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

Why I Hate Writing The First Draft

The first draft is a bit of a Marmite process, don’t you think? You either love writing it or, like me, you loathe it. I call myself a writer which is weird since I don’t like writing all that much. What I do love, however, is the editing. Turning the rough words into something better – tinkering, changing things about, questioning everything. It doesn’t matter whether it’s my own work that I’m editing or somebody else’s work, editing locks me in completely. And when I’m in the midst of it, even when I’m not at the computer, I’ll be thinking about it – what bits work, what bits don’t, and why.

That’s why I’m splitting my time between writing and editing other people’s work now. I’m loving freelancing as a story editor for literary agents as well as the Blue Pencil Agency.

Today is a writing day though. I have a rough plan, but the story isn’t fully formed yet. It’s scary, like driving in the dark when your lights don’t work and you can’t see the road ahead. I’m impatient to be home.

A confession: I’ve taken to setting the timer on my mobile phone for an hour at a time to force myself to stay put at my desk, to stop myself from giving in to my constant cravings for snacks and tea. The first 1,000 words of the day are usually fuelled by a round of toast. The next few hundred come courtesy of a couple of slices of cheese. And then thank goodness, it’s lunch time. An early lunch, but who cares? Everything gets better after lunch.

Maya Angelou sums up the whole creative process beautifully: “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’…. And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”

So with that in mind I’m going back in – hopefully adding to my current 24,000 words. 24,000 distinctly un-Angelou words, but it’s a start, right?

 

  • Post by Fiona Mitchell, author of The Swap, published on 18th April 2019 by Hodder & Stoughton.

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How To Deal With An Author Publishing A Novel Similar to Yours

There I was beavering away on book three when I discovered that a well-known author might be about to publish a novel with the same central concept as mine. I had logged onto the early reviews and a reader had mentioned the words, ‘a mother with a secret.’ Oh, Christ, I thought, and so began my two-day long endurance until the book came out.

I bought it and read in a frenzy that ripped the pages and wrecked the spine. Huh – take that, stupid book! Reader, it was all I could do not to stamp on the thing, because what stared up at me was virtually the same book as mine. It even had an almost identical opening scene.

It felt as if there was a brick in my stomach. I was 50,000 words into my first draft, for goodness sake. It was possibly one of the worst first drafts I’d ever written, but still. . .

I’ve got the last three chapters of the published-by-another-author book to go, but in truth I can’t bear to read anymore.

Are there any truly original ideas anymore anyway? Isn’t everything just a pastiche of what’s gone before? I continued on this spiral of unanswerable questions that might have been snatched from my three pretentious years as an English Literature undergraduate. And then, I rallied.

It wasn’t as if I was writing a psychological thriller like this author had, after all. And my second half was truly different. Mine was funny in places, well, ahem – it would be eventually.

My writer friends helped persuade me that all would be okay. ‘You’re writing up-lit though,’ one said.

I plonked myself in front of the computer, determined to carry on. But all that fretting had provided a pause, and into it had fallen a chunky great question mark. Did I actually like this idea anymore? Did I really want to go on with it? I started doing some research – daring myself to come up with a new idea. I wasn’t sure I could. I read news pieces, features, true life stories. There was something brewing, I just didn’t know what yet.

A day later, I was in the middle of hoovering the stairs when an idea landed, and then another. Dots started to join in my head.

I wrote an outline and when I compared it to the already-done idea, I decided I liked my new one better.

Perhaps I’ll go back to my old idea one day (I especially liked my peripheral characters – sigh), but for now I’m moving on. I may not have 50,000 words anymore, but what I do have is a scruffy outline, a new story that I keep daydreaming about, oh and 1,600 words so far. I’m going to see where this new story takes me and hope very hard that nobody else gets there before I do, but you know what, even if they do, all will be well.

Click here for a survival guide to discovering your story idea has already been done. It helped me.

 

Holding Image by Ross Findon on Unsplash

16 Things I’ve Learned About Publishing Since Releasing My Debut Novel

My paperback has been out for a week, but the hardback edition of The Maid’s Room was published five months ago. Here’s what being published has taught me so far. . .

  1. The first bad review hurts – but your back gets broader.
  2. A five-star review is fabulous, a one-star review can be amusing, but oh god, a three-star review. . . I prefer extreme reactions.
  3. Being published is not going to imbue you with the confidence you imagine when you’re still struggling to get representation – there’s a new list of things to worry about.
  4. You know all that gushing gratitude towards literary agents in authors’ acknowledgements, well, I concur. Your agent is your guardian angel, the font of truth, the person who puts their arm around you when you’re wobbling.
  5. Before your first book is published, it’s a good idea to have written the first draft of your second book. I’m not sure I would have had the head space to write book 2 with all the debut fanfare.
  6. There are some blooming lovely writers out there.
  7. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Not everyone gets a London Underground poster.
  8. The editor is right 99.9 per cent of the time.
  9. Your mood is inextricably linked with your Amazon ranking, even though you’ll be unable to make any sense of the algorithms at all.
  10. The first draft never gets any easier – no matter how many times you’ve faced the blank page.
  11. A complete stranger saying they’ve connected with your book? Nothing beats it; it’s the most exquisite gift of all.
  12. Spotting your book in a bookshop is exciting, but instantly you’ll be overcome with a desperate yearning for someone to buy it.
  13. Seeing your book in a library will make you want to dance in the aisle.
  14. You’ll think little old you can’t possibly stand up in front of a room full of people and make a speech or give a talk, but you’ll surprise yourself.
  15. Publishers sometimes send you books to read – it’s like opening a birthday present.
  16. Want to feel good? Get off social media and write.

Why is Writing the First Draft of a Novel So Hard?

Gazing out of the window. Eating cheese. Star jumps. Looking at pictures of cute dogs. These are just some of the things I’ve been doing to avoid my first draft.

I’ve got high hopes for my third book. I want to create loveable, three-dimensional characters that are completely different to the ones that have appeared in my first two novels.

But so far it’s been like chiselling a channel through rock while wearing a pair of steamed-up glasses; it’s hard graft, slow-going and I can’t see all that far. I’ve armed myself with a plan because that works best for me, but who the hell is my main character? I know what she looks like and I’ve got a list of her traits, but how does she speak? How does she feel? What kind of deodorant does she wear, if, in fact, she wears any at all?

Just to remind myself I can do it (so can you), I looked back at the first draft of my second novel called The Swap which I’ve polished to a sheen and is now in the hands of my editor at Hodder. What a relief it was to see that the first draft was rough, clunky and uncertain.

One of the characters was having an affair with a male nurse, but by the final draft wasn’t. There was an entire subplot that I was chest-puffingly proud of until I realised it made no sense whatsoever. The tenses were jumbled, and it’s clear one of my main characters remained a stranger to me for quite some time. She started life as a Victoria, had a stint as a Kate, then transformed into a Tess, and a Tess she has stayed.

So I’m clinging to the hope, – no, let’s be bold, the belief! – that although the 7,000 words I’ve written so far are all in the wrong order, I will end up with something good. I’ve just got to let go and write, not stultify myself by thinking this has to be brilliant. First drafts are meant to be crap after all. So I’ll push on my steamed-up glasses again and keep writing through the labour pains. I’ll just have another quick look at Twitter first.

 

Holding pic by Hermes Rivera@hermez777 via Unsplash

Does Being a Journalist Make Writing a Book any Easier?

In this blog post, I ask journalists-turned-novelists what their steepest learning curves have been . . .

Sometimes people nod their heads knowingly when I tell them I’m a journalist. ‘See that’s why you’ve managed to get your book published, you were a writer already.’ But there’s a world of difference between writing magazine features or newspaper stories and writing a book with 300-plus pages. And the differences have become even more apparent since my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, was published in November.

I’ve been interviewed several times over the past three weeks and I’m trying to get used to being the one answering questions instead of asking them. Over the years, as a journalist, I interviewed quite a few people who didn’t have all that much to say for themselves – yes or no answers, without elaboration. All while my blank notebook stared up at me, along with the creeping fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fill my 1,000-word feature with. When I’ve been interviewed, I have to admit I’ve given some monosyllabic answers myself. ‘Why did you write that scene the way you did? ‘Er, I’m not sure.’ ‘And what about the juxtaposition of light and shade in chapter 7?’ ‘Erm . . .’ I’ve also fallen into the other extreme of filling the awkward spaces with seemingly never-ending gibberish.

Yep, I may be a journalist, but I’m definitely a newbie now I’m on the other side.

Here, best-selling authors and debut novelists share their thoughts on the differences between journalism and writing a book.

 

 

Fiona Cummins– Author of Rattle, and The Collector which will be published on 22 February 2018.

‘I was surprised by how exposing it felt to be critiqued by readers. I was used to writing other people’s stories – the focus of attention was never on me – and, then, suddenly everyone had an opinion. It gave me some sense of what it must feel like to have a newspaper story written about you, whether you liked it or not. Ultimately, you have no control over what others may think.

‘It’s certainly been a steep learning curve. With my tabloid newspaper background, I was used to working at breakneck speed. Publishing moves much more slowly. I’ve also had to learn to pace myself. Writing a 90,000-word manuscript takes time – I can’t just dash it off in a day.’

 

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Francesca Hornak – Author of Seven Days of Us

‘The thing I struggled with in fiction is making bad things happen . . . This isn’t true of all journalism, but in glossy magazines there’s a constant aim to create a kind of aspirational, fantasy world, where people cook recipes and buy £200 moisturisers and scented candles. In fiction, you need to make your characters miserable, otherwise there’s no story. At first I was a bit squeamish about that, but I’ve got the hang of it now.

‘Long deadlines can be hard too; there isn’t quite enough pressure in publishing.’

 

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Chloe Mayer – Author of The Boy Made of Snow

‘I work in news rather than features, so the longest it usually takes for my copy to appear as a newspaper article is the next day. In contrast, the book industry moves at a glacial pace! My debut novel, The Boy Made of Snow, was released last month – more than a year and a half after I signed my publishing deal!

‘As a journalist I write stories all day long, but many articles are limited to just a few hundred words. It’s a completely different skill set to make up a story from scratch and tell it over 100,000 words – with an arc, sub-plots, and an entire cast of characters.

‘The first thing all news reporters are taught is that they must tell the whole story in the first sentence; the introduction must contain the crux of what’s happened and why. But with fiction, you must gradually build a world and let the story unfold over time.

‘Another difference is that in journalism you must explicitly lay out all of the facts and be as clear as possible. Whereas with fiction, you often have to hold back – and what isn’t said, or revealed, is often as important as what is. So learning how to write a novel as I went along was the steepest learning curve for me.’

 

Juliet West – Author of The Faithful and Before the Fall

‘As a journalist, and especially as a news reporter on a daily paper, there’s a pressure to get your story out very quickly. Ideally that story will be word-perfect straight from your notebook. So when I first began to write fiction I attempted the same modus operandi. I thought I could file my story straight onto the page and all would be effortless and wonderful. Of course, what came out was terrible, so I would re-work every sentence, trying to make it perfect before moving on. I think I wrote three paragraphs over a fortnight, and they were desperately worthy and self-conscious and forced.

‘I realised I needed to give myself more freedom to write a first draft, allowing the story and characters to take root before going back to add polish and finesse. So that’s my top tip. Give yourself a break. Your first draft is yours alone – it’s not going to turn up in the next day’s paper with your byline on it.

‘When I did get a publishing deal in 2013 I was delighted, but also daunted by the prospect of a publicity campaign. Somehow I’ve risen to the challenge, and I’m really proud that I’m able to stand up and give a talk, or chat to a presenter on live radio. But I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling that I should be the one asking the questions.’

• Holding Image by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

The Surprising Benefits of Submitting to Literary Agents

Rejection didn’t break me, but it did chink away at my self-confidence. Not because of what any of the literary agents said about my work, but because I made the mistake of listening to that nagging voice in my head. ‘This is never going to happen for you.’ ‘You’re fooling yourself.’ ‘You’re wasting years of your life doing this.’

This week, 32 copies of my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, arrived by courier. My daughter shunted folders aside on some shelves to make way for them. And as she did, a rejection letter for my very first novel fluttered onto the floor.

The words stared up at me. ‘I read the material with interest but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t fall in love with your book in the way I had hoped to.’

I’ve given away two copies of The Maid’s Room so far, and now have 30 copies left. 30. The number of rejections I received far exceeded that. Most of them arrived in emails which I’ve still got in a file marked, ‘Novel Stuff’. (Perhaps I should print them all out, or maybe I should delete them. What do you reckon?)

Every time, a writer contacts me to say they’ve just been rejected, it throws me right back to that place. God, how it stings. But the arrival of my big box of books this week made me think – even though rejection hurts, it does have some fringe benefits. Here are just five of them:

  • Finding the right agent for you. All of those rejection letters are a way of figuring out which agents to approach again when the book is better. Forget the agents that ignore you, or the stock rejections. Set your sights on the agents that give you great feedback. When you find a brilliant agent, you’ll be glad the others turned you down.
  • Finding writer friends. My family and friends propped me up when my ego was as a saggy as old knicker elastic. But finding people who are going through the same thing as you really helps too. I’m lucky to have met lots of people on Twitter, then in person, who have cheered me on and vice versa.
  • Gaining writing plaudits. If I’d been snapped up within 24 hours of sending my novel to an agent, I might not have entered all those writing competitions. Getting shortlisted in a few was a boon. And I feel lucky to be one of the Bristol Short Story Prize alumni.
  • The larger your pile of rejection letters the more manic your happy dance will be when you get representation. And it’ll be especially pleasing for your friends and family who’ve put up with all your bad moods after reading a rejection letter.
  • Your writing will get better. Yes, rejection is exquisitely painful (tumbler of gin, anyone?). But keep writing and the words you produce will improve.

Have You Got More Than One Story in You? #writing

Suffering from a major book hangover after reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I started a new book in a grouchy, this’ll-never-match-up kind of mood. My Name is Lucy Barton didn’t disappoint in the end, but it’s this line that has made a dent in me.

‘“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

Do you have only one story? I think I might be guilty…

All my short stories, my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, and my second novel have things in common. Overseas settings. Tick. Writing about outsiders. Tick. And something else – all of them are an examination of the relationship between mothers and their children. I don’t just mean between the woman who gives birth and her offspring; I write about women who can’t give birth, the women who don’t want to, the connections they forge with other people which are just as deep and unbreakable as the ones they might have had with sons and daughters. I write about absent mothers, about father figures, about any parental set-up that isn’t 2.4 kids.

I’ve got an idea for a third book and it will be extremely difficult to pull off. Indeed I’ve told a couple of friends about it, and they’ve advised me to steer clear. Yet it’s an idea that I can’t stop thinking about, so perhaps it’s the one to go with. And yes – that too is about a mother and child.

For me, Elizabeth Strout is dead on – I am writing my story in many different configurations.

I once wrote a novel (I can’t even bring myself to say the title now, it was that pretentious) about an oil rig worker. I spent about a year on it, reworking it, and telling myself that this was the one that was going to get me an agent. It didn’t. It did have it’s moments, but it was the most deluded piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It was also the only time in the six and a half years that I’ve been writing fiction that I veered off my parental obsession. When I gave it to my husband to read, he fell asleep on the sofa with the pages fanned over his face. That will be the last time I write about oil rig workers.

So I’m going to stop berating myself about having a single story now. I feel like the brilliant Elizabeth Strout has given me permission.

Digging Deep for the Second Draft #novel #writing

This next bit’s going to be painful, but it’s my favourite part. I’ve written the first draft of my novel, and am about to embark on my second.

This is when the characters will take shape, but for that to happen, I’m going to have to get into their heads and feel what they’re feeling. Flinging yourself over a six-foot-high wall to save someone’s life? I’m in. Finding out your husband’s told you a huge lie? Yep – here I come.

Switch on FaceTime by mistake in the middle of this draft and I’ll see my own brow knitted, or my lip curled into a snarl. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s essential.

This is method acting for writers. I’m going to be a 43-year-old woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, an Italian man who’s a cross between Benicio del Toro and my friend’s husband, and an elderly man paralysed down his left side.

I’m going to have to dig deep. Imagination, yes; a bad mood, most probably; yet another frown line, you bet. And masses of research.

This time around I’ll be rewriting and editing with this word on replay: Emotion. Emotion. Emotion.

10 Tips to Nail your First Chapter #writing

First chapters count for a lot. Bookshop browsers may start by reading the blurb, but the chances are they’ll dip into the first chapter to see whether they like the writing style. And with book openers available to read on Amazon, your first chapter really needs to impress. That goes for unagented authors too – the submissions package usually involves sending in the first three chapters, so a stunning opener is vital. Here are 10 ideas to make your first chapter sing.

1. Start in the Right Place

Don’t start too early into your story – we don’t want ten meandering chapters of description. Draw your reader in from the beginning with a powerful tipping incident, some terrible dilemma or temptation. If you have a suspicion your novel isn’t quite working, ask yourself this: are you starting in the right place?

2. Introduce Conflict

Conflict can be exciting, and it’s always engaging. Inject conflict into your first chapter and readers won’t be able to resist your work. Joanna Barnard’s Precocious had than effect on me – a married young woman bumps into the teacher she had an affair with when she was a school girl. The same goes for Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. The mother of a gangster accidentally kills an intruder with a religious ornament. Let me at it!

3. Add Mystery

Throw in some question marks and you’ll get your reader turning the pages to find out what the hell is going on. After all, everyone loves a mystery. Why is your character lying to her husband about where she’s going tonight for instance? What is in that letter marked to be opened only in the event of my death. (The Husband’s Secret) by Liane Moriarty). Mystery rocks however subtle it is.

4. Make the Reader Care about your Characters

Does your character go around killing drug dealers? Does she rescue refugees from overcrowded camps? Is she battling anxiety, but climbs on to stage most nights to do her stand up comedian routine anyway? Make your reader root for your character. Make her quest a major one, invite your reader in for the ride and make her stay for the long haul.

5. Treat it Like a Writing Competition Entry

Edit and then edit some more. Get rid of all your saggy bits. This chapter mustn’t go on for a beat too long, so get busy red-penning. Come back to it at intervals and reread. Kill some more darlings if you have too. Perfect it until you reckon it’s good enough to win a writing competition.

6. Make Your Writing Brilliant

Your writing should pack several punches here. Make it confident, avoid cliche and beautify. Don’t freak out if it’s hitting a few bum notes to start with – go over it, tighten it, change it up.

7. Include Dialogue

Give your characters a voice. Making them speak tells your reader a lot about their personalities, and dialogue is super easy to read. Reams of prose on a page can be off-putting, but put some dialogue in, and the text looks as if it’s going to give you space to breathe.

8. Banish Backstory

Don’t give us 1,000 words on how your character was brought up in the suburbs of London and was bullied at school. Zzzzzzzzz. We want immediacy. Back story comes later in your book.

9. Show your Theme

Your theme should be evident somewhere in this first chapter: grief; a haunting; motherhood; the pursuit of joy. And don’t forget mood either. What do you want your reader to feel – is it a funny book with a huge moral centre? Is it glossy and feel-good? What kind of writer are you? Let your reader know.

10. Write a Killer First Line

For a reader, a killer first line is like an itch; you can’t ignore it. It might be an odd idea, a question or a weird situation.

The first line of Claire Fuller’s forthcoming Swimming Lessons, ‘Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below,’ makes me want to buy it as soon as it’s published in January 2017. And I just knew I was going to love The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson when I read the opening line, ‘I have no experience of killing anything.’ Sometimes it’s simpler though: a quiet line of beauty which gives such a strong sense of mood, it makes me want to keep reading.

I wrote this post after spending a lot of time re-editing the first chapter of my novel. It had got a bit loose around the edges, so the action took too long to start. I’ve tidied and titivated and slashed out superfluous words. My first chapter has gone under the knife more than any other part of my book. #KeepWriting.