspiration for it in another post, but for now, here are some insights for any would-be novelists (if I haven’t completely put you off – soz if that’s the case)
  1. Thou shalt never let it go stale – this is a thing, actually. It’s like bread. If you leave it for too long it becomes extremely unpalatable and musty smelling. If you leave your writing for too long, it becomes unpalatable trying to pick up where you left off. Oh and if you could smell your writing, it would also smell musty. Like opening a door and entering a room that no one’s been in for years. Yeah, like that. The solution? Write regularly and consistently.
  2. Thou shalt make a plan – yeah…well…the thing is *scratches head and looks at floor* I didn’t actually do this myself – hence why I’m still writing this novel two years later. Ummm…..but the good news is, you can. There’s a ton of advice on how to plan online, but I particularly like the sweary folks over at Writers HQ and their Plotstormers course. Which I’ve started but not finished. Bit of a theme emerging there….
  3. Thou shalt recognise that comparison is the thief of all joy – do not compare your writing journey to anyone else’s. You hear me? Stop it right now. Yes of course I’ve imagined I’m J. K. Rowling, using £50 notes for shopping lists and quaffing champagne (haven’t we all?) but know this – your journey is your own. Celebrate the wins of other writers, knowing that you too will reap the rewards later. Push the envy down and turn it into a ball of creative fury. Then go write.
  4. Thou shalt enter competitions – and try not to cry when you don’t get placed. Seriously though, entering comps is a brilliant way to get your work out there and you definitely won’t get placed if you don’t even enter so what have you got to lose? I’ve entered about eight competitions and been placed in two, so that’s a 25% success rate. Kudos to me. Most ask for the first 3 chapters or 10,000 words and a synopsis. Writers HQ normally have a blog post with comps coming up, and if you sign up for their newsletter, they’ll email it to you too.
  5. Thou shalt employ the services of a mentor or coach – ideally in your genre but I’ve worked with Della Galton, who writes women’s lit. I write timeslip-mystery type stuff, but it was still extremely beneficial. Mainly because she is a successful, published author, and I am not. If you can afford it though, it’s well worth getting someone experienced to critique your work. Della was able to give me some insights that I would never have picked up if I was editing myself. It also felt oh so good when I did something splendid and she gave me a double tick – I am easily pleased like that.
  6. Thou shalt tell imposter syndrome to sod off (insert own choice of suitably sweary word) – imposter syndrome is an absolute bummer. If you’re lucky enough not to know what imposter syndrome is then stop reading now and live in ignorant bliss. Imposter syndrome is the ability of one’s brain to tell oneself that you are NOT GOOD ENOUGH…FAILURE WILL SURELY FOLLOW…GIVE UP NOW BEFORE YOU EMBARRASS YOURSELF. Enormously unhelpful and mostly spouting untruths, imposter syndrome can, frankly, do one.
  7. Thou shalt find thyself a tribe – doesn’t matter where said tribe happens to exist – it could be online, it could be a writer’s group, it could be on Mars. Just find some other writerly inclined people and chat writerly-shit. These are your people, you belong with them. Plus, I can guarantee no one in your non-writerly circle has any idea of the brain-aching, angst-ridden turmoil that you go through on a daily basis when it comes to your writing. These people will. They’ve been there and got the badge. Fly to them my pretty.
  8. And finally...thou shalt never give up - that’s it really. It ain’t gonna write itself, so you’d better just buckle up and get on with it. Who said writing a novel was easy? I certainly didn’t…;-)