What do writers dream of?
Bestselling success? Glowing reviews? Owning a cardigan that doesn’t smell vaguely of soup? Or is it one of those dangle-you-upside-down things that Dan Brown (apparently) uses to recharge his cybernetic exposition gland?
Maybe writers dream of all those things. Especially the Dan Brown-dangler. But if you ask around, you’ll probably find that most writers dream of the time and space to write.
There’s little wonder: we often measure the act of writing a novel with bum-on-seat, hands-at-keyboard time. We ask writers ‘how long did it take?’ as if it’s not about how a novel is produced, but more a case of when.
The problem is that by doing this, we ignore that the process is actually constant (and often all-consuming). Simply, we forget that writers are always writing. Even if they’re sitting about in their underwear, dripping with cats, with an Xbox controller in their hands.
Or at least this is how I reassure myself when I look back on writing my second novel, Graft – a job that took over three years, seven or eight drafts, and God knows how many mornings waking up at 5am just to scribble down solutions to plot issues that had stopped me going to sleep the night before.
So what have I learned on this novel-writing ‘journey’? And what advice can I offer to someone on writing their first, second or fifteenth novel?
Well, not a lot.
The problem is, there’s hardly anything definitive to say about writing a book. And nor should there be. For starters, writing is really personal – and each story has its very own gestation period. Sometimes it might feel straightforward. Or sometimes it takes a layering-up of ideas for the real story to pop out and develop on a different track. It’s organic by nature – and in my experience a plot can (and will) change no matter how much you’ve planned.
Timing, too, can be all over the shop. You might be Joyce Carol Oates-fast (she can produce a finely spun, beautifully written novel in a matter of months), or John Fowles-slow (it took him over 25 years to finish a version of The Magus he was happy with). Or you might have spent a decade writing your first book, then have a pressing publisher deadline to get the second down…
For me, there’s no real pattern. My first novel, The Folded Man, was written in about nine months, but had a good couple of years’ thought driving it. Graft has been a much slower burn – initially because I kept imagining one or two readers hovering over my shoulder going ‘Oh. Why have you done that?’ – but mostly because that’s how long it took to get over some fears about writing it. (And yes, it probably helped that I didn’t have a contract deadline for it.)
Sure, I didn’t intend for it to take three years. But then, maybe that doesn’t matter either. Stephen King says you should get it down quick, or you’ll lose the urge. And yet if writing every day is difficult, or impossible for a writer, there seems very little point in worrying about it. Because a novel doesn’t only live in your notepad or laptop. It’s always, always with you.
This is probably why the most valuable thing I could ever say about writing is ‘don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do it every day’. You can easily nourish that knotty ball of ideas by doing things that on the surface have nothing at all to do with writing. In most cases it’s these things that give you the impetus and drive to sit your arse down and crack on with it.
That said, it can help with the guilt to read absolutely everything that crosses your path. Not just things you like, but things you think you don’t. Read widely and indiscriminately, because inspiration comes from the oddest places. Ram your senses with stuff, and let your brain worry about sifting it later.
It also helps to take notes. Humans love telling stories, and sometimes they’ll do it in earshot. Tune in, and you have a brilliant, free resource for dialogue, vocal rhythms, character depth, even new ideas. On a bus, on a train, in a supermarket – just listen in. And then, when no one’s looking, jot down what you’ve heard or observed like a possessed person. (When people say writers have ‘an ear for dialogue’, I think what they’re really saying is that some writers are shameless bastards who’ll happily sell on their colleagues and friends’ anecdotes as their own.)
Mainly, though, you should just ignore anyone who says you’ll fail at writing if you don’t write constantly. It doesn’t matter what I do; it doesn’t matter what they do. If you’re honest, you don’t really care at all. Only you have the vision for your novel. Only you can motivate yourself to do it. And only you will find ways to do it that work for you. For every article telling you what to write and how to write it, there’ll be another bunch of writers out there quietly getting on with it.
And if what’s stopping you going at it is the fear of making a terrible mess, well, never forget that it’s half the fun. Get enough of a first draft written – messily, sloppily, filthily, just written – and the only thing you’ll really worry about is making time to get it finished. Because after a certain point in a first draft, finishing the damn thing becomes your only obsession, a preoccupation that will drive you to get the rest down before you lose your mind completely. However long that takes. And however many times you tell yourself, ‘I’ll do some more tomorrow.’
You can find Matt online at his website:matthewhillswebsite.co.uk, and on Twitter @matthewhill
Graft is out now from Angry Robot in print and ebook