Every writer from Elmore Leonard (“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ for dialogue”) to Will Self (“that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure … will never, ever leave you”) and Margaret Attwood (“Do back exercises. Pain is distracting”) has come up with a list of tips for writers.
They make for interesting, if conflicting, reading. However, I prefer the William Goldman take on the creative process (“Nobody knows anything”).
Having said that, here’s my list!
WHEN YOU’RE WRITING
Don’t faff about. When you’re writing, write! Otherwise known as the ‘apply bum to seat’ rule. You can do courses, join Facebook Groups, Tweet and Insta your little hearts out, but never forget your ultimate goal: finish writing your goddam book!
Be prepared to lose sleep. I don’t mean metaphorically (though, that too). I mean actually hours in bed. Though you can snatch short periods to create your masterpiece, at some stage you’ll need to set aside a good chunk of time to revise it as a whole. If you have a job, a family and anything resembling a normal life, this will mean staying up all night every now and then. Just tell everyone not to talk to you the following day!
Show your work to people you trust. Listen to what they say, but with half an ear. Don’t let yourself be pulled hither and yon by conflicting comments. Who was it who said, if several people point out the same flaw in your book, they’re most probably right. If they then go on to suggest exactly what you should do to correct it, they’re most probably wrong.
Accept that at some point you’ll fall out of love with your book. That doesn’t matter. Writing a book is like knitting a cardigan. If it starts to go wrong, you can unpick a few rows or the whole bally sleeve if necessary. If you keep unravelling and reknitting, eventually, with luck and a fair wind, that saggy, shapeless thing that doesn’t quite fit together will be transformed into a smart cardie you’ll be proud to show off. (Might have overdone the knitting analogy here. Never mind, I’ll tone it down in the rewrite.)
AFTER YOU’RE (FINGERS CROSSED) PUBLISHED
Never pop into town in your oldest gardening clothes with a small and hungry child in tow, and pause briefly outside your local bookshop. The friendly bookseller – who you’ve been chatting up these past months in preparation for publication – is bound to spot you and invite you in. There, wild-haired, muddy and in rags, with a wailing child tugging at your sleeve, you’ll have to endure the pitying stares of the other customers. “I knew it,” they’ll say behind their hands. “No good ever came of being a writer.”
Carry a smart pen at all times. Not a chewed-up old thing that leaks ink. In all probability you’ll never need it, but if someone should ask you to sign your book, you don’t want to hand back a smudgy mess.
For goodness’ sake, learn to spell your own name. Yes, really! Practice a nice, big, confident signature because, if you make a mistake, it’s costly and wasteful, not to mention embarrassing. You’d think it would be difficult to mis-spell Sue Clark, wouldn’t you? I’m here to tell you it’s all too easy. It’s Santa Sebag Montefiore and Gabriel Garcia Marquez I feel sorry for.
Don’t get obsessed with social media. Try not to check them excessively. By which I mean, not more than seven or eight times a day.
No-one cares about your book as much as you do. It may come as a shock but it’s true. Find other topics to talk, post, blog and tweet about. “Buy my book, please?” is not a compelling message.
Be nice. Be nice. Be nice. Be nice to absolutely everyone you’ve ever met, either in person or online, no matter how tenuous (or volatile) your relationship with them. You never know. You can get back at them later, when your book is a best seller.
In fact, stay positive in public at all times, whatever the setbacks and criticisms. Sobbing into your pillow in the privacy of your bedroom is, however, permitted.
Review books you read. What comes around, goes around, after all. But do it with kindness. Every book you read – even a crappy one – is the result of someone spending hours at a keyboard, exposing their innermost thoughts and feelings. I’m not including off-the-telly or royal writers here. Obvs! They can manage without our two penn’orth.
Don’t let bad reviews get to you. Ha! What am I saying? Of course, trolls will upset you. They’re dissing your beloved! No-one would blame you for striking back with every insult in your vocabulary. But keep your dark thoughts to yourself. Seethe inwardly. As Kipling so nearly said, ‘If you can meet with five-star reviewers and stinkers, and treat those two imposters just the same … you’ll be a proper writer, my bro.”
Finally, always remember. Nobody knows anything!