Upon hearing that I’ve written a novel, some people want to know where I get my ideas from, as if there’s an idea-shop you can just pop in to on your way home from work. Lidl will probably start offering ‘Idee’s’ soon. They’re basically the same thing as ideas but far cheaper. Others ask about the storyline. ‘It’s a dystopian tale exploring the contemporary obsession with the female body. Think The Handmaid’s Tale for teenagers.’ I answer, watching as every man in a two mile radius backs away. No wonder I’m still single. And then, of course, there are the frustrated writers, lips tightening with barely concealed envy when they hear my good news. I know these people. I was one of them, poring over a newspaper article about some child of fifteen who has sold their first novel for half a million euro, trying to ignore the hatred threatening to suck me under, as greedy as a slurry pit. There is nothing more disheartening than seeing someone else realising your dreams.
So, here are my top tips on how to finally write that novel.
- Read voraciously. Stephen King said ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time to write.’ A badly written book will demonstrate what not to do and a well written book will inspire you. Be warned, a masterpiece will merely leave you with a general sense of hopelessness as your novel will never be anywhere as good. I had to take to my bed for a few days after finishing ‘Cloud Atlas’ like a Victorian maiden with a case of the vapours.
- Think of your writing skills as a muscle. The more you use them, the stronger they will become. The thought of completing an entire manuscript can seem so insurmountable we find ourselves unable to take the first step. Set yourself smaller tasks to begin with. Write an article for your local newspaper. Write a short story. Write five hundred words on your first holy communion. Julia Cameron, in her excellent book The Artist’s Way, recommends ‘morning pages’ and I’ve found freehand writing to be an effective tool of unblocking creativity.
- When you do decide to start your novel, make sure you’re passionate about your idea. This might sound obvious but you’ll be working on this project for the next nine to twelve months, or more. There will be days when you hate your book, you hate your brain for generating the original idea and you hate your laptop for having the audacity to record all these stupid words. If you don’t adore the idea at the beginning, you will likely ever reach the end.
- Set yourself a deadline. When I first moved back to Ireland from New York on September 1st, 2011, I decided to take a year out to work on the novel that I had spent the last ten years threatening to write. I finished the first draft on August 31st, 2012.
- I remember phoning my father from New York, complaining that my job in fashion ‘didn’t make my heart sing.’ I know. Oprah has a lot to answer for. He told me if I wanted to write so badly I should take any opportunity that I had to do so. Bring a notebook with you and write on the subway, he advised, unaware that I spent my subway journey gawking surreptitiously at barefoot crack heads or avoiding eye contact with anyone I might feel compelled to offer my seat to. (Apologies to that pregnant lady on crutches. My bad.) Once back in Clonakilty, I made myself sit at my desk from 7am to noon every day, whether I felt like it or not. Some days, the words came. Other days, I sat there, staring at the blank page. It didn’t matter. I still sat at my desk at the same time every day. Of course, I was lucky enough to have parents who provided a room ‘of one’s own’ and, more importantly, a new laptop to put in that room. I don’t have children or a tyrannical boss or a crippling mortgage to pay and I’m aware that these must feel like truly impossible obstacles. But you owe to yourself to at least try to carve out some time every week that you can use to write.
- Social media, while beneficial for ‘research’, is really only a method of distraction. When asked how one of the authors on his roster managed to maintain such a prolific work rate, Jonny Geller, an agent with Curtis Brown, replied ‘He doesn’t have twitter.’ Until novels come in a 140 character size, it’s not helping you.
- Be prepared to make sacrifices. In my case, the first casualty was an active social life. Jodi Picoult describes writing as ‘successful schizophrenia’ and I found it very difficult at times to interact normally with other people when all I could think about was this world I had created in my head. Personal aesthetic standards also suffered. When I worked in fashion, I didn’t own any items of clothing that could ever be described as ‘practical’. Or, indeed, anyway comfortable. Things are so bad that when I wash my hair, my father asks if I’m going anywhere special and my mother claps her hands in glee, like I’m a toddler learning to use the potty.
- Some authors edit their work as they go along but I saved all my editing for the end, like the crappy pink and brown Roses at the bottom of the tin that no one wants at Christmas. There is a peculiar type of shame in reading ‘Slowly, she walked slowly down the corridor slowly.’ In case you don’t comprehend the subtlety of my brilliance, I was trying to convey that the character was very, very, very slow.
- Once you finish the first draft, edit, edit and then edit some more. As Faulkner said, ‘…kill all your darlings.’ You’re just showing off anyway. Ask a friend who is an avid reader to take a look at your manuscript. Choose someone you trust to be both honest and gentle with you.
- When you have a finished manuscript in fairly good nick, you need to find an agent. An agent will take a proportion of your earnings (generally around 15%) but they are essential, as most publishing companies don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. When submitting to an agency, they usually want to see the first three chapters, a covering letter and your CV but check their websites for individual guidelines. Choose an agent that has authors you admire on their roster or who represents authors who are writing in similar genre to you. Make your covering letter engaging. If you’re someone’s love child, now is the time to mention it. Unless it’s someone embarrassing, like Mick Hucknell. Keep that to yourself. Forever.
- Be prepared for rejection and don’t take it personally. JK Rowling famously received twelve rejection letters and I think she’s managing to pay her electricity bill these days. You want your agent to fight for your book when they’re trying to sell it to a publisher. If they don’t ‘get’ it, then they’re not the right agent for you anyway.