How to Write a Book: a Note to my Future Self

I’ve written this piece for you just in case you ever attempt to write a fourth book.

Right now, I’m writing book three and it’s not easy. I’ve stared at the screen feeling blank and I’ve churned out stream-of-consciousness sentences that make no sense whatsoever when I read them back. But this is how it always starts for you, please remember that.

If you’ve managed to come up with an idea, if you’ve started writing, the chances are you’ll be thinking you can’t do it. You’ll be impatient for ideas to come to you – they might arrive slowly at first – but trust me they will arrive.

Everyone will want to avoid the steps I’ve included here (especially step one – I do not recommend that at all), but I’m afraid for you, step two and beyond are distinct possibilities. Brace yourself then and begin.

1 Think up five ideas. Write 50,000 words of one. Discover that someone has written a virtually identical book. Abandon these 50,000 words. Write 40,000 words of another novel. Decide that it’s not the way you want to go. Chuck both files into the trash on your computer and have writerly crisis number 789.

2 Start writing your third idea – the best of the lot. Change the characters’ names several times over the course of the first ten pages. You don’t know who you’re dealing with here – is she an Ida or an Erin, maybe she’s a Jenny? For now though, you seem to have settled on Elizabeth, but knowing you, that could all change.

3 Read back some of your chapters and realise that they are all completely shit. You don’t know who the characters are and you sure-as-hell don’t know where they are going. In fact, what is the point of this book at all? What is the point of writing? Pause here for several days while wallowing in writerly crisis number 790. While doing this, it’s important to read the most scathing Goodreads reviews of your first book, paying particular attention to the woman who gave you not one 1-star review, but two 1-star reviews. Then make yourself feel better – watch author Louise Beech‘s inspired poem about Amazon reviews.

4) Admit it, you really can’t remember how to write a book can you? Apply for jobs and stop writing the book altogether. Land a freelance editing job with Blue Pencil Agency and start reading other people’s books – be seriously impressed by all of them. Somehow this gives you the urge to face the fear of book three again. Open it, feel completely stumped, eat a great deal of cheese.

5) Everyone writes books differently, but you decide that you need a reminder about just how it is that you write. Open the very first draft of your soon to be published second book, The Swap*, which started life as Swapped Version 1. It went through many incarnations, eventually becoming The Swap Version 11.

Swapped Version 1 bears absolutely no relation to the finished book. Swapped Version 1 features an au pair called Flavia and a woman who keeps having sex with her father’s nurse. By draft 3 you had killed off Flavia and the male nurse. For you, version 1 is all about writing roughly and hoping your idea gathers some kind of form.

So back to book 3: Eventually after loads of discarded words and far too many snacks, you end up with 23,000 words. They are rough and rubbish, but still – the blur is becoming that little bit clearer.

6) You’re 25,000 words in now – and the story is all over the place. You stop work and spend a day planning. This theme, that twist – maybe they could work. The next day, you look at your plan again and realise it’s not that great. You rewrite the plan. You’re not entirely convinced by  it yet, but this is the first draft and it’s all about experimentation.

7) 28,000 words in and you feel like spending a bit more time with the book now. You’ve got two different characters in two different files. You put them together to see how the story is panning out. The fear is still there, yes, but the initial terror of the first draft has gone. For now.

And that’s where I am right now. I don’t know whether I’m going to write myself into a tall, impenetrable wall, but I’m trying not to let that intimidate me. I am trying to be bold. Are you?

The Swap is published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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Landing picture by rawpixel on Unsplash

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