Do You Have A Book In You? My Top Ten Writing Tips As A First Time Author
I have always loved reading and writing. But I thought writing—real writing—was for people like C.S Lewis, Dickens and Daphne DuMaurier. Not really for someone like me who had no formal training in the art. And yet, several years after setting out to tell the story of our family, I have a real paperback in my hands and an e-book on Amazon. Since the launch of Waking Mathilda people have asked me how I actually wrote the book.
Now, I am not under any illusions. My work certainly doesn't come close to that of Lewis, or great writers in the genre of memoir like Frank McCourt. Far from it. But is is 65,000 or so of my own words, down on paper and now published.
And If I can do it, I'm sure you can too! I hope that what I have figured out on along the way will encourage you to start, continue or complete your own writing project.
Back in 2014 I set about writing Waking Mathilda, although at that point the book was untitled. For the first 7 weeks I cried my eyes out because the task seemed overwhelming not to mention too painful to re-live. I had no idea where to start. I switched to reading lots of books on "how to write" and came across the notion time and again that there's no such thing as writers block. It's basically all down to discipline, commitment to tell your story and hard work.
Gradually, I began tapping away on the keyboard aiming to write between 500-1,500 words a day. I didn't do NaNoWriMO http://nanowrimo.org but I followed a similar principle. On a good day I felt pretty pleased with myself if I got through a few pages of Mathilda’s medical notes and translated them for my audience. I placed myself right back there in the moment and recalled in heartfelt detail what I had previously experienced during her descent into narcolepsy. Drawing on memories that were buried deep within our Bristol years was like pulling teeth. Or rather having multiple root canals. Then, the next day I would re-read what I had written and think that it was rubbish for the most part. Self-doubt kicked in and made me cranky and probably difficult to live with.
One of the best analogies I stumbled across was that writing is like painting with words. Did Van Gogh throw a few spectacular sunflowers on a canvas in a heart beat? Or did he draft them over and over, cursing at the quality of the color, form, and structure of his art? Did he perfect his paintings in one go, or were there multiple sketches and tubes of oils he threw out? Did he do his best to honor his subjects only to be frustrated with his human limitations? Quite likely.
Writing then, whether you have fire in your belly for fiction, poetry, children’s books or sci-fi, is work. It's one word at a time, one day at a time for a L-O-N-G T-I-M-E.
So, if you think you have a book in you here's my tuppence worth:
1 Just get started. No excuses. Physically plant your butt down and write even if you think it's rubbish. You can always press the delete button later but—hey!—you might have a paragraph worth salvaging.
2 Write your first draft as if no one is ever going to read it, especially not your family or colleagues. If you worry about what people think, you'll be wearing a creative straight-jacket. “Haters are gonna hate” anyway so you might as well forget everyone except your characters and their journey. As a writer you are an advocate, a voice to the people represented on each page. In your writing be bold, fearless, and true to your story. Your readers will sniff out weakness, lack of integrity and dishonesty, so give them what they deserve—the real story and the real you! Making yourself vulnerable is hard but your audience will thank you for your authenticity and you will sleep easier at night once the book is published.
3 Find your writing rhythms and habits and roll with it. I found I developed a slightly odd habit of wearing what I felt were “writer’s clothes”—sort of like putting on a uniform. I didn't realize this until the Professor pointed out that when I write I always wear the same blue shirt and black pair of shoes. Many writers have quirky writing habits. Check out this quote from Truman Capote: "I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.” And if you've ever read In Cold Blood you might just think the guy was a genius.
4 Join a writing group and book club. I attended the Pasadena Writing Salon which I found through MeetUps: https://www.meetup.com The members there offered invaluable comments on each chapter month by month and I learnt so much from editing their work too. Check out local resources for similar kinds of writing and reading groups. Be prepared to give feedback on others work and take criticism for your own.
5 Immerse yourself in your genre and read, read, read. I don't trust a writer who says they rarely pick up a book. If you are serious about writing you will undoubtedly learn from those who have gone before you. Think about reading the classics and current best sellers that reflect your interests and get with what's out there. Learn from the Masters and the not-so-fabulous and be sure to find your own voice that separates you from both.
6 Study the art of writing through texts like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King. There's lots of similar resources as well on the internet that will occupy all your less creative moments. I will write more on this later but for now check out this incredible online resource: http://www.thecreativepenn.com
7 Make writing a priority just like you turn up for your 9-5 even if your sick. If you have fire in your belly for your book, you will find a way to carve out time to actually write. Block out your calendar and ditch everything unless it is helpful to your work or important to you. I warned my friends that I would be "going dark" and only recently have caught up on lunches and parent guild meetings—and dare I say it, the dentist!
8 Journaling and intentional writing. I came relatively late to this but have developed a habit of writing down my intentions for each day before I started work. For me it boiled down to staying focused, calm and grateful especially when obstacles emerged that threatened both the timeline and quality of my project. Check out this book by Henriette Anne Klauser that I found surprisingly helpful. https://www.amazon.com/Write-Down-Make-Happen-Knowing/dp/0684850028/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492819728&sr=8-1&keywords=write+it+down+make+it+happen
9 Think early on about the long term goals you have for your book. Some people write just for pleasure and tuck their work under their mattress. Others hope for global recognition and national writing awards. Whatever your goal, think seriously about the the strategies and skills you need further down the road for doing whatever it is you want to do with your work. Do you want to be published? If so, is that with a traditional publisher or as an indie? If you're going it alone check out this book that the Professor bought me for christmas back in 2014: https://www.amazon.com/Essential-Guide-Getting-Your-Published/dp/076116085X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492729700&sr=8-1&keywords=the+essential+guide+to+getting+your+book+published
10 Dream Big. Then dream bigger. In Platform-Get Noticed In A noisy World by Michael Hyatt, writers are challenged to take the lid off their thinking and reach for sky. What if anything is possible? What if you really could realize your wildest Pulitzer prize winning dreams? What if your PhD could be finished ahead of time and published with OUP? Whatever your personal goals, Michael Hyatt will make you want to reach for the sky in this motivational read: https://www.amazon.com/Platform-Get-Noticed-Noisy-World/dp/159555503X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492729265&sr=8-1&keywords=platform+how+to+get+noticed+in+a+noisy+world
Your words, your story, your book is waiting for you to make it happen. If the list above isn’t enough, I suggest you go out and grab yourself a pair of writing shoes, click your heels together and start dreaming big.