1. The idea.
So… where to start? But the hardest thing with all writing is getting started, isn’t it? Even as the second hardest thing is tearing yourself away again once you get into it! The first thing you need is a good idea (obviously) – but preferably one that’s original and sellable. Then, read some books on how to structure your story. There’s a brilliant book called Story by Robert McKee (which Harry tries to get Holly to read, in Break Up Club) – eventually she does and it helps her work out how to write her film. It’s a long old book but it’s great on how to structure your story – whether it’s for a film or a book, the three-act structure thing still totally applies. I also went on a really good one-day course run by Vicky Grut in London – she’s worth looking up!
2. Fill the page.
Procrastination: the art of finding any part of the house that needs cleaning or reorganising – and your inner critic are, I think, a writers two biggest enemies!
So let’s take them one at a time. If you find yourself re-ordering your sock drawer, or spending too long on Twitter – just remember – all it is, is fear of getting started. And to defeat that, all you need to do is fill the blank space. It doesn’t matter with what! It’s just a way of getting going. There’s this amazing quote I read once:
“The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. If one of my characters wants to say ‘hey there Mr Poopy Pants’, then I let him.” So says Ann Le Motte, and ever since I read that quote, it’s been a kind of mantra to me!
Everyone writes differently, and my own way of writing is pretty strange. Some people write a paragraph of beautifully crafted words at the end of the day that would be ready to print, but I prefer to go through and mark out the whole story first before going back and finessing. A bit like dancing – learn the routine first, mark it roughly, and give it your own style later. My process is never very linear either. I might get an urge to write chapter 17 before I write chapter 6, just because I feel I can see that bit happening more vividly at the time. Writing is definitely rewriting!
Secondly – I don’t know how many people suffer from their inner editor or ‘doubt monster’ taking over when they’re trying to write, but I often grapple with an evil little bugger I like to call Cedric (did you ever see The Raccoons?). He is that curmudgeonly voice in your head, trolling you while you try and write. He’ll be like, ‘Doh. This is all rubbish and you should never write another word ever again.’
So another bit of advice is to lock all traces of your inner critic away in a cupboard until the end of your first draft. Then when it’s time for rewriting, you can open the door and welcome Cedric in with open arms and a cup of steaming coffee. You do need to be critical of your own work, but there’s a time for that, and it’s not when you’re trying to get going!
3. Give yourself constraints
As an old writing friend John Simmons always says. Have you ever sat on an aeroplane, or other transit setting when you don’t have a writing implement of any kind, and your phone is turned off? Have you noticed that your brain picks that moment to give you ideas? I very often come out of the swimming pool and have to run to my locker, dripping wet and stand there in the changing room, writing thoughts down onto receipts and tissues, out of whatever writing material I can find. Why? It’s like my brain knows and picks that moment to be free, to release the good kind of thoughts. Anyway, those constrained moments are often when I’ve had my biggest breakthroughs. So I recommend doing that; getting offline, going under water, stepping away from the rigidity of laptop and the blank page, of even having a pen. There’s magic in that sometimes.
4. Play to your strengths.
Figure out when your best time of day to write new stuff is, and when your best editing brain is. I think everyone has a different ‘magic hour’ – (mine is any time after 6 pm by which time I’ve just about woken up).
Then, work your schedule around it. And do other sorts of writing before you get going, like emailing friends or social media posts, or planning. It’s like stretching your muscles or doing scales on the piano – it warms up your fingers before the real writing begins.
5. Run like the wind.
I’m not especially fit (although I’m much more fit than Holly in the ‘Forrest Grump’ chapter!). I can’t really get further than 5k, but the reason I do it is for my brain. I’m not fussed about having a toned bum – which is lucky! The reason I run is that I have what my mum generously calls a ‘Butterfly-Mind’, so without running to help channel my focus, I would go completely insane! So if concentration is a problem for you, then I recommend a quick run round the park – as well as eating lots of fish/omega 3, and meditating…
6. Measure out your ingredients.
Figure out your characters before you start writing. With my first two, shorter novels, I didn’t have such fully formed characters as they were done in a lot less time. With my third, I had the luxury of writing it very slowly and allowing each character time to germinate. I did this nerdy thing where I wrote a list of what they were really like – e.g. what’s their favourite music, what shampoo do they use, what are their flaws, what do they eat for breakfast (Bella in Break Up Club, eats microwave popcorn for breakfast– which gives you those last points in one go).
I like to call it my cookery programme analogy – (either that, or an elaborate excuse for procrastination). You know, where the chefs obsessively arrange all their ingredients into neat little bowls, before they even think about starting? Well that’s how I think it should be ideally. As much as you really want to jump in and start writing, it’s good to make sure you’ve built up just the right amount of depth to each character first. It sounds anally retentive, but that way, when the fun does all kick off, the characters will behave in a more three-dimensional way.
Don’t show your drafts to too many people – it can get really muddling juggling conflicting feedback and you go round in circles a bit. Stick to just one or two people you trust!
Don’t submit a partial MS to agents or publishers. You’ll only end up under a world of pressure finishing it if they do buy the rest of it; but more importantly – the end product will be so, so much better when you write the whole thing. You’ll invariably go back and rewrite the initial chapters, laying seeds, strengthening characters. And then you’ll regret not having sent it out in the best shape. It’s always tempting – but patience is everything. And being more patient will prepare for you the nail-biting waiting game that follows when you are eventually submitted!
9. Spines aren’t just for books.
This is the least sexiest bit of advice EVER but – get a proper ergonomic writing setup! I wrote all through my twenties with just a laptop, crappy desk and dining chair, and as a result I’ve acquired some shitty disc damage. I now can’t write without a special screen that’s eye-height, separate keyboard, a desk that’s exactly level with my elbow, and a massive bright blue swiss ball inflated to within an inch of its life. Rock on!