Abir Mukherjee

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

This week’s topic asks us to offer writing tips for absolute beginners.

I have to start with a confession. I am so ancient now, and it’s been so long since that first fateful start I made to writing, that any advice I might have to give (eg. keeping a supply of parchment or sharpened quills handy) might be out of date, or simply the misremembered memories of a decrepit old fool. I’ll still try my best to give sage advice, but like anything coming out of the UK these days, it’s best to take it all with a pinch of salt.

Right, caveats out of the way, let’s get to it.

1.Find the time

If you’re writing a novel, that’s probably 80,000 words or more. That’s a big investment of time, probably with no guarantees that your work will ever be published. If the average author writes between a thousand and two thousand words a day, that’s a commitment of several months at the very least, and that’s writing every day. In practice it might take far longer, especially if you’ve a day job and family commitments. My first draft took over a year to write, and it was hard finding the time to write while juggling all my other commitments. I’d recommend ring-fencing a period of time each week, even if it’s just a few hours on a Saturday, when you can shut out all distractions and just write. The routine will be helpful, and when you’re not writing, you can be thinking about what comes next. I know several best-selling authors who started off writing just a few hours a week because that was the only time they had spare.

2. Find a space

Just as important as finding time to write, is finding the right environment – a quiet place, free of distractions. Maybe you’ll have music on, maybe you won’t. What matters is that you associate that place and that mood with writing. I have a friend who writes in his study, late at night, with only a table lamp for light, and the Batman soundtrack for company. It’s weird, but it works for him. Find your place and set your mood.

3. Get your story straight…or don’t

Your first novel can be daunting. It might help to work out your plot in advance, doing your research, filling as many holes as you can before you start, so that the journey of actual writing is as smooth as possible. Even now, I tend to spend a few months researching and thinking about a story before I ever put finger to keyboard (or quill to parchment). I find it helps keep up the momentum of writing, and momentum is important. Having said that, other people prefer just to dive in and see where the story takes them. There’s a lot to be said for this spontaneous approach. I just find it harder.

4. Keep Going

You might have the best plot, the best hook, the best story ever, but none of it means a thing unless you get those words down. You need to keep writing, even through the inevitable crises of confidence that all writers suffer from. There will be time to fix whatever you’ve written later; to polish it into the gem of a novel that it can be. Before that though, you need to get the words down, so just keep going.

5. Don’t show it to anyone until it’s done

This is important. This is vital. We all have this urge to share our work with others – a partner, a friend, whoever – we want to know what they think; we’d love to bask in their praise; we want feedback etc. so we send them a chapter, or the first five thousand words to read. DON’T DO IT! Wait. Wait until it’s finished. I say that for several reasons. Firstly, a lot of the impetus for writing comes from the wish to share it with the world. The problem is, the minute you show some of it to someone, some of that need is satiated; some of that impetus is lost. Secondly, what’s the point of showing them a part finished work anyway? If they love you, they’ll probably tell you it’s brilliant, regardless of what they might really think. And if they say they hate it, then what? You might go back to the drawing board, or you might stop altogether. Either way, do they know what they’re talking about? 

I think showing your work to others before it’s finished makes it a bit harder to keep going. So fight the urge!

6. Have Fun

Writing is our love; our passion. When you become a professional writer, it’s sometimes easy to forget that. When you’re starting out, there are no boundaries; no agents or editors telling you what to write or how to write. So, indulge yourself. Write what you want, the way you want. Your first time is special. You’ll never have this opportunity again, so make the most of it. Have fun.